Nascars real problems and solutions, part 2…the solutions

Its easy to criticize, all you need to do is turn on talk radio, or read a blog or two for that matter. Like many others, I have also criticized  the countries largest and most important  racing sanctioning body, Nascar. Having said that, unlike many, I have some possible solutions to some of the most onerous bones  of contention that seems to be sticking in some folks throats, as well as some thoughts as to how Nascar could both improve the races in ways that both the fan and the racer would appreciate.  Last column I said I would address some, so without further ado:

About those double file restarts…..”shootout style”. Mercifully  Larry McReynolds and the gang stopped using that  horrifyingly hackneyed phrase fairly early after Nascar, in a blatant attempt to “liven up” its races, decided that the cars needed to be bunched up on a steady basis. Nascar has gotten it into their collective heads that its racing should be “Days of Thunder” all day, all the time.  Apparently the powers that be think that what the couch potatoes want to see is crashing cars. But that system,  as it is currently used now, is part of Nascar’s problem. Because if crashing its stars was what people really wanted to see, the attendance and the TV audience would have taken a jump up, because wrecking the field on a regular basis has now become business as usual. My personal take on this is two fold, that’s exactly what the modern ‘ fan’, and I truly am taking liberty with the term  ‘fan’, wants to see.  But, that is balanced out with the many real fans of the sport who frankly are sick of Nascar’s tinkering and tune out  many races nowadays.  Besides the fact that track promoters across the country are aping big brother with this nonsense, thereby   decimating their already economically battered car counts. This may not be a huge problem area, but issues do exist with it that need to be addressed. Here is a workable solution.

One of the key things, besides an incredible  amount of  natural talent, that separates  the stars of Nascar from everyone else is their competitive level. Its at a plane that is so very high most cannot fathom it.  These guys are expected to win, its just that simple. They know they have the equipment, the car owners  knows it, and the sponsors  knows it.  The Drivers also know these long races are endurance races, unlike their short track wannabees, they (for the most part) know that you can’t win the race in the first 300 miles. The last 50 miles, or laps, are another story.  What this translates to is, while the start of a race, always a dangerous time, can be done over and over again with relatively little carnage, asking these guys, with competitive  juices pulsing through their veins to behave with 20 laps to go is like asking a hamster to eat red meat..or more accurately, asking a tiger to dine on grass, it ain’t going to happen! Michael Andretti, after a particularly eventful Indy car race once said, “there are guys out there that will cut your throat with a rusty razor blade for 50 cents.” And those guys are supposed to be wussies….tell that to Montoya and Stewart face to face.  At the Pepsi 400 at  Daytona this past July we sat in the stands and watched a great race…until about 20 laps to go that is.  Then the the yellows started flyin’  and the wreckin’ began.  An hour later with  half the field needlessly destroyed and a half hour red flag period with three laps to go, we were on out way to the parking lot for the green white checkered, by then the survivors  just wanted to get it over with and Kevin Harvick won in an uneventful finish. To put it bluntly, that was nothing but contrived, video game nonsense for the infantile couch potatoes…… who are tuning out anyway! Nascar, pay attention here- Have your double wide, “shootout style” restarts, until 50 laps to go. Then, its single file restarts ONLY. The lapped cars and all the wave-around’s are fine, leave that part of things alone. There will still be all the great racing and finishes, without the completely preventable carnage. I’m sure the car owners won’t mind having an extra million dollars a year a piece, that’s about what its costing them. Because he is just in finish the race mode much of the time, I figure it costs Robbie Gordon about half that, along with the other struggling teams. And it did not keep Johnson from a 5th straight title, now did it?  Because  it also crashes everyone else in the process. Speaking for the real race fans, we do not want to see your racing  become a lottery, and that’s what you are attempting to doing here. Constantly bunching these drivers up with just a few laps to go takes much of the racing out of things, putting it in….surprise, surprise, your  hands! We know what is going on, and unlike the couch potatoes, we know better. The Sport of auto racing is not about the sanctioning body creating a demolition derby.  You know full well that, as your greatest star once said after the annual big one at Talladega, “…. if they bunch us up that way they are going to get a slugfest.” Wonder what Dale  would  think  about what you are doing now?  What about the guys in the fab shops,  having  to look  every Monday at the twisted, destroyed racecars dragged back from the track far more often than they ever have before.  What about the drivers, all the black and blue ribs, necks that can hardly move, twisted ankles, cracked bones you never hear about?  Not to mention  the accountants coming into the office  of the struggling teams and shaking their heads. We know about this and everything else that goes along with what your doing week in and week out.  As far as I can tell, you are the only sanctioning body on earth deliberately trying to create wrecks on the racetrack.  Where do you suppose this road is going to lead?  Enough of the theatrics,  before you piss us off to the point where a whole bunch of us tune you out all together!

