NASCAR's Schedule Needs To Change
For those who watched both the Camping World Truck series and Nationwide races last fall, one thing was abundantly clear. As styles make fights, tracks make races. The Nationwide (and Cup) regulars ran the 1.5 mile track at Atlanta while the trucks took on Ron Fellows' road course in Canada. The Nationwide race quickly turned into the typical intermediate parade livened up only by a crash that bunched up the field with 14 laps to go. Meanwhile, the truck race featured heavy door to door action and a fantastic finish between two up and coming drivers. There was no contest as to which was the more entertaining event; the only question is whether NASCAR was watching and what they may ultimately do about it.
Like most Nationwide races, the race that same Saturday night in Atlanta featured a heavy rotation of Cup regulars at the top of the charts. Kevin Harvick led 132 of the 195 laps run en route to the race win. Cup drivers dominated the field with Kyle Busch in second, Kasey Kahne in fourth and Joey Logano in sixth place. Both Kahne and Logano would have finished even higher if not for tire and handling issues. Their struggles (if snagging a top six finish can be called a struggle) served to add a small amount of drama, as did Harvick's wheel vibration late in the race. But they hardly added enough to offset what took place lap after lap.
Several drivers noted publicly that Goodyear's new tire at the track could potentially be a game-changer in terms of handling and tire wear. The tire combined a hard inner third to go with a softer rubber compound around the outside. The idea was to improve tire durability near the hub (where melting a bead can lead to tire failure) while providing greater grip and performance fall-off around the edge. While the tire seemed durable enough, it did not appear to add anything in terms of side-by-side passing. The outside lane still freight-trained by after a handful of laps. Clean air still meant everything. And the field still spread out into a single-file parade shortly after every green flag.
Sparks flay after an entertaining truck series race
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Contrast what took place in Atlanta with what took place at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. The field contained no Sprint Cup regulars- instead, it was Truck series regulars competing against promising rookies and a handful of road course ringers. In other words, specialists at this kind of track and the future of the sport. CTMP itself has a deep racing history including Formula 1, American Le Mans and the Can-Am series. After a series of improvements over the past decade, the track was ready to make its debut for American racing fans.
Like Rockingham last year and Eldora this year, CTMP was a new addition to the Camping World Truck series schedule. The closest track for area NASCAR fans is the Michigan International Speedway, a two mile track where the racing could not be more different than what takes place at CTMP. The venue was primed and fan anticipation was high. An exciting race was all that was needed to make the track a regular stop in the years to come.
Suffice it to say, yet another new track delivered in a huge way. Chase Elliott, a Hendrick developmental driver with a world of talent and a name familiar to Sprint Cup fans, won the race via a last lap pass of Truck series points contender Ty Dillon. Dillon, no stranger to using the chrome horn himself, saw Elliott stick the nose of his truck underneath the fender of Dillon's #3 and send the truck into the trackside barrier.
Even with the race coming to a close, the action was just getting started. Max Papis, who Sprint Cup fans most recently saw piloting Tony Stewart's car at Watkins Glen, was involved in a last lap incident with Mike Skeen. This was Skeen's first race ever in one of NASCAR's national touring series. The crash cost him a top five finish in his truck series debut and cost Papis a dislocated jaw, courtesy of a slap from Skeen's girlfriend. In total, the action on the track was fantastic and the post-race shenanigans will be on highlight reels for years to come. It's hard to ask anything more in terms of entertainment from an auto race.
That's important because at the end of the day, NASCAR is in the entertainment business. They compete with the stick and ball sports, movies, television and a host of other options for those entertainment dollars. When NASCAR changes its points systems or its cars, the ultimate goal is to maximize its share of those entertainment dollars. When fans are entertained, they come back for more. When they aren't, those dollars go somewhere else. We've heard a host of different reasons why the sport's popularity has declined (the economy, the cars, Jimmie Johnson's dominance, among others). The one reason never mentioned in public is also the most accurate one. Fans are simply not as entertained as they were 15 to 20 years ago and the track schedule is a big reason why.
