What’s Wrong with NASCAR…to me.

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┬ásouvenir 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!

12 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with NASCAR…to me.”

  1. Appreciate you taking the time to write this. Although I disagree with a number of points I am very appreciative of the time and passion you put into this. Too often we get criticized “just because”. Part of the job, I understand but it sure is nice to see the passion here. Are there things we can do better, absolutely. The car is evolving to exactly what you are advocating, the Nationwide car is certainly an indication that we hear you. Shorter races….really debatable. For everyone of “you” there is “someone else” who travels 500 miles to an event, pays good money and does not want to see one lap less of racing. There is a real balance here between appeasing the hardcore fan-like the strategy in 500 miles, versus the new younger fan who ants two hours. We have made some stridesmhere…CA event is now 400 mikes, KS second event from CA went from 500 to 400 and the Atlanta race that went to KY is now 400 miles. Where it makes sense, we will do it.

    As for exciting racing, I will never understand how a parade of 18 cars with one or two “overtakes” taking place on pit road can ever be more exciting than NASCAR.

    The points are not meant to change the world, we have been upfront on that but I would challenge you to find 1,000 fans who could explain it. Simplifying the points may not help you but you can’t really argue that it is easier to understand.

    As for the Chase, sometimes we will just have to disagree. The amount of interest it has created in talking about multiple drivers, owners, tracks and sponsors cannot be denied. Every sport makes changes. What if the Super Bowl went to “ot”. Would you have written about a policy they just came up with prior to the season and only used for the playoffs, not the regular season?

    Bottom line, many of the issues you outlined are areas we are working on, many of them are actually opportunities.

    Again, I appreciate the passion and time you took on this.

    Regards,

    Steve

  2. Steve, thanks for reading and taking the time to read through all I wrote. I doubt anyone with F1 or any stick & ball sport would take that time. I’ll be watching next week and hoping for a great season. All the best Steve – thanks.

  3. Steve,

    Kyle’s uncle reporting in.

    I am proud to admit/announce/boast that I am partially responsible for the passion you have heard from Kyle. His passion is something that would truly benefit your organization. You should do yourself and NASCAR a favor and give him a call to set up an interview. There is a lot more than passion in this guy and he would be a huge asset to your team.

    OK, enough of the “hire my nephew” stuff…

    Kyle has covered more about the sport of NASCAR than I have ever really thought about, so I won’t add much to his comments, except for one thing he may have been reticent to mention.

    I am 59 years old and had the pleasure to witness some of the true legends race at the Milwaukee Mile and Road America when I was much younger.

    Back then (Yikes, I sound old, don’t I?!) a driver won with skill, determination, raw guts and talent. Today, all too often, NASCAR drivers find it acceptable and somehow “sporting” to bump their way to a victory. In fact, NASCAR itself seems to condone this behavior. Rubbing isn’t racing, it is cheating. That isn’t to say that today’s NASCAR drivers are not talented. They are, but all too often, the need to win gets in the way of showcasing their true talent.

    Besides watching racing, I also compete in grass roots road racing. When we rub, we get called to the principal’s office and if it happens again, we get sent home. This makes for very spirited racing and forces a driver to sharpen their skills. We also get to pay for our mistakes (literally and figuratively).

    Part of the problem is money, since there is a lot of it in professional auto racing. The other problem is that it is now pretty hard to hurt yourself in a race car, so drivers don’t suffer the consequences of touching fenders as in the past.

    In closing, I want to tell you how impressed (actually flabbergasted) I am that you took the time to engage with one of your fans. Bravo!

    Respectfully,

    Loren Ziglin
    Cross Plains, Wisconsin

  4. One additional thought about the points structure: I agree that winning should draw a hefty bonus, but why not take the concept further and add additional sweet spots throughout the running order? Everyone tends to agree that a top five represents a very good day, a top ten a good day, a top-fifteen a solid performance, etc. Would there be any support for having a dropoff in points between the fifth and sixth place finishers, between the tenth and eleventh place finishers, and perhaps between the fifteenth and sixteenth place finishers? That would incentivize drivers near the top of the running order to race hard in order to either (a) move up to a better points tier, or (b) avoid dropping back into a lower tier.

    On the other hand, there is certainly a risk that fans would view such a system as arbitrary or gimmicky – of a piece with the other changes to the sport that have a lot of fans exasperated these days…

  5. Kyle, everything here is exactly what I’ve been saying for about six years now. The number of races, the style of the cars, dropping the chase, even the points system (including freezing the points dropoff in the lower half of the finishing order). Someone agrees with me, AT LAST!!! Gary

  6. Thank you Steve for being so transparent with your thoughts as they related to Kyle’s ideas. Please address a couple of other issues that come to mind. First, may I please tell you a bit about myself so that you can put my comments in the proper context. I am 49 years old and became a “die-hard fan in 1979 when Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough had their famous battle at Daytona. I have attented 52 Cup races since then at 10 different tracks. I was one of those fans who actually took to heart the old motto “I wouldn’t be anywhere else” other than on my couch watching racing every Sunday. That being said, I am wondering why Nascar has built so many tracks where the racing is less competative. The tracks that put on the best shows are obviously the ones with the highest banking ( Atlanta, Rockingham, Bristol, Daytona) I understand why you did away with the Rock, but why are we subject to the “follow the leader” tracks like California, Michigan, Chicago, Kansas, Pocano, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and now Kentucky. It has been about the money rather than the competition for too long. There are many reasons why I don’t watch every lap of every race anymore. Nascar has made the racing boring in the name of safety and money. Double file restarts are exciting, but not nearly as exciting as racing to the caution to get your lap back ( and yes I was watching when Jarrett was facing the wrong way and the cars were splitting him to the top and bottom of the track). That was exciting. And now the leader has very little advantage over the 2nd place car because they are lined up next to them, so why lead? Remember the days of bias ply tires where the cars had to go through a run where the handling changed dramatically. Nascar did away with that, not by changing to radials, but buy shortening the fuel runs. It was so much more exciting to watch a race when there was no pit road speed limits(and yes I was watching when Rudd got tapped and crushed Elliots tire changer). Where do you draw the line between exciting competative racing and safety? Lastly, I think you should take a lesson from the NHRA. Do they guarrentee that 15 time World Funny Car Champion John Force will be in the field every week? Nope. Does that make qualifying more exciting? Yup! I do understand why Nascar has made all of these changes, but why do you have to make it boring to be safer? I used to watch because it was the most competative sport I had ever seen. Not anymore! Quit worrying about too great of closing speeds. Make every race a test of both man and machine, not pit stops. Do I wish that Dale Earnhardt was still racing? Definitely! But he knew the risks and he still gave no quarter. Please stop giving all the drivers the excuses for not being competative because of the rules you have mandated. I enjoy NHRA more than ever because they do mandate the excuses under the disguise of safety. Bring back the competition and we’ll be on our couchs for every lap again. Cordially, Noel Prudent

  7. Noel, great prospective. Maybe there’s a balance that can be struck, since there’s no way NASCAR can go completely back.

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