NASCAR gimmicks? Not so much…

ShortAxle is back! Yes I know, it’s a terribly long time since I last posted here. But hopefully from now you should see more regular posts, coinciding with the launch of my new website at www.andrewcharman.co.uk. There will also be a new theme to this page soon to better sit alongside the website.

As I write this we are 24 hours away from the real start of my motorsport year– Mrs C is in the kitchen starting work on meatloaf, mudslide pies and the like, as it’s the Daytona 500 tomorrow and we always have a bit of an American-themed day to mark the arrival of the NASCAR season.

No doubt tomorrow’s race will be described by some as ‘the start of a new era’ for NASCAR, not just because of a new aerodynamic package with significantly less downforce, but the wholesale change in race formats, on which I will go into more detail shortly.

No rest come winter

NASCAR has had a few of these ‘new eras’ in recent times. I used to enjoy my annual catch-up with the sport’s technical types when they came over for the symposium staged each year in January by Race Tech, one of the magazines I write for. But these guys haven’t been able to join us for a while now because each winter they’ve been too busy getting their heads around the latest wholesale rule changes, as NASCAR tries to address a major issue – significantly fewer people are watching the sport.

Personally I don’t think the blame for a decline in spectator numbers over recent years can be completely levelled at NASCAR – the whole world knows Americans have been feeling less than comfortable and when you don’t feel comfortable you don’t spend money. But it’s sad when TV pictures show tracks such as Bristol only half full. Bristol! Where once races sold out to the degree that one went on a waiting list in the hope of getting some tickets in a couple of years time. A place very much on this writer’s bucket list.

So NASCAR can’t simply accept such declines, it has to try and arrest the slump, which is why we’ve got used to major changes between seasons. Even so, I couldn’t quite believe the reaction to the latest changes from one leading US motorsport correspondent.

NASCAR Bristol

When the great bullring of Bristol can’t sell out its race, NASCAR has to take notice – and it is. Photo courtesy Toyota Racing

Three times the winners?

In brief, under the new formula NASCAR has not cut the length of the races, as some suggested, but instead split them into three sections, and made points available to the top ten finishers at the end of the first two sections – along with bonus points to segment winners who make it to the end-of-season play-offs, what we used to call The Chase.

Matters are still very much biased towards the race victory – win either of the first two segments and you get 10 points, win the last segment and you get 40. Each segment is split by a caution period, so the way a race pans out is potentially not that different to previously, except that drivers have a reason not to trundle around until the last 50 laps or so, instead ensuring they are in position to snatch what could prove to be crucial segment points.

Well this did not impress Robin Miller, a lead writer on the series long pitched as NASCAR’s big rival, IndyCar. I’m not one to have a go at the media, especially in America where nowadays they have a President who does that, but Miller, banging home his view that the NASCAR changes were good news for IndyCar, indulged in a level of vitriol towards the stock car side of US motorsport that shocked me.

He suggested the changes could be seen as “desperate, confusing, hilarious or totally necessary to try and keep people engaged for (NASCAR’s) weekly marathons of pit stops, speeding penalties and commercials.” He added that the sport’s management had realised “what many of us have thought for a long time: It’s B-O-R-I-N-G,” and laid into NASCAR’s “phantom caution flag” culture.

Now Miller is not the first to make that last argument, and we’ve all been incredulous at the reasons for some of the cautions before, but it seems too that NASCAR is trying to do something about this – witness another new rule, stopping beaten-up cars returning to the track and dropping bits all over the place.

IndyCar can benefit, Miller says, because unlike NASCAR it is pure racing, where 20 cars can often be separated by a second and the fastest usually wins out without gimmicks such as lucky-dog cautions and such like to aid them.

Well firstly, I think one will struggle to find any completely pure circuit racing these days, apart from club events of just a few laps. All top series use safety cars, and safety cars close up the field. Even in Formula One a driver can build up a massive lead over several laps and see it completely disappear with just a few laps remaining due to a safety car period. In that respect NASCAR is no different in format to any other series, including IndyCar.

