(Photo: Christian Koelle)

Beside The Rising Tide: 2020 NASCAR Changes in Latitude

For the last couple weeks, we’ve been discussing changes that lay ahead in NASCAR in this space. In most cases, those modifications won’t take place until 2021. (The new cars, the new tires, the new schedule, etc.). But there, in fact, are some notable adjustments to this year’s 2020 schedule, including at least one high-profile experiment I’m guessing isn’t going to work very well.

And we got some hints during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway about potential changes that were in the works. It seemed a routine announcement when NASCAR and the track said they were selling tickets to the 2021 Daytona 500 over a week prior to this year’s running of the event. Some folks noted that the date of next year’s 500 is February 14, 2021: Valentine’s Day.

NASCAR learned the hard way about racing on Mother’s Day after the 1986 Winston at Atlanta. Bill Elliott won the event and he was, in fact, the perpetual Most Popular Driver but the blue collar fan base of NASCAR loves their mamas even more than Awesome Bill. No, I’m not suggesting that Valentine’s Day be made off limits as a race date. But if you look at the sports calendar for 2021, you’ll find the Big Kahuna of sports television, the Super Bowl, scheduled for February 7, 2021 in Tampa.

As of late, NASCAR has scheduled the Daytona 500 to take place two weeks after the Super Bowl. They use the off-weekend in between for stuff like Daytona 500 qualifying and the Busch Clash. And it gives retailers an extra week to stock back up on guacamole, six packs, and Cheesy Poofs.

There’s no reason that the Clash couldn’t be run on the Saturday prior to the Daytona 500 … or the Saturday prior to the Super Bowl, for that matter. The latter alternative would be high risk given possible weather delays. And when NASCAR ventures where Angels Fear to Tread, they typically make a halo of a mess of things. It wouldn’t be ideal for TV ratings but qualifying and the Clash could be held during the week between the two events as well.

Streamlining the qualifying process for the 500 back down to typical race weekend procedures would save a lot of time. No more Twin 150s to work into a crowded week, right?

Or could it be that after the unseemly farce that was this year’s Clash (with five cars finishing on the lead lap) NASCAR has decided to leave the comedy to the Three Stooges and just ashcan the Clash all together. No one knows for sure yet, but it bears watching. So if you’re determined you’re going to see next year’s Clash, don’t book a motel room for February 7. Oh, and interestingly enough while you can buy a ticket to the 2021 Daytona 500 now. you can’t buy a ticket to the 2021 Clash yet. Things that make you go hmm….

Reports have also surfaced NASCAR would be interested in spicing up the schedule by adding a few “street races.” Now, when guys of my generation hear the term “street race” what comes immediately to mind is a pair of big cubic inch muscle cars lined up beside each other on Front Street in south Philly waiting for the starter to drop his arms as a signal to go. First one to the so-called finish line wins. Don’t laugh; you can make good money doing that. I didn’t have a job my last two years of college thanks to a sneaky fast Buick with a blue bottle in the trunk.

But the sort of “street race” NASCAR envisions is more likely held in a parking lot or on city streets in other places. Perhaps the most famous “street race” run annually is the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco or their Australian Grand Prix. The American open-wheel types have been racing in the streets in Long Beach, California, in the shadows of the Queen Mary since 1975 and it remains a highly popular event. Way back when, the United States Grand Prix was even held in a casino parking lot in Las Vegas.

Monaco, it was not.

There are challenges to laying out a good street circuit. There’s stuff like telephone poles, trees, manholes, traffic triangles and buildings that you really wouldn’t want adjacent to a racetrack if you were building one from scratch. It can be a bit difficult for spectators, too, as it seems all the best places to watch the race are off limits as too dangerous. Doubtless, it would be an anathema to NASCAR that no matter how hard they tried, some folks would get away with watching their race for free. If your condo just happens to have a good view of part of the course, they can’t paint your windows black, right? (I don’t think they can, anyway.)

In deference to both problems, sometimes the “street race” takes place partially within a stadium. You need a ticket to enter and fans can be positioned safely away from the action. I believe they have this sort of setup for the Mexican Grand Prix, or if they don’t now, they used to. A combination of a stadium, its surrounding parking lots and public streets is the most likely scenario.

Such a venture would not be without risks. Non-race fans whose downtowns were basically taken over for a weekend are likely to scream loud and long to the nearest pod of TV lawyers when they learn public roads will be closed. They won’t be allowed to park where they normally do or visit their favorite bistro, restaurant or tap room for 48 hours. And then… there’s the noise. The noise, the noise, the noise. More than anything else, those grinchy non-race fans hate the noise.

A NASCAR “street race” is an interesting concept, but I doubt it’s something they could put together in time for next year. I’d also wager that one or more of the first such projects undertaken would fail, just like a proposed open-wheel race in Boston did in the last couple of years. Sometimes, local politicians just decide the heated blowback they’ll get from some quarters just isn’t worth the bribes they’ve been offered.

I would insist that if, somehow, a NASCAR “street race” does come to be, the broadcast of that race must open with Bruce Springsteen’s Racing in the Streets. It should be allowed to play its full six minutes and 54 second album version duration before anybody says anything stupid or tried to sell anything.

Before it rained Sunday, the fact the second race of the year had moved to Las Vegas Motor Speedway wasn’t any big deal.  Over the last five years, NASCAR’s second race weekend has been held at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Five years isn’t enough time for an event to become a tradition or even one of Mike Helton’s infamous and oxymoronic “modernized traditions.” (Yep, that’s a direct quote from big Mike and, to his credit, he even kept a pretty much straight face even while those in the audience gasped at his audacity. “New antiques made daily.”) Some frazzled truck driver facing several days of doctored logbooks, gallons of Red Bull and some very long stints down the interstates will likely wish the next race was still at Atlanta.

That’s because even after the rain delay this year, the second race will be in Las Vegas. Vegas is, of course, well known for its battalions of Elvis impersonators. Perhaps some of this year’s bumper crop of talented Cup rookies will become Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough impersonators in the future but that might be wishful thinking on my part. They don’t have to look like them. They just need to race like the drivers of yore, back when how you finished in a race made the difference as to whether you could put food on the table that week. Too often these days, they’re racing for how big a down payment you can put on a condo in Cabo….

After Vegas, the circuit heads off to Fontana, followed by Phoenix. I suppose the presenting network will come up with some semi-clever nickname for the triumvirate of west coast races like the “Trek West” or perhaps “Steve Phelps Last Stand.” Something cute intended to sell T-shirts and diecast replica cars. That would be a fool’s errand in that practically no one buys NASCAR related T-shirts anymore. (They cost more than a tuxedo in some instances and the diecast car industry has gone Edsel on us.)

Poor Fontana. I know of nobody who likes the track. Many fans passionately dislike it. It’s not the track’s fault that NASCAR and the ISC stripped Darlington of its traditional Labor Day weekend race date and the Southern 500 as part of NASCAR’s “Modernizing Tradition” boondoggle. As they sowed, so they now continue to reap, even though Darlington’s Labor Day date was restored. I’d argue the “Throwback” Southern 500 is now the most popular event on the schedule. Who’d have thunk, huh?

Fontana is perhaps best recalled for a remark by then track manager Gillian Zucker (let the record reflect that O. Bruton Smith did in fact once refer to her as “a skirt”). Asked about the abundance of empty seats at the track that day, a rarity at any track hosting a NASCAR race in that era, Ms. Zucker hypothesized that perhaps those missing fans were all under the grandstands doing a little shopping. Because who doesn’t lay out a hundred bucks for a race ticket to go shopping under the grandstands during the race?

It was such an outrageous comment that Big Mike his very own self blew a little snot out of each nostril guffawing behind her back. But back in those early days Fontana did, in fact, have misting stations for fans to beat the notorious SoCal heat. ‘Cause brother, if I’m going to a stock car race, I’m going to do me some misting, and I hope like hell I dry off in time to do my shopping beneath the grandstands. When’s the last time you were last offered a good misting at a stock car race? Have we devolved this far into barbarity?

