A Look Ahead

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Some had suggested it would be a cold day in hell, not a chilly day in New Hampshire, before Robby Gordon won a Winston Cup race.

A few months ago, it seemed unlikely we’d be seeing Robby Gordon around the NASCAR garages again any time soon. Surely he’d used up all his lifelines – the final indignity coming courtesy of the Morgan-McClure team, which cut him loose back when the bananas were still green and the leaves brown.

Certainly he wouldn’t get yet another ride. And if he did, certainly it wouldn’t be in anything capable of winning. But he did, and in a fitting end to the most bizarre season in NASCAR history, Robby Gordon was the last man smiling in 2001.

Think back to how all this started, back in February at Daytona. On the day of the season-opening race, Richard Childress handed the keys to his two race cars to Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner, just as he’d done every year since 1997.

When those keys were returned to the RCR hook at season’s end, they were hung there by Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon.

All that happened in between? Forget it. We don’t have the time, energy or patience to get into all of that here. But it’s worth a few minutes to look ahead to next year. In a sport where the off-season last just long enough to cook two turkeys and get violently fed up with your cousin Earl’s brood of brats who came to visit for the holidays, it’s never too soon to look to next year.

* Right off the top, I see four issues that will definitely play a role in off-season discussions, and discussions on into 2002.

Since the next race on the rotation is Daytona, the first issue is, of course, restrictor plates. Following the all-too-predictable debacle at Talladega in October, NASCAR got the hint and granted the wishes of the drivers – remove some of the tricked-up hardware from the cars, and make things a tad safer for the 43 men who strap in on Sunday afternoon.

The roof strips are gone, the spoilers are knocked down some, and everyone in uniform feels a little better. Unfortunately, the new rules might be a little too close to the old rules (i.e. pre-Talladega of 2000), meaning we might be in line for another single-file parade. Might not, but there appears to be a better chance of that now.

But that’s all right…If: The governing body follows through on a proposed increase in the size of race cars, which could stir up enough wind resistance to make the plates unnecessary at all by 2003. We could put up with four mediocre races at Daytona and Talladega if we knew something good was coming.

* Hand in hand with the plate issue is the overall issue of safety, which will hardly cool next year. NASCAR is still putting final touches on its new research-and-development shop in Hickory, N.C., where they will basically be in the business of saving lives and/or equipment.

Over the past couple years, for obvious reasons, safety advancements focused on the front-ends of cars, as well as soft-wall technology. I’m no Banjo Matthews, but it seems to me they might be focusing some energy on the driver's-side door area. Dale Jarrett learned a little more about driver’s-side impact this year, as did Michael Waltrip. And assuming he remembers, of course, Steve Park could tell you how driver’s-side impact can relegate you to the couch on Sunday afternoons while all your friends are outside playing Johnny Racer.

If NASCAR eventually goes to a wider car, this would obviously allow more room between the driver’s left side and anything that might approach from that side with bad intentions.

* If they haven’t already, NASCAR’s competition elders will likely develop some sort of strategy for dealing with the growing trend of frontier justice on the asphalt plains of Texas, Darlington, Dover, etc.

By God, when Jeff Gordon starts sending his front bumper toward the rear axle of a fellow driver’s car, you know things are getting out of hand. In all three of NASCAR’s biggest series, we saw big-league run-ins on race day. From Kevin Harvick to Greg Biffle to Jack Sprague to Tony Stewart to, finally, the two Gordons (Robby and Jeff), you halfway expected NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to condemn NASCAR for being too violent.

Problem is, there are two distinctly different sides to NASCAR – the competition end, which we see every Sunday, and the marketing end, which takes place in suites, restaurants, and NASCAR’s well-cushioned offices across the land.

While the rough stuff makes things difficult for those who must police such things (Mike Helton and crew), spirited rivalries are sweet music to those in charge of selling their sport to those who hook their corporate wagons to big TV ratings.

* And speaking of selling the sport, there’s also that nasty little problem of lagging ticket sales – specifically a problem for those in charge at the International Speedway Corporation, run by the same folks who happen to run NASCAR.

In a normal world, it's no problem at all. Let's say Daytona sells “only” 150,000 tickets to the Daytona 500 next February. How many sporting entities would like to have that problem? All of them. Problem is, Daytona has 168,000 seats, and they always claimed they didn’t add seats unless the demand was very high.

Well, the demand WAS high, now the interest is a little softer – for various reasons, surely. The sluggish economy is one aspect, as is, probably to a lesser degree, ISC’s decision to ban decent-sized coolers at its tracks.

Still, ISC doesn’t like empty seats. Why? Bottom line: Shareholders. ISC is a publicly-traded corporation, and if revenues are down, shareholders frown, and when they frown, stock prices fall. Bad stuff for those in the plusher offices.

Things are getting so antsy at Talladega that officials there announced last week they're lowering ticket prices for next spring’s Busch/Cup weekend – $60 for a two-day ticket in the Turn 2 grandstands. You can’t beat that.

Of course, now that you can’t bring a big cooler, you’ll spend a few more bucks at the concession stand.

Oh yeah, the concession stand. Tell those shareholders to cheer up. Whatever slight dip ISC might see in ticket revenue next year, it’ll more than make up for it in soda sales. Overall revenue will be up, as will the price per share on Wall Street.

There, one problem solved. Now, back to those other three…

Related Topics:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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