NASCAR is for Squares
They’re slow, they’re ugly, and other reasons why NASCAR events are less appealing than Indy racing.
October 06, 2005
Several years ago, NASCAR jumped from its long-time affiliation with ESPN to a lucrative contract with NBC, Fox, and TNT. The result? Stock-car racing trails only NFL football in television ratings. What was once looked down upon as a regional “redneck” sport has blossomed into a predictable weekly episode that’s about as exciting as “The Dukes of Hazzard” without a Confederate flag. Even the SPEED Channel, a 24-hour haven for racing enthusiasts, has shamelessly cashed in on the popularity, featuring Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and other NASCAR stars sitting around a table playing Texas Hold ‘Em. NASCAR fans actually consider such parlor games as viable racing coverage. Frankly, I’m getting more than a little bored with NASCAR racing.
Thanks to an intense relationship with television, NASCAR has captured an astonishingly wide audience. The opportunity for prime-time telecasts prompted the installation of lights at some tracks, ending the previous inconvenience of having races postponed to the following day because of rain delays. This summer’s Pepsi 400, a prime-time Saturday night race held each July Fourth weekend at Daytona Speedway, was delayed for nearly three hours, yet TV crews continued telecasting from the track as a captive nationwide audience waited for the track to dry. The race resumed, ending around 2:00 in the morning. Lights also made it possible for a NASCAR race to be an eight-hour event, creating an adult beverage bonanza for fans already legendary for their beer consumption.
One thing hasn’t changed, however. NASCAR devotees continue to shun “open-wheel” racing—the roofless, fenderless race cars typically seen at the Indianapolis 500—for its former lack of close-quarters racing and undramatic finishes. Ten years ago, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George decided to take on NASCAR’s stranglehold on the racing market. George formed the Indy Racing League (IRL), featuring open-wheel, open-cockpit automobiles on oval tracks as opposed to traditional winding-road courses. Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of the few oval tracks that the CART series, NASCAR’s rival before the IRL was formed, raced on. Tony George brought the IRL to the South, sometimes racing on short tracks usually associated with stock cars.
For the first couple of years, the closest thing the IRL had to a racing star was NASCAR’s current “angry driver” poster boy—Tony Stewart. Stewart’s temper tantrums made IRL race days memorable. After winning the IRL championship in 1996, Stewart left for the big money and high profile of NASCAR. Finally, George wrestled the Unsers, Andrettis, and other high-profile drivers from CART into his IRL series, but large attendance and television ratings remained elusive. Oddly, NASCAR can put 120,000 fans in the stands at tracks where the IRL draws crowds of less than 30,000.
To fully grasp just how sluggish NASCAR is, switch channels to an IRL race after watching a few minutes of stock cars. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a stock car qualifies around 185 mph, while an IRL car qualifies at around 227 mph. Racing experts have speculated that an IRL car could top 250 mph at a high-banked track like Daytona. Of the 111 races run in the past 10 years in the IRL, 50 have had a margin of less than one second between first and second place. NASCAR is lucky if 10 percent of its events are such close races. Moreover, in terms of actual drama, NASCAR’s notorious door-to-door bashing doesn’t compare to the action when IRL cars get wheel-to-wheel at top speed. Often, open-wheel cars become airborne after only the slightest bump. The crashes are the most spectacular moments in sports. IRL races wrap up in a couple of hours as opposed to NASCAR’s typical four-hour extravaganzas.
|NASCAR’s stock cars (above) are a sluggish bunch compared to the Indy Racing League’s open-wheel, open-cockpit racing cars (below). (click for larger version)|
The IRL also boasts an international flavor, while NASCAR practically regards guys from California as foreigners. The IRL even has competitive women behind the wheel. Danica Patrick, who drives for a team co-owned by David Letterman, almost won this year’s Indy 500 until low fuel forced her to cut back on speed. The best finish for a NASCAR star in an Indy car was Donnie Allison’s fifth place in the 1970s.
NASCAR fans are a stubbornly dedicated bunch. But their arguments that stock cars are more competitive than open-wheelers collapsed once Tony George’s league got a few years under its belt. It’s not likely that the stock-car masses will ever appreciate the fine art of speed. As a friend once told me, comparing open-wheel competition to stock car racing is like comparing boxing to wrestling. &