Race Weekend Central

Trying Hard or Hardly Trying?

How far can a sport go to draw an audience?

During the days of Ancient Rome, it was easy. Scatter a few mock sea battles in with your chariot races, and you were good to go. If you happened to dismember a slave or three during a slow stretch, all the better.

Toss a few loaves of bread to the hungry fans in the stands, and your event would be considered a success. Folks would talk about the spectacle for weeks afterward and eagerly await the next go-round.

It looks like automobile racing has taken a similar tact.

Bear baiting it isn’t, but motorsports circa 2015 have taken some interesting paths in an effort to find loyal viewers. And I use the term “viewers” because it seems as though television ratings mean just as much (if not more) than attendance numbers.

Ask NASCAR why it no longer releases attendance figures, yet television numbers are tallied, totaled, and treated like the gospel according to Nielsen.

Among the citizens of NASCAR Nation, the writing has been on the wall for many years, at least since 2004 and the debut of the Chase for the Championship. It has been part of the all-star race at Charlotte for years, as well. Think back to inverted starting grids during Race Week in May and spinning wheels-of-fortune, to specialty races divided up into shootouts and sprints and trophy dashes for big cash.

Dare we assume that the myriad rule changes and packages we’ve seen this year in the Sprint Cup Series are merely more of the same? Are they not other attempts at turning lackluster racing into must-see broadcasts? If it’s Indianapolis, it must be the high drag package. If it’s Kentucky, it must be a low-downforce weekend.

At least the Southern 500 has been moved back to Labor Day weekend and declared to be another low-downforce race. Maybe there’s hope for that venerable old event after all given its rightful place on the schedule and use of the more competitive (and more popular) aerodynamic configuration.

So maybe it’s no surprise that IndyCar racing dabbled in the audience-focused style-over-substance arena this season. It’s not like IndyCar has been above such behavior in years past. Remember the split race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011? Remember the inverted fields? Probably not.

So did the awarding of double points at both Indianapolis and Sonoma help IndyCar build its overall fan base? Did the television ratings jump and did merchandise fly off shelves? Have teams and fans complained loudly enough? Sure, the season title chase in IndyCar came down to a dead heat in points, followed by a tiebreaker based on 2015 wins (which gave Scott Dixon the championship over Juan Pablo Montoya), but did such a gimmick truly help the sport?

Maybe IndyCar needed an emotional boost coming off its year of serious injury and a death. Winding up with a tie in points (no matter how those points were accumulated) should be good for business, should it not?

For a reference point, consider Tony Stewart’s/Carl Edwards’s battle for the Cup title back in 2011. Smoke smoked the competition during the final ten races that season to tie Edwards in points. Stewart took the championship in the tiebreaker with five wins to Carl’s one.

So is that how we got to the revised, win-and-in Chase format of 2014? When are good rules good enough? Or does racing require more than its fairly basic structure of complete-the-laps-first-and-you-win administration?
Given recent efforts in IndyCar, and given recent changes we’ve seen in NASCAR, maybe speed alone isn’t quite enough. Maybe running hard and earning points is not enough. Maybe we’ve entered a cycle where spectacle and spectators trump the sport?

Not that all efforts to produce a great show go unappreciated. Notice the success of the Camping World Truck Series on a road course in Canada last weekend. Notice the challenge of XFINITY cars at Road America. Think back to earlier this summer and the thrill of the NCWTS on the dirt at Eldora. There is still a need for some level of spectacle in professional sports. Just don’t jeopardize the realities of true competition by changing formats and manipulating how titles are eventually won.

If you’re not going to race for racing’s sake, at least toss us some loaves of bread….

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