Without a whole lot of hullaballoo to build it up, the IndyCar Series kicked off its 2017 campaign on Sunday. Somehow, the open-wheel race got shown on the mother ship (ABC) rather than relegated to the swamp of cable TV. In a nifty bit of scheduling, the Mouse network decided if NASCAR wasn’t going to run the Cup race until almost 4 p.m. Sprung Forward Time they’d go ahead and show the IndyCars at noon.
That strategy had inherent risks had foul weather intervened during this matinee. The open-wheelers were running on the street course in St. Petersburg, Fla. and while IndyCar will stage road course races in the rain, they will not do so if it rains too heavily. The forecast was for heavy downpours Sunday.
Had the race been delayed to the point it had to compete against NASCAR for viewers it would have been a bloodbath for ABC. Fortunately, the rain held off and the race ran to its conclusion without interruption. Ratings were not immediately available, but the experiment reminds us of what might happen down the road. As NASCAR returns to later in the day start times, like a dog returns to its vomit despite the massive failure of their last attempt, it leaves open a window for other race series to thrust themselves center stage. Open now is that old 1:00 ET on Sunday time slot NASCAR owned for generations.
I can’t say the open-wheel event was the greatest race I’ve ever seen. The margin of victory was close to ten seconds and there were no passes for the lead in the second half of the race. Stealing a page from NASCAR’s playbook, open-wheel officials threw a completely unnecessary “debris” caution in the midst of a series of pit stops to the considerable delight of those who benefited from the caution and to the considerable consternation of those teams who had their strategies torpedoed by the yellow hanky. Street circuit races (in which public roads are blocked off and used as a race course) tend not to provide the same quality of racing as ovals or the natural terrain road courses. The street circuits tend to be too tight and rough with few viable places to pass. (Or “overtake,” to use their parlance.) But naturally, it’s a whole lot easier to get some Chamber of Commerce to agree to close off roads for a weekend than to find tens of millions of dollars in funding to have a new dedicated race circuit built.
But if it featured limited moments for the highlight reel, the St. Petersburg race was not without its storylines. Eventual winner Sebastien Bourdais started the race in last place because of a wreck in qualifying. Bourdais captured four consecutive race titles in 2004 through ’07 but due to the vagaries of fortune and the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude of professional auto racing he faced 2017 unsure where or even if he’d be racing this year. He ended up with Dale Coyne Racing, a longtime outfit that had also gotten used to seeing its glory days in the rear-view mirror. Coyne apparently dumped a ton of bread into his team this offseason, hiring on some engineers who had worked with Bourdais during his salad days or “putting the band back together,” as the race winner phrased it. The team had also staked their bet on Honda power despite the fact Chevy pretty much handed Honda its corporate ass last year.
Imagine if BK Racing somehow won the Daytona 500 to open NASCAR’s season. It was that sort of an upset.
Finishing (a distant) second to Bourdais was reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud from Team Penske. The race only had 21 cars start the event (about the normal amount for any series race except at Indy) but that turned out to be plenty. One could argue that there’s no more than 21 competitive cars competing at any one Cup race anyway; the rest are just taking up space. The racing itself was over in about two and a half hours, which is right about how long an auto race ought to last in the ADD society we find ourselves electronically immersed in via Wi-Fi.
There was a startling difference in the broadcasts of the open-wheel race and the NASCAR event in the afternoon. The ABC IndyCar race was nearly gimmick free and simply concentrated on telling the story of a race, not an event. There was a dearth of product promotions during the broadcast as well unless you want to count reading the sponsor logos on the track walls and overpasses.
Allen Bestwick used to do NASCAR broadcasts so most fans are familiar with his style. Bestwick was joined by Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. Both are too polite to scream at viewers like FOX’s least favorite broadcaster from Franklin, Tenn. Though I don’t follow the open-car series with the attention I do NASCAR, by watching the broadcast I was able to see the storylines of the race develop and catch up on series news for the coming season. (Wow, Chip Ganassi switched to Toyota engines. So he runs Honda engines in open-wheel cars, Ford GTs in sports car races and Chevys in the Cup Series. How’s that work?)
At least on the surface, it seemed there were far less commercials during the open-wheel race. And when ABC did cut away to commercial in just about every break (with the exception of the local affiliates’ hourly break) it was easier to keep up with the flow of the race and what was going on. FOX uses the “Side by Side” breaks only sparingly and seemingly without any rhyme or reason.
In the end, it comes down to a few guiding principles. I’m told all good sports are entertaining but when it comes down to whether to treat racing as “sports entertainment” or “an entertaining sporting event” FOX and ABC fall on different sides of the fence. ABC provides coverage of a sport. On FOX, the sport of stock car racing serves as a backdrop to the “event” put on by DW and crew under the big top.
ESPN was an early pioneer of auto racing coverage on cable TV and ABC got involved early in NASCAR’s history, even if it was just with edited segments of the big races broadcast weeks later on Wide World of Sports. But FOX has had enough time to learn the ropes after 16 years and a lot of members of their broadcast team both in front of and behind the camera have worked for other networks that excelled at race production.
