Thursday, January 20, 2011

On who you want to see win the Daytona 500 and why

Who would you like to see win the Daytona 500?

That's the question that is going to be asked over and over until the Great American Race reaches its conclusion.

Many fans, understandably, are going to root on their favorite and based solely by the numbers that means the sport's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will have the most votes. Nothing wrong with cheering on your favorite, whether it's Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, or Travis Kvapil. The good thing is, at least at Daytona, they all seem to have as much chance at hitting the lottery and being up front when the checkered flag falls as everyone else does.

One of the biggest problems I see with the sport is when you ask someone in the media who they'd like to see win and why.

They too will say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and then go on to tell you they want to see him win because it would be so good for the sport.

Why would a win by Earnhardt, Jr. be good for the sport as a whole? Will one Earnhardt victory have a profound impact on television ratings? Will it increase exposure for sponsors on second- and third-tier teams? Will it increase ticket sales once we hit April, May, June and on to the rest of the season?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a fine racecar driver, and despite the trappings of fame and immense wealth, he seems to be a fairly grounded guy. It would be nice to see him win again, especially as the sport reaches the melancholy tenth anniversary of his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

But this sport's overall health, and its current problems, transcend one driver's performance.

Did non-racing fans tune in to watch after Earnhardt, Sr. died? Yes they did. How many of them stayed to cheer on his young son? Undoubtedly there were millions. Those viewers stayed for a while and have moved on. They might return if Earnhardt, Jr. hits a hot streak and wins a handful of races. Most will not.

The sport spent 50 years building an audience, mainly in the southeast but there were strong pockets of race fans all across the country, mainly around areas outside of the southeast where NASCAR would race (such as where I live, near Michigan International Speedway).

We all know it takes a lot longer to build something than to knock it down. NASCAR's recent changes - the Chase, the COT, realigning the schedule and race start times, among others - were all made with the greatest of intentions. But with a large segment of the ticket buying and viewing audience, these changes turned them off to the sport. The cars no longer looked like something they see in their driveway, despite a similar name and headlight decals. The guy who scored the most points over the course of a 36-race season might not be the champion. Races were taken from traditional venues and moved to markets deemed strategically important by marketers, not race fans. And races that used to start early in the day were starting when they should be ending. All of these factors combined to chase away millions of long-time fans.

But the biggest problem is drivers that have little in common with middle class Americans. Fans in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s could relate to Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbourough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. They were ordinary men who other than racing cars for a living lived ordinary lives. They connected with fans. They spent time with the fans. They built relationships with the fans.

NASCAR, its drivers, its teams, its sponsors, and all of its constituents must work together if the downward trend in the sport's popularity is going to be reversed. We can't put all of the weight of these issues on the shoulders of one driver not winning races. Simply looking at things through rose colored glasses won't do it either. It's on the shoulders of EVERY driver to reach out and rebuild those bridges with fans. Twitter and Facebook accounts aren't enough. Actual, real interaction with people is what the sport needs. When practice is over, they need to head to the fence and sign autographs and chat with people instead of gather up security guards for a mad dash to the dreaded motorhome lot.

Reconnect with people and find commonality with common people, and maybe what was once the most loyal audience in all of sports can be rebuilt.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Stewart's shiner and a points revamp

For mid-January, there is actually quite a bit of racing news breaking lately. It comes as no surprise that Tony Stewart finds himself embroiled in yet another scuffle, but it is a welcome surprise that NASCAR is at least considering a change to its championship format.

First, the Stewart situation.

I must preface my remarks with the statement that I like Tony Stewart. I respect the man's talents and his determination. I appreciate that he supports grassroots racing. But for some reason, he continually finds himself in these situations - situations where he physically accosts someone. Whether it's slapping a tape recorder from a reporters hands or wrestling the radio headset off a track official's head, Stewart has crossed the line from fiery and opinionated to overly agressive and borderline criminal on numerous occasions.

The latest story has Stewart allegedly in a scuffle with an Australian race track owner after a heated discussion over track conditions. Stewart supposedly whacked the track owner, who apparently is a bit of a big fellow, with his helmet and the track owner returned the favor with a poke to the eye, leaving Stewart with a tell-tale shiner.

There will doubtlessly be thousands of words written and said about this incident as SpeedWeeks approaches. Every writer will want to break the story of what happened and get Stewart's quotes to puncuate the story. I'll read them with as much interest as anyone, this is a juicy story and there are still unanswered questions. To me the biggest part of the story is that Stewart finally pushed and someone pushed back. Imagine him knocking Mike Mulhern's tape recorder out of his hands and Mulhern responding by shoving Stewart between a couple of transporters and rapping him upside the head a couple of times.

Obviously NASCAR would outwardly frown on such shenanigans, but in reality it was only a matter of time before Stewart lashed out at someone and they lashed back.

