Quite a few fans seem to have been perplexed this weekend as their attention returned to NASCAR racing. They’d apparently heard that there were big changes in store for the NASCAR touring series this year. What they saw on Saturday and Sunday looked awfully familiar, other than the wrecking on restarts stuff.
It was a bit of a surprise late last year when NASCAR took the first concrete step toward fixing a problem: recognizing the problem exists. So what’s the problem? NASCAR has been hemorrhaging fans in record numbers ever since the Boom Town days ended in the 2000s after perhaps peaking in 2006. Ticket sales have been awful, leaving some racetracks to look like someone left the gates open and some passersby wandered in to see what all the noise and hubbub was about. TV ratings for some events had dipped to embarrassing levels. Among what fans remained, there was a growing consensus that the quality of the racing was at best mediocre, to put it politely. Another big beef was that longtime fans felt the “stock car” racing series was as lacking in stock as it was with cars for some events. Unless you’re talking about the type of stock they trade on Wall Street, that is. The cost of racing competitively in the series has gotten out of hand, unless you’re rich enough to buy the first eighth-gen Corvette to roll off the production line (sometime soon) for $3 million and foolish enough to announce your plans to never drive it. Some lesser funded teams tried to shoehorn themselves into the game. Remember how Pickett’s Charge worked out in July of 1863? Both ventures worked out about equally well.
There came to be a consensus between stakeholders and stockholders that NASCAR racing needed some fixing, not just a quick buff and a can of Marvel Mystery Oil. What was left in dispute was how to fix things and within what time frame it could be accomplished. It took the United States eight years to move from the Mercury program to putting a man on the moon. It takes NASCAR about that long to decide what to call the All-Star style race at Charlotte and who should be in it.
I’ll use this as my first example of the art of corrective fixing, sharing insights I’ve gathered on the process over a misspent lifetime of laying under old cars or leaning into the engine compartment of a parked car looking for the key to the universe. Sometimes you study how to fix something and come to the regrettable but inevitable conclusion it ain’t worth fixing. The All-Star Race doesn’t need another new name. Nor does it need to be on the schedule. About no one buys a ticket to it anymore and damn few even bother watching it. An extra weekend off in the schedule is a good thing, and the end of what was born “The Winston” might create a spike in ticket sales for the 600 held the next weekend at the same track.
Speaking of changes to the schedule, things are in the works in that regard, though you won’t be seeing the wholesale shakeup to the slate of events this year you might have been expecting. To facilitate a major shakeup to the schedule, NASCAR needed to buy the International Speedway Corporation (and the 13 tracks it controls) last year for the tidy sum of $2 billion. For years, there has been great confusion as to what the relationship between NASCAR and the ISC was. Both companies were headquartered in the same building. The people who ran both had the same last name, France. But NASCAR is a sports sanctioning body that runs what we’ll be calling simply “Cup” racing going forward. Ladies and gentleman, the monsters have left the building.
The ISC owns racetracks. NASCAR makes up the schedule and thus awards race dates to the ISC and its Charlotte-based rival, Speedway Motorsports, run by Bruton Olin Smith and his kin. Among notable SMS holdings, you’ll find the Charlotte Motor Speedway (ladies and gentleman, Lowe’s and Slim have left the building and were last seen headed west in a Greyhound), as well as Bristol, Atlanta, Texas, Sonoma, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Las Vegas. The only NASCAR tracks on the schedule not owned by the ISC or SMS are Dover, Pocono and Indianapolis (which incidentally was sold to Cup team owner Roger Penske during the off-season; lots of rich old guys spent a whole lot of money this off-season). Last year SMS was sold to Sonic Financial, which, surprise, is and has been largely owned by Bruton Smith and his clan.
The twin sales and acquisitions will (at least people hope) keep there from being nasty “conflict of interest” lawsuits when NASCAR starts making expected wholesale changes to the Cup schedule to be announced this year in early April, ahead of the 2021 season. Fans who were around back when Smith (behind the shadowy Francis Ferko) waged war on NASCAR to get a second Cup date for his track in Texas recall the last time the Cup schedule received a significant overhaul, the biggest beneficiaries were two very wealthy families (the Frances and the Smiths), and the primary victims were North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and Darlington. And in turn, the collateral damage done was to fans of the sport, because the racing tended to be pretty good at North Wilkes, the Rock and Darlington, even as badly as NASCAR tried to screw things up over the years with stuff like the infamously ineffective “5 and 5” spoiler package.
