Thursday, July 30, 2009

On getting back to real stock car racing

The Brickyard 400 is in the rear view, and despite some doom-and-gloom predictions following last year's race the tires held up and well over 150,000 fans came out to watch. Television ratings are in, and bucking the double-digit loss trend, ratings were only down six percent from last year's race. There is still some magic about racing at Indianapolis, and the fact that many people showed up or watched on television proves it.

As for the race itself, while it was immensely better than last year, it still left something to be desired. The top of the field was separated by several football fields throughout much of the race and actual passes for position on the racetrack were few and far between. No one expects side-by-side restrictor-plate style racing at Indy, but it is blatantly obvious that the current Cup car does not race well on any type of flat, high-speed racetrack.

Why do long-time fans continue to dream about a return to the "glory days" of the past? No one wants to return to the days when races were won by 14 laps and only 10 cars running at the finish. But would it be so terrible to return to 1995?

As an example, the Brickyard 400 in 1995 was won by Dale Earnhardt. He started 13th out of the 41 starters. It was slowed by just one caution. There were 19 lead lap finishers, none of which got there due to a "Lucky Dog" free pass. Thirty-six of the 41 cars that started were still running at the finish. Nine drivers showed up wanting to race but weren't fast enough to make it in, including two former Indy 500 winners and another former Indy 500 pole winner. The starting field was comprised of teams owned by 36 different people. Earnhardt's winning margin that day was just 0.37 seconds. And he did it in a car that looked almost identical to what Chevrolet offered for sale to the car-buying public. That's the key right there: he did it in a "stock car".

In the past decade, we've seen the NASCAR media speak out on issues and force NASCAR into making changes. There is no more racing back to the caution flag. Head and neck restraints are mandated. Anyone going over the wall on a pit stop must wear a helmet. So where is the outrage from the media that all the cars look the same? Has everyone bought into the theory that spec racing is what the fans really want?

The "CoT" is a good idea but it was poorly executed. Safety enhancements are always a good thing. Making every car identical and only allowing very few adjustments to the cars is a bad thing. NASCAR had allowed the cars to get out of control once they want to common templates in 2002, the didn't resemble anything remotely like a street car and they actually looked more like a dirt late model than a full-bodied stock car.

NASCAR needs to get back to stock cars resembling stock cars. Re-energizing the fans with actual competition between a Chevrolet and a Ford instead of two cars that are exactly alike except for decals will be a good first step. And with manufacturers struggling and cutting back on NASCAR budgets, giving them a chance to get back to racing something that the public can identify with - and maybe even go and buy! - is also a good thing.

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