By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I have taken NASCAR to task for its moribund, death-march of a schedule in its premier Cup class so many times over the years that I've lost track. And I have written at least three columns over the last five years that have delineated various scenarios as to how it should be changed, including a mild re-do that called for a reduction of the schedule to a total of 32 race weekends, to a radical makeover that slashed it to a total of 25 weekends.
Whenever I have written one of those columns, I can count on the hardcore NASCAR faithful - at least those who understand the Big Picture and who realize that the way NASCAR conducts its business can't continue - to speak up vociferously in favor of at least a mild makeover. Just as I can count on the usual assortment of NASCAR apologists out there in WebVille who deem any criticism of the way NASCAR does things as some sort of plot, and who follow up that with a boatload of vitriol portraying me as the Anti-Christ.
So be it.
I don't write this column looking for acceptance or to be liked. I comment on racing - and the business of motorsports - with a well-reasoned perspective that gets to the heart of the matter. And right now the High-Octane Truth is that we live in an era that is openly growing more hostile to the automobile and the sport of racing itself. On top of that, we have a new generation coming up that just isn't all that interested in cars and the "car thing," and unless the stewards of the various racing series start acting in the best interests of the sport instead of just reacting to the winds of change, the sport will continue on its downward spiral, which could ultimately threaten the sport's very survival going forward.
And even though criticism aimed at cajoling the powers that be that call the shots for the various racing series around the world to get their collective heads out of their assess and start making decisions that will positively affect the sport may seem futile, I can assure you that this column in particular - I'm most gratified to say - has been very influential in leading the discussions and actually expanding the thought process, with several notable outcomes directly attributable to scenarios first voiced by me in these pages.
That said, it's easy to see why NASCAR bears the brunt of the majority of my critical perspectives. Not only is NASCAR perceived by corporate America and the media conglomerates that cover it - with their insatiable need for content - as the only game in town when it comes to motorsports here in the U.S. (except for the Indianapolis 500), NASCAR is most set in its ways and seems to operate with a guiding philosophy revolving around two crucial pillars of thought: 1. "We've always done it this way." And 2. "If we didn't think of it, then it must not exist," aka the "not invented here" operating mantra, writ large.
Even worse, NASCAR has squandered its defacto leadership position as the biggest deal in American motorsport by consistently aiming low, while ignoring technical improvements and fresh thinking that could improve the sport in almost every way. The latest call for NASCAR to reconsider its schedule, which is easily one of the most ridiculous schedules in all of sport - and that's saying something with the NHL and the NBA in operation - didn't come from me for once, instead it came from the reigning Sprint Cup Champion, Kevin Harvick. Last week, while talking to reporters, Harvick made the following statement while commenting on fan attendance, the schedule and growing the sport:
"I mean the last three races that we went to last year were sold out. I don't know that is a 100 percent true statement. I think it just depends on where you go and what you do. Now, if you want to talk about growing the sport I believe that some venues need one race. I believe that the schedule needs to be mixed up. People like things that change they don't like stagnant things. In my opinion the most stagnant thing in our sport is our schedule and our venues that we go to. You can beat a dead horse as much as you want, but it doesn't come back to life. And sometimes you just have to change things up to keep the excitement and enthusiasm in the sport. I think our schedule is definitely the weak link along with some of the venues that we go to. That is my opinion."
Harvick also went on to say that the schedule needed more road races, something I've been advocating for going on a decade now. Harvick is bright, thoughtful and someone I consider to be worth listening to in the NASCAR garage. Why? Because Harvick isn't one to constantly jabber to the media (unlike some others who conduct themselves like Daytona Beach shills). And when he does deign to talk he usually has something important to say. While commenting on the NASCAR schedule, Harvick let it be known that NASCAR's penchant for doing things because "we've always done it this way" isn't cutting it. Harvick seems to understand the fact that the over-saturation of NASCAR is real, and that to retain and even grow interest in the sport it's better to have fewer, sold-out races than multiple races at the same venues, which seemingly exist only to fill out a schedule that grew obsolete 25 years ago. The other important thing to understand about Harvick's comments is that he isn't alone in his thinking. There are plenty of other star drivers and team owners who have come to believe that NASCAR's schedule is in desperate need of a total rethink.
It is important to remember that in its founding years NASCAR was a regional sport that conducted itself primarily in the southeast. Back in the day NASCAR would routinely run a mid-week event followed by a weekend race, in a schedule that had "The Show" visiting the same tracks several times during the season. When the Winston tobacco sponsorship money exploded on to the NASCAR scene the racing schedule was consolidated, but the idea that NASCAR would visit the same tracks more than once held firm, even as NASCAR expanded beyond its regional base. Now, in the face of dwindling in-person attendance and lackluster TV viewing ratings, NASCAR seems to be clinging to an obsolete formula, like when they hung on to using leaded fuel a good ten years after it was deemed the wrong thing to do.
Change is anathema to NASCAR, and that statement gets to the very essence of the NASCAR mindset. The NASCAR operatives in Daytona Beach and Charlotte view change as anti-tradition, an offensive insult to the historical touchstones of the sport. The fact that the powers that be in NASCAR only intermittently adhere to that fundamental belief has been interesting to watch, especially as they deleted traditional dates and tracks in favor of new tracks in the interest of generating even more money over the last decade (but I digress).
