Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: In NASCAR We Trust

Call me naïve, but I have never really believed that NASCAR has forsaken good in exchange for evil.

That’s not to say I’ve never publicly complained about the sanctioning body and its decision-making processes over the decades. Every organization is fully capable of making poor choices, but that’s also to be expected when said organization is competing for audience and market share.

Taking the occasional risk is part of doing business, especially in the world of professional sports. A questionable trade, an unusual hire or a controversial rule change is part of that culture, and it’s what gives us fans in the stands something to debate.

Such decisions, and audience responses to them, explain the existence of sports talk radio.

My motivation for this week’s essay was the fallout that came from a comment I made in last week’s Friday Forum column on Frontstretch. In response to a question about NASCAR’s policy for throwing caution flags late in races, I wrote that I considered such suspected “phantom cautions” to be nothing more than part of NASCAR folklore; I compared belief in such actions to fixing race outcomes, and I suggested that fans believing in NASCAR’s duplicity should stop following the sport.

Suddenly, I was singled out as a company man – just another media minion who supported NASCAR and its profit-above-all-else-minded administration.

Now that I think about it, maybe I am.

As I get older, my mindset seems to lean more toward the path-of-least-resistance. From my aging/tired/defeated perspective, I see NASCAR as focused on creating the most exciting and engaging motorsports experience possible. If stock car racing is a sport, and sports are entertainment, and entertainment is a product to be produced, packaged and sold to interested audiences, then NASCAR is most certainly a product.

As such, products need to undergo periodic revision, adaptation and reinvention, and NASCAR is no different. Think about the addition and/or deletion of divisions we’ve seen during the sport’s nearly 70-year history: the “Strictly Stock” era of 1949, the convertible division, initial attempts at both “roadster” and “modified” series, the Camping World Truck Series and CASCAR. Spend seven decades in the entertainment business and you’ll see your fair share of change.

Not that all changes to our collective popular culture are wise ones. Anybody remember New Coke?

Over the past decade, NASCAR Nation has seen changes by the bushel: the newly-structured Chase format that evolved out of the original (2004) Chase for the Championship, the incorporation of electronic fuel injection, the Car of Tomorrow, mandatory use of the HANS device, a switch to double-file restarts, the Lucky Dog option and adoption of the knockout qualifying process – a process that’ll be revised (luckily) when we return to Talladega and Daytona.

Change may not be regarded as inherently good, but it’s a necessary evil.

The question is: does NASCAR mandate changes solely to generate more money? It’s no surprise that competition changes echo decreases in both fan attendance and television ratings. Folks grumbled about Matt Kenseth winning the 2003 Cup title after just one win that season and suddenly we were staring down the barrel of this thing called “The Chase for the Championship” and its revised points system.

Ditto during the 2014 season when NASCAR modified the Chase into its current “win-and-in”/elimination-focused road to Homestead. Race teams, race fans, and the racing media may have lamented the new format, but come December, the casual consensus decreed that the controversial changes were for the better.

Jump ahead to last Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville. As the checkered flag flew over Denny Hamlin’s door-to-door, closing lap victory against Brad Keselowski, radio audiences heard NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace praise the new rules package for 2015. Wallace declared the package an unqualified success; reducing downforce and horsepower made drivers a greater part of the competitive equation on the famed short track.

We’ve heard similar comments each week since the new rules went into effect, even though the results thus far have been dominated by only a few names. This leads me to wonder if NASCAR really made the right decision when it decided to tweak the rules following Daytona. Each manufacturer has at least one win after six events and no single team has dominated victory lane, so maybe parity in the Sprint Cup Series is within reach.

But then, don’t take it from me. It’s been suggested that I’m a media minion who bows at the altar of the all-knowing Brian France.

I just hope Rusty moves over to give me some room.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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