The history of NASCAR is so complex that I felt the need to explain it in the last post, so context could be provided for what I think needs to be done. In the early days of the 21st century, NASCAR had elevated itself to the #2 spectator sport in the US, trailing only the NFL. Yes, there were more people watching NASCAR races than were watching baseball or NBA games. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s made just about everyone rich, and NASCAR took full advantage, increasing the number of cars starting a race to 43, and increasing the schedule to 36 races at 24 tracks. The most important races – the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, and the night race every August at the .536-mile Bristol – were always sold out months in advance. The Bristol night race had a years-long waiting list.
But then, life happened.
The dot-com bubble busted, the country went into recession, and the next bubble (housing) came up, and when it busted, the country went into an economic depression (don’t let those “news” people lie to you about it being just a recession; it was a depression). NASCAR was extremely slow to adapt. They continued to tinker with the Chase format, and signed Monster energy drinks as the new title sponsor in an attempt to increase their fan base among millennials. They introduced 36 “charters” that car owners could purchase as guarantees of being able to start all the races (no one owner could hold more than 4).
So what needs to be done? NASCAR still doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not 1999 anymore, and ordinary people no longer have spare money spilling out of their pockets. Attendance is down at every track (even Bristol), and TV ratings have cratered. Now, Emperor James is here to advise.
1. Shorten the season. Like MLB and the NBA, the season is too long. The Daytona 500 is usually run in late February, and the last race in Miami is a week before Thanksgiving. Much too long. The season needs to be a total of 30 races, scheduled in such a way that each one is more valuable to the fans living near the tracks, so they will have a stronger desire to go. How do they do that? I’m so glad you asked.
2. One race per track, plus playoffs. There are 24 races that hold a Monster Energy Series race. (Unfortunately, they’re still devoted to the Cup word, so it’s the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series, which is dumb). There’s your regular season – 1 race at each track, 24 races in all, down from 26. The playoffs go from 10 races to 6. This is where some traditions are going to get blown up.
3. Playoff format – Monster Energy Drinks arrival as the title sponsor has brought one change – the playoffs are called just that, the playoffs. No more “Chase.” As I mentioned before, the 4 most important, prestigious races on this circuit are the Daytona 500 in Daytona (first race each year), the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (Memorial Day weekend), the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (last Sunday in July), and the night race at Bristol (late August). You could make an argument that the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend deserves one of those top 4 slots, but I’m going to go with Bristol just to get a short track in this format. So those 4 races become a part of the playoffs, in reverse order of how I listed them here. So yes, the Daytona 500 would be the last race of the year instead of the first. So who gets the other 2 playoff spots? Well, there are 20 other tracks besides these 4. Two of them get a playoff race, and then you rotate through the other tracks. For example, in the first year of this format, Martinsville and Las Vegas get a playoff race. The second year, Michigan and New Hampshire get them, and so on. There are 2 tracks most purists hate – the road courses at Sonoma, CA and Watkins Glen, NY. But they are part of the circuit, so they get to be in the rotation. (Let’s just put one of them in year 5, and the other one in year 10, putting them off as long as possible and keeping the terrible years of having 3 road races in 1 year as far apart as possible.)
4. Playoff elimination goes faster. We now have 16 cars in the playoffs. With this format, 4 cars get eliminated after the first, third and fifth races. If you like wrecks, you’ll probably see a lot more of them as contenders have less time to win and stay in contention with each round of elimination.
5. GET RID OF THE RESTRICTOR PLATES! The worst races are the ones with those stupid plates. The drama is higher, and there’s a lot more passing than at the road course races, where passing is about impossible. But it’s far more dangerous than the racing the plates were designed to replace. Yes, Bobby Allison got permanently injured without them, but Dale Earnhardt got killed with them. I was sure that the death of the sport’s biggest name would make the brass realize how awful these things are and would get rid of them. Not only did they not get rid of them, but they thought about EXPANDING their use! In 2000, when Richard Petty’s grandson Adam got killed in a wreck during practice before a race in New Hampshire due to his throttle getting stuck, NASCAR actually considered putting restrictor plates on for the New Hampshire races. Thank God, they found other means to help prevent a stuck throttle and abandoned the plate idea. What’s the issue? The egos of the France family. Legendary “Big Bill” France founded the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing in 1949. He built it from a few dirt tracks to a circuit on super-speedways and gave moonshine bootleggers a chance to go legit. His son, Bill France Jr., took over the business and crafted the point standings and Winston sponsorship, creating the “modern era” concept as written by Tom Higgins. Bill Jr. eventually turned the business of running NASCAR over to his son Brian and his daughter, Lisa France Kennedy. They hired Mike Helton to oversee the race track operations and rule enforcement. The France people, more than anything else, want you to know that their family founded NASCAR, it’s THEIR business, and by gawd, things will be done the way THEY want them done. You can see “I AM THE BOSS!!!!!!!!!!!” between the lines of everything Brian and Lisa say and do. Taking the restrictor plates off now would be essentially admitting their Daddy made a mistake. Daddy never made any mistakes. No one named France has ever made a mistake about anything, by gawd. This sport still may be a bunch of redneck moonshine runners in the eyes of a lot of people, but that is far from the truth. If you want to work for a NASCAR team in their garage or on the pit crew, requirement #1 is an engineering degree. The building of these machines is very intricate and complex. Yeah, some of the crew and even the driver might have an accent that makes you think they just fell off a turnip truck, but most of them have forgotten more about racing than the average fan like me will ever know. There are dozens of ways that teams can alter the engineering of these cars to keep them from topping 200 mph at Talladega and Daytona. These plates aren’t even close to being the only way to keep the speeds down. NASCAR has a research & development center and wind tunnel tester just up the road in Concord, NC. Get a few engineers and R&D guys from all the top teams, send them to Concord and say, “call me when you have designed a car with no carburetor restrictor plate that won’t go more than 190 mph at the 2 big tracks.” In less than a year, I guarantee you they will have something. C’mon, NASCAR, put your egos in neutral, and let’s get something better before Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Bush, Joey Legano, Brad Keslowski or Kyle Larson gets killed like Dale Earnhardt did.