Now that the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion has gone on record as saying that the NASCAR schedule needs to be revamped, and knowing that his opinion is seconded by many in the garage area and among the participating manufacturers and corporate sponsors, it will be interesting to see if NASCAR does anything to move things in a positive direction, or if will it continue to offer the same old excuses, which go something like this: "We have long-standing relationships with local promoter-partners and track owners and it's too difficult to alter the course of things because of it." (Except when the powers that be in Daytona Beach want to do something, then of course they bulldoze traditions and relationships left and right to get their way, so that they can build more "cookie-cutter" tracks.)
With all of this in mind then, I am presenting yet another hardcore rethink of the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. This one adds more road races, different tracks and only a few double visits to existing tracks on the schedule, with three built-in schedule breaks. Enjoy. Or not.
THE AUTOEXTREMIST NASCAR CUP SCHEDULE:
Race 1: Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway (no, you don't mess with tradition, at least not here, so the Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Twin Qualifying Races and Daytona 500 kick-off the season).
Race 2: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Las Vegas kicks-off a three race West Coast Swing with a stop-off in Texas on the way back).
Race 3: Phoenix International Raceway
Race 4: Auto Club Speedway
Race 5: Texas Motor Speedway
TWO-WEEK SCHEDULE BREAK
Race 6: Martinsville Speedway
Race 7: Bristol Motor Speedway
Race 8: Richmond International Raceway
Race 9: Talladega Superspeedway
Race 10: Kansas Speedway
Race 11: Charlotte Motor Speedway (a two-week visit inc. All-Star events, culminating in the Coca-Cola 600).
TWO-WEEK SCHEDULE BREAK
Race 12: Dover International Raceway
Race 13: Pocono International Raceway
Race 14: Michigan International Speedway
Race 15: Sonoma
Race 16: Road Atlanta (the first of two new road course races added to the schedule).
Race 17: Daytona International Speedway
Race 18: Kentucky Speedway
Race 19: New Hampshire Motor Speedway
TWO-WEEK SCHEDULE BREAK
Race 20: Indianapolis Motor Speedway ("The Brickyard" becomes The Chase opener).
Race 21: Watkins Glen International Raceway
Race 22: Bristol Motor Speedway (the night racing weekend).
Race 23: Darlington Raceway (the "Southern 500" on Labor Day weekend).
Race 24: Road America ("America's National Park of Speed" will instantly become the "must-see" NASCAR road race).
Race 25: Iowa Speedway (a new addition to the series).
Race 26: Texas Motor Speedway
Race 27: Richmond International Raceway
Race 28: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Race 29: Charlotte Motor Speedway
No, not nearly as radical as the 25-race schedule I had proposed previously but notably different nonetheless, while bordering on heresy to some of the NASCAR faithful, I'm sure. First of all, 29 weekends total (down from 36) with three built-in two-week breaks in the schedule. (I intentionally didn't list specific dates in order to concentrate more on the overall look and feel of the schedule.)
The Las Vegas, Phoenix, Auto Club, Talladega, Kansas, Dover, Pocono, Michigan, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Atlanta and Martinsville ovals get one race each. Confining Talladega and Kansas to single races will be controversial, first because some people like crashes (Talladega) and secondly because Lesa France Kennedy has sunk a ton of cash into the Kansas Speedway and its adjoining casino, so the likelihood of Kansas losing a race is slim to never, but, the issue needed to be raised at the very least. Chicago is dropped (would you miss it?), Iowa Speedway comes online and two new road races - at Road Atlanta and Road America - become part of the Sprint Cup schedule. For added interest, the natural-terrain road racing circuits in Watkins Glen, New York, and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, will now be part of the final ten-race push for the championship.
Another obvious change? Homestead-Miami is dropped from the schedule as the last race of the season in favor of finishing the NASCAR schedule in Charlotte, the epicenter of the business - and for the families - of NASCAR. To me this makes perfect sense, but making sense are words not usually associated with the NASCAR schedule, so there's that to contemplate.
Revamping the NASCAR schedule isn't easy, mostly because the powers that be in Daytona Beach lack the will to address serious, substantive change, the kind that would benefit the series over the long run. In lieu of that we'll just have to imagine a NASCAR schedule that would not only be shorter, but would be more engaging and actually better in every way as well.
NASCAR can dismiss outside critics all it wants, but when one of its star drivers speaks out about a glaring problem that needs to be addressed they should listen closely, or at least do some serious soul searching, because what they're doing now just isn't sustainable over the long run.
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
(Photo courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Indianapolis, Indiana, 1963. Jim Clark leans over his No. 92 Team Lotus/Lotus-Ford while mechanics warm up the machine before practice for the Indianapolis 500 that year. Clark would finish second to Parnelli Jones (No. 98 J.C. Agajanian Willard Battery Watson-Offy) after a controversial finish, with Colin Chapman demanding Jones be black-flagged for a massive oil leak, which the officials conveniently ignored. A.J. Foyt (No. 14 Ansted-Thompson Racing/Sheraton-Thompson Trevis-Offy) finished third. Watch a video here.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD