Next year, NASCAR will require that teams use “the Car of Tomorrow” at all races, beginning with February’s Daytona 500. This completes the transformation of the Sprint Cup into a “spec class” racing series, a major departure from the formula for success that brought NASCAR its initial growth.
Can the series survive the transformation?
Certainly, NASCAR is too big to implode overnight. Yet, it seems evident that the major growth in NASCAR attendance and audience is over. NASCAR races are no longer automatically sold-out events. The television ratings are flat, in some instances in slight decline. Though it’s big, it’s not getting bigger. It is not the novelty that it was even a few years ago, and has become a very different racing series than it was even a decade ago.
The changes in the past decade have not been limited to the cars. The past decade has also seen the playoff approach to the driver’s championship, as well as the dominance of 1¼ and 1½ mile tri-oval race tracks. It has seen the series shed, as well, its regionalism, in both race venues and drivers.
In all of this, it has lost some of its charm, and much of its appeal.
The predicate upon which NASCAR was formed was brand identity. It was believed that people would like to watch the cars they drove be raced, or at least the brand. This concept underlay NASCAR racing until the spec racer concept ultimately overwhelmed the efforts of teams to maintain the advantages that a particular product gave them.
From the 1960’s into the 1980’s, manufacturers would periodically create special models designed specifically to give them an edge at the track – the Superbird Plymouths and Dodge Daytonas were only the most prominent examples, but both Ford and Chevrolet produced special models with fastback rooflines which existed solely because aerodynamics in NASCAR racing required it.
The NASCAR fan, in those days, was not merely supporting a driver. He or she was supporting a brand: Ford, Chevy, or Mopar, the identity of the product was as crucial to the fan’s enjoyment of the series as the identity and personality of the driver. If Petty didn’t win, fans didn’t root for Pearson. Pearson drove a Ford. Fans rooted for some other dude in a Chrysler product, preferably a Petty teammate. Because brand was important.
The Car of Tomorrow merely makes official what has been the evident NASCAR policy for the past ten years: all cars are to be the same. The only variations now countenanced are in engines, and even those are not very different since they are all patterned on the same basic blueprint. To the extent that the pre-Tomorrow rules allowed some interpretation in the rules within the fit of templates, there was still slight room for creativity.
But nothing like Smokey Yunick’s Chevelle: a car which was visually indistinguishable from every other Chevelle on the racetrack, but which was, in reality, exactly 7/8th the size of the others. Less frontal area that way.
Chad Knaus is, without doubt, a very fine mechanic. But he will not be the legend that Yunick was, though not for talent. NASCAR no longer affords the canvas for invention and imagination that it did when Yunick, Holman & Moody, and “Banjo” Matthews were doing their thing.
Then there is the matter of the racetracks.
When you’ve seen Michigan, you’ve seen California, you’ve seen Texas, you’ve seen most of the basic NASCAR race layout. And, after a while, they all begin to look the same. Seriously, if you see footage of a race, can you tell where it was run simply by seeing the track? Sure, if it’s Indy, or Bristol. But tell me you can distinguish Michigan from California. Of course you can’t. They were built by the same man, Penske, according to the same plan, a plan which was designed for the NASCAR cookie-cutter.
They have no character.
Meantime, NASCAR seems determined to deny its roots. Darlington is down to one race, and lucky to still be alive. A racetrack which, in many ways, made it possible for NASCAR to exist is no longer a racetrack that matters to the sanctioning body. Moreover, a racetrack that offers a singular challenge in the form of it’s egg-shaped layout and unique corners is no longer regarded as an asset to the series.
Even the Champions have become a bit hollow. With the exception of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart – without which NASCAR would have much worse ratings than they do now – the drivers all have the same personality. There is no denying the talent of either Jeff Gordon or his protégé. But, they’re boring.
Boring is what you get when everything is the same. Today’s race is the same as last week’s race. Sure, someone with a different name may win it. But it will be run on a track that’s the same as the race last week, with cars that are the same as those that ran last week, with cars that all look the same and with drivers that all seem to be the same.
Spec racing with spec drivers.
Formula One with carburetors. What fun.
Can NASCAR survive it? Of course. Too many people have to many vested interests to let it fail. It’s now too big.
But will it be fun?