Seriously, is it over yet? Seven more races. Seven more weeks? Please tell me you’re kidding. There was a time when I impatiently counted the hours until the next NASCAR race within minutes of the finish of the previous one, but it’s been awhile now. After four hours of Sunday’s Dover race and much internal debate, I decided my best course was to call in sick this week and let someone else handle my column. I don’t do that very often and haven’t often done so over the 20 some-odd years with this rodeo. And Sunday’s event wasn’t the first that left me bored, that happens time to time in any real sport, but increasingly I find myself simply irritated by some races.
Oh, blame it on the cool, damp weather and the earlier sunsets of autumn. That sort of weather inspires dour moods and after a certain age, the chilly dampness triggers a reminder of everything foolish you’ve done to your knees or lower back over more than five decades of living. A race that’s won by almost ten seconds’ gap between the victor and runner-up with just six cars on the lead lap doesn’t help any either. Yeah, sometimes a driver just hits that magic combination and runs the table like Martin Truex, Jr. did on Sunday. And I’m actually appreciative that NASCAR didn’t try to resuscitate a moribund event with an unnecessary “debris caution” late. That would have been even more annoying. Stick-and-ball fans will sometimes sneer that stock car racing is just a bunch of guys driving around in circles. Sometimes, they’re right.
Oh, but that’s why we have the Chase to spice up the proceedings. Incessant yammering and hand-wringing over whether Tony Stewart would make the cut to the next round and if Kyle Larson could recover from early-race woes was as toneless and irritating as a murder of crows on the phone lines debating which way south lays on their annual migration.
“Now, if Dillon were to blow an engine on the last lap and get hit with a 25-point penalty for conduct unbecoming the sport, then….”
Like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time, practically from the infancy of NASCAR internet. For the last ten years I’ve been here on Frontstretch. Back when I started, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was still around, Bill France, Jr. was still running the show and they were still racing at Rockingham. I survived (and was incredibly amused by) NASCAR’s original attempt to rein in and control internet coverage of the sport with the infamous “Circle R” rules. They wanted us to use “NASCAR®,” not “NASCAR”. At the top of every page they wanted you to put a disclaimer that read along the lines of “This is not the official site of NASCAR® and this site is not affiliated with NASCAR. The official site of NASCAR® is NASCAR.com.”
The problem was, whatever slick highly paid lawyer NASCAR had sicced on us didn’t know how to make the ® sign so he wrote in the threatening letter he sent everyone that we should use NASCAR with “the R in a circle” after it. Some folks caved or even took down their websites because the threatened penalties for defying the new rules were pretty harsh. I think they even said they even threatened possible prison time. But for the most part, a lot of us just laughed ourselves silly and kept on doing our thing. My then-boss, Derek over at what was then “Speedworld” and I had a lot of fun with it, adding disclaimers like “This site is not affiliated with NASCAR and you should be damn glad that’s the case because their official site is a load of horsesh*t.”
I don’t know who hated the internet types more back then, NASCAR or the NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association – back then, the ink-stained wretches still thought the internet was a passing fad). But all three groups kept on doing what they did with varying degrees of proficiency and the internet types I’ve known along the way are an incredibly diverse group bound by one common thread…we all like to color outside the lines. (Oh, and just in case you ever need to do it, adding a ® isn’t that hard. Hold down your “ALT” key and type 0174. If the lawyer you’re hiring to launch a trademark lawsuit doesn’t know that, try moving further down the bar. And if he “misunderstands” the difference between “forthwith” and “forsooth” give him a job as Brian France’s personal assistant.)
So, yes, I’ve learned over the course of all those misspent years, the fall is always a hard time for folks in the business. It feels like the season has been going on forever and the breaks in the schedule are few and far between. All but the cub reporters new to the gig start making noise about finding more gainful employment (once again, I missed out on the gig as lamplighter here in the boonies.) Last minute requests for a substitute are frequent. But I tend to just keep banging columns out because I signed up for the gig and I was raised to see things through…even when they’ve become dry and joyless like this season of late. In the end, most everybody sticks around anyway cause hope springs eternal…and winning Power Ball tickets are so few and far between.
