I watched from the comfort of a beach vacation, anticipating what should have been a banner weekend for the top stock car series in America. But as Mr. Nielsen reared his ugly head on Sunday, his results called that racing momentum into question. TV ratings once again remained subpar, with an overnight of just 3.0 on ABC, all but guaranteeing a decline for another year. The crowd was also short of a sellout, 155,000 seemingly an impressive number until you realize getting these tickets were equivalent to your chances of winning the lottery in the 1990s: all but impossible.
It all adds up to a sport looking for a way to reinvent itself in the eyes of a nation with its own ideas of improving NASCAR. Every week, I get a fresh batch of ideas on how this sport can rise again through the passion of its dedicated fan base. Are any of their ideas worth using? I leave that for you to decide in this vacation-induced column, the first of a two-part mailbag series on your own ideas to make the sport better.
So read on and don't be afraid to give feedback through the usual places: email@example.com and Twitter at NASCARBowles. We'll have your reactions and the best of the rest of these hair-brained ideas next week.
Easy plan to fix NASCAR -- old-fashioned points, but new money structure.
Quick history: In the early days, NASCAR put most of the money into the season's points winner to encourage drivers to show up every week, even to the small venues. Since the small venues paid the same points (albeit much less money), the drivers will still show up so they could try to win the season championship and the big money. This is no longer an issue.
Fast forward to today: Each race is "boring" because it is better for drivers to simply finish then take chances. A 12th-place finish really isn't that different than a fourth-place finish, so why risk it?
But risk/reward is what generates fan interest. We want rivalries. We want to hate one driver and pull for another. We want villains. We want controversy. Just look at your inbox after the Keselowski/Edwards incident in July. Despite popular belief, we don't want crashes, but we do want close "paint trading" action. The current point system rewards the cautious, and we end up with vanilla drivers.
Solution: Scrap the Chase. Old point system for a "national championship," but shift the prize money away from the year-long title and instead put almost all of the prize money on the individual races. This would make fourth be worth fighting for instead of settling for 12th.
And, in addition to the "national champion" there would also be standings for "prize money earnings" which would add interest.
I grew up in the factory days and even I'm getting bored of what NASCAR has turned into. See the start, come back three hours later and see the finish. You probably haven't missed much.
-- Jim Anderson, Sioux Falls, SD
What Jim is referring to is the "pre-Chase" format from 1975-2003, where the point system was virtually identical, but NASCAR had no playoff system. The sport also benefited from such ideas as the "Winston Million" program, run from 1985-1997 which gave drivers a bonus for winning three of the sport's four big races at the time: The Daytona 500, The Winston 500 (Talladega), The Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte) and the Southern 500 (Darlington).
If you add Indianapolis to that list and replace Talladega with the Bristol night race, you could conceivably resuscitate that idea with the $5 Million Sprint -- a $5 million bonus to someone who wins three of five races and $1 million to a man who won two. That would have made Saturday night a barnburner, with Jamie McMurray eligible for the big bonus (he won Daytona and Indianapolis) while Denny Hamlin (Darlington) and point leader Kevin Harvick (Talladega) could have won a million bucks. What a great marketing program for the right sponsor...
NASCAR needs to look at what incentives teams are given within a single race if it wants to make the racing less boring. It doesn't matter what the Chase format is. What matters is the incentive given to teams to improve the racing. The current incentives are primarily to run consistently, and secondarily to win a few races. The result is boring racing -- teams have figured out that riding around at 90 percent for 3/4 of the race, staying on the lead lap, staying out of trouble, etc. and then racing the last 1/4 of the race is the best way to put oneself in championship contention. No amount of tweaking who gets into the Chase is going to change that. The drivers and crew chiefs say as much during almost every interview.
I think this situation is similar to what happened in the NHL a few years back. Teams had learned (primarily from the Red Wings) that employing large guys who could clutch and grab, and using variations on a trap defensive system, was the way to win. Other teams copied it. The result was boring hockey. It took the league changing (and sometimes simply enforcing) rules to improve the product on the ice a lot.
To change this, NASCAR could change the points system to continue to reward the points they way they do -- after all, consistency in finishing position is sort of what racing is all about. But, they could then add rewards for average running position throughout the race, for positions 1-25. So, the car that runs in the best race-long average position would get 25 bonus points. The second-best average running position would get 24, etc. The 25th-best average position would get one bonus point. Maybe it's the top 10, 15, or 20 position, rather than 25, but the idea remains.
The idea is this would give a race-long incentive to improve position. The "Stewart/Harvick Talladega Strategy" of dropping to the rear until the end would be given a second thought, as it would involve sacrificing points.
-- Rick Hadley, Georgetown, Mass.
