Taking up the short track debate

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I was listening to a discussion on Sirius Satellite Radio about the state of short track racing in the country. Having cut my teeth on the short tracks, especially all over the southeast, I have some thoughts on the issue.

One of the things that has hurt short track racing is the simple lack of exposure. The local TV or print media has really drifted away from the short tracks across our country. The results are normally buried at the bottom of the sports page, if they are there at all. The problem stems from the fact that a lot of the short track events aren't over until the papers have already gone to press.

This disconnect between the local track and the media outlets has surely hurt. There are just so many other options at times that force the short track coverage to take a back seat. There are football, basketball and baseball games. There might be a concert at the local arena. So there's no doubt the competition has made it more difficult for the short tracks.

Look at examples like the track here in Nashville at the Fairgrounds or Birmingham International Raceway. Back then, the tracks were built on the edge of town. Now with expansion over all the years, the tracks are in town. So the town has grown up around it and a racetrack in the middle of town doesn't seem to make sense anymore. Now to me, it seems awfully convenient to have a track that close, but it may not for everybody within those towns.

Another area where the short tracks struggle is keeping up with the amenities that other sports facilities provide. That's mainly because the track owners are independent operators. They do things out of their own pocket. They don't get funding from anyone.

As the "Green" movement continues to expand, that actually might be an opportunity for these tracks to have a chance to revitalize. We are seeing electric cars, ethanol cars, etc. so there might be an outlet to take advantage of the initiatives being pushed by the government and the manufacturers.

Every racetrack has to have something that folks go there for. Great racing? Sure, but you expect that when you spend your hard earned money to buy a ticket. You expect and deserve to be entertained. That's why you are there. We have to figure a way to get that local flair and flavor back. If you are a short track owner, you have to come up with something that is unique, attracts people and gives them something to talk about.

Look at Martinsville Speedway -- what is that track known for? It's known as a paperclip track that gives Grandfather clocks to the winner, plus don't forget those red hot dogs. That's their hook. South Boston Speedway is known for their baloney burgers. Here in Nashville at the Fairgrounds, and now at the bigger track, the race winner's trophy is a guitar. I remember back in the day that BIR in Birmingham had the best hot dogs. Like them, every track needs something that the fan identifies them with.

You want a place that puts on a great show. Great racing mixed with a good public address announcer. You want fair officiating. It's a fun evening to go to your local short track with the family, have dinner and a couple Mountain Dews and watch your neighbors compete against each other.

Local short track racing is the backbone of our sport. Not only are we not developing new talent, but we're also not developing new fans because of the downturn of our local short tracks. Short track racing is chaotic. That's what makes them fun. You have heat races. You invert the field. You may have a demolition derby between the heat races and the feature. You might even have some guy on a motorcycle jump over a bunch of school buses. That comes from the promoter. That's the Humpy Wheelers of the world. That's the other thing a good short track needs -- a great promoter. Where are the Bob Harmon's, the Paul Sawyer's and the Clay Earles' of today's short tracks? Those guys lived and breathed promoting the next event. We need the next generation of those guys and guys like Humpy Wheeler.

The best promoters come from a racing and public relations background. They understand the sport. They know what excites people and they know how to promote that.

There are a lot of reasons the short tracks are in the shape they are in. There used to be some national coverage like Thursday Night Thunder on ESPN and Winter Heat on TNN that simply isn't there anymore.

All of us collectively -- NASCAR, track promoters, media etc. -- need to set down as a group and find ways to promote our local tracks. That's where our next superstar drivers need to be groomed, plus that's where we'll grow a new generation of race fans.

I love the short tracks. I always have. Coming from go-kart racing, the short tracks were the next step for me on my way to the NASCAR Cup level. I think collectively we all are also guilty of going for the glamour, speed and danger of the superspeedways today while ignoring the excitement and thrill of our past, the short tracks. We simply have to have the short tracks around our country healthy and thriving. That's the future of NASCAR.

Merry Christmas everybody, and I'm looking forward to a very Happy New Year.