There is a lot of focus put on how much racecars have changed over the last 20 years or so and the effect that’s had on NASCAR and the racing we see today. There are a lot of bits and pieces that are often overlooked, though, that have had a big effect on what we see on a weekly basis that go beyond the current aerodynamic package, body or engines.
Tires are a big deal in racing, and the biggest change here actually happened 30 years ago, in 1989, when Goodyear introduced a radial racing tire into NASCAR. Radials had one key advantage over the bias-ply tire that had been used: durability. Bias-ply tires were faster, but they fell off much quicker than even the softer radial compounds Goodyear has brought to the table. That meant teams had to create a strategy for tires at each track, but in return, they had more grip on new tires.
At the same time, some safety issues were raised as multiple companies were in the game, but it’s hard to say the radial is significantly safer than the bias-ply tire in itself. At today’s higher speeds, a bias-ply tire might pose a safety risk or it might not. It’s been so long since they were used that many factors have changed. Extensive testing would be needed, and there cannot be a question about safety.
It’s not just the concerns of whether the tire could be safely used, though. For Goodyear, there’s not much commercial value in developing a tire that is not available for passenger cars and doesn’t need to be. Even racing radials are more valuable to the company as a development tool. Even if NASCAR were open to a new tire, Goodyear might not be. There are other manufacturers out there, but whether they would be interested in a vast and expensive development process is another question.
2. Actual cars
Have you looked at a street car lately? They’re sleek, low to the ground, designed to cut through the air as cleanly as possible, all of which is good for the average driver because it improves gas mileage and safety. Most consumers like both of those things in a car.
Many fans would like to see a return to a car more like its stock counterpart, at least in the body. But a return to a template that fits both street and racecar might not make a big difference in the racing in terms of what fans see. Street cars don’t look much more like their predecessors for 25 or 30 (or more) years ago, and they wouldn’t race like them either.
Many of the changes NASCAR has made mirror changes in passenger cars. Fuel injection and unleaded fuel, for instance? They were rolled out in street cars years before they came to NASCAR.
It wouldn’t be too hard to require racecars to fit the street templates provided the safety features of the current car could all be incorporated, and it may prove to be a solid marketing model for NASCAR as well. But has the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra that fueled manufacturers for decades still relevant enough for them to scrap 20 years of engineering racecars?
Toyota has never been a part of the sport when bodies were more or less still stock. Ford and Chevrolet have invested heavily in developing the current race versions of their vehicles. NASCAR can’t afford to lose them, and asking them to go back to the drawing board isn’t something that could happen overnight, if at all.
3. The schedule
Take a look at the modern-era Cup schedules before the 1990s, and two things stand out: the number of races and the number of 1.5- and two-mile tracks. Both were much lower, to the benefit of the sport.
NASCAR has taken a swing at the schedule for next year, but it’s limited by current track contracts for another year. Even then, it’s likely that at least one track-ownership company would sue if NASCAR tried to change dates drastically, or cut them.
30 points-paying races is plenty. If anything, giving teams a longer offseason would only make the racing better with more time to prepare between seasons. Plus, people tend to want what they don’t have, so cutting races might make the remaining ones more valuable. A shorter regular season and playoff model puts more urgency on each race.
The key here would be to remove the right tracks from the schedule. Every one of them needs to be a 1.5 or two-mile oval. One race from Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas and Michigan, along with losing either Kentucky or Chicago would tighten up the schedule while keeping the remaining races at the best available venues. If Iowa were added to the mix, both could be dropped.
Moving one of Pocono’s two dates to a road course could be another move. But that’s much easier said than done because track owners won’t agree to a loss unless they can be guaranteed that their remaining dates will be more profitable, and NASCAR isn’t likely to agree to cuts in fees to make that happen.
4. The driver model
Even at the top, the driver model is changing, and in the Xfinity and Truck series, it’s very different than it used to be. There have always been drivers able to land a ride because they brought money or something else to the table, but for the most part, teams chose a driver based on talent and the potential to win races. If they didn’t have a sponsor lined up already, they’d pitch the driver to backers and strike a deal.
More and more often now, the driver is expected to bring the backing to a team one way or another. Whether it’s from the family business sponsoring the car or a team owner giving another team incentive to drop one driver in favor of one they want in the seat, it’s rampant at the sport’s top levels.
Does it hurt anything? Maybe. Teams need money to race and sometimes that means taking the driver the sponsor wants. That’s happened in the past as well. But more and more it seems as though they’re relying on the drivers doing the legwork and bringing funding instead of procuring it themselves. Sometimes that means there are better drivers sitting on the sidelines because they don’t have the cash to buy a seat.
That’s not good for the sport because at some level fans aren’t seeing the best racing if the best drivers aren’t in the seats. Smaller teams can’t get ahead without a driver capable of winning races, and they don’t always have one. And if the racing isn’t as good as it’s going to be, there’s no incentive for sponsors to come into a team and back the driver the team wants. It becomes a cycle and not a healthy one.
It doesn’t seem that long ago when $10 million in primary sponsor dollars bought a whole season on a competitive car. In reality, it’s probably 20 years ago now, but in that time the number has more than doubled. The number is probably closer to a million dollars per race to put a championship caliber team on track and up front. And that prices a lot of companies out of the game because a competitive car is out of their reach for a full season or most of one. A couple of races doesn’t get them much advertising time for their investment, and buying more races on a smaller team gets them next to no TV time at all. Why would a sponsor want to enter the sport with all that against them?
Smaller teams are priced out before they get going. For every small team that comes into the sport and makes it even to a mid-tier level, there are many more who barely survive five years, often much less, and leave with nothing but debt, because they can’t afford the bits and pieces they need to get better. They might get money if they find a driver to bring some, but they rarely catch up under that model even if the driver does have the talent to back up his check. If they can afford it, an alliance with a bigger team can lead to more growth and success, but it rarely comes without condition, whether that’s running the driver the parent team wants them to or by testing engines or setups for the bigger team during races instead of running their own race.
This past year, NASCAR saw Furniture Row Racing, a team that came into the sport several years ago and tried to work its way to the top, fold up after winning a Cup championship because it could no longer afford the level of alliance that would bring continued success. And it didn’t have the resources to build winning cars even after rising to the very top. That should be a warning that something has to be done to rein in costs in a meaningful way, especially as race fields continue to shrink.