NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Roll With NASCAR Changes

NASCAR had already announced some changes to the sport prior to next season. This week, it released more potential changes for 2022 and beyond, and some of them were ground-shaking. I can’t tell you what the 2023 Cup schedule will look like, but based on comments by NASCAR President Steve Phelps this week, we’re potentially looking at the biggest changes to the Cup schedule since 1972 when Winston became the sport’s title sponsor and pared number of races that year from 48 to 31.

Phelps, whose late season missives are typically stultifying or just silly, seems to have been late to the party willing to admit that yes, possibly too much is in fact too much. He announced he was ready to take race dates away from tracks on the existing schedule even if those tracks are owned by the International Speedway Corporation, which is, in fact, NASCAR, and has been all these years. The other major owner of tracks where NACAR currently races is Speedway Motorsports, owned and operated by Bruton Smith, though recently he’s delegating more and more responsibilities to his sons.

“If it doesn’t make sense to go to one of our tracks twice, and we only go once, or we go once now and it doesn’t make sense to go at all, we’re going to do that because we have to grow the sport.”

Yes, you have to read the statement a couple times to fathom its intent but it does indeed seem that even ISC race dates are in play.

My primary objection to Phelps’ statement is one that goes back two decades with NASCAR official-dom: You may be able to grow tomatoes but you can’t grow a sport. Anyone who says they can is throwing a lot of fertilizer at you, and we all know the chief ingredient in fertilizer is manure — and we all know where that comes from.

I have actually championed the idea of dropping some tracks’ primary or secondary dates previously. My notion was a quixotic campaign to pare down the swollen size of the NASCAR Cup season so that it would conclude before or shortly into the televised NFL regular season. The NFL is the 500-pound gorilla of professional sports, and the beating NASCAR takes in the ratings this time of year is outright humiliating. NASCAR ratings, when they go up against a pair of NFL games, tend to dip below a 2.0, a once unthinkable state of affairs. This week’s NFL Thursday night game paired the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Philly Eagles. I know this only because I live outside Philadelphia. I figured it was going to be a bad game, and by all accounts it was. Yet that game drew 14.5 million viewers while the NASCAR race drew only 2.55 million watchers.

Yep, I had a notion the NASCAR schedule could be shortened to the extent the last race of the year could be run at Darlington on Labor Day weekend. If you are going to celebrate or crown a champion in stock car racing, prowess at the Lady in Black seems far more indicative of talent than at either Phoenix or Homestead.

The current state of NASCAR TV ratings is so poor the only option is to run up the white flag. This year’s Daytona 500 drew a 2.8 Nielsen rating. The first Talladega race this year drew a 2.81 rating, the highest number I could find for any race this year. The first Pocono race this year scored a lowly 0.9 rating. The Coke Zero 400 (the Daytona summer race) was the last race with a rating above 2.0 at a 2.5. This year’s World 600 did get a 2.3 Nielsen. Hey, they left one of the three summertime NASCAR classic races right where it belonged on Memorial Day weekend and look what happened.

How much longer the networks will pay the big bucks for rights to broadcast a sport that seems to have seen better days in the rearview mirror, and how much they will be willing to pay for those rights, remains to be seen. Take note that while NBC will broadcast the rest of the races this year either on NBC or NBCSN, it’s also showing three of those races on Peacock, its streaming service. What Cup races are worth to them might depend on how many people they can convince to pay to watch what is currently free.

Remember how we were discussing two operations, ISC/NASCAR and SMS owning the vast majority of the tracks the Cup series races at? Two long-time independent tracks, Pocono and Dover, each lost a race date after this year. They moved one of the Dover dates to Nashville but erred in moving it to the big track at Nashville Superspeedway, not the classic and beloved Fairgrounds short track from the days of yore. As for Pocono, NASCAR’s Bill France made several overtures to buy the joint. Perhaps if the Doctors Mattioli had made the sale, we’d still be racing there twice a year, maybe even with the track renamed the New York Land Speedway. NASCAR tried to build a track in Staten Island, but that was one of the biggest failures of Brian France’s less-than-memorable career.

