Something of note happened on Saturday and I’m not talking about April 1st being a day set aside for Brian France and folks of his ilk. NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series returned to action for the first time in almost a month. (The CWTS last ran on March 4th at Atlanta.) Having now completed their third 2017 date, the truckers now take off an additional five (!) weeks before returning to action again.
Yes, one of those weekends off is Easter and hopefully, a sport with its roots in the Bible Belt will never run any touring series event that weekend. But the Truck Series is skipping Texas when the Cup drivers head down there? Texas is about the only place on earth where a upright fellow can drive his crew cab dually pickup truck to his own mother’s funeral, even if it’s lifted a foot over stock height, bright yellow and has air horns on the roof. (The Truck Series does, in fact, race at Texas on both June 9th and November 3rd. The June race is called the “Rattlesnake 400.” Given most reptiles’ budgets outside of Washington, D.C. my guess is that no actual snake, venomous or otherwise, is funding the event which means the track couldn’t sell title sponsorship.)
After Kansas, the Truck Series joins NASCAR’s homestand at Charlotte after which they…well…stay home. That’s another off weekend. (If I’m counting correctly, by that point the Truck Series will have run five races and had nine weekends off.) On one level, I understand the decision. Most of the Truck teams are lower budget operations compared to their Cup counterparts. They not only have less money to work with, they have less employees to do that work, and they have smaller inventories of race vehicles at their disposal. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to build any momentum for a series where after a race, the TV crew has to remind everyone to tune in again five weeks later.
After Memorial Day weekend, the Truck Series gets down to the brass and tacks of it with races on four consecutive weekends in Dover, Texas, Gateway, and Iowa. That’s followed, of course, by another weekend off. There are seven more off weekends scheduled before the end of the season and at no point during the CWTS season do the teams run more than four straight races.
Yes, I have whined a bit about the length of the Cup schedule and the dearth of weekends off for people who might actually have some semblance of a life outside of racing. And I still feel paring down at least four weekends and scheduling two summer Cup races midweek would be a good start. But the Truck Series is the opposite extreme. Between that bowl of porridge that’s too cold and the one that’s too hot there’s got to be a “just right” in there somewhere too, Goldilocks.
The shame of it is not every weekend but more weekends than not, the Truck Series actually puts on the best racing of the NASCAR’s top three touring series, especially when Kyle Busch and the other Cup regulars are kind enough to sit an event out. The CWTS features a good mix of journeymen drivers, those returning to the minor leagues after a failed try at the NXS or the Cup series, and young new hot shots who are making their names on local short tracks thrilled by a chance to finally run in the “bigs”.
Last year, William Byron pretty much stood the series on its ear, winning seven events and placing in the top 10 sixteen times in 23 races. Before 2016, outside of the Charlotte area Byron was known only as the high school kid most likely to get picked on for a goofy haircut. In 2015, Erik Jones (one of an unfortunate amount of drivers with the last name “Jones” currently active) won three events and the Truck Series title. Two years later, he’s running in the Cup series full-time.
Those young drivers or those journeymen looking for a chance at redemption don’t enjoy the same perks and lifestyles as Cup drivers. They need to race to advance their careers to the next level. One could argue an increasing amount of Cup drivers are so financially comfortable as long as they run well enough to keep their jobs all is well with them. Take for example one Cup driver (I won’t use her name for fear of embarrassing her) recently stated that for her a $50,000 fine is no big deal. It’s not like having to pay it is going to keep her from going on a lavish vacation. A note to the driver of the 10 car. 50g is what a whole bunch of your fans refer to as their post-tax annual income. And to keep their jobs they need to do better than middle of the pack. You should keep that in mind when you’re trying to sell them thirty dollar T-shirts and 50 dollar toy cars.
For whatever reason, whether they can never recall when the truckers are racing, Cup drivers dominating some races or they have other interests those weekends, a whole lot of fans don’t watch the trucks series broadcasts. Face it, the Cup ratings aren’t worth writing home about and the NXS races tend to draw about half the Cup ratings. Typically the truck races come in about a half of the NX S ratings which puts some truck races into the same rating category as info-mercials, local crop price reports and random programs accidentally dialed up via the remote by a playful bored feline rolling around on the sunny side of the couch.
