The Lure of Gimmicks and the Barrier of Money
Atlantic City Speedway was a pretty typical weekly short track before it was wiped off the map in 1979 to create a parking lot for the then-new Atlantic City casinos, which of course don’t need extra parking lots anymore. It ran a fun, two-division show of modifieds and “hobby cars,” and was the closest track to my temporary home one summer many, many years back.
Atlantic City Speedway in Pleasantville, N.J.
The promoter, Ken Butler, was a former thrill show guy, and he had a good feel for showmanship, which began each week with the National Anthem. The rendition was the recorded Marine Corps Band version (best one ever for me), but what stood out was the presentation: As the music began, the pace car pulled out on the track from the pit area with the flag held out the passenger window. The car circled the track (a tight third-mile, as I recall), then pulled into the infield, where another track staffer took the flag and ran it up the pole, coordinated so that Old Glory reached the top just as the music ended.
If you weren’t ready for some good racing after that, you had problems.
That kind of showmanship used to help keep some tracks alive, I’m guessing, and it extended to on-track stuff. Another long-ago visit – this time to Mobile International Speedway – saw a novelty race that I thought was an absolutely cool idea. Somewhere between 15 and 20 cars started, lined up in reverse qualifying order – slow cars in front, fast ones in back. The field ran two laps under green, and then on the third lap and every lap after that, the car running last was black-flagged off the track, until only the winner remained. It made for great racing and a great show.
Gimmicks alone don’t ensure success or even make for a great show, but they can help. Susquehanna (now BAPS) Motor Speedway had a pure-stock-level minivan class at one point, and they sometimes ran a race with traffic cones narrowing the track to a single lane at the end of each straightaway. There definitely was action when everybody jockeyed for position heading for that obstacle.
Minivans racing at Susquehanna (now BAPS) Motor Speedway
All of my positive examples from memory stand in stark contrast to today’s world of Cup racing, specifically because all involved relatively low-buck endeavors, and nobody in the Joe Gibbs/Roger Penske world of today’s NASCAR would ever consider putting a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars into such a setting.
That, to me, is part of NASCAR’s problem these days. Steve Phelps said during his interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that NASCAR needs to work closely with the car owners because keeping enough owners (the really top ones like Gibbs and Penske) is difficult, due to the costs. Yet very few of the Hall-of-Fame-quality owners of the past made their marks in such an environment. Lee Petty, Cotton Owens, Banjo Matthews, Bud Moore, Smokey Yunick and others weren’t wealthy; rather, they were successful small business owners with mechanical ability and the brains to succeed in the system of the day.
I would be fine with going back to that, but it won’t happen in the context of today’s NASCAR, because the whole enterprise depends on the enormous amount of money the sport needs today for engineers, PR/marketing teams, lots of other personnel – and financial returns for investors. I’m afraid that entire system would have to collapse – and lots of people would suffer great personal loss in the process – for NASCAR-type racing to start over as a truly grassroots enterprise again.
How much trauma do we want to wish on one another?
Still, there might be “baby step” moves in that direction. I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it here: NASCAR should begin preparation NOW for an exhibition racing series using SUVs and plan to phase it in as a replacement for the cars currently running Xfinity. Even the police use SUVs today, so why can’t we race them? In developing this new class, we could start with a model that lowers costs dramatically, then begin moving that model to other series.
NASCAR racing SUVs probably won’t look quite like these, but you get the idea.
There are many, I’m sure, who disagree with me. They think that NASCAR can continue to get bigger, and “better” will follow. They probably look longingly at Formula One. I disagree and look instead at the smaller, nimbler, less risk-averse model and say that’s how Bill France got this thing going. It was hardly perfect back then, but you could adjust and address problems more quickly, eventually finding the way forward.
And if, in the process, you put Curtis Turner’s speed bump on Charlotte’s backstretch, or you run a “Five O’Clock Traffic Race” with construction hazards, there’s nothing wrong as long as the fans are happy and keep supporting the sport.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
The other week I mentioned that the ticket that cost me $5 for my first Grand National/Cup race 55+ years ago would cost more than $1,500 today, based solely on how much it would have to contribute to the race purse, I didn’t go into the reasons that’s not actually the case.
There are in fact many reasons, but probably the biggest one is television. When the Richmond 250 was run in 1963, the 15,000 of us in attendance covered the purse (listed back then as about $12,000 if I recall correctly, but added up by Racing-Reference.info as less than $9,000) without financial help from TV. The maybe 40,000 or more fans at Richmond the other week didn’t have to cover as much of the several million dollars presumably paid out after this year’s Toyota Owners 400, because sponsorships and TV – somewhere close to 2 million viewers – covered a lot of it.
That being the case, why shouldn’t we look even more than we do at structuring races and RaceDay itself to bring in the most TV viewership and revenue and maybe reduce actual attendance costs a little to reflect that those of us in the stands are more like the studio audience for The Price Is Right – nice to have, but not as essential as the folks in living rooms, rec rooms and bars, watching on TV?
This may seem sacrilegious to some, but I think it’s realistic, and it might open the door to new ideas that could keep rating going back up, which in turn would help keep our sport alive.
I wouldn’t jump for joy if this were to happen, mind you, but it still might be for the best.
ABSOLUTELY CRAZY IDEA – This is about as far out there as my brain will go, but how about structuring racing like European soccer? As I understand it, a team remains at the top level in soccer by performance, and if that performance slips, it drops down to a lower level and is replaced by a lower team that is performing better.
“Bud, you finished 32nd in a field of 30 cars, so we’re going to have to move you down a notch. This is your new race car. It competes in the self-driving division.”
So we create maybe three or four levels of Cup-style racing (at a sufficiently cheaper cost to encourage more competitors), and only the top 30 cars get to race the top feature. The next 30 run a preliminary race, and the next 30 a lower feature than that. My Sunday show at Worldwide International Speedway goes like this:
100-lap feature for Division III
100-lap feature for Division II
200-lap feature for Division I
Two or three times during the season the bottom five cars in a division swap with the top five in the next lower division. The three-feature format provides some excitement, and there’s a new dynamic that’s more exciting than stage racing.
I’m not sure I like this idea as much as the “Iron Chef” model, where the teams get a limited amount of time to build their car from readily available parts before starting the race, but I’m in an “everything’s-on-the-table” mood these days, and if we’ve got a big enough table, this might fit.
Haven’t run anything lately from the 24 Hours of Lemons road racing series, but how can I skip over these folks while writing about gimmicks. Wouldn’t it be just a teensy bit cool to watch racers like this run from time to time?
FINAL NOTE – There’s hope for me, yet. “Cowboy” Jim Kennedy started the PA Sprint Series feature weekend before last at Path Valley Speedway, and although he didn’t do so well, his very presence is inspirational to me. The Cowboy is 84 years young.