Another trick to the fixing game is learning when to cease trying and cut your losses to fix something. You might rebuild the drive train and put a spiffy new interior in that old Chevy, but if the frame is rotten, your efforts were in vain. One change fans will notice in next weekend’s 500 is that the lengths of the three stages have been altered. For this year’s race, the first two stages will be 65 laps apiece while the third and final stage will be 70 laps. NASCAR officials actually have significantly altered the stage lengths in most Cup races this season. Well, hopefully it kept them contentedly busy during whatever winter weather managed to make it to Florida this off-season. But overall, it was a waste of time and effort.
Here’s the problem with altering the length of stages in races. The correct answer to fixing the problem was to do away with the stages altogether. Stage racing ruins the purity and strategy of stock car racing. The (remaining) fans by and large dislike (to put it politely) stage racing. The only folks I know who even tolerate stage racing are those who carry the cross of ADD and those with exceptionally weak bladders. You know how you can tell the first stage of a stock car race has just ended? All across the suburban southland, you’ll hear thousands of lawnmowers fire to life simultaneously. Oh, maybe those fans planned on returning to the race broadcast after they finished their landscaping chores, but most of them won’t. Some will grab a fresh beer and poke their head back into the rumpus room for the final 10 minutes of the race. And it’s hard to blame them. That’s the most interesting part of most contemporary stock car races.
Announced at the same time as the stage length changes was a procedural rule that is different than it has been with regards to rain at the racetrack. The rules in effect last year said in the event of rain during a race, the leaders must have completed the advertised distance for Stage 2 for the race to be declared official. This year, the minimum distance for a race to be declared official is the halfway point. Lo and behold, that had already been the rule for decades, dating back to when Noah was NASCAR’s chief meteorologist. One of the most essential rules of fixing stuff that often escapes budding young mechanics is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you’re working on a car that’s running very well, the temptation is to try to make it run better. Maybe you want to eliminate a “funny noise.” It’s a fool’s errand. Most of the time while seeking perfection, you’ll break something you can’t afford to replace and wouldn’t have time to fix even if you could afford it.
How bizarre are the new stage lengths? This year, both Cup races at Pocono will be run on the same weekend. One race will be run Saturday and the other on Sunday. It brings up Groundhog Day comparisons, doesn’t it? And here’s the weird part. After careful consideration, the folks who changed the stage lengths at Pocono decided on completely different stages for the two races. (They are 25 laps, 52 laps and 53 laps on Saturday and 30 laps, 55 laps and 55 laps on Sunday.) Are tickets to Saturday’s race cheaper because the event is 25 miles shorter? After a quick review, I believe every other track that hosts two races of the same length uses the same segment lengths for both. But let me offer this disclaimer: While I need the four letters that make up “math” in that order to spell my first name, I’ve never been any damn good at it.
So fans will have to wait a bit longer for wholesale changes to the schedule. Hopefully you weren’t expecting to see the “Next Gen” cars that have started testing at various tracks already next week at Daytona. They don’t arrive until 2021. Nor you should expect to see any new car manufacturers at Daytona next weekend despite NASCAR hinting one new car maker, perhaps two and potentially three could join the sport … repeat after me … next year. This is worrisome to someone whose education in fixing stiff has had some hard lessons learned. You pop the hood. You see coolant spraying out of a radiator hose. One possible fix is to grab a handy roll of duck tape (no mallards are injured in the production of duck tape) and wrap it around the hose. It’s a potential fix but not a good one. Dimes to doughnuts one evening that week while commuting home from work on a crummy, rainy, chilly evening, that compromised hose will go Hiroshima on you. Potentially that could cause your head gasket(s) to fail, which could potentially cost you an engine. The lesson here is that $10-20 spent in a timely manner to do a repair properly (i.e., replace the hose at the first hint of a leak) could save you hundreds of dollars. “I’ll fix that next week if I have time” is the motto of impromptu pedestrians everywhere.
