It’s not the sort of racing that originally attracted me to motorsports, but every year I am engaged in a race of my own. It’s a race to see how long a season that started with high hopes (moderate hopes? Bemused acceptance?) gets to the point I wish that I’d at least interviewed for that job as a lighthouse keep in Montana.
There was a point when I first started doing this, 25 years ago, that I remained wildly enthusiastic for the entire season and pondered with dread those raceless weekends between late November and early February. Gradually, like most people involved with the sport, by late fall I was looking forward the season ending because, after all, the NASCAR Cup season is the longest in sports. As of late I can usually sustain some level of optimism at least through the Easter break, but this year it doesn’t look like I’ll make it that far.
Already this Cup season makes Alice’s adventures down the rabbit’s hole seem like waiting in line at the DMV to renew your vehicle registration. Highlights include yet another car that won a Cup race found to have been cheated up a bit and yet the winner gets to keep the trophy and add another notch in the record books. This despite the fact there was something clearly off-kilter with the winning car as shown on TV and discussed over the radio by at least one competitor’s team. But this year, things have changed dramatically. Harvick’s win will no longer be called “encumbered.” NASCAR hasn’t said yet what term will be used to describe such shenanigans but it won’t be “encumbered.”
Friday was yet another black eye for a sport that at times looks like a punch-drunk palooka staggering back to his corner. 12 drivers and teams were unable to pass pre-qualifying inspection in time to take a lap against the clocks. Basically one third of the entrants were found to be cheating, though I am sure NASCAR will develop a less emotionally-fraught term for such things. “Out of compliance”? Perhaps. In this instance you can’t put primary blame on NASCAR. They made the rules, shared the rulebook with teams (though not fans) and they handle the inspection. Making the situation that much worse, in order to even be able to go out on the track earlier in the day and practice, those same cars had to go through the Optical Scanning System. The cars passed earlier in the day but didn’t hours later. Something happened to those cars to render them illegal and it wasn’t accidental. If it were one or two cars, perhaps even if it was a handful that might have been written off as a fluke but not with a third of the field failing to pass.
If the tarted-up cars weren’t NASCAR’s responsibility, the sanctioning organization did not cloak itself in glory in its response to the crises. (What’s the PC alternative to “crisis”? “Challenge.”?)
Keep in mind the track surface at Fontana is among the most abrasive on the circuit. Note also that teams are required to start the race on the tires they qualified on. So the drivers and teams that didn’t post a qualifying lap would have been at a decided advantage starting the race on fresh tires while those drivers and teams that complied with the rules started on tires two or three laps old. (Yes, even that little wear is significant at Fontana. Some of you watched Joey Logano pit by himself late in the NXS race Saturday and storm from 17th back to the lead in five laps. Oh, and for the record I find it rather odd that the fans who express outrage about Cup drivers running in and dominating AAA events on Saturday are nowhere near as vocal and angry when Kyle Busch isn’t the driver stinking up the show, but I digress as is my habit. Let me add that the Roseanne 300 was every bit as awful as the original TV series was and as bad as I expect the reboot will be even if the star can stay out of rehab a few months.)
NASCAR decided that the teams that had in fact qualified could buy another set of tires and run them to start the race as long as they handed in the tires they qualified on. Note the key word “buy” here. “Buy” as in don’t expect any change from your $5000 bill and the trade-ins you have to surrender ain’t worth a rusty tin cup of warm mule spit towards the total. Perhaps to show their level of repentance at having been caught with their paws in the cookie jar, the teams that couldn’t pass tech should have been compelled to pool their money to pay for that spare set of tires for those drivers and teams that passed inspection. And by “compelled” here I actually mean “forced,” not to put too fine a point on it.
In order to be effective, discipline for infractions must be swift, certain and severe. But as per usual with NASCAR, punishment will in fact be odious…starting next week. In addition to having to start at the rear of the field (as they did Sunday) teams that fail to post a qualifying speed will also face a “drive-thru” penalty on the first green flag lap of the race. At Martinsville next weekend that penalty will likely cost drivers so punished at least a lap if not two. At Daytona or Pocono it won’t matter a bit. Presumably this rule will be added to the ever evolving NASCAR rulebook, written on an Etch-A-Sketch as always.
A golden opportunity to restore order and lawfulness was squandered here. Some teams and crew chiefs are obviously trying to game the system. Imagine if they’d been told after qualifying Friday; “The bad news is it’s a long drive back to Mooresville NC. The good news is you get to leave Friday evening rather than Sunday night. But to show we’re all one happy family NASCAR will fly any dogs you have here at the track back to the Carolinas on United Airlines.”
Outrageous? Unprecedented? Yup. But so were the infractions. In my mind a race of just 22 legal cars beats a full field with some tarted-up cars. Was it unfair that the majority of the Russian athletes were excluded from the Winter Olympics because of mass cheating within the organization? Would TV ratings for the World Cup be better if somehow the US team was allowed to participate despite losing to a country most US citizens couldn’t locate on a map? Sure. But rules are rules and you can’t just go changing them due to expediency.
