When word first leaked of NASCAR’s plan to use an All-Star-type package for next season, I immediately started thinking of other racing series I could cover instead.
The mere thought made me sick. Taking the best stock car drivers in the world and dumbing down the racing? Sorry, but I had no interest in watching some buy-a-ride rich kid have a chance to go out there, hold it wide open around a 1.5-mile track and suddenly be able to compete with the likes of Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.
That’s not why I watch sports. I want to see the best do their thing and be able to see true talent shine through.
But a recent quote from IndyCar president of competition Jay Frye entered my mind. In talking about why IndyCar was going toward lower downforce and higher horsepower, he said: “Every motorsports series has its thing, and we’re going back to being fast and loud. These cars are hard to drive and cool to look at.”
So if that’s IndyCar’s “thing,” what is NASCAR’s thing?
Well, as you know from following NASCAR through the years, it’s entertainment. NASCAR is about putting on a good show and trying to please its fans — which often comes at the expense of concepts people consider “pure” racing.
NASCAR has playoffs — and not just playoffs, but eliminations and points resets! NASCAR has artificial cautions during the races (stages). NASCAR has overtime — unlimited attempts! — so fans can see a finish under green. NASCAR has double-file restarts and free passes and wavearounds. And NASCAR officiates in a way that allows contact and blocking, where other series frown upon it.
All those things add up to a search for entertainment. That’s what sets NASCAR apart when it comes to its decision-making.
So the announcement NASCAR will implement a rules package that will force closer racing next season? That is completely, 100 percent on-brand for what NASCAR is.
But there’s something else at play with all this, and it’s much more of a factor for me at least taking a wait-and-see approach.
NASCAR isn’t doing this solely as some desperate, Hail Mary move to try and fix the racing. If that were the case, I’d be 100 percent against it.
There’s actually a long-term vision in the works that makes this digestible: Saving the sport from a financial standpoint.
Right now, the Cup Series engines use a tapered spacer (which restricts horsepower) that results in roughly 750 hp. NASCAR, in its search for new manufacturers to enter the sport, has traveled around the world only to be told such a high-powered engined with 1950s technology would be a non-starter for a potential new OEM. The cost of developing that type of engine would be astronomical and serves as a deterrent to a new entry.
So if NASCAR is going to have any real chance of attracting a new manufacturer, it needs to get the number down to 550 hp.
Why is that important? Because manufacturers have money. LOTS of money! And they’re willing to spend it in big ways. Just look at Formula E, which is going to have more than 10 manufacturers by its sixth season of existence — including the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche. They’re collectively pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a racing series that isn’t even that popular or established yet.
Chevy, Ford and Toyota are great for NASCAR and its teams, but NASCAR needs another couple manufacturers to come in and infuse the race teams with money. As seen with the recent sponsorship struggles, that factory support is more important than ever in modern-day NASCAR.
So that’s one factor. The other is this: The Gen 7 car IS coming, but it’s likely still a couple years away. NASCAR needs to find somewhat of a temporary stopgap until that car arrives and incorporates many of the concepts officials are now trying to reach with this package.
Now, do fans have to like this decision? Absolutely not, and I know some are going to be vehemently against this concept. Some drivers have also been outspoken in their dislike for it, with some privately saying this might make them consider a different direction in their careers.
But here’s the thing: Motorsports is a huge, diverse neighborhood. And so if a rules package makes you angry enough to bid farewell to NASCAR, then IndyCar is right down the street.
Of course, with IndyCar, you’re going to see races end under yellow and some events go completely caution-free. So maybe you won’t like that.
OK, well then how about Formula One? They have badass cars and cool technology, intriguing personalities and racing on a world stage. F1 might not be a bad option if you’re looking for the “pure” racing thing.
On the other hand, the car leading in the first turn often wins an F1 race — at least when the driver isn’t told to move aside for team orders. Ugh.
Hmm. Well then what about sprint cars? Man, sprint cars are AMAZING! The racing is like watching a combination of extreme sports and bullfighting, and the drivers are super accessible.
That said, none of the races are on TV, it’s hold-your-breath dangerous (which you might not be able to stomach) and you’re probably going to get hit in the face with clumps of mud when you go to the track. Not exactly the big-league NASCAR experience you may be used to.
Look, I’m not trying to stump for you to remain a NASCAR fan. That is up to you. As I said earlier, I’ve personally struggled with the concept of this new package and am still torn. Hell, so are the drivers!
But I keep coming back to the entertainment factor. Are the boring 1.5-mile tracks going to look better next season? Probably, yeah. It’s the way they’re getting there that is bothersome.
So what if someone zapped my minds with the memory device from Men in Black and I didn’t know the details of what made NASCAR racing seem more competitive?
That’s wishful thinking for those of us who follow every detail of the sport, but it will be reality for many NASCAR fans next season. That’s because a lot of casual fans (who aren’t on Twitter, probably) will flip on some of the races next year and go, “Dang, the racing looks closer!” without having any idea how it got that way.
If that’s the case, maybe it will be a good thing. And if this direction results in additional manufacturers joining NASCAR, it will definitely be a good thing.
On the other hand, this move threatens to run off some of NASCAR’s remaining passionate fans, not help the racing like NASCAR thinks it will and result in no new OEMs signing up.
That’s the gamble. And it’s a massive one, because now it involves the credibility of the racing itself.
But for those of us who have called on NASCAR officials to “DO SOMETHING,” now they are. Next year will reveal whether it was the right something — or one of the biggest mistakes yet.