Last week, there was a flurry of emails after the first of our two-part series over how fans would fix NASCAR. It seems everyone and their mother-in-law has a concept they think would recharge the national interest in this sport.
Who knew the Canadians held the answer right under our noses all along?
Hidden under the radar in NASCAR's off week was a Nationwide Series thriller up in Montreal, a Triple A baseball-like nail-biter that had all the major leaguers blushing and congratulating their supporting cast for showing them up. During an action-packed race that ended with Boris Said nipping Max Papis to the line by .012-seconds -- the fifth-closest finish in series history -- there was enough action to keep people entertained from start to finish. Through it all, the shrill screams of a packed house boomed over the roar of the engines, those who watched saw hope for a series struggling to stay on your radar screen.
The race that day was almost four hours, longer than most Cup races and right about the time most fans would scream for it to be shortened. Only half a dozen well-known drivers were in the field, leaving name recognition to those who eat and breathe this sport 24/7. But no one was complaining about the length of the race, or the fact Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. et al weren't involved. At Monday water cooler talks across the country, the only conversation surrounded the buzz of a finish that kept people wanting more.
So between the "Oh, Canada" and the smiles of everyone from winner Said to third-place finisher Jacques Villeneuve, who looked as if he'd jump back in and pull another 200-mile marathon, there came an answer to this whole NASCAR mess: Fix the product itself, and nothing else matters. Great racing takes care of itself.
Of course, if everyone subscribed to that simple theory, we wouldn't have a column each week, right? So let's go over the rest of your big ideas before returning to a regular SI Mailbag next week. As always, don't forget the best way to make your voice heard: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at NASCARBowles.
One of the things my friends and I have talked about for NASCAR is that many of the larger tracks they race at twice a year contain a built-in road course. If you're going to race there twice a year, why not race the oval one time and the road course the next time? Atlanta Motor Speedway has a nice road course. Daytona has the course laid out for the [Rolex 24 at Daytona]. There is an excellent road course at Homestead-Miami. Also, the Nationwide Series raced at Road Atlanta in 1986 and still does it at Watkins Glen, Montreal and Road America. Why aren't there more road course races in NASCAR? I personally find the road course racing to be better than any oval racing.
-- Blake, Buford, Ga.
Blake, a lot of people share the same sentiment. I agree that right now, NASCAR is treating road courses like 3-year-olds treat a really cool swimming pool in the summer: dipping their feet in the water, but refusing to dive all the way in.
Well, it's time that kid gets a gentle shove from the powers that be. Assuming the Chase system stays, it's ridiculous for teams to spend money on a two-race, regular season road course program that has no impact on the ten-race playoff. Either increase the number of road courses, assuring one is part of the postseason each year, or claim stock cars were meant for ovals and pull out of right-turn racing altogether.
Personally, my vote would be for No. 1. Wouldn't it be great to see Montreal part of the Chase schedule in 2012? Or how about Road America? The only issue is that the rest of the fan base may not agree: through 24 races this season, the lowest-rated Cup race on TV (rain delays excluded) is Infineon's road race out in California.
My ideas for making NASCAR better...
1. Go back to the old championship format. Everyone knew how it worked, and it didn't need to be tinkered with for over a generation. If you don't want someone winning the championship with only one win, give a [10, 25, 50; pick a number] point bonus for winning.
2. Level the playing field. Just as the NFL has a salary cap to ensure parity, NASCAR should limit how much teams can put into R&D, so that smaller teams [Wood Brothers, RPM, Front Row, etc.] aren't shut out by the big teams. Or enact a revenue-sharing plan so that the big teams can't simply outspend the smaller ones.
3. Cut the influence of corporate sponsorship. I think this more than anything else has caused three or four teams to get extremely strong while the others are left behind. See No. 2 above.
I'm a relatively new NASCAR fan, and I really enjoy the sport. However, I can see how the traditional, blue-collar fan sees a totally different product than what they used to watch. My in-laws, for instance, refuse to watch NASCAR any more and they used to go to races all the time.
-- Dave, Huntington, W.Va.
No. 1 has been discussed at length in this column and in various fan forums throughout the summer. I've seen polls on other websites where 80, even 90 percent of fans have asked for a return to the old format as an alternative to the current playoff system. For years, NASCAR has trumpeted the Chase as a way to keep fans interested in the sport during football season. So why does Mr. Nielsen sing a different tune?
TV Ratings In 2003 (Last 10 Races -- Last Year With No Chase): 4.1 average
TV Ratings In 2009 (Last 10 Races -- With Chase): 3.4 average
That's a 17 percent decrease, in case you're wondering. As for leveling the playing field, keep in mind that all NASCAR owners are private contractors, not bound under a common system like the other stick 'n' ball sports in America. That means if Jack Roush wants to spend $100 million more than everyone else, fans might complain but he has every right to do so and crush the field.
