Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Long & Short of It

Last week, NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rusty Wallace raised some eyebrows saying he felt that NASCAR needed to reduce the Cup schedule from 36 races down to 32. Then, earlier this week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. chimed in that he felt shortening the schedule was a fine idea, too. And you know when Earnhardt speaks, that’s going to cause a buzz.

I’ve been advocating a shorter schedule for over a decade now and I think it’s high time NASCAR start at least exploring the idea. The current Cup slate, with 38 weekends of competition, is the longest in professional sports. The only “season” that comes close is Major League Baseball, whose schedule begins a month after the Daytona 500 and concludes a month before the Homestead finale.

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Full Throttle: Beating the Dead Schedule Horse

NASCAR’s list of races stretches from President’s Day to the weekend before Thanksgiving, with only two weekends off during the whole ordeal.

Once upon a time, that was workable. The sport was soaring in popularity and new tracks were popping up around the country like dandelions on the lawn in spring. All those new tracks were clamoring for a Cup race date because as soon as those seats were built, the arena was sold out.

Naturally, the established tracks on the schedule weren’t eager to surrender their dates, either, since all the races in those days were cash cows that typically sold out months in advance of the event.

Area hotels and motels got giddy, seeing the size of the crowds races were drawing and doubled, even tripled their rates often insisting on four-night, minimum stays for the fans. Local cops got in on the action, setting up speed traps to capture unwitting, out-of-state fans who didn’t realize the limit dropped from 50 mph to 35 mph for no apparent reason.

Everyone was making money and life was grand. Now? Well, not so much.

NASCAR helped contribute to the decline with this ridiculous concept of the Chase. Basically, that devalues the worth of the 26 regular-season races while promoting the final 10 events that will decide a champion.

A difficult economy, gouging by the hospitality industry, tracks charging too much for tickets, food and drink, the price of gas and the shrinking size of the blue-collar class in America have all contributed to shrink crowds to the point there’s an embarrassing amount of empty seats at these speedways most weeks.

I have a friend here in the area where I’ve been living going on seven years now. I’d say he’s doing pretty well, has a nice home, some cool toys and put two kids through college, with one in his sophomore year.

When I first moved here, he and his family used to attend both Pocono and Dover races each year. Then, they decided to cut back to one race at each track annually. This year, for the first time they decided to go to Dover in September and skip Pocono all together. Like Wallace stated, supply simply outstrips demand at least in this economy and given the lack of quality racing the last few seasons.

Here’s the problem; even with that pull-back mentality, race fans don’t want to see those arenas they call their home track lose a race date. If we’re going to cut back on the schedule, they’d prefer it be at somebody else’s expense. The old “not in my backyard” theory. So how would I go about reducing the schedule?

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Dollars & Sense: The Roadblocks in Front of a Shortened Schedule

I’ve talked about my feeling about Cup car races on road courses several times over the years. I know that a lot of you really enjoy those road-course races and actually, some of you wish NASCAR would add more to the schedule. I will grant you both road-course races last year were pretty exciting.

So we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one, all you right-turn advocates. I’d still start by eliminating Watkins Glen, N.Y. and Sonoma, Calif. from the schedule. That’s not just because I don’t like them. It’s a matter of economics as well.

The bigger teams actually have separate cars they run at these two courses. Building two cars that will only be raced once annually is a huge expense that simply isn’t worth it, one that penalizes the smaller teams who have to try to convert over a short track car to road course specifications.

The costs of building separate cars for the plate tracks and road courses is one of the reasons that running a full competitive season has swollen so obscenely; now, even the big teams struggle to find sponsors willing to write large enough checks to back a race team.

And let’s face it, the NHL doesn’t have a few contests a season where teams get a win for having the best aggregate score in a figure skating competition rather than playing hockey.

You want to see full-bodied cars run on a road course? Watch the Rolex or American LeMans series.

Two down. Next up, we’ll tackle the issue of reducing the supply in a region to meet the demand. Let’s look at “regional” groupings of tracks; I’ll start with my home base here in the Northeast. Pocono, Dover and New Hampshire each have two race dates on this year’s schedule. All are within reasonable driving distance of my home here at Eyesore Acres, though I’d rather eat bugs for Thanksgiving dinner than go to another race at NHMS.

Starting in 2013, I’d award one of those tracks two dates and cut back the other two to one date apiece. So in 2013, NHMS and Dover might have one race each while Pocono would have two. In 2014, Dover would have two races while Pocono and NHMS would have one, and finally in 2015 NHMS would get two dates and the other tracks would get one event.

The next regional grouping that comes to mind is Texas, Talladega and Kansas City. There’s also a “West Coast trio” of California, Phoenix and Las Vegas, but in that group Phoenix has two dates a year while Vegas and Fontana have one. In this instance, Phoenix will still have two races, but that “extra date” would alternate between Vegas and California the next two years.

I’d make that same sort of arrangement for Michigan, Indy and Kentucky. Though they are in relatively close geographic proximity, I’d keep my hands off Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol.

We need at least (and preferably more) those six short-track dates on the schedule.

Now, by paring regional groups of three down to four races a year I’ve actually eliminated more events than I have to – my ideal number of races would be seven months’ worth. To address this problem, I’d restore a race date to North Wilkesboro to rectify a calamitous decision NASCAR made many years ago.

I would also add a race, preferably within the final 10, to Rockingham, another cherished venue NASCAR abandoned. And of course, I’d move the Darlington race date back to the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend so we can have a real Southern 500 again.

Any race in July or August at a track with lights (and those without them would strongly be encouraged to add them) also would be run on Wednesday nights, with qualifying that afternoon to turn those races into one-day affairs. Race distances would be reduced to the point we could run those Wednesday night races in a three-hour time slot, 8:00 – 11:00 p.m ET, including 10 minutes of pre-race and 15 minutes of follow up after the event.

Why the change to midweek events? I want my Saturdays and Sundays off during the summer to ride down the shore, dodging shoebies in their minivans yakking on the cellphone. Wouldn’t you like your weekends free, too?

Oh, and I’d add an (obviously non-points) “Seniors Race” at Martinsville open to any retired Cup driver who won a race during his career and still physically capable of racing 100 laps (just 50) miles to the schedule. Guys like Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd could have at it again with men like Petty and Pearson if they chose to participate. The Seniors Race would be a 90-minute TV package on a Tuesday night.

As for the Bud Shootout and the All-Star Race? GONG! Thanks for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts.

More radical cuts in the schedule might be necessary in the future. Tracks that can’t sell seats or venues that produce too many boring races as decided by a fan vote would get the axe, encouraging track promoters to market their races better or improve their tracks to a greater extent.

Ideally, I’d like to see the NASCAR Cup season end on Labor Day weekend, a two-day affair consisting of a Truck Series/Nationwide doubleheader on Saturday and the crowning of a Cup champion on Sunday evening.

There’s an old saying amongst us gearhead types, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well NASCAR, it’s broke – so fix it.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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