This year’s Daytona 500 was a beta test for the future of NASCAR – The Verge

Go fast. Turn left. Win.

For decades, you could boil NASCAR down to this simple set of rules. The ethos is so concise that it’s often the main source of derision for the sport. (“All they do is turn left,” you might cry.) But that simplicity is also the backbone that made NASCAR popular in the first place.

That’s why it felt cataclysmic when, this past January, NASCAR changed how its races work. Each race is now split into three “stages,” and drivers win points toward the season championship by doing well in those stages. The cars still go fast, they still turn left, and being first at the end still matters. But this was a fundamental change that could rattle the thinning fan base.

The thing with NASCAR is that there’s no preseason. Any new ideas you want to test have to be tested in real time. And since the biggest race of the year is also the first, the Daytona 500 — the Great American Race, the race you want to win — became a sort of beta test for this bold new plan that will play out over the remaining 35 races of the 2017 season.

So I went to Daytona International Speedway to watch it all play out. As a longtime, but on and off, fan of NASCAR, I figured I’d either see something new and refreshing or at least feel the heat of Rome burning.

What I didn’t expect to find was a sport careening toward a technological and philosophical revolution. NASCAR has arguably never been at a bigger crossroads, with the divisive new format, and more access to advanced technology and data than ever before. The question now is which way to turn the wheel.

NASCAR’s announcement of the stages was confusing and not terribly well received by fans or the press. The first explainer video the series released required repeat viewings to comprehend. Comments sections of articles lit up. “Abandon All Hope, Here Is How NASCAR Is Chopping Up The Daytona 500 Into ‘Stages’,” read one Jalopnik headline.

Some motorsports diehards, inside and outside the sport, were open minded. But the majority I spoke to before the race weren’t so kind. A Camping World Truck Series team member told me it was “crazy.” An IndyCar driver told me the change felt “gimmicky.” One fan simply blew a raspberry with his lips in response.

But there are logical reasons for chopping a NASCAR race into smaller chunks. NASCAR races — especially the ones at the superspeedways — could be long, boring affairs until the closing laps. Drivers tended to lay back early on, towing the line between not falling too far behind while trying to avoid the inevitable big wreck.

NASCAR’s new format makes this a less attractive strategy. Races now consist of two equally short stages followed by one longer stage at the end. The top 10 finishers in each stage are awarded points for the season championship, offering an incentive to be more competitive during what would normally be the most boring parts of the race.

Across the race weekend, drivers, crew chiefs, and team owners were overwhelmingly positive about the change. That could just be their media training, but they could also just be immune to change; NASCAR spent the last decade changing so many rules that it’d be surprising if people inside the sport weren’t able to embrace a big one like a new race format. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to have anyone running for the hills.

“If you look at any other sport, there’s quarters or segments. We haven’t created anything crazy, we’ve just created a couple of breaks that are known,” says Todd Gordon, the crew chief of the Roger Penske-owned 22 team. “And those breaks, I think, allow us to have more input as crew chiefs and crew members on the strategies that you play to get to those breaks. You can make sacrifices in one that costs you the next. I think there’s a lot of different strategies that you can play, and you’ll see teams on different strategies. And that, in essence, is going to make, I think, some pretty exciting racing.”

NASCAR should hope so, because the series needs to find ways to halt its declining viewership. The average number of people watching a NASCAR race has slipped from around 9 million in the early 2000s to under 5 million in recent years. Attendance at the tracks has plummeted, and from great heights. (Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee once sold out its 160,000-seat track 55 times in a row for NASCAR races.) As that drop happened, NASCAR recoiled. It became such a black eye on the sport that the series stopped giving out attendance estimates in 2012 — a move that was obvious to the fans who were still watching, because empty metal grandstands are hard to hide on TV.

The new stage format may pay off for new fans and young viewers. If you’re a casual fan of NASCAR, or someone new to the sport, it was easy to stop watching when you turned the race on at lap 28 of 400. But with the new stages, there’s always going to be an end in sight.

Walking out of the hotel on race day, I overheard Kami, the receptionist, talking about the stages to two race fans who were eating breakfast. “I’ll admit it, I’ve fallen asleep during races,” she explained. “But this is supposed to make it more surprising.”

