Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Good Start, But More To Be Done

NASCAR made it official yesterday, announcing the release of a long-discussed, single piece composite body for its Grand National Division (Busch East and AutoZone West Series) teams. The move has been in the works for more than a year, and is seen as a cost-cutting measure, allowing teams to avoid the weekly expense of repairing steel bodies during the series' predominantly short-track schedules.

My friends on the Busch East Series say it costs approximately $10,000 to hang a Nextel Cup-style steel body on their cars, and repairs aren't cheap, either. Now, teams will have the option to run a molded synthetic composite body, which comes in one piece for easy replacement. The composite bodies will be mandatory in 2007, with an estimated cost of $7,500 each. That seems a bit pricey for a racing body -- considering there are short track bodies on the market for a fifth that price -- but I'll do a little research on exactly why the price tag is so high before drawing any conclusions.

Don Hawk, NASCAR's Director of Regional Racing Development, commented on the new bodies yesterday, saying, "As we continue to restructure NASCAR’s regional touring series, cost containment will be a top priority. This new composite body has the potential to drastically reduce costs in the long term."

South Carolina's American Fiberglass will manufacture the bodies to NASCAR specs, and while the bodies are fundamentally the same for all makes and models, teams will be able to customize window openings and decals to resemble their preferred make of car. Veteran driver Kenny Schrader -- who does a lot of racing on the AutoZone West Series in addition to his Nextel Cup duties -- has already taken delivery of a new composite body, and says it is a welcome change. “I think it’ll be a tremendous help,” said Schrader. “The cost savings of this body versus a metal body, plus the cost of buying templates, is huge."

NASCAR says the composite bodies are just one part of their "comprehensive approach to lowering the costs of racing in the Grand National Division." Sources say the next step may be the introduction of low-cost "spec engines" to the Busch East and AutoZone West Series' within the next 1-2 years. NASCAR is reportedly planning to issue teams a list of approved engine parts, allowing them to asemble the motors themselves, within strict assembly and machining guidelines. Currently, a competitive Busch East or AutoZone West engine runs between $40,000 and $45,000. The new spec engines are expected to come in at approximately $15,000; a savings of 66 percent.

In my opinion, that move cannot come a moment too soon.

Make no mistake about it, NASCAR's Grand National Divisions are in serious trouble right now, with dwindling schedules and diminished car counts across the board. The 2006 Busch East schedule includes just 10 races -- ranging from Loudon, NH to Greenville, SC -- and with the front-running teams now spending in excess of $400,000 per season, it's tough to get much of a return on that kind of investment. The AutoZone West Series has just 11 races on its 2006 schedule, and while the average per-team expenditure is reportedly a bit lower on the Left Coast, its still difficult for racers to commit to a series that runs less than a dozen times a year.

NASCAR recently announced that it is pulling the plug on its AutoZone Elite Series -- Midwest, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest -- at the end of this season, citing the increased cost of competition, dwindling car counts, and a lack of interest from local promoters. All of those problems currently afflict NASCAR's Grand National Tours, as well.

One by one, local short track operators have said, "no thanks," to NASCAR Touring events, because the cost of the show precludes them from turning a profit. As one former Busch East track owner told me during SpeedWeeks in February, "I lost money three years in a row. If I got a beautiful, sunny day, I could draw enough people to break even, or maybe turn a modest profit. But if the weather wasn't perfect, I was in serious trouble. Last year, it took me the entire season to recoup what I lost on the Busch east race."

Comments like those are common among northeastern track owners, and they are echoed by their colleagues in the west, as well. The writing is on the wall for NASCAR's Grand National Divisions. Cut the cost for racers, cut the cost for promoters, jazz-up your program for the fans, or prepare to go the way of the dinosaurs, following the AutoZone Elite Series down the road to ruin.

Composite bodies are a step in the right direction, but they're not nearly enough. NASCAR needs to roll out the spec engine option for 2006, making it mandatory in `07. They need to implement an "eight tire per race" rule, effective immediately. And while they're at it, cut those deadly-dull, two-day programs in half; qualifying at 2 p.m. and racing at 8:00, with a free driver autograph session in between. Stop counting caution laps -- highway robbery in a 150-lap race -- and invert the starting field to ensure that the winner passes someone on his way to Victory Lane.

Do all those things -- quickly -- and there may yet be time to save NASCAR's Grand National Divisions.


  1. Leave it to NASCAR to find a $7500 plastic body. Much cheaper alternatives are out there, but as usual NASCAR is out of step with the short track industry. Their spec engine proposal has taken a couple major steps backwards, and what was originally being pushed as happening next year, is two or more years away now. It looks like NASCAR is attempting to shut the barn door after all of the cows have gotten out.

    NASCAR, and specifically Don Hawk, do not get it. 3600 lbs cars on a short track will not put on a show fans will pay to see, especially when they time trial to qualify. They could take out 400 lbs out of those cars tomorrow and teams would not have to make significant chassis changes. Less weight would allow the teams to use a racier tire, which in turn would give drivers cars that could pass each other on short tracks.

    I’ve said from day one, Don Hawk is not the person to lead this division to better days. He doesn’t understand the short track industry, and I don’t think he cares. His reign at the top of NASCAR regional touring series has been filled with a series of unfulfilled and broken promises. He came into the game with very little short track credibility, and has even less now.

    I find it ironic that they are killing off the Southwest series, even though that is by far their most successful short track series going on the west coast.

    95% of the BES schedule is already made up of one day shows, so going from 2 day shows to one day shows is a non-issue. What is an issue is that most of the regional short track stars are finding other series to race, leaving the few remaining BES series stars with very little competition to face week and week out. Both ACT & PASS now have a more talented group of top 20 drivers than BES, there's no question about that.

    Until an effective change in leadership occurs, these band aids that NASCAR has announce will have little effect in making the Grand National series popular at short tracks again.

    So while I agree with your premise that more must be done, I would go even farther than you suggested. But it needs a leadership change first.

  2. Marty in Nova Scotia3:33 PM

    Let me see, spec. plastic bodies, provisions for spec or crate engines, make the winners pass, and don't count yellow laps. Sounds like you're proposing a series that already exists in both the PASS and ACT series. When it comes to operating short-track series it sounds like NASCAR has a lot to learn from their competition. Maybe it would be best for all if they just did away with the Grand National series all together and let the teams fo to the existing series' that operate just as you propose.

  3. I couldn't agree more that if NASCAR does not radically alter its approach to short track racing, it will ultimately find itself on the outside, looking in. I sometimes wonder if Brian France might be better served to get NASCAR out of the local and regional racing game altogether, concentrating instead on the "Big 3" of Cup, Busch and Trucks. As Marty in Nova Scotia said, there are other groups out there succeeding at the local and regional levels. It certainly didn't take long for Davey Hamilton to pick up at least one of the Regional Tours that NASCAR will be dropping at the end of the season, and my guess is that he will do well, because he has the time and ability to give it his full attention.

    Its sheer size makes NASCAR -- like it or not -- less responsive to the needs of individuals. They have to look at the big picture, and sadly, over the last decade or so, they have failed to keep their eye on the target when it comes to regional racing.

    Hopefully, its not too late to fix it.

  4. Marty in Nova Scotia7:42 PM

    Its no surprise to see regional Late Model series like PASS expanding to the areas where the Elite series' are being abandoned, like the South East. The fans could care less if it is NASCAR sanctioned or not. They just want to see good racing with full fields at there local tracks. If NASCAR is too big to do it right, they should leave it those that do.