NASCAR can learn from Formula 1
The last thing most NASCAR fans want to hear about is Formula 1. All too many F1 as a bunch of Euros running in a parade for a couple hours. They point out how NASCAR has far more side by side racing and how technology rules the day. They'll also gladly cite examples of where teammates worked together to win a Constructor's Championship instead of racing for the win. And while there is some merit to those arguments, there is much that NASCAR can learn from the world's most popular auto racing series.
Watch the Stewart-Hamilton driver swap
The F1 points system is vastly different than the one employed by NASCAR. Instead of awarding some level of points to all who enter the race, F1 only rewards points for the top ten finishers. Moreover, the drop-off is precipitous. The race winner earns 25 points, second receives 18 points, all the way down to the tenth place car receiving a single point. As a result, the only way to win a series championship is to win races. If you miss a setup or finish mid pack you earn the same number of points as a car that crashed on the first lap.
The result is that there simply is no incentive to “points race” as exists in NASCAR. A team who averages a seventh place finish over the course of a season will likely win the Sprint Cup. Meanwhile, an F1 team that does so will be an also-ran. One race win is better than four seventh place finish. If NASCAR were to implement a similar system it would return the on-track focus to where it should always be; in victory lane. Teams would be unafraid to gamble for wins because the risk/reward ratio would be skewed entirely towards the reward side. After all, if you're running 15th you're not going to earn a single point from your finish. So why not throw caution into the wind?
Every Race Matters
The other key difference between the two series in terms of naming a champion is that F1 has no version of a playoff system. The points a driver earns at the Australian Grand Prix in March carry the exact same weight as the points earned at the Brazilian Grand Prix in November. Meanwhile, the same does not apply in NASCAR. The points a driver earns in Daytona essentially become useless once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts. As long as you have enough to make the top ten (or get one of the wild card slots) it doesn't matter how many points you earned prior to Chicago.
NASCAR invested heavily in the Chase as a means of creating drama so it's unlikely that the sanctioning body will backtrack now. They (rightly) point to the number of close point races since the inception of the Chase and compare it to the blowouts in seasons prior. Yet an adjustment to the way points are earned would accomplish the same goal. At the same time, abolishing the Chase would be hailed by hardcore fans who never warmed to the idea in the first place. Meanwhile, it's doubtful that casual fans would even notice the difference as long as the points races remained close.
In Car Adjustments
F1 uses a system called DRS (Drag Reduction System) that its drivers can activate inside the car to change the aerodynamic shape of the car. Specifically, when a driver uses the DRS feature, a small flap on the rear wing of the car moves up, reducing drag and increasing speed on the vehicle. There are heavy limitations on when drivers can use the system; most importantly, it cannot be used by the vehicle in front. As a result, a car looking to pass has a distinct aerodynamic advantage- instead of a distinct aerodynamic disadvantage as is the case in NASCAR.
Anything that gives drivers more control over passing while reducing the advantage of clean air would be welcome at this point. One possible NASCAR variant of this would be to enable drivers to adjust wedge from the cockpit. Instead of waiting for a pit stop, a driver with an ill-handling car can make adjustments on the fly to find more speed. Another possible variant would be to make the rear spoiler mechanically adjustable. Drivers could then determine for themselves what angle or length gave them the best possible combination of drag and downforce on race day. Teams do extensive wind tunnel testing as to how the car will react at speed but it's virtually impossible to simulate that same experience while running in traffic. Enabling in-race adjustment of the car's aero would provide another way to pick up the pace.
Different Tire Compounds
In a standard clear-weather race, Formula 1 teams must use two separate tire types over the course of the race. The first, Prime, is a harder compound. The tire provides less grip but will last longer on the car and its performance drops off less over the course of a run. The second, Option, is made from a soft compound and provides the maximum level of grip. Teams are required to run both tire types over the course of a race. This adds another layer of strategy for the teams. Do you use the Option tires to start the race in hopes of building a bigger lead? Do you start off with the Prime and count on having the softer tires available for a run late in the race? Neither is guaranteed to be a race-winning strategy before the green flag falls.
NASCAR teams go through far more tires of the course of the race and make more pit stops than their F1 counterparts. So requiring at least one run may not have the desired effect. However, saying that teams must start the race on one type then finish on the other certainly would add drama, particularly at the road-course races. Another option might be to simply limit the number of Option tires a team could use over the course of a race. For example, teams could have unlimited Prime tires but only three sets of Option tires. When would teams use them? A long green flag run near the end of the race might prevent a team for getting to a third set; a late caution could bring a hoard of cars onto pit road for the speedy Options.
The F1 season runs anywhere from 19-22 races over a season stretching from March to November. Thanks to the extensive travel requirements (the series runs on tracks located in every corner of the world) the series cannot run 10-15 consecutive races as NASCAR does at various points during its season. The end result is a far more manageable schedule from a product perspective. The motto in advertising appropriate here is, “Always leave 'em wanting more,” and F1 certainly does that.
Meanwhile, NASCAR runs 38 races (counting the Shootout at Daytona and the All Star Race) from February to November. Even the biggest racing ran starts to experience burnout at some point. Worse still, that burnout often occurs just as football (America's most popular sport) kicks into gear. By the time Homestead comes around, the NFL is deep into its schedule and the NCAA is angling towards naming its own title contenders. Add in the World Series and the beginning of the NBA and NHL seasons and NASCAR struggles to find a place in the American sports landscape. A shorter season, while highly unlikely given the dollars, would be a welcome change.
Check out these NASCAR DVDs on Amazon
NASCAR doesn't need to become Formula 1. They've become the biggest form of auto racing in the United States because they offered something that the open wheel cars could not. But that doesn't mean they can't learn something from their overseas brethren. What NASCAR fan wouldn't want winning to matter more? Would they decry more passing on the track or more drama to end the race? No. The France Family- and maybe even NASCAR Nation as a whole- should be willing to swallow their pride if the end result is a better racing product.