Healthy Weekly Racing Essential to NASCAR
On the Facebook group page “Retired Race Cars and Abandoned Race Tracks,” I recently saw an aerial photo of the former Wayne County Speedway in Nahunta, N.C. (also cited as being in Pikeville). There’s still a drag strip on the property, but the track, which operated variously as dirt and asphalt for 10-15 years mostly in the ‘90s, is probably beyond resurrection.
Aerial view of what remains of Wayne County Speedway
In the comments generated by the posting, it was noted that Wayne County failed in part because Southern National Speedway opened in Kenly, only about 15 minutes away. (Things weren’t much better when the track was dirt: its closest competitor was in Elm City, barely more than half an hour distant.) It also was said that Southern National only ran four special events last year and may not open this year – and that East Carolina Motor Speedway, another paved track in that part of the state, apparently won’t run in 2020.
All of this makes me sad. None makes me surprised. The state of weekly short track pavement racing is terrible. I’m sure there are exceptions (some Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern modified tracks come to mind), but track after track is either closed or racing with car counts that nobody would have thought acceptable all that long ago.
On a good day, East Carolina Motor Speedway could pack ‘em in, but the track, in an area where neither population density nor the economy is in its favor, has struggled through much of its existence.
I write about this subject in this space because I believe that – more than any other activity – weekly short track racing creates NASCAR fans. Yet as this form of racing seems more and more on life support, I don’t hear a peep out of Daytona about trying to fix it. To me, that’s one more shortsighted step toward the death of our beloved sport.
As NASCAR now sadly knows, fans drawn to “the latest thing” don’t stick around once there’s a different latest thing. Fans who love the entire sport, on the other hand, will remain loyal to whatever segments of it do the right things to retain their support.
Many of us had our first racing experience at a pay-per-ride go-kart track, then discovered the “real thing” at the local Friday or Saturday night oval. Going to special events was a predictable next step, and at the top of that world were the NASCAR touring divisions.
Back when it was basking in the limelight of record crowds and sponsors fighting for quarter-panel space, NASCAR forgot that a loyal fan of what it does is a RACE fan, not a FAD fan.
Many if not most become race fans first at weekly short tracks, but there are fewer and fewer opportunities for that these days, and if nothing is done to reverse current downward trends, there may soon be too few to make any difference.
It’s always good to remember that weekly short track racing has brought NASCAR most of its greatest stars.
Most of this applies to ALL short track racing. Dirt tracks are suffering, too: in some areas there used to be enough race teams and fans to keep three tracks going where today one barely survives. Paved tracks seem in the worst shape, though.
Granted, both worlds still have a pretty successful number of special events and touring series, but it takes the weekly tracks with their low-end support divisions to give all the would-be racers a place to start – that’s why we can’t afford to lose them.
With paved short tracks, NASCAR seems in the perfect position to take leadership and try to do something.
Here’s what I’d suggest: Start with a summit meeting of all interested parties. Find out what each one thinks should be done, then let them debate how to bring their not-always-parallel interests together. For instance, drivers and owners will inevitably say that purses aren’t high enough, but track owners can show where the money goes now, and fans can talk about ticket prices that will drive them away. What can each do to bring those divergent points together?
Old-timers will tell you that, “back in the day,” there were more cars, more tracks and more fans, and they’re probably right, which begs the question, “What happened?” My own guess is that costs have risen too much: in the “old days,” more people could afford to put an old car out on a race track, and more fans could afford the admission. Only a discussion by all parties can bring out realistic solutions to that issue.
It won’t be easy, but it seems that this cooperative approach is more likely to define areas where costs can be limited – and maybe apply those limits to one or more new classes of racing vehicles.
This is the short track excitement we need to ensure has a bright future, because NASCAR’s bright future may depend on it.
NASCAR, which still sanctions a good number of weekly tracks around the country, would be the obvious leader for this effort – as long as it doesn’t try to apply any of its too-complicated solutions that haven’t been a resounding success elsewhere. The fact that it could create a sizeable group of tracks unified in a new fix would put pressure on non-NASCAR speedways to follow suit, just as World of Outlaws rule changes tend to be followed by local sprint car tracks throughout the country.
(At this point I have to add that I think current Outlaws rules are beginning to have a negative impact on weekly racing, but I’m hopeful that group will respond more quickly and address the issue before it reaches the current crisis stage we see in weekly pavement late model competition.)
The car owners’ group (Race Team Alliance), which recently purchased Speed51.com, might also have a role, because that website is one of the leaders in providing news beyond the NASCAR touring series. It’s geared more toward smaller traveling series and major events, but it definitely could highlight what’s happening on the weekly level.
We have to go beyond those major races, because they can hide the lack of success in weekly racing. The Chili Bowl midget race in Tulsa had an astonishing 350+ entries this year, but weekly midget racing has disappeared in most of the country. I don’t want to see that happen to pavement late models.
If we’re going to avoid an even bigger problem, we need to get moving toward a solution now.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
NASCAR still hasn’t learned the down side to making things too complicated, as its recently announced pit stop procedure for selected Xfinity and Gander Outdoors events next year makes plain.
Yes, we need to cut costs (although putting this into effect for only a handful of races certainly won’t accomplish much there), but do we need to do so in a way that makes pit stop rules as hard to understand as aero rules or the point system?
I don’t think Sam Ard’s getting a Kyle Busch-worthy pit stop here, but fans still liked the racing, and they might like it again with more economical AND simpler rules.
The easy solution would have been to reduce the number of crew members allowed over the wall to four and leave everything else as-is, but NASCAR can’t do that, because its #1 goal is to keep everybody on the lead lap for TV viewing. Slower pit stops would leave more cars off the lead lap.
I know. I’m just not in touch with the present in my viewpoint that it’s OK to have cars off the lead lap, and I’m not paying the payroll for NASCAR or the big teams.
I still think I’m right.