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NASCAR crashes its way into a brave new era

There’s a dreadful remix of EMF Indie-pop hit ‘Unbelievable’ that basically replaces the verses with “Let’s skip to the good bit” and that familiar, bombastic der-ner-ner duh-duh-da chorus of the original.

You could credit it with being a damning critique of a disposal, quick-fire, ADHD-afflicted modern culture, but that really would be searching for layers that don’t exist. But whatever its motivation, there’s no denying that in the social media, Starbucks-test era (basically, you need to be able to tell the story in the time it takes from ordering your coffee to collecting it), ‘cutting to the good bit’ is increasing what the media is all about.

So faced with declining TV audiences, a huge reduction in live ‘at-race’ fans, not to mention fewer entries and a new title sponsor keen to see these slides arrested, it was no surprise that NASCAR felt compelled to tamper with its traditional race format for this season. In short, its new philosophy is to ‘cut to the good bit’ as often as possible.

Even the shortest NASCAR Cup races of the past few years have weighed in at over three hours, with some lasting considerably longer than that. Given the nature of oval racing – the likelihood of caution periods bunching up the field, ‘lucky dog’ passes allowing lapped runners back onto the lead lap, not to mention the fact that the evolution of the track as it rubbers in or temperatures rise or fall making the opening part of the races a live test session with the driver and crew chief tuning the car into the track – for the most part you could pretty much fast forward through the first three-quarters of the race, zoning in for ‘the good bit’ ie the fight for the win in the closing stages.

So the logic in splitting the races into three segments and awarding points to the top 10 in the first two of these is clear. Give the drivers something to fight for and you’ll give the fans something to watch.

Predictably the purists were up in arms, although I wonder what form of NASCAR racing they’d previously been watching if they considered it a model of Queensbury-rules style sporting etiquette, but in fact it’s a tactic as old as the hills. Sir Jackie Stewart often recants the story of the Monza grands prix of the 1960s where Ken Tyrrell would hang out the pit board counting down the laps to the next segment, basically instructing Stewart to make up places as the prize money was paid according to positions at set points in the race…

NASCAR’s new era kicked off last weekend with the Daytona 500. The race was marred with a series of big crashes that meant only around five cars made it to the finish unscathed. In some quarters the shunt-fest was attributed to the new rules, and part of me feels that neither NASCAR nor Monster will be too upset with that. If the ‘good bit’ is a gaggle of cars fighting tooth and nail for position, then a gaggle of cars spearing off into the wall and infield in a cloud of tyre and engine smoke is a very agreeable consolation!

But I don’t think that really stands up to scrutiny, at least not during the opening two segments of the race. The pile ups took place too far away from when the points were being handed out to be purely down to desperate moves by drivers keen to claim an additional point or two.

Instead, the cause of the accidents seemed to be down to the aero sensitivity of the cars. While I applaud NASCAR for being brave enough to make wholesale and dramatic changes to its race format, that doesn’t excuse some of its past actions. The Car of Tomorrow, for example, was a bad idea that was poorly executed.

The last thing stock cars need is greater aero. Aerodynamics is the meth amphetamine of motorsport. Taking some feels great, better than anything before. And you want more and more. You still feel great, but it’s ruined everything around you and alienated your loved ones.

While a lot of the original aero of the CoT has been scaled back, in the 500 the cars seemed very sensitive to a side draft, and the sudden appearance of a car to the drivers’ right rear could briefly destabalise the handling. This wasn’t too much of an issue when the pack was running two wide, but when three or even four lanes emerged, it was a recipe for disaster.

Since the introduction of restrictor plates, racing at the superspeedways has always had an element of this. With groups of 20, 30 or even more cars circulating at roughly 200mph separated by mere inches, every race at Daytona or Talladega has had the sub-plot of waiting for ‘the big one’. While there may have been slightly more crashes in Daytona than usual, they were hardly unprecedented.

The true test of the new race format will be in whether it brings the fans, the viewers and then the sponsors back to NASCAR. All sports are experiencing declining viewing figures, but the extent of NASCAR’s is definitely cause for concern.

As mentioned earlier, it’s laudable that they have bitten the bullet and made the change, but I’m not sure that it’s enough. The cars all still look too similar, which doesn’t help inspire the tribal fanaticism that Chevy, Ford and Dodge fans indulged in in the past, while the pre-mentioned aero sensitivity doesn’t really permit the type of ‘rubbin’s racing’ the good ole boys of yore produced.

The Daytona 500 remains one of the great motorsport events regardless of its format. A sterner test comes this weekend in Atlanta and across the remaining 35 races that make up the calendar.

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