1. Let teams control their destiny
There has been much talk about parity in NASCAR in recent years, and while it’s certainly important for teams to be able to enter the sport and establish themselves, NASCAR’s move toward spec everything isn’t working. Cost-cutting attempts have been little more than taking a couple raisins out of the teams’ two scoops, but that doesn’t do much to help teams that only have half a scoop to begin with.
Are there ways to address parity in the sport without making every piece and part a NASCAR-mandated one or imposing a difficult-to-enforce spending cap? There certainly can be.
Before we go any further on this point, parity isn’t really what NASCAR wants or needs. They don’t need teams to be equal. If anything, the top teams are a bit too equal right now, and that leads to predictability, which isn’t good for fans. It all ties together. What’s needed is the opportunity for teams to grow and change and become contenders, to gain an edge and to lose it. If someone finds an advantage, so be it. Someone else will find a better one next week. That’s OK. It gives, in theory, if not practice, the idea that anyone can win a race if the chips fall just right. It may not actually work out that way, but the possibility of a different outcome will keep people watching.
In recent years, NASCAR has taken a stab of mandating more and more parts and pieces in an effort to save teams money. On paper, it makes a certain amount of sense. If teams can only run one gear combination, they don’t have to buy other gears and parts. If there is little wiggle room on shocks, teams don’t have to have so many.
The problem is, it also keeps teams from finding an edge, and it keeps them from taking risks. After all, if teams gamble with gears, there will be more attrition. For a team who can’t afford to gamble with a faster, less durable setup, there’s a chance to beat several who gamble and lose, including bigger teams. That was once a big part of the game, and it had another bonus: it lent some unpredictability to races.
Teams should have a chance to find their own advantages within the rules, but the rules have to allow them to try different things. Doing so would not only allow teams currently not running up front to find a way to improve, but also improve what fans see on the track and bring mechanical attrition back into the equation on a regular basis. The sport has lost that, to its detriment.
2. It’s only a test
NASCAR has tried a number of solutions to cut testing costs for teams, but none have really made a difference. In part, that’s because of the limited areas to work on cars, and the options of finding speed are limited. Teams were once allowed about seven tests a year at sanctioned tracks. NASCAR has cut that number, changed it from “per team” to “per organizational” and played with open tests at specific tracks.
Testing is ridiculously expensive, that much is true. Teams have to pay for track time and emergency personnel as well as travel expenses. It’s at least a six-figure proposition. But under the current limits, the poorer teams still can’t test, the rich ones still do and not much really changes.
There are a couple of possible solutions. One would be to offer open tests at select tracks, again with NASCAR footing the track and personnel expenses in exchange for half a day in a two-day session where the teams do something for NASCAR. That could be sharing certain telemetry information, or it could be trying things out for the future, whatever NASCAR needs at the time. It could even mean testing at tracks not on the schedule with NASCAR eyeing future dates. So teams get a day and a half paid for, and NASCAR gets information it can use to make the racing better for fans.
Another piece could be allowing teams who need it most more track time. Say NASCAR has five of these open tests. Tracks and dates could be released in January, so teams know ahead of time where and when they might want to go. Then why not allow teams finishing the previous season 25th or below in points to attend all five tests, those from 11th to 24th four sessions, and the top 10 three? That gives backmarker teams the chance to find some speed. If they find it and move up, they lose that advantage but are better for it. That could also be applied to team testing limits but would be difficult to utilize under the current organizational umbrella.
One more option would be to allow teams to arrive at tracks a day early and run a full day (or split the day with other series) of telemetry-enabled practice. The number of times a team could do this could also be limited. This seems to be the least favorable option here, though, because less practice has actually made for some better racing in recent memory.
3. Chassis No. 9462… maybe not
The idea of a spending cap is a difficult and complex one. Can NASCAR tell teams they can’t get all the sponsor dollars they can or they can’t spend their dollars the way they want? Down the road, it may come to that, but it would be a slow process.
NASCAR has clamped down on engines. Teams once brought two separate power plants to every race: one for practice and one for qualifying. Changing that to one has saved teams a lot of money and further limits, such as sealing engines and racing them again, have also helped.
Could a similar model be applied to chassis? Teams already assign chassis with serial numbers for identification. It would be relatively easy to limit teams to using a set number of chassis over the course of a season.
What that has the potential to do is keep the big teams from having weeks’ worth of prepared chassis in the shops while the smaller ones have to bring one back from a race and turn it around in a week or two, and by doing so, limit some of the advantage gained by having a full fleet.
The flip side of that is it could potentially force teams into racing conservatively. One reason you don’t see some small teams mixing it up more isn’t that they aren’t capable but because they can’t afford to crash. They may need to use that same car in the next week’s race or at least have it ready within the next few weeks. The goal is to encourage racing, so is there a way to strike a balance here? It’s worth exploring, but NASCAR should be careful not to go overboard. Limiting teams to too few cars would encourage the opposite of what’s intended.
4. Get manufacturers involved
Again, a NASCAR mandate here is risky, because mandating something manufacturers don’t want to do is a good way to get them to reconsider their participation, and NASCAR can’t afford that. But is there a way to encourage the manufacturers to give equal support to any team who runs their brand and participates in other programs on the manufacturer’s behalf through the year (endorsements, at-track activities, or something else)?
Currently, teams without factory support struggle, even if they can buy into an alliance with a team that has it. If the car makers backed all their teams, they would only be more competitive as a whole. Does it benefit, say, Chevrolet, to have the bowtie featured on a backmarker team who only gets TV time when they spin out? Would it benefit them more to have that team racing for position with others and making passes? You have to think it would, or at least could if done right.
The big teams wouldn’t be too happy if those manufacturers spread the wealth more, and that’s an obstacle. It wouldn’t work if one maker didn’t do it, because that could lead to a lopsided field.
Again, none of these are perfect overnight solutions, but it’s worth exploring any way possible to make the sport better.
5. Encourage development
NASCAR absolutely needs new teams to be able to enter the sport and not just have the staying power to stick around but to be able to grow into contenders. The big teams didn’t start out that way. Remember Hendrick Motorsports was winless in NASCAR and scheduled to shut down after one final race, but the team won that race, secured enough money for more races and grew into an organization with four teams and 12 Cup titles. It’s unlikely a team could start at the bottom and have similar success over time today. The new ones don’t have an opportunity to get better.
While the argument can be made that the top teams didn’t start in other series and grow, there’s reason to consider that as a path now. If NASCAR could give new teams an incentive to enter in trucks or XFINITY, there’s a lot of potential—if those series can offer enough return on investment to pay the bills and grow. The same amount of money will go a lot farther in on of those series than in Cup, and bringing new teams, with the opportunity for improvement, would only increase the competition. Again, good for the fans and therefore good for the sport.
If a team can grow in those series, it might give them a better chance to gain a foothold in Cup and in the process, have a turnkey Truck or XFINITY team to sell to yet another person with decent enough equipment that that person could experience the same path. If that person is also successful enough to move up, he or she could use the money from selling that turnkey (and now hopefully improved yet another step) to yet another person. Maybe that person will turn the team into a top caliber on in its own right and stay in that series, making it stronger. Opportunity for growth has to benefit not just a team, but a series and, when all’s done but the shouting, the sport.
NASCAR doesn’t need equality. As a sport, it needs the ability for teams to achieve equality and superiority. And when one does, the opportunity then needs to be for another team to knock them off the top. And then another. There’s no end game here. NASCAR needs to set teams up for the long haul.