In a move that should have surprised absolutely nobody with a pulse, NASCAR announced yet another new rules format for the upcoming All-Star non-points race at Charlotte next month. I have checked the rules carefully (with that laser-like focus on detail I have been noted for my entire writing career…ahem), and I can say with relative certainty that drivers will not be required to run the track clockwise in the final stage.
At least, not yet.
Now, if they were to use an odd/even system in the final stage with half the drivers running the track clockwise and the other half running the track counterclockwise with every car towing a late 60s Cadillac chained to its rear bumper, then we’d really be onto something. Something horrific, but no less likely to result in huge smoking pig-piles of wrecks than the latest mad idea of making the drivers run restrictor plates for the All-Star (Well actually the All-Stars and Their Well-Intended Buddies event though as of yet nobody has found a way to get Danica Patrick in the field based on her single pole at Daytona and frequent flirtations with the top 25 during her NASCAR career.)
The All-Star race originally ran as the Winston back in 1985. The format was simple. All drivers who had won a race in the previous year competed against one another for 70 laps. No points were at stake but there was $200,000 on the line for the winner, a big chunk of change way back when in those more innocent days. Darrell Waltrip won the race just as his Junior Johnson-built engine expired into shrapnel, coincidentally enough. I like to call that co-op-a-cheating and I’ve trademarked that term, DW.
The 1986 Winston was the only such event run at a track other than Charlotte (which I should note here is no longer the Lowe’s Motor Speedway). The second Winston was run at Atlanta on Mother’s Day weekend. Bill Elliott won the race, and you’d have thought that all would have been sweetness and light with the popular Georgian driver winning in front of his highly partisan home-state fans. The problem was not many of those highly-partisan hometown fans bothered to show up. Only 18,500 tickets were sold to the race, which they’d probably still be bragging about at Fontana nowadays but back then the ticket sales were considered a disaster. As it turns out as much as they loved Bill Elliott, southern stock car racing fans loved their mothers even more. The whole idea almost died on the vine right there and then, and perhaps it would have been better if the so-called All-Star race had remained a curious footnote to the record books.
Oh, there were some good Winstons back then thanks to an epic brushup between Earnhardt the Original and Elliott the Original in the first one, and some rather heated antics between Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip in another. But it didn’t take long for well-intended experiments to ruin the whole thing. Different segments of different lengths were experimented with. Different eligibility requirements were tried, tossed and replaced. The event moved from daytime to dusk to dark. They inverted the field this way then the next year inverted it another way and after a while it was hard to take the damn thing seriously for a lot of us.
They tried introducing each team’s entire crew by name, a process that took longer than the race itself. That ended after some fool decided to crowd-surf the fans on hand and nobody bothered to catch him. One year they even used a giant Pachinko machine. No, I’m not kidding. I’m not sure how the Pachinko machine figured into the whole mess but I remember it was there doubtless spun by some busty vixen in a short skirt, strap-on stilettos and a Dolly Parton wig. Or if it wasn’t it should have been.
There’s a train of thought (which I have often just missed despite a determined dash from the station’s parking lot) that maintains the longer it takes to explain how a process works, the less likely it is to work at all. Take the rules of adolescent dating for instance. I finally figured that one out. I’m not allowed to date adolescents. Last year’s format for what’s now (or at least I am presuming is still) the Monster Energy All-Star Race, which contains 26 characters, the same as the alphabet. Coincidence? Last year’s format was so confusing and spectacularly unsuccessful everyone was laughing about it after the event with the possible exception of fans who paid good money to see that mess.
But this year, NASCAR is confident they’ve finally got things sorted out. Not only will cars competing in the race have six inch rear spoilers, those spoilers will have two 12 inch ears which apparently isn’t a slam at Kurt Busch. They will use the 2014 style front splitter because which of us doesn’t have hallowed memories of just how great the racing was way back in 2014? The cars will have aero ducts which doubtless will be better than disco ducks. Oh, and the cars competing in the All-Star race (and the qualifying races leading up to the All-Star race) will have restrictor plates! Nothing beats a good restrictor plate race. With the possible exception of an infected bleeding case of the hemorrhoids.
Plates are nothing new to the sport. There were once used at tracks like Michigan in an attempt to slow cars down. Which didn’t work. They were once used to equalize things between the more exotic Hemi and Boss engines and the more pedestrian wedge style engines. And of course they’ve been used at Talladega and Daytona every year since 1987 when Bobby Allison almost landed his Buick in the cheap seats at ‘Dega. When the latest plate rules were added at ‘Dega and Daytona, they were originally said to be a “temporary measure” until NASCAR figured out some better way to lower the speeds at those two tracks. (Like, uh, maybe lowering the banking perhaps, but that cost would come out of the ISC (read NASCAR) pocketbook and not the teams’, so that wasn’t ever tried over this now three-decade-plus temporary flirtation with the plates.)
