State of the Sport

Recently, when asked about the biggest problem NASCAR faces in the future, all Brian France had to say was “Rain.”

Really? That’s a cop out of an answer. I’ve loved NASCAR for over 20 years but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the issues the sport faces. I can still be critical of the sport. It’s called being a good fan.

Bob Pockrass over at ESPN dropped a very good article about the state of NASCAR and didn’t go so far as to call France’s answer a cop out, but it does carry a general tone of “Uh… no.” Go take a minute to read the article yourself. It’s a good one. Then come back because much of what I have to say is counterpoint and commentary based off that.

“They won in NASCAR’s developmental series, which still remain too much pay-to-play leagues with a huge disparity between the haves and have-nots that doesn’t give the underdog a realistic shot.”

This. So much this.

I mentioned in a previous post that the Trucks are going to offer crate engines to the teams and I think this is a step in the right direction. Even at the lower levels of the sport, racing costs a boat load of money. No way around it, but NASCAR can do things to take the sting out of it. With Kyle Busch Motorsport’s lawsuit against Justin Boston, who’s family company failed to pay sponsor bills, and some comments Keselowski has made about his truck team, we get a picture that the Truck teams cost a few mil a year to run competitively. Where does that leave room for people to break into the sport? It really doesn’t.

Benning (57) and race winner A. Dillon (39) - Eldora 2013 - via normbenning.com
Benning (57) and race winner A. Dillon (39) – Eldora 2013 – via normbenning.com

One of the greatest things I ever saw in NASCAR was Norm Benning at the first Eldora race. This is a guy who has been plugging away at the track for decades. Since 1989 he’s got 29 DNQ’s in Cup with only four races started. Since 2009, he’s attempted every Truck race with 17 DNQ’s. He has zero top tens. The Last Chance qualifier for Eldora, he was beating and banging around that dirt track with Clay Greenfield. Benning manhandled that truck around that track in one of the single most exciting things I’ve never seen bearing the NASCAR name. Benning became a hero when he won the last qualifying spot for the race and gave the young punk the middle finger on national tv. People from every team descended on Benning’s Truck to prep it for the main event. It was amazing. Go watch a video of that last lap complete with Benning giving Greenfield the finger. (The official video from NASCAR edits out the middle finger)

So the guy can drive. He pulled this off at 61.

His best finish ever was a 12th at Talladega in 2013.

Why? Norm Benning Racing is staffed by him, his wife, and a few of his buddies. Most races, he rolls in with an unsponsored Truck. The truck he put on the amazing show at Eldora in 2013? Ebay. So he could raise cash to run the next race.

He’s got a passion for the sport and every time I see the results from a Truck race, I see if he had a good run.

Norm Benning is also the perfect example of the gulf from the haves to the have nots. But not just Benning. Look at Jennifer Jo Cobb. In a season where only 14 drivers even attempted to qualify for every race, she was 13th. And keeps showing up. And keeps racing.

I don’t think the sport needs to go to the extreme of the old IROC series where everyone drive identically prepped cars but NASCAR can lower the barrier of entry. And then when the barrier of entry is lower, new talent can find its way into the lower levels of the sport. And then encourage the new talent to shine by bridging that gap between the front of the field and the back.

I like to think NASCAR is heading in that direction. The charter scheme is a way to bring down some of the costs of racing. The new lower downforce package in Cup is a way to put the racing back in the driver’s hands and not just the engineer’s. This is just as important, if not more so, in the lower levels of the sport.

Just think of how the garage would lose its mind in joy if Norm Benning could walk away with a trophy.

“NASCAR must add a Cup entitlement sponsor that equally helps teams, tracks and the sponsor itself.”

nascar logosI am afraid this will turn into a big distraction the longer NASCAR goes without signing a new one. They need to tread lightly because the title sponsor is going to set the tone of the sport for a long time for good or for bad.

Personally, while I think Sprint has throttled my T-Mobile service every time I went to NHMS, a telecommunications company has been the right step. Everyone has a phone. Xfinity (the alter ego of one of the most hated companies in America, Comcast) fills a similar niche. Technology based utilities are the kind of product that casts a very wide net

Which is exactly what NASCAR needs.

