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The Juice

THE JUICE: NASCAR’s Biggest Problem

- Justin St. Louis on 29 Jul 2010

NASCAR should look at its past to fix the future. (Leif Tillotson photo)NASCAR should look at its past to fix the future. (Leif Tillotson photo)

-by Justin St. Louis
VMM Editor

It’s not often that we focus on NASCAR’s upper levels here at VMM, but it’s time for me to say something.

NASCAR’s biggest problem is not Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski dumping each other every week. In fact, those two should be celebrated for it.

NASCAR’s biggest problem is not saying “Boys, have at it,” and then slapping penalties on the boys for having at it.

NASCAR’s biggest problem is not the Car Of Tomorrow, the Chase, or green-white-checker finishes.

NASCAR’s biggest problem is its own success.

Everyone remembers the key moments when NASCAR went through its big boom years -- “The Fight” at the 1979 Daytona 500; Richard Petty’s 200th win in front of President Reagan in 1984; Bill Elliott’s “Winston Million” score in 1985; the rise of Dale Earnhardt’s “Intimidator” moniker in the 1980s and early ‘90s; the arrival of Jeff Gordon in the mid-1990s; and finally a plateau around 2003-05, a few years after Earnhardt’s death.

When R.J. Reynolds Tobacco signed on to sponsor NASCAR’s top division through its Winston brand in 1972, the schedule was cut from 48 races down to 31. Over the next 24 seasons (read: through 1996, as NASCAR popularity approached its zenith), the schedule fluctuated between 28 and 31 championship events, plus the annual non-points races now known as the Budweiser Shootout and Sprint All-Star Race.

More importantly, the variety of tracks was outstanding. In 1972, what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited places like the bygone road course at Riverside, Calif.; the Ontario Motor Speedway -- a carbon copy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, located near Los Angeles -- the funky, kidney bean-shaped, 1.5-mile track at Trenton, N.J.; and the dead-to-the-NASCAR world Nashville Fairgrounds high-banked 4/10-mile, the 5/8-mile North Wilkesboro Speedway, the challenging two-mile Texas World Speedway, and the racy, one-mile North Carolina (Rockingham) Speedway. And don’t forget the since-reconstructed layouts at Bristol, Dover, Richmond, and Atlanta.

Only six tracks from 1972 remain on the 2010 schedule in the same form as they were then: Charlotte, Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Darlington, and Martinsville. And even Darlington’s start/finish line was moved to the former backstretch a few years back.

Ten years later, Trenton, Texas World, and Ontario were gone, and Pocono had been given two dates beginning in 1974.

By 1992, twenty years later, Riverside’s two road course dates had been given to Sears Point (Infineon) Raceway and Watkins Glen International. Bristol’s asphalt surface was changed to concrete, and the half-mile Richmond Fairgrounds track was leveled in favor of the current 3/4-mile D-shaped track in 1988, the same year Phoenix was added to the schedule.

Then, all of a sudden, forty years after Winston’s major schedule change, nothing looks the same. Since 1992, the following changes have taken place: New Hampshire was added in 1993; Indianapolis was added in 1994; Dover was resurfaced with concrete in 1995; North Wilkesboro was eliminated in 1997, its two dates given to New Hampshire and the new Texas Motor Speedway; California (Auto Club) Speedway was added in 1997; Atlanta was redesigned in 1997 to mirror the Charlotte and Texas 1.5-mile, D-shaped tracks; the 1.5-mile Las Vegas tri-oval came along in 1998; Homestead-Miami was added in 2001 and has already seen a track layout change; 1.5-mile tri-ovals at Chicago and Kansas were added in 2001; and Rockingham’s two dates and Darlington’s traditional “Southern 500” Labor Day event were axed in 2005 in favor of second dates at Auto Club, Phoenix, and Texas.

The schedule has blown up from 28 races in 1985 to 36 each year since 2001.