The restrictor plates allow everyone to at least get a participation trophy (as current societal rules demand) in those four races a year. The tactic is basically like making all the other competitors at a Fourth of July sack race add three cinderblocks to their sacks so that that Bo-Bo the Idiot Boy has as good a chance at winning as anyone. Call it the Rule of the Least Common Denominator.
As the fan population of NASCAR continues to drop, there’s an increasing number of fans who don’t recall the pre-plate era at Daytona and Talladega. Yes, they had some barnburner races at both tracks in the unrestricted era. But if the plates do nothing else, they tend to dramatically boost the number of huge multi-car smoking pig piles of wrecks that can wipe out two thirds of the field in the flash of an eye. And I’m troubled by the amount of newer fans who equate the quality of an individual race with how many wrecks occur and how many cars end up like Kris Kringle up on their rooftops. Sick, sick, sick.
What’s the harm, some might ask. The All-Star race by all its various names is just an exhibition race. No points are actually on the line. Let ’em tear up all those cars to the point that the winner runs across the finish line carrying his steering wheel above his head. The problem is, while the race cars are expendable, the drivers inside of them are not. Sure, maybe one day Tesla will introduce a robotic driver we can put in the race cars to eliminate injury or worse. (My guess is Elon Musk will announce he’ll have robotic drivers available within a month at they’ll cost less than 10 grand. In reality the process will take ten years and Robo-man will cost 2.5 million dollars and still need to have four or five years’ worth of work to operate properly even if it does so only on sunny days.)
There is a danger in modern era NASCAR racing when we see drivers emerge from huge roll-over wrecks, brush themselves off and give a self-promoting interview minutes later that that will always be the case. It might seem that way to anyone who wasn’t following the sport back in February of 2001 anyway. Yes, a lot of things have changed since then. (NASCAR now boasts on those same safety innovations they once fought tooth and nail taking full credit for SAFER barriers and the HANS devices.) Yes, a lot has changed but the temporal nature of human life here on earth at least has not. (While the topic is open, which it is because I just opened it, is anyone else just a little queasy about Bristol billing itself as a coliseum? In a sport that’s centered in the Bible Belt of America it seems a bit odd to celebrate a venue where early Christians were once fed to the lions as sport. The Saints and the Lions didn’t get along particularly well even long before the founding of the NFL, New Orleans and Detroit. But I digress. You knew that was going to happen.)
To a worrisome extent plate racing is much like the gladiator battles of the old days. (Right now I am trying to bring together a bunch of different trains of thought in some orderly manner at Conjunction Junction, cause that’s my function.) Perhaps it’s a bit less bloody because at the end of the Bread and Circus shows in Rome the amount of gladiators leaving was approximately one half of the warriors who had arrived that same morning. The Christians fared even worse against the lions.
So is that stock car racing has devolved into? Fans anxiously show up at the races hoping to see huge, violent wrecks that decimate the field? Is running plates in this year’s All-Star race a precursor of things to come in points races down the road? Judging by the commercials I see promoting races, some track promoters and NASCAR officials seem to think their fan-base consists of mouth-breathing ghouls with just about enough brain cells left rubbing together to let them raise their beer above their heads and holler “Yee-haw” when a car ends up on its roof. Bread and circuses indeed. If it works in politics why not stock car racing?
I routinely see ads running for upcoming events that feature big wrecks, not daring last lap passes for the lead or a finish like Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch way back when at Darlington. (Count Craven as belonging on a long list of drivers whose career was ended way too early by a string of concussions caused by big wrecks, including that infamous one at Talladega, a plate track, that he never seemed to really heal from.) To a would-be fan watching those ads they’ve got to be thinking, “how do they ever reach 400 miles if they’re wrecking like this on every lap?)
Could those ads in fact help some would-be fans decide to stay home and watch a race rather than attend one live? At the track if you aren’t looking in the right direction at the right time you might miss a 12-car pig pile of a wreck. At least at home you are assured that you’ll get multiple replays of what happened and time to go get a fresh beer and take a leak during the commercial breaks afterwards. (At least they no longer typically use fire footage in those “promotional” ads. Talk to any race car driver and they’ll admit skeletal injuries, concussions and even internal decapitation don’t scare them much but fire does. But I digress. Last time (this column at least.) I promise.
I’m more than a little uneasy with the notion that even a large percentage of stock car racing “fans” really are tuning in just hoping to see big wrecks. Fans of my generation and I spent decades fighting off that misconception among the non-fans. They finally got a look at what the racing was actually like and TV ratings and ticket sales took off. I guess we now call those “the good old days”?
I mean if it’s carnage and crashes this new generation of fans really wants, let’s go all in. Let’s add jumps and flaming hoops on the backstretch. Let’s get back/ that car eating mechanical dinosaur thing, Robo-sourus, and set it loose on pit road during the race. (And in the parking lot afterwards?) But that’s not the sport I signed up for and right now I’m just wondering where the lions are?