I’d hate to call it a “meeting of the minds” in that some participants obviously lack one, but there was a mass assemblage of “principals involved with the product” at Michigan on Friday. NASCAR hierarchy, drivers, team owners, crew chiefs and representatives of the car makers involved in the sport gathered together to discuss the near-term future of the sport. If any fans were on hand they’d probably wandered into a restricted area looking for a restroom. Had they been able to come up with a few elephants and big cats it would have made a grand old circus, because there were plenty of clowns involved.
On a practical level, the invitees were there to discuss potential rules changes to the cars for the 10 upcoming Chase races. Given the brevity of the meeting it would seem like it was more of an announcement than a group discussion. Apparently no one stood up and let an impassioned plea “we can’t keep doing this to the fans, we just can’t!” a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And after the grand meeting it was announced that the big news was… there was no news. The standard rules package adopted in 2015 will be in place for the 10 Chase races. (Let’s be fair here. NASCAR officials did say that they plan to do something about Talladega, seeing that their focus groups indicate that people would prefer no racecars or large parts of them end up in the grandstands. They just didn’t say what rules changes would be in place. OK, a new rules package at Talladega with no testing in advance. What could go wrong there?)
So after this incredibly important meeting, the big news was there was no news. There was, however, news that there might be news in the not so distant future. The 2016 schedule will be announced in about a month.
But just to keep the anticipation on a back burner, it was also announced not to expect any big changes to that schedule. (Well except for Laguna Seca in the Chase maybe, but that’s just between us, OK?) It’s tough reporting or discussing the news when the news is in fact that there is no news. Even WPVI-6’s talented and hardworking Annie McCormick can’t do much with a non-story. “Yes, Jim, neighbors report that a large group of youths were street racing here in South Philly. There were no wrecks, nobody got hurt, everyone seemed to have a fine time and the Mustangs shut down the Ricers then everyone went home.” Or, “Walter, we’re told by neighbors that a family with six children, one of them special needs, and an adorable silver Lab puppy live in this home. Given that it’s 90 degrees out the family was not using the oven to heat the home and there was no fire. Had there been, the smoke detectors all had batteries in them. This is the fifth consecutive week with no big fires in the area. We are told the puppy violated household rules by jumping up on the couch but he’s so darn cute that nobody cared. Film at 11.”
Yep, it’s hard to be a reporter when there is no news to report. Because I’m lazy at heart, I’ll leave news reporting to the young go-getters (and in some cases those with fertile imaginations) and default to my usual “analysis” mode. It’s so much easier anyway and it is fact quite hot out here at the Acres.
After nearly 20 years of doing this (with a few breaks to maintain the sanity on which I have only a tenuous hold) this was my immediate post-meeting analysis of the non-news. “Really? WTF?” Remember you read it here first.
On one level, I understand why the call was made. After a lackluster 2014 Cup season, NASCAR came up with the 2015 rules package and told us it was going to be the greatest thing since they started putting holes in the middle of doughnuts. As it turned out… well, not so much. But that doesn’t mean that the teams, those large enough to afford the changes and those small enough they could not, didn’t expend a huge amount of money, time and talent to make their cars as competitive as they could be given the rules. Some teams did a far better job on that than others. Some drivers were able to shift their driving styles to suit the new package better than others. But ultimately, it seemed like the same teams and drivers were dominating the races. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “And so it goes.”
And on that one level, it would be tremendously unfair to change the rules midseason, negating all that hard work and expense by the teams who have done well. There is precedent here. NASCAR came up with what they called the “five and five” rules package back in 1998 if I’m recalling correctly. That was in response to a couple seasons when spoiler heights for various brands of car seemed to change near weekly. But NASCAR laid down the law and told everyone “this is the new rules package and this is what we’re going with for the year. Deal with it.” And some drivers and teams did well and others did not. As with most rules packages, five and five was supposed to make for better and more exciting racing. It most decidedly did not. There were 33 races that year. Jeff Gordon won 13 of them. Mark Martin won seven. Worse yet, Dale Earnhardt only won one, though it was a biggie: the Daytona 500. The racing was lousy. As NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary, they were left to tell everyone, “We’ve had some amazing races and finishes over those 50 years. Just not many this year.” But they did in fact leave the rules in place until after Gordon clinched the title, since he was in fact playing by the rules and the No. 24 bunch had done the best job in preparing for the season. I get that. If an NFL season was marred by low scoring games, they wouldn’t switch the field to 80 yards long to make for more scoring.
But this year NASCAR has found itself on rocky shoals. There’s no more arguing that attendance is down and that it has been for years. The TV ratings don’t represent a sport with measurable growth but rather one that’s gone into a tail spin and recently had its corporate butt kicked by women’s soccer. Even the drivers formed a posse and their own little council to meet with NASCAR and express their concerns. (Over and above Tony Stewart’s concern that Brian France wouldn’t come to those meetings.) The driver’s idea was to lessen the downforce on the cars and a hastily arranged experiment with that concept yielded satisfactory results at Kentucky though the tires hadn’t been optimized for the event. They’ll try that package again at Darlington early next month. NASCAR types preferred the high drag, big spoiler package that debuted at Indy to generally poor reviews. Now they’ve tried that one again at Michigan over the weekend and the drivers were notably circumspect in their comments on it afterwards. Perhaps they’d been admonished about the old “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” axiom in the drivers’ meeting.
While it would seem highly unlikely that, absent the powers that be huffing model glue fumes out of a brown paper bag all night, they’ll try that one again, that might be a double-edged sword. Brian France has gone on record as saying to improve racing he wants to see “pack racing”. Reading between the lines, I think that means he wants to see huge multi-car pig piles of wrecks that put cars on their roofs, sort of like he says “glass dashboard” rather than “digital instrument panel.” And rumors are rife that to have pack racing, NASCAR might mandate restrictor plates at Pocono next year, and Michigan. Perhaps it would have been better for the sport had the high drag rules worked at Michigan.
While accepting the logic of those who say “you don’t change horses midstream” while still wondering what sort of imbecile rides a horse into a stream anyway, I’m hesitant about the message that’s being sent here. Trying those two new rules packages midseason and on short notice was a tacit way for NASCAR to admit the racing hasn’t been very good this season. In some cases it’s been dreadful. In several instances it’s been even worse than that. But as we’re now three events from the all-singing, all-dancing, must-see-TV Chase, NASCAR is telling those new fans they hope the new championship format will draw into the fold, no the racing hasn’t been very good this year and here’s more of the same! Seven of the 10 tracks that will host Chase races this year have already run Cup events earlier this year, and there wasn’t an instant classic among them. As NASCAR goes head-to-head with the NFL (sort of like the army in Grenada taking on the U.S. military) they really need to put their best foot forward not simply staunch the bleeding.
And as a contrarian, I’ll offer this thought to those satisfied with the status quo: yes, some teams have worked awfully hard and spent a whole lot of money to adopt to the 2015 rules package. In turn, they have won a bunch of races, typically finished well when they didn’t win, and gathered up a passel of points. But now thanks to the Chase format, they’re basically reduced to running neck and neck with some other teams and drivers that have merely reached a certain level of mediocrity, in some cases without winning a single race. It’s like stopping the Kentucky Derby midway through turns 3 and 4, lining the horses all back up side by side and letting them make a sprint to the finish. Even drivers with multiple wins might suffer one or two bad races in a Chase segment and find themselves eliminated from contention. So here’s a radical idea, why not crown a champion who scored the most points in a 36-race season since they clearly adapted best to the rules package. I mean, it worked for decades. And if some driver clinches the title with two or three races to go, well, hellfire son, everyone will be watching football by then anyway.