A Case for the Short Tracks
By Matt Weaver (KANNAPOLIS, N.C.) – It appears that NASCAR has no intention of balancing the Sprint Cup Series schedule with additional short tracks as part of a long-term plan to diversify the schedule. It continues what has become a long-standing commitment by the sport to slip away from its own storied heritage.
When asked about the likelihood of the league diversifying its schedule in the distant future, NASCAR Director of Operations Steve O’Donnell said that they are satisfied with the current Sprint Cup Series formula.
“I think we’re fairly happy with the balance on the Cup side of where we race,” O’Donnell said after releasing the 2014 Sprint Cup schedule. “Our job is to put on the best product that we can at each of those racetracks. Working on that is where we are concentrating.”
In other words, expect heat races as opposed to a drastic change in future schedules as O’Donnell said he expect to “embrace what we learned from Eldora at future events.”
While the Sanctioning Body has a variety of things to consider and parties to satisfy when designing the Sprint Cup schedule, NASCAR should not advertise satisfaction on the track diversity front.
The current schedule has 36 races in which only six are true short tracks. Four are restrictor plate events and 21 are intermediates with Pocono and Indianapolis providing its own unique brand of racing.
That’s not diversity but rather a diluting of the current product.
The status quo from recent seasons is starting to create a gap between the traditional grassroots racing fan and today’s NASCAR. Having grown up at short tracks, it wasn’t uncommon for me to see NASCAR apparel decorate the grandstands at facilities across the Southeast but that’s often not the case anymore.
The fans that attend many of the tracks that I frequent when covering Super Late Models are still wearing their Dale Earnhardt Sr. jackets or Quality Care Dale Jarrett shirts as opposed to those representing current Cup drivers.
While there is still plenty of synergy, the wedge between diehards and the current product is widening.
Jeff Burton — one of the longest tenured drivers in the tour — has driven in multiple eras and recognizes a disconnect. He believes that something should be done to strengthen the relationship between the sport and those lost fans.
“I think we suffered a great deal when the Nationwide Series and Trucks quit coming to South Boston, Orange County Speedway and quit going to Hickory,” Burton said last week at a Martinsville test. “I think over time we lost the connection between the short track racing and the big time.
“There seems to be such a difference between what local racers are doing and what we’re doing that I don’t think that it’s necessarily good for the sport.”
NASCAR was founded on a culture of fender-banging and close quarters racing. That’s becoming an outdated form of entertainment at the national touring level in lieu of larger, high-banked speedways that seldom provides the close racing that once defined NASCAR’s popularity.
As a result, the current NASCAR fan doesn’t recognize short track racing as the same product that they see on TV each week. So the sport could benefit from an injection of short tracks on two fronts.
They can both educate new fans on the viability of the discipline while also appealing to the disenchanted traditionalist who want a larger variety of tracks like they saw in the 90s.
So a long-term commitment to short tracks (and road courses) at the national touring level must be a priority moving forward. It will allow NASCAR drivers to continue to become the most diverse and talented motorsport athletes in the world. And like Eldora, what was old just might become new again.