NASCAR's not ready for prime time players
Sometimes, NASCAR just can't help itself.
On Thursday, NASCAR brought in its much-hyped Air Titan track drying system to help “condition” the track at Chicago prior to Sunday's race. After the work was done, the dryers loaded up and left town- despite heavy rain being in the weekend's forecast. Let that sink in for a moment. On the eve of the Chase kickoff, the equipment was already in town- and then it left. NASCAR's bean counters may have saved a few nickles with the move but it's yet another short-sighted decision that threatens the very future of the sport.
NASCAR's explanation for the Air Titan departure was that the track hadn't budgeted for using the equipment this year. Yet this ignores the fact that International Speedway Corporation (controlled by the same France family that owns NASCAR itself) owns the speedway! NASCAR has become sports incarnation of the “Not ready for prime time players.” It was a selling point for Saturday Night Live but in a sanctioning body it's a nightmare.
See the original "Not ready for prime time players" on DVD
Aside from the Gen 6 car's debut and the Stenica romance, no story at Daytona received more play back in February than the Air Titan. It was billed as a way for NASCAR to quickly recover from rain delays by cutting the time required to dry a track in half. In announcing the Air Titan, NASCAR head Brian France said, “With its far-reaching potential and impact, we believe the Air Titan is a big win for the motorsports industry,” and that fans should not have to wait long before racing resumes. Well, he was half right at least. Fans shouldn't have to wait two hours plus after the last raindrop before the action begins. Particularly when the sanctioning body itself created and built equipment to prevent that from happening.
Yet it was just the latest short-sighted act in a week filled with them for stock car racing and the sequence of events was worthy of Abbott and Costello on their best day. The drivers left Richmond hearing there would be no change to the race-ending results because there was nothing out of the ordinary. After an outcry from fans and media members alike, Michael Waltrip Racing found itself penalized 50 points per car- and Martin Truex Jr. was out of the Chase. Ryan Newman slipped into the second wild card slot and all was well once again. Sort of.
A few days later the hue and cry began once again. Apparently David Gilliland, under orders from his team, allowed fellow Ford driver Joey Logano to pass him and gain the critical point that raised his total into 10th place. Remember that Penske Racing was already on probation thanks to a parts issue earlier in the season. NASCAR's response? A firm slap on the wrist in the form of extended probation for both Penske and Front Row.
Which would make sense except for the utter lack of consistency the ruling had when compared to the one made just a few days prior. In announcing the penalty MWR received earlier in the week that NASCAR said they weren't in the business of making judgment calls and that they could not prove Clint Bowyer intentionally spun out. Instead, the punishment stemmed primarily from Ty Norris' lack of discretion of saying on the team radio how much the team needed that one point. That one point was the same motivation for David Gilliland to pull over and let Logano into the top ten. So if the act was the same and the motivation was the same, why did MWR get a points penalty and Penske Racing got another dose of probation?
As if those two moves didn't cause enough confusion, NASCAR compounded the problem by adding Jeff Gordon into the Chase field by executive fiat. Again, the decision had some merit- particularly if one ignores the “ripple effect” argument that was the heart of NASCAR's decision announced Tuesday. Once again, the sanctioning body completely contradicted their stated logic from less than a week ago. Because even if Logano didn't pass Gilliland at the end Gordon was not going to make the Chase. With one race win, Logano owned the tie-breaker over Gordon. The only good reason to add Jeff to the field at this point was if someone ahead of him dropped out (as happened for Ryan Newman).
What drivers want from NASCAR is very simple; consistency. They want to have a reasonable expectation of what's acceptable and what's not from the sanctioning body's perspective. NASCAR knows this. It's why the series held a meeting Saturday afternoon to lay out their new, “All in, all the time” rule. It's why the rules surrounding restarts were recently modified after several controversial ones occurred over the past few months. The rulings of the past week are totally devoid of that consistency and the reason why is simple. NASCAR reacted to public opinion instead of acting to shape it.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell is famous to have a number of different quotes under the glass of his office desk. One of the less-publicized ones applies here; being responsible sometimes means pissing people off. In a nutshell, that means a leader should make decisions based on what's best for the long term interests of those he or she leads. You cannot lead by responding to what will make people happy in the moment.
Adding Gordon into the Chase field did accomplish one NASCAR goal, though. They averted the risk of having a popular driver become irrelevant. They pleased his large fan base and ensured those viewers and ticket buyers will stay interested in racing for at least a few more weeks. That means more tickets sold at the track and more viewers watching on the television. In the short term, it's a financial windfall to have Gordon as driver #13 in NASCAR's Chase.
But like every other decision made of late, it's one that ignores the downstream consequences. NASCAR made a similar decision in its recent TV rights negotiations. Instead of working with a long-term partner in ESPN that has America's largest sports bully pulpit, they set an asking price almost guaranteed to make the network walk away. NASCAR will receive billions of dollars from NBC but at what cost in terms of coverage, availability, and relevance to the American sports market?
Original "Another Left Turn" column on NASCAR's move to NBC in 2015
- Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
The NBC television contract is a great deal for NASCAR Inc. But is it a great deal for NASCAR?
Sometimes it takes years for the long-term consequences to take effect. Sometimes they can be felt almost immediately. Sunday's rain delay extended to 10pm Eastern. Had the Air Titan dryers been at the track, it's likely the race could have restarted closer to 9pm (if not sooner). With the night's NFL game delayed due to inclement weather, NASCAR could have had much of the entire American sports world's eye. A prime time restart with little competition might have drawn great ratings and provided the sport with a much-needed high note to start the Chase. What a difference an hour makes.
In the most literal sense of the term, NASCAR showed that right now, they truly are the sporting incarnation of the not ready for prime time players.