Race Weekend Central

Phoenix Needs a Center Field Shot

The NASCAR season has but two weekends remaining on its overcooked schedule. 

This reality means that in three weeks, sponsored programming will fill those slots, and the networks will probably make more money in the process. Kidding. It will once again be the winter of discontent for NASCAR fans as they switch focus to 2024.

With the championship on the horizon, two of the four spots are filled, and the likelihood of further surprises, a la Christopher Bell’s win, may come this weekend while battling for the grandfather clock at Martinsville Speedway. But aside from the hype, going to Phoenix Raceway to decide the championship just feels like a letdown.

Our Chase Folsom made the case for the finale to return to Homestead-Miami Speedway. Jeff Gluck, over at The Athletic, opined for the same change. But it’s not happening this year. Or the next. No matter how much sense it makes or how solid the show was this past Sunday.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud: It's Time for the Title Race to Go Back to Homestead

Switching the championship race to Phoenix was a strange move when NASCAR decided that a shakeup was necessary. Obviously, the main reason for shipping the title race out to the desert has to do with money, because how else do things happen in sports? It’s not like it was a humanitarian mission.

Perhaps the intention was solid. One way of looking at things is to think “if it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it,” but maybe it is not that Homestead was broken but rather in need of renovation. In this scenario, it may not have been anything physical as much as needing to get a different perspective.

Phoenix Raceway seemed to be everything to attract the new hotness. In 2017, the track began a massive overhaul of itself to the price of almost $180 million. Included in this face lift came:

  • Grandstand seating capacity capped at 45,000.
  • The renovation of 32 suits
  • The construction of 19 suites
  • Upgrading and installation of new escalators and elevators
  • All kinds of fan amenities
  • New Fanzone located in the infield.
  • Something called a solar fan midway or whatever.

That’s a lot of stuff. Then the track flipped its configuration and tinkered with pit road and voila, it is like a brand-new track. How does that not seem appealing? 

With all of the improvements, straying from Homestead seems like a brilliant idea.  From a butts-in-the-seats perspective, Phoenix seems to offer everything a fan could want. Do people massage your feet while you watch the races? Almost seems like it is a probability.

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The problem with the sport and with all sports at this point, is that the television is the showcase. While the racing at Phoenix may very well be solid, and there is reason to believe that it is, the translation to TV just doesn’t hit the mark. 

In the book Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television, the authors noted how the advent of incorporating the camera positioned in center field opened up the sport to the nascent medium. That angle provided the action and became integral in making baseball a mainstay on TV. Consider that the very angle is still a must in any baseball production and it becomes clear how vital it is in the storytelling. 

In some ways, NASCAR still hasn’t found its center field shot. And it certainly hasn’t found it when telling the story at Phoenix. The challenge of driving the track, the speed, the allure of racing there, none of these things have ever really been conveyed through TV.

One of the challenges about airing NASCAR, or motorsports, is that the visceral nature is removed. The overwhelming loudness. The rumble of the engines as it pulses through the body. The rush of air flying off the cars. There is a grandness in the power that comes from the lunacy of 36 hyper-powered vehicles turning on and sharing space. Television neuters the whole experience.

With these things removed, the important element of racing to highlight on most tracks is the speed. This weekend at Martinsville is a different story, where the claustrophobia and the contact are the narrative. Otherwise, speed tells the story. 

And Phoenix looks slow. That is not to say that it is slow, but rather that it looks slow. In comparison, what Homestead showed this past weekend is that it looks fast – and through that speed, fun. Poor Phoenix.

See also
Only Yesterday: Before 2011 NASCAR Cup Battle, There Was 2002

Is there a way to change that perception? Maybe the in-car-helmet-dash-cam is the way? Or whatever. But if there’s any way that the NBC crew should be doing it, it’s to throw as much data and camera shots into the mix as it can. 

If Amazon is now able to start predicting plays and blitzes with its AI-infused Thursday Night Football, then certainly, finding unique perspectives should not be that hard. Even Formula 1 offers information regarding predicted lap for an overtake and a bunch of other silliness. What AI should be able to offer is the sport’s center field shot.

