Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: The Last Circus

It’s hard to believe but the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus performed for the last time this weekend. Not for the last time this season… for the last time ever. And after this weekend’s abomination of an “All-Star” race, one must consider how long it might be before the clowns at NASCAR are taking their final bow as well.

To an extent that sounds unlikely right now, doesn’t it? But as a child of the ’60s, there’s not a lot of folks in my demographic who ever thought Ringling Brothers would shut down either. It was a huge deal when the circus came to town, the days that defined many a summer for those of us still young enough to express our age by holding up fingers and adding “and a half” when appropriate.

But like any other form of entertainment in this modern era, the circus faced increased competition for attention. There was nothing you could see under the big top you can’t watch on YouTube right from the comfort of your own home. And let’s face it, the damned clowns at the circus have always been scary. For boys of my generation, it was a rite of passage to face down the clowns. Nowadays, little snowflakes need safe spaces where they can be clown free… other than the clown serving as their psychiatrist, that is. Oh well. I never overcame my irrational fear of Mr. Peanut, either.

In the case of the circus, a certain vocal group of people felt passionately that circuses exploited wild animals. They were particularly vexed by elephants kept in captivity. Yep, the anti-hunting/gun control types had Bambi’s father; PETA had Dumbo. (Nah, too easy. I’ll let that one slide.)

Now, I am admittedly not an elephant, nor have I ever played one on TV. Thus I can’t say whether the life of a circus elephant, fed and watered daily, plus housed safely in exchange for doing some stupid tricks five nights a week would be worse than roaming the African savanna, waiting for mercilessly cruel poachers to come kill me in exchange for my tusks. “Neither of the above” seems likely to be the box I’d check if I was an elephant. In the end, these animals can’t ride Harleys and thus I am glad I am not one. I can’t envision any elephant having a wonderful life.

But the animal rights sorts won the day and the circuses put the elephants out to, a presumably very large, pasture. The only problem there is the circus-goers themselves, not the ones outside protesting but the ones under the big top who’d bought a ticket and were munching on a bag of peanuts, really liked the elephants. When there were no more to be found, they simply stopped going to the circus.

And now, the circus has folded its tent for the final time. Hopefully, all the animals have found good homes. And hopefully, all the unemployed circus employees will find decent jobs. It’s gotta be tough filling out a job application when your primary talents are sword-swallowing or the flying trapeze. As for the clowns, I suppose they’ll do what most clowns do…enter politics.

Is any one race really worth more than the rest?(Photo: Russell LaBounty /
NKP)

On the fringes, there’s already some environmental types who think auto racing is a near criminal enterprise, wasting precious natural resources, spewing untold tons of carbon monoxide (and that’s just from Darrell Waltrip’s commentary), endangering fans and precious little children in attendance while causing icebergs to melt hither and yon. They’ll take a run at us eventually. And maybe as some sort of compromise we’ll end up with electric race cars that make little noise and emit zero emissions. That’s the point where the folks involved will find out racing fans really liked the noise.

For when the noise is gone, the crowds will be gone as well. Unless, perhaps, NASCAR can find a way to incorporate elephants into the pre-race show of course. But I don’t think even elephants could have helped last Saturday night’s All-Star event. I won’t even glorify what happened with the term “race” because, by and large, there was no racing of any consequence. That happened despite all the gimmicks NASCAR could throw at the event to spice things up a bit.

It’s rare that any stock car race is as universally and passionately panned as this year’s “All-Star” event. Yep, it’s probably time to move on, call next year’s All-Star extravaganza “the Last Circus” and be done with this stupidity. If you’ve visited this five and dime before, my little corner of the Internet I’ve been squatting in the last 20 years, you probably expected I’d be ranting, raving, pontificating, and debating about just how horrible and utterly without redeeming social value Saturday night’s event was.

