Let’s be honest — NASCAR takes a lot of flak from a lot of different angles, some of it deserved.
But if we’re really being honest … some of it isn’t. In fact, many of the issues that race fans in particular take the most issue with have little or nothing to do with NASCAR at all.
For instance …
1. The cars
While there are a lot of issues with the current Gen 6 cars that NASCAR can fix, or at least attempt to improve, they aren’t the only entity involved here. The manufacturers have a stake in the cars as well, and for them, the game has changed drastically from the days where “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” drove the industry.
Back in the day, manufacturers competed to design cars that would win on the racetrack, and some passenger car designs were driven by beating the competition on the racetrack. Those winged Daytonas and Superbirds, among other models, were designed to race and adapted for production (and they couldn’t be adapted on the outside because the NASCAR and production body were one and the same, as held true through the mid-1990s).
That simply doesn’t happen today. While NASCAR could alter the rules so that the production templates also fit the race versions, the manufacturers might not be so quick to get on board. They could, but changing production models on an annual basis to be faster in NASCAR is unlikely to produce the sales that would justify that extensive process to the car makers, particularly Ford and Chevrolet, who have scaled back production models recently.
Many fans still vehemently oppose foreign manufacturers in the sport, and forcing the car companies to work around NASCAR’s rules might well cause the American manufacturers to reconsider their participation. It could, but this is an area where NASCAR no longer holds all the cards.
And that holds true in a lot of areas now. The game has changed in many ways, and in some cases, NASCAR is along for the ride. Can things be improved? Absolutely and always. But there are some things that cannot simply be returned to the way they once were, because all the other pieces are no longer the same.
2. The schedule
NASCAR has indicated that they are willing to make schedule changes for 2021 and beyond, once current track contracts run out. The reality of that, though, is that it’s going to be difficult to institute real changes, because track owners are going to fight tooth and nail for their races.
The vast majority of tracks on the circuit are owned by two entities: International Speedway Corporation, which is owned by the France family, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., owned by Bruton Smith. Dover International Speedway and Pocono Raceway are independently owned. So while NASCAR might shift a couple of dates from ISC tracks, they’re not going to let a lot of money bleed from the family coffers.
NASCAR does own Iowa Speedway, so that track remains as a possible addition for the future.
Smith’s company has sued NASCAR for race dates before and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t do it again, though the Smith family has indicated a willingness to work with Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
That leaves Dover and Pocono to take a hit apiece, so all in all, maybe four dates might go to different tracks. There could be more, but it’s unlikely that any sweeping change will happen other than some date changes and perhaps a shakeup in the playoff lineup and the All-Star race location. The track owners aren’t going to willingly give up a race weekend to another company.
3. The broadcasts
There’s no doubt it’s frustrating to watch a race broadcast these days. Tight camera angles focused on only a few different cars through most of the race, commentators who want to be part of the show, too many commercials … you name it, and it’s probably a legitimate beef.
But the networks pay NASCAR handsomely for the right to cover the sport, and NASCAR itself has little say, if any, as to how they broadcast them once the contracts are signed.
Should NASCAR advocate for fans during negotiations? Absolutely. But without clauses in the contract that demand certain things, there isn’t much the sanctioning body can do. And with a new contract on the horizon, NASCAR is likely going to take a hit in terms of the money they get this time around — they’re not really in the position to make a lot of demands.
And the networks are at the mercy of advertisers to pay the bills. While a revamp of the content is doable, commercials can only be cut so much. Some advertisers won’t spring for side-by-side screens. Perhaps timing could be reworked, but the networks aren’t going to pay huge dollars for broadcast rights if they can’t recoup them through advertising.
Fans’ issues with the coverage is completely legit. But NASCAR isn’t really to blame here.
4. The drivers
Are drivers today too vanilla, over-handled by PR folks? Probably. But again, the blame doesn’t fall on NASCAR. When sponsors are forking out millions of dollars on a race team, they can ask the driver to behave pretty much however they want them to. They could tell them they have to wear a clown costume and tell terrible jokes on pit road before the race. What that means for most drivers is that they toe the company line. They can’t afford for a sponsor to pack up and jump to another team.
Should sponsors allow drivers to be more human? Of course. And they should have them at public events instead of the corporate suites sometimes, too. But NASCAR can’t make them.
What NASCAR also can’t do is force drivers to drive every lap like it’s the last one. Drivers and teams know how to play the long race game, and aren’t going to risk a torn-up car a quarter of the way through a race. Points are too valuable, and their year-end points finish is really where the money is. While it’s true NASCAR has put too high a premium on winning a title, teams and drivers are going to look at the bigger picture, whether that’s a race win or a year-end title.
Wrecks and retaliations are a very high price to teams these days, and races do lack drama because of this … but there really isn’t anything NASCAR can do.
Finally, NASCAR is up against science here. This ties into the first point, because part of the disparity is simple physics. A 2019 Toyota Camry does not, cannot, race the same as a 1982 Buick did. The two are so vastly different aerodynamically that it’s just not possible. And no manufacturer is going to spend the time and money it takes to develop a racecar that looks even less like their street cars, and they certainly aren’t going to design street cars to look like the racecars of the past.
Consumers don’t want huge boxy cars that cut a massive hole in the air because they aren’t as comfortable to drive as today’s cars, and more importantly, the less aerodynamic a passenger car is, the less fuel-efficient it will be. If there are consumers out there who would buy a car that cost more to operate because it would create great NASCAR races, hats off to them, but there probably aren’t a lot of them.
So, the physics of racing are at odds with the physics of street driving when it comes to today’s cars. Take a good look at a new passenger car. They’re lower and sleeker than ever, because that’s what people are buying. Full-size coupes and sedans are dwindling in popularity and availability as consumers turn to smaller cars or SUVs.
NASCAR has tried a variety of things to make the racing better, but they can’t alter the way the air works or the difference in the amount of grip a tire has on a hot surface versus a cold one or how gravity and lift work. Manufacturers certainly aren’t going to build cars that nobody’s buying so the races will be more competitive. Sure, there are things that can be improved. There always are. But simple physics will have the final say.