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Fixing The Great American Race
by Vito Pugliese
The Daytona 500 has had a few choice nicknames foisted upon it over the last 53 years – chief among them, “The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.” That being said, if it is going to have such a grand title attached to it, might it be time to start seriously treating racing’s biggest event as the “Super Bowl” it’s been advertised as for the last five decades?
Speedweeks in Daytona have always has been a fortnight spectacle leading up to the main event, with Saturday’s Bud Shootout, Sunday’s qualifying and Thursday’s twin Gatorade Duel qualifying races. The NFL now takes two weeks to lead up to its main event, in a way taking a page from NASCAR, by playing the Pro Bowl the weekend before the Super Bowl itself.
The Bud Shootout — NASCAR’s version of a Pro Bowl — used to be for pole winners from the prior season only. It was exclusive. Then it was expanded to include past winners of the event itself, which is fair enough. However, all you have to do is win a points-paying event at Daytona or be a good rookie in a bad class to qualify. Really? No offense to Derrike Cope, Jimmy Spencer, Greg Sacks or Kevin Conway, but isn’t the primer for the season’s biggest event a bit watered down if the barriers to entry are constantly lowered?
In the same vein, qualifying needs to mean something as well, and with the top 35 rule in place (and no bonus points for a pole) the Bud Shootout needs to be made for pole or past Shootout winners only.
From sport to show
Perhaps the biggest issue now facing the Daytona 500 — and NASCAR in general — is the practice of describing it not as pure competition, but as “putting on a show.” The 500 needs to be presented as the sporting event it is, not just “some show for the fans.” It represents the pinnacle of North American auto racing, after all. “Putting on a show” should be the realm of the Drifting crowd, WWE and Monster Jam; not a 200 mph chess match on NASCAR’s grandest stage.
It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps six or seven years back, that the Daytona 500 was generally assumed to have surpassed the Indianapolis 500 as the most important race in the country. In the last few years, though, the 500 has lost a little bit of its luster. From the advent of multiple restarts with no firm end distance on which to strategize, changing the rules on the final lap about racing back to the line when cars are upside down and on fire, to the track crumbling apart and fixed with glue, the two-week Daytona 500 experience has been bastardized to the point of becoming as irritating as it is interesting.
An unqualified success
Part of the problem is that the event’s unique qualifying procedure, designed to create as much interest and genuine drama as the race itself, has been negated by NASCAR’s antiquated and unnecessary top 35 rule. If an owner showed up to enough races last year, chances are he’s good to go for the following season’s first race and the four that follow. The Past Champion’s Provisional further complicates matters, with teams taking advantage of a retired former champion to conjure up a start-and-park effort. Thursday’s qualifying races used to really mean something for determining who made the big race versus who had to rely on qualifying speeds — and who would be on the trailer going home. Not so anymore.
While the Daytona 500 is still one of 36 races used to determine a champion, might it be time to revamp the rules to make this a premier event to attract more teams, sponsors and drivers to try and qualify for The Great American Race? The final 10 races are what really determine the championship anyway, with the first 26 largely ignored in the final tally, so why not make Daytona a wide-open event that rivals the prestige of a title once again?
The need for speed
Speaking of “wide open,” the buzz following Saturday’s Bud Shootout centered around speeds. For the first time since the late 1980s, average speeds eclipsed 200 mph, topping out at just over 206. Nothing bad happened — there were a couple of two-car incidents and one semi-big one on the backstretch — but no one got airborne, no one ended up on their lid and a back end never so much as lifted off the ground. Despite that, there was a technical bulletin released Sunday, mandating changes to the front grille openings and the pressure of the cooling system to prevent two cars from flying in formation for too long.
For some reason, NASCAR pegs the 200 mph barrier as the “Danger Zone” where all hell breaks loose, and the precipice of utter ruin and unfathomable sorrow. Never mind that it is the low- to mid-190 mph mark where things traditionally go wrong in a big way. Things changed when Bobby Allison had a bias-ply tire come apart at 210 mph, blowing the quarter panel off his car at Talladega in 1987, causing his car to go skyward. To quote Sterling Marlin following “The Big One” at Talladega in 2001: “These cars need to be runnin’ 200 mile an are.”
During qualifying on Sunday, the cars were barely running 180 mph through the corners. However, Wednesday morning witnessed a further shrinking of restrictor plates, thus throttling the speeds back another two or three mph in the draft.
Things don’t pick up until there are a pair of cars hooked nose to tail pushing along in tandem, and with the new surface, there is an immense amount of grip that suddenly can vanish — the break away being very sudden and non-linear. Passing was possible with a pusher during the Shootout, but handling, which is usually the hallmark of a Daytona race, will have to wait a couple of years once the asphalt ages and wears a bit. The 30-plus year old surface with lumps and bumps that was just replaced had character that the new pavement will take time to develop.
Oh by the way, there is a race this weekend
One thing that has been conspicuous in its absence this year is the lack of marketing behind a race that holds so much history and so many great finishes. The Super Bowl has 11 years less from which to pull, yet highlights abound of past games during the buildup to Super Bowl Sunday. NASCAR doesn’t seem to show many beyond the 1979 fight, Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 victory, the controversial 2007 finish and the tragic events on the last lap in 2001.
Note: there were 48 other races to showcase, as well as the beach action and racing up A1A. Instead, there is continued obsessing over the fourth different points system used in the last nine seasons and how the crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports might work in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favor.
Speaking of the Super Bowl and Daytona 500 coverage, FOX’s idea behind promoting NASCAR’s biggest race was a pair of commercials that featured a guy jumping on manhole covers and a broken Ferris Wheel. What, those E-Trade talking babies or The Black Eyed Peas didn’t want any of that? You have the largest television audience of the year for a sporting event in the Super Bowl and you do absolutely nothing of any substance to try to market, advertise and/or build interest in what is always one of the greatest races of the year?
There is a lot here that needs to be addressed before the Daytona 500 reclaims the luster it has lost in the last few years before it is recognized as being on the same plane as the Super Bowl. But take heart NASCAR fans: We know for a fact the National Anthem and the flyover won’t be screwed up at our event and seating is never an issue.