Time to Lower the Curtains on Stage Racing
I was doing another of my little exercises the other day in which I try to remember what it was that made so memorable certain races I remember decades later. This one has a pretty simple lesson/moral.
There was an excitement about the night races at Richmond that exemplified the peak of NASCAR’s climb in professional sports.
The race was the 1997 Excide 400 at Richmond International Raceway, where I was a “weekend warrior,” working with the public relations crew in the Infield Media Center, only this time I had a special assignment. The National Geographic Explorer television program was on hand to do a feature on the race, and I was the track’s contact person with the production crew. It was an exciting, fun weekend, except for a brief snag with a part-time infield parking attendant who went on a power trip to show he was in total control and interfere with the work – he did not return to that job in 1998.
The Explorer crew had decided to follow Jeff Burton in the Jack Roush Ford sponsored by event sponsor Exide Batteries, and it was a good choice. Starting 11th, Burton was involved in a multi-car incident 20 laps into the race and ended up at the rear of the field.
South Boston, Va., is more than 100 miles from Richmond Raceway, but on the track there, Jeff Burton was always a hometown boy
From that point the South Boston, Va., racer mounted one of the great charges of his career and RIR history, slicing through the entire field in 78 laps to take the lead and begin a complete dominance of the race.
Unfortunately, the Achilles’ heel of Burton’s day was the long green-flag run, and when the race ended with the last 220 laps going green, Burton was toast. With 39 laps left, Dale Jarrett in Yates Racing’s Quality Care/Ford Credit Ford took the lead and was nearly two seconds ahead of Burton at the end.
Still, it had been a great race, with multiple plot lines and an exciting finish, and it’s a good thing it took place 22 years ago, because today it probably wouldn’t have played out that way, thanks to stage racing.
The continuing popularity of stage racing with the NASCAR brain trust just baffles me. It was a reactionary move made at a bad time and it’s hard to hear anything good said about it, unless you’re listening to those paid to say good things about it. It disrupts the continuity of the event to create another artificial means of maintaining close competition, and it creates a scoring system nobody can comprehend.
Surely, guys, there’s an old Car of Tomorrow that you can still see at the bottom of that hole filled with NASCAR’s bad ideas; maybe the corpse of stage racing could hide it from the world forever.
By the way, there was another particularly memorable Richmond race just a year later, also involving Jeff Burton. The 1998 Exide 400 saw another dominant Burton performance (203 laps lead vs. 235 in ’97), but this time he had Jeff Gordon nipping at his heels for more than half the event – the two swapped the lead about 10 times.
The Jeffs doing battle
After a final caution left 28 green flag laps to run at the end, it was Jeff vs. Jeff lap after lap, and the betting was on Gordon, who was having one of his greatest seasons, headed for a total of 13 wins and the Winston Cup title. Unfortunately for Gordon, nobody told the other Jeff he was supposed to lose, and after lap after side-by-side lap, the home-state favorite rolled into victory lane by .051 seconds.
Stage racing likely wouldn’t have affected that finish, but we can only hope that the next generation Cup race car brings back the kind of aerodynamic characteristics that made such side-by-side encounters more possible. I think that’s the goal; I hope it works.
We’ve had some pretty decent finishes so far this year, and while it’s too soon to see if this ship is turning around to a more permanent (and positive) course, I think we can agree there’s more hope than we’ve seen in some time.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Several folks, including Area Auto Racing News’ always-worth-reading Stephen Bubb, have written recently about the fan engagement benefit of allowing fans into the pits before and after shows. At short tracks, this most often means ending a show early enough for fans (and teams) to feel like doing this.
Bubb pointed to Winston-Salem’s Bowman Gray Stadium as Exhibit A. BG has perhaps the nation’s best weekly attendance numbers – 12,000-16,000 fans on average – and the shows stick pretty religiously to a three-hour time limit, allowing for fans to visit their favorites afterward – which they apparently do in large numbers.
The incredibly successful Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. Other promoters could learn a lot from this little place.
When I was a teenager attending Friday night shows at Southside Speedway in Richmond, we wouldn’t dream of leaving without a trip to the pits first. Of course, there were big crows around Ray Hendrick, Sonny Hutchins and the other big winners, but you could hang out with a lesser light or somebody in the supporting Hobby Division (or even wait for a kid’s turn with Ray or Sonny), and you’d leave with a little more attachment to the place – today it’s called engagement.
Along with clean restrooms, policing of unruly fans and decent car counts, that just might help what seems to be a continuing slide in weekly racing, and that in turn would help the whole sport, including NASCAR at the top.
This is how you make – and keep – fans