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.
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.