The fifth race of the season sees the circuit return to Atlanta. Naturally, it’s hoped the race being ran almost a month later than its modernized traditional date will allow for warmer and drier conditions. It can rain at any racetrack and it has done so many times at Atlanta over the years. But AMS is the only racetrack I’ve ever been to that had over a foot of snow on the ground on race weekend, as happened back in 1993. NASCAR, being a bit short on snowplows, and the fans and drivers, being a bit short on patience, the whole thing was rescheduled.

For years, Atlanta had hosted the season finale Cup race. At that time it had a unique track layout, a 1.5-mile true oval with equal length front and back straights matched with mirror image corners. But Bruton Smith went ahead and dug the track up, turning it into another 1.5-mile quad-oval like so many other tracks on the schedule. Let’s just say I liked it better in the snow.

Those longing for a little short track action at Martinsville after Atlanta will be disappointed to learn that the track’s first date has been pushed back until May. But they may be intrigued to learn the Cup cars will run under the lights at Martinsville on a Saturday night for the first time.

Instead, some of you may be surprised to learn that the sixth race of the year will be run down in south Florida. The Homestead-Miami Speedway has always been star-crossed. The track was, in fact, born of a crossfire hurricane. Hurricane Andrew laid waste to an air force base near the track’s current location. The military opted not to rebuild the base and a fellow by the name of Ralph Sanchez came up with the idea of building a racetrack in that neck of the woods to stimulate the local tourism industry. He got “gubmint” types – local, state and federal – to help fund his dream track.

But he ran into an unexpected problem. The name “Sanchez” doesn’t mean “France” in Spanish and someone other than the Frances was trying to make money off NASCAR racing right in their backyard in Florida, no less. The investors were told the track was too small and there was no room for another date on the schedule, anyway. But, lo and behold, when the track was sold to the ISC they found a way to award HMS a Cup date after all. (Remember what I said about the incestuous relationship between NASCAR, ISC and conflicts of interest?) Not only did Homestead get a race date, they got the season finale for the top three touring series every year from 1999 right through last year.

Texas, Bristol and Richmond remain the next three races on the schedule with a week off between Bristol and Richmond to celebrate Easter. Next, they’ll run at Talladega and Dover before that Cup series debut at Martinsville under the lights. It’s worth noting that the only short track date in the first 11 races of the season is Bristol.

But not so quick there, my pretties. NASCAR has gotten hip to the fact that fans want, neigh demand, more short track racing. Given that building new racetracks is an expensive and time-consuming business, and that moving a date to a non-ISC owned track might allow some US currency to escape the vice-like grip of the France family, NASCAR came up with a novel solution. Going forward, any track of a length of less than 1.2 miles will be called a short track. Yep, Dover is a now a short track. As is Phoenix. Four more “short track” races added to the schedule without a spade full of dirt having to be turned. You can’t help but admire the audacity of the powers that be even while reeling from the depths of their mendacity.

This year’s Weird Science experiment in auto racing takes place at Pocono in late June where the track will host two points-paying Cup dates in the same weekend. While the races at Pocono were once 500 miles in length, they were shortened years ago to 400. This year, the events include the “Kids Free 325” and the “Worry Free Weather Guarantee 350”. Neither name strikes me as pure marketing brilliance.

I’m also worried that the “one weekend, two races” (more if you count the support races) concept will fly. Pocono is one of my two home tracks. (Dover is closer on a map but it takes less time to drive to Pocono under normal circumstances.) Among my friends who are/were stock car racing fans (and that number is down rather dramatically over the last 15 years) most of them had to choose between attending the June race or the July race. There just wasn’t enough money in the family budget to do both, not even with a month to save between the two races. With the races now on consecutive days, that’s a deal breaker. My guess is this experiment won’t work out for fans and Pocono will lose one if not both its dates in 2021.

On the other hand, the twin weekend ought to work out great for the TV types. They can roll their satellite trucks, talent and production types once and get two races worth of coverage for very little additional cash outlay. So things get better for the TV networks and worse for the fans. That’s about par for the course. The ultimate nightmare scenario is rain rolls into the area of the track Friday and doesn’t move until the middle of the following week. Trust me. I’ve lived in this area and loved it most of my life and the weather can be a SOB. I think this year to date, we’ve had four entire days without measurable rainfall. At least you don’t have to shovel rain.

So why is this radical experiment taking place? NBC is hosting coverage of the 2020 Summer Olympics. They want two entire weeks in August to bang that drum as loud and long as they can to whip all of you up into the frantic throes of quasi-patriotic ecstasy that’ll have you playing the Star Spangled Banner on a kazoo during Sunday services beating your foot in time. Trust me, you’ll not be able to escape the fact that Peacock network and its progeny have exclusive broadcast rights to this summer’s Olympics. In fact, you’ll likely be sick of the ads stating that’s the case a month before the event. I already am.

Casual race fans can expect to have another curveball thrown at them once the circuit shuffles or swims its way out of Mount Pocono. For times immemorial, the Fourth of July weekend has meant the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. Oh, NASCAR has monkeyed it with a bit, moving the date from the Fourth of July itself to the Sunday evening of Independence Day weekends. (Surprise. The TV types preferred that.) They moved the green flag for the race from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then to 7 p.m. (Ditto).

As it turns out, it rains a lot during summer evenings in Daytona. (And in February, it would seem.) The TV types weren’t so fond of that. But this year, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (with Roger Penske’s painted name still drying on the CEO’s door) will host a Cup race on July 5. Indianapolis is kind of a problem child when it comes to stock car racing. There was a huge amount of hoopla when it was announced that the NASCAR stock cars were invading Indy for the inaugural Brickyard 400. There was also a huge amount of resentment among open-wheel racing fans that the “Taxi-cabs” were invading their hallowed turf too. By and large, stock car racing at the Brickyard varied between mediocre and abysmal.

That was, up until the tire disaster of 2008. For those newer to sports, a combination of NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow (AKA, the Car of Horror), the track surface at Indy and the tires that our pals at Goodyear brought along proved to be a bad match. New tires would last about 10 laps before failing spectacularly.

NASCAR kept throwing cautions to allow the race to continue, but it was an utter and complete farce that can’t be referred to as a race even now, 12 years after the fact. Fans had hoped the race would be red-flagged and rescheduled once the tire issues were corrected. Lacking that, many of them demanded a refund… but no refunds were forthcoming. If you ask me to put a date on when NASCAR’s once meteoric popularity went into a downward death spiral we’re still trying to pull out of today, I’ll go with July, 27, 2008 and NASCAR’s Fort Sumter was in Indianapolis.

One of the reasons NASCAR types give for the radical move is hope the weather will be a bit cooler, dryer and less humid at Indianapolis in early July for a race that will doubtless be called the “Corn as High as an Elephant’s Eye By the Fourth of July 400” if the Pocono marketing types get to name it. Well, Indianapolis is actually quite warm and sometimes humid in July. I know. I spent a week there one night back in July 2012. At least Daytona’s July date, while rainy, is typically spared the threat of actual tornadoes during the summer. Can we say the same about Indiana?

So what happens to the Firecracker 400? The presumably renamed race moves to August 29. For those keeping score at home, that lands the Daytona 400-miler right smack into the heart of Hurricane season on the east coast. Given its new date, the August race at Daytona will also be the final race of the 2020 “regular season” helping to determine which 16 drivers will compete in this year’s playoffs. I’m sorry, but letting a plate race (or perhaps more properly now, a tapered spacer race) select who goes into the postseason is like holding a children’s birthday party game of musical chairs at the precipice of the Grand Canyon. At Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, a driver’s results depend to a large degree on other drivers’ actions and fate itself.