So let me sum it up: it sucked. Yep, I have that out of my system now. I wasn’t expecting much from the All-Star Race and I got even less. The only thing I found interesting was that, as expected, NASCAR got caught flat-footed having to make up the rules as they went thanks to a poorly thought-out format. Clint Bowyer wound up with green tires on one side of the car and yellows on the other. Brad Keselowski was told he couldn’t have his team reinstall his green tires because he’d driven on them for two laps under caution. FOX was flummoxed by the task of having to add up three numbers and divide the result by three.

No need to dwell on it, though. I’m following Elvis Costello’s advice from now on. I used to be disgusted; now, I try to be amused.

So as predicted the convoluted, gimmicky format produced a bunch of confusion but very little passing. The reviews of the race have almost universally labeled the spectacle loathsome. Even the lap dog members of the NASCAR media who usually try to spin things in a sunny direction couldn’t come up with anything nice to say. These are the media members who, if served a piece of dog crap on a hot dog roll and told it was a tube steak, would inevitably discuss what a cute fuzzy puppy the turd likely came from while gobbling down every bite.

And make no mistake, readers. I feel there is a concerted effort by NASCAR this year to have the media put a friendlier spin on things and, in the case of the TV broadcasts, to minimize showing vast sections of empty seats while concentrating on all the cute little kids who are in attendance. I sometimes feel like some of those camera guys should have to be screened the way they do school bus drivers.

One had to imagine NASCAR officialdom was perplexed by how poorly the competition worked out Saturday night despite all their well-intended gimmicks. I’d guess it was probably a pretty grim Monday morning board meeting in Daytona Beach yesterday. (Well, except for Brian France, who was likely tossing banana slices to his pet monkey and clapping his hands with delight each time Chuckles caught one.) But the All-Star race was in the rear-view mirror. For better or worse, the gimmicks failed to produce the desired result.

It’s time to look forward to this weekend’s World 600. Last year’s event was an unmitigated disaster as far as entertainment value. Martin Truex Jr. led 392 of 400 laps, taking the checkered flag by over 2.5 seconds after a three hour and 44 minute bore-fest that left some fans comatose by the halfway point. How can NASCAR ensure a better race this year? Well, the gimmicks didn’t work last weekend so…um…well…I mean…OK….let’s think outside the envelope here….I’ve got it. Let’s try some new gimmicks!

This year, one of the top-touted changes has been that races are run in three stages. That’s led to interminable delays in the action between stages but the networks love them because it gives them time to show more ads. To date, the races have been run in three stages. The first two have typically been the same length while the third lasts a bit longer. But new this week (so new there’s no sense checking your rulebook to see any mention of it) the World 600 will be run in four stages, all of equal length at 100 laps apiece.

Why? For pretty much the same reason Spinal Tap’s amps went up to 11, not 10. After all, the World 600 is NASCAR’s longest race (by 100 miles, coincidentally enough) and one of the oldest left on the schedule. The 600 is, in fact, a big deal that was once one of the quadruple crown jewels on NASCAR’s schedule. And with the new four-stage format, a driver who dominates from start to finish like Martin Truex, Jr. did last year can earn a maximum of 70 points, not 60.

Of course, that’s presuming the winner’s race result is not “encumbered.” (Encumberation is yet another NASCAR gimmick none of the fans seem to understand yet. You won’t find it at the salad bar. It’s basically NASCAR’s way of saying, “You won the race except that you didn’t. But you can keep the trophy anyway because nobody else won it either.”)

So how will an extra stage and the attendant extra points prevent another runaway this year? The theory is the other drivers will find a way to pass a dominant one like Truex because they can earn some points by leading on lap 100, 200, 300, and 400. That’s odd. I seem to recall a bunch of drivers who were bound and determined to pass Truex last year at Charlotte. They were just gobsmacked by his speed and unable to do so.

So, what next? The Southern 500 is still the race I anticipate the most every season. It might not be as long as the World 600 but it is, in fact, over a decade older than the super-sized Charlotte event. As such, I think there ought to be even more points on the line for winning the Southern 500 than the World 600. We’ll just go ahead and split the Southern 500 into five stages! The resultant lengths won’t be quite as tidy seeing as the race is scheduled for 367 laps. We’ll just go with four 73-lap segments and make the final one 75, then. And you can only put on the green-letter tires if you pit on an odd-numbered lap and your gas man has to be blindfolded if you wish to do so.

