Thursday, NASCAR released 2017 schedules for its top 3 touring divisions: Some New Sponsor That Hasn’t Signed On Yet Cup Series, the XFINITY Series and the Camping World Truck Series. While the timing was months ahead of the normal late summer to mid-fall announcement there wasn’t much newsworthy contained in the media release. (Despite the rather florid prose stating in their eternal benevolence NASCAR was “giving fans and stakeholders a significant head start in planning for next season’s thrilling slate.” Seriously? Did the guy writing recent NASCAR press releases use to run the North Korean Ministry of Propaganda or was he in charge of PR for Barnum and Bailey?)
No major changes had been anticipated in next year’s schedule. While it might have been “a credit to unprecedented industry collaboration” the list was pretty much ordained when NASCAR and the tracks signed a five-year deal that ensured none of them would lose a date during that period, meaning presumably no new tracks could be added either. Once upon a time there was a lot of anticipation and a fair number of lawsuits each year as places feared losing or hoped to add a date back when any Cup race was a virtual license to print money. That led to such boondoggles as dumping North Wilkesboro, letting Rockingham waste away and perhaps most notably sacking Darlington of its traditional (we’re talking since 1950 here) Labor Day weekend Southern 500, moving the date to Fontana. So how’d that work out for y’all, NASCAR? Last year’s schedule’s biggest change was the return of the Southern 500 to Darlington on Labor Day weekend. (Now, if we could just get them to return it to an afternoon race as well…)
The season kicks off Feb. 16 with the non-points (and soon-to-be-renamed) Sprint Unlimited, with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 (um, to use PR Speak, there will be fans flocking half-crazed with excitement into the intake manifolds with smiles wide and a wanton disregard to the worth of their money to see Daytona no longer rising but fully erect!) Longtime fans might still consider that a bit later than normal, as the 500 was once held on President’s Day weekend, but it continues a trend that goes back to 2011. It’s not because of a potential scheduling conflict with the Super Bowl either as the big game will be played Feb. 5 out in Houston. The Cup season remains at 36 events and concludes Nov. 19 at Homestead, finishing up as it has since International Speedway Corporation (read: the France family) bought the joint. Yep, the schedule is 266 days in length, entirely too long as I see it. Also of note, for the 51st consecutive year the Cup circuit won’t return to Dog Track Speedway in Moyock, N.C. (C’mon, y’all still remember May 29, 1966, when David Pearson thrilled the fans on lap 84, passing Richard Petty when the King suffered ignition problems. Pearson managed to lead the rest of the 301 laps that day en route to victory.)
As best I can fathom, there are just two off weekends in the Cup Series next year; the traditional Easter break April 16 and Aug. 19, which I’m guessing NASCAR decided to take off in my honor since it’s the weekend of my 57th birthday. Or maybe they had some other reason. Well, that’s entirely too few off weekends in a schedule dragging on that long.
Dover moves back to its regularly scheduled slot the weekend after the World 600 because they ran out of weekends in April owing to the date of Easter. The Richmond spring race will remain a Sunday afternoon race as it was this year rather than changing back into the night race as it was for awhile. The spring race at Texas also moves to a Sunday afternoon rather than Saturday night. I’m fine with those changes. Night races used to be rare enough they were something special. Then, there got to be too many of them and the magic went missing.
While we’re on the topic, I’d like to see the Southern 500 moved back to a Sunday afternoon. Let the fans enjoy another night off during the holiday weekend that marks the unofficial finish of summer. I’m not a big fan of the Coca-Cola 600 being run on a Sunday night either but I don’t suppose NASCAR wants to go head-to-head with the Indy 500 anymore. Given the hoopla and increased public interest in this year’s edition, as it’s the 100th running of the race, I suppose I’d have probably moved the 600 to Saturday night and I’d leave it there. Sunday night races just don’t work for me, even on holiday weekends, and the weather can play havoc with folks who have to head home Monday afternoon. If I was given free rein with the schedule (highly unlikely anytime soon), the night race at Bristol in August would be the only one left on the schedule. I’d move the second race at Daytona back to its once traditional Fourth of July date and run it as it once was, in late morning so it’d be over early afternoon to let everyone enjoy some beach time. That early start time was perfect. During the summer in Florida, it gets awfully hot later in the afternoon which often sparks thunderstorms in the evening.
The final big news with the new schedule involves flopping the fall dates between Talladega and Kansas. Talladega had been the third and final race of the second segment of the Chase and after the insanity in Alabama last month I’d guess someone decided it was better to have the cutoff decided by some degree of skill at Kansas rather than pure happenstance at Talladega.
How about the All-Star Race? Sadly, my friends, I think that once much-anticipated event has run its course, actually back about the same time it stopped being The Winston. The All-Star Race has just gotten to be too gimmicky and the eligibility requirements have all been reduced to drivers needing to solve a simple math problem. For the last three years, one driver or another has led every lap of the final segment. Yawn.
This year, they’re trying once again to spice things up. The All-Star Race will start with two 50-lap segments, each holding a requirement that drivers make a two-tire stop somewhere during each segment. After the second segment, an unnamed method will be used to see if the top nine, 10 or 11 running drivers will be inverted. (I’m sure Humpy Wheeler’s giant pachinko machine is still in storage somewhere.) Those drivers selected will then have to make a four-tire pit stop before the final 13-lap segment. Here’s my guess on what will happen as a result: there will be a mad scramble amongst the drivers for the 12th finishing spot on the last lap of the single segment even if they have to lock up the brakes to avoid a top-10 result.
