THE CURE ~ For NASCAR, It’s Elusive
Here’s an article that started off being about schedules. I went to RacingReference.info and copied down the Cup/GN schedules for 2020, 2010, 2000, 1990, 1980, 1970, 1960 and 1950, with an eye toward showing how the series had things going for it in those earlier years that it doesn’t today.
I still think that’s the case. This year’s early season races, after Daytona, could end up having a certain same-ness to them: Vegas, California, Phoenix, Atlanta, Homestead and Texas, before Richmond and Bristol bring in a bit more short-track excitement (we hope). Twenty years ago we had Rockingham and Darlington as part of that mix, too. Punt back another 10, and you add North Wilkesboro – all tracks with a little quirkiness to keep your interest.
There’s not real chance of Cup racing returning to Rockingham, but if it did, “The Rock” wouldn’t be considered a cookie-cutter track.
Pre-Winston days, we also had the minor races, which in 1970 meant Savannah and Columbia. Ten years before that, the trail passed through Hickory, Wilson and Greenville, and Charlotte’s stop was a ¾-mile dirt track.
I’m OK with saying the schedule could use a bit more variety, and I’m OK with saying current tracks could alter what they have to provide that, but I’m not willing to say that schedule changes alone are the fix.
For that matter, I’m not willing to say there IS a fix.
Did you notice that, despite all our handwringing about NASCAR’s plummeting TV ratings in recent years, the Auto Club/Fontana race was the most watched sports event of its weekend?
When I was a kid, and I wanted to watch TV sports with the grown-ups on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, there were three networks; if you didn’t like what they were showing, you could check out radio or find something to attend in person.
Back in the day . . .
By the time I was a parent, we had cable, and all of a sudden there were maybe as many as 10 options, between the traditional networks, cable operations like ESPN (only one channel back then), Home Team Sports and USA, and a few independent stations from nearby major markets that showed local teams.
Look at things today. Almost every network has multiple sports channels, there are lots more networks, and if that’s not enough, there are pay channels and endless free or paid options via streaming.
Doesn’t it make sense that an audience that has hundreds – may thousands – of viewing options won’t watch any one of them as much as when there were only three choices?
Complicating matters that much more are the number of sports to watch/attend. For geezers, there was a day when baseball and football were on top of the pyramid, with basketball and hockey just below, then golf, tennis, boxing and bowling, plus track and other Olympic sports. Somewhere in there were auto and horse racing, which drew lots of fans but were just . . . well, different.
When was the last time you saw coverage of bowling? It’s still around, but Don Carter had much more name recognition than any 2020 pro.
Today there are changes within the old hierarchy, with football becoming fractured among NFL, college, indoor, high school, XFL, Europe, etc., and basketball growing at the college and professional levels (for women as well as men). Golf seems to have grown, although maybe not tennis, and bowling has shrunk, but soccer (American and around the world where it’s “football”) has established a major beachhead. Boxing isn’t what it used to be, but mixed martial arts, kickboxing, karate and all the variants on combat sports have established audiences of varying sizes . . . most of them ending up on television in some form.
What do you think the chances would be for this to have been a Sports Illustrated cover in the ‘60s?
Perhaps most important, none of the above addresses video/computer gaming, which seems to be far more popular with a lot of young people than traditional organized sports.
It could be that the answer to all this is simple: a fractured sports landscape and a drastically fractured media landscape will result monetarily in countless smaller pies taking the place of a limited numbered of much larger pies. And hey, if we still get good racing to attend/watch, what’s the big deal with that?
It’s a big deal of you’re in Daytona wearing a suit, for one thing. I sometimes wonder how far down the NASCAR/ISC organizational chart you’d have to go today to find someone who’s making less than Big Bill France was in 1970. A fragmented world could mean fewer top-dollar salaries.
I’m not wishing anybody out of a job, but I don’t know if the number of VPs in NASCAR’s hierarchy is as good for Joanne/Joe Fan as it is for the VPs.
Yet another problem is competition from non-sports leisure activities. We eat out more than we used to, and we spend more time and money on away-from-home entertainment. (As I write this, my lovely wife and I are planning a date night tomorrow including dinner, followed by live music at a winery.) I frequently note upcoming races on our calendar, but nearly as frequently some non-sports activity ends up competing for that time.
Look farther into the future, and the uncertainty applies for other sports as well. There’s no question that fewer kids play baseball these days, and my sense is that all the head injury conversations are steering more from football, too. (It’s tempting to say global warming will take care of hockey.) The competition from other forms of gambling is killing horse racing. Auto racing is certainly threatened by the declining car culture, but it’s not the only sport will relevancy problems.
Is this the future?
So what do we do?
We can’t control a lot of what I’ve noted above, but we can control the schedule, so let’s come back to that. How about taking that group of tracks I mentioned earlier – Vegas, California, Phoenix, Atlanta, Homestead and Texas – and turn one of them into another roval, although this time the infield road course can be dirt. Mixed-surface races are becoming more popular throughout the world.
We could also put a short track in the infield at one, then have the cars run 100 laps on the outside track, 100 on the inside, and continue that mix until we figure we’ve raced long enough.
Maybe we could just give one track 30-degree banking on one end and a 5-degree bank at the other.
By the way, each of these ideas would have the added bonus to reducing dependence on aero, which reduces passing and competition.
Will any of this save the racing world? Of course not – not that anything I say is likely to be implemented in the first place – but unless we think outside the current Daytona box (a situation that has seen improvement, just not enough), my guess is that the 2040 schedule may be filled with parties watching vids of the good ol’ days.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
(I guess when NASCAR goes to the center lock (one lug nut) wheel next year, I’ll have to rename this.)
Since I complained last week about it costing so much more to attend races these days, I thought it only fair to pass this along. During my recent research session at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, I rummaged through records of the old Central States Racing Association (which also was the Consolidated States Racing Association), a contender for early sanctioning body dominance.
It was apparent that these groups in those days were pretty fly-by-night organizations, which might have been inevitable, given who they dealt with. There were lots of letters from people complaining about things not working out as planned, and lawyers’ letterheads cropped up frequently. One had to do with the hospital bill for a driver who had been injured, apparently not seriously. Somehow, there were two sanctioning bodies involved, and the issue was who should pony up and pay the bill.
In today’s world of astounding medical costs, it was hard to believe that they were fighting over $8 ($5 for the hospital and $3 for the doctor, or maybe it was the other way around).
Just for a bit, that didn’t make racing tickets seem too bad.
The story about NASCAR adopting the 18-inch aluminum wheel was funny example of the corporate tendency these days to say something and have people swallow it, no matter how ridiculous.
VP of Racing Innovation John Probst said that the 18-inch forged aluminum wheel helps to “better replicate what our OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners sell in the showroom.” Excuse me, but I went car shopping with my daughter a few weeks ago, and while you might see center lock wheels on some high-end sports cars (in all fairness, including the Camaro, which if you’ll recall was the 91st best-selling model in the U.S. last year), I wouldn’t look for them on your SUV anytime soon. They’re much more expensive and require enough torque to install/remove that fixing a flat on your own would become a dream. (I might weigh enough to do it if I could jump hard enough on the wrench, but the hospital bills would be just one more expense.)
If Cup racing’s tracks are too similar, I might be able to offer another alternative after this weekend. I’m headed out to watch some go-kart races being run in a horse arena. I’ll let you know how it turns out.