The toughest ticket to land in NASCAR isn't for the Daytona 500 or the Coca Cola 600, but rather the Bristol night race held in August. The race has always been synonymous with close racing, bumping and crashing as cars try and race for the same piece of real estate. With just two lanes on the track, the only way to really pass is underneath the car ahead, resulting in the infamous bump and run. It was not unusual to see cars winning with doors dented in and fenders hanging off. The novelty of night racing and sparks flying from the car gave the race even more appeal. Ask any NASCAR aficionado to name a race that they remember most and many will point to the 1999 Bristol night race when Dale Earnhardt spun out Terry Labonte on the last lap to get the win. Earnhardt stood in victory lane with fans booing and throwing beer cups at him and Earnhardt unapologetically said that he was "only trying to rattle his (Labonte's) cage", and that's what NASCAR is about. He was right then and his words are right today. The reason people pay scalpers enormous amounts of money for the elusive ticket, why viewership for the race has generally been so high and why many Tennessee natives will their tickets to family members and fight for them in divorce settlements is that the race is so exciting.
On Saturday night that changed. For the first time in recent memory the Bristol night race was just plain boring. The first race this year at Bristol was also dull in comparison to normal Bristol races, but not nearly as bad as the night race. Bristol changed its racing surface, reducing the banking and widening the track to create another groove. The new groove made the outside lane the preferred racing line and it appeared drivers were unable or unwilling to pass. Consequently whichever car was in front stayed in front. Officially there were 12 lap leaders in the race but for all intents and purposes the only drivers that led were the pole sitter Kasey Kahne and the eventual race winner Carl Edwards. Most of the other lap leaders were only the result of pit stops. When side by side racing did occur it was uneventful and there was only one crash of note occurring late in the race, and even that crash was nothing to write in the NASCAR memoirs. Many fans booed after the race because they were unimpressed with the product.
NASCAR.com writer Duane Cross wrote an article after the race trying to explain the "excitement" he saw and basically belittled fans for complaining. The first two paragraphs of his article titled "Cross' Words: Bristol" at http://www.nascar.com/2007/news/opinion/08/27/cross.words.bristol/index.html were as follows:
Someone call a whaaaaaambulance! They turned on the lights at Bristol and a race broke out. So what's the problem, folks? A boring race at Bristol? Au contraire -- not Saturday night, at least. Multiple-groove racing was a refreshing change of pace from the demolition derby style of recent years. Bump-n-run? Not on this night, thankfully. And hopefully not for a while.
Well Cross is certainly welcome to his opinion, but the truth is that the "demolition derby style of recent years" is what the fans have tuned in to see and it isn't NASCAR's place to berate fans for wanting it again. As any marketing executive will attest, the customer is always right, and if fans have been sending letters to NASCAR complaining about that race, NASCAR should take them to heart and look at ways to improve it.
However, while the Nextel Cup race was dull, the Busch race the day before was somewhat exciting. There was a bit more passing, several cautions and at times the cars could race three wide. It would thus seem that the biggest problem with Bristol may not be the track itself, but rather the track in combination with the Car of Tomorrow (COT). The width and height of the new cars (which is not much smaller than the Craftsman Truck series) makes it difficult to pass on any track as has been seen in all COT Races in 2007, and the ease at which these things fall apart makes drivers very passive in their racing styles. "Rattling someone's cage" with the COT could do fatal damage to the car doing the rattling since the splitter on these new cars is apt to break if there is too much impact on the front of the car. And if the splitter breaks, the race is over for that car. The COT seems to withstand damage on the side of the car, but any force to the front of the car is flirting with disaster. Ironically, the idea for designing the COT started in 2001 in response to Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona. As well, the cars are exactly the same for every track which would help lower costs to teams. Unfortunately these things are a failure with fans. Most team owners love them as they are cheaper overall, most drivers like them because they are apparently easier to handle. But in reading letters in NASCAR forums and in the NASCAR Scene it is clear that fans hate them. After the race, commentator and part time driver Jimmy Spencer commented that he was really starting to dislike the COT because it is so difficult to pass with these cars.
Even in the area of betting, the COT has been a dud. A conversation with a couple of offshore bookies and a Las Vegas casino bet manager has confirmed that betting on COT races is substantially lower than for races where the COT is not used. That could be due to the fact that bettors aren't sure how to handicap these cars, but the more probable reason is that bettors don't enjoy the races so they simply don't watch them and hence don't bet on them.
More than likely, NASCAR won't care and will just assume that fans will get used to the new product - both in terms of cars and any changes they make to the tracks. But fans can be picky, and has been seen in other sports, if the fan's opinions are not considered they will tune out. That concern is even more significant for NASCAR, because aside from the TV advertising and merchandise sales the sport relies on to flourish, teams also rely heavily on car sponsorships. Consumer goods companies, home improvement stores, paint companies, petroleum producers, oil companies, telecommunication companies, car makers and several other major corporations all pay large sums of money to teams in exchange for having their product advertisements displayed prominently on the front of cars. These corporations feel the increase in sales and brand awareness created from these sponsorships is worth the large commitment. However, if fans get frustrated and start tuning out it is inevitable that these corporations will feel it is not worth the investment. That has already started happening in some of the smaller NASCAR series. And NASCAR can't afford the "New Coke" type experiment with track layouts and the COT and conclude that if it is a total disaster they can simply switch back to the old style racing. Once fans tune out they will tune out for a long time, as was witnessed in Major League Baseball and NHL hockey after their strikes. For almost a decade now NASCAR has been deemed the fastest growing spectator sport in America. The series is no longer just a redneck sport and in fact it is gaining popularity internationally. So to take the chance of ruining that all on an experiment is hardly worth it.
Next year NASCAR plans on running all the races with the COT and it is frightening to think of what drafting will be like at tracks like Daytona and Talladega. The lack of aerodynamics on these cars may create a situation where there is little or no drafting and if that is the case on a restrictor plate track, the Daytona 500 could be painful to watch. Certainly the COT and the new tracks have some redeeming qualities such as the improved safety mechanisms in the cars, and the softer walls are also well respected. Certainly no NASCAR fan wants to witness a fatality. But NASCAR must carefully examine what worked in the past and combine that with some of the new features to come up with a product that everyone can live with.
It certainly isn't too late to compromise and come up with a product that will make all parties happy, but if NASCAR is going to try and sell snake oil to the public by suggesting that the Bristol night race this year was exciting and that all racing should resemble that, the series could be in serious trouble.
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