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 NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy says there are a few things NASCAR needs to take a long, hard look at in order to move ahead.
1. The Chase
This one is pretty obvious because it’s a hot topic among fans right now; a look at any social media outlet will tell you that. NASCAR also sends out numerous fan surveys each year, so they’re getting feedback. Ten years into the Chase format, many fans are not sold on its validity. Ratings are dropping and lots of fans have cited the Chase as the biggest reason they’re not watching. Perhaps worst of all, many don’t view the sport’s champion as legitimate under a playoff format. If people, both in and out of a sport, think the championship is a joke, it’s a real problem, not just the complaints of a few disgruntled fans
That alone should be a red flag to the sanctioning body. You don’t hear a large number of baseball fans saying that the winner of the World Series isn’t a legitimate champion (unless they’re fans of the losing team), even if the winner was initially a wildcard team. Ditto football. And basketball. And Hockey. Those sports have championship systems that work for them. That doesn’t mean they work for other sports, nor should they be expected to. And this one doesn’t work for NASCAR, a sport where all of its teams compete against each other every week. Other sports don’t have every team out there trying to take something from each other. NASCAR does, and that makes it a different animal entirely.
The current format was meant to boost excitement and make winning races mean more. But ratings have fallen from last year’s races, and winning doesn’t really mean much more in the scheme of things. What NASCAR should look into here is a point system that rewards winning heavily but reinstates a full-season championship. That’s something a lot of fans could get on board with, and it would erase questions about the legitimacy of the title.
NASCAR did take a big step in the right direction when they created a system of penalties for different infractions and what teams and fans could expect. However, no system can be effective if it’s not applied consistently, and NASCAR continues to seemingly pick and choose how they penalize teams and drivers. Case in point, one driver was fined and placed on probation for grabbing another driver by the arm and spinning him around, while another was not penalized at all for jumping a fellow competitor from behind and attempting to put him in a headlock. Incidentally, the second incident was during the Chase, the driver in question a title contender.
Just this week, Ryan Newman was not penalized for the rear end of his car being too low on both sides after the race at Talladega. The last team found too low after a race was docked points; Newman was not penalized with NASCAR citing race damage. If that’s true – and the team could prove it was true – the no-call was correct. It seems unlikely that a car not involved in a major incident would be too low on both sides from normal contact, though. Is NASCAR simply afraid to penalize a Chase contender too heavily? And if so, why? The rules and consequences for breaking them are there for teams to see, so there should be no surprises. If Chase status is at all affecting the way NASCAR acts on violations, shame on the sanctioning body.
NASCAR has made some changes in this area for 2015, and that’s a start. But qualifying rules, particularly the new system used at Talladega this time out, are confusing and don’t really add much to the race weekend. While it’s true that in some other motorsports, the fastest time doesn’t win the pole, it seems like a guy who sets a track record should start up front.
Bottom line: Qualifying isn’t meant to be entertainment on its own. It’s meant to set up a race to be entertaining. To a diehard race fan, every aspect of race
weekend is already interesting, and to the casual fan or outsider, there’s really no way to make qualifying as exciting as a race. It’s time to stop trying and focus on making the races better instead.
4. TV Deals
To be fair, when it comes to most of the issues fans have with television broadcasts, NASCAR has little control. But with new TV deals in place next year, perhaps it’s time for the sanctioning body and the networks carrying the races to assure fans of the best experience possible. Right now, that’s not being done. While the championship is important, it’s not the only notable story every week and particularly not starting in the beginning of the season.
Part of the reason TV viewers think races aren’t exciting is that they don’t see much of the action. Too much time is spent showing the leader, even if he’s cruising with no pressure from behind, and that means fans are not seeing racing that’s going on elsewhere in the pack. Fans who see races in person can choose whether to watch the leaders or the battles in the pack and radio does a decent job of letting listeners know what’s going on all over the track. Television, however, has developed a tunnel vision that doesn’t do anyone any favors. NASCAR should be exploring options to make sure its TV partners give fans the best experience possible.
5. Fan Access… Done Right
Fans are and always will be the backbone of the sport, and almost everyone involved should consider that each weekend. The sport gained immense popularity in part because of fan access, which did create a sticky wicket. It’s impossible to grant the same access to a hugely inflated number of race fans. The garage area some weeks is already far too crowded. But fans should have opportunities to meet their favorite drivers. NASCAR has done a season preview in Charlotte where fans can meet drivers, but they are less accessible at race tracks. It’s time for NASCAR to be proactive and organize some events to connect fans and drivers. Whether that’s pre-race autograph sessions, as IndyCar has done, or other alternatives, fans will feel more connected to the sport if they have a chance to meet a favorite driver… or to find a new favorite because they met one and discovered something. Can NASCAR go the way of NHRA with full access for every fan? No, because the crowds are simply too big. But NASCAR and the corporate sponsors should find ways for drivers and fans to connect. Meet and greets with sponsor executives are great, but meet and greets with fans will make the driver and sponsor some new supporters in the long run.
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