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Memo To NASCAR, Sprint: Don’t Go Changin’ So Darn Much

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 12 2013

The Budweiser Shootout is dead. So is its original purpose. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Laawdermilk)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Change can be a good thing. Especially when there are good reasons for the change. And, as with most things, when the changes are made in thoughtful moderation and are aimed at improving the human condition. Like adding Flamin’ Hot to the Funyuns lineup.

Then there is change for its own sake. Change that produces more confusion than improvement. Change which attacks and leeches away positive things like tradition and ease of understanding.

NASCAR’s top non-points-paying events have been the targets of Type B change in recent years. Changes that to some are unnecessary, hard to understand and capricious. Changes that seem kind of desperate and exude an oder of: let’s throw this against the wall and see if it sticks.

On Saturday night, NASCAR will kick off its 2013 season by holding the Sprint Unlimited – the all-starish kind of event which used to be known as the Budweiser Challenge and the Busch Clash before that.

It was born in 1979 and consisted of a 20-lap sprint. Period.

Eligibility was restricted to pole winners from the previous year and a wild card selection. Period.

Since then, the format of the race, and its eligibility requirements have been regularly juggled –  seven times for format, nine times for eligibility.

The question is: for better or for worse.

The answer is probably, for neither. Once the race starts most of that stuff is forgotten and the on-track product has been both good and not so good regardless of format or qualifying procedure.

The problem is, constant changes to the event necessitate pre-race research just to figure out what exactly is going on. Which, to a certain extent, one supposes, can be cool. It can add excitment. It can freshen.

It also can render tradition to the trash. Ditto for cool sporting peculiarities like historical comparison.

This year, the opportunity for research will be cut considerably as the format of the 2013 Unlimited will not be announced until the 11th hour. That’s because the format for the race, and also its starting lineup, will be decided by on-line voting by fans.

To wit:

• Fans can choose among three different formats — segments of 40 laps, 20 laps and 15 laps; or segments of 35, 30 and 10; or 30, 25 and 20. Voting ends Feb 13.

• Fans can vote on whether the race will feature a pit stop — no stop, a two-tire stop or a four-tire stop — following first segment. Voting will be allowed up until the green flag for the race, and teams will be told during the first segment the result of the vote. Teams must do what the fans vote — if fans vote for no pit stop, then teams cannot pit between the first and second segment.

• Fans can vote after the second segment whether any drivers should be eliminated from the field. They have the choice of none being eliminated, two drivers, four or six. Voting will be allowed up until the beginning of the second segment, and drivers will be told during the second segment how many will be eliminated.

The starting lineup will be determined by fans at the track on race day. Choices will be by 2012 owner points, practice speeds or car number.

That is, past performance and accomplishments will have less bearing on the look and feel of an event that was, at one time, all about past performance and accomplishments.

The new look of the Unlimited goes along with the new NASCAR philosophy of turning the sport over to fans. And that is an interesting subject in itself and brings up some basic questions. Is it democratic or anarchistic? Is the Unlimited a sporting event or like elections for junior high school class president?

The process, it seems, has become more important to event organizers than the racing itself.

Here’s hoping the Funyun change stops at Flamin Hot and does not expand to Zesty Monkey Fur.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 12 2013
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