Kami was right. This being the first time that the stages were used, there was lots of uncertainty. “Let’s see” how these first 60 laps play out, car owner Roger Penske radioed to driver Joey Logano after he fired up his engine. Kurt Busch — the eventual Daytona 500 winner — was told the wrong number of laps remaining in the first stage by his team. The announcers for the Motor Racing Network, the main radio and at-track broadcast partner for NASCAR, made the same mistake during the race’s second stage. (Both mistakes were corrected in short order.)

Daytona International Speedway is a crazy place to try something new. The edges of the 2.5-mile ring of asphalt seem to rise above you no matter where you stand. It’s a place where many drivers — Dale Earnhardt Sr. among them — have died. The track’s size and speed created unpredictable racing even before the format change. “You just go out and run and hope that, when the race is over, they pull your number,” seven-time Daytona 500 winner (and seven-time NASCAR series champion) Richard Petty told a small group of reporters before the green flag dropped. “That’s how wide open the race is.”

The new format succeeded at increasing the mid-race competition, but not without testing the limits of NASCAR’s three national series. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Friday, which was full of young drivers, was fraught with crashes and close calls during the parts of the race that are typically calm. The Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s version of AAA baseball, was similarly full of wrecks. Both races appeared to be affected, at least in part, by the ramped-up pressure to perform throughout as opposed to just at the end.

The Daytona 500 itself was not as messy, but it benefitted from the new stage racing format. The Toyota cars made an early pit stop in an attempt to run the race on a different strategy, and this set up a much clearer manufacturer battle against the Fords and Chevrolets than a single race typically generates. And in general, drivers treated the few laps before the conclusion of a stage like they would the end of a race. It made them take more risks, even if they were more calculated than those taken in the other two races.

The stages, and the uncertainty and aggression that they bred, paved the way for three unexpected race winners: Kaz Grala became the youngest winner ever in NASCAR’s top three series when he took the checkered flag in the Trucks race. Ryan Reed’s Xfinity Series win was only his second ever. (His first? The 2015 race at Daytona.) And Kurt Busch won his first Daytona 500 in a nearly 20-year career.

From top: (1) Kaz Grala, 18, celebrates winning the NextEra Energy Resources 250. He became the youngest winner ever in NASCAR’s top three series. (2) Ryan Reed climbs out of his car after winning the Xfinity series race at Daytona. His last — and only other — win was the same race at Daytona in 2015. (3) Kurt Busch celebrates his Daytona 500 win with his teammates. Busch sustained heavy damage and still was able to take home his first ever 500 win.

Parker Kilgerman says he became a believer in the new format after the first stage was completed in the Truck Series race on Friday night. Kligerman, 25, has driven in all of NASCAR’s top three series, is also an on-air presence for NBC’s NASCAR coverage, and has become something of an ombudsman for the sport on NBCSports.com.

“I know from my experience of running that race multiple times that most likely we would’ve been single file for the first 10 cars on the bottom” at the end of the race’s first stage, Kligerman tells me. Instead, the trucks were racing two-wide early on.

Kilgerman points out that it wasn’t just more exciting, but the stages were creating new opportunities for some drivers. “What we saw coming to that first stage end was a driver in Brett Moffitt running up front in an under-sponsored truck that has only two races committed — Daytona and Atlanta — before that team has to figure out where their funding’s coming from,” he says.

The stages gave Moffitt a better chance at collecting championship points than he likely would have had at the end of a full race, Kligerman argues. “Here’s a guy who has two races that may make it possible for him to run the full season or not,” he says. “And he’s pushing as hard as he can because getting that stage win would have been a huge points gain and also a playoff point gain, and a mark in the cap of that team to say hey we won a stage.” (Moffitt crashed before the end of the first stage, though, and finished 22nd.)

The reaction outside of the NASCAR organization has been much more mixed. Motorsport.com called it an “enigma,” and “peculiar,” but ultimately thought it was an “exciting start to a new era.” Jalopnik’s Stef Schrader was less kind, saying the short breaks between stages made her “feel robbed of racing.” Another Jalopnik writer, Alanis King, even tried to read the jumps in the website’s traffic during the race as a sign that fans were confused about how the stages worked. NBC Sports actually graphed out the number of cars involved in wrecks across the week at Daytona, calling it one of the costliest ever. Autoweek was one of the few to tow the line of patience: “Keep calm and give NASCAR updates some time,” Matt Weaver wrote of the “polarizing” race.