That's left the gap between rich and poor as a common theme throughout NASCAR history. I think the reason you see it more pronounced now is not corporate sponsorship, but how much technology plays a role in making these cars go fast. Just look at Roush's recent resurgence, credited not to the men behind the wheel, but a bunch of engineering geeks playing in the back room with computers trying to get it right.
Come on, be honest: Do you like watching a Diablo II marathon in your spare time? I didn't think so, but those engineers are what's making or breaking the top NASCAR teams these days. The sport needs to find a new generation of car that puts success back in the hands of the drivers even more than the current version. Otherwise, the only way to get rid of corporate sponsorship influence is to have all the owners come together and franchise the sport. I go back and forth daily as to whether it's a good idea, and right now I think the freedom to allow Joe Schmo to qualify for a random race if he so chooses should be maintained. So let's work on option No. 1 and see what happens.
An option that's been mentioned before is shortening both the season and some of the races themselves. However, I have an interesting twist: combine shortening the season and some races with NASCAR "fixing" the Chase at the same time by embracing "The majors" idea that's been thrown around and have those four races count for much more points! 100 bonus points per major win!
It would influence the Chase significantly if the Daytona 500, Coke 600, Brickyard and Southern 500 [the best and most traditional choice for the fourth major!] were worth more points! Not only would the ratings soar for these four races, but if NASCAR would shorten the season down to 28 races or so, while shortening most of the races down to 300 & 400 miles, it would make the regular season matter more!
Why is football king in America? Every week matters! That's why football ratings are so high versus other "stick & ball" sports whose seasons are also way too long! NASCAR has gone for the money grab and shoved the sport down our throats so much that it's turned some fans away. Shortening the season and some races would make every week matter, while rewarding extra points for winning "majors" would satisfy those fans calling for more points for winning, and keep traditionalists like me happy with consistency being a factor for the championship as well.
-- Wayne, Savannah, Ga.
Great idea, Wayne. I'll let this one stand on its own, while adding one note: If your system was put in effect this year, it would be Clint Bowyer, not Jamie McMurray, scrambling from 100 points behind to grab one of the final two Chase spots. By winning Daytona and Indianapolis, McMurray has had one of the finer NASCAR seasons in recent memory, and he's likely not even going to make the 12-man playoff. Any more questions on how the system is broken?
I've been thinking about ways that NASCAR might level the playing field and thought I'd throw this idea out for consideration ... The car setup sheets are the team's crown jewels, right? Well, at the end of each race during a season the car chief has to give a copy of the car's qualifying and race setup sheets [including changes the car chief makes to the setup as the race progresses] to NASCAR. At the end of the season or a few weeks before Daytona, NASCAR holds a lottery, where teams that didn't make the Chase draw for access to a single race setup sheet. The lottery winner can pick either the qualifying setup sheet for one race or racing setup sheet for one specific 35-lap segment of one race. Once a Chase car is picked, it can't be picked again. That would make for great preseason TV, the top teams would lose one "ruby" out their crown jewel box but not the entire box, and the "picked" races by the non-Chase teams would generate a little more interest.
-- Eric Hiner, Plantation, Fla.
It's a great idea in theory, Eric, but won't hold water over the long-term for two reasons. First off, racetracks change so dramatically from race to race an old setup hardly ever works twice in a row anymore. Time and again, you'll hear a driver pull off a season sweep while admitting they had to start from scratch in Friday practice, their winning setup from the previous race as good for the car as the garbage can located across from their pit stall.
Also, while in theory the gap between rich and poor would be closed, keep in mind a lot of the smaller teams still get chassis and engine combinations from the teams they're "taking" setups from. Who's to stop a Hendrick, a Roush, from providing a subpar chassis/engine combination for a race in which they know their rivals have a "leg up" in regards to setup?
How about this great idea to fix the sport? If I were in charge, I would borrow an idea from golf and cut the field down several times during the race. At Texas, it would've looked like this:
All segments are 50 laps
Seg. 1: 43 cars, top 40 make the cut
Seg. 2: 40 cars, top 30 move on
Seg. 3: 30 cars, top 20 stay alive
Seg. 4: 20 cars, top 10 advance
Seg. 5: 10-car shootout for the win
This would accomplish several things:
1) The early and middle portions of the race would be more exciting/meaningful, as drivers would have to race hard to stay above the cut line
2) Wrecked/damaged cars would be eliminated and out of the way
3) It would prevent a 20th-place car from stealing an undeserved win via fuel mileage
4) The drivers in the final segment could really go for the win without worrying about points, knowing the worst they could finish is 10th
This is probably too radical for NASCAR's liking, but I thought I'd share it with you anyway.
You're right, Adam; it is too radical. The elimination format is just too complicated in a world where people are struggling to read beyond simplistic 140-character Twitter feeds and Facebook status messages. You don't win fans back to the sport by forcing them to take five minutes to read the rules. And throwing cautions every segment to eliminate those drivers? Don't we already have enough yellow flags?
