DW: NASCAR Has Tough Job Pleasing Drivers And Fans

Well, we seem to be in a quandary. We seem to be in a pickle. Like they said in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – we seem to be in a tight spot. NASCAR is doing everything it can to make the restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega as exciting as the fans want it to be.

That’s a really tough balancing act because you have to remember what makes the fans happy doesn’t always make the drivers happy. Drivers are perfectionists. A perfect weekend to a driver is a combination of sitting on the pole, leading the most laps and winning the race. The other goal is to demoralize the field. A driver wants to beat those other 42 cars like a drum.

That’s what a driver is paid to do. Naturally the sponsor wants that because its car is up front and maximizing the television coverage. The owner wants to see that happen because obviously a happy sponsor will keep writing checks and not get wandering eyes at other teams.

So the driver knows his mission every week he climbs into that race car. He wants to run the perfect race. He doesn’t want to tear up his equipment, break any rules or make anyone mad. He simply wants to dominate the field and win the race, hands down.

Now that’s a perfect day for a driver, but is that a perfect day for a race fan? Well maybe, or definitely yes, if that driver is your favorite driver. A purist like me who knows how few and far between days like that there are definitely appreciates it no matter who the driver is.

However, I do understand that might not be the most exciting thing on television to watch. Race fans go to a race to be entertained. You give us three to four hours on your couch on a Sunday afternoon or in the case of Darlington, a Saturday night. You don’t give your time or your money to be bored. Sports is about competition and, by nature, competition breeds excitement.

You have to see at times, borrowing the old cliché, where NASCAR is the proverbial rock caught between two hard places. It listens to both sides and tries to balance it out where both sides are happy.

Let’s face it — a happy driver puts on a better show. He’s up on that wheel and trying to make something positive happen. A happy fan is one that brings his or her family or friends to a race or, like I mentioned earlier, commits time at home to tuning in for the race broadcast. Fans buy the tickets and souvenirs and cheer for their favorite guy or gal.

When race fans pick you as their favorite, you are theirs for life. NASCAR race fans are the absolute most loyal and passionate fans in all of sports. They support you. They support your sponsor. In a nutshell, you become part of their family.

So NASCAR strives to come up with a formula that works for both sides. The aerodynamic changes it made to the restrictor-plate packages were controversial from Day 1. A lot of thought was put into these changes to respond to the fans who overwhelmingly said they didn’t like the two-car tandem racing.

So the reduction of the size of the rear spoiler, the smaller opening on the grilel to cut down on the amount of air the engine was getting, the bigger fin on the trunk, plus the back of the car being lowered to cut down the air flow, were all designed to make sure these cars could only stay hooked up nose-to-tail for a couple laps.

If all that wasn’t enough to drive the race teams crazy, oh yeah, our sport as a whole made the switch in 2012 to electronic fuel injection. It took a lot of thought and a lot of work to bring all these components together.

We didn’t get a real good test of the cooling situation at Daytona because, if you remember, the race was rained out and moved to a Monday evening event. Obviously the temperatures were much cooler and cooking these engines wasn’t that big of an issue.

Remember, at the other tracks, we don’t race with that same package as we do at Daytona and Talladega. At the same time we were setting race pace records at Texas and Kansas. You saw drivers at both those events racing pretty close to perfection. Again, the downside is you heard the fans beginning to grumble that the racing was boring because there weren’t enough wrecks and cautions.

What we saw at Talladega Sunday probably pointed out some areas where the restrictor-plate package needs to be tweaked just a bit. It was hot and humid. Managing the temperature of the car to simply make it through the entire afternoon became the big story.

Getting air to those engines became the biggest priority on Sunday because how can you even think about winning the race if you can’t make your engine last the entire race. It made the flow of the race somewhat unpredictable and it really became an annoyance to the drivers.

We had a lot of cautions throughout the race. At the end of the day however, we saw an exciting finish. The dominant car didn’t win the race, which again is why you can’t assume any race is over until you see the winner take the checkered flag.

In theory, that would seem to equate to a pretty good day. The fans in the stands seemed really happy. Based on the initial television ratings from Sunday, you fans at home must have been happy because the ratings were up. However, there was one group that wasn’t happy and that was the guys behind the wheels of those race cars.

The conditions at Talladega gave us our first really good test of the changes to the cooling procedure for the restrictor-plate tracks and the drivers didn’t like the results because of the way it made them race. I mean I can see their point where they couldn’t be as aggressive as they wanted to at times because they had to watch the gauges and worry about keeping the motor together.

Look for the drivers and the teams to sit down with NASCAR to address this and come up with ideas to maybe tweak some areas before we get to Daytona in July, which is the next restrictor plate race. We all know how hot it will be down there so I anticipate some adjustments will be made in the coming weeks.

This whole restrictor-plate package continues to evolve. Obviously we had the big pack racing for years and then we evolved to the two-car tandem racing. With the changes that were made in the offseason, we came back around to the pack racing with some two-car tandem racing.

Now after Sunday’s race at Talladega, I look for the package to evolve again in an attempt to make the drivers happier by giving them what they want. Obviously the box NASCAR is in becomes the issue — if it does too much with package, sending it back the way it was, then it’s back to two-car tandems which then will upset the fans.

Like I said early on, it really is a difficult balancing act NASCAR is trying to do. The good news is they have really smart folks working on this. I have all the confidence in the world that they will come up with a way to keep both sides of the equation — the drivers and the fans — happy at the same time.

It’s not easy. It never will be. I know I wouldn’t want that job. I’ll just stick to being in the television booth.