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Memo: NASCAR Is Shedding The Ear Muffs

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 13 2010
NASCAR is reaching out to drivers and fans as it ponders changes in the sport. Good idea?  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR is reaching out to drivers and fans as it ponders changes in the sport. Good idea? (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Let’s see what’s in the old Morning Memo today:

As head of Toyota’s NASCAR effort, Lee White has surely had his share of skirmishes with NASCAR officials. Probably more, bigger and louder ones than have had the heads of the other car manufacturers.

But during an informal chat a couple months ago, White gave NASCAR very high marks on a subject for which many in racing have traditionally given the sanctioning body failing grades – listening.

Not only listening, White went on to say, but actively soliciting opinions; opinions from teams, drivers, manufacturers and even fans. White seemed impressed and if he is, more probably should be as well.

NASCAR was not really built upon democratic principles. Bill France and Bill France Jr. were tough guys. They had a vision and a plan for what they wanted to do with stock car racing in America and they plowed forward more with strong legs than big ears.

It’s probably a good thing they did. They presided over a tough sport which was populated by tough men during tough times.

You could not simply walk up to people like Smokey Yunick or Cale Yarborough and kindly request they do something for you, you know, as kind of a personal favor. And, you couldn’t schedule a vote every time the course of their business – which was still in the construction stages – needed to be adjusted.

Construction projects need confident engineers and strong foremen and NASCAR had two beauties in the Frances.

NASCAR now, however, has been built, lived-in and is showing some age. The folks running the series, it appears, now feel that it is time to get the opinion of the current employees and customers as they plan a re-freshening of the product.

Last year, NASCAR held a well-publicized town meeting with teams and drivers to listen to concerns. Not so well publicized has been a current campaign to not only listen to concerns emanating from the garages and grandstands, but to actively solicit opinion.

Over the past several days, word has gotten out that NASCAR officials – including chairman and CEO Brian France and NASCAR president Mike Helton – are meeting face-to-face with all teams and all drivers this off season.

And it appears the listening will produce actual change. Yellow no-passing lines, bans on bump drafting and even the Cars of Tomorrow will likely all be modified as a result.

Naturally, the policy of soliciting and listening to opinion appears to be a big hit with the inmates. At the Sound and Speed event in Nashville over the weekend, several professed a love for it.

“You know,” Tony Stewart said when asked about potential change, “I think the one thing about it, I’m kind of proud of NASCAR for it because they constantly are looking at things.”

Carl Edwards said, “I want to say it’s cool that NASCAR is willing to make changes to try to do anything they can to make the racing as exciting as it can be for the fans.”

Me, I think it is probably a good thing to hold these meetings, to listen, and then adjust the product.

But I also think any forthcoming potential adjustments need to be thoroughly analyzed by France and Helton and the folks down at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.

Fixing squeaky wheels by just applying grease could cause bigger, more expensive problems down the road. There is danger in allowing too many brushes to be dabbed onto the paint pallet (See CART – 1990s edition).

Memo to self: This might be a good time to suggest NASCAR put wet bars in media centers.

I beg to differ

Fan polls serve a purpose. They give the ticket-buying public their day and their say. They shed interesting insight into the minds of people in the grandstands and on couches. They are very democratic as they take the debate to the streets.

They are not, however, always grounded in cold analysis. By nature, they reflect bias. The tend to be, that is, popularity contests.

Take, for example, ESPN.com’s recent fan poll. The World Wide Leader asked readers to name the top driver of the decade. And the winner was, Formula One’s Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher was a worthy candidate, for sure. He won five championships in the decade. He won 48 races.

But he posted his numbers at a time in F1 when there simply was not huge competition for him and his Ferarri teams. It was Ferrari, Mercedes and occasional flashes from BMW or Renault. And when you figure that Ferarri had team orders in place for Rubens Barrichello, the depth of competition shallows-up even more.

The fact was, you could pretty much count on the same six drivers finishing one through six on any given weekend.

Jimmie Johnson won his four championships at a time in NASCAR when 15 to 20 drivers could win races and 12 to 14 actually were winning races.

That’s important. I vote in a couple of polls and always consider the depth of competition.

Memo to self: Get ready for avalanche of mail with European postmarks.

More to love?

Word out of Phoenix is that the spring Cup race at PIR will be extended by 63 laps this year. The move is a response to earlier starting times mandated by NASCAR. PIR wants to keep as much of the race under the lights as possible.

Let’s see, with laps taking about 30 seconds, that means an additional half hour or so of racing at PIR. Last spring, it took 2 hours, 53 minutes and 16 seconds to complete the Subway Fit 500. That means the Subway Fit 600 (PIR does the goofy kilometer thing) will take almost three and a half hours to complete.

Hey, I love PIR. Love the track and the racing there. They even seem to have made major strides in traffic flow.

And I love the Daytona and Le Mans 24-hour races.

But three and a half hours for a Cup race is too much. Races should be shorter, not longer. Asking fans to invest half of a treasured weekend day at the nicest time of the year is asking the impossible.

Bad move.

Memo to self: Sure hope this idea does not spread to Pocono.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 13 2010