Monday, May 22, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: The Devalued Jewel

Scott Dixon won pole position for the Indianapolis 500 with a four-lap average of 232.164 MPH. Fernando Alonso ended up fifth on the grid. Ed Carpenter Racing proved to be nothing but a bunch of sly dogs. The Formula E season continues to be predictable. The option tires left many deflated at the NASCAR All-Star Race. Rain won Sunday at Mosport. There was an odd accident in the Moto3 race at Le Mans. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Devalued Jewel
The Memorial Day weekend is littered with historic events on the motorsports calendar. Each race could have its own respective pantheon for the winners of the esteemed events. The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest race on the IndyCar schedule. The Monaco Grand Prix is the biggest race on the Formula One schedule. The 24 Hours Nürburgring is arguably the most important race to the German manufactures. Then there is the Coca-Cola 600...

The longest race in the NASCAR season has been around since 1960, just a year after the inaugural Daytona 500 but the race has lost some of its luster while Daytona remains king. It not that the Charlotte race ever really challenged for the crown but historically Charlotte is one of NASCAR's crown jewel events. 

During the Winston Million-era of NASCAR, Daytona, the Winston 500 at Talladega, Charlotte and the Southern 500 made up the four-legged series with a million dollars the prize if a driver could win three of the four races. The Winston Million was last run 20 years ago and none of the races carry the same potential financial reward but outside of Daytona the series has seemed fine with the lack of marquee races standing above the rest of schedule. 

One reason has been NASCAR's emphasis on the championship. In the series' growth, it followed the footsteps of other sports and now we have the Chase. The talk heading into Charlotte isn't about a driver adding his or her name to a list of past winners such as David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson but about locking up a Chase spot or playoff points. 

The 600-mile race came at a different period for NASCAR. Dirt was still a prominent part of the schedule. Most of the tracks were under a mile in length. Besides Daytona, Darlington had two races but it didn't compare in track size. NASCAR went to Hanford Motor Speedway in California in 1960 but it would only be the second of three times the series went to the 1.4-mile oval. Atlanta opened the same year as Charlotte.  

Charlotte came before the big track boom of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Michigan, Texas World, Talladega, Ontario and Pocono were all two miles or greater in length and built in a four-year period and all would be on the 1972 NASCAR Cup schedule, a 31-race schedule with no dirt races, marking the start of the modern-era. Besides two road course races at Riverside, 15 of the 29 oval races in 1972 were on tracks less than 1.5 miles in length. Only five races took place on 1.5-mile ovals, two at Charlotte, two at Atlanta and the kidney bean-shaped Trenton Speedway. Charlotte had the third-largest purse on the schedule behind Ontario and the Daytona 500. 

Forty-five years later and NASCAR's schedule has evolved. It has grown by five races but there are still only two road course races. Purses are no longer disclosed but in the final year (2015) purses were made public Charlotte was fifth behind Daytona, Indianapolis and the two Texas races. Thirteen of 34 oval races are on tracks less than 1.5 miles in length. The amount of 1.5-mile oval races has more than doubled, now sitting at 11 of 36 total races and one more is on the way in 2018. 

Charlotte's 600-miler no longer stands out. It is now the intermediate track race that just happens to be 100 or 200 miles longer than the other ten races on intermediate tracks. The 1990s track boom led to cookie-cutter tracks, all pretty much a clone of Charlotte. There isn't even a Trenton that stands out with a slight kink. All the tracks pretty much produce the same race almost a dozen times over.

By increasing the number of 1.5-mile race tracks NASCAR turned the Coca-Cola 600 into just another event on the schedule. It can't stand out because the same race happens about every third week in NASCAR. While Daytona has remained a must-see race and the two road course races have become favorites on the NASCAR schedule, Charlotte has become a race people can skip because another 1.5-mile race track will be coming up soon enough.

Add Indianapolis and the Brickyard 400 as another reason for the lost prestige of the Coca-Cola 600. The fight over what the triple crown in NASCAR is or what the majors are is highly contested unlike twenty years ago. Daytona's place is safe at number one. Talladega was only special because Winston sponsored the race. Now it is just another restrictor-plate race. The Southern 500 hit a snag when it was moved from Labor Day weekend but now that it is back to its traditional date I think it has returned to the second-biggest race on the NASCAR calendar. The night race at Bristol has some supporters for being considered one of NASCAR's prestigious races. 

Whether the 600 or the Brickyard or another race is one of NASCAR's pinnacle races is a matter of debate and one where a consensus will never likely be established. NASCAR adding a fourth stage to the Coca-Cola 600, which means more stage points and playoff points doesn't really swing the argument but the 600 might have an edge considering the future of the Brickyard is in the air and we don't know whether it will continue on the oval or road course or if it will continue at all. I think the Coca-Cola 600 can breathe easier in third. A very distant third. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon but did you know...

Maverick Viñales won MotoGP's French Grand Prix, his third victory of the season, after a last lap pass on Valentino Rossi. Franco Morbidelli won in Moto2, his fourth victory of the season. Joan Mir won in Moto3, his third victory of the season. 

Sébastien Buemi won the Paris ePrix, his fifth victory of the season.

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR All-Star Race. Kyle Busch also won the Truck race. 

The #8 Cadillac of Michael Cooper and Jordan Taylor won the only PWC SprintX race from Mosport as rain on Sunday forced race two to be postponed to a later date. Jade Buford swept the GTS races. 

Lucas Auer and Jamie Green split the DTM races from Lausitzring, just as they did at the season opener at the Hockenheimring. 

The #36 Lexus Team au Tom's Lexus LC 500 of Kazuki Nakajima and James Rossiter won the Super GT race from Autopolis. The #25 VivaC Team Tsuchiya Toyota 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui and Kenta Yamashita won in GT300. 

Scott McLaughlin and Shane Van Gisbergen split the Supercars races from Winton Motor Raceway. 

Sébastien Ogier won Rally de Portgual. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Indianapolis 500. 
Monaco Grand Prix. 
Coca-Cola 600.
24 Hours Nürburgring. 
WTCC runs a doubleheader at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. 
World Superbike will be at Donington Park. 
Pirelli World Challenge heads south to Lime Rock Park for another SprintX round. 
Super Formula heads to Okayama.