1. Allow innovation
Sometimes, less is more, and when it comes to NASCAR’s extensive rule book, there are areas where that’s definitely the case. No, NASCAR doesn’t need to go to a “run what you brung” free-for-all, but opening up some areas, like suspensions and gears, would allow teams to find things that work for them.
Believe it or not, a fairly-gained advantage is not a dirty word.
There is a place for parity. One manufacturer should not be significantly better than another, because that’s unfair to teams under another banner. Innovation and advantage have to come from the teams. In other words, they need to start on equal ground but have the opportunity to make their own hills and valleys. By making the cars different in some areas, that could do something NASCAR’s tweaks and changes haven’t been able to do: make them able to pass on track with a car that has more gear or significantly better handling. Yes, one team might hit on something and win a lot of races. That’s been a thing since the beginning, and it hasn’t brought down NASCAR yet, but the lack of innovation could.
2. Real cost cutting
Ironically, the reason for the lack of choice in some areas came as a cost-cutting measure. The problem is, it also doesn’t allow teams to really get ahead. Newer teams don’t have the opportunity to try different things to get more competitive.
With the charter system in place, NASCAR has an opportunity to implement a spending cap. Don’t want to comply? Hand in that charter. A cap would be a very complex undertaking and would have to leave things up to teams as far as how money could be spent.
There will always be haves and have nots in the sport, but the more financial parity there is, the more teams can become competitive, and that puts a better product on track for fans. NASCAR survived its early years because it was a dictatorship — Bill France’s way or the highway. The sport needs strong leadership that can make meaningful change, not change for the sake of change.
3. A meaningful championship
Trying to make NASCAR like other major sports was perhaps the biggest mistake that happened in the early 2000s. Other sports need playoffs because of the one-on-one nature of games, and the different divisions within each league. NASCAR doesn’t have divisions; all the teams are at every race, big names and small. There’s no need for a matchup to see whose league champion is more worthy because, by the end of a long season, fans know who the top cat is. More importantly, under a season-long format, more of them felt like the champion truly was the best in the sport that year. It’s not fair to the champion drivers when fans look at them as less than their predecessors because of the format.
NASCAR tried to make the title more exciting, and the one-race decider certainly makes it unpredictable, but if the worthiness of the champion is called into question, is it worth one exciting race?
Does NASCAR need to go back to the old system? Not necessarily; there are other options that could come to the table. Yes, the Latford system should be discussed as it was never broken. The one-point format with a big win bonus is another possibility. So is a system like IndyCar or even Formula 1. Perhaps the old Winston Million races could be worth more points, to make them the most prestigious of the year. There is also some merit to simply making the driver with the most wins on the season the champion.
There are so many ways to crown the best in the sport that would ensure the title has real clout, and it’s high time they were explored.
4. Make sure fans know the drivers
Some may argue this point, but there’s more to it all than just what happens on the track on Sunday. Fans need someone to pull for. And for them to really get behind someone, fans need to feel like they know the drivers, and that they’re all different. Drivers have become so over-handled by their sponsors and marketing folks that they can come across as largely homogenous, cut from the same cloth.
It wasn’t always that way. There used to be good guys and bad guys, white-collar and blue-collar guys, guys you’d want to have a beer with after the race, guys you’d rather dump beer on after the race. Between the race broadcasts, weeknight racing shows and commercials, you could feel like you knew them all. You could go to a race and every driver in the field had someone there wearing their t-shirt or hat and cheering for them. Drivers signed autographs at their souvenir haulers throughout the weekend, and sometimes fans had to choose which sessions to attend because there were so many going on.
NASCAR needs that connection. Fans want to pull for someone they can relate to in some way. They shouldn’t feel like the drivers are avoiding them, and they shouldn’t have to wonder how those drivers are really different from one another anyway. They should know how hilarious the driver for the small team is and the crazy stunt the big-name guy just pulled off. Social media is great for interaction, but it seems many drivers are using it to replace face-to-face fan interaction, and that’s not so great.
It used to feel like family, even to fans who never went to a race or met a driver. We need that back, badly.
5. Television coverage for the fans
NASCAR has a new TV contract coming up, and with that in mind, the sport should take a hard line on one thing: bringing the most action possible to the fans. For many years now, the networks covering the sport have failed the fans. Tight camera angles focusing only on the leader, or perhaps a car or two with a predestined storyline has become the norm.
Remember a few years back when ESPN reentered the game and fans were super excited about it? There’s a reason for the excitement: they remembered ESPN’s coverage of the sport in the 1990s and were hoping for more of the same. But they didn’t get it. They got about what FOX was dishing up, just with different voices. ESPN left again, wondering why fans didn’t flock to their coverage.
Every fan deserves to see an update on his or her driver at least a few times during a race. Sponsors need a return on their investments via airtime as well if they’re to stay in the sport, or for new ones to enter it. If nothing else, broadcasters have a responsibility to fans to update on every driver involved in a crash on the track, no matter how small the team or how minor it looked. It takes a few seconds to let fans know their driver is okay. Shame on any broadcast that fails to give them that.
NASCAR should be advocating for the fans as it negotiates a new deal because in doing so, it also advocates for itself. It’s better for the sport if fans see everything it has to offer, not the tiny sliver they see on Sunday now. NASCAR doesn’t need, never needed, to change for the sake of. But meaningful change could right the ship as the next era of the sport draws closer.