How do we fix this? I’d suggest making the truck series into a season within a season. Forget kicking off at Daytona. Start the series mid to late May, have it run all summer and wrap things up with the championship deciding race at Darlington Labor Day weekend as a companion event to the Southern 500. Yep, the truck series should end before the NFL regular season kicks off. Refocus the series on the Southeast to reduce travel and transportation costs for the team. Run a bunch of events on weeknights during re-run season, and maybe even hold some double-headers. A double-header at Eldora? I’d watch that. Find a new network to televise and promote the hell out of the series to both the sport and the network’s benefit, as ESPN once did with Winston Cup. There’s some networks like RFD and Velocity that seem like a good fit and it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond.
Whatever the solution is, something has to change. The current series is for lack of a better word “silly.” On a brighter note series officials have a lot of off weeks ahead to come up with a solution.
They Paved Paradise
All but the last remnants of the winter’s snow have given way (to endless bogs of mud mainly) but the blizzard of PR notices I routinely get as part of the job continues unabated. It seems the latest enhancement to the race weekend “experience” some tracks are now offering premium parking. Hoo-boy. Talladega was the first to announce the experiment. For a mere $20 you can purchase a reserved space in the parking lots closest to the grandstands. (After you fight the rest of the traffic to get there, of course.) Not good enough? How about laying down 50 bucks for a “VIP Parking Experience.” You get to park even closer. I think what they did was tear down all the handicapped parking signs and paid off the fire marshal. The hell with those gimps, wheezers and rollers anyway. Why should they get premium VIP parking free? I think the VIP parking experience includes having the Monster Energy “girls” come out to wash and detail your ride. But I might be wrong there. Check to be sure before purchasing.
But the folks back in sweet home Alabama look like mere pikers to management at Kansas Speedway. Are you ready to lay out $150 for a parking spot to enjoy Premium Tailgating? One hundred and fifty United States dollars? About the only parking space I’d pay 150 bucks for would be onstage between Mighty Max Weinberg’s drum kit and Roy Bittan’s piano…and that’s if Bruce promised to run me over a free beer every time I honked the horn and to play “Racing In the Streets” twice.
So what makes your parking space at Kansas worth $150? Well, it is reserved after all. And closer to the grandstands which is handy if you’re fat, lazy and out of shape. You’ll also have the right to use the grassy space between your parking spot and “Daytona Drive” which is most likely not in Daytona Beach FL because we’d be talking a whole lot of real estate there. Presumably you could use that grassy space to ice down your keg, and play horseshoes. Or you could come over my place and play horseshoes in the backyard free. Just be aware there’s a frolicsome German shepherd who’s going to contest ownership of every shoe you throw. And it’s a long damn walk from here to Kansas.
Now, for all that fine print they show so quickly at the bottom of ads nobody can read it. Your $150 parking space is for a passenger vehicle only. No food trucks, no buses, and no RVs. Oh, and even though you’ve just paid more than 20 hours of a minimum wage workers pre-tax salary you can’t park there overnight either and bum a ride back to the motel with a friend to avoid driving in through traffic again. We surely don’t need to encourage carpooling to help with pre and post race traffic, do we? Please note these $150 parking spaces are “first come, first serve” though I imagine if you act right now there might be a few of them left. Yes, Kansas has other “premium parking packages too” but it depresses me just to think about this stuff. The old saw is that a fellow ought to lay out three months wages for his lady’s engagement ring. (Which I suppose means it would be cool for me to get one out of a gumball machine.) I’d hate to think that’s going to be the new rate for fans to take the family to a race too.
