Last night, in my Packer win-euphoria, I was looking through my Twitter feed and saw a post from Steve O’Donnell, senior VP for Race Operations for NASCAR. You can see the comments back & forth below:
Steve’s Twitlonger post was, “@KyleRohde isn’t that what Super Bowl is? One game takes it all? I could certainly debate fairness of undefeated Pats losing just one game to a wildcard team…but that is why it is sport.”
I was a bit surprised that Steve engaged with me and, the more I thought about it, I felt like I should give him more than 140 characters of thought on this. So, Steve, here are my thoughts on NASCAR today:
I’ve been a NASCAR fan since late in high school, so about ten years now. Growing up in Wisconsin, I quickly became a fan of Matt Kenseth, who’s from Cambridge, WI (just east of Madison). I’ve gone to multiple races at the Kansas Speedway, a few in Milwaukee at the Mile and one amazing trip to Bristol, TN in 2006. I try to catch most of the races, but I don’t generally alter my schedule to do so. I’m probably a 6-7 on a 10 point NASCAR fan scale, so I think I fit right into the “light” fan category that they are probably struggling most to maintain right now. The die-hards are die-hards and the casual to light fan are more fickle.
Here’s the things I think NASCAR does right today:
- Competitive nature of the races: though Jimmie Johnson has won five straight titles, just about every race can be won realistically by 15-20 different guys, or 35-47% of the cars in the race. Not bad.
- Track experience: from the souvenir trailers and games outside the track to the pits and everything in the track, the experience is done well. Some tracks, like Kansas Speedway, for example, let you bring your own food & drink into the track – see how often that happens at an NFL or MLB venue.
- TV Coverage: every moment of the NASCAR season on the track can be seen on TV, whether on Speed, ESPN, FOX or TNT. There’s more coverage than any sane person could ever want to watch.
And here’s why those things aren’t enough to keep me interested; these are the things I wish NASCAR would change:
- Race length: yes, 30 years ago it was a good marketing tool to have 500 mile races and show how durable the cars are. Today, it’s rare to see an engine problem and the cars are so far removed from anything resembling production cars that it doesn’t matter (we’ll come back to this). To watch a NASCAR race requires a commitment of around four hours. That’s four hours of a beautiful spring, summer or fall afternoon. The length of time wouldn’t be such a big deal if the racing was good, but it’s not for much of that time. NASCAR drivers have said on multiple occasions that middle of a race is frequently, for all practical purposes, a parade. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has regularly called for shorter races, most recently just a couple weeks ago. Formula One, the most popular form of motorsport on earth (but a very niche sport here in the US) has a two hour time limit for each race. That means I can watch Formula One qualifying (a more exciting qualifying than NASCAR) AND the Formula One pre-race activity and the race itself, in roughly the same time it takes to just watch a NASCAR race.
- What I’d like to see: 3 hour time limit for all races, except the Daytona 500, Charlotte 600-mile and the Southern 500.
- Season length: 36 races is a lot. Mid-February to mid/late November is a long season – NASCAR overlaps college basketball’s last 1/3, the last 1/2 of the NBA & NHL, all of MLB and the first 1/2 of the NFL season (we’ll come back to the NFL). My interest wanes as we get into the fall and I think that’s partially because I’m ready for football and partially because I’ve been watching NASCAR for six months already. Formula One’s season is almost as long in length, but they have less than 20 races so the issue isn’t the same. Many of those 36 races are duplicate races at the same track, some of which are not worthy of two dates – like Kansas Speedway. I live 15 miles from it, so I’m excited they got two dates, but that track is not worthy of it – it’s a generic, 1.5 mile track that’s very similar to a variety of other tracks on the circuit, with zero history. The only reason Kansas got two races is the Hollywood Casino under construction at turn 2 of the track. A casino owned in part by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), who also owns the track, and who is run by France family members (the same people that run NASCAR).
- What I’d like to see: 26 race season with only Daytona, Bristol and Talladega getting two races.
- Relevant cars: NASCAR got its start with production cars, and even into the mid 1970’s, still used cars very much like you could buy off the showroom floor (“Win Sunday, sell Monday!”). But that’s a distant memory, with cars nothing like anything available from your local dealer. NASCAR race cars still use carbureted, pushrod V8 engines. There hasn’t been a carbureted production car in probably 25 years in the US and most manufacturers have gone away from pushrods, though GM still makes fantastic motors with them (Ford stopped using them in 1996 in their V8s). They still have solid rear axles, only seen on pickup trucks, a few SUVs and the Ford Mustang. And the only significant technological innovation in the past decade was the safety upgrades finally done after Dale Earnhardt Sr’s death in 2001 (fantastic job on the increased safety NASCAR, sincerely). Formula One cars may look more different than street cars, but they continue to push the technological envelope and that’s brought us features like paddle-shifted transmissions and KERS (kinetic energy recovery system, which may be seen on production cars in the near future). NASCAR has created a car with such tight rules that it’s almost a spec series, which takes some of the fun out of it for me.
- What I’d like to see: Open up the rules so manufacturers can have a body with an identity beyond stickers on the front of the car. Open up powertrain rules and have a power-to-weight ratio limit instead. Imagine how much more fun it would be to see, for example, a Ford EcoBoost V6 vs. a Toyota DOHC V8 and a GM pushrod V8.
- More road races: only having two road races a year is sort of like dipping your toe in the water but never diving in. And NASCAR’s been dipping the toe for a long time.
- What I’d like to see: Out of a 26 race season, I’d like to see 4 road races – Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Road America and Road Atlanta or Laguna Seca.
- No more Chase for the Cup: I thought I’d like the Chase, I did. But it’s been eight years and it continues to feel like a gimmick, contrived to get people to pay attention to NASCAR when they’re all watching the NFL instead. Admirable, but the NFL is an unstoppable force and you need to stop trying to compete with them NASCAR (side note – more Saturday night races would be good during the fall). Yes, as Steve pointed out in this tweets to me, playoffs in other sports could be looked at as contrived too, but I don’t think racing should be like other sports. The entire season matters and you can get great championship battles without forcing it like NASCAR (see Formula One the past few years).
- What I’d like to see: no more Chase. The season is 26 races long and the driver with the most points at the end wins.
- Fix the Points: NASCAR just announced significant changes to the points, based on someone thinking fans were confused about the old system and that was a reason for declining fan interest. The system wasn’t easy to follow but I don’t think most fans care. We do care about drivers going for the win as hard as possible, because that creates great races. How do you encourage that? Give more points for winning. The difference between first and second in points is so small that points racing will continue to be the norm in NASCAR.
- What I’d like to see: 50 points for winning, 35 for second, 34 for third and so on, down to 20th place getting 17 points, with everyone from 21 and back getting 15 points. No more hammering guys for getting wrecked and finishing near the back, which happens a lot due to no fault of the driver.
The past couple years, I’ve drifted away from NASCAR and towards Formula One, Speed World Challenge, ALMS and other road racing series. Why? The action is more exciting, the cars more relevant and the time commitment less. I want to love NASCAR again but it’s not getting any easier. I hope the upcoming rumored changes to the car in 2013 and other things get a bit closer to my vision above. Racing is becoming less & less important to young people, along with cars, and I hate to see it.
Steve, again, thanks for engaging with me on Twitter and for being on there in the first place. Not many VP level people at such visible companies are doing that. Hope all this feedback from an average fan helps in some way. Here’s to a great season – go #17!