Last week, in a rare two-part column, we looked at the changes to the Cup schedule that lie ahead in 2021. Arguably the most notable “readjustments” to that schedule were the tracks at Kentucky and Chicagoland losing their sole Cup dates.
While snagging a Cup date (which was notoriously difficult to do) once was all but a license to print money year after year, as Todd Rundgren used to sing, “those days are through.” In fact, if you take NASCAR at their word, there will likely be more tracks eliminated from the schedule in the next couple years if things don’t change dramatically – and soon.
It is tough to keep up with all the changes on the horizon in NASCAR racing. The new cars originally slated to debut next year fell victim to the pandemic and were pushed off until 2022. Oddly enough, the new engines set to debut in those Cup cars were apparently pushed off an additional year to 2023. NASCAR had hoped to attract other automobile manufacturers to join the fray in the Cup Series by making their new power plants more relevant to what’s being offered in car showrooms globally (think smaller displacement, turbocharged engines supplemented by some sort of hybrid electrical power augmentation). One of the carmakers NASCAR had keenly in their sights was Honda. Over the past couple weeks, Honda responded with a polite but firm “thanks but no thanks.” In fact, the company also announced they were leaving Formula 1 racing as well. Their sports car racing program has been dramatically scaled back as well. Honda no longer sees auto racing as relevant moving forward.
I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Honda. Perhaps the first great romance of my life involved a gray Honda XR75, which I raced with some success and rode so constantly my parents all but had to turn a garden hose on me to get me off it at bedtime. As I grew bigger, if not wiser or older, I continued to ride and race Hondas, which in that era were marketed as Elsinores. Yeah, the guys as the parts counter at the local Honda dealer all knew me by name.
Despite that, though I have owned too many cars to list here (sometimes five or six at a time), I’ve never owned a Honda automobile. I’ve always considered the Accord a transportation module for people who aren’t car guys or girls. Sure, they’re dead nuts reliable and cheap to operate, but Accords are so lacking in soul that one can imagine each one undergoing an exorcism before it’s shipped to a dealer.
As far as I’m concerned, NASCAR would do well just to get Dodge (OK, FCA) back into the fold. Dodge’s marketing of their vehicles largely centers on performance, so their choice not to participate in NASCAR racing is a curious one.
But we’re so off the trail a pack of bloodhounds couldn’t find us given a month of Mondays. What future changes and lost Cup dates was I talking about back when this cup of coffee was hot? Which track is next on the chopping block? Any of them are candidates if you go just by statements NASCAR made earlier this year back when adults only wore masks on Halloween.
NASCAR put all the tracks on the schedule on notice that if they could not reliably sell 70% of their “saleable” seats annually, they would be dropped from the schedule.
It’s a matter of optics I suppose. While there are (were) a whole lot of fans on hand at the Brickyard 400, given the vastness of the facility, the resulting huge swathes of empty seats made it look like a ghost town that hosted its annual spring carnival without announcing the dates.
All those empty seats (and they weren’t just in Indy) make people tuning in to watch races think that NASCAR racing isn’t very popular anymore and may in fact be joining the long list of well-intended competitors to the NFL that quickly died on the vine.
The TV folks aren’t happy about this state of affairs. They are after all paying vast (some might argue “insane”) amounts of money for broadcast rights. If part of that inflated offer was intended to help launch FOX Sports 1 and the NBC Sports Network, that purpose has long since been achieved. They seem more interested in wrassling than racing these days anyway. Those TV deals expire by 2024, and the new ones are likely to be far less generous. No network wants people thinking they’re presenting what amounts to an old-news sport that’s best days are behind it, so far in the rearview mirror to be fading from sight.
Of course, it’s hardly fair to look at attendance figures for this year only. Many fans who had hoped and planned to attend races this year were denied a chance to do so by state, local, and in some cases even federal law. It was an unprecedented situation that is still resolving itself as this is written.
Perhaps in the short term this will help the situation. If a track promoter can say, “Hey, last year we only had two fans in the stands for his event, both of whom snuck the Hell in, but this year we sold 10,000 no longer socially-distanced seats to rabid but still masked fans stripped of any Confederate flag clothing or jewelry,” then mathematically the numbers will show huge increases in attendance. But it will still be fair to ask why that promoter could only sell 10,000 seats in a sports stadium capable of holding 85,000.
My guess is that there will be two different mindsets among stock car racing fans next year if they’re invited to attend races live again in 2021. The early adopter types bored out of their minds after a year of virtual house arrest in the midst of the pandemic will rush out and get seats, hoping to get good ones before the race sells out (as if that will ever happen again). They’ll fill their duallys, throw cases of beer on ice and put on their favorite driver’s t-shirt and head for the track without an iota of hesitation. This is how race weekends have always worked. “Why wouldn’t they be like that now?” they’ll wonder.
But there will likely be other fans who will consider buying tickets to a race but will pause before actually making that purchase. There’s no harm in waiting to see if NASCAR can pull this off without hosting a race that turns into a super-spreader health crisis like that soiree at the White House last month. If after a month, maybe a couple months at most, there’s been no health issues related to races, perhaps I’ll reconsider. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Meanwhile, I can watch the races on TV if I remember what time and channel they’re on. This going broke and plunging into financial ruin after losing a weekly paycheck and having the house fall into foreclosure proceedings is a lot more time consuming than I’d have guessed as recently as 2019.
It’s also a bit odd (to me at least) that NASCAR has hitched its wagon moving forward to road course racing. Fully 17% of next year’s slate of events involves races on tracks where there are both left and right-handed corners. The trouble (or should I say one of the troubles) with road-course races is the difficulty in having enough seats that allow a fan who purchased a ticket to see the entire course.
Consider Road America at 4.1 miles in length. Sure ,you’ll have racecars driven at full chat rattle the ground beneath your feet now and again, but to keep track of the race you’ll also have to hope your seat has an unobstructed view of the massive video devices tracks install at key locations to keep fans on-hand apprised as to what’s happening on the portions of the course they can’t see. Which in the end is a whole lot like staying home and watching the race on your big screen TV. Only watching from home is cheaper, you don’t have to wait in line to use the restroom and nobody is going to try an gouge you out of a 10 in exchange for a snout dog and a 10-ounce mug of lukewarm beer of a brand you’ve never cared for. And there won’t be any post-race traffic to battle going home. How increasing the number of road course races is supposed to increase ticket sales is beyond me. Then again, so was algebra, and I survived that and have been little hampered in real life by the loss.
So given current circumstances with the pandemic that seem likely to carry over into at least the first quarter of next year, will NASCAR start enforcing the 70% rule next year? I somewhat doubt it. But the topic has been broached and the idea is on the table. Sometimes it’s tough to put the genie back in the bottle. Likely the rule won’t be implemented this season. But that backs NASCAR into yet another corner. They are basically saying yet again, “sometimes our races aren’t very good anymore. We’re aware of that and prepared to address the issue. Maybe next year. Certainly no more than two years from now. Until then, stiff upper lip. Can’t be helped.”
Imagine an irritated patron at a nice restaurant with a fading reputation saying, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
“So there is,” the waiter admits. “That’s unfortunate, even borderline disgusting perhaps. But if you come back in two years and order another bowl of soup, I am fairly certain there won’t be a fly in that one as well.”
Meanwhile, if you can find a publicly traded stock for a company that makes those giant vinyl advertising banners, you might want to redirect some of your pandemic-ravaged investment dollars over that way. The 70% rule says that only 70% of “saleable” seats must be sold to prevent the track from losing a date. You’ll note at some tracks those huge advertising banners block off wide swathes of seats in the grandstands. The seats covered by those banners are no longer “saleable” since absent a chainsaw or a sharp pair of pruning shears (neither of which most tracks would allow in the grandstands anyway), no one could sit in those seats to watch the race anyway. I seem to recall that Dover uses an awful lot of those banners to block off entire sections of the grandstands since they couldn’t tear down grandstands fast enough to keep supply equal to demand.
(Perhaps they’ll do better next year with only one Cup race left to promote … north of the Mason-Dixon Line, that is.)