Until the sport embraces all of the information that is out there, rather than treating every bit of information like it is the codes to launch nuclear weapons, then it will continue to be passed in the ratings. The use of AI and creative programming is what will keep it from being lapped. The sooner the better for Phoenix. 

About the author

Ava Lader headshot photo

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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WJW Motorsports

Sports fans (“a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted…”) are not created on TV. Rather, they are created by experiencing the game first-hand, usually by playing as a kid, and then going to games. NASCAR can try to pound a square peg into a round hole all they want – but motorsports just doesn’t fit the “TV” model they adopted. The baseball analogy doesn’t work, because those sports were trying to replicate the in-person fan experience as closely as possible. They were not trying to design a TV entertainment product (which all of them are now doing as well – to their demise). F1 could scroll War and Peace down the screen, and nobody would miss any on-track action. Stock car racing is (was) different. You have to decide if you want to be a sport, or a reality show. NASCAR went the TV reality show route so they could be billionaires rather than just millionaires, and the quality of the sport itself has obviously suffered. But F1 has proven you don’t need to actually be compelling to make tons of money. Make the race itself, every single race, to be the focus – huge purse, big crowd, no gimmicks and let TV ride along in the background. That’s the way to create “fanatics.”

Dawg

When the Championship went from being a true Season Championship, to a contrived playoff, no matter what the format, it lost me as a supporter.

Yeah, I still watch it, but to me Matt Kenseth will be the last real Champion.

Now they say they’re looking for that game 7 moment.

For me they already had that, when Alan Kulwicki stayed out to get the point for leading the most laps to defeat Elliott.

They could hold it in the Coliseum for all I care, the end of the season just means I start counting the days for the Chili Bowl.

harrisrp

They need fewer cameras not more. Use wide panoramic shots. Stop jumping between close up shots where viewers can’t tell what is going on.

John

Just stay in Phoenix. With all this stage and playoff crap. it isn’t really a championship anyway.

wildcats2016

I’m with you Dawg regarding my POV for the championship. The crapshoot as created by BZF and his game 7 moment focus, was and is, a farce as far as engaging my interest as a fan.

Like you, I still watch but only when the weather is bad so I may as well stay inside. If I have something better to do, I go do that, rather than watch. WJW, I agree with your comment as well. NASCAR tried to make its style of racing more like, well, I’m not sure what they wanted to achieve, but whatever it was, it patently didn’t work. The sellout crowds they once had are just not there and the TV audience has dwindled, too.

wildcats2016

Coming back to this article’s point about translating the racing experience to TV, this is very important. If you’ve never been to a race, watching it on TV just isn’t the same. The first time we went to Martinsville (many years ago), we decided to buy tickets very close to the race date so all that was available were seats in turn 2 almost sitting on the track. It was awesome. LOL My niece went with us – we handed her a set of hearing protectors – she told her dad they would mess up her hair. We looked at her and shrugged. She didn’t last thru the pace laps before she said – I need those. Doh, yah think? I scraped rubber/asphalt chips off my jacket after the race. Did I say it was great? That’s the difference between being at the race & watching it on TV. We did scope out the track though and the next time, I bought tickets higher in the stands coming out of Turn 4. We had those tickets for years and loved every second – even in miserable weather – of being at Martinsville. Of course with all the changes to NASCAR that Brainless France made, I wasn’t having as much fun. When my fav retired, I told my family I was no longer going to travel to races & spend $$ and my vacation.

Shayne

When NA$CAR decided to abandon their core fans and pursue a
demographic that never materialized…

Keep digging.

eddo

I’ve been going to Phoenix Raceway since 1988, season ticket holder for many of those years. Taking that into considerations, Homestead is a better place to have a championship race.
I’m really hoping that the race in a couple weeks is better than it was in March.

TiminPayson

Bag the Cup championship and bring back the Copper World Classic!

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