Weathering the elements
There’s no way to beat Mother Nature, but NASCAR can improve how it competes with her
Everyone jokes about race commentator Larry McReynolds’ fascination with The Weather Channel, but I think he’s onto something. NASCAR needs to hire an official forecaster because, obviously, no one in charge of the races can read a radar. That’s the only explanation I can come up with as to why NASCAR starts so many races at times guaranteed to produce rain-shortened finishes.
Things got off to a soggy start last year with Matt Kenseth winning a Daytona 500 called because of rain after only about three-fourths of the race had been run. I can only imagine what it was like in the stands, but I know all us TV viewers on social media sites and in Internet chat rooms were in the same place emotionally: We were flat-out angry.
The Sprint Cup’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, was delayed a day because of rain. And even when the drivers finally got onto the track on Monday instead of Sunday, it wasn’t pretty. More moisture forced a choppy race that ended when David Reutimann was declared the winner barely past the halfway point.
Good for Joey Logano for becoming the youngest winner in Cup series history at New Hampshire. But bad for the sport and its fans when Logano took the checkers prematurely because of rain.
Even Watkins Glen fell victim to wet weather. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. NASCAR once promised to develop rain tires so it could run the road courses come hell or high water. But in August, as we waited for the rain-delayed race to start on Monday, NASCAR President Mike Helton disappointingly announced that the sport now has no plans to run any Sprint Cup races on wet tracks.
So what can NASCAR do? Plenty, and it doesn’t even involve new rubber.
Start the races
First, just get down to business. Guess what, NASCAR, your fans aren’t buying tickets to hear lame pre-race concerts. They just want to see competitive — and complete — races. Ditto for TV viewers. We don’t tune in to watch two hours of chit-chat and canned features for any race, especially when we all know, thanks to numerous weather forecasts, that rain is on its way.
Yes, I know the networks pay for the right to fill their afternoons or evenings. But have they considered that NASCAR ratings take a hit when good races aren’t run? So why do they insist on sticking with start times that give bad weather more time to get to the track?
That’s exactly what happened at Daytona last February. And we all knew that the longer the start was delayed for nonrace entertainment, the greater the chance we’d get a rain-shortened race. And after that inauspicious start to the 2009 season, it happened again and again.
So rain-fix suggestion No. 1 is to adjust start times so that if a storm is expected later in the day, the green flag drops as early as possible. Instead of hours of inane filler, make it clear that when there’s a possibility of rain, the race starts at 12:30 p.m. local time, regardless of location.
Once you set that policy, fans at the track or in their living rooms will know what’s what. It might not always work out, but neither does the current system. And I can guarantee that fans will at least appreciate the effort to run a full race instead of simply using it as an afterthought to what some TV producer perceives as an entertainment extravaganza.
Move to Saturday
Another way avoid rainy races is to move the Sprint Cup to Saturday nights as often as possible. If it rains, you have a built-in Sunday afternoon replacement date. Yes, weather fronts can and do arrive on Saturdays and stick through the whole weekend. But not always. And by providing a non-workday backup option, more folks would have a chance to stick around and see the rescheduled race.
There’s also an answer to qualifying attempts that were rained out. When it rains on qualifying day, don’t give the points leader all the benefits. Line up the starting grids by points, but let the teams decide pit selection according to the random qualifying numbers they draw.
That means if Jimmie Johnson (you know he’ll be atop the list most of the time) was to make his qualifying run 40th, for example, then 39 other guys will get their pit stall picks before him. That’s as close to fair as we can get.
NASCAR, you can’t control Mother Nature, but you sure can improve the way you compete with her. And when you have the opportunity to work around the rain, just do it.
Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.
Less on-track debris As the new Sprint Cup season begins, here’s an interesting tidbit about last year: The number of crashes was down from 2008, despite the introduction of the double-file restart for the second half of the season. There were 195 crashes and spins (an average of 5.4 per race) in 2009, according to NASCAR, an 8.5 percent drop from 2008, when there were 211 crashes and spins (an average of 5.9). The 2009 total is also the lowest since 2002, when there was an average of 5.2 per race.
NASCAR officials said they couldn’t point to any specifics as to why the number was down, though it seems clear that most everyone realizes how crucial it is to run as many laps and amass as many points as possible to make the playoffs and contend for the championship. A lot of observers, including me, thought the double-file restarts might lead to more mayhem, but that wasn’t the case in 2009. That could change, of course, but I give NASCAR credit for this move, which I see as a real positive.
California girl After initial reports that she would begin her Nationwide Series career at Daytona, Danica Patrick now plans to make her debut at California in the season’s second week. She does, however, plan to run the ARCA race at Daytona. I’m skeptical of Danica’s chances for success in stock cars, and sitting out the first week is the right way to go. Any driver with her lack of experience at Daytona would be dangerous, and there’s no need for her to risk starting, or even being caught up in, “the big one.” By contrast, Fontana is big and wide, and she’ll have plenty of room to start getting used to her Nationwide competition.
To the point When the Formula 1 season kicks off in March, the grids will feature 26 cars instead of the usual 20. As a result, F-1 is modifying its point system. Since 2003, a winner got 10 points, with the runner-up getting eight, third place getting six, fourth getting five, fifth getting four, sixth getting three, seventh getting two and eighth getting one.
For 2010, a winner will receive 25 points, with 20 for second, 15 for third, 10 for fourth, eight for fifth, six for sixth, five for seventh, three for eighth, two for ninth and one for 10th place. Drivers finishing 11th or lower will get nothing.