"Do we have to go back?!"
That was the question asked by Clint Bowyer, referring to returning to the Sprint Cup Series, following Wednesday's Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway. And he didn't even race.
NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series was at the center of the North American motorsports spotlight upon its visit to tiny Rossburg, Ohio, marking the first time one of NASCAR’s three major touring circuits raced on a dirt track since Sept. 30, 1970. That race, the Old State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C., was won by Richard Petty.
When the green waved over the 150-lap feature, few of the participants were even born when Petty ended an era of dirt in NASCAR 43 years ago.
And in an odd — yet telling — twist, the visit to Eldora’s 24-degree banked dirt oval has upstaged what once was a jewel on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit: The Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In recent years, interest in NASCAR at the grand old speedway has waned, as evidenced by severely sagging attendance, TV ratings and the desperate inclusion of Nationwide Series and Grand Am races to complement Sunday’s Cup show.
Indy has never provided great “racin’” in the vein stock car fans are accustomed, and a tipping point may have been reached in 2008, when failing Goodyear tires on a newly diamond-ground surface essentially reduced the event to a series of 12-lap heat races. And even if that race had gone off without a hitch, it’s doubtful many would feel different about the on-track product the speedway provides the bulky stocks.
Enter Eldora, whose racing may not have been "great" in the classic sense, but was certainly an enjoyable change of pace. Tony Stewart's half-mile oval is a throwback in every sense of the word, as far from a 1.5-mile asphalt cookie-cutter track as one will find. A palpable enthusiasm had permeated the fan base since the date’s announcement last fall; it was a welcome return to the sport’s roots. Something new, fun and as accessible as a quarter-mile dirt track “just a few miles out in the county” — a half hour from your house or mine. The big boys of NASCAR were racing on (what felt like) the local level. And social media reaction on Twitter ran overwhelmingly positive (a rarity) during the event.
Is this the type of show fans have longed for from a sport whose sanctioning body often seems disconnected from the loyal base that made NASCAR what it is?
Perhaps NASCAR should learn from this experiment. Perhaps sparsely-attended 500-mile parades at aero-dependent palaces of speed aren’t what interest fans after all — or pull new ones in. Perhaps “great racing” at a facility that will pack in "only" 20,000 rabid fans means more than NASCAR’s track-operating wing showing a hefty year-end surplus on a ledger sheet. After all, the the ruling family is soon to be about $4 billion richer, thanks to a healthy new TV contract.
Perhaps Eldora will help NASCAR find its identity again, the same as the rough ’n’ tumble short tracks did nearly two decades ago just before the sport began a rocketship rise from regional obsession to national phenomenon.
Or perhaps another casino on a speedway’s grounds will justify a second date, as seen at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. Or prime dates will be doled out to struggling France family-owned facilities, as fellow 1.5-miler Chicagoland Speedway’s first Chase date highlights. Those immaculate cathedrals cater to the suite-dwelling business types whose sponsorship dough keep teams running, after all.
Yes, Wednesday’s show at Eldora was a fun one to watch — and it may have opened the door to the Truck Series’ return to other off-the-beaten-path locales. But let's enjoy it for what it was: a gimmick — and that's not a bad thing. It was a gimmick that really and truly worked and should be scheduled again post haste. (Props to Stewart, Steve O'Donnell, Roger Slack, et al, for a flawless show.)
Just don’t hold out hope that the mighty Cup Series will descend upon Knoxville any time soon, or that the Nationwide circuit will magically reappear in South Boston, Myrtle Beach or Nashville. And don’t expect the wallets of the few to be effected by the wants of the many.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro