Another Link between Short Tracks and What Ails NASCAR
(This is a break from my series on bringing the excitement back to NASCAR, but it still touches on the “how to fix what’s wrong” theme. I’ve made most of these points before but maintain that they are important enough to repeat.)
For those who’d like something to talk about besides Carl Edwards’ retirement, here goes. In its own way, this topic might have even greater potential as a threat to NASCAR’s future. Anyway, let’s start with this Thomas Pope article in the Fayetteville Observer:
Pope – one of the few newspaper beat writers left who covers both NASCAR traveling series and local racing – makes some great points here about dirt short track racing being on the rise while its paved counterpart seems on a decline, but I’ll go one step farther in the “why” department; local dirt track racing hasn’t had any single sanctioning body large enough to mess things up the way NASCAR has done with weekly paved racing.
The economy continues to hurt local racing badly, but just about anywhere I look, there are lots more dirt cars around these days than there are paved cars, and that means more dirt tracks. The numbers have become a vicious cycle that might no longer be reversible, and that can’t be good for NASCAR, which is too busy encouraging “developmental” teams to take shots at promising (and usually wealthy) 15-year-olds to look around at the 25- or 30-year old dirt stars who might actually bring along some fans to fill those empty Monster/Xfinity/Camping World seats.
Here’s the core issue. All tracks probably have trouble drawing fields as large as in the past for their weekly 25- or 50-lappers, but dirt tracks can spread special events throughout their schedules that draw on as many as half a dozen different sanctioning bodies. Some of these, like World of Outlaws/DIRT, are pretty big organizations, while others have small teams that would be hard-pressed to run Bob’s Corner Garage. All, however, bring something special to town.
When paved short tracks were flourishing, NASCAR had no Xfinity Series. Instead, its sanctioned tracks ran special races for Late Model Sportsman (now Late Model Stock Car) and Modified cars, and NASCAR gave those races good point payouts toward its national championships for the divisions. Lots of drivers followed that informal circuit, so if you ran a special race in Virginia, you’d get racers from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Deep South and maybe even elsewhere (as happens with dirt track special shows today). Fans showed up for those races, too.
Then the Late Model Sportsman division became what is now the Xfinity Series, and all those special races for weekly tracks eventually went away, replaced by Friday or Saturday preliminaries at Monster/Cup tracks. Eventually the drivers chasing special events went away, too, as did a lot of the excitement about weekly paved track racing.
There are still some “specials” for paved track racers – see the upcoming event at Bristol – but they’re not NASCAR-sanctioned, for the most part. NASCAR takes a sizeable sanctioning fee from a local track and in return runs some generic ads during Monster/Xfinity/Camping World races and has a small presence on its website. What I don’t see is any effort to actually help the tracks – through rules or its scheduling – become more successful. If I were a promoter, I could think of quite a few things that would offer me more return on my investment than a NASCAR sanction.
I’d propose that NASCAR turn the clock back and try that approach again, but I don’t think the “suits” (not just Brian France) are capable of that kind of thinking, anymore. To me, the answer is to have NASCAR give up local track sanctioning completely and have the smaller bodies (CARS, PASS, CRA, ICAR, etc.) sell their wares to local paved tracks the way Lucas Oil, DIRT, USCS and others sell specials to dirt tracks. Then drivers would have a chance to prove themselves against the best in their divisions, and the top dogs might just move on to a NASCAR series, bringing a trailer-load of fans along.
That would be good for the short tracks and NASCAR, which would be good for the rest of us.
ADDENDUM: Congratulations to Northeastern dirt track star Stewart Friesen on putting together a fulltime Truck Series ride for next year. I hope it helps move his career up, because he’d bring some much-needed name recognition from his home region. Maybe Ryan Preece, who made his name in NASCAR Whelen Modifieds but had little Xfinity luck last driving for an underfunded team, also will come back and show what he can really do. Then maybe we can find a local star from Virginia or the Carolinas to move up and re-energize some fans.
GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE – Fox has gotten cute in trying to come up with a NASCAR story for every day leading up to the Daytona 500, with the story tying into that number. So for “47 days to go,” we get a story sort-of built around Jack Smith’s #47 1957 Chevy, which was one of a number of cars known as “Black Widows” that year. Unfortunately, “cute” was more important than “informative,” and the true story of the “Black Widows” wasn’t anywhere to be seen from Fox, because the story isn’t simple enough for their format.
The “Black Widow” was a special model Chevy produced in ’57 that would be both stock (in a day when Grand National/Monster/Cup cars really were pretty stock) and a winner on the track. They were sold to the drivers by Chevy dealers, which is why Fox’s story has both Smith’s #47 and Buck Baker’s #87 pictured, and they look like identical team cars with sponsorship from an Atlanta Chevy dealer. In reality, they just came from the same dealership, and Chevy provided all the cars painted black with white trim.
Today’s Monster Series cars don’t come from Chevy dealers and only look slightly more like showroom cars than an NFL defensive tackle looks like your sickly cousin Larry. But the “Black Widow” name was too much for Fox to pass up, so they wrote a brief story without the real story. Too bad.