For years at Pocono and other tracks, there was an unwritten and unspoken pact between the fans and NASCAR. The deal was if NASCAR kept bringing the Flying Circus back to town, the fans would keep on coming back. Perhaps the fans should have gotten something in writing. The two races on two consecutive days was a deal-breaker for the triangular-shaped track.

The whole issue of tracks losing and gaining dates erupted in 1996. Bruton Smith was building Texas Motor Speedway (of all places) and wanted a Cup date for his new joint. Eventually Smith and Bob Bahre (who owned New Hampshire Motor Speedway) conspired to buy North Wilkesboro, where NASCAR had been racing since 1949. One date from North Wilkes went to Texas and the other to NHMS. And Bruton wasn’t done yet. Through the oft-quoted but never seen personage of Francis Ferko, he insisted he was owed a second date for Texas. That race was looted from Rockingham, another longtime fan favorite.

Phelps other major statement this week raised even more eyebrows.

“Everything that is still ailing NASCAR, this is a panacea for what that is.”

Yes, the statement is awkwardly worded yet again. “What is still ailing NASCAR” is undefined. But apparently the new generation cars are “what that is.” Many people took issue with Phelps for using the word “panacea” which they didn’t know the meaning of. Yes, I’ve already used a four-penny word in this column. I think the most annoyed comments I ever got for using a word in a column was for “fusillade” to describe the amount of beer cans thrown at Jeff Gordon’s Chevy when he surpassed Dale Earnhardt’s Cup career total victories.

But modern society is wary of cure-alls. It dates back to the days of traveling medicine show selling “medicines” that cured anything that ailed you. If you found the right doctor’s/ preacher’s wagon, for a modest additional contribution, not only could he cure what ailments plagued you, he could guarantee the joyful repose of your eternal soul. In that era, if whatever drug he sold you had even a minimal health benefit and didn’t do you any lasting harm (or wipe out your life savings), that was about the best you could hope for.

I’m similarly doubtful of Dr. Phelps’ cure for “everything that is ailing NASCAR.” Will the new cars eliminate stage racing, which most fans think breaks up the natural rhythms of a race? Will it end the convoluted “rounds of racing” method of determining a champion based on the last race of an entirely too-long season? Fans by and large don’t seem to like that. They’d rather see a champion decided by a season-long points system “like it used to be” back “in the good old days.”

Will the new cars, through on board GPS sensors, the throttle position sensors, and biometric readings from the drivers, sense when a driver is trying to maximize stage points late in a run rather than making an honest effort to win? Will that car then use a self-driving system like the ones in Teslas to pull itself into the pits, shut down the engine and set itself ablaze? Of the two “packages” used this year, fans seemed to greatly prefer the high horsepower/ low downforce set up used at the short tracks and road courses. But the new car seems to be being set up for lower horsepower still. Do they think all those fans are going to change their minds?

NASCAR’s last attempt at a “panacea” solution to all its problems was the Car of Tomorrow back in 2008. How’d that work out for ya’ll? Maybe the “new car” will perform as advertised just as NASCAR claims. But what if they’re wrong? Again.

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Bill B

I read that article yesterday and the one thing that I thought the writer majorly failed on when discussing the ratings drop NASCAR experienced was those that were self inflicted. There was no mention of the fans that left because of the chase, the COT, Darlington losing a race, the tire issues at Indy and Charlotte that made the races a joke, etc.. To not acknowledge those errors is to obfuscate the reality of what was being said during that downfall in ratings by fans.

BTW Matt, I am missing your classic rock references in your articles.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
DoninAjax

The spin that the NA$CAR PR department comes up with continues to astound me. They’re still telling us that their cow patties are hamburger. Anyone who thinks numbers don’t lie never took a bookkeeping course or cheated on their income tax return.