One thing Daytona made clear is the series needs to get better at explaining why this change was made, and why it will make the races more exciting. The Fox broadcast, while heavy on specifics of the changes, often whiffed on communicating the broader point behind them.

NASCAR also needs to come up with a much simpler way to explain how the sport now works to newbie fans. Fifteen years ago, you could sum up NASCAR in two short sentences: “Try to win every race. The better you finish, the more points you get towards the season championship.” Now? Well, there’s already a whole Reddit thread full of fans trying to solve this problem.

Out behind turn three at Daytona International Speedway is where you’d want to run to if and when the apocalypse happens. Parked there is an overly air conditioned truck that’s stuffed to the ceiling with lighting-fast Ethernet. It’s also the last thing standing if there’s a power outage — when the lights went out during the middle of the 2014 Truck race in Phoenix, the Pro Trailer, as it’s known, was the only thing still up and running at the Arizona track.

The Pro Trailer is a hub for the internet used by the teams on pit road, the race replay system used by race control officials, and the fiber optics for the broadcast video feeds. But it’s also where a bulk of the race officiating happens.

Eight officials pop down in this trailer on race day and, like short-order cooks slapping hamburgers together, are served up dozens of real-time videos of pit stops by an advanced computer vision system that they must monitor in 2X speed.

The system at work here was put together by a British company called Hawk-Eye Innovations. If you’ve ever watched a professional tennis match, they’re the people who developed the vision processing technology that can tell if a tennis ball stayed in or out of bounds.

In 2014, NASCAR was trying to find new ways to keep its some-odd 40 officials on pit road safe — there’s only so much a fire suit and helmet can do when there are 3,400-pound cars coming at you at 55 miles per hour. So the series turned to Hawk-Eye and asked them to find a way to automate the process.

Now one of the first things that gets done when NASCAR rolls into a track ahead of a race is to make a three-dimensional model of pit road. Then, three engineers spend 10 hours setting up close to 50 cameras on the roof of the grandstands. After that, it’s three more hours calibrating the cameras, with the engineers making sure that what they see matches up with that 3D model.

With the model in place and the cameras watching, Hawk-Eye’s system breaks the 2D image into layers. It can tell the difference between a tire, the tire changer, and the car. The system has been trained on the rules, and so infractions are spotted even if the eight officials are busy with other pit stops.

Say the jack man comes over the wall too quickly, a rule that NASCAR put in place to keep pit crews from standing in harm’s way while other cars are also trying to pit. But the officials are all already monitoring other pit stops. The automated system will still spot this and other infractions and sort them based on severity. It also assigns them at random in order to erase any human bias. In this case, the computer would move this pit stop video to the top of the queue for the next available official.

After the official reviews a stop, they hop on the radio to the race control tower to relay any infractions, log the information, and move onto the next pit stop. The system automatically generates a video clip that can be accessed by the broadcast, as well as the teams if they want to see what they got wrong.

A handful of officials remain on pit road to monitor things the computer vision system can’t see, and they also serve as a connection to the teams. In other words, they often get to break or explain the bad news.

At the end of each race, the engineers spend four hours packing the cameras back up, and the truck drives off to the next event. “One of the beauties of using camera technology, it’s low impact,” says Stephen Dwyer, who is contracted by NASCAR to oversee the Pro Trailer’s pit road operation. “You’re not putting sensors on the car, you’re not trying to dig up the raceway. When you use cameras and you use vision processing, it’s unobtrusive.”

The pit road system has been in place since 2015, and NASCAR had to test it side by side with the old way of doing things during the final 10 races of 2014. That’s a curious thing about NASCAR. Aside from a few minor tests, very little happens in the two-month-long offseason. If you want to test new ideas — whether it’s a new race format, or a semi-automated pit road penalty system — you have to test them in real race environments.

