The NHL got back to basics with the wildly successful outdoor Winter Classic. NASCAR should follow that lead by taking its non-points all-star event back to the short tracks that laid the sport's foundation.Yes, NASCAR chairman Brian France has espoused this theory as a way to re-engage disenchanted fans, but it's been more of a hollow mantra than a plan of attack. France said he would like to see drivers reveal more personality and emotion, but such actions often cost points and paychecks.
NASCAR should follow its own supposed lead and bring the sport back to its origins. It should move the annual race out of Charlotte and onto an unglamorous, unsophisticated, grubby little short track with woefully little motor coach space. Tony Stewart's Eldora (Ohio) Speedway would probably rocket to the top of the venue list, and that's OK. Just make sure places like Rockingham and Bowman Gray Stadium eventually get a turn. There would be a palpable Field of Dreams feel to it, and the sight of NASCAR's stars tussling on the tracks where many got their start might provide the connecting experience that could save American local racing.
NASCAR has attempted to grow itself in Southern California by providing first one, then two, then two -- including one extremely important race -- races to California Speedway in Fontana. But even an incredible amount of nurturing has failed to foster growth. Track president Gillian Zucker famously suggested in 2006 that sparsely-filled bleachers were a result of a run on souvenir booths below. Yes, absurd.
This season, California hosts the fourth race in the Chase for the Championship in what should be -- but is not admitted by NASCAR officials to be -- its last, final attempt to make the market bloom. France, who helped open NASCAR's lucrative Los Angeles office, exposing the sport to Hollywood crossover, mass-market media and celebrity hob-knobbing, very much wants the SoCal experiment to work. But if it doesn't, so what? The NFL -- the only league to which NASCAR aspires -- has not had a team in Los Angeles since 1995, and remains the most popular sport in the country. If L.A. fans want NASCAR, they can watch it on television. Put a race someplace where fans will come, like maybe Darlington, S.C.?
Based on the size of the city, there shouldn't really be an NFL team in Green Bay, Wisc. And although small-market franchises like the Buffalo Sabres and Kansas City Royals sometimes struggle to compete, they are guaranteed a certain number of games each season and therefore a certain viability.
Motorsports team owners buy extravagant parts and pieces, hold them together with stickers and body wrap and call it a race team. There is virtually no guarantee of competition aside from the top-35 rule in Sprint Cup, and those parts and pieces sell for a fraction of their value if the owner wishes to sell and move on.
If a team is sunk because of sponsor shortfalls, that's another issue, but the certainty of making the show would likely alleviate some of that problem. The legendary Wood Brothers should have something to hold on to, but instead are struggling to cobble together a schedule this season. And Richard Petty should be more than a logo.
Certainly, the rules of baseball have metamorphosed since Alexander Cartwright authored the Knickerbocker Rules in 1845, and that whole designated hitter thing is still good for a generational dust-up with your Uncle Ray, but the parameters of the grand old game have remained mostly steady for more than a century. Racing, specifically NASCAR, has trouble going a weekend without issuing a so-called technical bulletin amending the rules. Granted, squadrons of engineers don't spend hours honing Albert Pujols' swing, but pitchers tinker with pitches, hitters experiment with bats and then there's the steroid issue. That said, the structure of the game remains.
World Series, Stanley Cup, "the Finals," Super Bowl. They ring, they put the period on a season. But NASCAR begins its season with its biggest race -- the Daytona 500 -- and the Indy Racing League contests the Indianapolis 500 four races into its season at the end of a long May run-up. NASCAR abates a post-Daytona lull with a long schedule and a culminating playoff format. The IRL clambers for mainstream attention after the ceremonial swig of milk in Victory Lane. Neither series is likely to surrender its signature moment, but those other sports might just be on to something.
Of course, those other guys don't have a monopoly on the good ideas. There are a few things they could learn from racing.
NFL coaches are so paranoid over the prospect of their signals and calls being compromised by opponents that they press a laminated play chart to their lips when speaking to assistants in the booths above. Seems absurd. As if an opponent has lip-readers with binoculars, staring across the field like a North Korean DMZ patrol, gleaning clues. Actually, Bill Belichick might have those.
Anyway, let's eliminate the subterfuge. Let fans in on inter-team communication. Eventually the verbiage will become clever enough that Red-47-vector-vector-Foxtrot does not immediately give away an entire play call. Coaches spend 20 hours a day at the complex anyway, so let them spend a little more time on nomenclature. Play-call dialogue won't approach the drama of a Dale Earnhardt Jr. tirade after a botched pit stop or misdiagnosed race car, but it could be compelling. It could also eliminate the haughty air of coaches who act like they're calling in air strikes instead of pass plays.
Much of the field wrecked at Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Talladega, a cyclotron of a racetrack where the imminence of calamity is both titillating and realistic. Robby Gordon went nose-first into a concrete barrier approaching 200-mph. Such impacts once killed drivers. Carl Edwards's No. 99 Ford was launched by a tap from race-winner Brad Keselowski as they tussled near the finish line, flitted like a feather and tore into the catch fence. Eight fans were injured, some with broken bones. It was bad, obviously, but it's not like the fans were sitting in the splash zone for a Shamu show. The thick steel cables and wire mesh were an indication these fans had a ringside seat for Armageddon.
Baseball is different. Prized, generally unencumbered (read, unprotected) box seats offer superb sight lines and a sense of envelopment without the need for earplugs. They also make fans targets. Sharp line drives are part of the accepted risk for fans when they shed the protection of a backstop screen. Shards of maple bats are not acceptable, and they penetrate the seating area with great frequency. Any projectile -- whether it's car parts or bats and balls -- is dangerous. The NHL got it right by erecting high netting behind goals when 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died after being hit by a at a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002. Baseball can fix its problem without the cargo net, however, if it follows NASCAR's lead in equipment safety by ridding the sport of the harder but brittle maple bats. There's no need to standardize bats like NASCAR has with its race car, but it could rid the sport of a menace to safety.
Sidney Crosby is young and talented and plays in the NHL. Everybody gets that. Please promote someone else. Hockey players grow beards in the playoffs, and are tougher than us. We all know that, too. And just as there is a flavor of driver for every race fan, there is a personality to suit every potential NHL fan as well. Hockey players, in general, are the closest to race car drivers in affability and accessibility among the major team sports. They get it. They'll do it. Granted, sponsor-promotion facilitates the courting process in racing. If you're a Bud man, well, the choice is made for you already, if you like. NHL teams should do a better job in local markets of pitching players as more than guys with funny accents who girls might find dreamy. And nationally, the NHL should move on to some other compelling stories.
We understand what you do is the hardest, most important thing in the whole wide world, but act like you enjoy your high-paying job a little more.
The Chase for the Championship has created late-Fall drama since its inception in 2004, especially as Jimmie Johnson became the ultimate Sprint Cup tournament team. Though the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway has rarely provided the height of drama, it has offered a culminating moment for a definitive trophy-raising. Major college football needs that, too.