NASCAR, however, doesn’t have push-to-pass. Miller glosses over this anything-but-pure feature of IndyCar as “just extra power that each driver has to manage smartly so he’s got some at the end of the race and it helps overtaking on a narrow city circuit”. Hmmm… In NASCAR, each driver knows he has the same car package, the same tyres, as every other driver around him, from front to back. He doesn’t have to think how many more squirts of extra horsepower he has available, when he passes someone he has to do it properly. Which is the more pure?

And while we are describing as ‘gimmicks’, the awarding of extra points, we should remember that IndyCar came up with a double points finale. Score consistently all year and then get overtaken by someone who gets lucky in the final race. Though to his credit Miller does insist that this concept is not needed in IndyCar.

Yes, NASCAR has made lots of changes, but gimmicks? The latest ones, what do they do? They encourage the drivers to race harder to get results, without giving them buttons to help them overtake. Is that a bad thing?

Despite its recent issues, the fact remains that NASCAR still attracts, week after week, significantly larger audiences than IndyCar – the stock car fans that have gone away aren’t going to watch the single-seater formula instead.

This is not really the point, though. I enjoy watching IndyCar Racing, just as I really enjoy watching NASCAR racing, The stage is certainly big enough for both, without proponents of one feeling the need to take pot shots at the other…

Now, roll on the Daytona 500!

IndyCar Series

We like IndyCar but it doesn’t fill the stands either. And its proponents should not have a go at other series. Photo: IndyCar

 

 

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Of classic cars and very mixed memories

This week took me to the Silverstone Classic media day. It’s the second time I’ve been but I haven’t yet made it to the event itself at the end of July. I hope to change that this year because it really has become one heck of a festival, with huge, quality grids right across the historic spectrum.

The media day gives me a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues in the business, while getting up close – as in wandering through the garages and standing on the pit wall as DFV-powered 1970s F1 cars howl past – to some glorious historic machinery, all in a very relaxing environment.

The Lister Storm - how old?

The Lister Storm GT car – is it really that old? Photo: Andrew Charman

However the day does also provide the odd sobering moment – I find it hard to believe that the Lister Storm GT car that I’m looking at is now considered historic, as it doesn’t seem yesterday that I was writing about its British and International GT appearances. But then I am informed that Julian Bailey won the FIA GT Championship in it in 2000, and that was 14 years ago…

Time we can’t forget

On a much darker note, conversation amongst journalists at Silverstone inevitably turns to events two decades ago. The media day marks the exact 20th anniversary of the death, in practice for the San Marino Grand Prix, of Roland Ratzenberger – a tragedy that many believe was totally overshadowed by what happened the following day. I, like some others, am in the opposite camp – would people still talk about Roland, if Ayrton Senna hadn’t died too? Possibly not – we don’t hear so much these days about Elio de Angelis, Patrick Depailler, Tom Pryce…

Still, in motorsport we all remember where we were on 1st May 1994 – it is our President Kennedy moment. For me, it was Snetterton, qualifying day for the British Touring Car Championship. And it was slightly surreal to observe how the mood at the circuit changed as the news filtered through from Imola – mind you a feeling very similar to that I would experience seven years later, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, on the 11th September 2001.

On race day at Snetterton, the mood was even stranger, people wanting to enjoy the meeting but still in shock at what had happened the day before. The Alfa Romeos, then dominating the BTCC, had black stripes painted on the corner of their noses, and when a two-minute silence was held, you could have heard a pin drop – at a race circuit.

Senna in action at Brands Hatch in 1981, and below making a rare mistake. some of my earliest motor racing photos. Sadly in the time available I was unable to locate my pictures of Ratzenberger, they are in the archive somewhere...

Senna in action at Brands Hatch in 1981, and below making a rare mistake – some of my earliest motor racing photos. Sadly in the time available I was unable to locate my pictures of Ratzenberger, they are in the archive somewhere…

I remember too how personally odd the Imola tragedies felt, because both Senna and Ratzenberger were drivers I had first-hand watched climbing the earliest stages of the career ladder, photographing them making their name in Formula Ford races at Brands Hatch.