In the last five, even ten years, NASCAR has noticed a major downturn in ticket sales, television ratings, sponsorship dollars, and participating teams.

So here’s the fix: Twenty-six races, no more, no less.

Here’s what NASCAR needs to keep:

Among the largest tracks, keep the Indy event, both races at Daytona, and one race at Talladega. Four down.

At the two-milers, keep the Homestead event and one stop at Michigan. We’re up to six.

At mile-and-a-half tracks, keep the 600 at Charlotte, give one each to Texas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Kansas, and leave Darlington as it is. That’s an even dozen.

On the one-miles, keep one each at Phoenix, New Hampshire, and Dover. Also, bring back one race at Rockingham. Sixteen.

Keep two road courses on the schedule, but hold a lottery each year between eight or ten tracks. If your track gets drawn one year, it’s automatically off the schedule the next year and another track replaces it. Now we’ve got eight dates left, sooo....

Expand the short track schedule! Argghhh! Do it already, NASCAR!

But shake it up a little and make some sense of it. Use tracks that work geographically and could potentially handle a big event. Keep one race each at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond, then build some bigger grandstands and add O’Reilly Raceway Park for the midwest, Toyota Speedway at Irwindale for the west coast, and Thompson Int’l Speedway for the northeast. Then take your pick of one of the following, and I’ll be happy any way you choose: Iowa Speedway, Mansfield Motorsports Speedway, South Boston Speedway, Greenville-Pickens Speedway, Salem Speedway, Winchester Speedway.

And the remaining date? Borrow a page from ARCA and hit a dirt track. Go to DuQuoin or Springfield or even Syracuse. Or run Eldora on a Tuesday night. Tony Stewart could call it the “Precursor to the Prelude to the Dream”.

Bang, there’s your 26-race schedule. The Shootout and the All-Star race can stay or go, I don’t care. Same with the Chase For The Championship format.

And while we’re at it, take at least 100 miles off every race except the big ones like the Charlotte 600, the Daytona 500, and the Brickyard 400.

What do we lose out of all this? One race each at Michigan, Atlanta, Texas, Charlotte, New Hampshire, Dover, and Bristol, Martinsville, and and we say goodbye completely to Auto Club, Pocono, and Chicagoland.

What do we gain?

For starters, a bunch of money. If race teams hypothetically maintained the budgets they currently operate on, they’re saving ten races’ worth of money on travel, entry fees, personnel, tires, fuel, wear and tear on engines and equipment, and on and on. Translation = Millions. That also means less teams starting and parking, and potentially more teams actually attempting to qualify. (The first Brickyard 400 in 1994 -- back when there was a 31-race schedule -- had 86 cars attempt to qualify.)

By decreasing the number of races, every event would automatically mean more in terms of gathering points and trying to win the championship. There would be more incentive to do well, which in turn should create harder racing. And with the shorter race distances I’ve just put into place, there’s less time to get everything done.

By eliminating one race from each track that has traditionally had two every year, you automatically give race fans double incentive to go and support that track’s event, meaning fuller grandstands.

By having shorter races and less of them, TV ratings almost certainly go up. Think about this: Every major league stick-and-ball sport has a season lasting between four and seven months, and it seems like nearly every game is worth watching. NASCAR has a ten-month season. If the NFL can survive and flourish on a 16-game regular season, why can’t NASCAR survive on 26 races?

There isn’t enough time or space in this column to list the positives of a change like this.

A NASCAR business model that worked for nearly 25 years is what got the sport into the mainstream. A decade-long experiment to grow that success worked for a couple of years, but it clearly isn’t working anymore.

Go back to the basics and fix the sport. Do it right, NASCAR, and do it now.

***

AROUND THE REGION:

Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...

ACT Late Model Tour: Graniteville’s John Donahue finished fifth in Saturday’s event at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway with Williston’s Brian Hoar sixth, Eric Williams of Hyde Park seventh, Milton’s Brent Dragon eighth, and Milton rookie Dave Paya ninth. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., of Hudson, N.H., was the winner.

Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Vince Quenneville, Jr., of Brandon was seventh in Saturday’s Modified feature with Brandon neighbor Don Scarborough tenth. Milton drivers Codey Benoit and Rob Gordon finished second and third, respectively, in the Renegade feature.

Albany-Saratoga Speedway (Malta, N.Y.): Friday’s races were rained out.

Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford): Kevin Chaffee of Orange won Saturday’s Sportsman Modified race over Gary Siemons of Orford, N.H., and Adam Pierson of Fairlee. Rookies Dwight Burgoyne of Jaffrey, N.H., won the Sportsman Coupe race over Chris Carbee of South Ryegate and Steve Ellsworth of Corinth. East Montpelier’s Will Hull won the Limited Late Model race over Jason Blake of Moretown and Troy Comeau of Rumney, N.H. Tim Hodge of Vershire was the Fast Four winner over Kevin Harran of St. Johnsbury and Josh Sunn of White River Junction. Groton’s Eric Lang won the three-segment Hornet “Madness” race over Bobby Bell of St. Johnsbury and Mike Ryan of Corinth.

Big Daddy's Speedway (Rumney, N.H.): Ed Tobin of Hartland was fifth in Sunday’s Sportsman Modified feature. White River Junction’s Josh Sunn was the Mini Stock runner-up with St. Johnsbury’s Kevin Harran third.

Canaan Dirt Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Friday’s races were rained out.

Canaan Fair Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Jamie Hodgdon of Ascutney was Saturday’s Pure Stock runner-up, and Bradford’s Mike Parker was the Bandit runner-up.

Devil's Bowl Speedway (West Haven): Jimmy Ryan of Whiting won Sunday’s Modified feature over Seth Roberts of Averill Park, N.Y., and Don Mattison of Wells. Don Miller of Wells was the Sportsman winner over Middlebury’s Hunter Bates and Jack Swinton of Hudson Falls, N.Y. Brandon Emigh of Ballston Spa, N.Y., won the Renegade feature over Malta, N.Y.’s Jon Miller and Frank Monroe of Granville, N.Y. Cavendish driver Rob Leitch won the Bomber Warrior race over Essex Junction drivers Chad Brown and Nate Woodworth. Nelson Richert of Cavendish was the Duke Stock winner over Cornwall’s Garrett Given and Scott Atwood of Castleton.

Fonda Speedway (Fonda, N.Y.): Saturday’s races were rained out.

Granite State Mini Sprints: Terry Reil of Middlesex was sixth in the 600cc feature at Big Daddy’s Speedbowl on Sunday. Johnny Chestnut was the winner. Lacey Hanson of Orwell was the 500cc runner-up behind Larry Sheridan.

Lebanon Valley Speedway (West Lebanon, N.Y.): Bennington’s Hector Stratton was the Modified runner-up on Saturday. Cullen Howe of South Londonderry was eighth in the Sportsman race, and Chuck Towlsee of Manchester was fifth in the Pro Stocks.

Modified Racing Series: Ascutney’s Dwight Jarvis was the runner-up in Saturday’s event at Canaan Fair Speedway, with nephew Joey Jarvis 11th. Eric Goodale of Wading River, N.Y., was the winner.

Mohawk Int’l Raceway (Akwesasne, N.Y.): Friday’s races were rained out.

Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): On Saturday, July 24, Vernon’s Josh King was 11th in the Modified race and Dana Shepard of Putney was ninth in the Super Stocks. On Tuesday, July 27, King was 14th in the Modifieds, Windham’s Nate Kehoe was ninth in the Sportsman Modifieds, Guilford’s Stuart Wheelden was tenth in the Super Stocks, and Mini Stock drivers Joe Rogers of Ludlow and Mike Metcalf of Westminster were eighth and tenth, respectively.