Now when you're talking the All-Star race, that's a completely different story. Submit that idea to Charlotte ASAP.
Here's a way to keep the Cup drivers where they belong [in Cup races]. Institute a one race per track per week rule. Maybe give a driver two or three exceptions per year. That way, you can still have some Cup guys drive down to pull a few more fans into the other races, but still leave the bulk of the competition to the series regulars.
-- Jeff, Lenexa, Va.
Works for me, Jeff. There has to be some way to limit Cup drivers in the Nationwide and Truck Series, a practice fans seem very vocally opposed to -- at least in my email inbox. The problem for NASCAR right now is, they're staring at a series in NNS where ratings are up six percent. That leaves the title sponsor happy with the product, so if fans keep watching -- a recent report claimed consumer awareness for them has increased 50% since 2008 -- what incentive is there to kick out the Cup guys putting fans in the seats? There's short-term pain for long-term gain in kicking the major leaguers out, and right now NASCAR doesn't want to draw more blood.
The way it is set up now, all the Chase races are the same every year -- so teams have been preparing for the same races for years now. It would be a scheduling nightmare, I am sure, but changing some of the races in the Chase might open the door a bit wider for drivers without the initials J.J. to be successful.
-- Kevin, Meriden, Conn.
This fix is one many NASCAR fans hoped would happen this year, but the 2011 schedule has just one Chase rookie: Chicagoland replaces Fontana, an intermediate swap that's about as exciting as watching backgammon on ESPN. Why would you dumb down the hype, saving your worst tracks for last when your whole series is built around a ten-race playoff?
I just don't get it either, Kevin. The Chase should start with Bristol, end with a solid intermediate (Las Vegas?), and give us about four to five surprises in between. Chicagoland? Then Loudon? Wake me when it's over.
Put some Stock back into Stock cars!!! I know that will not happen, but I long for the days when during a 500-mile race we would see a number of blown engines late in the race, or other mechanical failures. Frankly, I miss cars breaking down in the last part of races; I mean, was there even one blown engine in the Coke 600 this year? We need more unpredictability!!!
-- Mike, Vancouver, Canada
That's what I felt like made the Montreal race so exciting. Could you imagine if Carl Edwards hadn't broken his track bar with six laps left? The No. 60 car would have likely held on to the lead. But in a race where attrition bit even the best teams out there, taking care of your equipment proved critical in adding suspense to an already entertaining event.
Quick show of hands: When Denny Hamlin was leading Michigan by 10 seconds back in June, how many people thought the engine would blow on the No. 11 Toyota? The answer is zero. Parts are so reliable and trustworthy in Cup that no one's pushing the envelope, removing an air of unpredictability from a race in which five to six major drivers experienced engine failure on a given day. Mike's right: The Coca-Cola 600, initially built as a test of endurance, had zero cars fail to finish due to engine problems. That's a little too perfect.
For those stats to change, NASCAR needs to loosen the rules and allow all teams to get more creative with their chassis and horsepower setup. But with the Chase system in place, preaching conservatism, you wonder if philosophies would actually switch ...
Here's what NASCAR needs to do ...
Allow multiple tire vendors to encourage competition. It seems that any track where you don't have to brake in the corners is almost always a boring race. Do something to the design envelope such that you will always have to brake in a corner. Don't allow suspensions to ride on the right front corner bump stop. Make teams figure out how to keep the car on the springs and allow the decrease in handling to be something the driver uses his skill to master. Limit the amount of fuel for a race to a fixed quantity, like the old Indy Cars used to, so that taking care of the mileage enters into the strategy, or limit the amount of tires like they do in the Nationwide Series.
Do away with guaranteed starting spots for the top 35 in the points. Why bother with qualifying if it really doesn't matter? Just line up everyone in reverse order of points with the eight who qualify on time at the front; they can use the advantage anyway. Maybe you do qualifying the same day as the race.
Make actual attendance more available to the sport's core supporters. I have gone to the Indy 500 for 25 years. I went to the Spring Texas race for a couple of years when it first started. My Indy seats were better and were cheaper [still are] than the NASCAR tickets. The only NASCAR races I have been to recently are ones where I was invited as a corporate sponsorship guest.
-- Harold Beck and Gerald Afflerbach, Fort Worth, Texas
All solid suggestions, capping a good 6,000 words of them from devoted NASCAR fans (sorry if yours didn't make the cut). All of them rally around a central theme: no matter how bad the racing's been the last few years, there's plenty of fans out there waiting to jump back into NASCAR world under the right circumstances.
With projects like the sport's Fan Council and drivers even soliciting for feedback, I feel the sport is responding to their cry for changes. At this point, we're all along for the ride, and only time will tell if that reaction is good enough to win them back -- or if it's already too late.
"Speaking of golf, why is it the more you practice the worse you get, it's the only thing I've ever done that works that way!" - @AllWaltrip on his off week activity ... taking it to the links