Competition Isn’t Lacking, But The Right Image Is

NASCAR recently rolled out a bunch of statistics that, it said, offered proof that the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season was one of the most competitive ever – even a couple of “all-time” records were established.

These were the number of green-flag passes for the lead, 1,299, and the total number of green-flag passes for the season, 116,327.
Since NASCAR didn’t start using electronic loop data until 2005 it’s hard to understand how these can be officially labeled as “all-time” records.
But I understand why NASCAR would tout them and others. To proclaim that racing is competitive and record-setting is simply good marketing strategy.

However, statistics, which are part of every sport, weren’t really necessary – even if a part of good public relations. I daresay most observers agree the 2010 season was very competitive and compelling. Its final chapters unfolded like those in a nail-biting mystery novel. It was the best finale of the Chase era.

There are good races and bad races. But a lack of competition has never really been NASCAR’s problem and certainly can’t be solely blamed for dwindling attendance and sinking TV ratings, which happened for reasons too many to list here.

But here’s one of them: In one man’s opinion, NASCAR’s biggest problem is its image.
The one it has now needs to return to the one it once had.

Among others, there are three reasons why NASCAR has lost a sizable amount of its hardcore fans. The drivers, for the most part, have become robotic and devoid of personality. The cars are all but identical. And much of the “creativity” that defined the quest for any team’s competitive superiority over others is gone.

Veteran NASCAR fans recall how drivers used to settle issues between themselves on the track or off. They remember how one driver could call another a “complete idiot” over a track’s P.A. system (which is what Ricky Rudd said of Kyle Petty at Martinsville) and how competitors could feel free to speak their minds about any issue, especially those involving the sanctioning body.

These drivers displayed their personalities without reservation or punishment. As a result, fans either hated them or loved them. But they always wanted to see what might happen next.

As much as their talent, drivers’ personalities served as magnets that attracted attention to the sport.
But NASCAR put clamp on the drivers, especially when it became a part of national television and touted itself as a family sport.
Comments – especially those on TV – confrontations and criticism of the sanctioning body were punished unlike ever before.
Drivers became so wary that they chose to clam up. The fans no longer saw any differences among them. They considered them no more than boring clones of each other.

NASCAR was founded on the concept that fans could see the car parked in their garage race at the track. That simplicity soon perished but, even so, there was a time when folks could easily determine the difference between Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge.

As much as they became driver supporters fans backed the manufacturers. Alterations and sophistication aside the guy who drove a Ford to and from work wanted to see a Ford win races.

Then there came the “Car of Tomorrow.” NASCAR enforced it for several reasons, the best of which was safety. It cannot be denied that the car is safer.

But with its technical and body-shape requirements, and that god-awful rear wing, it evolved that every car looked the same. There was no real distinction between Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford or even Toyota.

Fans no longer perceived one car manufacturer competing against another. They all looked the same.
As for the chance to see the car in their garage race, well, who owns a car with a massive rear wing and a front-air splitter?
As much as NASCAR disapproved of cheating – as well it should – it was always an integral part of the sport.
Team crew chiefs, engine builders and even owners tried every way they could to skirt the rules in an effort to gain an edge.
It became a game. When one team found something that made it better, others would research, spy, bribe or steal to try to find out why and then do the same.

They would catch up and then another sneaky team would start the process all over again.
It might have been exasperating for NASCAR, which did its fair share of nabbing culprits, but the fans and the media loved it. The cat-and-mouse game was all part of the sport.

But today, with the new car and all the rigid measurements and other sternly mandated requirements built into it by NASCAR, teams have little, if any, gray area in which to work.

Rules have indeed been broken, sometimes by a mere fraction of an inch in, say, rear end height. But the punishments have been dire, more than in any other time in NASCAR’s history.

“Creativity” will never disappear from NASCAR. But the consequences are now so great teams think twice, even three times, before attempting it. The cat-and-mouse game, and its attraction, is gone.

None of this has been lost on NASCAR. The feeling here is that it knows what has been missing and has done a few things about it.
As an example, did not NASCAR tell us last year that it was a “contact sport” and thus urge the drivers to get on the track and not be afraid to rough it up?

Did not NASCAR tell the drivers “to have at it!” which clearly indicated it was going to let the competitors settle issues among themselves, or at least police themselves, and say what they want – which, by the way, is something they did routinely in 2010?

The rear wing is gone in favor of a spoiler. Next year the front ends will more closely resemble those of the actual manufacturer model. It would appear NASCAR intends to more closely identify which car is which.

Uh, don’t expect NASCAR to ease up when it comes to “creativity” issues.
But there’s a clear indication the sanctioning body is aware of what many fans miss and want to see return.
They don’t miss the competition. It never left.What is lacking, however, is something NASCAR should continue to restore.

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