Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: For Everything, There Is a Season

A bit belatedly, NASCAR finally released the 2018 schedules for its top three touring series last week: Cup, XFINITY and Trucks. Naturally, the release of said schedule caused frenzied fans to launch into action, clogging track phone lines and nearly crashing the internet as folks frantically tried to get their hands on tickets before they were sold out for the sport’s premiere events.

OK. That didn’t happen.

A couple of decades ago, it might have, but not anymore. I can assure anyone who wishes to see a particular race next year, you’ll likely be able to walk up to the ticket counter on race day and be offered a dizzying array of potential seating locations still available. Or, you can order them on your phone during that interminable two hours to travel the last five miles to the track. That’s thanks to parking lot attendants who must have been graduates of the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-minded Girls and Boys. (Google it. Such a place existed and funds are being raised to preserve the school property as part of U.S. history.)

For 2018, no new tracks have been added to the schedule (unless you want to say Charlotte, since it will switch to its road course) but none had been expected. When the powers that be circled the wagons in the face of outrageous misfortune gripping the industry a few years ago, they built a concord in which no track would lose a Cup date involuntarily.

Oddly enough, there’s been no general clamor to build new oval tracks for stock car racing during that same time period. That’s despite the fact for a decade, those damned cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half tracks were sprouting across the nation like dandelions on a suburban spring front lawn.

Considering those constraints, the 2018 NASCAR schedule still does have a new look to it. To begin with, the Daytona 500 is restored to its once-traditional Presidents’ Day weekend (are we still allowed to celebrate that or is the holiday now passively/aggressively racist?) NASCAR had moved the date forward a week because of rumors the NFL was going to add a date to the regular season schedule. They didn’t.

So, hooray for tradition. I’m all for starting the season earlier because during those bitter, waning weeks of winter, the Harleys and hot rods remain parked on this side of the Mason-Dixon and there’s little enough to do on a Sunday afternoon anyway. Unfortunately, the season does not conclude earlier despite starting that week. Eventually, someone at 1801 West International Speedway Boulevard (NASCAR’s palatial headquarters in Daytona Beach) is going to have to accept the fact the days of selling race tickets as fast as you can print them are long since gone and not coming back.

As such, the season schedule needs to be pared dramatically. If at all possible, the Cup schedule ought to conclude by the time the NFL regular season starts in September. Once the football season begins in earnest, NASCAR racing becomes a mere twinge in the reptilian lobe of the national consciousness. If that goal is too radical, than certainly the season needs to conclude by the end of that month.

Personally, I’d still love to see the Cup schedule kick off in Daytona on Presidents’ Day weekend and conclude with the Southern 500 on the Sunday before Labor Day. Ah, wouldn’t it be nice. But like they say: “If wishes were prairies, we’d all have much room to roam, and if cold beer came out the kitchen spigot, we’d never have to leave home.”

The NASCAR schedule has changed a bit for 2018… but is it enough? (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP)

Atlanta remains in its little-coveted second event time slot on February 25, a date where chilly temperatures and precipitation will always remain a threat. Yeah, it’s Georgia, Vern. It’s also winter. Remember back in 1993 when Atlanta got snowed, not rained, out? Dip me in sewage and call me “Stinky” if that didn’t happen.

Once one of the premiere tracks on the circuit, it seems no one really cares if the single race date at Atlanta remains on the schedule despite the fact for many, many years the storied track hosted the season finale. Now, it seems like track management is leaving the keys in an exotic sports car they’re buried face down on with the loan, just wishing someone would come along and steal it.

If the track does, in fact, lose its date the fans will be blamed for not supporting the facility. In truth, Atlanta’s demise will harken back to the track owner’s attitude, “Yeah, getting in and out of this joint is a living hell that takes more time than the race, but screw them all. They’re NASCAR fans. They’re used to horrific traffic jams before and after races. Everything’s cool.”

Yup. And nope.

Traditionally, the first Dover Cup race is held annually the week after the World 600. Next year, that event moves to the first weekend in May. What difference does a month make? Oh, plenty. Believe you me. I have misspent more than five decades now living in the Northeast and April is a miserable month hereabouts. The weather will tempt you with tastes of an early spring and soaring temperatures. Then, it will slap you hard with tumbling temps that send one diving back beneath the covers and comforters like a prairie dog diving back into the solace of his tunnels.