But the season really is far too long. When this season started, those of us in the Northeast were still wondering if the lawn still existed under the remnants of the Blizzard of 2016. (Sorry, Weather Channel fans, Winter Storm Jonas…how do those geeks look at themselves in the mirror?) Spring came early and often around here and it rained only occasionally then it rained incessantly and the only thing you could count on every weekend was that Darrell Waltrip’s incessant yammering would make the weather, no matter how horrid, seem a minor annoyance. But then it stopped raining unless NASCAR races were scheduled in the area. An annual rite of spring ensued with the sometimes grumpy sounds of Harleys left unattended over the winter being summoned to life. Like the croakers, it starts out as one or two but in weeks it’s deafening, a sirens call of big V-twins calling other like-minded individuals back to the highway. And the barbecues all seem to be ignited Sunday afternoons, there’s car shows at the VFW, parades, and the first lazy migrations to the shore. But not for you. Cause you have to watch the truck race at Gateway just in case something of consequence happens…which it never does at Gateway.
Then, the summer starts drawing to a close and when you stop by the Lowe’s they’ve got the snow-blowers all lined up and ready to go. (OK, that was early August and it was like 95 degrees out so I have no idea what Lowe’s was thinking but it’s still a sign that the “endless summer” is coming to a close. The eternal summer only exists until you turn around 30 and you still feel like it’s summer when you’re snowmobiling.) Now the leaves are changing, and occasionally I’ll glance out the window guiltily and remind myself a quick raking now might make the task less odious later but given my track record I’ll just let it go and eventually the neighbor will get sick of my leaves blowing onto his lawn and come over with that leaf-sucking thing towed behind his John Deere and take care of it at which point I’ll leave a case of brew on his front doorstep because he has a snowplow too. And most likely it will snow again at least once before the NASCAR season ends. It usually does. Not much snow of course. Just enough to get everyone in a panic and to predict gravely that such an early snow means we’re in for the winter from hell. Which we seldom are. Yeah, we had a blizzard last year. It was the only time it snowed the entire season. But still, it confounds me that leaves that started as tiny green buds on the branches during the NASCAR season are now turning colors and beginning to fall and the season still isn’t over. There have been Grammy-winning rock stars whose entire careers haven’t lasted as long as the NASCAR season. Yep, if you want to join this circus, read the fine print “single, orphans and people too dumb to own Harleys preferred. All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop.”
In the end, though it’s not the discontent of the electronic and print media that matters. It’s the fans. And somehow, the powers that be decided maybe the season was in fact a bit too long so they’d go ahead and fix that by adding a playoff system to the sport, AKA the Chase, as of late the Eliminator Chase. So how’s that worked out? Well other than that, did you enjoy Our American Cousin, Mrs. Lincoln?
The Richmond race that set the Chase field drew 2.7 million viewers and a 1.7 Nielsen rating. The Joliet kickoff to the Chase drew about the same. And the numbers were down for the New Hampshire race setting a new low for any Chase race (1.55) since the concept’s inception. In general, the TV ratings recently have been down around 15% over 2015 and 30-35% over 2014. That ought to be cause for great concern. Some will argue that just about all televised sports ratings are down. Even the NFL is having an off start to their season. Well, the Thursday night Dolphins/Bengals game got a 4.8 rating with “just” eight million viewers.
It gets worse for NASCAR. The ESPN Monday Night football game last week aired against the Presidential debate, an event which was the highest rated programming this year other than the Super Bowl. (It’s a wonder they didn’t have Springsteen do a half-time show during the debate.) The game still earned a 4.9 rating with eight million viewers. That’s off from a 8.3 rating and 13.5 million households last year for the Week 4 Monday night game. To put that in perspective by going up against the debate that NFL game lost more viewers compared to 2015 than have watched the last two Cup races COMBINED! That’s how many viewers they lost, not how many watched. (The record for the most viewers ever is still the first moon landing back in July of ’69 with 600 million sets of eyeballs glued to TVs around the world.)
With the weather difficult again this weekend Saturday’s XFINITY Series race got postponed until Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Dover track management did something I thought was very nice (and I am not being at all sarcastic here) by telling those fans with tickets to the NXS race they should feel free to stick around and watch the Cup race at 2 p.m. as well. They only asked if someone else showed up with a ticket for the seat those folks were sitting in that they yield to the Cup ticketholder. There were plenty of other places to sit. It was, in fact, a nice gesture, but not that many years ago it would have been impossible. The Cup race would have been sold out. Back in the sports boom era, tickets were tough to come by even as the tracks were adding new grandstands as quickly as they could be built.