Nice idea, Rick, one of several from fans stringently arguing to add points for average running position. It would add legitimacy to NASCAR's Loop Data program (98 percent of the media and fan base currently ditch in the trash each week) while forcing drivers to stop treating the first 100 miles like a bunch of scared 16-year-olds driving on the highway for the first time.
The possible negatives: A two-point bonus for 24th-best average position just isn't enough. You need to at least triple those numbers (75 points for first, 72 for second, etc.) to make it more meaningful. Also, once you make the standings a flow chart it's all but impossible for the average fan to understand. It needs to make racing aggressive, yet statistically simplistic ... try that one on for size.
The family got too greedy. Too many networks, different days and different times. No cross promotion. You can't find a race sometimes, while others are DVR'd. All you really need to do is watch NASCAR in 60. Why watch it live?
The races need to be in one place, period, and easy to find.
-- Andy Austin, Olive Branch, Miss.
This one's a little more difficult, as NASCAR's current TV contract runs through the end of the 2014 season. I do find it intriguing though, there's very little cross-promotion among the different networks. It makes business sense -- FOX, for example, wants people to keep watching their network even when they don't have the races -- but wouldn't it stand to reason fans will follow the sport, not the network, when the coverage changes each Sunday? Considering the size and scope of the TV contract, NASCAR could certainly do a better job of overall cross-promotion here. With the ADD generation, it's sometimes impossible to remind people of a particular program unless you put it in front of them multiple times leading up to the race.
We'll address the topic of making races shorter in more fan mail next week.
As a racing fan who enjoys most of the big series (F1, Indy, Rolex Sports Car... and of course NASCAR) I find it harder to understand why NASCAR hasn't shot for a totally new concept to generate new fans and excitement than this talk of tweaking the Chase. My thinking is that US viewers like the feeling of something special and unique. What I propose is adding a new race, a Grand Prix of the Americas, so to speak. It would be a true street race that is rotated throughout the US (and maybe, if the sport grows internationally, into other major cities in the Americas). I would swap cities every three years or so, but start initially in ones that don't hold a Sprint Cup event already.
Now, I know the logistics of such an event are huge, and I know most current drivers hate the road courses, but there are way too many plusses to not explore this idea. To start with, you would be taking your product into a new market every three years. Lots of new potential fans would show up just out of the desire to see something new in their beloved city. The uniqueness of the event should draw both diehards and newbies alike.
There are U.S. cities that could have that wow factor too. Imagine races through San Diego, New Orleans, Nashville... I could go on, but I think you get the idea. And don't you think a Grand Prix of the Americas would have as much appeal internationally for the same reason U.S. citizens like watching the Grand Prix races overseas? That there's an exoticness and sexiness to seeing foreign cities with a different style of car racing through them?
You don't have to swing things too far toward street courses, but increasing the number of road courses in general from two to four would help add excitement and variety through what can become a very monotonous schedule at times. Putting the Grand Prix of the Americas in the Chase, in my opinion would be brilliant. It would help make this unique event even more special and add weight to it, because it would count toward determining the champion when things matter.
-- Randy Black, Nashville, Tenn.
Talk about throwing a curveball, Randy. That's an idea no one's talking about, but with the right money and promotion could really be a new wrinkle in an aging series. I agree we need more road courses, at least one of them in the Chase if we're going to keep this godforsaken system. A rotating street course would be the ultimate challenge in a playoff that's supposed to test teams under all sorts of different conditions.
Three obstacles: Track-owning Godfathers ISC and SMI (neither of which wants to give up a date), money, and convincing a major city that's never had a stock car race to close downtown for the weekend to make a racing spectacle. It's difficult ... but then again, we're to the point where people need to think outside the box.
I've been thinking about this for a while, and here is a way I've come up with to try to fix the Chase without getting rid of it.
1. Give an extra 200 points for winning during the regular season -- virtually ensuring everyone involved in the Chase has to have won a race
2. Take the top 12 in points, plus anyone with a race win just in case someone's shut out
3. During the Chase, assign drivers a separate set of points based on their order relative to each other, not the other cars on the track
4. Give the Chase driver a bonus if he wins a Chase race
5. Eliminate teams over the course of the Chase, with four teams ultimately competing for the championship over the last four races
I think this type of approach deals with many of the issues facing the Chase. It makes wins worth something more than just a minuscule number of points. In all other sports, a win is worth much, much more than a tie or a loss. Adding a handful of extra points for wins doesn't mean much when so many points are handed out during a race. During the playoffs, NASCAR needs to remove the other influence of non-Chasers on the Chase outcome, and having the Chase drivers scored differently (but still racing within the full 43-car field) would fix that. Adding in an elimination component adds further incentive for them to race hard and race well.
Of course, I'm not sure if this would actually be workable, or would be acceptable to the fans or the drivers. I'm not sure it's any worse than what we have now, though.
