An Open Letter to NASCAR

Brian France, Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton, and John Darby,

I write to you today as a long time but disgruntled NASCAR fan.  I am dismayed by what a form of motor sport that I used to love so much has become.   NASCAR was the first form of motor sport that I became interested in as a child growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Throughout the 1990s and early in the first decade of the 2000s, the NASCAR races were what I watched live. I would watch other races during the commercial breaks and record them on the VCR to watch later.  In the last decade or so, however, my interest in NASCAR has waned.  Now I watch NASCAR between the commercial breaks of other races.  To be honest, I don’t even bother recording the races.  If I get a chance to watch a NASCAR race that’s fine, if I don’t it really isn’t a bother.  What are the reasons for this change over the years?  “The Chase” and a decreased emphasis on the manufacturers are at the head of the list.  “Boys Have at It” and the use of caution periods come in close behind.  Neglect of safety is also involved.

The biggest factor in my decreased interest in NASCAR  is “The Chase.”  First, it seems to have become the be all and end all of what NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is all about.  The races themselves have become secondary to “The Chase.”  Whenever I watch practice, qualifying, and race coverage the predominating topic of conversation on the part of the TV crew is about how what  a driver is doing in that session is going to effect his standing in “The Chase.”  There is very little discussion of how it might effect him in the race at hand or what is going on in the race at hand.  If a driver or team isn’t at play in “The Chase” they get very little attention.  Second, in attempting to make Sprint Cup racing more like NFL football, you have made the championship overly complicated.  Racing is not and never will be the same as football, don’t try to make it that way.  “The Chase” negates the season long efforts of teams by resetting everything for the last 10 races.  Return to old championship format where the efforts of an entire season count.  Make the points gap between finishing positions considerable; it will force teams to race for wins instead of comfortable points positions.  Reduce the number of points paying positions so that teams with beat up and broken cars aren’t functioning as mobile chicanes just to collect a handful of points.  Finally while not directly tied to the “Chase” but closely related to it, there is the Top-35 rule.  Get rid of it! Let the fastest 43 qualifiers race regardless of whether they are in the top 35 in points or not.  A team should not get a handout just because they have more points than another team.  If they aren’t fast enough to make the field, they shouldn’t race.

Close behind “The Chase” as one of the reasons for my decreased interest in NASCAR is the decreased importance of the manufacturers in NASCAR.  I miss the days of the manufacturer rivalries and the importance of the manufacturer’s championship.  Now the manufacturers are all but forgotten amidst the driver personalities and the “The Chase;”  as the seasons come to a close there is little mention of the manufacturer’s championship.  I also miss race cars that look different to each other.  Throughout the 2000s and continuing with the current cars, the quest for parity has resulted in cars that all look the same.  Without paint and decals, you are hard pressed to tell a  Chevrolet from a Dodge from a Ford from a Toyota.  We as fans should be able to look at a stock car and immediately be able to identify what manufacturer it is.  You’ve simply gone too far in pursuit of parity.  Sprint Cup is a top level motor sport, parity should not be a primary concern.  If one manufacturer builds a better race car then it is their competitors’ job to improve their cars, not yours to enforce parity.  The top level of motor sport should not only be about the best drivers but about the best engineering talent; it should be not only about which driver is the best but which car is the best.

“Boys Have At It” is another reason I’ve been losing interest in NASCAR.  Let me get right to the point, the 2012 Nationwide Race at Montreal was disgraceful.  Bumping and banging and “trading paint” is one thing, purposefully spinning out a competitor is quite another.  By not penalizing actions such as Villeneuve’s on Tagliani you open up never ending cycles of revenge.  By penalizing a driver for such activity you can stop the cycle before it gets going.  If the drivers insist on continuing the cycle after you’ve issued penalties then it is time for a meeting like Bill France Jr. had with Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine – “you need us more than we need you.”  Intentionally crashing another car may certainly be exciting but it isn’t racing.  It isn’t sporting.  You must decide whether NASCAR is going to be an entertaining sport or entertainment masquerading as sport.

Your use of yellow flags and caution periods are another reason for my loss of interest.  Caution periods should be used to make the track safe and shouldn’t last any longer than necessary to clean up fluids or debris and remove cars from the track.  If clean up is going to take too long, use a red flag.  Fans don’t tune in or go to the track to see the cars run around under extended cautions, they watch to see them race.  Caution periods shouldn’t be used for pit stop convenience.  Most importantly they should not be used to spice up the show.  Some of your debris cautions seem to come at opportune times to bunch the field up or spice up what’s become a uneventful race.  Not every race is going to be an exciting one, just let the race play out; that’s the sporting thing to do.  Spins that don’t impede the track or where a car spins out of the way and continue sometimes bring out a yellow, other times they don’t.  If the spin doesn’t create an unsafe situation I personally don’t believe it merits a yellow but the only thing I’m asking for is that you be consistent in your calls.  Once again, you must decide whether NASCAR is going to be an entertaining sport or entertainment masquerading as sport.

While NASCAR has certainly come a long way in the last decade in regards to safety, there is still work to be done.  The new race car is far safer than any NASCAR race car before and you are to be congratulated for that.  I applaud your adoption of the SAFER barrier as well, but there are still too many areas at race tracks that aren’t covered with SAFER.  Ultimately it is the responsibility of the tracks to install SAFER but you are in a position to influence them to do it.  Tracks have been spending plenty of money on amenities but not enough on safety.  Crashes can happen on straights just as they can happen in the turns; SAFER barrier needs to be along all of the walls on both the inside and outside of the track.  Now that the Sprint Cup Cars are using fuel injection and electronic management systems it easier than ever to institute pit lane speed limiters.  If your intent with a pit lane speed limit is to make pit road safer, then a pit lane speed limiter, not the driver’s right foot is the way to go. Finally, NASCAR should create a traveling series safety team similar to that used by the NHRA and IndyCar augmented by local crews.  Dr. Stephen Olvey’s book Rapid Response provides the arguments for this.  I in no way wish to denigrate the local crews at each track, but racing crashes create unique situations that a specialized response team would be better prepared for.

In trying to be more like stick and ball sports, you’ve lost track of what racing is about.  NASCAR has become more entertainment than sport. You may have picked up new fans but you’re losing an entire segment of fans that supported you as you increased in popularity.  We helped you become what you are today, don’t forget us.

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