Pro All Stars Series: Danville’s Steven Legendre was 21st in last Thursday’s PASS National Championship 75 at Thompson Int’l Speedway. Ben Rowe of Turner, Me., was the winner.

Riverside Speedway (Groveton, N.H.): Paul Schartner, III, of Lyndon was third in Saturday’s Late Model feature, with Jesse Switser of West Burke fourth. St. Johnsbury’s Dan Sidney was fifth in the Outlaw Sportsman race, and North Troy’s David Allen was fourth in the Super Stocks. Howard Switser of West Burke won the Dwarf Car race with Concord’s Willie Merchant third. St. Johnsbury’s Dean Switser was the Street Stock runner-up with Brendan Hunt of Derby Line fourth and St. Johnsbury’s Doug Duprey fifth. Waterford’s Lorin Vear won the Cyclone race with Sheffield’s Shaun Stetson third, and Lisa Hodgdon of Danville was the Angel runner-up with Cabot’s Lyndsey Christman third.

Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl (Barre): Rich Lowrey of Charlotte won Thursday’s Late Model feature over Nick Sweet of Barre and Matt White of Northfield. Pete Ainsworth of Middlesex was the Tiger Sportsman winner over Fairlee’s Troy Gray and Brendan Moodie of North Wolcott. Mike MacAskill of Williamstown beat Gorham, N.H.’s Jean LeBlanc for the Street Stock win with Berlin’s Scott Weston third. Kevin Dodge of Barre was the top Junkyard Warrior over Cabot’s Ken Christman and Kevin Wheatley of Williamstown.

Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): Friday’s races were rained out.

White Mountain Motorsports Park (North Woodstock, N.H.): Saturday’s races were rained out.

***

THIS WEEK:

Thursday, July 29
Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl, Barre -- 6:30pm (Port-A-Potty Grand Prix)

Friday, July 30
Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. -- 6:45pm (Black Flag Night)
Canaan Dirt Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 7:00pm (Regular Event)
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Jake McDowell 100)
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 7:00pm (ACT Late Model Tour)

Saturday, July 31
Airborne Speedway, Plattsburgh, N.Y. -- 6:00pm (Regular Event)
Bear Ridge Speedway, Bradford -- 6:00pm (Sprint Cars of New England)
Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Double Late Model Features)
Monadnock Speedway, Winchester, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Open Wheel Special, NEMA)
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 5:00pm (Pro All Stars Series)
White Mountain Motorsports Park, North Woodstock, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Regular Event)

Sunday, August 1
Big Daddy's Speedbowl, Rumney, N.H. -- 4:00pm (Late Model Special)
Devil's Bowl Speedway, West Haven -- 6:00pm (Black Flag Night, Pro Stock/Super Street Challenge #3)


TOURING SERIES:

ACT Late Model Tour: Fri., July 30 -- Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. (7:00pm)
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Sat., July 31 -- Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa. (SPEED/12:30pm)
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Sat., July 31 -- Iowa Speedway, Newton, Iowa (ESPN/7:00pm)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Sun., Aug. 1 -- Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa. (ESPN/1:00pm)
Pro All Stars Series: Sat., July 31 -- Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. (5:00pm)
Sprint Cars of New England: Sat., July 31 -- Bear Ridge Speedway, Bradford, Vt. (6:00pm)

Photo by Leif Tillotson

IN THEIR OWN WORDS:

"I don’t care what kind of car it is. If it’s got four tires and steering wheel, I’ll drive it." --Nick Sweet

"I want a championship next year, that’s what I want. I’m gonna get it next year. If I run the full season, I’m gonna get it." --Modified Racing Series driver Steve Masse

"I’ve never had a season where we’ve had this number of podium finishes. Never. And I dare say nobody else has, either." --ACT champion Brian Hoar

"It’s crazy to think that however many years ago I was sitting in the stands up here watching my dad trying to make the race and now we’re in victory lane." --Milk Bowl winner Joey Polewarczyk

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