NASCAR officials have been meeting with drivers and team leaders in continuing conversations about the future shape of the sport.
Similar meetings and input from outside NASCAR's inner circle led to some of the rather drastic changes the sport has seen in the past 18 months. There have been suggestions that NASCAR is looking at another spate of changes designed to again elevate its profile.
But what about track promoters? They're at the heart of the matter. They're the ones trying to sell the tickets in a still difficult economy. They're the ones on the front lines of spectator complaints. They're the ones trying to keep a number of different publics happy.
What sort of changes would they embrace?
Roger Curtis, president of Michigan International Speedway, offers a few - changes to qualifying (including possibly qualifying races), returning test sessions to Cup tracks, adding an “elimination” element to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Qualifying has completely lost its luster,” Curtis said. “We could change it up and make it more exciting, maybe have qualifying races or heat races, maybe something on a smaller scale than the Duels [Daytona 500 qualifying races].
“It would bring some of the excitement back to qualifying. I understand that teams might not like it because of the possibility of wrecking cars, but, if we're old school, let's do it. It's a concept to try.”
Curtis suggested examining the Chase format with the idea of eliminating Chase participants as the 10-race run progresses.
“Maybe we could whittle it down as we go along,” he said. “I don't think I'd like to see it whittled down to just two drivers left in the competition in the final race, but I think it could be improved if we could tweak it to make it a true 'playoff' system. I think that would add a lot of excitement to the sport.”
Curtis said he appreciates the fact that limiting testing can save teams money, but he said if they are going to test anyway, they might as well do it at Cup speedways, which would help the tracks promote the sport.
“They're still spending the money, but we're not getting the promotion,” he said. “If we're going to have testing, let's make it at the tracks so that we can start promoting to putt butts in the seats.”
Perhaps most importantly, Curtis said, NASCAR not only should continue its discussions with drivers and team officials but also should expand them to bring in people from all parts of the racing spectrum.
“It would be good to schedule something like baseball's winter meetings so that everybody who's involved could get together and talk, get the different stakeholders together,” he said. “I talked to a lot of drivers on race weekend [last week], and they had no idea we had lowered ticket prices on 100 percent of our seats. Another driver didn't know that we had free parking.
“I don't know why we don't talk more and share more and understand each other's issues more.
“Everybody has to do their part. I think that's what had been missing until the last couple of years. Everyone got so caught up in the growth curve that we had, and they got in their silos and their little fiefdoms and had their turf to protect and grow. And the model worked for a while. Now I think a lot of the stakeholders in the sport are understanding that it takes everybody to make it work.”
A track president who requested anonymity suggested a return to scheduling Sprint Cup Happy Hour in the time period following support races on the day before Cup events. The final Cup practice formerly was held in that slot but was moved, in the example of a Saturday Nationwide race and a Sunday Cup race, in front of the Nationwide event.
“Happy Hour was always the anchor of the Saturday Nationwide race day,” he said. “So many of the top Cup drivers don't compete in the Nationwide Series. If fans knew that they were going to get to watch practice after the Nationwide race, more would be there. And it would be a great learning mechanism for fans.”
President X also suggested mandatory driver autograph sessions, continuing ticket price reductions and the scheduling of testing sessions at Cup tracks on the day before they open for race weekends. Teams could come to a track on the Thursday before a Friday-Sunday race weekend to test, for example.
“Teams could test on Thursday, and the fans could come out for free,” he said. “Perhaps you could have an autograph session. And the testing would give teams a better gauge on how the track was going to race. It would be one more opportunity to expose the sport.
“I'd like to see drivers, maybe on a rotating basis, say 10 per weekend, go out and sign autographs sometime between the drivers meeting and the green flag. I realize with drivers like Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. and Jeff [Gordon] signing autographs that you might tick off more people than you make happy because everybody can't get one, but I think you have to do something to bring the drivers back closer to the race fans.”
Jerry Gappens, executive vice president of New Hampshire International Speedway, said more promotional work by drivers would be a plus, particularly for those tracks, like his, that compete regionally with other major sports.
“Here we're competing every day with the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics and the Bruins,” Gappens said. “And those teams have 'talking heads' that the media interviews every day. We don't have the same chances. I could use some more gunpowder in having the big-name drivers do more publicity in Boston.
“I'm going up against Tom Brady, so it's tough. It would be nice to have a year-round presence, to a degree. I have a full appreciation for the drivers' time and the appearances they make for sponsors and so forth, and I know time is the most precious commodity, but I think we have to take a better look at how we can best use drivers' time to promote the sport and the races.”
Gappens, whose track hosts the Chase opener in September, said the championship series could use some tweaking, especially with the idea of giving it more of a “playoff” feel.
“The Chase was a bold step for NASCAR to change tradition and go in that direction, but it's been in place long enough that we need to try to figure out how to better connect with the fans with it,” Gappens said. “So many fans, particularly casual or fringe fans, are so used to things like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four. They don't grasp the concept of NASCAR and 'playoffs.' We need to figure out a way to build tension and drama through the Chase like the other sports do in their playoffs.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.