Chris Gill: NASCAR could be better
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series isn’t as exciting as it could be, which means the sport needs to make a change in an effort to gin up “the show.” Obviously, this means inverting the field at the halfway mark of each race or enable the drivers with Mario Kart-like abilities on their cars.
Those are pretty ludicrous ideas, so I don’t expect people to start asking drivers what they think about carrying blue turtle shells during a 500-mile race. Anyone reading that kind of drivel would scoff at the notion and dismiss its author as A) a loudmouth crackpot seeking more press or B) one who spent too much time varnishing a table in a room with no ventilation.
O. Bruton Smith, the Loki of NASCAR mythology, offered the suggestion of mandatory cautions to keep the field bunched up over the course of a typical 400 or 500-mile race. This was not an outcry by fans and the media, just one man’s opinion. Smith runs Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns a little less than half of the tracks that make up the Sprint Cup Series schedule. He’s been a player in NASCAR since opening Charlotte Motor Speedway with Curtis Turner in 1959, so his voice carries some weight – it always has.
He likes to poke the bear, even going so far as suggesting a rival series in the late 1990s, so when Smith talks about what NASCAR should do, or do better, the press is all too eager to pick it up and run.
“Call it what you want, but you’ve got to have caution flags,” Smith told the press before last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway. “That creates excitement. You can’t just sit there with nothing happening. It ruins the event. It’s damaging to our sport.”
With that quote, the ramblings of an 85-year-old man became a debate, as if it was something NASCAR would actually consider. That’s like saying the Buffalo Bills are seriously pondering your grandfather’s advice to hire Jim Kelly as the head coach.
Would mandatory cautions, or TV time-outs, keep more cars in contention for a greater duration? No question. Is that what the sport is all about? Not even close.
Even the people who brought us restrictor plates, the Chase and common templates realize there’s a line you can’t cross – I call it the Pro Wrestling Line – where sport becomes entertainment. NASCAR is entertaining, but not every race in a 36-event schedule is going to be an instant classic – that would kind of diminish the very word “classic.” What entertains us race fans is seeing the competition among drivers, teams and organizations. What happens after the green flag is totally unknown.
“It’s a very clear line to us,” said Brian France, who has made more radical change in the sport than either his grandfather or father in their combined 55-year run as heads of NASCAR. “What we’re not going to do are gimmicky things. I’ve heard we ought to throw a caution every 10 laps. That’s nonsense. We won’t do gimmicky things. But we’ll do things that incentivize performance, incentivize wins. That we are open to. The wildcard does that. It does it in an authentic way.”
NASCAR gets it. Smith does not, or doesn’t care. The only debate that should stem from this is why Smith’s opinions still matter.
Chris Gill, who covers auto racing for The Leader in Corning, N.Y., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.