KU

Matt, Nice to see you again.
Four-penny words usually end up be the best word to fit the use.
I am not liking the new car at all. From the air intakes in the hood to the single-hub nut wheels that really take some the unseen and human factors out of the race.
Seeing the 22 blow an engine brought back the days when even if your driver was out to a huge lead, you still sat on the edge of your seat praying it would hold together until the end. Now it is a given.

Tom B

I’m all for single lug nut wheels. It seems safer and will eliminate that stupid $10,000 fine and loss of the crew chief. Also the flush exhaust outlets will not cut down a tire.

Bill B

I will be shocked if they cut the length of the season (36 races). That would decrease revenue potential, make the regular season vs playoff even goofier, and pretty much change the total landscape (forget about any records ever being broken again).
Anyone who thinks the new car will solve anything or make things better based on what NASCAR is saying now, must not have been around when the COT was introduced. NASCAR would be wise to downplay their positive hype if they don’t want to look stupid, again.

janice

i think the new car is going to be a nightmare. of course the pr machine spins good news. but i don’t know….just something about it is unsettling to me.

JW Farmer

The new car is going to be great, as someone that has personally witnessed it. However, the 550 package needs to go away.

Bill B

Hope you are right, but I wouldn’t bet on it if I were you.

Allen, Pawtucket .. RI

Remember when? We were told cable TV would have less commercials? I watch less Nascar due to the constant advertising. The “side by side” does nothing for me either.

Carl D.

Nice column, Matt. It’s not only football and the overly-long Nascar season that negatively impacts Nascar in the fall. Fall weather is not for sitting inside, it’s for being outside. It’s unbearably hot here in SC in the summer, too hot to spend much time outside unless you have a pool, and when Autumn rolls around, we make the most of it… outside. But Bill B. makes a valid point above… I don’t see Nascar putting a kink in their own revenue hose.

Last edited 1 month ago by Carl D.
Kurt Smith - Ex-Frontstretch Staff

In my opinion (as a disenchanted fan myself who is giving the sport a chance again), there were three major reasons for NASCAR’s decline, and all of them were self-inflicted: the idiotic Chase, the abysmally bad broadcasts, and the boring racing venues. But boil that down to one reason: NASCAR went after new fans by outright disregarding their existing ones. (I’m being kind in my words.)

If you were running the sport and your goal was to finish it off for good in five years, your winning decision would be to make your remaining fans pay to watch races on TV. If NASCAR goes through with that, it will be the end of the sport.

Michael M

Yes Kirk, that’s true indeed. I’m glad I read this piece. It reminded me how na$car has truly effed things up, trying to appease pop culture leftist/media people. I’m glad there are other stock car sanctions that are doing well, and listening to real fans.

Last edited 1 month ago by Michael M
Jeremy

Imagine that? The pop culture crowd doesn’t hang onto any one thing for long, and NASCAR was quickly dropped by the pop culture crowd when they moved on to the “Next Big Thing”. Much the same way NASCAR dropped the loyal fans that made them. Karma.

bnighthawk

NASCAR should get back to racing and give up the gimmicks. No more stage racing, no more “Choose rule”, no more “Playoffs” that aren’t. The season points leader should win.

Tony

The time to change up the track schedule was before the fanbase started falling away in droves, to keep the slate fresh. Not to shake it up in a desperate bid to bring people back, which is what the recent movements feel like. People who barely hung on amidst all the Brian France era BS until their driver retired aren’t going to come running back relieved that the circuit doesn’t go to Joliet anymore.