It also rains up here in April. It rains constantly. When it’s not pouring, it’s about to pour or has only recently stopped. On those rare instances the clouds do part enough to allow a brief glimpse of sunshine, shocked residents shield their eyes and let out soft mewling sounds like the Magwai in Gremlins unaccustomed to bright lights. Like they say in these parts: “April showers make us wistful, soon we’ll be swallowing Prozac by the fistful.”

And every year, the rainy season drags on into May (it certainly did this year) just so armchair meteorologists can waste a tsunami of words and a blizzard of complaints over a phenomenon they are completely powerless to change: predicting ominously that spring will never come. Inevitably, it does of course… usually in June, which is why the Dover race was always run early that month. As an added bonus, the later date occurred about the time schools let out, giving parents a chance to take the kids to a race before summer break and the rugrats’ rebellion drove dad to the liquor cabinet and mom into therapy.

Moving on. According to the schedule released, NASCAR’s All-Star Race remains on the docket the week before the 600 and on the oval in Charlotte. That surprises me. No, it doesn’t shock me the event wasn’t moved to another track. My eyebrows are raised that after the recent unholy disaster posing as an All-Star Race they’re even bothering to hold it again next year.

For any remaining NASCAR fans in Chicago (and you two know who you are) I feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for you not that your race date was torn from the playoffs and moved to July; I feel sorry for you because you live in Chicago. As to the race date, well, there was once an era where moneyed people thought the Chicago market needed not one but two intermediate racetracks. Chip Ganassi did, in fact, build that second facility but I presume the location is now a strip mall anchored by a Golden Corral.

As it turns out, the Chicago market can barely support one racetrack, much less two. Taking the date from the autumn to the dog days of summer is going to make for a miserable experience in an area where old wisdom includes, “Corn as high as an elephant’s eye by the Fourth of July… but don’t go outside then to check or you’ll fry.” Thankfully, the Chicago date is actually July 1, not the Fourth of July, so the corn will presumably be as high as a just slightly smaller elephant’s eye. (Though my guess is it will still be hotter than Hades.)

In days of yore, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona was actually run on the Fourth of July, no matter what day of the week that date fell on. Next year, it will be run on July 7, not surprisingly on a Saturday. When they released the schedule, NASCAR didn’t include race start times (presumably, the networks will have gotten over this “later is better” concept when they see the decimated ratings). But again, traditionally the Firecracker 400 was the earliest starting race of the season, usually commencing somewhere around 11 a.m. ET.

By two, the whole race was over, allowing the NASCAR family to hit the beach and race fans to enjoy other pursuits. It also made good sense because for most of the summer Florida features hot, sticky, humid days that give way to violent thunderstorms in the evening… right about the time some fool decided would be ideal for a stock car race.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask for the race to move back to the Fourth of July but I’d still love to see an 11 a.m. start time. My guess is within a few years, “The Fourth of July” holiday will be done away with replaced by “Independence Day,” the first Monday of every July.

Since we’re on the topic of midweek race dates, I should note that none have been added to next year’s Cup schedule. There will be just three off weekends for the Cup Series next season: Easter on April 1, June 17, and August 25. Thus, NASCAR is gambling once again no race date after August will be affected by such lousy weather it can’t be run on Monday or Tuesday either and needs to be rescheduled to another weekend. Isn’t September the height of the Atlantic hurricane season, too? Keep in mind the next open weekend after the first three I listed is Thanksgiving.

One of the most talked about changes to next year’s schedule is Richmond will no longer be the final “regular season” race. That “honor” will be moved to the Brickyard at Indianapolis, a date which just happens to coincide with the NFL’s regular season opener for the Colts.

Will someone kissing the bricks in September at Indy, not July push NASCAR’s fans to come to the Brickyard? (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

Oops. I’m of a split mind of this one. I still hate the Chase even if they want to call it the playoffs now, but adding a short track race to the post-season is a good thing. Adding Indy as the regular season end date? That isn’t such a good thing. You’ll likely know who is going to make the cut as soon as qualifying is over as there’s so little passing at Indianapolis, a track never designed for or congenial to stock car racing. Worse still, the XFINITY series will still be racing at the Brickyard too rather than moving back to Indianapolis Raceway Park. That’s despite the tepid competition which has led to catastrophically low ticket sales.