As I see it, it’s a matter of respect. ABC respects motor racing. FOX does not and having paid way too much money for the broadcast rights to Cup, they are doing their very best to strangle one or two more breakfasts out of the goose that used to lay the golden eggs.
2018 Scheduling Changes
It’s been a long time since the term “realignment” was tossed around in NASCAR racing circles and to my ear, it’s still a cuss word. It brings back memories of NASCAR President Mike Helton trying to justify the changes by claiming the sport was making “new history” while giving up its storied past. Keep in mind that was years before KellyAnne Conway moved to Washington….
Newer fans may be shocked to learn that a Cup date back in the late ’90s or early 2000s was like a license to print money. Most tracks would sell out their inventory of tickets well before the race date and many of them had long waiting lists of folks hoping to scarf up any that weren’t renewed. I can assure you it was true, even if you see long lines of empty seats today. Tickets to the Bristol Night Cup race used to be the hardest tickets in sports to land, beating even events like the Super Bowl and baseball’s World Series.
Competition for those coveted race dates was fierce and time being what time is, there was no way to add more weekends to the annual calendar to fit more races. Back then, like now there were two principal rivals who held those race dates.
The International Speedway Corporation (ISC) was and is controlled by the same France family that runs NASCAR. In fact, they share corporate offices. Every year, they send out the ISC Christmas card, then have someone photoshop that photo to add Santa hats on everybody’s’ heads and use that one for the NASCAR Christmas card. ISC owned tracks like Daytona and Talladega and were eager to buy more in the late ’90s.
Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) was then run by O. Bruton Smith who owned tracks like Charlotte and Atlanta. They were the other track arm with money and power to build up an inventory of racing facilities. Both parties started buying up racetracks with existing Cup dates like some sort of demented game of Monopoly.
Under NASCAR’s “realignment” policy, basically whichever organization owned the track could transfer one or both race dates to another track. Among those places who became victims of realignment were Darlington (which lost its spring date and the traditional Labor Day weekend Southern 500 but maintained a less desirable fall date), Rockingham (ended up stripped of both races), and North Wilkesboro, a cherished short track held in great esteem by longtime fans of the sport. Wilkesboro, in fact, was an oval that had been on the schedule since NASCAR’s inaugural Cup season in 1949. But the powers that be at NASCAR said the track didn’t seat enough fans, there were too many race dates as it was in the Carolinas, and the facility lacked modern amenities.
Naturally, NASCAR had to approve any schedule changes, at least on paper. It wasn’t like they were going to say “no” to themselves wearing their ISC caps and if they turned down Smith, they risked nasty lawsuits. One such suit had been filed against NASCAR by a mysterious fellow by the name of Ferdinand Ferko demanding a second date at SMI’s new track in Texas. Smith and Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, bought up North Wilkesboro and basically shuttered the place by moving one date to Smith’s track in Las Vegas and the fall date to NHMS.
A lot of fans were well and truly pissed off by the changes and the loss of beloved race dates but NASCAR launched that spin about “creating new history.” They basically told longtime fans “if you don’t like it, go away. There’s plenty of younger and wealthier fans who will grab up your tickets.” Or so they thought. Hey, Brian, how’d that end up working out for you?
When it first opened, the Cup race at Fontana had no trouble selling out in 1997. But when a second race date was added at the track it cost both events ticket sales. The crowd size eventually grew to be pathetic and Fontana lost one of its dates. The crowd in Texas didn’t fall off as dramatically as at Fontana but the two races no longer sold out. The policy of having to buy a “season ticket” that included the IRL races went by the wayside.
New Hampshire was a special challenge. It’s the only NASCAR race in all of New England and there are, in fact, a whole lot of race fans up there. But the track layout never was conducive to racing big, heavy and relatively under-tired Cup cars. (The Modified Series, with their lighter cars and bigger tires can put on a spectacular show at NHMS.) Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin both lost their lives in practice wrecks there.
The track also fell apart one year, yielding to a highly embarrassing excuse of a race. Weather has also become an issue more than once. In 2000, NASCAR even decided to run a restrictor plate race at NHMS in the wake of losing both Petty and Irwin. Jeff Burton won that event, leading every lap in what is still considered one of the worst Cup moments in modern history.
Eventually, Smith wound up buying NHMS from Bahre. Initially, he had big plans for the track, hoping to tear the place up and start over building a high-banked, one-mile oval patterned after Bristol. But when Concord signed off on having a racetrack built by Bahre, language in the contract specifically forbid any night racing. So Smith let the place remain as it was and concentrated on the other, more successful tracks in his portfolio. NHMS kept its two race dates but damn few of them produced exciting finishes or even close racing.
