Monday, January 1, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Should Tracks Downsize?

We're back! New year, new ideas and a lot to catch up on. At a glance, IndyCar is paying fewer points for Indianapolis 500 qualifying, Carlin is entering IndyCar, Coors is leaving NASCAR, Williams still has a vacancy, Danica Patrick is still looking for two rides, people are mad at Lewis Hamilton, the 24 Hours of Daytona is set up to be an all-star affair, the most under appreciated Canadian driver Scott Hargrove will drive in Pirelli World Challenge next year and there are cars on the ground in Peru getting ready for the first major event of 2018. But before we get to all that, here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Should Tracks Downsize?
It has been a common theme over the last few years that racetracks are taking out seats. The demand no longer fills the 100,000 bleachers racetracks erected during the 1990s and early 21st centuries. Many tracks are skeletons of their former selves. Michigan no longer has seats outside turns three and four. Richmond ripped out seats along the back straightaway, as did Daytona. Even Indianapolis Motor Speedway removed some furniture. And there are tracks that could probably remove some more; I am talking to you Dover.

While the surroundings have changed, the racetracks really haven't. Charlotte is still a 1.5-mile oval. Richmond is still a 3/4-mile short track. Dover is still concrete and a mile in length. It is difficult for racetracks to under go renovations and configuration changes but it happens and normally it makes the tracks bigger. Richmond went from a 1/2-mile track to a 3/4-mile oval almost three decades ago. Atlanta expanded by a smidge and flipped the straightaways nearly twenty years ago. Even Phoenix grew a bit when it underwent its first reconfiguration to the dogleg five years ago and it going to see the start/finish line and the pit lane modified.

While it has become common to see tracks grow and banking pile up in corner but should tracks buck that trend? At his farewell press conference at Bristol in August, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., wondered why no one had replicated the track somewhere else. Bristol is probably in the top five favorite racetracks for most NASCAR fans and fans and drivers love short track racing while there is pushback to the races on the intermediate racetracks that have populated the schedule for the last 20 years. Earnhardt, Jr., has a point. If Bristol, located in the mountains on the Tennessee-Virginia border, can draw over 100,000 people on a Saturday night in August, why wouldn't other racetracks want to be a half-mile bullring?

Not far from Bristol is Kentucky Speedway, a racetrack that few would miss if swallowed by a sinkhole tomorrow. There is nothing memorable about it but what if it the racetrack decided to start over, turned the back straightaway into the front straightaway, created a pair of 25º banked corners in the infield with a back straightaway, built a new grandstand there and all of a sudden became a 1/2-mile or 5/8-mile racetrack, would more people be interested?

What if Atlanta, which is a ghost town compared to ten years ago let alone 20, went a different route, returned the front straightaway to where it once was but had flatter corners, 9º of banking and at 2/3-mile was a slightly bigger Martinsville, would that bring people back to the track?

There are some racetracks that shouldn't change, Indianapolis, Daytona, Pocono and Darlington to name a few but with tracks taking on multi-million dollar renovations, why wouldn't one attempt to downsize? Racetracks are focused on the amenities and that is understandable but the most comfortable seat won't make the race on the track any more enjoyable. If anything, it will only make it easier for fans to nod off if it is a snoozer.

For some reason, someone decided 1.5-mile racetracks were the way to go during the 1990s boom but for some reason the hopes of finding the right track size in terms of speed without needing restrictor plates overlooked the tracks with the best atmospheres. A short track is a bowl of sound. There is no escaping it and you don't go longer than 5 seconds without a car in front of your eyes.

With many pointing out shorter attention spans and millennials and social media, maybe adding artificial breaks to NASCAR races won't do the track but shorter tracks might. There is no down time, no time to catch your breath. The race for the lead is never too big and there is a side-by-side battle for some position every lap.

Think about how some get into motorsports. Fewer people are growing up with a local short track but for those who get to taste motorsports at a grassroots level, the short track is the drink being offered. No one grew up going to a 1.5-mile oval on a Saturday night to see Uncle Todd or cousin Joe race. They likely went to a track no larger than a 1/2-mile and it could be paved or dirt. There is a certain sense of togetherness, of authenticity when it comes to a short track. We are all familiar with it. There are people from Wisconsin to Alabama, Vermont to Arizona who get short track racing and I think that could be what it takes to get people back into the top series of motorsports.

A top series should want to resemble what is going on at a grassroots level. It shouldn't be about aerodynamics and seven-post shaker rigs and simulators. It should be a simple, hard-nosed dogfight for 50 laps or 100 laps or 300 laps. It should be about navigating traffic and never being able to shake your closest competitor. There is a place for the super speedways and the high speeds but there needs to be a balance and for NASCAR and IndyCar has lost some of that. In my mind, a race fan should be able to go to his or her local short track on Saturday night, have a good time and going home knowing the next day he or she will being able to look forward to turning on the television or streaming from a tablet the what they just watched but at a higher level.

What would happen to the excess racetrack and abandoned banking? Tracks could leave it and have it serve as a historical landmark for what the track once way. The old grandstands could be knocked down and allow for a parking lot closer to the racetrack. It could be an expanded camping area.

Millions of dollars are being spent with improving the fan experience in mind but faster Wi-Fi and extra legroom might not be enough. We can get faster Internet and all the room in the world by staying home. The on-track product is what needs to draw people out and if that means turning an intermediate track into a bullring it should be considered.

Winners From While We Were Away
In Andros Trophy news, Benjamin Rivière and Jean-Baptiste Dubourg split the season opening weekend at Val Thorens. Nathanaël Berthon and Franck Lagorce won at Alpe d'Huez while Dubourg picked up another victory in Andorra with Evens Stievenart winning race two from the Pyrenees principality.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 2018 Dakar Rally.
The Supercross season opens its 2018 season from Anaheim.