Wednesday, March 1, 2017

OPINION: Crash Clock debate reveals troubling trend

PHOTO: Capitano
Too often, I hear the question, “Why is (insert lesser-known driver or team name here) running the race on Sunday?  You know he doesn’t have a chance to win.  Why even bother?”  I always have the same answer - because racing isn’t just about the people battling for the lead.

It is, to not mince words, a stupid question.  The fact is, a driver’s win is only meaningful when it comes after defeating other competitors.  Who you beat is based on a simple meritocracy: if you qualify on time, you belong.  While I’m sure that there are some fans who would watch their driver run alone for 500 miles, I doubt any of them would pay for the privilege.  Bill France, Sr. knew that.  That’s why he used to pay anyone who made the Top 25 in points, to make sure he had a returning group of drivers his fans could get to know over the years.  It gave us the Pettys and Earnhardts, but also Henley Gray, Phil Barkdoll, and J.D. McDuffie.  And today, we still have examples of both groups.

Sure, some drivers and teams may not have a realistic chance to win.  Some may not have the experience, the resources, or just plain luck that it takes.  But too often, we forget something I remember reading when I was an athlete: winning isn’t normal.  In fact, it’s a freak occurrence.  More often than not, you lose.  And sometimes you lose bad.  Your engine blows on the first lap and you finish last.  I think we’ve lost sight of that.  Sure, Jimmie Johnson may have 80 wins, but the man lost 464 times.  How critical we chose to be of any athlete is exactly that – a choice.  It disappoints me how poorly some have chosen.

The strange thing is, I’ve now been hearing the same question from those defending the Crash Clock: “Why did teams used to spend 20 or 30 laps in the garage fixing their car?  They didn't have a chance to win.  Why did they even bother?”

Because they wanted to.  How about that for an explanation?  What’s been most galling about this entire debate is the assumption that there has to be some kind of reason for a wrecked car to return to the track.  And not just any reason – a reason that satisfies us as outsiders.  But who are we to judge?  More importantly, who are we to them?  It’s not our car out there.  We didn’t spend the money preparing it, entering it, paying the crew.  What’s it to us?  If a team’s car crashes and they want to go home, that’s fine.  But if they want to get back out there, they take time to fix it up right and meet the minimum speed, who are we to stop them?

Yes, teams voted on the Clock (though how many did, and if the Open teams were involved, remains unclear), but with the rule change, some are too eager to pile on about the way it used to be.  It's appalling how much visceral hatred some now direct at the very thought of a slow car on track.  It’s not even a debate about wrecked cars anymore.  It’s spilled into anger toward cars who run near the back with no damage at all.

Think for a moment about how badly these teams have been treated already.  They’re called “field fillers,” “backmarkers,” nothing more than “lapped traffic” getting in the way of the race for the lead.  They’re ignored, ridiculed, and under the Charter system, are now treated as second-class citizens of the field.  When one of them runs better, it’s a fluke, dismissed as the result of restrictor-plate chaos, fuel mileage, or something else the driver and team had nothing to do with.  When a team has enough money to get to the track and qualify, but not to race, they’re marked with the scarlet letter of “start-and-park.”  The title justifies ignoring them further.  Some even accuse them of stealing an ever-dwindling share of the purse, even though the amounts themselves are now kept under seal.  And now, when a rule like the Crash Clock comes around that makes it that much harder for them, those same people shout down any criticism with “who cares about them?”

And yet, for all this abuse, these teams keep coming back.  The faces change, the names change, and there’s fewer of them by the year, but small teams still try to make a name in NASCAR.  “Maybe there’s something wrong with them,” you say.

Or maybe – just maybe – there’s something wrong with you.

1 comment:

RAEckart said...

Twenty crashed cars on track acting as "rolling chicane" (credit Tony Stewart for that) doesn't make for better racing, and it has serious safety issues. Plus it makes NASCAR look like a sub-ARCA series. This was an unexpected rule, but a good one.

The teams may have fixed their cars "because they wanted to", but the real reason was for points - that's it. There's plenty of other ways to get points now, and a race win puts you in the playoffs. So the need for points racing junk cars (yes, Earnhardt, Johnson, Harvick and LASTCAR winner Kenseth - my driver) is not the same as in the Latford system.

Junked cars almost never come back out at my local short track, so this was a rule that took NASCAR back to its roots. The rule promotes hard racing, not points racing at 80% speed - I'm good with it.