On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published an article examining the slide in NASCAR’s popularity. The piece highlighted several factors explaining why stock car racing has yet to recover from the slump caused by the 2008-09 economic crash: A less affluent audience base than other major sports; conflicts between track owners, racing teams, and the sport’s governing body; and power struggles among NASCAR executives.
But to this longtime auto racing fan, NASCAR’s problems have simpler roots: gimmicky changes that have alienated stock car racing’s base of support, driving fans away from the stands—and the television.
The Daytona… 150?
Last week, I took solace at the prospect of the start of the NASCAR season, beginning with this Sunday’s festivities at Daytona. The season opener always represents the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing”—the sport’s marquee event also being its first.
But then I read about yet another set of rules changes instituted by the sport, supposedly to make the racing more exciting. At two pre-determined points in the race’s scheduled distance, NASCAR will slow the race cars by throwing a caution flag, and issue championship points to the leaders at the end of these stages.
In other words, what was the Daytona 500 will now be three races in one: First, the Daytona 150, then another Daytona 150, followed by a Daytona 200. The leaders after every phase will receive championship points, and the leaders at the finish—the end of the 500-mile scheduled distance—will receive additional points.
If all this mess sounds counter-intuitive, you’d be right. Last I checked, the Atlanta Falcons didn’t win half a trophy for leading after 30 minutes in the Super Bowl earlier this month. Nor did Jordan Spieth win half a green jacket for dominating The Masters last year up until his epic collapse on the 12th hole in the final round.
No other sport awards points for leading at halftime, or intermission, or anything else other than the end of the contest. So why has NASCAR devised a system that gives drivers major championship points even if they don’t finish the contest?
NASCAR Has Repeatedly Changed Rules
The new “staging” format is just the latest in a series of “enhancements” that have distracted, confused, and alienated fans over the past decade. Since NASCAR debuted its “Chase for the Cup” playoff-style format in its premier series in 2004, the organizing body has constantly tinkered with the playoffs’ structure.
First “the Chase” had 10 teams, then 12, then 16. Some years, drivers received extra points for winning races; then NASCAR changed the scoring system entirely; then NASCAR introduced different “rounds” to the playoff structure, with some drivers eliminated after each round.
If you can understand all the changes made to the NASCAR playoff system over the past decade, more power to you. I’ve followed the sport for nearly a quarter-century, and I can’t explain them all. The new format alone requires its own “FAQ” page on the NASCAR website.
Fans aren’t the only ones exhausted and surprised by all the changes. During the 2015 season, I heard NASCAR commentators repeatedly praise the sport for keeping its “Chase” playoff format confined to its premier series. Up-and-coming drivers in the “minor league” feeder series should be rewarded for consistent performance over a long season, they said, rather than face high-pressure scenarios where a single race performance can make or break one’s championship hopes.
Then in 2016, NASCAR reversed course yet again, extending its “Chase” format to all three major touring series. Thus playing the pundits—to say nothing of the fans themselves—for fools.
Some Rule Changes Make For Racing Debacles
The new staging format comes just after similar changes caused chaos within NASCAR last year. In 2016, NASCAR created a “caution clock” for its truck series, mandating a caution period at least every 20 minutes. At last season’s first truck race at Daytona, multiple teams pitted just prior to the 20-minute mark in the race—attempting to gain an advantage over the drivers who didn’t make a pit stop until the caution period.
There was just one problem: All the trucks pitting before the NASCAR-imposed caution caused multiple spin-outs entering pit road—and an actual caution flag. As one fan exclaimed during the chaos: “Way to go, NASCAR!”
In last May’s All-Star Race, drivers helped devised a new format for the exhibition—and created a format so complicated, they confused themselves. Drivers spent a seemingly interminable amount of time lapping the track at caution speed, while NASCAR attempted to sort out the leaderboard. The delays lasted so long, some drivers ran out of fuel under caution, changing up the running order again—and causing more delays.
Tony Stewart ended up “madder than hell” at his final All-Star Race, which he called the “most screwed-up” of his career. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. thought the experience so absurd it compared to his first time flying a remote-controlled helicopter: “I didn’t know what way was up, and what way was right and left!” Even NASCAR officials admitted the format “created a lot of confusion” amongst both drivers and fans.
If We Must Have Gimmicky Enhancements, Try These
To say that many, if not most, of NASCAR’s recent rules changes have backfired would put it mildly. That said, if NASCAR wants to attract attention with other gimmicky “enhancements” to its races, I can suggest the following:
- Extra points for drivers with kittens.
- Set the track on fire during the race. (It’s been done before.)
- Set up ramps on the track, and have drivers jump over pools with sharks in them. (It’s also been done before.)
Of course, while NASCAR can implement all the changes it wants, I’m not likely to spend time torturing myself while stock car racing panders to the latest gimmick dreamed up by desperate television executives.
If NASCAR goes back to doing what it does best (go fast and turn left), then I might take a renewed interest in the sport. Until then, I’m not likely to spend much of my time on a sport that is now—both figuratively as well as literally—running around in circles.