Troubling Trends

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A week Friday the NASCAR family will gather in New York for it’s annual lovefest. While the awards banquet will get most of the attention, Mike Helton will also be giving a “State of the Sport” speech prior to the banquet. And most likely Helton is going to say all is well, beyond that even, with TV ratings up, Britney is doing a movie about our sport, and souvenir sales as strong as ever. But there’s no field of human endeavor that can’t be improved upon, and while the skies today are sunny there are some dark clouds on the horizon. Below are the some of the issues I feel NASCAR has to address near term for the good of the sport and its future.

Aero Push- Aero push is to stock car racing what hoof and mouth disease is to the livestock industry, a threat so severe it could end everything unless it is dealt with promptly. Too many races this year were won in the pits. Yes, the pit crews play a vital role in racing and they always have but just because a driver leaves the pits first on the final round of stops shouldn’t mean he’s the presumptive winner of the race. A driver with a faster car willing to dive into the corners just a little harder ought to be able to make that pass. The NASCAR franchise was built on side by side racing and frequent passes for the lead and we’re not seeing enough of those things anymore. Yes, more people are watching races than ever, but how long until they realize the emperor has no clothes? The new rules standardizing body location next season are a good start but this problem has to be addressed aggressively and solved before the end of the 2003 season. That’s going to take some cooperation. While drivers prefer to be able to actually race and NASCAR would like to see them race, team owners and sponsors want their drivers to have that “unfair advantage” and win every race. That attitude is short sighted when it comes to the good of the sport, so let em whine and don’t give in.

Head Restraints- The rules requiring head restraints added last year were a fantastic step forward for the safety of the sport. NASCAR did their studies and finally did the right thing though too late to save Blaise Alexander. Now we’ve got a little over a year of real world testing with the two approved devices, the HANS and the Hutchens. It’s the sort of testing you can’t simulate on a computer, or hire someone to do. It’s real live accidents, bad ones, involving various sized drivers at various speeds on various sorts of race tracks. And it would appear when it comes to preventing injury the HANS device is the more effective of the two based on these real world tests. Just ask Sterling Marlin who suffered season ending injuries wearing the Hutchens and who has vowed to switch to the HANS when he returns to racing next season. Wearing the Hutchens device is infinitely safer than wearing no head restraint at all, but wearing the HANS is safer than wearing the Hutchens device. So let’s make the safer system mandatory. For all Jimmy Spencer’s moaning how a big guy like him wasn’t going to be able to get out of a burning car wearing a head restraint, Mr. Excitement surely did pop of the 41 car at Homestead might quick when his ham was in the fire.

The Busch and Truck Series- Only eighteen teams competed full time on the Busch schedule this season and a disheartening amount of them have no sponsor lined up for next year. Things are even worse in the truck garage. When you have Rick Crawford in the running for the truck title right down to the final race and Scott Wimmer wins four Busch races for Bill Davis and comes in third in the series points standings, and neither team is sponsored that’s beyond “worrisome.” It also leads to “field fillers” used to bring the field that starts the race to full strength to the detriment of the racing itself. Some of these guys just take a lap or two and pull into the garage to grab their check, but others are just out there in the way. What needs to be done? Lower the cost of fielding a competitive entry in both series and more sponsors will be willing to pony up a smaller amount to back to back a competitive team. And as an interim measure, increase the race purses in both series to more adequately reflect the cost of competition.

Carbon Monoxide- Carbon monoxide is a colorless gas you can’t see. Apparently in NASCAR no one can speak or hear about it either. Rick Mast is sidelined with long term health effects caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Tony Stewart has been gassed as well. And it’s not just the drivers it’s the crews and the fans in the stands who breathing what amounts to a poison gas like the ones we want to take away from Sadaam. What can be done? Well I’d start with reading the level of carbon monoxide in the garage area, inside the cars and in the grandstands at every track this season. Trust me, NASCAR would rather figure out a solution to this problem than to have the fine (and we’re talking big dollar fine) people from OSHA come in and figure out how to solve it for them. Electric powered race cars anyone?

Team Orders- It was interesting that Ferrari team strategy caused such an uproar at one this season as if everyone didn’t already know that’s how the game was played. And that same problem is beginning to crop up in Winston Cup with teammates letting one another back on the lead lap, slowing down cars their teammates are chasing, and now letting a teammate lead the most laps to grab five points. It won’t be long until we have teammates parking their cars on the apron to draw a caution for a teammate in need, or wrecking a rival driver in the points title. Both situations have already occurred in this sport and that’s back when the money involved was peanuts compared to today. The best way to control team orders is to take a firm stand before it starts.

Language- This is a pet peeve of mine nowhere near as serious as the above. It’s in all of society, not just stock car racing, the needless use of profanity is rampant. I’m a realist. I’ve worked in auto shops and I know the language gets pretty blue, but, hey, when they stick a microphone in your face and you know there’s young uns in the audience, watch your language. The way things are heading I fully expect to hear the president in an address to the nation say “Iraq is in some deep ---- now because we’re going to bomb the mother-----ers back to the Stone Age.”

Fan Appreciation- Lately it seems like it’s one slight after another directed at NASCAR fans. Seat sizes are shrinking, traffic is getting worse, some tracks ban coolers, and now they want to throw those lucky handful of fans who do manage to get a garage pass out on their ear as well. Any enterprise is doomed once it loses appreciation for its customers. Even that whole “How Bad Have You Got It” ad campaign implies less than subtly race fans are a bunch of ill mannered morons incapable of functioning in normal society.


Pay Per View- It started when the formerly free qualifying and practice times became “pay per read” on the sport’s official website. (Where curiously you can read Track Smack free, what gives?) Now there’s an “enhanced” broadcast on digital TV for those willing to lay out more bucks. It’s coming. NASCAR is testing the waters and if they find enough fans are willing to pay the price, Pay Per View races are part of our future.

BONUS FEATURE- Phrases we never need to hear during TV race broadcasts again….

1) Boogity, boogity, boogity- Stupidity, stupidity, stupidity

2) Hollywood Hotel- It’s a gimmick someone thought would be cute. It wasn’t, it isn’t and it ain’t never gonna be. Tow it to the crusher. (Preferably using NBC’s Pit Cruiser)

3) Smoke- Yeah, silly nicknames in place of a real name. Hold on a sec WWF. We’re trying to catch up.

4) Super G- This one grates on my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. Do we add “Dawg” next year. But I guess it lets the little league writers feel cool.

5) Track Smack- Um, guys, the trick to race journalism is to try to hide your ignorance not exaggerate and flaunt it.

6) Now to Dave Burns- I’d rather see another commercial.

7) Young Guns- Stock car racing was born in the Southeast not the Wild West. In light of problems in society as a whole any term that mixes youth and weapons probably isn’t a good thing. Same deal with “posse”.

8) Presented By- Come on guys, this is just getting out of hand. How long until you can’t pronounce the entire name of the event during the course of the event.

9) Window of opportunity- Usually used while looking at the radar during a rain delay. But I’ve seen it pouring when the radar shows no rain in the area and I’ve seen an entire race run with angry green blotches shown on the radar over the track. Your best bet when you don’t know what you’re talking about is to stop talking about it.

10) Surely he didn’t mean to do that…..-Oh, yeah the dumb mean-spirited SOB did. Stop making excuses for him.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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