NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Areas NASCAR Needs to Address

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.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Talladega created an exciting race, but will it help bring a deserving champion? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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.

2. Penalties

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.

3. Qualifying

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

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Could television do a better job of showing the whole race, not just the leaders? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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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Bill B

As always Amy, you provide a voice for we fans that have been disenfranchised by BF’s reign of stupidity. I don’t personally care about the last point (being able to meet the drivers) because I don’t expect that in any other sport, but I can see where is would be a huge positive to a lot of fans and the sport.

JohnQ

I believe that this column accurately outlines what a majority of fans, and ex fans believe. It would be comforting if I also believed that NASCAR would abandon the “we can manufacture excitement” strategy that is obviously having the opposite of the intended effect. The fact that the vast majority of the racing press has traditionally functioned more as a public relations arm than a watchdog only exacerbates the problem over time.

Oldsmo-Bill

I just cannot understand why NA$CAR cannot implement a simple points system that will both reward consistency AND elevate winning at the same time. Seems to me that back in the day, the Can-Am championship had a points system that did just that. Points were awarded to only the highest finishers as follows (as I recall): 20 for winning; 15 for second; 12 for third, then 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 respectively. Granted, there may have been less than 43 cars in each race. But that doesn’t mean that this points system couldn’t be revised for more entrants, say, awarding points in a similar descending manner for the first 15 or 20 cars finishing the race. Think about it – a good, championship-caliber team would still be able to dig out of a hole after an unfortunate DNF. And both wins AND consistency would be rewarded in a fair and equitable manner. Result: No chase needed, no erasing of hundreds of points legitimately earned by the best teams, AND fans would still be interested in all the races in the season (i.e. “their driver” would not be eliminated by some willy-nilly resetting of points, or by simple bad luck in one race, but rather by that driver’s season-long inconsistency or lack of wins (or both)). Wouldn’t that make sense?

Upstate24fan

A lot of good points, NASCAR should either run qualifying races at plate tracks or go back to “single-car” qualifying. I love the new qualifying format, except at plate tracks. I also agree NASCAR and the tracks should make a more organized effort to increase fan interaction at the track without impacting the people working in garage/pit road. I would like to get a “hot pass” at every race I attended, but NASCAR is right to be stingy with those. People are trying to do their jobs in the garage and it is a dangerous place if you don’t know what you are doing.

Jeremy

Agree with everything you stated Amy, but would like to add one thing: the cars. I don’t want to see a wreck fest, but a little bumping, shoving, leaning on the other car to get position or try forcing a mistake makes for good and memorable racing. The current cars are so aero-sensitive and glued down into the track, the slightest wrinkle on a body panel seems to make the car lose so much time. Due to this, the drivers cannot dare afford to touch one another, so they avoid contact at all costs. This, IMO, adds to fans thinking the current races are boring compared to what NASCAR was in the past. Beef the cars up so they can take some abuse and keep racing competitively. Take the determining factor of a car’s speed away from the engineers and out of the wind tunnel and put it back in the hands of the drivers. Add this to everything you’ve already mentioned, and NASCAR just might start seeing fans come back to fill those empty grandstand seats.

Brian

So Amy for point one did you essentially copy/paste my comment from an initial article about the New Chase system from January? It is almost but not necessarily word for word about what I posted in reaction to Brain Farts explanation of how this new Chase came to be.
I felt and still do that he doe snot get it and pulls part of fans polls out of context to fit into his own agenda no matter how misguided and already proved to not work it has been.
I wrote that yes the fans want wins to mean more but over the course of the season not just for the short term of the reg season and 3 – 3 race segments. I believe what might get some fans back to viewing the sport is a season long championship but not beat to death of the course of the first half of the season and better TV coverage which NASCAR should be ale to pull off. About the only best thing Brain Fart has done is simplify the points system so it is more straight forward. I would say that over the course of a season that a 10 or 15 point bonus per win would suffice and it allows consistently top 10 teams to have a buffer if they have poor finishes as the bonus points would partially offset the occasional bad day. I personally would have the top 5 race finishers start with a higher point total with 5th get 40 points and start 6th at the current 37 or 38. This rewards the best with minimizing the luck factor.
They also need to celebrate all the teams and manufacturers in ads, promos and such. I cannot evn count how many commercials over the years that feature the selected few and are so Chevy dominant that the SEC should check for monopoly infractions.

salb

Nascar loves to give fans ‘opportunities’ to get close to the action…if you can pay for it! Most of the ‘amenities’ they have put up at various tracks cost extra money to access. Strikes me as more of an opportunity for Nascar to dig even deeper into fans pockets, rather than give them a ‘better race experience.’

Fed Up

One of my biggest complaints is the actual direction of the cameras. Give us a race fan as a director; not someone who is trying to win an award for dazzle. Show the leaders at the green flag for at least a whole lap instead of staying fixed on the starting line. The action is the front two dueling to get the lead. The director will
also go to an in-car camera sometimes before the starting lap is finished. Just give us a wide panned shot and
forget about all the gadgets. Cars passing fixed points along the wall or subterranean do not show racing.
Another peeve is all sports networks are now including a background noise of fans or engines. If I wanted that experience I would attend the event. Thank goodness for the mute button.

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