As summer starts to heat up, there are a lot of things floating around in the NASCAR world, from penalties to contract talks and performance to personalities. This week’s column attempts to sort out a few of the things that have blown across my desk recently — some of the odds and ends that deserve consideration, if not a full column. They’re in no particular order, other than the one they came out of my head in, none really more important than the others.
There has been a lot of speculation lately about the 2016 rules package and what it’s going to do for the racing. A few things here. Drivers aren’t ever going to agree on what’s best, but they do acknowledge that there needs to be more passing. The easiest way to provide that is to come up with a softer tire that actually wears out. That would force teams to use different strategies and put the racing more in their hands. At the same time, the cars need more ground clearance. Between the splitter and the side skirts, they’re too tight to the track, which is a huge part of why they’re so aerodynamically dependent right now. Lift them up, bolt on four tires that will wear out before the end of a fuel run, and give the teams more choice on suspensions and gears and you’ll have much better racing.
There’s been talk of track-specific rules, and while it’s intriguing on paper, because cars at Bristol don’t necessarily need the same things as a car at Fontana, it needs to be something that’s easily interchangeable on existing bodies. The smaller teams don’t have the resources to suddenly have to build or buy a fleet of different chassis for different tracks. Putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands would actually help these teams, but putting them in a situation where they don’t have cars for every track would knock them down too far.
On the subject of rules, is it just me or is this whole warning letters thing NASCAR is doing a little ridiculous? I get wanting legal cars to race, but does it matter how long it takes a team to go through inspection as long as the end result is a legal car. Instead of writing the team a letter and taking away practice the next week, just send them to the back of the line and go slower on second and third attempts. If the cars lose practice time or miss qualifying, too bad for them; they should have rolled up to inspection with a car that would pass. There’s no need to do anything further; the damage is done, the punishment has been meted out, and we can all move on.
As for pre-race inspection, who cares if a car goes through once or 15 times as long as the end result is, again, that they start the race in a legal car? If they can’t get to the grid at a predetermined time, make them start at the back, the same as if the driver missed driver intros or the drivers’ meeting. So much simpler for everyone to understand in the long run. There’s no need to escalate penalties to a P1 or P2; starting at the back every week is going to get old in a big hurry, and it will eventually cost the team points naturally. This whole warning letter thing seems so grade school.
Apparently the appeals panel thinks so, too. I was shocked that the P1 penalty that the No. 48 team appealed was rescinded, but I understand the point… teams need to know exactly where they’re failing inspections, how it’s measured, and what will put it back into tolerance, and they need to be told immediately after they fail inspection the first time. That would most likely put an end to teams needing multiple inspections in the first place. Why not video the inspection process for later review, and if there is a failure, photograph it from multiple angles along with the measuring tool that clearly shows the failure? Fast, easy, and it would give fans actual information instead of speculation.
It’s no fun getting a penalty, but sometimes I think the drivers in general need to look like they’re having more fun. Better yet, they need to be actually having fun. Most of them would tell you they are, and mean it, but between sponsor obligations and the big-money machine NASCAR has become, it’s hard to see a certain side of the drivers sometimes, and it’s the side fans need to see that’s missing. There are glimpses of it here and there, like the Twitter banter and photos of Jimmie Johnson‘s and Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s teams after a paintball battle, but the racing and race weekends as a whole should show the same thing. There are no more wild stories like you heard about NASCAR’s formative years.
It’s not that the drivers don’t love their jobs, but at the end of the day, racing is their job. Want to see a driver smile a real, genuine smile and tell a great story? Ask him about the days before racing was a job when he was racing go-karts or off-road vehicles or quarter midgets. Nine times out of 10, you will see a noticeable difference in that driver. Racing at NASCAR’s top level will always be a business, but fans need and deserve to see their favorite drivers’ real personalities so much more.
Fans at some tracks are also going to have a new way to get their favorite drivers’ gear starting at Pocono in August, when the souvenir haulers will be replaced by a souvenir superstore of sorts, with drivers’ merchandise available all under one roof. It will also be interesting to see if the selection for some drivers decreases due to space limitations.
The flip side of that is whether drivers for the smaller teams will be represented. One of the perks of the new format was supposed to be that all drivers would have merchandise available. It used to be that every driver in the field was represented by someone at a race, but some drivers have not had merchandise available at the track in recent years, so it will be interesting to see if the trend swings back to where a fan can get a t-shirt or a hat for Matt DiBenedetto as easily as they can for Matt Kenseth.
Finally, I’m going to leave race fans with a challenge. The racing isn’t going to change much in the immediate future, and neither is the coverage. But what can change is a viewer’s perspective on the race. So here’s what I’m challenging you to do: for one entire race, pick a small team to follow (any team on the list in Big Six will do, except perhaps the No. 78 who is racing among the elite on a weekly basis and whether they even belong on that list is debatable) and follow that team like you normally would your favorite big-name driver. If you have a scanner or race audio available, listen to that team and that team only for the entire race.
I had to do this recently in preparation for a feature story, and it really did make me think about the race differently. The team went through so much over the course of the race that was interesting and engaging. They didn’t win; in fact they struggled with everything under the sun, but the story was compelling. It’s hard to do if you are watching on TV, because these teams are rarely mentioned, so having the audio available makes all the difference. But I challenge every race fan to do this once, for an entire race. It should make you appreciate what the big teams have and how hard the small ones work to keep up. For me, doing it made an otherwise lackluster race so much more interesting, waiting to see what would happen next. Give it a try, and if you feel so inclined, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you thought.