The Monday after the 2009 Daytona 500, I was listening to the “Mike and Mike in the Morning Show” on ESPN Radio when they asked the question: ‘Why did the Daytona 500 end early?’
I had to laugh at the question, not because they, admittedly, did not know much about racing, but because the hype-masters at Daytona were victims of their own hype.
NASCAR has always wanted to be mentioned at the same level as baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and any other ‘mainstream’ sports.
Well they have now got their wish, and I’m reminded of the idea of “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!”
Of course there is no such thing as a Super Bowl in auto racing, as championships are the result of a year's worth of performances, not just the result of one race.
The race was ended early because of a rule that has been around for decades. That rule is that if after a race passes the half-way point, the race can be considered a complete race if weather causes a stoppage.
Perhaps a look back at the history of motorsports can illuminate why or at least where, the half-way rule may have came from.
Motorsports in Europe followed the rules of horse racing as a model for their own procedures.
We see this even today as the area where the cars gather before the race is called the “paddock,” while the official who runs the race is called the “Clerk of the Course,” both of these are horse racing terms.
Horse racing in Europe was of a type we now call steeplechase. The races ran through the fields and forests of the large estates of the day, which the horses jumping over fences, hedges, and streams.
When auto racing began in Europe, they followed the steeplechase model racing from point-to-point. The steeplechase form of auto racing is still seen today as rallying.
Road Course racing began, first as the city-to-city races using the existing roads. This was possible due to the many paved roads on the continent. These improved roads dated back the National Routes of Napoleon and to the roads of the Romans.
Auto racing in America followed the horse racing model as well. However horse racing courses in America followed a totally different form from that of Europe.
There were no large estates in the early days of America, and there were no roads built centuries before by the Romans or Napoleon.
The race courses in the New World were built in the form of ovals. This was the easiest form of course to build in the heavily wooded east coast of North America. The tradition of building ovals for horse racing spread across America as the settlers moved west.
Just as in Europe, American auto racing followed the horse racing model; but unlike Europe auto racing was actually held on the dirt horse racing ovals.
The opening of the giant 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a huge influence on American oval track racing. Indianapolis is not a true oval, but is in fact a rounded rectangle.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway was laid out with the two long straights of 5/8 of a mile. The ends of the straights were connected at each end by two turns of a ¼ each in length which were in turn connected by “short chutes” of 1/8 mile each. The track's rectangular shape was determined by the rectangular shape of the property upon which the track was built.
In describing a car circling the Indianapolis Speedway, the car would go down the front straight though the First Turn, the short chute and then through Turn Two, with the process repeated at the other end of the track through turns Three and Four.
Thus the terms “Turn One,” “Turn Two,” and so on are used to describe a car circling all ovals in America despite the fact that the other tracks are more like true ovals, whether they are the true paperclip shaped oval at Martinsville or the distorted ovals like Daytona.
When Big Bill France was trying to build his new track at Daytona he insisted that the track be 2.5 miles in size. This made his new speedway for stock cars a true rival to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The distorted shape of the Daytona track was not to allow the fans to have favorable sight lines to watch the races (which was the hype put out at the time) but was necessary to fit a 2.5-mile track on the property.
In fact, the dog racing track which still exists outside of Turn One (there’s that term again!) gave up most of their pie-slice shaped property (most of the pointed end, at least) so that the stock car track could be built.
When Indianapolis decided to hold only one long race per year starting in 1911, they had to calculate how long a race could be run. When the officials used an estimated average speed and an estimated time that they felt the spectators would stay before they left from sheer exhaustion, the length of 500 miles was determined.
Since that time, 500 has been a magic number in the American automotive world. Ford Motor Company used “500” as a designation for a top model for its top line of cars. And of course “500” is a magic length for an oval race; even races that are shortened in length try to keep the “500” in the races’ name by measuring the race as a 500 kilometer (312 mile) race.
As can be seen, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the major influence on oval track racing in the United Stares since 1911. The rule regarding when to call a race an office race, if shortened by weather, is most likely a result of a ruling that came out of the operation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Unlike road racing, oval track racing has not been contested in the rain, and I believe that any attempt at rain tires on a rain soaked oval would be a debacle.
NASCAR has for virtually all of its existence wanted to be regarded a major sport and to be a part of the world of regular sports reporting.
The massive growth of NASCAR in the past decade has caused that goal to be achieved. But by achieving that goal NASCAR has opened itself up to the kind of adversarial reporting (if not outright ridicule) we now see in baseball, football, etc.
Add to that the absurd hype that the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of stock car racing, and NASCAR has put itself in a position to be ridiculed.
While Mike and Mike admitted they were not knowledgeable about NASCAR (and don’t forget that their employers, ESPN have a contract with NASCAR), I believe it is time for the powers-that-be at NASCAR to dial down the hype.
The half-way-to-official race rule is not a bad thing, and anyone who has some knowledge of racing is familiar with this rule.
When Darrell Waltrip was on “Windtunnel” on SPEED Channel Monday night, he looked at his watch and looked out the window of his race broadcast booth, when a caller complained about the ending of the race due to rain.
"Why didn’t they wait and just restart the race?" Waltrip noted that it was 9:30 and it was still raining. Case Closed.
The race was called to an end by rule. The fact that a judgment call had to be made is not something that is exclusive to NASCAR.
If you listen to sport talk radio for much of the time, as I do, you will hear the "judgment call" debate occur many times about some sort of play in NFL football.
A judgment call is not a bad thing. Overheated hype such as “Super Bowl of NASCAR!” is a very bad thing. Let’s stop trying to compare auto racing to the other sports, and build a more knowledgeable base of fans and sportscasters.