As noted above, the 2018 playoff opener moves from Chicago to Las Vegas. It’s a matter of making it out of a barrel of boiling oil and into another one full of boiling tar… though presumably, we’ll never see a race called “The Tales of the Turtles”, the most grotesquely inappropriate name for a race ever, again after Chicago this season. Richmond will take over the second spot in the playoffs from New Hampshire, a decided improvement though I fear the quality of racing might diminish at Richmond as drivers choose to points race. As it is right now, most drivers arrive at Richmond in the fall already locked into (or for the most part, out of) the post-season and can let the greasy side drag.

NASCAR’s schedule changes just keep on coming after that. The following week, the circuit returns to Charlotte but as hinted above, rather than running the traditional oval the Cup drivers will run on a circuit made up of the infield road course and portions of the oval.

Will that be an improvement? Like the Magic 8 balls used to say, “Answer Cloudy… Try Again Later.” I have no data to base an opinion on. It might have been prudent to run the All-Star Race on the mixed circuit this year as an experiment to see how things went before committing a playoff event to Charlotte’s infield. I do know this much: typically, dedicated natural terrain road courses (like Watkins Glen and Sonoma) provide far superior racing to hybrid ones.

Some drivers with a road racing background are already predicting there will only be one passing point on the entire circuit for the Cup cars. These vehicles are overweight and under-tired when it comes to proper road course racing. At the same time, I know a lot of fans have in fact been wishing, nay demanding a road course be added to the Chase-offs or whatever it’s called. This compromise strikes me as a cruel gift from a sadistic father to his son. “Yeah, Daddy, I did in fact say I wanted a pony. Perhaps I should have specified I’d like a pony with four legs and without lung cancer and lice.”

From there, the schedule marches on in a fashion very similar to this year’s. Once again, Talladega won’t be a cutoff race for a round which is a good thing, though the fact a plate race is still in the Chase-offs is still repugnant to me. As is the fact there’s plate racing at all anywhere, anytime.

The 2018 Truck Series schedule remains a mess. They did manage to add a March date to Las Vegas to help fill in the early season gaps in the schedule, but the division remains idle from March 24 at Martinsville until May 4 at Dover. That’s far too long without an event to keep fans interested.

What other changes will we see in NASCAR next year and beyond? Optional soft compound tires? Summer weeknight races? Restrictor plates at Michigan and/or Indy? Massively reduced front splitters and the re-introduction of taxi-cab strips on the roof in hopes of resurrecting the draft? Who knows? When you’re using the water you’re bailing from a sinking ship to put out fires on deck it’s time to find a moment to write a proper press release.

If I was running the Circus McGurkus, step one would be to radically pare the schedule down to something far more manageable. The sorry fact is, given the lay of the land we can’t eliminate all the cookie-cutter tracks. But as I see it, none of them is deserving a second date every year. In my mind, at least if those tracks with two dates are currently only selling about half their tickets to both races (if they’re lucky) a fix here is easy. Under the laws of supply and demand, if they host just one race a year, it ought to be a sellout or damn close.

On the other hand, if NASCAR doesn’t want to give a third date to the short tracks at Bristol and Richmond, then they ought to resurrect North Wilkesboro. The plate tracks can be cut back to one race a year to make room and make the sport safer. Sorry, NASCAR. You’ve had the plates as a “temporary measure” for about 30 years now. Since you haven’t come up with a reasonable solution to the problem in all that time, cuts have to be made.

Regrettably New Hampshire, Fontana, and Homestead have to go as well under my fantasy schedule for NASCAR’s future.  Yep, when your ship is being battered on the shoals, sometimes you have to toss the wheat and barley overboard to lighten the load and save it. It beats throwing overboard the ship’s gear, right?

As a whole, the recently released NASCAR schedule has somewhat of a new look to it. You have to give them that. Unfortunately, you can put makeup on a pig and paint it yellow but it still isn’t going to be my pet golden retriever.

