A Time for Optimism about NASCAR ~ but This Should Just Be the Start
If you’re looking for Daytona 500 commentary, look elsewhere. I will say, though, that I hope sincerely that we’ve seen the last restrictor plate freak show (although it’s possible that “sleeve” races will be just as bad, but I’m going to be the optimist and say that won’t happen).
Now comes what many of us hope will be the beginning of NASCAR’s climb back up from the black hole it dug for itself over the past decade or so. The new rules are encouraging, and there’s a good possibility that the next generation of cars will bring us closer to having something on the track that looks at least vaguely like what we actually drive.
It won’t happen overnight, but we might live to see NASCAR’s new day.
Can we bring back this kind of anticipation and excitement? With the new NASCAR attitude as a start, maybe we can.
That being said, let’s run through some of the unfinished business, items that remain to be addressed if NASCAR stands any chance of overcoming the death of the car culture and returning to some prominence. (As one measure of prominence, let’s just say that NASCAR’s popularity should force ESPN to place it somewhere higher in the pecking order than it is today – when you click on “other” sports from the ESPN homepage, NASCAR and other racing pages are right after NCAA Softball and ahead of Olympic Sports in a non-Olympic year. At the very least we should shoot for being ahead of NBA G League and Boxing.)
You’ve seen most of this from me before, but I hope this summary helps keep some ideas alive. Also, I’m planning to write a few history pieces in the coming weeks, so this will remind me where I was in this area – you know about old guys and short-term memory loss.
Let’s divide these issues into two categories: Progress by Looking Back, and Progress by Looking Forward.
- We need more cars and car owners. Having the sport dominated by a handful of super teams has not proven to be healthy, and the charter system has made this system virtually permanent. The charter system has to go, and the cost of cars has to come down, so that smaller owners, perhaps with local/regional sponsors, can compete, either full- or part-time.
It was a big deal when Sonny Hutchins put Emmanuel Zervakis’ Chevy on the front row alongside Richard Petty and led the opening laps at Martinsville. The “little guys” need that chance again to restore a missing element of excitement to NASCAR.
- We need drivers who earn their rides with significant track records before moving up. Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart and countless others were in their mid- to late 20s when they hit the big time, and they had long enviable resumes. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett and others got a leg up because of their daddies, but they stayed because of ability – as opposed to Steve Wallace, Jason Jarrett, Kerry Earnhardt and others who were good-but-not-great. Family or sponsor money can’t tie up all the good rides (and if car costs drop dramatically, this problem becomes less acute). The money-backed driver development grads don’t fill seats or sell souvenirs.
- We need cars that can pass each other on the track, and we need some difference in speed throughout the field to make for more passing. Ditch the rules that try to make every car equal and put a show out on the track that’s interesting to watch over its length.
Bring back racing where every top runner has buckets of fans, and the leaders keep swapping the lead back and forth in heavy traffic, and more people just might find it exciting.
- Try some Roval-type innovations in race formats to create interest from one week to the next. Twin features might work a few times a year, and I still think the triathlon approach could be a hit – 100 laps on an infield short track (maybe dirt), 50 laps on an infield road course (maybe dirt?), and 100 laps on the superspeedway. I’m too old to consider this seriously, but at some point part of the equation might even be a virtual race – hurts my brain to even think about it, but for the next generations, it might work.
- Bring on the SUVs. How many people buy Camaros, Mustangs and Supras (the likely eventual replacement for the Camry in Cup racing)? Racing these car bodies really makes no sense from the race-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday standpoint. Ford has all but exited the car business, and GM isn’t that far behind. The SUV has become the vehicle of preference in this country, and NASCAR needs to recognize that.
Jaguar is sponsoring an all-electric, all-Jag road racing (street course) series that will run along with the Formula E electric cars around the world. Somebody obviously sees where the industry is headed and wants to be in the forefront. Are you listening, NASCAR?
- Bring on the 21st century engines. I was so proud when my family got that ’65 Chevy with the 327 under the hood. How many people today ask which engine is in that new car? We can either move to smaller engines now or just wait a few years and go directly to electric. Either way, it’s going to happen.
- Diversify. Whatever our reasons, we were OK with stock car racing being almost totally for white guys, but that’s not going to hold for the future. This is a tough one, because the problem is racing-wide, not just in NASCAR, but it’s as essential to the future as racing something that actually has an identification with our daily transportation.
- Embrace sports gambling. It might be what saves the sport.
That last comment leads to this caveat: it’s possible that nobody’s ideas will help – the death of the car culture and the coming of self-driving cars that we might not actually own ourselves will make racing too irrelevant. But I look to horse racing as the century-old example of something that began when it involved the mainstream transportation of the day but survived after it became irrelevant (except to enthusiasts). That transition took betting to make it happen, and stock car racing might be the same, but we could end up with a different model. I’m not smart enough to define that that might be, but my love for this sport leads me to hope it’s out there somewhere.
Also, whatever changes are made must be those delicate kinds that attract tomorrow’s participants and fans without driving away those who are around today. NASCAR already screwed this one up once; we can’t afford a second misstep.
So there we are. Like you, I’m looking forward to seeing the next rules tested at Atlanta, Vegas, Phoenix, and beyond, but even if they seem to be working, we know there’s a lot more to be done. Keep BOTH the support and the pressure up; maybe we’ll be able to look back at 2019 as the beginning of the GOOD NEW DAYS.
Let’s hope this weekend’s Atlanta winner celebrates more than just one victory – let’s hope this race is the beginning of NASCAR’s comeback.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
More and more, short tracks are getting their 2019 schedules published, so look for the ones around you and plan a race or two. Another thing the past 10-20 years taught us is that NASCAR can’t be separated from weekly racing; the health of each depends on the health of the other. NASCAR realizes that now but still doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. What you can do is attend local races and keep that avenue open for tomorrow’s stars at all levels.
Plan to join fans and racers like these at a short track near you more often this year.
Speaking of that kind of racing, the Richmond Raceway website still says NOTHING about the PASS Commonwealth Classic, the short track race that was postponed last fall due to threatening weather and has been rescheduled for March 28-30. Despite that bizarre situation, the event apparently will happen. Unfortunately, this year I can’t attend due to a prior commitment, but I really hope the “Classic” succeeds, because Cup tracks need these secondary events, as does the sport in general.
There’ve been some changes made to the event since fall, and I’m not sure they’re for the best. For one, a 4-cylinder class has been added, which might not provide the most excitement on a 3/4-mile track (these aren’t the kind of 4-cylinders that could be used in Cup, should that ever happen). For another, there are now three different late model divisions running. Since they’re all going to look pretty much alike, this can only confuse casual fans.
Still, let’s hope the “Classic” earns the right to return and be called that in the future.
As I write this, we’re barely a week away from the scheduled opening race of the season here in south central Pennsylvania – sprint cars at Lincoln Speedway on Saturday, Feb. 23. We still have a couple of inches of snow on the ground, with more predicted for next week. Lincoln gets this race run a remarkable percentage of the time, but this year might not add to that statistic.
On the other hand, how can you be a race fan and not be a dreamer?
It might look like this at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln Speedway this Saturday, but wherever you are, the 2019 season will begin soon.