Race Weekend Central

Possible 2013 Changes Could Be Step In the Right Direction for NASCAR

Teams continued testing of the 2013 Sprint Cup cars this week at Talladega Superspeedway and with it some optimism amid reports that NASCAR will allow race teams some test sessions at sanctioned tracks and that the sanctioning body is considering allowing teams some areas to work on the cars and dropping the controversial rule that locks the top 35 team in owners’ points into each race. All of these are very positive changes for NASCAR, and hopefully, race fans will respond by watching races on TV or in person, if for no other reason than to see if changes will make the competition more exciting, which is certainly something people are always hoping for.

For NASCAR, this is a big deal. A lot hinges on fans responding favorably to changes, possibly more than many casual fans realize. And in some ways, 2013 could be a defining season for the future of NASCAR.

Fans who dislike the current cars will see new ones for 2013, one of a number of changes NASCAR hopes will make fans happier.

No, the sport isn’t going to fold, but in some ways, next year could pave the way for future decisions. There are television broadcast contracts up in the air, and as rating continue to drop in the second half of the season, the sanctioning body will be paying attention—they _must_ pay attention. How they continue to respond to teams and fans could well depend on how the reported changes go over next year.

Allowing teams test sessions was the first positive step. While the sentiment behind the ban—saving teams money—was a good one, the reality was that it hurt teams more than it helped them. Even the most sophisticated tests on seven-post shaker rigs, wind tunnel time, and all the dynamometers in the world can only go so far…the rest comes from what the driver in the car feels with his hands and his backside, and it’s testing that helps teams determine this.

Testing isn’t going to suddenly make a mid-pack team contend for wins, but what it CAN do is make the racing at different levels of the sport more exciting. You might not suddenly see Richard Petty Motorsports contending with Hendrick Motorsports for wins every week, but you should see better competition among similar teams, like RPM, Earnhardt Ganassi, and Furniture Row Racing. That also goes for the big teams and the small ones—the racing within their economic “classes” should improve. That in turn leads to better on-track competition and more hard racing and passing throughout the field every week. That’s the end goal, and the testing is a big step in that direction.

And if the reports come to fruition, testing will be just the first of three giant steps forward for NASCAR, should the sanctioning body choose to take them.

Fans have complained about the newest version of racecar since its debut five years ago, and at the heart of that is that teams’ and manufacturers’ hands are tied and shackled when it comes to being able to work on most areas of the racecars. While the principle behind that isn’t a bad one—that limiting teams’ ability to find a mechanical advantage will level the playing field across manufacturers and across budgets—it hasn’t worked in practice. The smaller teams still can’t compete with the bigger ones and with the top cars nearly equal, tight racing and passing are limited. Again, allowing teams to work within the rules to find an advantage would make for better racing within the various tiers, which is the most NASCAR and fans can ask for without drastically restructuring the way teams are financed.

While exactly which areas teams might be able to work with hasn’t been disclosed yet, one area that NASCAR has made clear they will _not_ have leeway with is the back end of the car; that is, they won’t be able to skew the cars to make them turn better. And that’s also a good thing; fans have objected to the funny, twisted look that the older version of the Cup car had taken on, and to the similar look that this one was hinting it could take.

While there are no illusions that these racecars are stock cars anymore, the grotesque shape they were taking on made them look even less like street cars than they already do. With the 2013 versions designed to look more like the versions you and I could pick up off the dealer’s lot, allowing teams to make them look like they’d paid a visit to the pretzel factory would be counterproductive.

And then there’s the Big One. No, not the wreck you’ll most likely see at Talladega on Sunday. In this case, the big one is NASCAR’s possible reversal of the top 35 rule in favor of the system that was in place for several years previously, with 36 cars qualifying on speed and the final positions on a provisional system, which would protect a top team should disaster strike on their qualifying run while putting the emphasis on speed and not points in qualifying.

One immediate result of this rules change would show immediately, at Daytona. In recent years, the top 35 rule made for little excitement in the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 as only a couple of cars could race into the field, leaving many fans disappointed and disillusioned. Dropping the rule would improve those races because there would very few foregone conclusions.

In addition, the pressure would be on teams every week. Teams would no longer be able to take a starting spot for granted, and would have to ramp up their programs accordingly. That would lead to tighter competition on race day as well. It would also go a long way toward eliminating teams with a slow time making races at the expense of those that had a better lap but were shut out merely by the number of non-locked in cars in the race. Point swapping would basically be eliminated (though you could still see some teams angling for points early in the year, in case practice and qualifying were rained out).

And perhaps most importantly, if dropping that rule does come to fruition, it would mean that, for the first time, NASCAR is willing to fix a mistake, if not outright admit they made one. Does that mean fans will ever see the Southern 500 on its rightful Labor Day weekend date or an end to a playoff system that a large majority has never warmed to?

Well, that might depend.

If the racing improves after these major changes in 2013, and ticket sales and rating improve in kind, it could signal the sanctioning body that fans will respond to their efforts, and that could lead to further improvements in the future. Improved perception by the fans would be good for the sport, and perhaps the powers that be would begin to realize that happy fans mean happy sponsors, and…well, that’s good for everybody. But if fans don’t respond to NASCAR’s efforts, it could send the opposite message—that nobody is going to be happy no matter what they do, so why bother to try? So to a large degree, how well the changes shape the future could be up to the fan base.

The other key player in the story is television. While NASCAR and FOX are ready to continue their relationship, the other networks have been slower to re-up. What that means for fans could be less accessible coverage or broadcasts of lower quality than what they are seeing now. While the quality of today’s coverage is certainly debatable, fans do enjoy race coverage on widely distributed channels on an easy-to-figure schedule. The days of “which channel is the race on _this_ week” are long gone, and the sport now enjoys mainstream coverage. Whether the coverage moves forward or not depends on ratings, and for the late part of the season, they haven’t been pretty.

The bottom line here is that NASCAR seems to be taking some large steps in the right direction. If those steps lead to better racing with fewer of what many people, especially long-time fans, view as gimmicks, that could only be good for an ailing sport. The sanctioning body needs to pay close attention to the results of their changes, and also not be afraid to make more of them in the coming years, even if it means reversing some decisions that have not worked for them. Even if these changes are ultimately only a bone, at least NASCAR is finally willing to consider throwing one, and that’s a step in the right direction.

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