Oh, wait a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself. Another obvious problem strikes me.

The Daytona 500 is, after all, the biggest stock car race of the year. Certainly, the 500 has to pay the most points of any NASCAR race. Look at the IndyCar Series. The Indy 500 pays double the points of any other race. So we’ll just have to run the Daytona 500 in ten stages! Yep, twenty laps apiece. Of course, with all the futzing about, driver interviews, pit stops, commercial breaks, etc. it tends to take four or five laps to re-rack the table after a stage ends. That means the drivers will only be racing fifteen or so laps at a time.

Could what have happened to Aric Almirola at Kansas left drivers racing a little more conservative Saturday night? (Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

Unless there’s a caution for an accident or debris, of course. That’s actually a hidden benefit though. With less time to race there’s less likely to be any big wrecks! (An aside here. I’m overdue. Perhaps one of the reasons the All-Star race was so bad on Saturday was NASCAR drivers got a fresh reminder from Aric Almirola that yes, you still can get hurt driving a race car. So what’s the sense in risking a season and potentially career-ending race when there’s no points on the line? In fact, what’s the point of doing so even with points on the line? Isn’t that right, Carl and Dale?  Danica, you want to chime in? Sebastien Bourdais’ fiery, upside down, savage crash in Indy qualifying served as another grim reminder of the stakes still at play in modern auto racing. We now return to your regularly scheduled column.)

No, I am not seriously advocating adding more stages to the Daytona 500 or the Southern 500. I am, in fact, incensed at the idea of adding an extra stage to the World 600. How is it all of a sudden such a change is made making this race pay more points than any other fully three-plus months into the season? What’s next? Shall we make the penultimate Phoenix race in November worth ten times the points of any other race to throw an Ozark into the points cesspool heading into the Homestead season finale? Shall we let another 10 drivers make it into the Chase? (Oops, sorry. I meant the playoffs. Can’t tell the gimmicks without a program lately.)

One definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior that has failed previously and expecting a different result. Gimmicks aren’t working. It’s time to address the underlying illness in the sport, not treat the symptoms. Or, it’s time to just pack up the big top for the final time. NASCAR’s Last Circus. Coming soon, from the edge of the World 600 to your town.

And the circus boss leans over and whispers into the little boy’s ear
“Hey, son, you want to try the big top?
All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop”

 -Bruce Springsteen

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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kb

Wow, you and the closing of the circus this weekend brought back memories…

I was born and raised in a wonderful, scrappy, tough city called Bridgeport, Ct. While P.T. BARNUM was born nearby in Bethel, his heritage was all Bridgeport! His star attraction General Tom Thumb was born in Bridgeport. Tom Thumb and his bride Laviniia Warren are buried in Mount Grove Cemetery along with Mr. P.T. Barnum himself. Mr. Barnum was the greatest showman and his contributions to the Greatest Show On Earth cannot be understated. He was larger than life!

This article got me thinking about the 4 of July Parade’s on Park Avenue marching towards the wonderful Seaside Park, a gem on Long Island Sound! Days and days of festivities. I still have a very strong memory of this huge(aren’t they all) elephant coming towards us on the parade route, we were sitting on the curb and my parents noticed the elephant doing a little bit of an Irish Jig. They told us to move pronto! We did and it was awesome!!! The elephant let go of it’s bladder and it was like a fire hose!!!!!! Blankets ruined people running, looking like torrent of rain running down the curb into the sewer. Ah good memories. We did not get a drop!

We also had class trips to the wonderful Barnum Museum. Our wonderful Grandfather would take us children (respectfully) to the Mountain Grove Cemetery for walks and talks of history as to who was buried there and what they did. Going to the “Circus Graves” was always interesting. As well as exploring the campus of Fairfiield University..getting to hang out and watch NEW YORK sports teams work out there, our back yard of St.Mary’s by the Sea..and Seaside Park! These day trips included all, or maybe one or two of the above mentioned trips! Then of course a trip to McDonald’s at Fairfield Circle after a great day of adventures.