Then of course the ultimate penalty for those teams who fell short in the “compliance” issue would be having to explain to those sponsors who write the big checks why their 200 MPH billboard wasn’t out on the track that weekend. (In this instance that would include the folks at Lowes who just announced they are changing their marketing from “Lowes for Pros” to “Lowes Gotta Goes.” I’ll admit their departure for the 48 team is stunning. I’ve always felt that beer, lawn mowers, fast food, firearms and home improvement sponsors are the only sponsors that make full sense in NASCAR racing (and maybe Harley Davidson but surprisingly enough the Motor Company has never been in the game, but doggone it I digress yet again.) Sponsors get a tick upset about being associated with cheaters and the negative fallout of such.
Some scribes have opined with sponsorship being as hard to find as it is the current state of the sport, no sponsor’s car can be sent home. Balderdash (my second choice of words in this instance.) For decades even well sponsored teams routinely got sent home prior to the race because their driver just didn’t run fast enough in qualifying. Hell, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, both multi-time NASCAR champions, got sent home more than once in their career despite both (or at least Petty) being fan favorites. I don’t think the current charter system was supposed to be a license to cheat.
Some of you (scoundrels the lot of you!) are right now thinking “Well once again this aging old hippie is long on criticism but well short of helpful recommendations. Buckle up, Bunky. Bandaids aren’t enough anymore. We’ve got to cut the cancer out of NASCAR racing, it’s going to hurt a bit and leave some scars but it’s necessary to save the patient and we’re out of time for second opinions. The barbarians aren’t at the gate….they’re in fact running the circus.
The Cup schedule needs to be radically shortened. There’s no more time to debate switching Atlanta’s and Phoenix’s early season race dates again. Hand me that bone saw, Hawkeye. Fontana, New Hampshire and Kansas City are gone. Sorry that dual use thing didn’t work out for ya’ll. Richmond, Martinsville, and Bristol get to keep two dates because they are the only short tracks left on the schedule and the fans dig short tracks. Darlington gets to keep two dates because it is THE track, an essential bloodline to our sport’s history and the finest speedway racing out there. If you think otherwise I will tolerate your foolishness. Every other track gets cut back to one race a year. Sorry. It’s simply a matter of supply and demand and the demand isn’t there any longer, not in ticket sales and not in TV ratings. My guess is tracks will sell a like amount of tickets to one race a year as they do currently splitting ticket sales between two dates.
In addition to shortening the schedule we have to shorten the races themselves. With the exception of the Daytona 500 (which we’re going to find a way to run without pileup plates) the World 600 (presented by the AARP for long-time fans) and the Southern 500 (on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend) every other race length will reduced sufficiently that barring unforeseen circumstances the entire show is over in about 3 hours. On TV that’s five minutes of pre-race, the song, the prayer, the race and 15 minutes of post-race coverage. Given that millennials get bored after reading the S-T-O in a stop sign that might still be too long but you gotta start somewhere. Inaction and inertia aren’t working. (Much like a lot of the NASCAR brass on weekends.)
Short tracks, shorter races and for sure a shorter season. Winter being what it is over much of the country starting in February is just a recipe for miserable weekends at the track. And I’m sick of hearing how NASCAR ratings are hurt by March Madness college basketball tournaments. I’d say we start off round about mid-April. In many areas the typical daytime highs are 20 degrees warmer in April than in February. (Or at least they’re supposed to be. I am not particularly impressed by the chilly start to this year on the Right Coast.) We’ll make whatever further race reductions are needed (and perhaps have a few weekday evening races in the summer) so that the entire NASCAR season concludes at Darlington on Labor Day weekend. A champion will be crowned based on total points accumulated during the season, there will be much rejoicing and mass consumption of adult beverages before NASCAR steps gracefully aside to make way for the NFL juggernaut every fall. Remember back when Brian France predicted one day NASCAR was going to be bigger than the NFL? How’d that work out for you, Binky?
As far as the word “stage” if it’s an answer on Jeopardy the correct question will be “What is a coach”” or “What was a really fast 1970 Buick GS in 1970?” not “what are the portions of a NASCAR race called?”
A side benefit of a shorter Cup season is that the reduced number and length of races will dramatically cut the expenses a team has for the season. We’ll keep the Two-Race per engine rule, one of those rare acorns the blind hog that is NASCAR management has rooted out. If the expenses a team needs to spend to run competitively are cut dramatically then when they go sponsor shopping they can ask for a lot less money presumably increasing the number of companies willing to or able to foot the bill.
Equally certainly the amount NASCAR will be able to demand for broadcast TV rights would me much lower. That would allow the presenting networks to run less commercials. As of right now NASCAR races have been reduced to three hour commercials occasionally interrupted by commercials.
Yes, the above ideas are a bit radical. But if you don’t want to accept races broadcast on YouTube or Facebook with ten to twelve spec cars competing driven by guys you’ve never heard of in each event something needs to change and change soon. The time has come for someone to put his foot down and that foot is me.