Is NASCAR's Future In The PASS?
I spent a recent Sunday afternoon in a banquet room full of racers and their families and friends, celebrating achievements from last year and looking ahead to a bigger, better 2019. Nowhere was there the kind of "what-can-we-do-to-fix-things" feeling of near despair that seems to come with so much of NASCAR these days.
What the heck was going on?
Well, the group was the Pennsylvania Sprint Series, a local racing club that has been providing open-wheel enthusiasts a relatively inexpensive place to race for more than 20 years. It's part of the national IMCA RaceSaver Series, which sanctions similar local/regional groups around the country. It's a concept that has been and still is growing, in part because its objectives are far different from those of NASCAR and its premier series teams.
PASS 2018 Champion Zach Newlin at this month's banquet (assisted by his son) and in victory lane at Port Royal Speedway last summer.
The biggie is that PASS isn't about making money. The teams certainly don't, because the purses are small, and because a cardinal rule - which some, in fairness, would like to see change - is that the winner only gets twice as much as last place. Those running the shows are volunteers, so they're not in it for retirement income, either. For the most part, the tracks don't depend on PASS for most of the gate receipts; the group usually competes as an added class, below the top one or two featured divisions.
So why should NASCAR care? Maybe because everyday Joes can afford to race with PASS, and some shows last year had 40+ cars entered for a 20-lap feature race - qualifying can be pretty interesting those nights. The rules are simple, but they're enforced. Most significant is that the engines are sealed, so cheating there is really hard. Sprint car chassis are pretty standard and pretty cheap, and generally lots of older cars are around and available, so there are few barriers to entry - the opposite of NASCAR, where nearly everything of importance is reserved for those who paid big bucks up front.
PASS competitors strictly race on dirt, but their Virginia counterparts have almost as many paved events on their schedule this year as dirt, so these cars can race where you ask them to race.
PASS has a small but loyal following, and they do help with increasing crowds when they're on the card. And while nothing/nobody escapes criticism on social media these days, most competitors seem pretty pleased with where PASS is - although they all think it should receive more recognition.
I just think you have to look at something that keeps growing. The RaceSaver concept began with Virginia racer/mechanical innovator French Grimes, who found a way to make sprint car racing affordable in his home state. Some guys experimenting with other cost-cutting formulas in Pennsylvania jumped on board, and the ball's been rolling ever since. A few years ago, Grimes sold the series to Nebraska promoter Roger Hadan, the sanctioning body IMCA got involved, and now another sanctioning group, POWRi, has joined the party.
I've heard that there might be 1,000 RaceSaver cars out there now, and you can take any one of them and race with any of the other local/regional groups. At this point, at least, the future doesn't look threatened; it looks bright.
No offense to 'em, but sponsors have become the be-all/end-all of NASCAR today. With PASS, there's no shame - or panic - in running with nobody's name on your wing, and lots of the sponsors provide support in the hundreds of dollars, not millions. If you love to race, you can race here.
So maybe NASCAR just might want to take a look at what works elsewhere and consider adopting some ways of doing the sport that are part of its past, but that it's gotten away from over the past 70 years.
I'm not saying that there will be as many dollars on the table - I'm not sure the amount of money in the sport now is a positive, though, so to me that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm just saying that, as of 2019, it looks like the future for little groups like PASS could be brighter than that for the one-time king of American motorsports.
Think about that while watching the show at Daytona.
Frank's Loose Lug Nuts
I make the point every now and then that my "If-I-Ruled-The-World" fixes for NASCAR would probably eliminate a good number of jobs, and I really do regret that possibility, but I don't think the NASCAR world can support its current infrastructure, so something has to happen.
I'll also admit that PASS's volunteer ethic includes me - I'll be doing some writing for the group this year - and I can afford to do that, because I'm retired.
But I also remember, in the era I look back on fondly, NASCAR published in each race program a two-page list that included all its "staff," including part-time local track folks. I don't see the sport's overall health suffering because of a shift back in that direction.
Modern profiles of former drivers no longer seem to mention it, but racers used to have day jobs. Curtis Turner bought and sold land; Joe Weatherly promoted weekly race tracks, and Harry Gant had a construction business. Do you think there's anything wrong with that?