Please NASCAR, Don't Screw This Up

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Keep Nationwide races at Lucas Oil Raceway

Keep Nationwide races at Lucas Oil Raceway

by Mike Neff

Stock car racing has been around for nearly a century, and NASCAR has been responsible for a vast majority of the growth of the sport since the early 1950s. From its humble beginnings — when Bill France Sr. pieced together an organization that ensured competitors received just payouts for risking their lives on-track — to today’s multi-million dollar purses and corporate sponsorships for most every aspect of the race weekend, the sanctioning body has made many positive advancements for stock car racing throughout its storied history.

Unfortunately, it has also made some incredibly bad choices that have served to alienate the fans of the sport and, from the sound of it, NASCAR may be on the verge of making another one.

One of the biggest complaints from fans today is that the national touring series have gotten away from their roots — focusing on mega 1.5- and 2-mile monstrosities — in lieu of the short tracks that made the sport what it is. This decision was initially made back in the 1970s, when new series title sponsor R.J. Reynolds pressured NASCAR to remove all races under 250 miles from the schedule. The result was a mass expulsion of tracks under a half-mile in length — including the last two dirt races on the schedule.

Since 1972, there have only been five racetracks on the Cup schedule that are under one-mile in length. The Nashville Fairgrounds (.596 miles) was on the docket through 1984, while North Wilkesboro Speedway (.635 miles) was raced by the top series through 1996. There are now only three tracks on the Cup schedule under one-mile and, since 1971, no dirt races. And as the series grew in popularity — especially in the ’90s — races were moved away from the traditional cradle of stock car racing in the southeast, where smaller towns historically supported the series, and placed across the country at larger venues in bigger markets designed to house more fans and increase exposure. This regional exodus removed much of the identity and character the series possessed, replacing it with a sterile, generic product at facilities that, for all intents and purposes, looked the same.

In the early part of this decade — at the height of the sport’s popularity — while television contracts were renegotiated, the NASCAR principles in Daytona also decided to chase the stick and ball sports, altering the way the series champion was crowned. While there have been many different point systems throughout the history of the sport, the one constant was all the prior systems based its champion on a full season of competition; sustained excellence was rewarded. That changed when the Chase for the Championship format was implemented in 2004. A “playoff format” placed drivers’ title hopes in a final 10-race block, of which, only 10 drivers (now 12) were eligible. While there have been many different factors at play in the decline of NASCAR’s popularity, the Chase is frequently cited as the main reason fans have abandoned the sport.

Shortly after the implementation of the Chase, the sanctioning body rolled out a new car design, which not only made the cars — regardless of make — aesthetically identical (except for headlight, grill and tail light decals), but also invoked ungainly front splitters and rear wings that resembled sports cars, not stock cars. The outcry from fans was so loud, NASCAR was forced to replace the wing with a traditional spoiler while hiding the splitter with a redesigned front valence. It should be noted that the new “Car of Tomorrow,” as it was known upon its inception, is a safer machine, although it’s widely believed the same safety improvements could have been made to the “old” car.

Now that NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series appears to be regaining some momentum from an attendance and television-ratings standpoint, and the Nationwide Series begins to show more strength of its own with a new, series-specific championship format, the sanctioning body is in discussions to screw up what may be the Nationwide Series’ most competitive and compelling event — the annual 200 lapper at the .686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly the Indianapolis Raceway Park).

Since 1982, when the Nationwide (then Budweiser) Series was formed from the Grand National Sportsman division, Kroger has sponsored the race, making it the longest running sponsorship of a racing event in the country, as well as one of the most successful partnerships in the history of stock car racing. While the sponsorship in and of itself is impressive, the competition on the race track simply provides the best Nationwide race of the season each and every year. This year’s race will mark the 29th anniversary of the event but, if the folks at the big track at 16th and Georgetown have their way, the last to take place at the historic little short track.

Reports by The Indianapolis Star indicate that Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are in negotiations with NASCAR to move the Nationwide race to the 2.5-mile IMS for a Saturday afternoon race. The theory behind the move is that it will bolster the overall attendance at the big track for the entire weekend, although that logic would seem incredibly flawed.

The Cup race at the Brickyard has gradually lost attendance over the years for a few different reasons. When the track hosted its first Cup race in 1994, there were no other Cup races within 250 miles of the track — Michigan International Speedway was the closest venue where people could attend a Cup race. Now there is a new race at Kentucky Speedway just three weeks before the Brickyard 400, one at Chicagoland Speedway less than two months after the event, and a track in Kansas City with two dates which attracts many of the Midwestern fans that once traveled to Indianapolis.

Adding to the decline in interest is the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008, which continues to leave a bad taste in many long-time fans’ mouths. Also, with an economy that has yet to turn around for race fans, the racing dollars do not go as far as they once did, forcing fans to either attend a venue closer to home, one with more bang for their buck, or not at all. The end result is that the attendance at IMS — while still routinely in the top three crowds of the year — will most likely be south of 100,000 this trip, which will look horrendous in a venue with a seating capacity hovering around 250,000.

In short, moving the Nationwide race to the big track is going to have absolutely no impact on attendance at IMS. The people in town to see the Nationwide event are already in town — they’ll go to the Brickyard if they choose. Holding the support series race at IMS will only serve to reduce the number of people who attend the Nationwide event — think along the lines of 40,000.

There is no question that racing in the cozy confines of Lucas Oil Raceway results in close-quarter, full-contact racing, but it also affords the fans the opportunity to view the racing around the entire track. That, in contrast to attending a race at the behemoth 2.5-mile speedway, where sight lines restrict viewing of the large majority of the track — not to mention the quality of racing, which lends itself to single-file, aero-dependent parades.

Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is special. There is a reason the Indianapolis 500 has been dubbed “the greatest spectacle in racing.” However, the racing at IMS is less about the exciting nature of the race, and more about history, spectacle and the ghosts of racers past. The more events IMS hosts, the more the uniqueness of running at such an historic venue is diminished and the draw of seeing the top series loses its luster. The focus should be on getting people back in the stands by promoting the event, the history and the experience rather than trying to stuff more events into a place that, for the better part of 83 years, held only one race per year.

The races at Lucas Oil Raceway are consistently the best on the schedule of both the Truck and Nationwide series. Two years ago, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch started 41st and 42nd in the Nationwide event and passed every car on the track en route to first- and second-place finishes — one doesn’t see that at IMS.

The loyal fans that have supported the series for 30 years deserve to keep “their” race the night before the Brickyard, at Lucas Oil Raceway, as it has been for 17 years. Just because the deep pockets in Gasoline Alley can throw around greenbacks doesn’t mean loyalty should be ignored. The time has come for NASCAR to remember its roots and stop ripping the sport up by them.
 

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff believes taking the Nationwide Series' Lucas Oil Raceway date and transferring it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be a big mistake.</p>

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