Race Weekend Central

Come One, Come All!

Last weekend’s running of the Sprint All-Star Race reminded of the old punch line: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, what’d you think of the play?”

Funny how one unforeseen event can bring the curtain down on an entire show.

But then, the idea of an “all-star” event seems paradoxical. It’s always struck me as odd how when sports celebrate their “all-star break”, it’s anything BUT a break for those deemed “all-stars”. Instead of allowing the best athletes some much-deserved time off around the midway point of a season, we, instead, expect them to provide an additional weekend of competition.

Shouldn’t “all-stars” be allowed some time off?

The answer to that question, given today’s sports socioeconomic obsession, is no.

We used to not have an all-star event in NASCAR. About the closest thing we had to one was the old International Race of Champions series, where drivers from various forms of motorsport raced four events on four different tracks in identically-prepared Chevrolet Camaros. I always thought the reason NASCAR never held a specific “all-star” race was because every week on the NASCAR schedule constituted an “all-star” event.

Then came The Winston back in 1985, with Darrell Waltrip’s win powered by Junior Johnson’s hand grenade of a Chevy engine. The theory was sound from a Chamber-of-Commerce perspective: host a special race at the site of your upcoming Memorial Day weekend event to create an abbreviated, North Carolina version of Speedweeks. Why should Daytona get all the fun when most of the teams competing in NASCAR were based in-and-around the Charlotte region?

And if back-to-back races on one weekend were good, having two weekends of races would be great. Two weekends of racing meant two weekends of race fans needing lodging, meals, gasoline, and souvenirs.

And from a little, came a lot….

From Circle K’s “Speed Street” in Uptown Charlotte to creation of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, adding fan-friendly merriments in advance of the World/Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day added both people and profits to the month of May.

Take that, Indianapolis!

But developing an all-star race and tourist attraction at Charlotte Motor Speedway has been anything but simple. It was easier in 1985, when race winners from the previous season squared off in a 70-lap/one pit stop scramble held the day before the 600 itself. In 1986, the all-star race moved to Atlanta for one year before returning in 1987 to The Queen City for acceptance as a standalone event held a week before Memorial Day.

I was personally involved in that first edition of “Speedweeks” in North Carolina. My first book about NASCAR had recently been published (as in two weeks before The Winston), and I was invited to take part in Race Week festivities in Mooresville, which was now calling itself “Race City USA” because of the number of teams based in the community.

By this time, The Winston was already experimenting with a more exciting, more fan-focused structure of 135 laps split into three segments divided by ten minute breaks. This eventually, as the years passed, gave way to other formats – the ones leading to such innovations as varied segment lengths, inverted fields, last-chance races, Legends exhibition events, and pit crew challenges.

Suddenly Brad Keselowski’s format and online fan voting seem positively provincial.

But what rises above the sheet metal, shoving, shouting, and smoke is the bottom line: the all-star race, regardless of what you call it or how you organize it, is a way for the Charlotte region to jump on the extended race date bandwagon. If Daytona Beach can have two weeks of action in February, and Speedway, Indiana can have an entire month in May, why can’t Charlotte gets its own two-week piece of the tourism pie?

That said: if poor timing, confusion, and overall frustration with an “all-star” race is a problem, why can’t CMS simply host an all-day open test session for Cup teams? This could even be done to accommodate NCWTS and XFINITY teams, as well, on other days during Race Week. Have the track open from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and allow teams to work on qualifying setups, race configurations, and changes involving aero rules and tires.

This would be a good way to prepare for all those intermediate-sized tracks that make up a large part of the Sprint Cup schedule. And if drivers decided to challenge each other for some informal fun (like a twenty-lap trophy dash for bragging rights within a multi-car operation), so be it. Let fans into the grandstands for free, have concession and souvenir sales all day, and keep folks updated via Twitter.

It’d be the excitement of an all-star race weekend without the inconsistent rules and varied formats.

I, personally, would enjoy watching drivers from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, or Stewart-Haas Racing participate in some “intermural” free-for-alls. There might even be a punch line to be found somewhere in such a tangle of late-May events at-and-around Charlotte Motor Speedway, but you’ll have to write it yourself.

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