Fear not. Free parking will still be there for those not opting for a premium parking experience, you cheap miserable SOBs. And race track promoters have always been clever to the point of deviousness in finding ways to fleece fans for a few more ducats. A lot of you have met Mike Calinoff over the years. At a track he ran in Ohio, Mike once advertised “free admission”. The only catch was you had to pay ten bucks to leave. Speaking of which, my idea of “premium parking” at a race track is a space closest to the nearest exit that connects with an Interstate. I know I’ll be able to walk to my car quicker than I’d be able to drive to that same spot from a front row space. Yep, it used to piss off the parking folks but my strategy was always to ignore their frantic waving and take the closest space I could find to the exit and still park nose out, not nose in. You DO NOT park nose in at a race track and assume some kind soul is going to let you reverse and maneuver your way out of there.
Indiana Jones and the Pagoda of Plates
The first Brickyard 400 took place back in 1994. At the time the move was quite controversial because the Speedway was seen as the spiritual Mecca of open wheel racing. (Nowadays, they may be holding bomber stock races at IMS on Wednesday nights for all I know.) Perhaps the Brickyard should have been jettisoned from the Cup schedule back after 2008 when tire failures led to a farce of a race so putrid ticket sales plummeted by 60,000 souls the following year. By 2013 (the last year NASCAR released official attendance numbers) the number of tickets sold have dropped from 350,000 for the inaugural Brickyard to 70,000. A lot of things had changed. 78 cars attempted to qualify for the first Brickyard. The winner pocketed over $600,000, more than winning the Daytona 500 paid that year.
Happily enough, the venerated status of IMS at the start of the NASCAR experiment meant the NASCAR support races couldn’t be run on that hallowed ground. Instead, the AAA (then Busch) Series and the Trucks ran across town at IRP, a .686-mile bullring. If the Cup races at the Brickyard tended to be nap-inducing catastrophes of the highest order, the racing at IRP was typically the sort of slam-bang short track racing that had fans on their feet screaming for more.
So how could NASCAR fix things? Logic says maybe it the Cup race was run at IRP too it would feature better racing. (No such thing was ever proposed, to the best of my knowledge. The track just didn’t seat enough fans.) Instead, in their infinite wisdom NASCAR decided to move the NXS races to the Brickyard. ( I believe by that point Tony George had a billboard erected at Indy that read “Can race here for liquor.”) Not unpredictably, that resulted in a bunch of truly mind-numbing support races on the Saturday before the Brickyard.
But once again, the braintrust that is NASCAR wants to “spice up” the action on Saturdays. Get this. They want the NXS cars to run restrictor plates at Indy not because the cars are going too fast but to liven up the competition. They also want the teams to run a one-track only aero package also intended to make for more passing. Said officials openly added that if the above formula proved successful during the Saturday race they might introduce one patterned after it to the Cup Series’ Sunday Indy event next year.
Once again, the expense of one of NASCAR’s experiments is billed to the team owners, not NASCAR itself. Unlike Talladega and Daytona, where drivers usually never lift once they are up to speed, those drivers have to get out of the gas entering the 90 degree corners at Indy. Thus a new engine package is required. The team-owners must also pay to modify the aerodynamics of their cars to suit the new one race only specification. If they hope to have their fleet run competitively they’ll need to book some ultra-expensive wind tunnel time to hone the package to its limits. Once again the bigger NXS teams paired with Cup organizations will have a decided advantage. Meanwhile smaller teams might be left trying to work with cardboard boxes, a box fan, diecast model cars and handfuls of confetti.
Wouldn’t it be easier and make more sense just to move the support races back to the crosstown short-track? The first time the NXS series ran at Indy itself it was claimed that 40,000 fans were in the stands and that number was grotesquely optimistic. My guess is the series could still sell out IRP and even if that means there’s actually a few thousand less fans on hand those packed grandstands look a lot better than the sparse crowd at the big track that looked like someone left the gates open and a few folks curious as to what all the noise and hullabaloo going on was about drifted in to see what was going on.
The Indy 500 is still one of the greatest spectacles in sport. I revere the joint for its 100 year plus history of open wheel racing on the Memorial Day weekend. But for a stock car fan, racing stock cars at Indy is like praying in someone else’s church. The relatively under-powered and under-tired but hugely wider Cup cars just can’t compete on a track meant for open wheel racing.