Race dates on the Sprint Cup schedule have moved around the calendar in recent years but the basic track schedule remains the same. The only new track since 2002 is the Kentucky Speedway (and it only made the cut thanks to Bruton Smith purchasing the track and adjusting his overall track dates). NASCAR's International Speedway Corp. (ISC) and Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) own virtually all of the tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule. They've invested billions of dollars into building their respective track portfolios and the crown jewel of each is Sprint Cup racing. No other event draws the same kinds of crowds or the same kind of television revenue. Giving up a date is something that would either cost NASCAR money directly (ISC) or indirectly (through likely legal action from SMI).
A cursory look at the schedule reveals just how intermediate-heavy the NASCAR season is, particularly during its most critical period, the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. 14 of the 36 races take place on these tracks including five of the ten Chase races. Most of the tracks were built in the 1990s with similar design strategies. The idea was to maximize the area track operators could sell to fans; be it infield passes or grandstand seating, these tracks were easy to build and relatively unique at the time of their construction. Adding one such track was fine. Adding five or six was overkill considering Charlotte and Michigan already combined for four races on the schedule.
What makes the presence of these tracks such a problem is that there simply is no way to make the Sprint Cup car racing as good there as it is elsewhere. No amount of tinkering can change the aerodynamic facts of life; a car running up front handles better than a car running in the middle of the field. Time and again we've seen this; a car runs up front and seems to be unstoppable. Then a pit road mistake or strategy error puts that car back in the pack. The driver is never heard from again. Meanwhile, someone else takes two tires (or none at all) and jumps from 15th to the front row. Their car takes off and the team is credited with a “brilliant” strategy. Finishing up front no matter what may be the racer's goal. But it's hardly an entertaining product and doesn't draw fans to the track.
The solution to NASCAR's entertainment problem is as obvious as it is complicated. The Sprint Cup series needs to start running at different tracks. While not every track in America has the necessary infrastructure in place to host NASCAR's top series, there are several just crying out for a date on the schedule. Ironically enough, the Truck series will be visiting one of those tracks next week in Iowa. The 7/8ths mile track is large enough to provide ample room for fans and drivers yet small enough to provide the kind of in-race action NASCAR fans crave. Besides Iowa, another road course or two would also be a huge boon for on-track competition; there are several hosting races for NASCAR's lower tiers right now and any would be a welcome sight on the Sprint Cup schedule.
But for any track to be added to the schedule, another track must come off of it. At 36 sanctioned races plus Speedweeks at Daytona and the All Star Race, NASCAR's schedule is already too long. There is zero chance of more races being added. So where does the race date come from? Ideally the date would come from one of the intermediate coures- particularly one of the tracks carrying two races. But both Charlotte and Texas sell well over 100,000 tickets per race. Kansas doesn't but it has been a near-sellout since adding a second race. Homestead has only one but NASCAR clearly likes ending their year in South Florida. Moreover, no operator willingly gives up a Sprint Cup date and the legal battles to do so would likely be protracted ones.
The other possible solution is another NASCAR has studiously avoided. Both F1 and IRL have introduced their own version of a “Push to Pass” button for the drivers. This provides the driver with a limited number of temporary power boosts that enable a car in behind to overcome the aerodynamic disadvantage. The technical aspects of how and when to allow drivers to use such a system on oval tracks are significant hurdles. But if NASCAR engineers can find a way, this type of technology may be able to introduce another way to pass for cars stuck in aerodynamic limbo.
Something has to be done. The last 24 hours showed just what a difference a track can make. The truck race, featuring only a select few drivers most fans had ever heard of, put on a race that entertained from start to finish. The Nationwide series, with a host of recognizable names and big money teams, put on a homecoming parade. Even the most ardent of NASCAR cheerleaders would watch the truck race if forced to choose. NASCAR would be wise to recognize that the choice facing their audience isn't between one race or another; it's between racing and something else altogether. The series is capable of putting out a compelling product that entertains casual and hardcore fans alike. The first step in doing so will only be taken once NASCAR realizes what most of its fans already know; the NASCAR schedule needs to change.