By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I started to buy in - at least a little - to the idea that with Monster Energy coming on board, NASCAR was starting down the path of enlightenment. This was NASCAR turning over a new leaf, finally acknowledging that things weren't going all that well after years of highly visible decline. I was looking forward to clarity and some strategically positive moves from the NASCAR brain trust down in Daytona Beach. But then the announcement was made that the NASCAR races would be broken into three segments, with points awarded in each segment. And upon hearing that I said to myself, "oh no." This manufactured excitement and gimmicky nonsense was the beginnings of the "new" NASCAR?
And that was followed by a strained press event, which saw driver after driver get up and extol the virtues of this openly convoluted points system, that if we'd all "give it a little time" we'd see how it transforms the NASCAR racing product into a compelling scenario week in, and week out. (I get the fact that NASCAR drivers are, for the most part, paid handsomely to toe the company line and boost their series whenever they can, but this didn't past the smell test with me, and watching some of NASCAR's star drivers, whom I have the utmost respect for, get up in front of the media and wax on about how this would be transformative and was just the magic elixir that NASCAR needed was excruciatingly painful to watch.)
But okay, let's give it a chance. So, Daytona begins, and the truck race on Friday night and the Nationwide race on Saturday afternoon are depressing crash-fests from start to finish. It was clear to me that there was nothing new about what was unfolding at Daytona, that this was restrictor-plate racing at its worst; but seasoned observers brushed it off as being a product of young, inexperienced drivers taking big risks on the racetrack, and that wouldn't happen in Sunday's main event, the Daytona 500.
And then Sunday's big race happened, and that's exactly what happened. I refuse to sugarcoat the mess that unfolded on Sunday, because it was the by far the worst Daytona 500 ever run in my estimation. I have made no bones about the fact that restrictor-plate racing is the dumbest idea in all of racing. It breeds "formation flying" and places almost superhuman pressure on the drivers to not make mistakes, because when they do, the consequences can be devastating. And this just in: drivers make mistakes. Lots of them. And the rampant carnage in Sunday's Daytona 500 was beyond ridiculous, with torn-up equipment strewn throughout the NASCAR garage area. I am glad that no drivers were seriously injured, but Sunday's race reaffirmed my fundamental belief that restrictor-plate racing isn't racing at all. Instead, it's abject stupidity and a motorized form of Russian Roulette that needs to be eradicated from the discussion altogether.
And, on top of that, you add the convoluted "segment racing" gimmick, and I had to remind myself that this was - allegedly - NASCAR's premier event of the racing season. This was supposed to be their "best of the best" on display going for the sport's biggest prize. And then I watched as the Daytona 500 descended into an embarrassing display of flat-out futility.
Listen, it has been clear to me for a long time that this whole discussion comes down to "a tale of two NASCARs." On the one hand you have the talented drivers and crews, who are some of the best in the business in all of racing, and whom I have nothing but respect for. If racing enthusiasts ever had the opportunity to be given a real insider's tour of the NASCAR garage, they would be amazed at the incredible level of talent, with resumes from all over the racing world, including F1, on display. Make no mistake, the talent in the NASCAR garage area plays second fiddle to no one.
And then there's the other side of NASCAR. A family enterprise now in its third generation that is doing its level best to run the whole thing into the ground. Abetted by the content-hungry hounds at the television networks and the enablers at the car companies who keep handing the failing enterprise money despite the obvious, the NASCAR brain trust conducts itself as if it's their inordinate right to repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over and over again, expecting a different outcome. That doesn't just describe the quintessential definition of insanity, it suggests a level of hubris that is simply beyond comprehension.
Faced with declining television ratings and in-person race attendance for going on ten years now, what does NASCAR come up with to slow the downward spiral? A gimmicky, segment racing points proposition that is designed to manufacture excitement. It's almost unfathomable that they would actually believe that this would make a difference to their racing product. NASCAR doesn't need gimmickry or manufactured anything at this point, it needs hard decisions based on a downward spiral that is picking up speed.
The litany of problems for NASCAR never changes either: The schedule is simply too long given the declining everything about this sport (a 25-race schedule should be the maximum, as I've said repeatedly over the last five years). On top of that, there are too many repeat visits to the same tracks on the schedule, which is nonsensical given the reality in this era of NASCAR's decline. And there's a crying need for more road races on the schedule - at least two more - while cutting the overall number of races. And the races are too damn long. Let me repeat that, the races are too damn long. There should be only a few "premier" 500- and 600-mile events on the schedule, and the rest of the oval races should be 300 to 350 miles in length. These four- and five-hour race marathons are simply ludicrous at this point.
And then there's the fact that NASCAR is clinging to old technology, still using five lug wheels, manual jacking and fuel cans, while the entire racing world moved to center locking hubs, on-board jacking and dry-break re-fueling hoses years ago. If nothing else this is an urgent safety discussion. And finally, there's NASCAR's clinging to the use of restrictor-plates on their "big" tracks, which is a disaster waiting to happen. Racing doesn't need a repeat of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, and NASCAR dodged a bullet at Talladega in 1987 when Bobby Allison's car went up into the catch-fencing and almost veered into the crowd. In fact, it was after that incident when NASCAR came up with the idea of restrictor-plates to slow the cars down on the super speedways. That was 30 years ago. It's time for a new idea.
Yet NASCAR persists. Refusing to deal with the major issues threatening the very existence of the sport itself, the NASCAR brain trust in Daytona Beach instead comes up with another gimmick to manufacture excitement. As I said, it's simply beyond comprehension at this point.
But expecting the drivers and team owners to step up and speak up against NASCAR's continued abject stupidity is too much to ask, apparently. Why? If you had the opportunity to experience Charlotte and the surrounding area 25 years ago and then see it now, the transformation due to the infusion of money directly attributable to the racing industry is staggering. And this is why no one speaks up, and why the drivers and team owners get up in front of the media suggesting that it's all good and there's nothing that can be done about the "haters" out there.
Well that is simply an inexcusable excuse, and NASCAR and its team owners, drivers, participating auto manufacturers, television networks, sponsors and associated dependents simply can't let this stupidity continue.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Daytona Beach, Florida, February 26, 1967 500 Daytona FL 1967. Mario Andretti (No. 11 Holman-Moody Bunnell Motor Co. Ford) holding the Winner's Trophy after winning the Daytona 500. He spanked the NASCAR establishment that day and it wasn't all that popular with some in NASCAR land. Fred Lorenzen (No. 28 Holman-Moody LaFayette Ford) was second and James Hilton (No. 48 Bud Hartje Econo Wash Dodge) finished third.