The tides are changing in the world of sports and entertainment. All sports have been battling the shortening attention spans of key demographics that instead are turning to drone racing, eSports, YouTube and Snapchat. Major League Baseball is trying to figure out how to shorten games. The NBA is pushing the star power of the game’s best players like never before, and the NFL is still sitting pretty compared to the others, but the league has a wealth issues of its own. As the overall interest in cars and motoring has waned recently, sanctioning bodies like F1, IndyCar, IMSA, WEC and NASCAR have been frantically trying to figure out how to get the attention of the younger consumer in order to secure the long term health of their respective series. As Eric Cartman so eloquently put it, in South Park’s Season 12, Episode 5… “How do I reach these keeeeds?”
Of all the major motorsport governing bodies out there, NASCAR seems the most committed to change. They just announced their 2020 schedule this week, and the internet has officially broken. NASCAR fans all over are wondering just what the hell is going on here. A double-header at Pocono? A new host for the season championship? Have those in charge lost their collective minds?! Well…maybe, but before we draw any conclusions let’s examine further:
The first big change to discuss is that the championship will be awarded at a new venue next year. Instead of Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the big check has been given out since 2002, ISM Raceway in Phoenix is where the confetti will fly. Homestead’s date moves from November to March, becoming race #6 of the season. To be honest, I really don’t care that Homestead doesn’t host the championship. It’s a relatively newer facility in South Florida that doesn’t have any real lineage in the sport. The only significance of Homestead schedule is that…well, it hosted championship weekend. Now that their date has lost that importance, is it even worth keeping on the calendar? I think Miami residents have enough going on that they don’t need a NASCAR race to attend, and if it is now just an “also ran” on the schedule, who’s going to show up? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first step in removing Homestead from the calendar completely.
That brings us to Phoenix hosting the championship race. I don’t get this move. At all. I’ve seen NASCAR and IndyCar races at the track. It’s a great facility, and it deserves the two dates it has on the calendar (March 8 is the 1st race there) because NASCAR needs to maintain presence in the Southwestern US. Since I last visited, the powers-that-be even gave the track a $175 million facelift! But I feel like that’s the only reason they got rewarded with the final date of the season on November 8. NASCAR is a sport based in the Southeast – Charlotte, to be specific. There are plenty of tracks in the “heart” of the sport that would be a perfect to close the season. What about NASCAR's Final Four racing at Darlington, the track "Too Tough To Tame"? What about Atlanta? Hell, what about Charlotte? But instead we get Phoenix; A flat, 1 mile track, thousands of miles away from NASCAR Country. I agree that Homestead isn’t needed to crown champions, and the final race could be anywhere, but I feel like NASCAR missed big by picking Phoenix to take its place. The only thing that could be a bigger gaff is if they made a wild card restrictor plate race hold some sort of significance -- What's that you say?
The next talking point in next year’s schedule is the swap between Daytona’s 4th of July date and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s slot in August, even though Daytona has hosted a race on America’s birthday weekend since 1959 (!). If there is ONE track in the United States with more gravitas than Daytona, it’s The Brickyard, and their traditional August 29-30 slot is an important one, as it has always been the last race of modern NASCAR’s regular season. All of the playoff contenders are finalized on that date. But here’s the hard truth: NASCAR sucks at Indianapolis. The track was built for open-wheelers with high downforce and blinding speed. Stock cars need either short tracks or high banks to put on a remotely entertaining show, and Indy has neither of those features. If you want to go watch a 4 hour parade, be my guest, but even as a racing, Indy, and NASCAR addict, I don’t bother tuning in. And most people agree with me. NASCAR’s Indianapolis race is hemorrhaging ticket sales and TV ratings, and this move to the July 4th weekend is a last gasp to save it. The move also means that the final race before the playoffs is Daytona. That's right: The last chance anyone has a chance to punch their ticket for the championship fight is at a race track with restrictor plates, 200mph traffic jams, and crashes so big you’d think a tornado had ripped through the property. Remember the 2019 Daytona 500? You know, just last month? There was a crash with 10 laps to go that took out 21 cars. TWENTY ONE! So, you mean to tell me that a driver who has battled tooth and nail for 25 weeks for a chance to make the playoffs could have all that hard work go to shit because a couple cars 12 rows in front of him/her make contact, and no one has anywhere to go? Sounds like pure stupidity to me.
There are some positives to the 2020 schedule changes that NASCAR announced. Fans wanted more short tracks in the playoff rounds, and they got their wish. Richmond (.75 mile), Bristol (.6) and Martinsville (.5) all have races in the playoffs. Combine that with Darlington, Talladega, and the Charlotte “Roval” thing, and you’ve actually got a pretty diverse mix of circuits for the 16 playoff contenders to conquer if they want to hoist the cup...in Phoenix…Jesus, that just doesn’t sound right. The spring Martinsville race, on Mother’s Day weekend, will be completely under the lights for the first time, which is awesome and long overdue. And Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway gets a double-header! That’s right, a full race on Saturday, followed by a full race on Sunday. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to have both races be 400 miles long though. Pocono is almost Indianapolis. Not as bad, but 400 miles there is A LOT to sit through. I hope that after 2020, they try to change up the format for the Pocono weekend. It would be a great change of pace if Saturday had single car qualifying followed by heat races of some sort that set the final grid for a “feature” race on Sunday. Remember, the younger demographic has shorter attention spans, not longer. If you can’t get them to sit through one 400 miler, you probably won’t get them to sit through 2 in a row. I probably won't even make it.
All in all, NASCAR has taken some big swings here. Some could be extra base hits, even home runs. Others are 3 pitch strikeouts, in my opinion. But what does all this really mean? To me it’s obvious and can be summed up in three words:
NASCAR. IS. DESPERATE.
It’s that simple. Long gone are the days of Earnhardt vs Gordon. The sport's best personalities and most marketable names like Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Danica and Carl Edwards have retired. TV ratings are slipping, and ticket sales are slumping. Their current TV deal expires in 2024, and they need to drum up some interest quick, fast, and in a hurry if they want a renewal anywhere near the $8.2 billion they are currently getting. Remember all the stuff they’ve tried in the past few years: Playoffs (horrible), multiple “stages” in each race (good idea), new aerodynamic rules package (doesn’t seem to be working), the “green-white-checkered” finish (horrible), signing Monster Energy as title sponsor (intriguing), the Charlotte “Roval” (an entertaining shit show). All of these shots in the dark were meant to try and draw more eyeballs and grab more headlines, so we can get the attention of the younger consumers out there who have attention spans like gnats.
The 2020 schedule shakeup is the next phase. While the series is becoming more and more gimmicky, to the point where it makes racing purists like myself cringe at times, I actually applaud NASCAR for trying as hard as they do. Although IndyCar and IMSA have seen some positive momentum in the past few years, NASCAR is still the big fish in American racing. To their credit, they aren’t resting on those laurels, but are constantly willing to try new things and take steps to improve and maintain relevance. No, NASCAR fans, your sport hasn't gone insane. The minds behind stock car still seem least somewhat intact, and all of these changes are for a purpose. But I’m going to stick with the positive growth and pure racing that IMSA and IndyCar have to offer, and wish you all the best of luck from a safe distance.