For the most part, it’s hard to look at the on-track product NASCAR has put forth and not say that the quality of the racing has significantly improved with efforts to reduce downforce and make racecars less dependent on aerodynamics and more dependent on mechanics and drivers. Of course, some races are going to be better than others, and if you’re expecting a door-to-door fight for the win every single time cars hit the track, you probably aren’t a student of the sport’s history—and might be better suited to enjoy NHRA.
With that improved racing, though, there’s an elephant making an appearance in the room, and it’s getting bigger as the season goes on. NASCAR would probably like to pretend it’s not there; track owners would certainly like to deny its existence. It’s something that keen observers of the sport have long discussed but because it’s a product of recent years, years during which the aero package has taken center stage, the idea has been overlooked and even scoffed at by some. But in a year where the racing has by and large been much better, it’s hard to overlook any longer.
Night races are the worst races on the schedule.
Saturday night races have long had their fans, with the night race at Bristol being one of the most popular on the circuit. There are some who like the flashiness the nighttime show produces, and those cars do look impressive under the lights. The problem is, they don’t race so impressively.
The argument can be made that in the heat of the summer, day races, particularly in the South, are uncomfortable (and dangerous) for fans in the heat, and afternoon thunderstorms can be an issue. Both are true, but fans survived the southern heat for decades, and the majority of the summer schedule has the sport visiting more northern climates in recent years. The summer track most prone to late storms is Daytona, which solved the problem by starting early for its summer race, which allowed fans to get back to the beach before the day was over as well as generally ending before the storm threat got too great.
Looking at 2016, the three least popular races of the season have been Texas, Kansas and Charlotte — all night races. The other intermediate races—Atlanta, Las Vegas and Auto Club—were generally better races with more action throughout the field. Part of that has to do with the older asphalt at Atlanta and Auto Club, but it’s hard to ignore nighttime in the equation.
There are a couple of races that should be run at night: The Coca-Cola 600 (which still would be better off starting an hour earlier than it does) and the night race at Bristol because the short track helps to offset the aerodynamic aspect.
Daytona and Darlington? Kentucky, Richmond and Charlotte? Bring back the daylight, please. Part of what made the Southern 500 so treacherous and difficult for all those years was the slick racing surface, heated up by the South Carolina sun to cartoon egg-frying temperatures. Want side-by-side racing? That’s how to get it. (Not to mention, October in Charlotte is often pretty darn cold at night if you’re sitting in the stands for more than three hours)
Nope, day racing isn’t going to make every race an instant classic. (Actually, nothing is going to make every race and instant classic, but that’s a whole other ball o’ wax) But what makes the racing better, in a nutshell, is less grip. When the sun warms up the track, it brings oils to the surface and heats up tires, both of which make the cars want to slide around. As with lower downforce, less grip and cars wanting to slide around puts the race more in the drivers’ hands. When it’s in the drivers’ hands, they can fine-tune their cars and make moves on track that other drivers can’t. In other words, they can race.
NASCAR, to its credit, has been working hard to improve the racing. The logical next step outside of continued work on the cars is the schedule. Tracks are locked in for the next few years, but perhaps a little pressure to move back toward day racing before the next five-year deals are signed would be a good idea… as in, “You know, Bruton, we really like having two races a year at Texas, but maybe the spring race would be better off as a day race in April than as a night race in February, don’t you agree?”
Also to NASCAR’s credit, the majority of the Saturday night specials are at tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and not sister company International Speedway Corp. ISC currently hosts night races at Daytona, Richmond (and one of Richmond’s two dates was switched to day for 2016) and Darlington. SMI has them at Texas, Kansas, Charlotte (twice), Kentucky and Bristol. SMI owner Bruton Smith is known for putting on a spectacle, which apparently includes lights on the track (he’d like to add lights at Loudon as well, though current local ordinances prohibit night racing).
Making NASCAR racing better includes looking long and hard at everything. The cars come first, of course, along with tires, but tracks and surfaces matter. A lot. Repaving should also looked at carefully and only considered when absolutely necessary for safety of the drivers or degradation beyond repair. The schedule is fairly fixed; even when the current agreement ends, SMI will take legal action if NASCAR tries to take any of its dates to different venues, like Iowa. But there may be some leverage with race times, and they’re also an easy fix; few other minor changes would stand to have as big and immediate an impact on the racing itself.
It’s time to turn off the lights and come back into the heat of the day.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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