If you ended up ignoring the sport of stock car racing even a few hours this week (and I highly recommend you do so occasionally), you’ve probably read breathless stories this week how misinformation being spread across high-tech platforms like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, any form of online discussion forum and others are “killing” people. Says who? Sez the 46th president of these United States. The president (and others who share his mindset) claims that people are reading so much misinformation about the COVID-19 virus and taking it to heart they are routinely dying as an end result. I’m not here to promote or refute the president on this or any other issue. Debating politics is the final refuge of the dimwitted and a handy way of getting into a fight outside the Dew Drop Inne. I’ve been with this internet thing a long time (since back when you signed up for the ‘net in the basement of Sears and Roebuck and had a dial up modem), and on occasions too numerous to count I’ve been told “don’t believe anything just because you read it on the internet (both plural and singular).
It seems like NASCAR was having its own misinformation issues last week as well. There also might be some deaths involved, though fortunately the “deceased” are just some crash test dummies. These dummies simulate a human body. They contain sensors in certain key locations of the dummy’s anatomy. Data is collected from those sensors and is used to determine how badly injured a real flesh-and-blood human being would have been injured in a series of high speed crashes. Or if that accident might have cause fatal injuries to a real driver.
Let me add here the dummy does not actually drive the car. Seeing a crash test dummy stroll over to a race car, clamber inside, fasten their safety harness, fire up the engine and light a cigarette like Dick Trickle used to do would be a little over the top.
Instead, robots do the driving. I mean, I went to high school with a few guys who’d probably shrug when asked to drive a race car and hook a hard right into the walls at speeds approaching 200 MPH and simply require that said race car be equipped with a cup holder capable of not spilling a 12-ounce beer on impact, but NASCAR went with the robots. No, you are not going to see a robot at the wheel of a race car either, nor rolling its way through the garage area hollering, “Warning, warning, Will Robinson, extreme danger!”
In this instance, robotic functions are assigned to performing stuff like working the throttle steering and braking. A human operator then gets to play the ultimate video game (from a safe distance away) piloting the real live race car into the wall in a simulation of how the real life accident being studied will unfold.
Unless you spent the last two weeks lost in the woods in Oregon, you’ve probably heard that one of those crash tests yielded results that would have been fatal to a real driver under those same circumstances. Or maybe it didn’t. Or maybe the test was flawed by testing equipment and thus the data collected is of no use at all.
We were told by a NASCAR official back in February, clearly and without any equivocation, that the “new Next Gen” car’s had been finalized and was on pace to be ready to race starting at next year’s Daytona 500 which will kick off the season. The statement by NASCAR Senior Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development (bet that title comes with a good parking space) John Probst seemed like the new car design was set in stone, so it was time to start cranking out new race cars and painting them pretty colors for the 2022 Daytona 500. It seemed like a very adult and subdued version of the kids’ chant “Kris-Kross applesauce, nobody else can play with us.”
By my count, that’s seven months away. There will need to be 80 “Next Gen” cars completed by then, assuming 40 teams will enter the 500 and each team will have a backup car on the transporter before the Reindeer Games commence to kick off the 2022 Cup season.
If the design of the car does, in fact, require a serious or even semi-serious redesign, an already tight window of time left to produce the required number of Next Gen cars is squealing toward closed.
Chase Briscoe seemed to confirm on Reddit (albeit with just one word) that testing at Talladega of the Next Gen car had yielded data that a driver unfortunate enough to have the same sort of wreck likely would have been killed.
So naturally, NASCAR immediately released a statement signed to the fattest guy in the car pool lane refuting or confirming the report to deal with the issue before a few sparks of info were allowed to turn into a wildfire. Only in this case they didn’t do that. They did report that in a similar wreck with the current generation of NASCAR race car, the new car was “nominally” the same. “Nominally” is an interesting word to use in this instance. According to my Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, “nominally” means in name only; officially though perhaps not in reality. “Nominally” would be a high scoring play in Scrabble, but it was a horrid vocabulary choice in this instance. Others have claimed they’ve been told the new car is neither ready nor safe to race. Given the time constraints in play here, it behooves NASCAR to release what information they have to share with the drivers, the teams and yes, even the fans.
Moving on …
Saturday night’s race at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway was the sixth and final race on the SRX 2021 schedule. Overall, the experiment has to be seen as a success. Yeah, some of the races were better than others, but that’s a natural state of affairs in automobile racing. NASCAR’s own ratio of classics to clinkers is rather low as of late as well. (To be fair, the last two Cup races were pretty good.)