That demand at Dover started back around 1992 when they added a ton of new seats for fans who wanted to come see Richard Petty race at the track one final time. Having been there many times for the Saturday race as a paying customer I can tell you the place was usually about three-quarters full for the support race. And here’s the disheartening part. Despite having already removed 37% of the seats that once circled the track, and despite letting folks with an NXS ticket attend the Cup race free on Sunday, there were still vast swaths of empty seats clearly evident for the race. It’s more than I ever recall seeing at a Busch Series event at the same track during the ’90s.
So again, the heck with the peanut gallery, the press. It’s those paying customers, the fans who are weighing in on the Chase, the quality of the racing and the length of the season. With both attendance and TV ratings down precariously it seems it would behoove the folks running the Circus McGurkis to make some changes and make them fast.
I went into this season with a lot of optimism. I really thought the lower downforce package was going to improve the quality of the racing. On an occasional weekend indeed it has, but it’s been spotty improvement, not consistent. (I do believe that Truex’s domination of the World 600 had me lapse into a dangerous near comatose state so I’m getting a keg of Red Bull for this weekend’s race.)
The other part of the equation is to have Goodyear get aboard with the program. I think the folks in Akron decided to wait a year and see how the low downforce package worked out while playing things conservatively. They’re still gunshy after that horrific tire debacle at the Brickyard in 2008. But for the racing to improve Goodyear needs to bring softer tires that are markedly faster when new than when they wear. And that dropoff needs to occur quickly. Or perhaps it’s time to introduce a second tire compound, a stickier, faster but quicker wearing option like they use in F1 and IndyCar (neither of which Goodyear participates in any longer) to stir the pot. And if they won’t, maybe NASCAR needs to rethink the sole tire supplier relationship with the blimp boys. Truthfully, I think the quickest way to improve the racing would be to go back to bias-ply tires and I’ll probably keep beating that drum until the arthritis in my wrists makes it impossible.
The season should start no earlier than mid-March and be over no later than late September. Face it; once the NFL starts playing in earnest, NASCAR doesn’t have a chance despite dear Brian’s flights of fancy. It’s time to take a quick bow and exit quickly stage left. I’ve called before for tracks in a geographic area (say Dover, Pocono and New Hampshire) to be reduced to four races annually, with each track getting a second date on a rotating basis. Less supply (as in the amount of seats available) would presumably lead to more demand.
As for the Chase itself, a quick demise and a steadfast denial it ever existed (sort of like the Car of Tomorrow) seems in order. It’s as if we had a perfectly good push mower and someone decided that it might be better to have a riding mower. After much debate, design, and brainstorming they came back with a blender and waited breathlessly for the applause. It’s a blender. It doesn’t cut grass. There is not a single part or element of it that can be salvaged moving forward. The amount of damage done to the sport by the now 14-year failed Chase experiment is so grievous and undeniable it calls for a change at the top of the command structure. Humpy Wheeler is still floating around out there somewhere and I nominate him to run the sport in hope he can pull it out of its death spiral. But in recognition of all he’s done for the sport we do have a lovely parting gift for BZF…a blender.
Here’s my idea for a championship structure. Keep the points system as it is and let drivers and teams accumulate points for the entire season. But there’s a 100-point bonus for every victory (as long as the car clears post-race inspection) a 40-point bonus for finishing second, a 20-point bonus for finishing third, a ten-point bonus for finishing fourth and a five-point bonus for finishing fifth. No points would be awarded to any driver finishing 20th or worse. (Give them a free blender instead.) Thus, a driver who seemed hopelessly out of contention could make up huge sums of points if he or she racked up a string of race wins. And the battle in the closing laps for a win would intensify with a significant bonus (not two points) for winning rather than finishing second.
Any harbor in the storm and NASCAR is taking on water below the waterline. I’m open to any suggestions no matter how radical because simply put the current status quo isn’t working and I very much doubt that’s going to change over the next very long seven weeks.
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I’ll remember
A love once new has now grown old.