A lot has happened over the past few weeks in the world of stock car racing, but the constant I keep coming back to is simple:
The Camping World SRX Series and CBS completely outclassed both NASCAR and FOX’s coverage of NASCAR.
Denny Hamlin mentioned off-hand a couple of weeks ago during a discussion on Racing Spaces, a Twitter Spaces event held every Tuesday night, that NASCAR did not know what they wanted. And honestly, anybody who has paid attention to NASCAR from a competition viewpoint the last several years can see they don’t have a clue what they want to be.
In 2019, NASCAR moved the Cup Series into a new low horsepower, high downforce aero package.
The resulting season was probably the most forgettable season in the last several years. Oh wait, who could forget about the early portion of the season, when NASCAR did its best Sideshow Bob impression with group qualifying before finally giving up and moving back to single car qualifying. That and the Hamlin-Joey Logano incident at Martinsville Speedway late in the season were just about it as far as things to remember from that year.
In 2020 and now 2021, NASCAR has made it clear that the one person that they do not like is Bob Pockrass, because they run a different aero/horsepower package every week and poor Bob has to explain it 10 times before Sunday on Twitter. They don’t know if they want the cars to be high downforce with low horsepower, or low downforce with high horsepower.
The single worst thing NASCAR has ever introduced to this cars was not the restrictor plate. It’s not the COT wing. Heck, it’s not even the splitter. It’s the tapered spacer, because allowing them to directly control the horsepower is like letting a kid loose in a candy store.
If somebody inquired what a NASCAR stock car’s specs were 10 years ago, that was very easy. This tall of a spoiler, the engine produced roughly 850 bhp depending on the team. Now, even the experts have to open a spreadsheet to remember what in the world they are running that weekend.
It has also become quite clear that NASCAR has a flawed concept of how racing outside of paved ovals works. From a 22-minute caution at Road America to the initial fiasco of Camping World Truck Series qualifying races at Bristol Motor Speedway in the dirt to even the lack of a cone on the choose-lane restart system, this officiating crew really doesn’t know what it’s doing half of the time.
Meanwhile, there is SRX. The SRX cars have always been fairly straightforward: low on downforce, high on horsepower. Series director Ray Evernham never made any kind of body or engine changes outside of the conversion mid-season from pavement to dirt and back again.
The series ran on two track types: paved ovals and dirt ovals. And outside of some fiberglass concerns at Eldora Speedway, everything ran pretty darn smoothly regardless of the surface.
Of course, the single biggest difference between the two sanctioning bodies were the ability to roll with changes. After NASCAR’s All-Star Race, there was a certain side of NASCAR twitter essentially saying that if somebody didn’t like the race, they could just stop watching. Whereas with SRX and CBS both, there was plenty of criticism of how x and y were done. Evernham didn’t log on Twitter and complained about the haters. He just… listened! And made changes based off of feedback! Somehow nobody’s ego was bruised!
A lot of those changes had to do with CBS’s coverage, and what was already a solid broadcast was made even better as the weeks went on. Allen Bestwick showed he had not lost a step, and he jelled well with three completely different partners who had no local short-track stock car experience. There were a lot of great innovative camera shots, the first week’s heavy reliance on a drone camera notwithstanding.
What’s more is that SRX really made each track feel unique. Knoxville Raceway had an excellent video package that told the story of why that track is such a legendary dirt oval venue. I knew absolutely nothing after Stafford Motor Speedway prior to week one, and now I have that track circled for whenever I take a trip to New England.
Meanwhile, the FOX broadcast of the race at Knoxville made a bad race even worse. Vince Welch and Michael Waltrip are not good at their roles. Both are great as pit road reporters, both are bad at announcing a race in Iowa from a studio in Charlotte.
And I can understand that a Truck broadcast isn’t going to have the planning or the budget of a CBS production, but the way Knoxville was shot and produced by people who don’t cover racing was significantly better than the homogenized camera angles that FOX provided. They have covered NASCAR for 20 years now and their grand idea to introduce this track was a graphic on their green screen studio prior to the race? A graphic?
