Good or bad, the ARCA Racing Series is soon to become a NASCAR property, and it possibly could be the right time for it.
As the ARCA Series heads into its hometown race weekend at Toldeo Speedway this weekend, the series finds itself facing a fatigue level it hasn’t seen in recent memory.
TheMenards 200 has only 23 cars on the current entry list with announced drivers. And instead of seeing prospect drivers making their way up, a number of the later entries have instead seen higher level racers taking a step down; former ARCA champ Grant Enfinger will be behind the wheel of Mason Mitchell’s No. 78, while recent XFINITY racer Tony Mrakovich will be driving for Andy Hillenburg’s team on Sunday.
Just five races into the 2018 campaign, the series is already finding itself losing longtime entries. This weekend will mark the first time in 105 races that Thomas Praytor and his No. 9 team won’t be taking the green flag, announcing this week that they were scaling back to a part-time schedule. The same story played out last month at Salem, where Wayne Hixson’s veteran team broke a streak of more than a decade of consecutive entries at ARCA events.
And at the back of the field, even more uncertainty continues to appear. Though Brad Smith and the No. 48 will be at Toledo this weekend, the recent death of James Hylton and his son have cast a shadow over the future of the Hylton Motorsports operation. And lastly, Wayne Peterson Racing has only one entry filed for Toledo, the first time it hasn’t entered two cars in an ARCA race since Iowa Speedway back in 2013.
Meanwhile, in NASCAR’s developmental ranks, the K&N Pro East Series saw only 17 cars take the green flag for its latest races in South Boston Speedway last weekend, the sixth time in the last eight events for that series that fewer than 20 cars showed up.
There have already been rumors and speculation that a merger between the two divisions will be first on NASCAR’s to-do list when it takes over for good in 2020, and there are reasons it could well work. Both series have transitioned over to composite body-style racecars, and both series already offer spec engines in an effort to cut costs for race teams. Both series already cover very similar geographic footprints; both already race as far south as Florida (Daytona International Speedway for ARCA, New Smyrna Speedway for K&N), as far west as the plains (both series compete at Iowa) and as far north as New England (ARCA has a long-term history with Pocono Raceway, K&N with NASCAR’s home tracks program across the Northeast).
And it’s simple arithmetic: 17 full-time K&N teams, 20-ish full-time ARCA teams and suddenly fields are 30-plus deep instead of scraping for 20 cars. Anyone that’s been to a local dirt track knows full well the difference 20 or 30 cars showing up can make.
Now, this merger does leave a logistical challenge to be handled: the schedule. After all, ARCA has its venues, and NASCAR has its own. And there would be enough financial challenges associated with increased field sizes increasing competition for backmarker teams, and in the case of K&N teams expanding from a 14-race schedule to the 20 that currently ARCA runs, to think that the two schedules could simply be merged.
There’s a solution to that as well. It’s time to rethink the Camping World Truck Series.
The Truck Series, created in the 1990s as a short-track sideshow of sorts, has essentially morphed into NASCAR’s AA ranks, another companion series running alongside the XFINITY Series. And while that change has provided race fans with what is often the best superspeedway racing stock cars can muster, it’s also resulted in the Truck Series losing luster on its own, with decreasing truck counts, a shorter schedule and big-name, big dollar owners bowing out for financial reasons (see Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski).
So here’s how NASCAR makes it work. Return the trucks to the short track ranks they were meant to be and turn two development series into one.
The newly merged ARCA/K&N division would become a true AA series to run below, rather than as a semi-complement, to the XFINITY Series. Run a 20-race schedule, holding an event every other week that largely mimics what up-and-coming drivers will see on their way up the ladder: restrictor plates, short tracks, road courses and a heavy dose of superspeedway racing. Run it with spec cars and engines to cut costs and keep the footprint to the East and Midwest. The K&N West Series has always been its own series, even after K&N Pro became a thing. It should stay that way.
Those 20 races? Daytona. Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Charlotte, Chicagoland Speedway, Dover International Speedway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Iowa, Kansas Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, New Jersey Motorsports Park, Pocono, Talladega Superspeedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International.
Which leaves us with the new and improved Truck Series. All those ARCA races that race fans rightly fear losing in NASCAR’s vice grip that has already killed off Rockingham Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and nearly the Southern 500 would have a home.
20 truck races? The Charlotte dirt track. The Las Vegas Motor Speedway bullring. Berlin, DuQuoin, Eldora, Elko, Iowa, Langley, Madison, Memphis, Nashville, New Smyrna, Phoenix, Richmond, Salem, South Boston, Springfield, Thompson, Toledo. And a long-overdue return to Lucas Oil Raceway outside of Indianapolis.
Those two schedules mean every single venue, without exception, that currently host a Truck, ARCA or K&N East event still have one. And in the case of the Truck Series, it provides a chance to re-establish an identity it desperately needs.
Putting trucks on short tracks to beat and bang on each other makes sense. Putting trucks on dirt to get dirty makes sense. Those are the kind of events that sell trucks, which frankly is a card NASCAR’s Truck Series could use in its hand.
Right now, there’s absolutely no correlation between success in America’s pickup market and the Truck Series. The Ford F-Series remains the best-selling vehicle in America despite Ford’s long-reduced presence in truck racing. The Dodge Ram has seen sales increase every year since FCA exited NASCAR competition following the 2012 season. And the Toyota Tundra, the dominant force in truck racing over the last decade, is now marketed as an upscale pickup, Toyota Motor Company having abandoned a failed strategy to steal significant market share from Detroit’s big three.
A healthy ARCA racing tour and a truly distinctive Truck Series. If that’s the result of NASCAR acquiring what is currently the best stock car racing on offer anywhere in the U.S., race fans are going to look back at that fateful weekend at Talladega in 2018, the weekend that took James Hylton…and do more than just mourn.