All eyes are on Sin City this weekend as NASCAR debuts the full version of the 2019 intermediate rules package (aero ducts weren’t in use at Atlanta) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR has a lot riding on the next couple of seasons as it moves toward the end of the current television deal. If ratings don’t at least stabilize, the next deal won’t be nearly as lucrative, and that affects everyone.
In the long run, though, is changing the cars the answer?
If you look at the big picture, it becomes apparent quickly that it is, at most, a stopgap. Whether or not this set of changes makes a difference, NASCAR is going to have to address more than just the racecars. Chances are it won’t make the kind of difference the sanctioning body hopes because reducing corner speed is an important part of making passing more frequent, and this will keep them from having to lift on entrance.
Really, though, cars being hard to pass is nothing new. Back through the years, races have come down to one or two cars on the lead lap, and margins of victory varied as much, if not more than they do now. Every race didn’t end with drama, though many would like to remember it differently.
But what was different was the slate of racetracks on the schedule. Pick a year and that’s apparent. Let’s take a look at the 1984 season here, roughly in the middle of NASCAR’s history.
First of all, there were 30 races. That’s plenty. The adages that less is more and absence makes the heart grow fonder? Those are rooted in truth. Sometimes people want what they can’t have, and the NASCAR season is very long.
It’s not just the length of the season though, and cutting back to 30 plus a revamped All-Star race sounds about right. Take a look at the tracks, and the real issue facing NASCAR today becomes crystal clear.
Daytona (two races); 2.5-mile superspeedway: Daytona hosted a pair of races in 1984, the Daytona 500 and the early July race they still host. Both races were run during the daytime, though, which naturally produces better racing as handling is a much bigger issue. They also didn’t run with restrictor plates, though speeds were nearing numbers that would make them a necessity a few years later. Superspeedway races were very different than today.
Richmond (two races): Richmond hosted the second race of the year – February weather makes you wonder how pleasant that was – and early September. The track was then a 0.542-mile oval.
Rockingham (two races): The one-mile medium-banked oval hosted races in March and October. It was removed from the schedule after the 2004 season and an attempted revival was not well enough attended by fans for the track or NASCAR to consider a Cup return.
Atlanta (two races): Then a true oval, Atlanta hosted races in March and November (it later became the final race of the year). It was reconfigured to the current 1.5-mile setup in the mid-1990s.
Bristol (two races): The .533-mile oval was paved in asphalt instead of the current concrete. It hosted races in April and August of 1984, much the same dates as it has today. At a reported 36 degrees (which was later disputed), it was the highest-banked track in NASCAR. The banking is now a variable 24-26 degrees and the racing is different these days.
North Wilkesboro (two races): North Wilkes, as it was often referred to, hosted races in April and October in the North Carolina foothills. The .625-mile flat oval was different from Richmond, Bristol and Martinsville. It had more sweeping turns and shorter straightaways than Martinsville. The track still sits next to highway 421 but is no longer raceable.
Darlington (two races): The Lady in Black was as mean as ever, and if anything, the surface was harder on tires than it is today. The original intermediate track, the 1.33-mile egg-shaped oval requires a high line to get around fast and is a strategy track. Fuel mileage and tire mileage don’t match now and certainly didn’t back then, forcing teams to make difficult choices. The Southern 500 was run during the heat of the day on a slick track in the dog days of summer but is run at night now.
Martinsville (two races): Martinsville might be NASCAR’s least-changed track (though the corners are now concrete) and the racing the least changed over the years as well. It’s as possible to get a classic finish now as it was in ’84 or any year before or since. That’s notable as few other tracks can boast that.
Talladega (two races): run in May and under a hot Alabama sun in July, Talladega was in its last years before the restrictor plate would change the racing dramatically.
Nashville (two races): This was Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, and it hosted its last Winston Cup races in ’84. A 0.596-mile medium-banked oval, the track has hosted late model races consistently and there has been recent talk of hosting Xfinity and/or Truck races again. Given the market, that could prove more successful than Rockingham’s attempt but would put the tracks’ future in the hands of fans.
Dover (two races): Dover, a one-mile oval, was paved in asphalt in 1984, and it’s two 500-mile races (May and September) were tests of endurance as much as speed as they were marathon events. It’s still a tough track to navigate today, though the concrete surface is less heat-sensitive and the races have been shortened to 400 miles.
Charlotte (two races): NASCAR’s home track was the first track to feature a configuration like so many others have followed. The 1.5-mile quad-oval was unique at the time, and the Coca-Cola 600 was another intense test of drivers, run in the summer heat during the day. Like most other tracks, those hot, slick conditions made for better racing than the night race today’s fans are accustomed to. Races in ’84 were run in May and October.
Riverside (two races): This 3.33-mile, nine-turn road course held the spot on the schedule now occupied by Sonoma as well as the season finale, so that the final championship determination came on a road course. The track was razed in 2003 and a shopping center now sits on the site.
Pocono (two races): Pocono was as unique and difficult in ’84 as it is now. Along with Charlotte and Darlington, it might be one of the more accurate tracks to look at in terms of how the racing has changed in that the configuration hasn’t changed significantly. In ’84 its two races were in June and July
Michigan (two races): The two-mile oval held its events in June and Aug. 1984. It was then a unique configuration for the Cup Series as Auto Club Speedway wasn’t added to the schedule until 1997.
Looking at that, it’s apparent that the “good old days” weren’t made that way by just the cars or just the drivers, but also by the racetracks. There were no two tracks with the exact same length or configuration and there were several more tracks of a mile or less, though the schedule still boasted several bigger tracks as well.
Contrast that schedule with today’s, which has three tracks under a mile, three at just about a mile, and no fewer than seven 1.5-mile tri- or quad-ovals with varying degrees of banking but few other differences. Would NASCAR need to keep changing the cars if they changed the tracks they race on instead?
The problem lies in that the schedule is no longer easily fixable. The vast majority of tracks are owned by two entities, at least one of which has shown that it will use lawsuits to keep it that way. Track owners can move dates from tack to track, but that’s about it. It’ll take some wheeling and dealing to make major changes, even though it’s pretty undeniable that they should be changed.