And now…to make sure everyone does not go to sleep during the last 10 laps of a race, here is the next change I propose…the last 10 laps MUST be green.  With Sprint cars, every lap must be green, and they seem to do just fine. The nature of the sport, I think, would dictate that one the white flag comes out, the race is over. But, if a yellow is thrown on lap 8, and there are 10 laps under the  yellow, then there are still 8 laps to run when the green comes back out. All the hair splitting and the micromanagement would melt away during the last ten laps if this one simple change was implemented.  Talk about pit strategy! Who will stay out, who will come in? Talk about shaking things up! Try it, you’re the dictator(s), if it does not work, for whatever reason, you can change it back. But think about it and give it a try.

Speaking of the pits, you have suffered a lot of criticism about the way you handle speeding on pit road,  and here is a great solution for that. Here you need to tear a page from the NFL. When they make a call, we can all see it, again and again. Relating to pit road speeding, computerize the telemetry, and have in INSTANTLY available; both to the teams and the public via computer feed. Like the NFL’s instant replay now is. Hasn’t seemed to hurt them any. And please do not wail; “we can’t do that.” Nonsense!!! If you are currently, as  say you are , recording  the speed of  every car on  pit road, that means you are, in fact recording the data, the fact the you issue speeding penalties on spot proves that.  Therefore its available real time, on the spot and could easily be put in a mode readily available outside the booth. Of course, If you are unwilling do that, there is only one possible conclusion, and that is that many folks are right, you do use this to manipulate the outcome of your races. As in, “Jr” never gets caught speeding, only a Latino driving for an Indy car car owner  while he’s walking away with the second largest race of the year. There is really no reason that the feed could not be available real time, on the internet, for all the cars. Let everyone see if Dale Jr speeds on pit road. Its your call, of course.  Was Kevin Harvick  speeding at Homestead? Maybe he was.  What about  Jimmy Johnson or Denny Hamlin?  The bottom line here is, there is no need to keep this process secret…….if you have nothing to hide.  It puts the subject to bed, and I’ll assume that is where you would want it to be and stay…..right…..?

Of course, speeding penalties and restarts  at  the  Homestead Miami Speedway  were magnified because it was  the final race of the  Sprint Cup Chase. Which brings us to the most  important subject needing Nascar’s  attention.  This is your biggest problem, and its the entire formant and concept that is the problem. So……1-scrap the  10 race, 12 driver chase  format. 2- with 5 races to go, limit the field to 25 cars, the top 25 from the previous races. Its those 25 cars, NOT just 12, that will be racing for the  championship in the last 5 races. 3- for the last 5 races only, put a 30 point bonus for winning, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth.  4- Rotate at least some of the tracks in the final five races of the chase, using a fan based system to choose one  of the final 5 tracks from a list of other tracks on the circuit.

Lets take a quick look at the four points. There is no doubt that Jimmy Johnson is a superb driver, my observation is that he is the most underrated driver to have won championships  in Nascar’s history. He also has a Zen Master sort of crew chief, like an old married couple, they know each others strengths and weaknesses so well they do not have to spend time communicating the way most other combos in the Garage area have to do- (See the week in-week out  Jr. drama as exhibit A). And to top it all off, this untouchable combination is backed up by the unlimited resources of Hendricks Racing. And yet…with all of that…. using the old, “classic” points system,  Jimmy Johnson would have won a grand total of two Sprint Cup Championships. There would have been no 5 in a row. And to use a crystal ball for  a bit a future gazing, if this system is left in place as it currently is,  personally I see no reason that the Johnson/Kanus combo can’t put up another one or two.  Simply put, the current format is totally tilted towards the huge teams with all the resources money can buy. The sports giants have always been  giants, but instead of being ten  feet tall, they have been made twenty under this system . And that great Alan Kulwicki moment from 1992? Forget it, under this current  system  that would never have happened. There is no way that Kulwicki’s low budget, small resources team would have been able to sustain the ten race Blitzkrieg  the current system demands.  While its true that on any given weekend that there are 30 cars in the garage who can win a race, when it comes to a championship that gets cut down pretty quickly. And when you then ask the teams to be perfect for 10 races, who do you expect is going to rise to the top? And stay there. I think that  is the problem that folks have with the chase, they sense that only the big guys can win it. Don’t we have enough of that already??  The rich getting richer, the rest of us getting laid off notices,  work benefits being frozen  and mortgage modifications left and right . The banks getting  the billions, hell, they still  sponsored  racecars with bailout money. Did YOUR streetstock, 305 sprint,  limited late model or Wissota modified get a taxpayer bailout? Me neither. Lets level the playing field a bit and put some drama into the system.

The chase gets shortened to five races. Probably renamed as well. Then… with five races to go, the field is limited to 25 cars, the top, final, 25 in points. The points are re-set, with a one or maybe two point drop, i.e. the 25th car has 2 points, the #1 car has 50 points. Then, for the final 5 races, there is a 30 point bonus for winning the race, 20 points for second, 10 for third, and 5 for fourth.  Yes, I get that the final race  should  and will be held at  Las Vegas,  its a great venue for it and with the awards banquet the following week, makes total sense. But, for the other four tracks, Phoenix, New Hampshire and  Charlotte are my quick picks…..with the fourth track to be fan selected and announced at the end of the final race leading into the five race finale.  Daytona or Talladega would not be on the track list, the reasons should be obvious. But I see no reason that  one of the  road courses and  Martinsville could not be on the track list. And there would be NO driver substitutions allowed, who would want to anyway?  This format has all positives, and very few, if any negatives.

First off, there will be some ‘wild card’ teams in the picture. Everyone loves underdogs, it’s the stuff of legends in every sport ,  its in our national DNA. In the current chase format, the closest thing to that would be  the Tony Stewart team, and it’s a Hendricks support team! The system now has nothing but the hi-dollar teams, and  I think that is one of the real problems folks have with the current system. The new format will have underdogs in it.  Some will have to fight like dogs to get in, that’s the whole idea. And there will be no way to win the championship without winning races.   Robbie Gordon, Elliot Sadler, Marcus Ambrose, David Reutimann, Travis Kvapil, David Stremme, these guys will be noticed, their presence will be felt. This format and system will create those Alan Kulwicki and Benny Parsons moments, not to mention compelling battles going right down to the wire. The five tracks will have variety, they will be the driver’s tracks, and having one unknown there will add to the drama as well as directly involving the fans. It can be the second to the last race, to give the chosen track a chance to get ready. And, the list of tracks, similar to the super bowl venue, can be rotated from year to year. It will be a windfall for the tracks, what could be possibly  wrong with that? There is no reason that the hype leading up to the Chase , we’ll continue to call it that for now, cannot be compelling and hold the interest of the casual couch potato fan, and it most definitely  will be compelling drama for the rest of us. The fighting for the 25th spot will be just as intense and important as the 12th place battles have been recently. And if a Robby Gordon were to squeak in and get a little bit lucky,  if a road course were to get voted in, don’t  you think that an underdog battling for the championship would be at least as compelling  as  the Johnson steamroller has been?  And about that 25, for five races, the only cars on the track will be those fighting for the championship. Any slight decline in TV ratings that might happen leading up to it will be completely overcome with this 5 race format. To tear a page from the NFL here, in the playoff’s there are only playoff teams, right? Why  should our sport be any different? This could also be a bargaining chip for sponsor negotiations. A nice bonus for making the chase could be part of a contract. There is nothing wrong with it, there are only positives. And remember, we would also have no re-start drama to decide the finishes of these races, no secret speeding penalties, cut down on the magic yellows, this is all  what the sport needs, plain and simple.

I’ve been hanging around racetracks a long time, both as a competitor and as a fan. Unlike many, I love all forms of the sport. While I have seen most all forms of the sport grow, only Nascar and Formula 1 have achieved greatness. I believe that Nascar, deep in its heart of hearts does want what is best for the sport of auto racing in general, and its sphere of influence in particular. But I truly think its lost its way a bit. I do not think it  truly understands the world in which it has to live in and co-exist with others nowadays.  The changes I propose Nascar at least consider both addresses the past, like me, and the future, which is the fickle internet savvy, social media driven electronic world. It will touch the underdog chord that exists a bit in all of us, as well as honor greatness, because make no mistake, Jimmy Johnson and Chad Knaus  can easily win with this new format…but then so can the Robby Gordon’s of the sport. Which he could not do before. I think that would be good for the sport,the fans, the drivers and the teams, not to mention Nascar,  but hey, that’s just me.

Art Dahlberg

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