So now, in what might seem to some a bit of irony, that race date that got “realigned” from North Wilkesboro to New Hampshire is being “realigned” from New Hampshire to Smith’s track in Las Vegas. Despite what has happened to attendance at other tracks granted a second date, Smith seems sure he can sell more tickets to a second race at Vegas than he can peddle at NHMS in September.
Sunday’s race at Vegas wasn’t that good, certainly not good enough to have fans by and large wishing there was a second Cup date at the track they could attend. Martin Truex Jr. flat out stunk up the show for the first half of the race. There were no on-track, green-flag passes for the lead. Brad Keselowski finally asserted himself at the front and if he hadn’t suffered mechanical issues in the waning laps, Team Penske would have won the race going away. You can’t count on Kyle Busch kicking up a fuss after every race. (Though if Vegas gave odds on such things, my guess is the odds would be higher Busch would suffer a mental meltdown after a race than that the race itself would be exciting.)
The tracks at New Hampshire and Las Vegas are in very different geographical locations. NHMS is at the northern end of the densely populated Boston to Washington, D.C. corridor that is home to over half of the U.S. population. Vegas is… well, in the desert. It’s more of a vacation destination than a home for race fans. (As it turns out, last time I visited there things that went on in Vegas truly did stay in Vegas. Unfortunately, it was my suitcase).
For all the strained marketing ploys by the Chamber of Commerce, while Vegas once featured the sole legal casinos in the U.S. that ship has long since sailed. In fact, you’d have to try hard to find a state left in the Union where some sort of gambling isn’t legalized. There’s a casino about 20 minutes from my hillside home, directly down the street from my favorite restaurant.
I’m not much of a gambler. If I want to burn through frightening amounts of cash quickly I’ll restore an old car instead. But doubtless there will be some race fans that plan their vacations in the fall to include the second Vegas race and some late nights in Sin City. Hopefully, there can be enough of them to make the race date move worth it. Increasingly in this era, NASCAR races have to count on walk-up ticket sales to turn a profit. While there was an era where you needed to get your race tickets months, if not a year in advance, those days are through. Nowadays, casual fans might hear there’s a race within driving distance of their homes on a weekend where the weather is supposed to be exceptionally nice. They can make a last-minute decision to head to the track Sunday morning confident there will still be tickets available. And they won’t have to buy them from scalpers, either. Like lamplighters, whalers, and ice deliverymen the occupation of “NASCAR ticket scalper” is a not-so-charming bit of the past.
But, some tell me, Las Vegas is such a nice track. They’ve got all the modern amenities there! Hold on thar, just a moment Bubbalouie. It’s well known I’ve gotten somewhat crankier as I’ve gotten older and I get crankier and older each passing week. But I don’t expect much in the way of amenities when I go to a racetrack. I don’t require misting stations. I’ve got a bandana soaking in the ice water in my cooler amidst 12 ounce cans of liquid air conditioning. I rarely eat at a racetrack but if I do, a burger or hot dog is probably all I can afford anyway. Spare me the ostrich burgers, vegan fare, sushi, and gluten-free items. Hell, if the gluten is free add a second helping of it to my order.
I don’t care a wit about Wi-Fi access, being able to gape through a window at a driver in the fan zone, or pseudo-celebrities driving the pace car. I’m not going to show up early to see an ’80s hair metal band whose members are all in their 70s. You want to impress me? Point me towards a restroom I can use and get back to my seat in less than a half hour without having to wade through ankle deep urine on the way. I’d appreciate enough seating room in exchange for my ticket that I don’t have to rub hips with what looks like a family of hippopotamuses in yoga pants.
But in the end, I don’t need stadium seating. I’d rather sit on a freezing cold concrete slab in the grandstands blowing into my hands to avoid frostbite and see an unforgettable race with lots of passing, a whole lot of fenders getting crunched and tempers getting frayed than go to a boring race. I don’t care if you let me sit in a climate-controlled VIP suite, feasting on prime rib and lobster downing ice cold Coronas with a helicopter ready to whisk me home after the event if I have to sit there and watch a long, monotonous race (with two 15-minute “stage caution TV breaks” to douse any action that might be about to break out on track) as is typical of today’s Cup events.
Racetrack promoters and NASCAR tell me I should want the entire “experience” of the race weekend. Thing is, I’ve experienced attending some great races, the sort that left you half hoarse from screaming on your favorite driver and your right shoulder sore from pumping your fist in the air all afternoon. I’ll trade you 90 bucks and give back my free bobblehead for a ticket to that sort of race. I won’t offer you a cup of warm mule spit in exchange for a long, boring afternoon at one of the cookie-cutter tracks. If I’m bored enough, I can watch those races on TV and I don’t even have to wear pants.
Someone doesn’t get it. They’ve gone ahead and added yet another mile and a half track to the Chase…er, sorry, playoffs. Yep, if they’d polled the fans as to a location that needed a new race date I think Vegas would have fallen somewhere in between Aleppo and Fairbanks. But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. After all, moving the Southern 500 out to Fontana on Labor Day weekend worked out splendidly, didn’t it?
And here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
– Bob Dylan
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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