1. A test of skill
If you were to ask 10 different people what constitutes a great race, you are sure to get 10 different responses. Therefore, I can only speak for myself.
The races which I consider great are the ones where I, as a fan, feel like the drivers are being pushed to their limits. One of the greatest things about NASCAR is the feeling that these 40 or so racers are testing the abilities of what humans can do. No mere mortal should be able to strap themselves into a stock car and be able to run inches apart from competitors at Daytona for hours on end.
Flying off into the high-banked corners of Bristol 1,000 times during a warm August night takes a special kind of skill, and a level of daring that is unmatched in most other sports. We want to see people accomplish the seemingly impossible in the toughest of circumstances. That’s why most of the races that I remember fondly are at quirky tracks like Bristol and Darlington, or tracks like Talladega and Martinsville that require a unique approach and skill set.
The frustrating thing about a lot of intermediate track races is that the lack of passing and aerodynamic dependence of the cars makes it seem like those events are testing the machine more than the people controlling it. That impression is deceptive, of course, because anyone who has been around this sport for a while knows that the drivers are pushing themselves to the edge of control in every race. It’s just easier to see that at some tracks than it is at others.
I’ve watched a lot of races on TV at tracks like Bristol, Talladega and Martinsville that I consider great. But in terms of races that I have personally attended, the gold standard is the 2008 Ohio 250, the final Truck Series race held at Mansfield Motorsports Park. All five truck races at Mansfield produced short track racing at its finest, but the 2008 running came down to a battle between David Starr, Donny Lia and Todd Bodine.
Starr had held a slim lead, but on the final lap, Lia hit him from behind on the exit of turn two. Starr got loose and Lia pulled beside him, only to have Bodine drop low and pull alongside both of them.
I was sitting in the backstretch grandstands and they raced past me three-wide, and I remember thinking ‘there’s no way they’re going to avoid wrecking in turn three.’ But Lia pulled off the seemingly impossible, forcing his way past Starr after Bodine got loose and drove off to win. Thursday is the 10th anniversary of that race, but I still remember that wonderful, thrilling finish like it was yesterday. – Bryan Gable
2. No gimmicks
At this point, what I’d consider a good race is one that is free (or as free as possible) of gimmicks, yet still provides a decent, competitive affair. There are going to be interruptions. It is racing after all. Wrecks happen. People break rear ends and coat the track in grease. Engines blow. Even random technological issues (power outages, scoring woes, NASCAR screwing up a penalty, caution lights falling on the track, etc.) can happen.
In NASCAR, I do not believe that debris cautions are gimmicks. If something’s out there that is a hazard, then it needs to be taken care of. If you saw Sunday’s ARCA race from Toledo, then you probably saw what happens when it isn’t taken care of fast enough. That was why Chandler Smith broke a sway bar and only three cars finished on the lead lap.
I do believe that the damaged vehicle policy and the policy that if your car stalls after a spin (regardless of whether you hit anything), you’re done, are ridiculous and bad for the sport.
I noted in Couch Potato Tuesday this week that Mike Joy stated Saturday night that the Monster Energy All-Star Race was “gimmick-free.” Race rule-wise, yes, it was. No inversions, no eliminations, no mandatory pit stops at specific times. That’s good. Even better was the elimination of the average finish in segments determining the order to come onto pit road. That was annoying as heck. You shouldn’t have to break out the pen and paper to figure out where your driver is going to line up.
However, the rule package for the cars was a gimmick itself, perhaps even more of one than any of the previous gimmicked rules put together. That’s not going to work.
Since NASCAR has put so many intermediate races on the schedule, the lack of raciness of the package is a noticeable problem. Rather than throw out the entire style of racing as we know (like NASCAR did Saturday night), the package can be improved to bring driver skill further into the equation while allowing the cars to race around each other more easily. – Phil Allaway
My definition of a great race would be one where it’d be easy for non-initiated spectators to see an event for themselves. The venue should be small enough to allow a full view of the track (like a Martinsville or a Bristol), but also fast enough to warrant exciting competition (again, Bristol?). Fans could enter for free, and there’d be lots of pre-race events designed for kids, especially hands-on displays and exhibits and maybe some one-on-one interaction with drivers and crew members.