Mercifully, the following week’s race is the annual Labor Day weekend hootenanny at Darlington, the Southern 500. Long may it keep on rocking right where it belongs after NASCAR found out the hard way. For the first time ever, Darlington will serve as the first race of the round of 16, followed by Richmond and Bristol. Two short track (real ones) races in a round is OK in my book, though perhaps I’d have reversed Richmond and Bristol’s positions. Richmond is a true driver’s track. Bristol can still be a bit of a crapshoot, though the latest track reconfiguration has gelded the beast to an extent.

The Round Las Vegas kicks off the Round of 12 this year, which is neither here nor there to me. I’ll just be counting on a good afternoon nap this upcoming September 27. The second race of the second round this year is at Talladega. A tapered spacer race in the playoffs still? It remains a bad idea.

The round of 12 concludes at Charlotte, but not on the oval course. I hate the term “Roval” but we seem pretty much stuck with it now. As the newest track on the Cup schedule, the Charlotte road course is still an unknown. It could produce a great race or it could degenerate into a complete farce in the blink of an eye. Everyone liked last year’s Roval race because Chase Elliott won it; most people liked the 2018 edition because Kyle Busch didn’t win it. We’ll have to wait and see how the third race goes and what implications it has down the line.

The next round kicks off at two McTracks, Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. Then, Martinsville will decide the final four drivers eligible to compete for this year’s title. Yep, there’s plenty of potential for fireworks there, some badly-frayed tempers, pushing, shoving, name-calling, punches thrown, and alliances torn forever asunder. And that’s just at Martinsville after the race on Sunday. But likely the garage area after the race is going to look like a Smurf’s picnic compared to the reaction to the elections held on Tuesday – two days later.

Given that the fire departments have doused the fires, the police have rounded up all the looters, the ban on highway travel by private citizens has been lifted and there are no pistol duels being held on Pennsylvania Avenue on NBC, the following weekend the season crowns a champion on November 8 at Phoenix. Most of you know where I stand on any track hosting two Cup dates annually. No track over a mile needs two Cup dates every year and Phoenix needs two dates less than most of the rest of them.

But with 2020 behind us, NASCAR’s 2021 Magical Mystery Tour with a new car, new tires, new engines and a totally overhauled new schedule will have sprung itself from a blank piece of paper.

There’s an old saying usually ascribed to either the Chinese or the Arabs that goes; “May you always live in interesting times.” At first it might sound like a blessing, but reflect on it and the statement is a curse.

Buckle up, campers. The horses are out of the gate. The next two years in NASCAR may amount to very interesting times, indeed.

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Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    Nice read Matt.
    I still think that the 2021 changes are going to be underwhelming compared to what most of us are expecting/hoping for.

    I agree that the Indy race with the tire issues was the proverbial “high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” (thanks Hunter). However the similar tire issues at Charlotte a few years earlier after the track was levigated could also be cited as that high-water mark. Likewise the COT, Chase and dissing the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Man, looking at all the bad decisions NASCAR has made, how can we not be where we are today? Talk about making your own bed.

  2. Avatar

    The radical change in Nascar and the schedule would be if the France didn’t want to pocket all the money.

    You alluded to it Matt when you said the France family keeps a tight two fisted grip on the money. They have made the most money the last few years from the TV contracts. The only way Nascar/France makes all that money is because they own the tracks and control the sport.
    I have wondered this for a long time, why do people think that 2021 the schedule will have a radical change. The France family didn’t get where they are by being stupid, doing stupid things yes. Anyway they are not going to gives races to tracks they don’t own or control. They would lose 65% of the TV revenue per race.

    Also remember when all the teams complained that Talladega was a playoff round cutoff race. They all said that Talladega being to much of a crap shoot wasn’t fair. The teams needed a race to recover from whatever happened at Talladega. Now the teams are all OK with another plate race having an even more dramatic affect on their seasons. Because we all know the 10 race playoffs is all that matters now in Nascar. Don’t make the playoffs and your car and most importantly, your sponsor is never seen again. At least for the rest of the season, and maybe forever.