Unfortunately, they may be kinda hosed there. I’m sure that Xfinity has verbage in their deal which prevents NASCAR from signing on with any of their competitors. Remember all the court battles when Nextel first signed on? Jeff Burton was still sponsored by Cingular and Ryan Newman had Alltel (which didn’t even exist in New England) and it was a headache to the point that Burton ran the #31 in a race with a black and orange base coat and no logos on it.

And speaking of phone carriers… Sprint is out. T-Mobile is really Deutches Telcomm out of Germany so I don’t see NASCAR being their primary focus at all. Verizon already sponsors IndyCar. Apple? Ha. The hipster cult of Apple would never go for that. Microsoft? Eh. They got a lot of money in football.

For the good of the sport, I really hope it is a tech based sponsorship.

“NASCAR desperately needs to add another manufacturer that could create a stronger base of teams.”

Yes!

Dodge backing out of NASCAR when the US economy tanked was a bad blow for the sport. Doubly so since Keselowski won the championship in the same season.

To do it, a car company would have to commit for the long haul the way Toyota did. They’ve got to sink some money into it and back the teams in their camp. Toyota finally got their championship by doing just that. Despite none of the original Toyota teams still existing now that MWR is gone.

hondaThe obvious candidates are Volkswagon and Honda. As a Subaru driver, I really really want to say Subaru, but all their racing involvement is rally based since their thing is all wheel drive. Volkswagon is too tied up in their diesel engine scandal so that leaves Honda. I could see Accords rolling around the track someday with the Camerys and such. It would be very beneficial for the sport for that to happen, but it would all depend on how much money Honda wants to sink into it.

“NASCAR must have a product in which drivers have more options than just knocking someone out of the way in order to pass and not allow its Chase to become the Wild, Wild West again.”

Kenseth via wikipedia
Kenseth via wikipedia

I am surprised that the Kenseth-Logono thing went down the way it did. Oh, not the on track throwdown they had. I’m surprised Kenseth’s suspension was upheld. Why? Look no farther than the NFL and Deflategate. Brady got out of his suspension, not because the panel decided he was innocent, but because the league never codified the penalty in their rule book. (Also, 18-1. Eli > Tom). Kenseth definitely set a precedent there, but I think in the near future NASCAR is going to find itself in an NFL level crap storm if a similar situation comes up.

Codify the penalties. Then if some drivers choose to throw down on the track, or just lose their temper or whatever, they know exactly what the consequences are. NASCAR has operated as a dictatorship since the beginning, usually, a benevolent one. But, like Pockrass said in his article, this isn’t the Wild Wild West age of NASCAR anymore.

I’m ok with the infamous “Boys, have at it” mantra that NASCAR adopted a bunch of years ago. You can’t take the racing out of a race. But NASCAR has been moving to clarify the rule book for the last few years on the engineering side of the house. Yes, there is still room for some subjectivity in the P1 to P5 scale of peanalties but it is better than what it was without any scale. Crew chiefs can and will (and should) still push the envalope and test the limits of the rule books, but they have a reasonable expectation of what will happen if they get caught. The new-ish pit road officiating system with the all the cameras flagging potential violations for human review do the same thing for the pit crews. Remember at Homestead last year Jimmie Johnson’s jackman got busted hip checking the right side to flare out the side skirts for better aero? Or how many more people were getting busted for driving through more than three pit stalls? None of this stuff is new, they’re just getting caught more often.

But they know what the concequences are for it *before* they do it.

I think NASCAR needs to codify the penalties for excessively rough driving are and give us a better rationale for what “excessively rough driving” is. That second part may be the hardest. It may be impossible because after the Kenseth-Logano mess, the officials said it was situational. And it should be. Laps down and take out the leader? Busted. Like woah. Last lap going for the win? I’ll take it.

Overall, I really do think NASCAR is moving in the right direction with things like that, albeit at a glacial pace.

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