The Senior Tour Revisited

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Since the Sporting News ran an article opining NASCAR was trying to “force” older drivers out of the sport or to have them at least cut back to a part-time schedule I’ve received a ton of email. Most of it has come from worried or enraged Rusty Wallace fans but fans of other “mature” drivers have expressed concern as well.

First off, I don’t see a weekend coming when a Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, or Mark Martin shows up at the track and is denied garage area access by NASCAR to keep them from racing. As long as a team owner and a sponsor are happy with their driver and his results drivers will be allowed to compete beyond the age of 45. NASCAR can hint, suggest, or advise all they want, but there’s just enough functional brain cells firing on all eight in the NASCAR brain trust to realize you can’t force a driver into retirement while at the same time insisting the drivers and teams are “independent contractors.”

So why would NASCAR allegedly have this conversation with Mr. Wallace? It would seem to me that at long last NASCAR is considering following the example of the PGA and forming a “Seniors’ League.” The timing might be perfect right now.

While they don’t fit the “Young Guns” label FOX has forced down our throats with annoying regularity, drivers like Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace still have sizeable fan bases they’ve accumulated over the years. And a lot of those fans are real diehards who are going to lose a lot of interest in the sport when their man retires completely from the scene. In the old days, doubtless most of the retirees would have stayed a part of the sport by becoming team owners, but in today’s economic reality that’s unlikely.

And most of the drivers listed above, as well as others like them, are honest in saying they still enjoy driving race cars and competing for wins. It’s the constant demands of fans and sponsors, lack of privacy, all the travel, and all the time away from home that makes the idea of a nice rocking chair on a sun dappled porch outside their expansive homes have some appeal after years in the grinder.

A series with a limited number of races, say ten to twelve, might be more appealing to those veterans once they get their minds around the “senior” label. The racing would likely still be highly competitive and entertaining and would offer NASCAR a chance to hand out more coveted race dates to tracks that either don’t have Cup dates, only have one, or are in danger of losing one or both of the dates they have. Having the Senior Series anchor a weekend of racing that includes the trucks or Busch series and perhaps a Friday night ASA event would likely sell a fair amount of tickets and pump some welcome dollars into the local economy and track owners pockets. Race tracks by nature are hugely expensive bits of real estate that continue consuming mass amounts of money for insurance, maintenance, and staffing even when they lay dormant.

Ideally most of the Senior events would be held in the Southeast. (Recall, travel to far flung race dates is one of the annoyances older drivers are up against.) For all the hype of NASCAR becoming a coast to coast sport, there’s still a huge pocket of old time enthusiasts in the Southeast, and many of those fans are the same folks who support the older drivers. There’s no telling what Californians will watch, as evidenced by Adam Sandler’s movie career, but in the Southeast if you tell folks who recall 1988 and 1989 Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace are going to be gunning for a race win, they’ll have the Mini-Winnie fired up and highway bound in the blink of an eye.

A Senior Tour of some type would probably also appeal to the TV networks, particularly the folks at FOX who seem intent on having some sort of race broadcast on prime time on Saturday or Sunday nights. When waging ratings wars, the key demographic is the coveted (I’m required by law to include “coveted” apparently) 18-49 year old male. Those are the folks the advertisers seem to think have the must expendable income. But as witnessed by golf in general and the Senior’s tour in particular there are other advertisers who are after a somewhat older demographic who are not currently involved in NASCAR racing to any meaningful extent.

It was only a generation or two ago by the time a fellow retired at the age of 65 normally he’d be dead within three to five years. But with advances in health care and the stock market boom of the 1990s, more and more folks are retiring earlier and living longer. There’s a new marketing segment that caters to these “active retirees”. Not to resort to stereotypes, but this new demographic tends to play a lot of golf, go boating, travel frequently and will probably trade in the old mini-van or SVU for something a little more stylish and comfortable. A racing Senior’s tour might include sponsors like Ping, Titleist, Bayliner, Donzi, Southwest Airlines, etc.

And oddly enough some of the most choice high performance iron coming out of Detroit these days is geared towards the more mature consumer. Lincoln has their LS series, Chrysler is introducing the Hemi powered 300C (a throwback to the car that dominated NASCAR racing in 1955-56) and Cadillac has a Vette powered, six speed, rear wheel drive four door aimed solidly at potential BMW buyers. American luxury car makers may say they’re aiming at a younger buyer, but that doesn’t mean they’re trying to attract the Fast and the Furious set. They’d just like to sell cars to guys who aren’t wearing red and white checked Sansabelt golf slacks and white shoes waiting in line outside the Old Country Buffet for the early-bird special. . (When Cadillac uses a Led Zeppelin song released in 1971 to market their cars, that indicates to me they are after 40 somethings.) A racing program appealing to an older demographic might just be what Cadillac, Chrysler and Lincoln need to convince buyers they are selling serious hardware, not pillow suspensioned land barges with fake convertible roof and wire wheel covers any more.

A Senior’s tour might also offer an opportunity for the folks who run IROC to stay in the game. The IROC series has become increasingly irrelevant as all the events have been moved to oval courses and 95% of the drivers are from the NASCAR ranks. Rather than preparing spec cars for a four race a season series, the IROC folks could be placed in charge of preparing identically prepared cars for use on the Seniors’ circuit.

And the Seniors’ series might offer NASCAR something in addition to another couple cubic bushels of cash. Those in charge of making the rules that will determine the future Cup race cars specifications could get their feet wet with fuel injection, dual overhead cam engines, and smaller displacement engines in the Seniors’ series to see how such technology might work in Cup. They could also experiment with a less aerodynamic common template and 16 or 17 inch wheels in place of the antiquated 15 inch rims used in Cup racing today.

One thing the Seniors’ series would not lack any time soon is potential participants. With drivers today starting their racing careers younger and younger, the amount of money today’s drivers make and with the incredible time demands placed on current Cup competitors it’s unlikely many drivers will choose to continue racing into their forties. A Seniors’ Series would offer drivers who want to take a step back without hanging up their helmets completely a viable alternative to retirement. Right now the Seniors’ series might be made up of guys like Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, but down the road the next generation of drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. are going to be turning 40 as well. In addition to giving drivers a chance to keep racing, a Seniors’ Series would also allow those drivers’ fans an outlet to see their favorites race as those fans try and find a new younger driver to pledge allegiance too. I’m sometimes accused of being too resistant to change. Sue me. I’m old and I’m cranky. But I could embrace a Seniors’ Series if it was done right. After all even old writers might like to cut back to a more reasonable schedule down the road.

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