One reason given for no new car manufacturers rushing in to join the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” fray is those “stock” cars have no relevance to what’s sitting out there on dealer lots unsold, waiting for rebates to finally move off the lot. V8s have been a staple in NASCAR racing since back when David Pearson got carded while trying to buy a six-pack of Bud. NASCAR has strongly hinted that the new engines will likely be V6s with some sort of hybrid electrical motor, making a token effort to propel the cars forward. With hybrids more and more of a factor in the vehicle population, this is seen as a way to keep NASCAR relevant. To give you an idea, the new Ford Escape not only doesn’t have a V6 option anymore, but you can get one with a three-cylinder turbo and battery assist. You can get one like that. I’m not going to. Pop the hood of my new (to me) Jeep and you’ll find a proper V8 that includes the word “Hemi” down both valve covers. To date I haven’t seen any penguins suffering from sunstroke in my neck of the woods but if I do, I promise I’ll stop, hop out and buy them some cold beers.
NASCAR has experimented with six-cylinder engines previously. They were used in the Busch Series for a few years. The fans absolutely hated the sound of those engines, which sounded like a wasp crazed on methamphetamine being broadcast through Thin Lizzie’s amps. When attempting to fix things, one is well advised to recall past solutions that didn’t work.
One exciting change to the Cup cars (exciting at least to someone who slaved as a store manager for a tire chain for more years than I care to admit) is the new low-profile tires they’ll be running … wait for it … next year. Currently, NASCAR runs 15-inch wheels and tires. 15-inch wheels date back to an era where you might expect to find an 8-track player/AM radio monaural combo with ELO’s Greatest Hits in the dash of a Monte Carlo you’re looking at. Even my SUV has 18-inch rims. Larger diameter rims also lend themselves to lower profile tires. Lower profile tires mean the height of the tire sidewall (from the ground to the rim to simplify the explanation … or the part you’d expect your psycho ex-girlfriend to stick a switchblade into) compared to the width of the tire. Not to belabor things, but a 225 70 series or profile 15-inch tire would be the same width as, but taller than, a 225 60 series 15-inch tire. The lower sidewall means there is less flex in the sidewall when you make a turn. Some will tell you lower-profile tires ride harsher than higher-profiles, but are you at the wheel to get somewhere fast, or hoping to pilot a road sofa to the Old Country Buffet for seniors’ early bird dinner?
The current NASCAR Cup tires are roughly equivalent to a 275/60/15. You would have seen that size tire stuffed in the rear wheel wells of any number of Mach Ones, GTOs and Road Runners back when I was in high school, and then heard them being incinerated by those cars leaving traffic lights. We called them “war-booties” back then, when they were sold as L60x15s. Hey, rock stations played John Denver back then.
I’m told that tentatively, the new Cup tire size will be 335/35/18. And to an extent that sounds promising, though I’m glad I won’t be paying the tire bills for a Cup team next year. But once again, the savvy fixer relies on a memory like a damned elephant to recall things from way back when. Stock car racing actually started going downhill back when NASCAR decided to replace bias-ply tires with radials. I’m not going to explain the difference between the two here. Put simply, radial tires had higher cornering speeds, but when they lost grip they did so with little warning, whereas bias-ply tires let you know in advance they were nearing their limits. Back off the gas a bit, on the street or the racetrack, and the bias-ply tires would regain their grip. Oh, and there was a great deal of difference between the sounds bias-ply tires and radials made when driven in anger. Think of the difference between Grace Slick (no pun intended) and Taylor Swift.
The more predictable nature of the bias-ply tires allowed the skilled driver to “save tires” to a much greater extent than the current radials do. They were much more predictable and a lesser skilled driver would burn soon burn the Good off his Goodyears. That made for more drivers falling back in the pack while the savvier drivers who hadn’t yet licked all the red off their candy (as per Buddy Baker) advanced. More passing? More strategy? More drivers running things right to but not over the edge of the abyss? Sign me up, Mr. Sulu. And please delete all files from the 2020 Busch Clash from the databanks. 18 of “the best drivers in the world” and they put on an exhibition race that resembled a Friday night Hobby Stock consi at a quarter-mile bullring. Go figure.
As for fixing the rest of what ails NASCAR racing these days, I’m fixing to sit on back and let the sanctioning body tend to what ails them. I’m anxious to see what they come up with … more than likely next year.
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