Anyone interested in a sickly pony?

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.

Share this article

7 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill B

The attention the schedule announcement gets is hilarious considering there is rarely anything earth shattering being announced. They move things around a bit from time to time but overall the dates and tracks are pretty static. Very little to get excited about.

I think the Charlotte road course race will be a bust (although the usual oval races at Charlotte haven’t been much to talk about for the last several years). They are trying to shoehorn a road course into the chase (which is good) without making a commitment to a true road course because, as we all know, there is no way they can take a race from Charlotte without SMI’s approval.

About time they move Daytona back to President’s Day weekend. Note for future reference, don’t react to what the NFL might do until they actually do it.

russ

And unless you are making plans for a road trip to attend one of the races, something that seems to be less of an issue today, it doesn’t matter.
Doubt that it is more difficult to schedule time in the recliner for a Richmond race than one in Indy.
Just rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic if you ask me.

ArkyBass

I like the idea of ending the NASCAR season around the time football starts at Darlington. Lots of good thoughts from Matt (as usual) but if I had to pick one to ride, the Darlington race ending the season in September sometime would be it.

janice

what stuck a fork in it for me at ams a few years ago was after tornado hit and they rebuilt and changed seating. they would not let enter the track from the back road access roads i had used for close to 10 yrs to go back and forth. saved from getting into traffic on 19/41. nope they made me get on 19/41 in the mess. they would not let me part in open area i had parked in for years. old knees don’t like all that extra walking. the track didn’t care about the older fans. had to pack more stuff in on the “midway” experience.

i was at ams in snow, rain, freezing weather and blistering heat. atlanta at the end of feb can be no picnic. and i know the Super Bowl will be returning here in a year or two to help offset the mega cost of building new stadium for the football team. last time atlanta had a super bowl we had an ice storm and it crippled the city. atlanta doesn’t do winter weather or wet weather well.

i don’t think anyone cares about the schedule any longer. the product that is out there does create the style of racing in the past. it’s like watching g a 500 mile iroc race. and i guess the main draw is to see how many “seasoned drivers” have problems on pit road. once jr retires there will be lots of empty seats. we know princess sparkle pony isn’t backing the seats, and rumors have it she’s gone next year too.

you can have all the pre-race and post-race activities and concerts, but of the produce is luke warm, people will think hard about spending their hard earned cash on a weekend.

everyone knew going into charlotte this weekend i was going to be a rough race. even na$car did so they put that sticky stuff down to help with grip in the upper lane. from what i recall seeing it was still ho hum and the only excitement was at the end to see who would run out and hopefully no one would slam into them.

i know the powers to be at daytona are hoping elliott and blaney enough to keep people interested. not sure these young guys will be able to pull it off.

i guess the most “anticipated next race thing” is whether or not kyle busch picks his nose again on camera and acts worse than his toddler son.

Kevin

That would be spectacular to start at Daytona and finish at the Southern 500. Oh only one can wish! Maybe in the long run market demands will help cull the herd. Being a long time NASCAR fan, since before the $$$ years, it was kind of nice to have the long season, but that was before the “chase”, new points systems, and other gimmicks. The long season could be justified as a test of endurance, much like the Coke 600 use to be. But times are different, February to September is still 8 months (inclusive) and would still be longer os as long as other major sports. Maybe before I die that time will come.

Mike

The incestuous nature of nascar-isc-smi precludes any real schedule change regardless of how necessary it is to save the whole racing franchise. To seriously fix nascar’s schedule issues would incur multiple billions of losses in real estate, infrastructure, investments, etc. The schedule is just one of bzf’s issues. Like my ex-wife, bzf is too arrogant to admit their culpability.

Max

Matt, there will be contraction of the schedule one day – the million dollar question is when. I think that a reasonable bet is after Monster vacates, when the next series sponsor (read: sucker) takes over, they may get behind that idea as a way to increase the demand.
While I agree that the collusion of the Nascar-ISC-SMI triumvirate is a roadblock to contraction, sponsorship dollars, or lack of, could very well dictate whether this happens in the future.
One thing I think all race fans could agree on: as we go forward in the next few years, there will not be enough young fans to replace us old faithfuls. What are they going to do then?

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com