JW Farmer

What the commenters in this section fail to miss is that around 2006-2008, aside from the Great Recession, there became an easy fix in instant gratification known as the cellphone. Before this, fans had a reason to go watch stock car racing live. Along with a litany (my 4-penny word) of ride share programs like Uber and Lyft came less desire for young people to enjoy the thrill of driving their own cars. Along with a cornucopia of ridiculous expenses associated with IPhones, etc came the fact that many young people just don’t care about cars anymore, they care about the Internet. The economy now is 10% larger than it was in they heyday of Nascar (or larger) and the fusillade of negative articles aimed at attracting viewers/votes/comments doesn’t help any. As more and more young, internet addicted people get older, sponsors are going to spend the advertising dollars on them. Killing the ruse of the Playoffs and removing stage racing, while adding short tracks would help while shortening the season, when it has been traditionally long (remember NASCAR used to race into December and open at Ontario in January) would also be bad. The sport was about endurance but technology, along with the aforementioned statements, has seriously taken some of the luster out of the fact of “man against machine.” However, the racing has been good this year and if some of the negative naysayers would look at the sport as a whole, they would see that. To me, it is disgusting to go on Jayski and read constant negative sensationalist articles trying to attract the cellphone addicts. Personally, I go to between 10-16 races yearly and will not stop because of a high “technology” or “internet” or “cellphone” bill. I do not make nearly as much money as many do. As for the NFL, who wants to watch men slapping each other’s tailends and throwing a ball around. When was the last time an NFL player died from on the field activity (aside from concussions which lead to certain behavioral changes)? I’d rather watch a man control the entire weight of an NFL starting lineup and wheel it, rather than watching someone stare at their cellphone on a first date. As a fan since a long time before many of you were born (anyone that can tell me Sam Ard’s 1984 Busch car or Bobby Dotters Goody’s Dash car number, sponsor, make and model in the next 10 minutes I will give you a Bitcoin) and as an editor of a couple racing websites many of read, it disgusts me to see the negative articles all the time. It is not about the discussion of racing, as is portrayed in many, but should be about the action and promoting it, not derision. For the author of this piece, I have enjoy many articles by you, but it’s not about derision, but INFLATION of the sport as a whole. I’ve said my piece (as a fan of Frontstretch for years).

janice

Inflation is rearing it’s ugly head again.

Jeremy

2007 also saw the launch of the COT, which in my opinion, was a disaster to the actual racing product. With the COT came increased importance of aero – the slightest wrinkle on a fender took tenths if not more off of lap times. Drivers could no longer “lean” on each other, or beat/bang a little for position and still be competitive (note, I did not say wreck!). How many finishes since COT have been as exciting as the Craven/Busch battle at Darlington? I know epic battles at the line are rare, but it’s been 14 years since COT debuted! Granted, the car is safer and nobody has had their career ended due to a wreck since (although Newman was close), but that’s the only good thing that came out of the COT.

As for the younger generation not being interested in cars, I don’t blame them. Growing up in a rural area 40 years ago, the car was a lifeline and a gift of freedom! But now that I live in a congested suburb of a big city, I too find driving to be a rather unpleasant chore. And this is where the vast majority of younger people live. I hate driving now too, and have lost much of my interest in cars (but not all) as a result. So I totally get why they’re not into it. High performance cars look cool and are fun, but only if there’s a place to use them. I can’t go anywhere here in which I could even touch the limits of a bare bones Toyota Corolla (due to traffic), much less anything more potent.

All that said, NASCAR is its own worst enemy. They need to fire themselves and hire a competent team to lead – and make them go talk AND LISTEN to Mark Miles. Indycar is on the right path and putting on a helluva show lately. The only thing keeping NASCAR from doing the same is themselves.

Marshall

I’m fine with every track getting one race if it means spreading the races around to lots of different venues. I get that people reality love Bristol, but Nashville fairgrounds is also in Tennessee, and so is another great short track that I’d love to see again in Memphis. And instead of doing to Charlotte twice and Darlington twice, they could go to each one and go to North Wilkesborro and Rockingham once each. Two Vegas races and two Kansas races and two Atlanta races are just filler really, but I’m guessing we’re stuck with 2 Atlantas since they just spent millions to reconfigure. If race fans want more weekends spread the Xfinity and truck series weekends off.

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