The second big story is that NASCAR, after 35 years, is looking to replace the Latford System and totally revamping its point system.

Apparently the discussion among the sanctioning body and its teams centers on a system that awards race winners 43 points and descends all the way down to one point for finishing 43rd. There's talk of bonus points for winning, leading the most laps and winning the pole, but all of this at this point is pure speculation.

I'll say this: it's a start. In my last post, I called for the elimination of points determining the champion. Race winners from the first 35 races of the season would be automatically invited to the championship race, with a last chance race the day before locking in one more invitee. The final race of the year would pay a huge sum to win (like what the current champion earns) and would be named the overall series champion. You could also tweak it a little and say winners from the first 32 races of the year locked in and have a four-race "Chase" for the championship, but I think one race to decide it fits right into Brian France's "more Game Seven moments" edict.

One thing does need to be said about that as well: I appreciate France's desire to see more of those high-intensity moments in NASCAR. But those moments are not something you can create or manufacture by adding rules or manipulating competition. Those moments are rare, and that rarity is what makes them special. Alan Kulwicki's 1992 championship is special because it wasn't manipulated in any sense. Dale Earnhardt's final victory at Atlanta, a photo finish over Bobby Labonte, is special because over 500 miles Earnhardt managed to get to the line a millisecond before the competition. He didn't have a two-lap sprint to the finish after a late-race caution to artificially tighten the field.

The problem with manufacturing "Game Seven moments" is that once you artificially tighten the competition, those moments that were once dramatic lose any sense of excitement or value to the audience.

When the IndyCar Series was routinely racking up finishes that were decided by ten thousandths of a second at its 1.5-mile oval events, the first few were extraordinarily exciting. The next few were still exciting but the edge had been worn off. Then, it becomes expected and even when it happens it's not as exciting. And when it doesn't, well that entire race was a bore!

This sport is inherently exciting. Revamping the point system is a good thing, especially if it means drivers are out there racing hard to win more and running around to score points less. But manipulating the points and competition to create those Game Seven moments is a bad thing, and will eventually do more harm than good when those moments lose their luster and don't happen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On choosing a championship, Evernham to Hendrick, Piquet's chances, and a total revamp of the championship format

A few thoughts as we start to count down to the end of the off-season...

- While I appreciate that drivers like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch are competitive and want to win every race and championship they can, it's for the best that NASCAR has instituted a rule that forces a driver to choose a championship to chase after. The Nationwide Series has always had Cup driver participation, but it was never meant to be "Cup Lite". Look at the stats, guys like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Geoff Bodine, and Rusty Wallace may have run Nationwide Series races, but their schedules were always extremely limited and they never chased after a championship.

- I, like many others, find it interesting that Ray Evernham has left ESPN to rejoin Rick Hendrick in what is apparently a non-racing role. I wonder if that is truly the case, or if Ray is there to help behind the scenes and out of the spotlight. In any case, he's earned the right to choose what he does after a highly successful career as a crew chief and an owner. I do hope that he someday does make a return to the television booth; he is a great communicator, very articulate and was a great addition to the ESPN team.

- The open wheel convergence on NASCAR continues as Nelson Piquet, Jr. will compete full-time in the Camping World Truck Series after dipping his toes in the water in a limited role last season. As with every other driver to attempt the switch, the learning curve will be steep. Maybe too steep. Chris Carrier will step in to crew chief, and with 30+ years of experience there may be a chance for success. However, that didn't help the last former open wheel driver that Carrier worked with, former Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish.

- The rumored changes to the Chase have done nothing but inspire a resounding "meh" from me. I get why it was instituted and I get why they want to expand the field. Who doesn't want more drivers with a chance to win it all, right? But the realist in me says why should a guy who is the 12th best after 26 races have a chance to be the champion? In a true playoff system, a wildcard or any other lower seed has one chance to beat the best and if they pull it off, well, more power to them. But in a season that is determined by accruing the most points, shouldn't the driver that actually earns the most points win? Make no mistake about it, Mark Martin wasn't the second-best driver in 2009, he was given hundreds of points by NASCAR and his points deficit all but eliminated.

All of these tweaks to the Chase are the wrong way to go, in my humble opinion. If NASCAR wants to have a true "Game Seven" feel to it's playoff, then a total revamp of the way the champion is determined needs to be implemented. Don't base the championship on points. Base it on wins, and any driver that wins at least one of the first 35 races is automatically invited to the season-ending and championship-determining race. The other drivers aren't done just yet, they have one more chance as Championship Weekend is actually a double-header: a "200-mile" last chance race on Saturday and a winner-takes-all (say $10 million to win along with the Sprint Cup trophy) 300-mile finale on Sunday. It sure would place a lot more of an emphasis on winning during the so-called regular season and it would grab a lot of headlines for the finale, which as it is currently is constituted, barely registers on the radar with most of the sports media.