Stuck in Reverse?: Why NASCAR Doesn't Seem To Be on the Right Track

Roberta CowanContributor IMay 2, 2010

RICHMOND, VA - MAY 01:  A general view of race action during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents the Heath Calhoun 400 at Richmond International Raceway on May 1, 2010, 2010 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

It was a hot, muggy night in 1992 at Richmond International Raceway. Rusty Wallace had come from two laps down (in the days before wave-arounds and lucky dogs) and Darrell Waltrip was leading the race.

Richmond's jewel had a brand new asphalt surface that was slick and fast. Wallace dived for the bottom of the track out of two and pulled alongside Waltrip halfway down the short back stretch.

He nosed ahead coming out of three. Waltrip took it back coming out of four. Wallace pulled back in front between one and two. This went on for 20 laps. Finally on the white-flag lap Wallace cleared the 17 in the middle of the backstretch and slid up in front of Waltrip to take the checkers at the start finish line.

There was never contact between the two. You couldn't stick a cigarette package width-wise between those two cars at any given time, but they never touched one another.

Post-race both drivers praised the other and said, basically, "You can't race that way with just anyone. And I appreciate he raced me clean."

That was Richmond. That was racing.

What we saw Saturday night was nothing like that race. Passing was difficult if not impossible. The cars couldn't or didn't race that close, and for the most part the middle 200 laps was a game of follow the leader.

Now, granted, at the track maybe it was a much better race. But what Fox showed us was, to be blunt, boring.

It is the reason the ratings have fallen in the gutter. It's the reason that attendance is down.

I mean, why pay to see that if you can DVR it and fast-forward through the parts where there is no racing?

One more time the Nationwide Series put on a much better show than the Sprint Cup drivers did. One more time the coverage for the Nationwide Series was head and shoulders above the Sprint Cup coverage.

The racing in the NWS was intense and the competition almost even. They raced for it. The pit crews earned their money. The team effort won the day. The NWS has shown consistently to be a much more competitive series than the top dog Sprint Cup.

That raises a question: Why change it?

It works. It's not broken. What is there to fix?

But, true to form, NASCAR has to attempt to engineer the competition with the introduction of the NWS COT (Car of Tomorrow).

Obviously we learned nothing from the fiasco that continues to be the COT in Sprint Cup. That is working so well; let's mess up the series that is right now carrying our sanctioning body. When will NASCAR get the picture? NASCAR is rule makers and intermediaries, not race car drivers, and certainly not race car builders.

This continuation of the COT fiasco is a slap at the US auto makers that have supported the sport since its inception.

No longer is a Chevy a Chevy. No longer is a Ford a Ford.

They are kit cars that only gain a brand identity from the sticker affixed to the bumper. That lack of loyalty has led us down the path that we currently are forging as a nation as well as a sport.

Brian France was sure that the automobile industries crisis wouldn't effect his sport. WRONG!

Chevrolet pulled its support from dozens of teams that needed that support to survive. The results were mergers that smacked of hostile takeovers and mergers that led to default and small teams that have resorted to start and parking because it's the best they can afford.

NASCAR was sure that the economy wouldn't effect its attendance or command of the sponsors' dollars. Wrong again.

How any entity could think that with one out of every 10 people out of work its attendance nonetheless wouldn't be affected is beyond me.

Where did NASCAR think the money would come from? It's not there, and the empty seats say that between the tight dollars and the poor competition money is being spent elsewhere.

Sponsors saw that too. So now teams as big as HMS (Hendrick Motorsports, HendrickCars.com) are sponsoring themselves while teams as small as TGR are running with very minimal if any sponsorship on the hood.

Let's not forget that racing is a competitive sport. If the competition is poor, if the racing is boring, if the drivers become gingerbread cut-outs, the sponsor dollars will continue to dwindle and the sport will continue to gasp for air.

The time has come for the NASCAR heads to take a good look at what they have created and ask themselves, "Is it really working?"

"Are we doing all we can to maintain our markets and our customers? How much money are we saving, really, and how much are we being undermined by teams hiring speciality engineers to circumvent those cost-saving measures?

"How much longer can we maintain our arrogant stand of 'We are always right'? 'We know best and you will do as we tell you. You will say what we tell you.' We will say 'have at it, boys,' but you will do as we say or there will be speeding penalties or start/restart infringements."

How long will it be before NASCAR stops trying to engineer the competition and just lets the drivers, teams, and engineers race? There has to be rules. But that doesn't include kit-car race cars and cookie-cutter drivers.

The confetti had settled and the haulers were all well on their way home that night in 1992. The heat from the cars and the track had begun to subside. The tall red head that walked through a mostly dark track toward a golf cart to make his way home stopped and looked around when a small voice called his name. He squinted in the dark and found a small dark-haired boy with huge green eyes standing at the fence.

"What are you still doing here, buddy?" he asked in concern. "Where are your folks?"

The little boy smiled and pointed to a motor coach that was lit and packed up.

"Rusty, you were awesome today. I want to be like you when I grow up," he said as he offered his brand new die-cast for the autograph of the 89 champ.

"Thanks, buddy. It was a pretty good night tonight huh?"

"Yep, it was awesome." The little boy beamed.

"Yeah, I guess old Midnight earned her name tonight."

"Are you going to win next week, Rusty?"

The tall man laughed. "I hope so, buddy. I hope so."

A woman's voice called the little boy to come on they had a long trip.

"Bye, Rusty. Thank You."

"Bye, buddy. Be safe."

And so began the era of dominance of one of the greatest race cars to grace a track in the modern era. It was also the beginning of the climb to dominance of a sport that was just coming into its own.

In 10 short years the sport and the cars we knew that night would be gone and obsolete. In their place would be a Chase for survival and the memories of real men, real racers, real cars, and real heroes.


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