“All of our races are spectacles, so while we’re out here trying to get work down, we’re fighting with the crowds, we’re fighting with all the logistics of getting in and getting around the track,” says Stephen Byrd, NASCAR’s director of technology development. “There’s no dress rehearsal, there’s no do-overs. When the green flag flies, that’s your time to debug and test and troubleshoot and really see whether the last week’s worth of work paid off, or do you get to that point where you missed something and it puts you off another week.”

Byrd would know, because he’s spent the last few years turning NASCAR’s technological partnership with Microsoft into something the series is getting real value from. Byrd’s team has worked with Microsoft to develop a small suite of Windows 10 apps that are modernizing how the cars are inspected as well as how the officials monitor and review races. They’re also laying the groundwork for a much bigger shift.

Kurt Busch’s car goes through one of the phases of pre-race inspection.

There’s a parade before every NASCAR race, though it’s not one full of confetti and music. NASCAR teams slowly march around the pit area to different inspection points, where officials poke and prod to make sure the cars don’t violate any rules. Big metal templates are slapped onto the cars to make sure teams aren’t playing tricks with the aerodynamics. The cars get weighed. The engines are checked for modifications. It’s the slowest thing that happens on race weekend.

A surprising problem with this system, though, was these officials were still using pen and paper as recently as 2014. That paper stayed with the car through the inspection process, but after the race it never left the track. There was no archiving, no tracking. If one team was consistently trying to break a particular rule, it was up to the inspection officials to remember — a big fuzzy hole in an otherwise precise process, and one that often led to cries of favoritism or foul play.

This also caused chaos for the directors of each of NASCAR’s top series. They’re the ones in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly according to the gospel of the broadcast schedule. In the days of pen and paper, this meant the directors would spend precious time on the radio or running around the track trying to find answers about the status of inspections.

The solution Byrd’s team and Microsoft came up with was a program called NASCAR Mobile Inspection. Instead of pen and paper, officials now log their inspections in this app using a Surface tablet. The series directors can access the app on any Windows 10 device, and it gives them everything from a snapshot view of the completed inspections to the ability to sort infractions by team, speedway, or type.

The app cut inspection times in half, according to Byrd. “Our job is not to sit back like the police and write citations all day, that does us no good,” he tells me. “We want to make sure we have fair competitively balanced racing, and that’s the purpose of going through the inspection process.”

NASCAR’s new Race Management app (above) and the new digital dashboard (below) seen on the 37 car of Chris Buescher.

Data, especially real-time data, is hard to come by in NASCAR. And that’s by design. The people in charge of NASCAR are willing to change a lot about NASCAR, but they’ve held a tight grip on the role that the human element plays in the racing.

Byrd claims the success of the Mobile Inspection app warmed the series to adopting more technological advancements. “Taking paper and pen away from officials that have been doing that process for 50 years in our sport, those are car guys and girls out there, not techies,” he says. “I can’t understate the level of challenge that was to pull it off. But once we got through that, it just sent good shockwaves through all of competition that we have the right team, the right partner, the right approach to doing this.”

That sea change gave Byrd’s team the freedom to tackle a new problem this season: modernizing the race control system. On race weekend, NASCAR deals with gobs of data: there’s the dozens of HD camera feeds, a fiber optic timing and scoring system, all the historical data, and the Pro Trailer’s pit road system. These were all discrete parts that lacked cohesion, and so Byrd’s team again worked with Microsoft to funnel them all into one app.

The resulting Race Management app is a NASCAR nerd’s dream. It’s like an advanced version of what you would typically expect a sport’s mobile app to be. It shows live timing and scoring, features multiple broadcast video feeds, and it even pulls in those automatically generated pit stop videos from Stephen Dwyer and Hawk-Eye’s pit system. The app can be used to monitor a race in real time, but it also caches each race in the cloud so officials can review races at a later date.

Race Management is something fans would appreciate, and that may happen one day. But it’s also a tool that teams would love to get their hands on, because right now NASCAR basically offers no real-time data during a race. (The cars don’t even tell drivers how much gas is left.)

When NASCAR switched to electronic fuel injection system, it allowed teams to measure things like throttle position, engine RPMs, and brake pressures, but to this day they can only download that data during practice or after a race.

When the cars are flying around the track, though, teams basically have lap times, whatever the broadcast shows, and what the driver is telling them. “The driver is still our main source of information, he’s our onboard computer,” Trent Owens, crew chief for the 37 car, shouts to me in the garage over the roar of a neighboring engine.

