Monday, December 28, 2015

OPINION: How To Fix The Sprint Cup Schedule

A New NASCAR Sprint Cup Schedule
(click for larger size)
Last October, NASCAR entered into a contract with 23 tracks to host Sprint Cup races for the next five years, matching similar agreements for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series.  Among other reasons for the agreement is to make it easier to set future schedules.  However, with the 2016 series set without any significant changes, NASCAR has still failed to fix one central problem with its schedule: tracks which have two Cup Series dates.

The problem has its roots in NASCAR’s modern era, which began in 1972 when the sanctioning body eliminated all dirt track races and set a minimum distance requirement of 250 miles for events run on ovals.  This cut the schedule from what in 1964 had been a 64-race series over 363 days to 31 races with a brief winter off-season.  Just 17 tracks remained on the 1972 Winston Cup schedule with 14 of them hosting more than one race.  Eight of those 14 tracks still host two Cup dates today: Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, Dover, Martinsville, Michigan, Richmond, and Talladega.  When combined with the additional second races at Kansas, Loudon, Phoenix, Pocono, and Texas, the current 2016 Sprint Cup schedule is 13 weeks longer than if each track had just one date.

At the peak of NASCAR’s popularity in the early 1990s, it made sense to keep these second dates.  The sport left North Wikesboro and Rockingham for new venues in Las Vegas and Fontana while the seating capacity at fan favorites like Bristol increased by the thousands.  Fans on television and at the track couldn’t get enough, so supply met demand.  But as today’s empty grandstands make obvious, we don’t live in that time anymore.  Charlotte bulldozed its derelict Turn 2 stands in lieu of RV parking, and Daytona did the same along its once-crowded Superstretch.  Dover and Martinsville have more than half their grandstands covered by advertising banners.  Yet, even now, all four tracks still hold two dates, and are still struggling at the ticket counter.  Even now, tracks like Las Vegas are trying to get second dates of their own.  It’s a load the sport can no longer bear.

NASCAR’s Chase format, whose creation has popularly been blamed on Matt Kenseth’s dominating 2003 season, has in reality been an attempt to reduce the effects of NASCAR’s bloated schedule.  Eight of the 13 extra races are in the Chase, not including the championship cut-off round at Richmond.  Thus, viewers complaints about the Chase are also complaints about second races at Cup tracks.  What NASCAR has failed to understand is that, for television viewers, these races are essentially rematches of races run earlier in the year.  We’ve seen them already - we want to see something new.  Even for the most hardcore fans, listening to NBC try and come up with new superlatives for Pocono just weeks after FOX did the same isn’t nearly as interesting as the opening weeks of the NFL.  NASCAR should know this.  In reality, they never decided to take on the NFL - second race dates held since 1972 forced them to, and try as they have, it’s a battle they just can’t win.

NASCAR needs to follow-up its agreement with the tracks with a long-overdue mandate to ensure the survival of the sport.  Each track gets one Sprint Cup date.  Period.  No exceptions, ever.

How should this be enforced?  Simple.

Begin by eliminating the Chase.  Forget about Chase Races, the names of the elimination rounds, all of that.  Look at the current schedule as 36 races.  Then you start by getting rid of the duplicate races in September, October, and November, when the weather’s worst and the Air Titan spends the most time on the track: Richmond and Loudon (September), Dover, Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega, and Martinsville (October), Texas and Phoenix (November).  Then you work your way up to the July race at Pocono and the August race at Michigan, races which for decades have held up two summer dates just days apart.  Get rid of the rain-plagued spring race at Bristol and keep the iconic night race in the summer.  Just like that, you’re left with thirteen open weekends added to the offseason.  Move Chicagoland back to Pocono’s July date and make the Homestead finale on Richmond’s Saturday night, one week after Labor Day at the Southern 500.  Using the 2016 schedule, that makes a 23-race championship at 23 races with three off-weekends and the season finale the night before NFL Week 1 in September.

This change is dramatic, but it doesn’t eliminate a single track on the circuit and instead creates a more traditional racing schedule where each and every event takes place at a different facility - much like Formula One.  It thus becomes much easier for broadcasters, track officials, and journalists to talk about each round’s unique traits while creating a season that isn’t so long that it exhausts any of them.  Drivers get the variety of venues they seek and without the need for a Chase format can actually vie for a full-season championship.  New fans can be attracted by each track’s unique character without taxing the patience of longtime fans.

With one date per track, it would also be easier to move races.  Atlanta can leave its frozen February date for one of the openings in the summer, perhaps as a night race.  Indianapolis’ sweltering July date can be moved as well, perhaps to the spring.  The open July 4 weekend from no second Daytona race can become the new home of the fireworks of the Bristol Night Race.  The current West Coast Swing can remain intact for the cold-weather days following the season-opening Daytona 500.  And new venues can be added during the February to September swing - with none of them having to contend with the NFL or the awful weather in the fall.  My personal hope is that NASCAR reconciles with the folks in Montreal to give us a Cup race on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

There are also several opportunities to create new traditions and bring back old ones.  By not eliminating the Daytona 500, the spring race at Talladega, the Coca-Cola 600, or the Southern 500, Sprint or its partners can bring back the Winston (Sprintston?) Million.  The All-Star Race doesn’t have to have a weekend of its own and can take place as part of the 600 weekend, perhaps the previous Friday.  My personal suggestion is to run the All-Star Race in its current format on the dirt track next to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a callback to NASCAR’s first-ever race at a different dirt track in the Charlotte area in 1949.

All of this sounds like fantasy and exaggeration, but with a little bit of selflessness on the part of track officials and NASCAR, perhaps a schedule like this which efficiently features the strengths of each of its venues can help the sport and be applied to the XFINITY and Truck Series.