-- Geoff Kratz
I like the idea of a different scoring system for the Chase drivers, Geoff. In no other sport do the non-playoff contenders ever influence the finish of the postseason, let alone compete in the actual event. But you're pushing it with the elimination format, an idea that increases the likelihood of an "upset" where a 12th-place driver during the regular season wins the title. Is that really what this sport wants, to be like other sports where a .500 team can come out of nowhere and take the title? Doesn't that make the regular season even more meaningless? And aren't the concept of championships based on who performs the best over the course of an extended period, not a lucky four-race stretch?
NASCAR prides itself on being different. I think elimination formats bring them right in line with other stick 'n' ball sports, except their version of the postseason is simply not as good. We'll see what happens for 2011, but this likely Chase-tweaking scenario seems more silly than potentially successful.
We're so sick of Mike Helton and his reign of absolute control of every aspect of the sport. Nobody wants to watch guys running around the track single file. This year, we've tuned in to watch some races again, hoping the promise of "the gloves are off" would be kept. Helton, Pemberton, and whoever else, can try to fool themselves by blaming the economy for the empty stands, but true fans know why they're empty. It's boring! Fans want to see much more action, and a lot less of NASCAR's rules and penalties. Let the teams build cars, using whatever parts it wants, however it wants, to make the cars as fast as possible. It's racing! Nobody cares about watching pit crews change tires. Let the crews build the best car, put the best driver in it, and race for the win. That's racing! Of course there is danger involved... that's part of the excitement and fun. If you don't have the nerve, then don't drive. That's what NASCAR used to be about. I can understand building the cars safer, and taking any reasonable precautions, but I think it should be left up to the teams and drivers how the cars are built and set up, and up to the drivers how they want to drive. Racing is about going fast, not restricting speed. Best car, best driver, a little luck... those are the only things that should control the outcome of the race.
NASCAR and Helton should not be allowed to call cautions for a piece of rubber out of the groove (marbles), or a drink cup. Each caution or pit road penalty at a certain time can definitely change the outcome, and NASCAR controls when and why cautions are called. Get rid of the pit road speed limit, get rid of the stupid cautions, get rid of NASCAR controlling who wins. Let the drivers race. Doesn't it seem ridiculous that instead of the race teams being encouraged to build better cars, they're penalized for making them too fast? Nobody wants to watch equal cars running around the track. Nobody, other than the car manufacturers, wants to see parity. We want to see fast cars, talented drivers, and a genuine race. Let the drivers bump and bang without fear of penalties and probation. If we want to see "safe" racing, we'll go to a kiddie park. Even then, that might be more interesting than the current NASCAR racing, and much cheaper and more accommodating. NASCAR wants to charge premium prices for tickets, pack the fans like sardines onto very uncomfortable, hard, backless stands, and make them watch 43 "equal" cars go around in circles without any contact. Sounds more like punishment than enjoyment, doesn't it?
-- Joan and Manley Henry, Luthersville, Ga.
I don't agree with a lot of things here, especially ideas like eliminating pit road speed. There's a reason why some of these rules are in place: people were getting seriously hurt and even killed.
That said, good points are made about the consequences of over-officiating. Racers were asked to avoid a pothole during NASCAR's Super Bowl for half the race at Daytona, yet a caution for a piece of rubber comes out virtually every race? There needs to be a better balance between being an overprotective mother with safety and simply laying back and letting the race play out. No fan of any sport ever likes a subjective call to decide the game (Jim Joyce, anyone?)
The same theory applies with parity. IROC failed because racing is a combination of driver and car. Tying crew chief's hands behind their back, making only a handful of adjustments available makes these generic Car of Tomorrow stock cars 10 times worse. It was done to keep the rich from pulling ahead of the pack, but instead it's left them with all the power, force-feeding it to the poor in small engine and chassis increments while the lower class stays stuck in a box without any way to make those parts and pieces better. The occasional top-10 finish from the underdog has now simply turned into a way to survive each weekend without the dreaded start-and-park.
Innovation's a natural evolution of society, and what NASCAR has done with their decisions the last six years is put everything in front of the train to make it stop. But there are no brakes on the creativity of the human brain, and there will always be people trying to find different ways to go faster -- hard crashes and safety hazards notwithstanding.
So it's high time NASCAR stood out of the way and let them. You can't stay stuck in neutral forever through a society that's always driving forward.
"Was good to give the full update and not leave anyone in the dark. Thanks to all the fans who came out today to wish me well. Felt great. Really appreciate it. 2011!!" - @brianlvickers, moments after he announced at Bristol that doctors have cleared him to return in time for the Daytona 500 next season. The driver of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota had been sidelined since May with blood clots, which led to the discovery of a rare disease (May-Thurner Syndrome) that led to heart surgery this July to repair the problem and get his life on track.