The driver might not have to serve as the computer for long, though. The Race Management and Mobile Inspection apps are proof that NASCAR has entered a new era when it comes to the ability to generate, process, and collect data. The cars themselves even now have digital dashboards, which show a little bit more data than was previously available (like oil temperatures), and are customizable to the driver’s liking.

The result of these advancements is that everyone involved with the sport — from the series directors and executives all the way down to the crew chiefs and drivers — are now grappling with a more philosophical question: who should that data be available to?

Ask a crew chief like Owens, who is part of one of NASCAR’s smaller teams, and he’ll tell you straight out that he wants access. “We want all we can get,” he says. “As crew chiefs, we can’t get enough information on our race vehicle.”

Byrd recognizes the power in the applications he’s helped create. But he’s hesitant about allowing too much access. “We don’t want to create an arms race to make technology the forefront of our cars on the track,” he says. “Believe me, there’s an enormous amount of technology that goes into those cars. But NASCAR’s a little bit different. We like the control to be in the drivers’ hands. We don’t want to create a bunch of self-driving cars around the track, we want to make sure there’s that real human element involved.”

Gordon, the 22’s crew chief, was more diplomatic. “I’m indifferent. I can see both sides. The engineer in me says I want all the data I can have to make my racecar better. But I think the less we know, the better off the racing is.” When I asked if he’d refuse the data if it was made available, though, he leveled with me. “Well no. If we’ve got it, we’ll use it,” he said. “If you give me all you’ve got, I’m going to use every bit I can.”

Kligerman went one step further, warning NASCAR to stay in its lane. F1 is already the hyper-technical motorsport, he says, so NASCAR should own the niche of being the motorsport with the most human influence. “We know we could just open it up and just suddenly be flooded with technology on the cars, and suddenly be flooded with data, and the engineers would rejoice because it makes their jobs easier, and even some of the drivers it makes our jobs easier,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s where NASCAR wants to go. There’s definitely a fine line between keeping the human the most important factor, and keeping it technologically current.”

Away from the haulers and the pit boxes, fans seemed just as into the Daytona 500 as with any other NASCAR race. They oohed and aahed at the crashes. They cheered when Dale Earnhardt Jr. briefly took the lead, and they jeered Kyle Busch until he wrecked. If there was any hand-wringing over the new format, it didn’t feel like anything more than the usual bitching that comes with being a racing fan.

Modernizing the race format and the technology is important for NASCAR going forward, but they’re far from the only things that’s going to keep the sport moving. NASCAR is more dependent on its TV revenue than ever thanks to the decline in attendance, so the success of those relationships (and contracts) will dictate a lot about the sport’s future. (This is also why, for now, “just shorten the races” is a losing argument.)

NASCAR also needs to work harder on diversity. This was the case even before this year’s Daytona 500, where Monster Energy — the new series sponsor — brought back the practice of “grid girls,” an embarrassing vestige that should have been left back in the 20th century.

The most immediate help to NASCAR might be how its drivers and their liberal use of social media like Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram. Hell, Brad Keselowski even used to tweet from his car (until NASCAR changed the rules). The sport is full of young stars who love to share, and that alone could set it up for another big run.

This year’s Daytona 500 was a chance for the fans in attendance and the viewers at home to get a glimpse of the immediate future of NASCAR. After three hot days in Daytona, though, it’s clear that’s all it was — a glimpse. Like any beta test, there are still bugs to be worked out and problems to be troubleshooted before NASCAR can truly measure the impact of these new ideas. There’s a decent chance the 2017 season ends with just as much swirling uncertainty as ever.

NASCAR’s not my favorite motorsport, even if it’s the one I’ve watched the most over the years. But what I love about it, and what I think made it so popular, is that the length of the races combined with the simple structure of “go fast, turn left” forces the drivers to battle themselves in addition to their competitors. It’s as much a mental game as it is about speed or fantastic crashes.

The new NASCAR is not the NASCAR I grew up with, but I liked what I saw in Daytona. They’ve found ways to push the sport without removing that human element. Now it’s up to NASCAR to prove that this is the right way forward.

Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

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