Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Has NASCAR Racing Really Become Boring?

Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/ Getty Images for NASCAR

When NASCAR Sprint Cup cars first raced on the historic 2.5-mile oval of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, many regarded it as one of the crowning moment for where stock car auto racing has blossomed into a winning spectacle. However, this event could have been a nexus point for where the perception of NASCAR Sprint Cup would take a turn for the worse.

In 2008, NASCAR ran a Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with an unendurable tire that quickly disintegrated under race conditions. A race requiring a caution after almost every 10 laps, many questioned why the race was even run at all. Three years earlier, many remembered a Formula 1 race held at the same track disenfranchised United States audiences from Formula 1 to the point they're only now recovering. Still racing annually on the 400-mile event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the grandstands appear to considerably more empty at the historic racetrack. While the economy has certainly affected the amount of NASCAR race tickets individuals and corporations purchase, some may simply view the entertainment value at the track where grandstand tickets starting at $65 are sold. In the 2012 race, there were many sizable gaps in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grandstands as Jimmie Johnson pursued a successful victory.

A respected media colleague Becca Gladden (Followed on Twitter as @nscrwriter) posts a "Complete this Tweet" query after every race asking for one word to describe the recently completed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event. Almost every race weekend receives a substantial number of tweets implying the event as "boring" (or some other word variation on the theme). While there may certainly be fanatics that are upset their favourite driver didn't win the recent race but the frequency of the comments implies the fans of the auto racing sport have been viewing NASCAR in a less competitive manner than often advertised.

The question is, can NASCAR Sprint Cup season of 2012 be certifiably labelled as boring? While quality lead changes (not including position changes at the front through pit stops) are difficult to account for, we can examine the complexity of drivers who have won NASCAR Sprint Cup events in 2012. Wrapping up the 20th race, there have been 12 winning drivers through the 2012 campaign. Compared to a whet could be deemed as a wacky 2011 season where Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith were among winners in the first 20 races, there were 14 different victors following the running of the Brickyard 400. Obviously, both seasons have insured a steady variety of race teams in victory lane. 2012 could be a year where statistics do not tell the whole story.

The phenomenon of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series being perceived as boring has not been a new development. In recent years, efforts such as double-file restarts and improving the look of the heavily-loathed "Car of Tomorrow" race cars were acknowledgements that an image problem was beginning to penetrate stock car racing. Last year, the so-called "Have at it Boys" campaign where NASCAR would allow a more lenient policing of driver habits towards each other was put into place. The unfortunate issue about that rule is that drivers and teams had too much to lose in relations to sponsorship dollars as well as other endorsements to fully press the "Have at it Boys" initiative making it an ineffective action for promoting the entertainment value of the sport. Whether NASCAR expected that some sort of WWE-style drama would develop from the rule (especially when the series penalizes drivers secretly for conduct) is beyond me.

In a year that started so strongly with a nighttime Daytona 500 that involved some serious on-track action (including the firey wreck where the #42 Chevy of Juan-Pablo Montoya slid into a track jet dryer), the first-half of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule have been loaded with some races that could easily have the "boring" label slapped on it. The long green flag run in the spring Texas event, the near-parade at the Sonoma road course ended with predictable, annoying late-race punting are a few examples of race action (or inaction) that gave spectators an image of NASCAR Sprint Cup that did not live up to its hype.

The Bristol Motor Speedway's Food City 500 is probably the lead example of an event that left many fans frustrated. Once a favourite 0.533-mile short track venue for fans, the old Bristol Motor Speedway was place where a high-contact affair was promised. However, with changes to the track and the new car specs, the racing at Bristol was highlighted by a dull spring event. With passing scarce, whatever passes that were made took 10-20 laps to complete. While the driver and team owners probably appreciated the low-impact Bristol short track race, the empty seats in what used to be a sold-out venue demonstrated that the anticipation of old-style racing had been lost. Eager to rebuild the track's reputation, Bristol Motor Speedway's surface is actually being rebuilt in time for the night race in late summer.

Having given themselves such a major pat on the back by taking advantage of the North American open wheel racing split during the late 1990s to early 2000s, the reformed IZOD INDYCAR Series can provide a good example for a race that was fun and exciting for fans yet did not involve carnage some auto racing analyst think viewers crave. The recent Edmonton Indy race went caution-free yet offered some thrilling on-track action. Even under a multiple engine formula, the race at the front of the field was a case where mastering strategy at just the right time netted Helio Castroneves a victory on the Edmonton City Centre Airport course. Of course in NASCAR, strategy is often associated with poor racing action. Some argue against the validity of fuel mileage wins more than they question race events in the past that NASCAR called too quickly due to weather.

Maybe part of the problem in NASCAR is that teams have a lack of options. Tight tolerances in car construction makes advantages too small and perhaps overstated. Does the excessive wind tunnel time really help when beaten-up cars at Talladega are in winning contention? With such a low yield exercise of finding a little extra speed, it has become more expensive where only the richer teams can afford to pursue. In essence, the attempt to bring competition closer together has actually been injuring the effort to widen the parity between teams.

Is it time for NASCAR to consider option tires or some form of 'push-to-pass' power boost system in order to offer an extra element at the drivers and teams disposal? Formula 1, a series once-viewed as sickly pompous and almost proud of its lack of competition, have provided one of the most wide-open seasons in modern grand prix series history. While Formula 1 instituted cost and competition controls such as an engine development freeze, the Drag Reduction System (DRS) and a brake energy recovery based power boost technology gave drivers new tools used to make catching as well as overtaking moves occur. For non-restrictor plate race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the speed and competition boosting technology could be effective in at least spicing up the on-track product.

Traditionally, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing had contained fair share of sleeper or boring races. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for events to be won by one lap or more being the interval over second place. However, we also remember some of those most memorable finishes NASCAR consistently advertises as part of the sport. Perhaps audiences have been led to a misguided impression on what can be expected race to race on the Sprint Cup circuit. Honestly, some tracks traditionally produces bad competition and it seems some of those events stick out better on the over-sized 36-race schedule where the sport is appealing to markets rather than fans. It is the traditionalists to the series who may dispute any changes to the series despite for the fact improved competition could allow the grandstands to fill up again if NASCAR was no longer seen as boring.

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