Senna arrived in 1981, the year after I started building my career at the circuit as initially a photographer. Except that then he was known as Ayrton da Silva – he generally was at the front of each race he ran in, won the championship and then at the end of the season went back to Brazil and we thought we’d never see him again. But he was back the following year, dominating FF2000, and the rest, as they say…

1405Classic02Roland came later, at the end of the 1985 season when he starred at the Formula Ford Festival – in those days a meeting with a far higher-profile than is the case today. He endeared himself to UK audiences with his innocent lack of knowledge as to why everyone laughed at his name. When he found out, what did he do? Got sponsorship from TV-AM, home of the Roland Rat puppet. Class…

Two very different drivers, but still two lost talents, and today we still have fond memories of them both.

Super Touring – it’s back…

To end on a brighter note. A major reason for being at the media day is to keep an eye on progress in the Super Touring Championship – a historic series invented as a guest race at the Silverstone Classic a couple of years ago, and which this year has become a full-blown historic championship for the first time.

Super Tourers - back on the track where they belong, here at Thruxton on Easter Saturday. This and the following picture are courtesy of Peter Still, PSP Images, a superb photographer and strong supporter of the Super Touring series. For more of Peter's work go to http://psp-images.photoshelter.com/

Super Tourers – back on the track where they belong, here at Thruxton on Easter Saturday. This and the following picture are courtesy of Peter Still, PSP Images, a superb photographer and strong supporter of the Super Touring series. For more of Peter’s work go to http://psp-images.photoshelter.com/

Partly thanks to the eldest offspring covering the series for touringcartimes.com, a couple of weeks ago I saw my first historic Super Touring race, as part of a clubbie at Thruxton (can’t remember the last time I went to a clubbie…).  Now you could argue that I’d be a tough audience – after all I was right in the thick of things for almost the whole of the true Super Touring era, I remember just how big that time was, so surely a collection of used Super Tourers driven by little-known drivers won’t be much to write home about…

Actually, it’s great. For starters there are plenty of cars, with more emerging from the shadows all the time. They are generally very well prepared, with authenticity the key – they look and sound just like they did back then, which is not easy as getting parts for them is still not a cheap process and today’s drivers don’t have anything like the budgets the manufacturer works teams did back in the 1990s.

For the same reason, you don’t – generally – see the panel-bashing racing that made the BTCC of the Super Touring era a favourite of audiences both at the track and particularly on the BBC. But that’s okay, you don’t expect that in historic racing. These cars are still raced hard, and it’s brilliant to see them back where they should be – on the track.

Watts and Cleland – former stars back in their cars. Photo: Peter Still, PSP Images.

Watts and Cleland – former stars back in their cars. Photo: Peter Still, PSP Images.

Oh yes, one more aspect. Among the new breed of drivers racing these cars, there are a couple of names that sound familiar – Cleland and Watts…

John bought back his 1997 Vectra, and Patrick the last BTCC Super Touring Peugeots, that had gone all the way to Australia. And they are having a ball – they are not outclassing the field but they are making some headlines, both on the podium (Cleland’s Easter Saturday win at Thruxton was widely reported amongst those at Donington for the rounds of the current BTCC) and in more traditional fashion. Patrick’s heavy impact with the barriers at last year’s Classic is in all the publicity for this year’s event, while one of Cleland’s Thruxton rivals muttered darkly that John had bumped him out of the way on route to that victory…

Superb Touring Cars – one reason to be at the Silverstone Classic in July – and Oulton Park next month... Photo: Andrew Charman

Superb Touring Cars – one reason to be at the Silverstone Classic in July – and Oulton Park next month… Photo: Andrew Charman

There are rumours of more past Touring Car stars jumping into their old cars, while more cars are definitely set to appear – apparently the going rate for a used Super Tourer has mushroomed in recent months. This is a series on the up, but before it fulfills a no-doubt starring role at the Silverstone Classic on 25th-27th July there is a possibly bigger challenge.

On the weekend of 7th June, the Super Touring Series will be at Oulton Park, as a support event to – the British Touring Car Championship. What will today’s BTCC crowds think of these stars of yesteryear? I think they’ll love them…