And then there’s the iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Good lord, they took the PIS out of that.
iRacing is a platform with such a great potential. Imagine getting the chance to broadcast a NASCAR race where you have the 36 regular NASCAR drivers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as guaranteed entries. Choose what car they will be in, and what track. Want to see Cup cars at Rockingham Speedway again? What about Trucks at North Wilkesboro Speedway? Or maybe even something really impossible in real life, like having the Cup drivers take on the legendary Nurburgring or a return to the Twin Ring Motegi oval?
No, no, no, and no. I could go on about how much worse the broadcast was compared to Podium eSports, but I wanted to focus instead on the drivers.
Now, SRX and PIS had a very similar angle. Both were fun exhibitions that tried to have unique lineups. Now, FOX had several advantages in this category, most notable of them that the PIS was an internet series, and so anybody with a rig setup and a decent internet connection could theoretically have raced in it. Whereas SRX used real life cars that required a driver to, you know, fly out and waste a day on their schedule.
Meanwhile, FOX got off on the wrong foot by excluding Timmy Hill in the initial entry list for no particular reason after using him to promote the series. This set off a gigantic negative response on social media that caused a NASCAR executive to actually have to apologize to Hill’s car owner Carl Long.
Every week, two of the four “guest” spots were wasted. One on Clint Bowyer (outside of the final race), who would play up his personality up to about an 11, and one on the fan vote (outside of the first race), which was won by Jesse Iwuji every week because obviously he deserved it.
The biggest waste was not getting Romain Grosjean, somebody who had been a fairly known Formula 1 driver and is employed by Rick Ware Racing, at Circuit of the Americas. That seemed like such an easy idea, and his recovery from that huge wreck last year writes itself. But nope.
The nail in the coffin was when Keelan Harvick raced at Talladega. Now, this isn’t a knock on Keelan, both because I’m sure in the future he will be a Cup champion and in the present I don’t want Mr. Harvick to “have a chat” with me in an alleyway. But an 11-year-old racing effectively killed the series. It just screamed to the viewer that yes, this is a dumb video game that literally anybody could race actual professional drivers on.
Nobody really complained much when NBC decided they wanted none of this crap and cancelled the last half of the season away. Poof, all gone. And nobody was ever made a bigger star out of PIS. Hill was a superhero last year in iRacing and FOX almost never mentioned him on their broadcast again the rest of that year. James Davison outdrove the field in two road-course events and got nary a mention on any oval races FOX covered this year. Obviously they shouldn’t have built their broadcast around these two drivers, but pretending they didn’t exist again really hurt any credibility the series could have had.
SRX is a TV show presented and contested as a race. And that’s perfectly fine, because now they are reaping the awards both on a television level (solid ratings have led to outright hints that the series will return next season) and on a star-making level. Both for the tracks and for some of the drivers. Helio Castroneves was probably going to be full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series next year regardless of SRX. But SRX really showed that Castroneves, who had no real experience in stock car racing, is one of the most gifted drivers in his generation regardless of series. Luke Fenhaus captivated with his thrilling duel at Slinger Speedway, while inaugural race winner Doug Coby landed a one-race truck deal with GMS Racing this fall.
NASCAR has constantly stressed that they are a show, not a sport. But then they turn around and have to be a sport because they can’t be SRX, and they are very stubborn about it. That line at the Atlanta Motor Speedway reconfiguration reveal about how the drivers weren’t consulted in general because they don’t want to put on good racing, even if it did not come from a NASCAR employee, really encapsulated the general feeling of that company right now.
Nobody is arguing that drivers should have the full say on competition matters, but they have to have more than just Kurt Busch at the table. And if SRX has shown that you can have competently run big-league stock car racing with no affiliation to NASCAR, it’s going to be hard to feel bad for the 73-year-old sanctioning body if somebody decides to actively run against them in the near future.
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