As NASCAR heads to one of the last tracks to survive since the earliest years, there’s so much to think about: the Chase and the drivers in it, the dearth of passing this season, what’s coming next year. Watch a race broadcast and you will see all of these and more throughout the program. In fact, you’ll see so much of it that at times, it overshadows what you tuned in for in the first place: the race.
In the Chase era, most races, even early in the season, have a Chase spin on them: who can win their way in? Whose chances are growing dim? Oh, he won, he’s locked into the Chase. He’s a title favorite. He better get his act together or he’ll never contend for a championship. And on and on, until the Chase is everywhere, dominating every broadcast.
With so much else happening, it’s easy to forget that on Sunday afternoon, between the green and checkered flags, there’s a race going on. In their championship quests, many top teams seem to have forgotten as they work on making the Chase or testing for it once they’re in. The television broadcast is centered on a few teams, mainly title contenders, whether or not they are racing anyone. Many times, viewers miss a fierce battle for position because of this.
But really, races are much more satisfying viewed for what they are (or should be): individual contests with their own drama and their own outcomes. It should be about winning today, not setting yourself up for something five months from now. It should be about what’s really going on on the racetrack.
That used to be enough. Broadcasts focused on the race itself, and fans didn’t complain that nobody was talking about championship implications in April. Teams cared, but they knew there was a long way to go and many races to try and win to get there. The championship was there, in the background, but it wasn’t front and center; the drivers doing battle on the track were, even if they weren’t in the title hunt at the time. If they were having a good race, or made a strong move or a spectacular save, it was duly noted by all. The leaders certainly got more attention; that’s just part of the game. But if one of those leaders was someone not considered a title favorite, that was okay; he still got his due time.
Racing, for the most part, wasn’t built on championships, but on individual races, on wins. Championships were (and still are, at local levels) a nice feather in the cap, but winning races paid the bills. NASCAR’s emphasis on winning titles, and the huge payout that comes with it, has been largely detrimental to the individual races, and television has only compounded that.
Rules packages aside (yes, this year’s was a flop and the racing suffered), racing doesn’t seem very dramatic if every race is centered on a few of the drivers who have title hopes and chiefly on those hopes. There’s so much drama during every race that’s overlooked and buried by the same talk over and over and over again. There are a dozen races within the race. Teams are fighting handling woes, mechanical issues, driver issues. Someone and his crew chief aren’t getting it done and the frustration hits a fever pitch. Someone else is battling for his ride and having a great day. Yet another races with a heavy heart after a loss. But how often do you hear these, the real stories, during a race broadcast? It’s not very often.
Each and every race has so much to offer. There’s the moment of perfect possibility before the green flag drops, and 43 compelling storylines after it does.
At one time, fans didn’t watch for a few drivers and the Chase. They watched for the race itself, for the ups and downs and the drama they created. They rooted for their driver passionately, but were aware of much more during the event. If their guy had a brewing issue, they watched with bated breath to see what would happen, not how it would affect his title hopes, unless it was late in the season and the points were tight. Sometimes that happened, sometimes it didn’t. Most fans didn’t care; the races themselves were the draw, not the points.
Racing is such a sensual sport that focusing on a single aspect, or a very few aspects, is detrimental to the experience. Fans should have the opportunity to watch a race and feel elated if their driver is having a great day and heartbroken if something is going wrong. They should be able to watch and believe their guy can win the race, championship be damned. It was a breathtaking experience of sound and fury and individuals.
But in today’s NASCAR, that’s all but gone. Fans are told who to watch, what they want to see, how they want to see it. The Chase has overwhelmed the importance and excitement of the individual race.
We used to watch a race for what it was. When did we expect it to be more than that? When did the hype overtake the real stories and the compelling moments? How did the joy of watching a race for a race became frustration of seeing the same broadcast over and over, like a record with a bad skip?
What happened to the races, and how do we get them back?
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