Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What's The Next Big Thing in NASCAR?

Over the years, we've seen NASCAR run in cycles. The sport seems to be ever changing, but it always has been, since the beginning in 1948.

Obviously, since about 2001, we've seen many, many changes in NASCAR. Young drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty were lost in 2000, and of course, in 2001, we lost Dale Earnhardt. Since Earnhardt's death, NASCAR has become safety conscious, at least more so than they were before.

Drivers are required to wear the full face crash helmet and the head and neck restraint device, better known as HANS. There is more padding in the cockpit of the cars, and more steel tubing than ever around the drivers. The car itself has changed, much to the chagrin of many of the current drivers and teams.

The tracks themselves have changed as well. The most obvious new safety device is of course the soft barriers, now installed in virtually all the corners on the oval tracks at which NASCAR races. Fences have been improved, with an obvious new round of scrutiny of the retaining fences since Carl Edwards' horrendous last lap ride at Talladega earlier this year. Had it not been for the fences, a lot of fans would have been killed, because Edwards' Ford was headed upstairs before the fence contained it.

Change, of course, is nothing new to NASCAR. If it were, we'd still be watching a bunch of guys racing around a cow pasture wearing tee shirts and blue jeans with no helmets, much as they used to do in the pre-NASCAR days. We wouldn't see restrictor plates at Talladega or Daytona. A little side note here: Restrictor plates were as much a safety measure implemented for the fans as it was the drivers. NASCAR has always lost drivers on the track from time to time over the years, and the drivers understand the risks involved. A car flying into the stands is more than NASCAR can stomach though, and thankfully so. NASCAR can ill afford to have fans killed at the track, especially when the fans are the people who provide the money that keeps the sport going.

I don't know what direction NASCAR will take in the future, but there are a few things I don't want to see.

I don't want to see a mandate from above that demands that all the cars use crate engines, or sealed engine packages. In my opinion, the cars are already too much alike. You can't really tell a Ford from a Chevrolet from a Dodge from a Toyota unless you look at the lettering on the nose of the car. Yeah, there are some subtle differences in the shape of the nose, and of course the headlight and grill decals are different, but other than that, the main difference in appearance is totally cosmetic. I miss the days when even on a wide TV shot, or sitting in the stands at the track, you could tell the difference between the makes of the cars. I think making the different brands unique would help sell more cars as well, which is primarily why the automakers are involved in racing in the first place.

Taking the engines out of the equation would mean that NASCAR would basically issue engines as they now do restrictor plates. There would no longer be a need for an engine shop or engine tuners for the most part. I think that would be a bad way to go. Would it save money? Certainly, but it would be at the cost of laying off some very highly skilled people and giving up one of the few aspects of the sport in which teams can be unique.

If NASCAR would just lay down a few general ground rules, instead of policing steering bracket bolts and lug lengths, I feel the sport would be more interesting from a fan's point of view. I really don't want to see NASCAR become a warmed over version of the now defunct IROQ series.

I'd also hate to see a continuation of the current trend that seems to require drivers to be robots instead of real human beings. The drivers are already so isolated and remote from many of the fans now. Part of this is because of the increased popularity of the sport, and it's virtually impossible for drivers to sign all the autographs that are requested at the tracks. Gone are the days when Richard Petty would hang out in a K-Mart parking lot with his fans, signing autographs until the last fan was gone. I miss those days, but I also understand that it's just impossible for today's drivers to make every single fan happy.

What I miss more than access to the drivers is the lack of personalities that seem to be the norm in the NASCAR scene these days. There are exceptions, of course. Kyle Busch is a polarizing personality, to say the least. At times, Tony Stewart is still good for a great quote or two. And then, there's always Dale Earnhardt Jr., who always seems to be so friendly, yet still manages to say what he thinks without hurting any one's feelings. Jeff Gordon and even Jimmie Johnson seem to have loosened up a little over the last few years, and though they are seldom involved in verbal controversies, they will show a little true feeling from time to time.

I guess I miss guys like Petty, back in his early days. I miss the early version of Darrell Waltrip. I miss Cale Yarborough, and especially Bobby Allison. I miss Junior Johnson. I miss Neil Bonnett and A. J. Foyt. Of course, I really, really miss Dale Earnhardt.

NASCAR will continue to change, and that's not always a bad thing. I just hope that the changes make it more fun than just a show. I want to see NASCAR put all the emphasis on racing again.

Just good, hard racing. That's all I ask for.

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