    • Avatar

      FYI, the last few years there has been very little drama as to who will make the chase the last race of the regular season. At best there are usually 2 drivers battling for the last spot (and maybe 2 more with a mathematical chance) with everyone else locked in. I fear there is a higher probability that it will force those two drivers to ride at the back the entire day to avoid The Big One, which will remove what little drama there is regarding who will make the chase.

      • Avatar

        Only time there is drama is if someone can be eliminated by another driver outside winning. But since so many drivers are allowed in, it almost takes a Cinderella story (oh Daytona) to accomplish this.

        As for TV contract revenue, that is how all major sports make their money. Ticket and stadium sales are a very minor portion of their income.

  3. Avatar

    i’ve seen undecaled haulers heading west on i20 for about a week now. can tell they’re call haulers by the lights and type of rig they are.

    ams being 2nd race of season, we’ve had 6″ of rain for the first 17 days of february. rain again all week, and typically raining on one of the weekend days. so i’m glad they’ve headed west.

    starting that race at 3 was crazy. if they had done 12:30 they would had been halfway by time rains came in full downpour. knew they wouldn’t try to get in last night as fox had 2 new tv shows after 8 pm.

    hopefully the afternoon rains in florida will stay away today with 4 pm start time. not like fox carries important daytime tv.

  4. Avatar

    I got home from a birthday party just in time to see the start of the 500 and then it began to rain. As Janice pointed out, if they started the race earlier (gee maybe 1 p.m. like they used to), they’d have been a ways into the race before it rained, but nope, NASCAR let’s TV and $$ drive all the decisions so dumb stuff continues to happen.

    Interesting read about the potential changes. I don’t tune in to watch every race as I used to. I simply don’t care enough to spend my weekends like that these days. I tend to tune into the short tracks.

  5. Avatar

    Suppose if they were serious about a street race they could lose a snoozer at MIS & trade it for a Detroit Grand Prix event. Though I share the cynicism of most when it comes to nascar…

  6. Avatar

    I still consider that day in 2003 when the phrase Modernizing Tradition became a thing as the Fort Sumter moment.
    They could have moved it to Texas or Phoenix or any other track with only one date at the time and it would have been even slightly more tolerable. Culturally Southern California couldn’t have been more opposite to South Carolina. It was the day a giant middle finger was given to the heritage of the sport.
    The whole deal stunk because at the time, Brian France was linked to a group trying to get an NFL expansion team to Los Angeles and coincidentally of course that market received a prime race date.

  7. Avatar

    Lets hope 2021 eliminates Dover and Pocono.

    Boring Venues deserve no races.

    • Avatar

      You need to go to racing reference. com and learn the history of Pocono. The racing was great back in the day. The only that has changed to make the track a snoozer is the cars.
      Pocono should be a lesson for all of Nascar. It’s the cars.

    • Avatar

      Keep one race at Pocono. Variety is a good thing and the problem with NASCAR is the fact that they went to manipulated drama (Lucky Dogs, Overtime Finishes, Stage Racing-although I could like Stage Racing if the caution flag wasn’t thrown or if they used a “quickie caution and Wave Arounds). A 500 miler used to be entertaining at Pocono when parts failed and mistakes or a wrong turn on the track bar could cost you a lap that you may never get back. The entire race was the drama, because the entire race mattered and those two or three or eight or ten lead lap cars earned their finishing position for the day. Nowadays, a late spin can relegate you from a top 5 to outside the Top 20, because the cars that you outran all day, are given the Socialistic, everyone has to finish on the lead lap treatment.

      Two races at Dover, but give the Monster back it’s teeth of attrition.

      Caving to the supposed wants on the casual fan who can’t tolerate a “boring race” have been the true downward spiral.

  8. Avatar

    Excellent. I’ve always thought of Mike Helton as the creepy man who stalks folks.