Saturday, August 1, 2009

On the Trucks delivering value

Ray Dunlap published an excellent column this week on about some potential changes that NASCAR could make or in fact may make to consolidate the Camping World Truck Series schedule. These changes, you guessed it, would save the teams money - allowing current teams to stay in business and maybe even recruit new teams into the series.

Dunlap has been around the racing world a long time, from carrying his own video camera to short tracks across the Midwest to produce his own motorsports news program to being the PR guru for ARCA and eventually on to becoming one of the best pit reporters in the business for ESPN and now SPEED. His opinion carries a lot of weight and he has the best interest of the series at heart. Ray is right, NASCAR should look at changing the schedule in the interest of saving teams money - but they also need to change the schedule to deliver teams, and their sponsors, more value.

Do the Trucks have any value at all as a third-tier series in markets that also host Sprint Cup and Nationwide races? Do they have any value at all racing on Fridays of a tripleheader weekend with the Cup and Nationwide cars? When the Truck Series was new and had 50 teams and drivers that were working to climb up the ladder, like it did in 1996 or 1997, the answer would have been yes. Now, with many of the drivers dipping down from the Cup Series to the Trucks and the series struggling to fill fields, that answer is no.

In the early days of the Truck Series, there was value built in to the schedule. Races were held in areas of the country where the Sprint Cup and/or Nationwide cars didn't go. If there was a conjunction race held with the Cup cars it was at a track the Nationwide cars didn't race. There wasn't an oversaturation of any market, and in many cases the Truck Series race was the only national NASCAR race in town.

Places like Bakersfield, Louisville, Portland, Seattle, Flemington, Topeka, Kansas City, and Denver were penetrated by the Truck Series. Costs were inherently lower for the teams because there were no live pit stops and the vehicles themselves didn't need to be aerodynamically slick because every track was a mile in length or less.

Then came the addition of places like Las Vegas and Michigan: big, wide, and fast. That meant the trucks were now going to wind tunnels. And being at tracks that hosted Cup races started to erode the inherent value of the Truck Series.

Eventually the Truck Series schedule morphed from mainly short tracks where the Trucks were the biggest show in town to superspeedways where they were the third-level series, often on the same weekend. The last track that hosted a Truck race and no other national NASCAR series was Mansfield, and it fell off the schedule after the 2008 race. Sponsors who were used to getting exposure in front of thousands of fans in markets that weren't over saturated with NASCAR racing were now being drowned out by the multi-million dollar activation programs by Cup's biggest sponsors.

Cutting costs should be a huge priority for NASCAR. Making it less expensive to race will bolster fields and allow some drivers who are good on the local racing scene to try to reach their dreams to be a NASCAR champion. Engines should revert back to the tried-and-true 9.5:1 compression ratio as they were when the series started. Bodies should become more stock - with stock hoods, fenders, greenhouses, and bed rails and contours in the doors to match the street version of each truck.

And the schedule should be revamped from top to bottom. Certain conjunction events should be kept, but the series needs to get back to its roots and deliver the product to racing fans that can't get to a Cup or Nationwide race. There are dozens of quality short tracks across the country that could host races, as well as numerous quality road courses. Tracks shouldn't have more than one Truck race, meaning second races at Texas and Martinsville should move elsewhere. The tripleheader, currently held at places like Dover, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead, should be kept to a minimum or even eliminated all together.

The Truck schedule doesn't necessarily need to mirror the Cup and Nationwide schedules. In the late 90s, the series opened in January at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, and the crowds were huge and enthusiastic. The Trucks can deliver more value when they aren't competing with - and against - the Cup and Nationwide series. The Truck champion has been crowned at Homestead since 2003, often in front of barren, empty grandstands. NASCAR could move the finale to Las Vegas, where ticket promotions with casinos put upwards of 50,000 people in the stands and give teams and sponsors the value they desire and deserve.

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