Thursday, September 3, 2009

NASCAR needs to sustain late-race excitement

Sacramento, California -- Is anyone else growing tired of the last 20 laps of a NASCAR race taking two hours to run?

This is not a cavalier observation of a NASCAR-hater. By a series of happy coincidences, I was attending and watching NASCAR Cup events 40 years ago, when the series was running many laps behind the Indy Cars in the race for the public’s attention. I was a rabid Indy Car fan, but back then, I also wondered why more people weren’t interested in the NASCAR races, which were routinely wheel-to-wheel close and hugely exciting.

Today, I’m asking how things went so far the other way, with NASCAR basking in enormous popularity and the IndyCar series seemingly fighting for every fan.

But my gripe with NASCAR of late is the length of time it takes to run the races in its top-tier divisions. In particular, the late stages of races seem to take forever. Last Sunday’s NASCAR Nationwide event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal now stands as the poster child of my concerns. It took a whopping 3 hours and 49 minutes, a Nationwide series record, to run 76 laps on the 14-turn, 2.7-mile road course.

That’s longer than an NFL game. It’s longer than a World Series game with multiple pitcher changes. It’s longer than the wait at airport security on Thanksgiving eve.

Yes, I know there was a rain delay, when NASCAR admirably opted to let the lads race on rain tires.

But much of the time drag can be attributed to knucklehead driving. I saw drivers rocketing into turns like teenage rookies, slamming into competitors who were just doing their job. I saw attempts to pass on wet grass, which would send me directly to jail if I attempted it in view of a highway patrolman.

And it wasn’t just Montreal. Repeatedly, NASCAR drivers are making suicide moves in the closing laps of races. Commentators attempt to explain it away, chuckling as they say it’s “every driver for himself to gain positions in the late-going.” Really?

Is it worth it to make a banzai move for 13th place on the last lap at Talladega, risking a crash that could turn millions of dollars of equipment into junk? Or worse, perhaps seriously hurt other drivers? If I was a car owner, I’d be preaching sensible driving instead of paying six-figure bills for a driver in pursuit of a 12th-place finish on the last lap.

For fans at the track and TV viewers, the problem is these incessant late-race cautions just kill the excitement of watching. Instead of sustained drama and action, we get two laps, a wreck and a caution … two laps, a wreck and a caution … two laps, a wreck and a caution. You finally get to the point where you just want the race to end. It’s gotten so bad that most veteran fans fully expect the green-white-checkers overtime period at the end of a NASCAR race.

The solution: I think NASCAR needs to crack down on crazy moves near the end of a race. It’s one thing to be going for the lead, or victory, at the finish. But late-race mayhem in mid-pack on back needs some discipline. Penalize idiot moves. And if there are repeat offenders, sit them down for a race or more.

That might make the late-race action more exciting. And that would certainly keep my attention.

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