SRX staged two races on dirt tracks and four on paved ovals. The TV ratings for those six races were quite decent. The new series routinely drew more viewers than the same weekend’s NXS or Camping World Truck Series races. That despite that fellow on NBC who said auto racing was doomed to ratings failure if run on a Saturday night. As it turns out, if you run your races at the same time (8 p.m. ET) and on the same channel (CBS), race fans will tune in. A lot of them will, anyway. About 1.33 million of them as it turns out. Keep in mind, F1 racing has a huge worldwide audience but continues to be a bit player here in the US. (The fact there are no US drivers and the odd times F1 races run in what I’d consider the overnight or predawn hours doesn’t help any.) While falling well short of F1’s worldwide audience, the SRX often drew a similar sized audience to US race broadcasts on the ABC/ESPN family of networks. For an inaugural series, having the SRX series battling for the second best viewership numbers in televised racing isn’t too shabby.
Somehow or another, the SRX series even picked up title sponsorship from Camping World. (Yes, the same Camping World that is title sponsor of the Truck Series. I haven’t a clue about the financial terms with the SRX. I just know CEO Marcus Lemonis continues to spend money like he hates the stuff.)
After Monster Energy bailed on the Cup Series, NASCAR signed four “presenting” sponsors rather than a new title sponsor. And since I bet less than 25% of you can name all four of them off the top of your head, here are some hints; a beer company, a soda company, an insurance company and a cable company.
SRX does need to explain its rules and procedures a bit better. Many fans who have commented on my columns hate that cautions have been thrown for no apparent reason during the heat races, allowing CBS to cut away to commercials. Those fans say, and I agree, that the TV folks should be able to go 12 entire minutes (the length of the heat races) without commercial interruption.
In many cases, such caution flags are mandated by the SRX rulebook which states if a race goes green for a certain number of laps, the caution will be thrown to bunch the field back up and hopefully spice up the racing a bit in the process. Overall, though, I think this is a losing battle. Even Tony Stewart was calling the breaks “TV timeouts” this weekend at Nashville. The series has already admitted it is equal parts sports and entertainment, which is perhaps why they tried to create some rivalries manufactured out of whole cloth to spice things up a bit. Unfortunately, some of those attempts involved Paul Tracy. Tracy is an overweight, 50-something, open-wheel racer, and a Canadian to boot. Canadians just don’t make good bad guys. By nature they are just too inherently nice.
Stewart, one of the co-founders of the SRX series, was crowned the series champion based on two wins and a third-place finish. There’s a certain symmetry there in that Stewart also won the last IROC series championship in another equal car, all-star drivers series back in 2006.
A certain symmetry, yes, but it also reminded me of a creepy kid down the street from me when I was very young. He’d host contests and feats of strength in his backyard to decide and crown “the King of the Neighborhood.” A title he invariably won.
While on the topic of “equal” cars, let me just note that the purple/orange car Bill Elliott drove Saturday night was a first among equals. That seems only fair in that in his first SRX start Elliott drove the purple car … briefly. That car suffered a fuel pick up problem that eventually immobilized it. In a series that was supposed to issue backup cars so no one could suffer a DNF, no backup was forthcoming for Elliott. In fact, at the next race Elliott was given the same purple car and it suffered the same fate with fuel issues. To top that off, the senior Elliott family member went ahead and broke his hand at Eldora. (On a brighter note, Bill learned he qualified for Medicare insurance coverage while being tended to in that ER.)
The ends justified the means, I suppose. The crowd on hand went absolutely ape-shit when Elliott and his son Chase were battling for the lead throughout much of the race.
I haven’t heard officially that the SRX will be back in 2022, but my guess it that it will be in some shape or form. I wouldn’t object to a new slate of race tracks. No road courses, though. NASCAR’s done mined that lode for all its worth. Without falling into the same trap NASCAR did of letting its schedule explode, I think an eight race SRX schedule would be doable just as long as all the races started at the same time on the same channel like they did this year. It does seem a shame that CBS doesn’t have races for the next two weekends even as the world and NBC switches their attention over to the Olympics. And don’t go messing with the dark side of streaming networks you have to pay to watch. CBS is fine, though I have to admit I had to look online to see what channel it was on my cable lineup, Yep, that’s how long it had been since I watched anything on CBS.
I’d also suggest that the SRX try to up its presence on the internet. When I went looking for finishing positions and notes on various SRX races for this article, I had difficulty finding what I wanted. Even Racing Reference doesn’t keep those stats, and I thought it covered every sort of racing from the Pinewood Derby on up.
As noted above, with the Olympics fixing to commence through their deal with NBC, NASCAR Cup racing will take the next two weekends off. So what does a guy who writes about stock car racing as a profession do? Well, this time around I plan to take two weeks off as well. Perhaps I’ll head down the shore (in New Jersey, it’s never the “beach,” it’s the “shore”). Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll meet you back here August 10, same Matt time, same Matt channel.
About the author
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.