What got me interested in racing early on was the fact that my parents could take me to an event and I could actually get close to the cars and drivers. This idyllic time was many decades ago before NASCAR became a national phenomenon, but I think the sport could take even greater strides to make younger fans feel like just that: fans. I love the idea of tracks letting kids in either for free or for a reduced ticket price, and I think the move toward “family-friendly” seating areas has helped. NASCAR has also taken measures to get spectators closer to drivers, like the new “fan fests” we’re seeing around the schedule.
I shared details about the best race I ever saw — the 1980 Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono — a couple weeks ago. What made that event so special was the fact that my father and I could walk into the garage area for a $10 ticket and sit along pit road on bleachers overlooking the pit stalls. The cars and drivers entered the track via a simple access road lined with chain link fence. It was easy to get autographs, pictures, and to chat with teams as they headed to the pit lane.
After Neil Bonnett won the race (in a wild finish that had fans on their feet), he and his Wood Brothers Mercury parked just yards away from where my dad and I were sitting. When Neil waved to the crowd, he waved at us! Even though I was a teenager and already a huge racing fan, this gesture and this event totally created a lifelong memory about how racing can be good to its fans — both present and future. – Mark Howell
4. Nothing is written in stone
A great race has several factors. The first one is good storylines throughout the race. While it doesn’t contribute to the outcome, I feel like the different things that assorted drivers or teams are dealing with adds to the level of interest.
Secondly, uncertainty as to the outcome. No race winner is ever a sure thing but when one driver is dominant or seems to be able to lead at will, it tends to take away from the excitement of watching. And that becomes more and more important as the race nears the end.
Judging by the grandstands, fans love restrictor plate racing. It’s often assumed that it’s because of the crashes, but I feel like it has more to do with how close the front runners will be to each other at the end. Rarely can you get up off the couch at the white flag during a plate race thinking that it’s a done deal.
One of my favorite races was the 2002 Daytona 500. Pre-race favorites Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both had trouble early. There was a big crash late in the going. Then Sterling Marlin spun race leader Jeff Gordon on a restart, bending his fender. Under the red flag, he gets out and pulls on it, earning a penalty.
After all that, Ward Burton holds off Elliott Sadler and Geoffrey Bodine to win. Now, who could’ve seen that coming? – Frank Velat
5. A little something extra
I can honestly say that there is something about every race I’ve seen in person that made it worth being there. The restrictor-plate race at Loudon was certainly not a great race, but it was worth being there because it was certainly an interesting experiment. There are, in general, a couple of things that make the best races stand out. One, of course, is action throughout the field. While I’d love for that to happen with no modifications, good action is good action. I fully enjoyed the All-Star Race, and I think if fans hadn’t known there were plates on the cars, many of the naysayers would have thought it was a great race.
I love the racing at Martinsville, personally, but almost every race has some great moments. To me, good hard racing is just as exciting whether it’s for first place, fifth or 20th. It boils down to two drivers doing everything they can to beat the other. Not everyone has a car capable of winning, but I promise you every car has a driver with a deep, burning hunger to get everything he can on the day.
I do think that, to an extent, fans’ interpretation of races also has to do with who wins and under what circumstances. I don’t hate fuel mileage or strategy races; I find them exciting in their own way. But my personal take on that ‘something extra’ is that first-time winners provide an extra-special race. To fans in the stands, their favorite driver winning makes for a better race than when one they don’t like takes the checkers. An underdog story is also usually well received. But to say the outcome doesn’t play a role is definitely inaccurate. That’s human nature.
But I also watch races and wonder what people do really want. If it’s strung out up front, with little passing in the top five or 10, people call it boring … but action brought closer because of a different rules package is ‘manufactured’.
Plate races without a big crash similarly get the boring tag, but everyone swears they don’t watch for the wrecks.
Or some want cars that look like their showroom counterparts but that race like a 1982 Buick (not realistic on any count).
It’s almost become cooler to complain about NASCAR than to actually like it. I’m not saying that it’s great as is, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as some make it out to be (yet they’re still watching).
When all is said and done, what makes a race great, or doesn’t, is personal. A different or favorite winner, a bump and run, a dump and run, door-to-door racing with the emotion behind it palpable, all are there for the taking a lot of the time. Sometimes someone dominates as well. That’s racing. – Amy Henderson
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