Wednesday, April 8, 2009

NASCAR vs. NCAA a fair comparison?

Today I read a column by one of my favorite writers (and someone I am proud to call a friend), Bob Pockrass. In his blog, Pocky says it is unfair to compare a blowout like Monday's NCAA basketball final to a NASCAR race. And furthermore, it's unfair to expect NASCAR fans to put up with a blowout the way a stick-and-ball follower does.

Pockrass makes some good points and it's hard to argue with his logic, particularly when he says NASCAR needs to work harder to be better than the other sports. But they have to be careful not to work too hard. And sadly, that's exactly what they've done for much of this decade.

I've written about it before. Not every sporting event can be a classic. Photo finishes are exciting because they don't happen every week.

The reason we see such a lack of drama at the front of the field in NASCAR races these days is because NASCAR has artificially manipulated the competition in an attempt to create it. They have gone away from what was a successful formula - racing stock cars that still had commonality with their street-legal cousins - to highly regulated spec racing with cars that look nothing like anything currently on the street. The rules stifle creative thinking. And to top it all off, many organizations have made poor driver decisions and we're faced with the biggest dearth of talent in the modern era. Cars we can't identify with, prepared identically, driven by many drivers with bland personalities with no particular reason to be there all leads to a collective yawn by the audience.

NASCAR wants us to believe every race is the Super Bowl. The pagentry we see in every pre-race show with drivers and their wives or girlfriends posed with their hands over their hearts as they listen to the national anthem and watch as some military jet flies overhead leads one to believe they are seeing just that: an event of epic scale. Never mind that there are maybe four or five events on the schedule that truly deserve that annotation.

NASCAR racing used to be about rough and tumble everymen manhandling a metallic beast for three or four hours and the first one to the finish line gets the glory. Now, it's glitz-and-glamour pretty boys driving cars that are so planted to the ground that seemingly anyone can do it. And, has been proven by the lack of recent performance by the sport's current biggest superstar, you don't have to win to enjoy all the glory.

Maybe that's why NASCAR fans complain. Not that there's a bad race now and then. I think most true racing fans understand that not every race is going to come down to 10 cars in a pack fighting for the lead on the last lap. And the also understand that it's unrealistic to expect it. It's that the sport they love has been taken out from underneath them and has been changed to something virtually unrecognizable to what we saw even just ten years ago.

NASCAR would be better off to understand that not every race needs to be a photo finish and not every championship needs to be decided by one position on the last lap of the last race of the year.

Back in the mid 90s, there were weekly rules changes, giving one manufacturer an extra inch here and taking away a half an inch there. Eventually, it left the cars virtually unrecognizable and led us down the path we're on now. Make the cars look like "stock cars" again, and the teams work their magic and find what works best for them.

Imagine if the NCAA told North Carolina or Michigan State that they had to use a 5'10" point guard, a 6'2" forward, and a 6'8" center. Also imagine them saying these new rules were to "level the playing field". That's where we are now in the NASCAR world. NASCAR mandates springs, gears, spoiler angles, and has every body on every car look exactly alike (with the exception of headlight decals and a few minor differences in the rear windows). All to level the playing field. It seems to me that the loud complaints that NASCAR racing is boring started to get louder when all of these changes were implemented.

What will the NCAA do as a result of the blowout in the championship game? Can we expect them to move in the three-point line? Maybe lower the rim height to 9'6"? Shrink the court length by ten feet? My educated guess is they won't make a single major modification to the way the game is played, the score is tabulated, or the way the champion is decided.

Good for them.

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