If and when I go back, I visit those places of adventure we had as children. Family and close friends still live in Black Rock, nice feeling.

Sad about the circus, but I got a good bunch of memories to remind me of the history of the circus, and my immigrant Irish grandfather who always took us on great adventures.

Thanks…..Good article..you made me think to my past! In a good way!

Bill B

The circus and NASCAR. What a ready-made, perfect analogy. It used to be a sport, now it’s a circus that pretends to be a sport.
I have tried to be open-minded about this stage deal but I’ve seen enough. The verdict is in, I do not like them any more than I like the chase.

Andy

This may be your best yet, Matt. Outstanding analogy….

Sol Shine

Well Matt, that’s pretty damn funny, and hard to argue with. So that begs the question, what in your opinion is necessary to fix the lousy racing in Cup these days?

I would start with getting rid of a few cookie cutters, or at least limiting them to 1 race per track per year, and move those other races to short tracks, hopefully new to Cup short tracks, and at least 1 more road course.

Your turn.

Fed Up

A very enjoyable article! I am reminded of the story about Barnum suffering from too many patrons who stayed too long and jammed up the flow at
his museum. He put a sign up on a door that was labeled “To The Egress” and the curious and unsuspecting patrons found themselves outside. I think Brian and his clown crew have effectively shown fans the door by turning a our sport into a circus modeled after the entertainment industry.

DoninAjax

“As for the clowns, I suppose they’ll do what most clowns do…enter politics.”

Or inherit a flourishing business and proceed to drive it over a cliff into oblivion.

Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute but Brian’s running out of them.

One day Matt you should tell us how you really feel. It might be good to get it out in the open.

upstate24fan

Still using World 600? It hasn’t been called that in 30+ years. It’s actually been called the Coca-Cola 600 longer now. I think Coca-Cola 600 is the accepted name now.

Bill B

I think he’s aiming for defiance not accuracy.

Enjoy the Winston Cup World 600 this weekend! :)

DoninAjax

Starring the Strictly Stocks.

Bill B

Hahaha, “Strictly Stocks” that’s hilarious.
One look at those cars and you know there is nothing stock about them.
You win. Best joke of the day!

Tony

It’s “accepted” if your first thought is always for the proper labeling. If you don’t drink Flavor Aid, aren’t being paid by SMI and you lived before that sponsor was “activated” then you can call an event whatever the hell you want.

Old_Timer

It will always be the “WORLD 600” … … …

While we are at it … it is the “FIRECRACKER 400” … … … … … … … NATIONAL 500 … DIXIE 500 … VOLUNTEER 500 … SOUTHEASTERN 500 … RICHMOND 500 … CAPITAL CITY 500 … and too bad we no longer have the CAROLINA and AMERICAN 500s and the GWYN STALEY & WILKES 400s … not to mention the MUSIC CITY and NASHVILLE 420s!!

DoninAjax

REBEL 500!!!!!

Mike

DoninAjax –that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Danny Burton

Fellow Old Timer: Surely you mean the Firecracker 250. ?My first NASCAR race and Jack Smith won, driving a 1960 Pontiac just like the one that Dad drove.

P. S. Thanks, Matt. Entertaining and educational as always.

paltex

Man, I enjoy reading your articles. NASCAR trying all these goofy green tire, yellow tire, stages, and other gimmics sounds like desperation. The old fans are no longer around and there are no new fans to replace them. Kids attention span is tied to a smart phone game, car racing, don’t have a clue. So, nascar is left with empty seats and declining tv viewers. Have lots to do Saturday nights and Sunday, none of which is watching nascar. From a 40 year racing fan.

rg72

I think you could do a parody of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with all of the “enhancements” NASCAR has done to the “product” in the last 10-15 years.

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