Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCARand produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy has five ways that the racing could be improved for fans, all without the gimmicks fans don’t want.
1. Revamp the schedule
There’s been a lot of talk about some schedule swaps due to the weather, but in reality, it’s time to wipe the slate clean and do a total revamp. Other than the marquee events (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600) which should keep their traditional dates (and while we’re at it, the Southern 500 needs to be returned to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend) many events need to be changed, with some added and others removed. No race date other than those three should be immune from changes — or even from elimination.
The elephant in this room is, of course, International Speedway Corporation, because it’s owned by the France family. Because of that, any attempt to take a race date away from a non-ISC track has the potential for some sort of lawsuit. WhatNASCAR needs to do as the sanctioning body of a major sport is to separate themselves from the ISC. That company’s races should not be any safer here than anyone else’s.
Then, it’s time to rewrite it all. Some intermediate track dates should be eliminated. No track over one mile should have more than one race, with the exception of Charlotte and Darlington, and possibly the restrictor plate tracks. That would give room to add more tracks of a mile and under, like Iowa Speedway, and road courses, both of which which produce better racing. It leaves room to keep a second date at the short tracks as well as Dover, New Hampshire, and Phoenix while adding a better variety of tracks throughout the season and in the Chase. Fans want racing that’s naturally close, and it’s generally not the intermediates where that happens. Also, some swaps could be made with an eye on the weather for that time of year. Fans are more likely to buy tickets if they think the forecast will be good for sitting in the stands.
2. De-glorify the championship
Racing isn’t like other sports. At most levels in racing, the main goal is winning individual events. Drivers want to rack up the wins, and a track or circuit title is secondary — a nice treat, but not really as sought after as multiple victories. When fans say they want an emphasis on winning, that doesn’t mean a convoluted playoff system that rewards being lucky as much as being good. It means making the individual race wins the main goal.
It would be easy to do in terms of race teams. Instead of huge point fund payoffs for the top drivers in year-end points, the money could be better used as a winner’s bonus for each and every event. The purse for second through 43rd should stay the same as it is now, and then, the point fund money divided among each race. Perhaps you could have a double share for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, and winner-take-all. Then, give the top teams and the champion a nice trip to Las Vegas and a trophy at the end of the year; that’s all.
Couple that with an effort from the broadcast media to maximize the importance of the race itself during the event, with less emphasis on points or the title, and you’d have the perfect equation. Teams would be focused only on the race at hand, not a good points day. There’d be no need for a Chase system, no need for points resets and manipulation. Anyone who even thought they might have a car capable of winning would be racing for that win every week if there was a cool million on the line.
3. Use tires that wear out
We saw what tire wear can do for the racing action at Bristol. Not only does it force teams to have actual pit strategy, it creates a certain risk of running certain lines on the track when they get full of tire marbles. You’d see bad strategies backfiring, as happened to Jimmie Johnson at Bristol, and you’d see different setups in play as teams searched for a way to keep the tires intact. You would also see teams with different pit schedules as they work around tires, not simply fuel runs. There would be a reduction in fuel mileage racing if the tires wore out before the end of a fuel run.
Yes, having a tire that’s more likely to cord and go flat adds an element of danger, but it’s minimal — teams will learn to avoid catastrophic tire failures by adjusting pit strategy and setups to minimize tire wear. They don’t want to blow a tire and destroy a good race car any more than fans want to see them slam the wall. Yes, it will happen from time to time, but tire wear would put the racing more in the driver’s hands. They would have to deal with handling woes from worn Goodyears long before the end of a fuel run, which was part of what made races at tracks like Rockingham and Darlington exciting back in the day. Drivers would be begging for tires after about 25 laps, and crew chiefs had to weigh whether to pit early and risk getting caught a lap down by a caution or to stay out and run slower and slower as the tires gave up, losing position on track. The sport needs ways to add strategy within the events, and a tire that wears out, putting marbles all over the track would do that without limiting a team’s ability to work on the cars.
4. Add some incentives
Here’s the thing about a 500-mile race: there’s only one lap that’s really important, and in order to have a chance to lead that lap, teams have to make sure they make it through the first 499 miles. That means not taking too many chances too early. It’s common to see teams with a car that’s a good ride for much of the race and make the big moves only as the laps wind down. As it stands, that’s sound strategy.
There used to be a monetary bonus for leading at the halfway point. If sponsors could be found, why not offer a bonus for leading at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter points of each race, or each 50 to 100 miles. Perhaps sponsors could add year-end awards as well, such as the sponsor for the halfway leader giving a bonus to the team who’s led the most at halfway, for example.
The possibilities are endless. There could be incentives for the highest-finishing single-car team, the leader at the white flag, the driver who gains the most spots or makes the most green-flag passes throughout the race. NASCAR has a ton of official sponsors. Surely, some of them would love to have their name attached to an award that could be mentioned during the broadcast each week. Teams would take some chances at different points during the race if they thought they could grab an extra prize, and that would create better racing overall.
5. Make it about people
This one is more on the media than on NASCAR, but the sanctioning body could play a major role in advertising campaigns and fan events as well. Fans should be introduced to teams and drivers on a different level throughout the season. Many fans choose their favorites, or the drivers they love to loathe, based only on the racing, and that’s fine. But others like to choose based on more personal qualities, and it’s important to give them the complete picture. There was a time when attending a race meant seeing every single driver in it represented on someone’s hat or T-Shirt, and that was because fans felt like they knew the drivers and teams. Now, everything is so focused on a small faction of the starting grid that others get lost in the shuffle.
There also needs to be a balance in the storylines presented. Fans want to hear about drivers and teams from a racing standpoint — where did they come from, and how did they pay their racing dues? They also want to see the personal side of their heroes, but not just the same old regurgitated stories. Fans want connections that make the drivers seem more like one of them, and they have some great stories to tell. They want to hear what makes the drivers human, like Greg Biffle’s “leaky car” incident or Jimmie Johnson spending 500 miles at Baja being rather spectacularly carsick — in somebody else’s helmet.
Racing is about the action on the track, but it’s also about the people behind the action. Fans want to feel connected to their heroes. They want to feel like they could sit down and have a beer with drivers and crewmen, not just see what makes them elite in the sport. The roar of the motors is a song in any race fan’s heart, but the human factor is also part of what makes them fans.
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