A Sport Sinks While Leadership Keeps Up the Practices that Are Killing It
(Fair Warning: This article is another rant about two of my favorite what’s-wrong-with-NASCAR issues, the charter system and driver development programs. My feelings on both remain the same, but a couple of recent news items gave me some raw material to “fire away” one more time.)
If anybody out there is really good with Illustrator, PhotoShop or something else along those lines, would you please consider creating an image of Rob Kauffman as an undertaker?
I consider this a necessary graphic because Kauffman, the chair of the Race Team Alliance of Monster/Cup owners, is doing his level best to bury this sport.
Kauffman, whose professional background is investment banking (“W get our commissions whether you make a million or lose your shirt”) entered our midst, if you’ll recall, as a part owner of Michael Waltrip Racing a little more than a decade ago (when NASCAR had reached its peak). After that team went belly-up, he bought into Chip Ganassi Racing and seems to have been one of the movers and shakers behind the owners asserting their power in the sport. It’s safe to say he had a role in the birth of the charter system.
Last month, when the entry list for the Coca-Cola/World 600 exceeded the number of spots in the starting field – something fans used to think was the sign of success – he unleashed a rant against part-time teams competing against (and presumably taking money from) the 36 chartered teams.
Let’s look at this. When this sport established itself, you had to be among the fastest to make the race – no exceptions. Look at results from way-back Darlington and Daytona races, and you’ll see some pretty big names on the sidelines; they weren’t fast enough. Then, when one of those “pretty big names” became Richard Petty near the end of his career, we created a “past champion’s provisional” starting spot. Somehow, that morphed into more “provisionals” to guarantee that a big-buck sponsor wouldn’t be embarrassed by missing the race (and be tempted to pick up its marbles and leave).
In 1968, Cale Yarborough won 6 races but raced in fewer than half of the season’s events. How times change: So far this season (prior to Michigan), 31 drivers have run every race, and 41 have run 5 races or more. Nearly all the variety has come from different drivers behind the wheel of three or four of the cars running near the end of the pack. No part-timers have won. Fifty years ago, in 1968, only 4 drivers ran the maximum number of 49 events, with 5 others running 48, but 62 ran 5 races or more, because there were many more part-time teams. Rob Kauffman obviously thinks otherwise, but to me, the 1968 scenario was better.
Then came the charter system, and suddenly only FOUR positions in the entire starting field are really up for grabs, and now Mr. Kauffman thinks it’s scandalous to fill all of those or – God forbid – have competition for filling those forlorn four slots on the grid.
Do you see the connection here to a financial profession where the company makes its money even if you, the client/customer, lose all of yours?
It seems to me that the connection above is a lot stronger than any link between the charter nonsense and the ideals that got this sport where it once was.
“But,” some will say, “These are race drivers who will give their all on race day, regardless of whether they have a guaranteed starting position or whether there are 5, 15, 25, or 39 other cars on the track.”
That may be, but it’s an arrangement that virtually destroyed Indy Car racing (with CART) and is doing nothing I can see to help stem NASCAR’s slide into oblivion.
Everybody (except maybe Rob Kauffman) was ecstatic that this year’s Indy 500 had more cars (35) than starting spots (33), but the series has never recovered from the disastrous CART split and a series run by car owners. In 1968, the 33 starters came from a field of nearly 60 entrants.
If NY Racing, the fledgling, part-time team that seemed to prompt Mr. Kauffman’s anger, had a decal or some such swag, I’d be tempted to display it.
Rant #2 – Driver Development
NASCAR has proudly announced its 2018 NASCAR Next class of “emerging star” drivers. Some names are more familiar than others, and all are doubtless good drivers. On the other hand, I note that all but two of them are teenagers, and the oldest is 23.
By that standard, you realize, had this system been in place a few decades back, our sport would never have had Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Harry Gant, Alan Kulwicki or – yeah, I was saving him for last – Dale Earnhardt. Matt Kenseth probably would be on the outside looking in, and there’s a good chance he’d be joined by Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex.
You can have all the Legends and K&N East/West racing you want, but I’ll take my future heroes from the weekly wars. That worked fine for Earnhardt (shown here at Bristol).
All cut their teeth/earned their chops in tough local racing circuits without the assistance of mighty NASCAR, and they didn’t do too badly. They just needed a little more time to earn their break.
In most cases, they also spent that time building a fan base that followed them to the big time.
NASCAR brags that “Next” program alumni include Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, Gray Gaulding, Eric Jones, Corey LaJoie, Kyle Lawson, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr. I really like some of these guys, but I doubt the lot of them sells as many t-shirts as Earnhardt, Bill Elliott or Wallace did single-handedly, nor do they put as many fans into those fast-disappearing seats at the track. Give ‘em a few years running at Hickory, Southside, Nashville, or another good short track, let people start following them there first, then see if NASCAR attendance reflects the difference.
Oh, but I’m just an old fart who’s lost in the past and doesn’t understand what works today. Yeah, that’s true; I’ve never taken an enormously popular sport and run it into the ground. Guess we should let those with experience do their thing and be grateful.
On behalf of everyone else who hasn’t been to a Cup race in a while, I’m not grateful.
As long as I’m being unhappy about everything this week, let’s make note that at one time, NASCAR ran a race in June at Rockingham. If “throwbacks” are one way to get people interested again, maybe we could head back to The Rock.
No Loose Lug Nuts this week – I’m in the midst of a serious clean-up project at home. (“How serious is it, Frank?) So serious that I just found my “press pass” from one of the Richmond races in 1992. That’s a couple of strata down.