Changes aimed at bringing back thrill
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sometimes you need to take a step back in order to move forward.
Call it the mantra for NASCAR's approach to the future. NASCAR wants to be what it was more than what it has become.
The 2009 season included a historic moment with Jimmie Johnson becoming the first man to win four consecutive Sprint Cup titles. But overall, many viewed the season as a downer.
"There is a good deal more optimism here in 2010 than there was at this time last year," NASCAR president Mike Helton said last week on media day at Daytona. "There were a lot of uncertainties, unanswered questions, a lot of challenges that circumstances beyond our control put us into as well as some circumstances within our control."
A bad economy caused empty seats and fewer sponsors. But it wasn't just the economy.
Some fans said they felt NASCAR had lost its soul. How did that happen?
NASCAR made significant changes during the past decade to try to grow the sport nationally:
• More races in new places and bigger markets such as California, Texas, Kansas City and Chicago but fewer races in the Southeast hotbed of the hard-core fans.
• A new car that was the safest ever built but far from perfect in appearance and performance.
• A playoff format that gave more drivers a chance to win a title but a system that hasn't led to close championship battles at the end of the season.
• A stricter rule-enforcement theme to eliminate the old Wild West image of cheating and bleeding but an idea that swung the pendulum too far toward rigid conformity.
The goal was to advance NASCAR further into the mainstream and gain more casual fans. And it worked, but the changes also led to some disenchantment about the direction of the sport from traditional fans.
So NASCAR is taking a bit of a U-turn to try to regain some balance.
"You can do too much, and that's unsettling to people," NASCAR chairman Brian France said last month on the annual media tour. "But in exchanges we've had with drivers, team owners and everyone else, they want to go back to a more traditional-looking race car and a traditional-handling car. That is a change we think that will be the right one at the right time."
In March, NASCAR will replace the rear wing with a spoiler similar to what was on the old car. It's a popular cosmetic change that may improve side-by-side racing.
And that's just the start. Relaxed rules should result in more action on the track between the competitors.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes it's the right thing to do.
"When you're running a business, you make tough decisions," Earnhardt said last month. "Not all decisions are the right ones, but you hope you're making them with the best intentions.
"That's NASCAR's situation. That's what they're doing. They're trying to make decisions to improve racing for the fans. We've got to take care of the fans first."
Earnhardt is part of the problem. NASCAR's most popular driver had the worst season of his career last year, failing to win a race and not coming close to making the Chase.
"I'm not giving up on Dale Jr.," Helton said. "He's a contender and will be again. I'm not taking Dale Jr. out of this equation."
NASCAR is adding things to the overall equation that resemble a blast from the past. First is looser rule enforcement during the races, including more tolerance of bump-drafting at Daytona and Talladega.
"We want to see drivers mixing it up," France said. "We want to see the emotion of the world's best drivers just as much as everybody else does, and that is the goal for 2010 and beyond."
NASCAR knows fans want to see things become a little wilder on the track, similar to the good old days of a generation ago.
We want to see drivers mixing it up. We want to see the emotion of the world's best drivers just as much as everybody else does, and that is the goal for 2010 and beyond.” -- NASCAR chairman Brian France
Mark Martin, 51 and still going strong in the driver's seat, was part of those days. He thinks the retro idea is great in theory but not entirely practical.
"It ain't never gonna be 1975 again unless you find a time machine," Martin said last week. "Things change. You guys did your stories on typewriters back then. You can go get you a typewriter if you really want one, but the new age is here. You've got to face it.
"And racing today is an evolution of that. Yeah, there were some really cool things old-school, but it can't be completely like that again. You can have a little throwback, but life has changed and the racing has changed."
Racing today is 10 times safer than it was a decade ago. Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 led to a renaissance of safety improvements -- the SAFER barrier, head-and-neck restraints, carbon fiber cocoon seats and the new car that has foam crush panels and more impact room for the driver.
NASCAR should be applauded for those changes, but some overbearing rule enforcement hurt the sport. Danger is part of the allure of racing.
"In the end, there is risk involved in our sport," driver Kevin Harvick said. "That's what it's always been built about. So having it too tight and too many rules took some of that excitement out of it."
The looser approach came about after NASCAR officials met with every team separately during the offseason and asked all of them what they wanted to see.
Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs said the idea of drivers controlling their destiny was clear.
"When you make that [enforcement] box smaller and smaller, it just causes a lot of headaches, and it's hard to do," Gibbs said. "The drivers have to take care of some of these things themselves. It's time to put some of it back on their shoulders."
No one wants to see a referee decide the outcome of a game. What NASCAR is doing is a little like officials swallowing the whistle at the end of a basketball game.
NASCAR, like all sports, is trying to trudge through the problems of tough economic times. But it's also trying to rekindle aspects of its past that made the sport successful.
Will it work?
"The answer will come down the road better than I can give you right now," Helton said. "But 2010 is about what we do with the cards we've been dealt.
"Some of it is our doing. Some of it comes from outside forces that cause us to react. But I hope what everybody gets from this is that we're trying. We are listening."
They say you can't go home again, but NASCAR officials want to try. And they want you to come with them.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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