Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NASCAR Needs A Shot Clock

There has never been a more competitive era in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing. The Chase for the Sprint Cup, double-file restarts, a tighter competitive box and even NASCAR’s “Boys Have At It” policy have combined to make the racing as close and exciting as at any time in the nearly 60-year history of the sport.

And yet, somehow, fewer people seem to be watching.

In-person attendance is down dramatically in this difficult economy, as fans struggle to find the discretionary income necessary to fund a weekend at the race track. Television ratings have also plummeted, despite the fact that watching NASCAR on television is – for the most part – free. No one fully understands the motivating factors behind NASCAR’s drop in attendance and viewership, and truthfully, there is no single cause. One significant factor, however, is the average NASCAR fan’s unwillingness to devote an entire afternoon to watching the race.

Today’s ADHD society has lost its stomach for four-hour sporting events. Other sports have recognized this and taken action. The NBA long ago instituted a 24-second shot clock to speed play. The National Football League also has a play clock to prevent undue dawdling in the huddle. Major League Baseball umpires break up manager-pitcher conferences almost immediately these days, to ensure that the game maintains its proper pace.

NASCAR needs to do the same, or risk losing even more of its audience.

The simplest answer, of course, is to shorten the events themselves. With the possible exception of the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, none of NASCAR’s events are historically tied to a specific distance. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has run 300-mile Sprint Cup races since Day One, and nobody in the Granite State seems to feel shortchanged. Auto Club Speedway slashed its mileage from 500 to 400 this season, and fans witnessed one of the best races ever at the Fontana oval. NASCAR needs to take a long, hard look at trimming its events to 400 miles, or at least 500 kilometers.

There may be some initial resistance to slashing mileage, and NASCAR is almost certain to hear the “I paid for 500 miles and I want to see 500 miles” retort from its older, more traditional patrons. Eventually, though, fans will realize that the only thing lacking from a 400-mile Sprint Cup Series event is 100 miles of single file, mid-race lollygagging.

That’s no loss.

NASCAR must bite the bullet and cut the distance in all but a few of its marquee events, giving fans a modest rollback in ticket prices in return. A 2½ hour event is tailor made for the modern race fan; a fan who has been raised in a microwave oven society of instant gratification and 90-second, ESPN highlight packages.

There are other ways to speed up the product, as well.

In recent seasons, NASCAR has found a way to turn every caution flag into a 10-minute intermission. Even a simple, single-car spin with no damage and no debris on the racetrack requires 5-7 laps of caution, and those unnecessary stoppages give television viewers plenty of time to check out the NFL game on another network. Many of them never find their way back, contributing significantly to NASCAR’s recent ratings drop.

When the caution flag flies, NASCAR must make every effort to complete its pit stop procedures as quickly and efficiently as possible. As soon as the Pace Car has the field in tow, get the lead-lap cars on pit road for service. One lap later, do the same for the lapped machines. On the third caution lap – assuming the track is clear -- the green flag should wave once again. TV and radio will need to modify their traditional way of doing business, breaking away quickly when the caution flag flies to air the necessary commercial announcements. Pit stops may not be aired live under this new system, but if something goes wrong on pit road, the networks can easily recap the action when they return from break.

NASCAR also needs to resurrect the “quickie caution,” a good idea that went by the wayside a few years ago with no logical explanation.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, NASCAR’s fan base has changed over the last 50 years. Old-time NASCAR was not forced to compete with the internet, Facebook, Twitter and 250 channels of satellite television. Fans either watched the race live, or they didn’t watch it at all. It’s a different world today -- faster and more accommodating of people’s individual schedules -- and the sport must keep pace with those changes if it hopes to thrive. NASCAR must commit to keeping the show moving at all times, realizing that even the most hardcore fans are no longer willing to commit their entire day to the watching of a single race.

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