It’s been easy the last several seasons to kick NASCAR as it struggled with sinking ratings, slipping sponsorships and, worst of all, lousy racing.
It’s not fair, though, to talk only about what’s gone wrong, particularly at a time when NASCAR is doing many things right. Those positive turns are often overlooked, partly because it’s far more fun to flog all the flaws than it is to dish out credit for making positive change.
It’s been almost a year since NASCAR opened its ears in two town-hall style meeting between top executives and the competitors. The sport was in trouble — the economy had wreaked havoc on everyone’s bottom line, and nobody was all that thrilled with the competition — and NASCAR was willing to listen to ideas.
There was initial concern that those May 26, 2009 meetings were nothing more lip service. Looking back, they were actually a major turning point for the industry because actual changes have followed.
NASCAR switched to the popular double-file restart format two weeks after the town-hall meeting, and plans to eliminate the wing that so offended race fans began taking shape. When NASCAR received considerable backlash over the watered-down October race at Talladega, the “boys, have at it” policy was born.
Fans displeasure with never knowing what time a race was going to begin was fixed by the consistent start times policy that went into effect this season, and the decision was made to put the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup championship on ESPN to streamline yet another aspect.
Struggling at this time last year with the fallout from Jeremy Mayfield’s failed drug test and the confusion many drivers claimed they had over NASCAR’s toughened new policy, a list of banned substances was created and made available to teams at the start of this season.
NASCAR chairman Brian France and his top management team spent the off season individually meeting with every race team to discuss the tract they were taking in a bid to stop the bleeding. For a series that had forever been run like a dictatorship, this open attitude was a refreshing change.
And if there was any doubt that NASCAR was willing to do whatever was needed to save the show, it responded to the many customers left dissatisfied when the first race of the year, the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, ended under caution. Entered into competition just four days before the season-opening Daytona 500, the new policy of three attempts at a green-whitecheckered flag ending has radically improved the racing this year.
So here they are, a year later, coming off one of the most celebratory weeks in NASCAR history.
The glitzy $195 million Hall of Fame opened this month amid a tremendous amount of anticipation. NASCAR celebrated all of last week with numerous Hall of Fame events, then moved to the race track for Saturday night’s annual All- Star race.
The racing, like it has been for most of the year, was much improved. Granted, the field had to first figure out how to catch four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, but ever since the wing was replaced by the traditional spoiler in March, ol’ Double J hasn’t seemed so invincible anymore.
The “have at it” policy, designed to allow drivers to self-police on the track while also encouraging more emotion, again gave NASCAR a juicy storyline when teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch raced each other hard for a shot at the win. When that aggressiveness led to a race-ending crash for Busch, he threatened to kill Hamlin over his team radio (lovely to see you again, “old” Kyle!).
By the time team owner Joe Gibbs had diff used the situation with a closed-door meeting, it was already Sunday and attention had shifted into the inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Nobody knew what to expect out of the ceremony that honored founder Bill France Sr., his son, Bill Jr., seventime champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and pioneer Junior Johnson.
What those in attendance were treated to was a walk down memory lane that reminded everyone just how special NASCAR really is. It was a celebration of both the past and the present, and a rare opportunity for the entire industry to step back and look at everything that’s going well right now.
“It made me proud to be part of the, proud to be a driver,” said three-time champion Darrell Waltrip. “It makes me even prouder just to be part of the community, the NASCAR community. We have come so far, and done so much.”
Now, if only NASCAR could figure out how to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win again!