Just as NASCAR’s 2020 season was getting underway, the engines fell silent this weekend. In the midst of a global health crisis caused by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus, NASCAR postponed all national series races scheduled at Atlanta Motor Speedway for March 13-15. Next week’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway have also been put on hold.
While it was disappointing to have a weekend without racing so soon after the offseason concluded, postponing the races was the right call. The health and safety of NASCAR’s fans and competitors should be at the forefront, especially with so much uncertainty about how the virus will impact the United States in the coming weeks.
One thing NASCAR can do in the meantime is work with its broadcast partners to fill the time blocks set aside for the postponed races. With all the other major sports having halted play as well, it would be to NASCAR’s and FOX’s benefit to have some racing-related programming set up, beginning next weekend. If more time passes with NASCAR unable to run new events, the sanctioning body would be well served to look into broadcasting old races. Showing classic races on TV, especially in their entirety, would fill the programming gaps and keep fans engaged until racing could resume.
The best model to follow would be that of the old ESPN Classic races. Decades ago, when ESPN was one of NASCAR’s major broadcast partners, it was common to find old NASCAR events being aired on ESPN Classic leading up to race weekends. Usually, the featured race would be at the same track as the upcoming weekend’s race venue. There were even versions of classic races interlaced with clips, segments where broadcasters and competitors would meet in the ESPN studio and describe their memories of the race. The only real shortcoming was that ESPN usually had to fit these classics into a timeslot of two hours or less. Squeezing the content meant that parts of most races would be edited out.
FOX, who has no such time restrictions, could use this weekend to show a classic race in its entirety without editing anything out. Both FOX and NBC have dabbled with creating these types of race reviews in the past, but neither has made a concerted effort to have a collection of classic race programming in the mold of ESPN. It would be the perfect opportunity for NASCAR and FOX to try out the unedited classic race format.
Let’s use this coming weekend’s time slots set aside for the Homestead-Miami Speedway races as an example. In place of the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race, why not show the season finale race from 2003? That event featured a thrilling fight for the win and one of the most legendary, if controversial, championship battles in series history. Heading into the race, Brendan Gaughan, Ted Musgrave, Travis Kvapil and Dennis Setzer all had a mathematical chance to win the championship. Gaughan was the points leader and title favorite heading into the race. But on lap 101, he got taken out of contention in a crash triggered by a part-time driver racing for Jim Smith, Musgrave’s team owner. The disappointing result led to Gaughan’s infamous declaration that “Jimmy Smith can kiss my ass.”
With Gaughan out of the picture, the championship battle came down to a final late-race restart. Looking to gain an advantage on his rivals, Musgrave jumped out of line to pass Setzer prior to crossing the start/finish line and taking the green flag. NASCAR deemed that maneuver to be against the restart rules of the time and black-flagged Musgrave, allowing Kvapil to take home the championship. Meanwhile, in the race itself, Bobby Hamilton prevailed in a tight battle with Rick Crawford that went all the down to the last lap. Who wouldn’t want to see that race again (other than Gaughan, Musgrave and Smith)?
For the other two series, FOX and NASCAR may have to get creative. Since FOX has never broadcasted a Cup Series race at Homestead, there is no past footage of racing at that track from which to draw. Therefore, why not pick a classic race at another track for which FOX does have footage, like Rockingham Speedway? The 2004 race, the last Cup Series event held at the Rock, would be a great choice. In typical Rockingham fashion, that race event was tough on both man and machine, including Carl Long’s flip down the backstretch. But the most famous moment of the day was the battle among Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray for the race win. Kenseth wound up edging Kahne at the finish line by .010 seconds.
Having some classic race programming would serve NASCAR and its broadcast partners well even after the coronavirus crisis abates. NASCAR has already a collection of 37 full race replays on its official Youtube channel (with Youtube itself being another excellent resource for classic races). NASCAR could grow this collection by creating new classic race reviews, broadcasting them on FOX or NBC, and adding the programs to Youtube at a later date. The Youtube versions could even be uploaded with mini-documentaries similar to the short films that NASCAR’s broadcast partners have created in recent years. Not to mention that NASCAR would have a whole new arsenal of programming available the next time a race gets delayed by rain. After all, rain delay interviews with drivers are only entertaining for so long.
If the 2020 season stays on hold for a long time, NASCAR should look to its past to sustain its present. Broadcasting classic races would be a wonderful way to educate newer fans about the history of the sport, allow older fans to relive some fun memories, and give folks stuck at home something entertaining to watch. Until the coronavirus crisis passes, NASCAR and FOX have a great opportunity to explore making what is old new again.