As embarrassing as it might be to admit it, I’m a NASCAR fan and have been for quite a long time. I remember watching live on TV as the sport lost a legend in Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on February 18, 2001. Since that time, NASCAR has ramped up its focus on safety, debuted two new “generations” of cars, changed the sponsor of its top series (to Nextel, later Sprint), and introduced numerous rules changes.
And yet, after all that fiddling, NASCAR has seen its popularity decline over time, this season reaching multi-year lows in TV viewership at several tracks. The season-opening Daytona 500—NASCAR’s signature event—had its record-lowest TV rating.
Now comes the news that Sprint will end its title sponsorship in NASCAR once its contract runs out after the 2016 season.
Compared to its peers in American motorsports, NASCAR is still on top. But diehard fans are growing tired of the incessant tinkering, boring racing, and cookie-cutter personalities in the sport today. So what should the France family do?
Fix the Chase
The Chase for the Sprint Cup was NASCAR’s version of a playoff system meant to inject drama into the end of the season. By and large, it worked, though there were gripes about various drivers missing the chase, and later about the chase favoring certain drivers (*cough*Jimmie Johnson*cough*) due to the tracks on the schedule. With recent attempts by NASCAR to emphasize racing for wins over points (guaranteed Chase spots for race winners, and now the various elimination rounds in the Chase), there has been a whole lot of messing around with the formula for winning a championship lately.
Step one should be scrapping the whole eliminator idea. A 10-race chase creates enough variability already, and breaking it down into 3-race chunks (with a winner-takes-all finish) just means the odds are high that the final champion won’t have been the season’s best driver. NASCAR got lucky as Kevin Harvick won this year, but what if it had been Ryan Newman instead?
Step two involves re-injecting some drama from top to bottom. In the Chase, only the “Chasers” have a shot at a championship, so they should only be racing against each other. No, I don’t mean 12-person races. I mean that points toward the championship should only be counted by finishing position relative to other Chase racers. This has the advantage of making sure a fluke event doesn’t take someone completely out of the running. Flat tire? Got wrecked? You still live to see another day. Not only will this keep things close and create a lot more room for movement in the standings (much like double file restarts did for on-track jockeying), but it’ll give drivers a lot more freedom to be aggressive, because they know the risk is minimized. This creates more excitement for the fans, which NASCAR desperately needs.
Fix the Race
Championship logistics aside, the on-track product could use some work as well. Many tracks are plagued by single file racing, and fans increasingly are waiting until the end because they know nothing of importance happens until the tail end of the race.
While fans like to see cars that go fast, people really watch a race to see drivers battle for position. In order to get more of that, we need a few points of emphasis on the next generation of car. First, the cars need to be sturdy enough so that minor damage has only a limited effect on aerodynamics. This will encourage drivers to take chances and use their bumpers to gain an advantage where needed. Second, the handling on the cars should be tweaked. NASCAR has always featured ill-handling cars (at least relative to Indycar and Formula 1), but increasing downforce and grip will help aggressive moves into corners pay off more often, and allow NASCAR to corral speeds as engines continue to become more powerful.
NASCAR has had a “boys (and girls) have at it” policy (to a degree) for a while now, and the idea of drivers holding grudges and getting rough on and off the track has been an integral part of NASCAR’s history. The Intimidator didn’t get his nickname by only ever making clean passes. Not only does encouraging drivers to tussle a bit on track provide more excitement for fans, it also will likely bring out a few more cautions. Though yellow flags break up the flow of a race, they introduce more opportunities for positions to shuffle, both on pit road and on restarts. Furthermore, with more opportunities to refuel, the likelihood that the end of a race turns into a fuel-mileage battle diminishes. It’s neat to see racers like Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski shut off their engines and coast turns to save gas, but it doesn’t necessarily make for great racing. Obviously, alongside all of this, NASCAR needs to make sure safety is a priority by expanding the use of SAFER barriers, and continuing to innovate better in-car safety measures.
Back to Basics
NASCAR has always been simple, raw racing. Four left turns. “Stock” cars. Drivers that are rough around the edges. These are the things that have built the brand, and there’s no need to stray from that formula. By getting back to the basics and re-energizing a hungry fanbase with a racing product they can get excited about, NASCAR ought to be able to reclaim its former glory.