NASCAR’s Racing Development and Innovation team, led by EVP Steve O’Donnell, got busy during the off season, having just rolled out an assortment of structural changes for all three race series. During this week’s 2016 media tour kick-off in Charlotte, revolutionary creations from NASCAR’s Innovation labs were conveyed as fully baked with a strong business case; the reality is these concepts are likely being tested in race conditions as clinical trials.
In Chairman Brian France’s State of the Sport address this week, the discoveries came at us with the pace of a “Fast and Furious” chase scene.
The wildest, newfangled device is a “Caution Clock” for the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck (NCWTS) season for all tracks (except Eldora) that is anticipated to energize this development series, which is generally struggling with low crowd counts and unprofitable financial costs, in spite of a generally solid racing product.
The 20-minute Caution Clock will begin when the race leader takes the green flag at the beginning of the race and each restart. Once that clock runs out, an automatic caution is thrown. Should a normal race caution occur (e.g., due to debris or an accident), the Caution Clock will be reset to another 20 minute window.
So, what are possible rewards of this new Caution Clock?
- If the field gets strung out on a long green flag run at an aero-dependent speedway, the Caution Clock will bunch up the field and close the gap that the lead trucks have established over the field. Finishes like last May’s Kansas Speedway race, with only six trucks on the lead lap, will hopefully be less common
- The less experienced, start-up truck teams with limited resources will have more opportunity to take big swings on pit lane adjustments if they missed set-ups at the start of the race
- Elimination of the fictional caution, so often attributed to notable French driver “Jacques Debris”
- Addition of an extra layer of pit strategy, by deciding to gamble on track position by staying out
- If all else fails, the foreseeable caution helps fans to time their concession or bathroom break, as well as an opportunity for the younger set to catch up on social media
One thing is unquestionable. There will be big drama on restarts. Daniel Hemric, driver of the No. 19 Ford F-150 for Brad Keselowski Racing in 2016, predicts a ramp-up in tension and thrills, noting “As a driver, you look forward to restarts. Over the years, restarts have been the common ground where you have an opportunity to make gains. I think it’s going to be exciting for the fans and definitely add another thing to make the crew chiefs lose sleep at night.”
However, the big danger is that fans will now deem race outcomes as artificial or manipulated; the arbitrary nature of this Caution Clock disrupts the competitive soul of racing. Instead of the best racer with the fastest truck heading to victory lane, he or she may be left spinning on the infield like a roulette wheel game of chance, after getting dumped on a restart by an overly aggressive competitor.
I strained to rack my brain for another sport that does something similar, and it is hard to find an analog. This mandatory Caution Clock reset would be like the MLB Yankees having an 8-0 lead in the 8th inning against the hapless Phillies, but having their lead reset to 1-0 entering the ninth inning. Perhaps tennis is similar, as Serena Williams can win the first set of the Australian Open 6-0 in games, and that only collects her a 1-0 lead in sets (with the best of 3 sets necessary to close out the match).
Steve O’Donnell must be taking a lot of flak in Twitterverse right now, but he seems to wear it well. Whatever NASCAR pays him to lead this effort is probably not enough. Last week, he tweeted out, “Busy day-appreciate all the feedback-if you are not on board with change, that’s “ok” but ask that you give it a chance and let it play out.” https://twitter.com/odsteve/status/689600660749168641
In that, O’Donnell is spot on. Fans will surely voice their opinion over the course of the season, and NASCAR will be eavesdropping. O’Donnell’s peculiar countdown clock may be novelty, or it may be a trial balloon, that NASCAR eventually migrates up the food chain to the XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series. At least if it flops, fans will overlook it like the halftime stoppage that the CWTS races used briefly during the decade of the 90’s.
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano