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.

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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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Danica Patrick – give the girl a break

In the past couple of weeks the UK’s national press allowed itself a ripple of excitement over the news that the Williams F1 team has named Susie Wolff as effectively its fourth driver, and she will run in practice sessions at the British and German Grand Prix meetings.

“F1’s first female driver in 22 years” screamed the headlines. Never mind the fact that being fourth on the pecking order means that Susie’s chances of actually progressing from a couple of tests to a spot on the F1 grid are pretty slim – she’s a woman, and she’s in an F1 car, so that’s news right?

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Danica attracts the crowds wherever she goes… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Someone who is very used to this mass media attention purely due to her gender is Danica Patrick. Now many UK race fans probably won’t have heard of Danica, but in the US you don’t have to be a fan of any sport to know all about her, because she is everywhere.

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Strong performances at the wheel of 200mph-plus IndyCar single seaters.

Patrick competes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, America’s biggest race series. Before transferring to the big stock cars in 2012, she ran in the IndyCar Series – just about the fastest motorsport around, single seaters running at speeds up to 230mph on high-banked ovals, a series that includes the iconic Indianapolis 500. She came pretty close to winning the Indy 500 in 2009, eventually finishing third, and a year earlier had taken victory at Motegi in Japan to become the only female winner in the series.

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The big IndyCar win, at Motegi in Japan in 2008.

So Patrick was big news before she headed for NASCAR, but when she arrived there… In terms of profile, IndyCar is very much in the shadow of NASCAR, and when Patrick arrived, the sport was planted firmly on the front pages of every newspaper – she boosted the crowds at the tracks, many of which routinely attract attendances of more than 100,000 for what is basically a 36-race national series, and TV ratings climbed when viewers knew Patrick was on. It really was Danica mania, firmly based on the fact that this was a woman, racing the men, and yes she attracted many more female viewers to the sport.

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Danica is of course much in demand by the photographers… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Two things about Patrick – it’s fair to say that she knows how to market her actually not that unique status in the sport – there are other female NASCAR drivers, some running as high as in the second-division Nationwide Series, but it is Danica you will find starring in the swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated…

Secondly, just starting her third season, she is yet to really set the sport alight on the track. She didn’t charge to glory in her first season, or even her second, and that has simply stoked the views of the nay-sayers, and a growing backlash amongst some fans.

Part of my role involves me following the in-race Tweets of various members of the US media who cover the championship. There are 43 cars in the race but it’s when Patrick gets lapped by the leader that loads of media Tweet the fact. If Patrick has a crash, you scroll through the various Tweets yelling “DANICA IN THE WALL!”  – the sort of all-embracing coverage otherwise only reserved for title contenders.

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Danica’s early NASCAR career has been blighted by accidents, by no means always her fault… Photo courtesy NASCAR

The NASCAR season starts with the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. Last year Patrick went out and snatched pole position for the race. Oh how excited were the conspiracy theorists! This was of course a NASCAR put-up job… Nope, she is at her best on the superspeedways such as Daytona and on this day she got it right more than the rest did.

We see such views in the Charman household – number one son, himself a rookie motorsport journo, never fails to offer me the view that “she’s never won anything and she’s only there because she’s a woman.”

Well the facts speak differently. Don’t get me wrong, Patrick is not the best racing driver in the world, and she’s likely not champion material. But neither is she any worse than a lot of the drivers around her.

Patrick is into her second full-season in the top-level Sprint Cup, with no wins yet. Her highest place was a fourth in the Nationwide Series, in 2011, when she was combining her IndyCar racing with some toe-in-the-water NASCAR outings.

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Another wrong place to be, this time at Daytona. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But this is NASCAR, where stats simply don’t tell the full story. Martin Truex Jnr, for example, came to Sprint Cup in 2006, as a two-time Nationwide champion. He won a race in his second season, not his first, in 2007. He then had to wait until last summer to win a second – a 218-race winless streak. And he is considered one of the hotter Sprint Cup pilots.

Aric Almirola, running for Richard Petty Motorsport, has been in the Sprint Cup full-time a year longer than Patrick. He hasn’t won yet. David Ragan, a firm fixture in the Cup, won his first race in his NASCAR career at Daytona in 2011 – it was his 163rd start. And he’s only won one more since. Yet the microscope is not on these or the many others for which statistics can be made to tell any tale you want. And these are generally drivers that have been racing stock cars since they could walk, not the single seaters in which Patrick got her education.

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Team boss Tony Stewart can clearly see Patrick’s potential. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But these drivers will secure the odd top-ten finish on a regular basis, say the detractors – Danica hasn’t… Not yet, maybe. But look at her first full-time year in the Cup. Her Stewart-Haas team, the 2011 champions, for much of the season struggled, not helped by team-leader Tony Stewart taking himself out of the running by breaking his leg mid season in a Sprint Car race.

Thankfully, the drivers who race with Patrick are generally more switched on to her abilities than are some of the fans and certain sections of the media, not least Tony Stewart. He’s not known for hiding his opinions, and if he thought Patrick did not deserve to be in a seat with his team, he’d come out and say it. But she’s still there, I remind everyone starting only her second full season in NASCAR’s top formula.

So far, some might say, it doesn’t look good. Three races in, Patrick lies 33rd in points, with not a top-ten finish to her name. But neither have her team-mates Kurt Busch or Tony Stewart, both former champions. Fact is Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling, only new recruit Kevin Harvick seeming to be able to make the car work right now. Patrick did have two strong performances in the opening two races, however, only to get caught up in accidents.

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In 2014 Danica Patrick needs to be adding good race finishes to performances such as the pole award she earned at Daytona in 2013. Photo courtesy NASCAR

At Las Vegas last weekend, she out-qualified Busch and Stewart, found in the race that the car was terrible, worked on it to make it better, and while she finished 21st, it was five places ahead of Busch, 12 up on Stewart. With Harvick retiring, Danica was the best finisher for the entire Stewart-Haas team.

There’s no denying it, Patrick needs a better 2014 than 2013. This NASCAR follower thinks she will have a better one. But whatever happens throughout the rest of the 2014 season, it will be because Danica Patrick is a racing driver – not just a female racing driver…