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State of the Sport - Part 2

January 12, 2003

This is the second in a series of articles discussing the current state of NASCAR. In this installment, I'd like to discuss how I feel expansion has degraded the quality of the sport in recent years.

The Problem with Expansion

In the 1990s, both the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) companies “went public.” Rather than remaining the family-owned companies they had traditionally been, they changed to publicly-owned companies trading on the Stock Exchange. This was probably one of the most negative changes that could have occurred in NASCAR. To me, this seems to be the point where NASCAR shifted their emphasis from providing competitive racing to the fans to concentrating more on just making money for themselves and their stockholders.

Suddenly there was a perceived need for expansion to new geographic areas and building new tracks, most of which do not allow for competitive racing among stock cars. During the late 1990s and early 2000's, there has been an explosion of tracking building, not only by ISC and SMI, but by others who wanted to jump on the NASCAR gravy train. To maximize profit potential, the builders of these tracks chose to make them low-banked speedways which could accommodate both stock cars and open-wheel cars. Unfortunately in racing, one size does not fit all. In trying to maximize their profits by holding three or four events a year rather than one or two, the majority of these new tracks have simply created extremely boring, one-groove racing for the stock cars.

NASCAR and track owners will claim that they need to expand to other parts of the country besides the southeast. I agree that race fans all over the country deserve race tracks within a reasonable distance from their homes. What I have a problem with is the decisions by track owners to build the new tracks that range from one to two miles in length, with the majority of them being one and one-half mile tri-ovals. The track owners claim this is the only way they can accommodate the large numbers of fans throughout the country. Everyone knows that the recent expansion at Bristol Motor Speedway completely blows this theory out of the water. There, surrounding a one-half mile track, SMI has added enough seats in recent years to hold approximately 100,000 spectators.

For some reason, everyone keeps telling us NASCAR needs to be in “major markets,” like Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Miami. This is something that I really fail to understand. I know it has something to do with TV and ad markets, but NASCAR seems to have forgotten that race fans will travel any distance to watch a race and they will watch a race held anywhere on TV.

The results of building in these new markets have shown that new speedways in places like Texas, California, or Las Vegas provide exciting and competitive racing for open-wheel cars, yet the low banking seems to result in one-groove racing for stock cars. What race fans in most areas outside the southeast have gotten are races which are either filled with wrecks or follow the leader-type parades because the cars are unable to race side by side. In recent years, the open-wheel cars have stopped racing at New Hampshire Speedway In addition to a lack of side-by-side racing, this track has been the site of tragedies for NASCAR in recent years. Many claim Texas and NH suffer from what has become known as “The Curse of North Wilkesboro” because SMI President, Bruton Smith, and NH owner, Bob Bahre bought the NW track, simply to close it down and move its two WC race dates to their tracks.

Despite the lack of competitive (or safe) racing, fans in the vicinity of the new tracks continue to flock there each year, paying any price for tickets and even purchasing Permanent Seat Licenses required by many track owners. So the coffers of the track owners remain full while the competition seen by the fans in person and on TV has dwindled significantly. Yet the fans throughout the country are so starved to see stock cars, they continue to pay exorbitant prices for tickets to boring races.

What's wrong with this picture? Nothing if you are an ISC or SMI stockholder! Rather than providing fans throughout the country the exciting and competitive racing on which NASCAR built its reputation, NASCAR seems to only care about making the most money for the track owners. They no longer care if the fans at home and at the tracks, not to mention the drivers, suffer through a non-competitive race, as long as they are selling all those seats every year.

This is where I think greed has overtaken the spirit of NASCAR racing. Yes, you will say “it's just business,” but others will say that NASCAR is killing the goose who laid the golden egg. And, I fall into the second group; I believe that in their never-ending quest for the mighty dollar, NASCAR has totally lost sight of what made them such a popular sport in the first place.

In addition, over the last two or three years, NASCAR has started a bad trend of moving almost all of the Busch Series races and most of the Craftsman Truck Series Races to super speedways as “companion” events to Winston Cup. To me, this has all but ruined the uniqueness of both the Busch and Truck Series. Rather than providing the short track action for which these series have long been known, NASCAR would rather have a companion event on a speedway where they can guarantee more reserved ticket sales, even if the resulting race is boring. Selling more tickets is all that matters.

The Craftsman Truck Series was born on the short tracks and was truly a nationwide series, racing in several states that did not host WC or BGN races. The first few years showed that there are plenty of short and intermediate tracks already in existence throughout the U.S. - places like The Milwaukee Mile, Bakersfield, CA, Flemington, NJ, Evergreen Speedway, near Seattle, I-70 Speedway in Independence, MO, and even Texas World Speedway in TX. But in the last two years, NASCAR has moved all but a couple of truck races to speedways. I used to love the Craftsman Truck Series, but NASCAR has taken most of what made it exciting away by these kinds of moves. But, then it's all about more money for the stockholders, not quality racing for the fans, I guess.

Weren't the Truck and Busch Series designed to be “feeder” series for Winston Cup? Weren't they supposed to provide a “bridge” between Late Models, ASA or ARCA and the transition to Winston Cup – both in costs and in skill required? Today, it is very difficult for young drivers to make the leap from their local bullring to a NASCAR series. Drivers who are used to running on one-third or one-half mile tracks are now being forced to jump directly to 1 to 2-mile super speedways. Perhaps this is why NASCAR experienced less than full fields in many of the Busch and truck races in 2002. Not only can fewer drivers make the jump from their local short tracks to NASCAR because of the challenge of the tracks, but also, because of the amount of money it takes to fund cars for the larger tracks – what with the nearly mandatory aero testing and engine development costs.

I find all of this very sad. The quality of the sport has suffered in general and can be directly linked to the greed of the sanctioning body and the track owners and the too rapid expansion of the sport. I don't begrudge the stockholders making money, but I do resent that they are making all these millions from the fans and not providing a quality product in return. Others have already suggested it, but what would be so hard about building a higher banked 1.5 mile tri-oval or a short track similar to the tracks on which NASCAR was born? Fans just want a quality product for their hard-earned dollars. NASCAR needs to stop being blinded by dollar signs and realize this before it is too late.

Coming next, Part 3, Just Plain Greed.

Read Part 1 - The Bad Things About Technological Advances.

You can send me email at cheryl@speedcouch.com.

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