Facebook’s “On This Day” feature brought up a link to a story I wrote for ESPN.com three years ago, from late January 2014 when NASCAR was about to unveil the latest version of the Chase, the one with a 16-driver field and a series of elimination rounds.
Headlined “Edwards: NASCAR on wrong track with Chase,” the story pointed out that Carl Edwards was pretty much the lone dissenting voice saying, “Hey! Is this really such a good idea?”
It got me thinking about the surreal show NASCAR put on two weeks ago, when CEO Brian France revealed the latest “enhancements” to the system that will determine the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, complete with races divided into three stages and a confusing combination of championship and playoff points.
NASCAR paraded France and a jury of 12 highly-partial men onto a Charlotte Convention Center stage to tell everyone how wonderful the future is going to be once we all get used to changes that make the ones made just three years ago seem trivial in comparison.
After his introductory remarks, France stood aside, leaving NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell and 11 other industry figures to defend questions from the media about the need for and the logic of such a shakeup, staunchly defending the party line.
The message was the same over the next two days from every driver who passed through the convention center for the annual NASCAR media tour. This is gonna be great! No, really! Honest!
Frankly, the lack of a single skeptical voice from within the NASCAR community was disturbing. It was almost as if those on the inside were presented with a set of alternative facts that made it all seem more palatable.
Too bad Carl Edwards wasn’t around to comment, because based on what he said three years ago, these latest “enhancements” would have left him aghast. Maybe the reason for his sudden retirement isn’t so mysterious after all.
NASCAR says it talked to all its constituents, but I wonder whether they bothered to listen to their most loyal fans. Most fans I interact with tell me they wish racing — no matter what form — was more like it used to be. Simpler cars. Simpler rules. And a championship decided over the course of a full season on a cumulative basis, without gimmicks like double points or a contrived playoff format.
Of all the forms of racing, NASCAR has strayed the farthest from that traditional path to a title and the organization seems tone-deaf to the notion that stock car racing’s diminished popularity in America over the last decade might just be a product of the constant tinkering with the championship format.
They seem more intent on using market research to attract fans that don’t yet exist rather than listening to the ones who have patiently remained with them.
Instead of answering calls for fewer, shorter races, NASCAR will divide each race into three segments, creating triple the number of “finishes” in the belief it will result in a series of memorable moments over the course of the long season.
They say you can’t manufacture drama, but NASCAR is certainly giving it the old college try.
In an already oversaturated market, we’re being presented with more content instead of better content. It smacks of desperation.
Then there’s the overhaul of the point system. I’m still confused after reading it a dozen times — championship points, playoff points, bonus points — but the truth of the matter is that we have more than seven months (and 78 race stages!) until the Playoffs start in September to work on our math skills and figure it all out.
NASCAR’s 12-man jury encouraged us to be patient, and a “wait and see” attitude is often a good thing. But you have to wonder moving forward just how patient NASCAR (and perhaps more importantly, new title sponsor Monster Energy) is going to be.
NASCAR hit the panic button after just three years of the elimination-style Chase and it will be interesting to see how quickly the industry reacts if key metrics like attendance and television ratings continue to decline in the new era.
NASCAR is not the only behemoth form of motorsport in a period of change. Formula One’s lengthy ownership transfer was recently completed, and Liberty Media wasted no time in replacing longtime czar Bernie Ecclestone with a trio of corporate managers.
After some 40 years in Ecclestone’s control, the changes that F1 implements over the next few years will be critical to the series maintaining its position as the most prestigious and popular form of motorsport in the world. And make no mistake, change is coming.
Get it right, the sport grows. Get it wrong and the downward spiral accelerates.
“One thing is for sure — we shouldn’t make it a beta test,” said Mercedes-AMG team principal Toto Wolff in an interview published on the team’s website. “We shouldn’t mess with our loyal fans and our audiences by implementing rules and regulations that we haven’t assessed properly.”
Good advice that just might apply to NASCAR — if it’s not too late.