Could we see the unholy spectacle of a bunch of drivers stopped on the track just short of the start/finish line to avoid finishing inside the top 11? The notion some driver is going to pass 13 cars in 13 laps to take the victory after winning segment 2 just isn’t likely to happen even with fresh rubber. Finish 12th and a driver knows he’ll start no worse than fourth in the segment that pays the big bucks. The Winston was fun back when it first started, but cue up BB King because the thrill is gone.
In my mind, the NASCAR season has always been divided into three sections. The portion on the schedule from Daytona until late May is the opening stretch, during which the title contenders sort themselves out from the pretenders. The summer stretch from the Coca-Cola 600 until Labor Day weekend allows three or four legitimate title contenders to assert themselves. The fall season, held from the Southern 500 until the end of the year crowns a champion. Dumping the All-Star Race opens a nice off-weekend between the first two segments and that late August off-weekend could separate the second and third portions. Naturally, there’d still be a weekend off for Easter.
But even with three off weekends the schedule is still way too long. The number of races reduces the interest in each. Having the final 10 races determine a champion diminishes the interest in the 26 that come before the Chase as evidenced by recent attendance figures and TV ratings. Then there’s the NFL, the 500-pound gorilla of broadcast sports. The NFL regular season starts the weekend after the Southern 500. Even a lot of hardcore race fans closely follow football. (Not everyone is lucky enough to live in the Philadelphia area, where watching the hapless Eagles either suck all year or suffer a meltdown early in the playoffs cures one of any interest in the sport.) If NASCAR intended the Chase to keep viewers glued to racing once the NFL season started the experiment has been a dismal failure. The number of postseason events needs to be pruned back considerably to reignite interest and hopefully to allow the NASCAR season to gracefully exit stage right before the football hoopla heats up too much.
Nobody wants to lose a date at their local or favorite racetrack. (I bet there’s still a bunch of pissed-off former fans in Moyock, N.C.) I’ve made this suggestion previously but it’s been a bunch of years since I have so I’ll repeat myself and hope any of you who’ve been wading through my nonsense a long time will forgive me.
To be fair to fans across the country I’d propose organizing tracks in a region into groups of three. One group might be Pocono, Dover and New Hampshire. Another could be California, Las Vegas and Phoenix. A third might include Charlotte, Darlington and Atlanta. Each year, one track in a group would hold two races. The other two tracks would host just one. (Or in the case of the western group each year, two tracks would host one race while the other sat out the season.) That leaves fans in the area with four race dates to choose between within a reasonable driving distance and it cuts down on the number of races that make up the schedule. The current Western swing each year that has consecutive races at Vegas, Phoenix and California seems silly. Fans who might consider any of those tracks within reasonable driving distance have to make a choice which to attend. And the next race out West? That doesn’t occur until November.
The problem is in the early part of the season the Southwest is one of the few regions of the country where it’s warm enough to host races. In addition, NASCAR needs to front-load the schedule anyway to build interest (as opposed to the Truck Series, which seems to run a race or two then goes MIA for a month early in the year). February and March are also the time of year much of us in the Northeast and Midwest are still dealing with cold temperatures and snow that limit our entertainment options.
Moving forward, I’d just cancel the Brickyard 400 altogether. Indianapolis just isn’t designed for the bigger, heavier stock cars NASCAR races. It’s also like praying in somebody else’s church. Leave Indy to the open-wheel fans, please. You don’t see the open-wheel cars racing at Daytona or Darlington, do you? (Some extremely obscure trivia here. Open-wheel cars did race at Darlington on May 10, 1952, in NASCAR’s Speedway division Bill France, Sr. dreamed up as an open-wheel competitor to USAC racing. Buck Baker won in a Cadillac-powered entry using the same chassis that won the 1941 Indy 500 with Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose at the wheel.)
When I’ve suggested how to shorten the schedule before, I’ve always advocated dumping the two road course races as well which has typically drawn howls of protest and anguish from some of you. Some of you have even championed adding more road course races to the schedule and I can’t disagree that over the last half-decade or so, the two road course races have featured a lot better competition than some of the oval tracks. But is that because the road course races were so good or because some of the oval-track racing during the era of “the dreaded aero push” was so bad?
I’m actually a big fan of full-fendered road course racing. My first two forays to professionally-sanctioned events beyond local drag strips were at SCCA Trans-Am races at Lime Rock and Bridgehampton back in 1970, when I was a kid, well before my first NASCAR race in 1973. Younger fans will have to trust me: in the late 1960s and the early ’70s the Trans-Am and Can-Am series were every bit as popular as NASCAR racing, if not more so. (And the bug bit me hard. I drove a 70 Boss 302 as a daily driver through most of college.) I’d love to see that sort of a racing series come back today. We’re living in the best era of performance cars since 1970 and the Mustang GTs, Shelby GT350s Camaro SS plus Z28 and Hemi Challengers are all but screaming for a stock formula road course series of their own. And for those of you who champion more road course races in NASCAR, please let the rest of us know which oval tracks you’d drop to make way for the road courses.[yop_poll id=”10″]
Ideally, the NASCAR Cup Series would be somewhere between 24 and 26 races long. During the summer, some events would be run on weeknights to free up more warm weather weekends for other pursuits. And the whole thing should wrap up no later than Halloween as I see it. The current schedule obviously isn’t working; swapping a few dates and moving a couple races to daytime isn’t going to fix the underlying problem.
But I digress. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program already in the progress of self-destructing. Meanwhile, remember you have that significant head start in planning for next season’s thrilling slate.
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