Commentary

Commissioner Waltrip would get NASCAR back on the right track

Fix NASCAR? Ed Hinton has a few ideas: Hire Darrell Waltrip as commissioner, shorten the season, trim the fat, overhaul the Chase and bring back the passion.

Updated: November 12, 2008, 2:27 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

What NASCAR urgently needs is not massive change so much as massive repair -- a return to what you loved about it in the first place, which was a cheaper, simpler version that ran on passion more than money.

If NASCAR is in trouble over the economy, it is in deeper trouble with you, the fans. Your e-mails here are a steady current of discontent.

The beauty of all this -- the elegant solution, as engineers like to say -- is that if you fix one, you fix the other.

For openers, I wasn't kidding when I said on "NASCAR Now" last week that Darrell Waltrip should be commissioner of NASCAR.

He is the brightest person with the highest visibility and the most thorough grasp of NASCAR -- of what it takes to drive, to own, to sanction, to promote -- alive.

"They don't need a commissioner; they need a competition committee," Waltrip argued on the same show as we debated ways to fix NASCAR.

NASCAR needs both.

NASCAR needs commissioner Waltrip, who would be a force more akin to Pete Rozelle than Roger Goodell. And it needs a competition committee with a mandate from the commissioner to slash costs, straighten out the schedule and heighten excitement.

First, the season needs to end earlier than November. Let's say the finale is run by Halloween week at the latest.

So you start the season earlier, Waltrip suggests -- in January, in California, as NASCAR did until 1981. There's no law that says the Daytona 500 has to be the season opener.

I suggest running at least three West Coast races in January -- Fontana, Las Vegas and Phoenix -- before heading to Daytona.

What about weather issues at tracks in the East and Midwest after Daytona? Go from there to Homestead-Miami, then don't go back to South Florida the rest of the season.

NASCAR's finale has no business being so remote from the core fan base, other than weather and the fact that NASCAR's ruling France family also rules International Speedway Corp., which owns the Homestead track.

After the new, late-winter Homestead race, go to Darlington -- yes, dear old Darlington, in South Carolina -- which produces, if nothing else, fabulous TV racing, regardless of where the studio is located.

Waltrip says there's no way you can cut the schedule down from 36 races because track owners won't have it. NASCAR chairman Brian France said Tuesday the schedule won't be reduced because "we have contracts in place."

But contracts aren't forever, so think long-term here. Think 30-32 races per season.

Hold no venue sacred. Both Atlanta and Charlotte have failed miserably to sell out their fall races in recent years. Daytona struggles with its summer race. Neither Fontana nor Texas has sold out a race since they each added a second Cup date annually.

As for the TV networks, offer them leaner but more elegant scheduling -- greater spectacles, real extravaganzas that will bring higher ratings.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Waltrip
AP Photo/Daniel Plassmann, FileDarrell Waltrip on fixing NASCAR: "They don't need a commissioner; they need a competition committee."

And Waltrip suggests, quite reasonably, that a three-month offseason would rekindle the public appetite for NASCAR. The current offseason, technically two months but really only one -- between the December awards banquet and the beginning of Daytona testing -- gives neither the public nor the teams enough time to recover.

I can't count the comments I've received from you, the fans, using the word "boring," usually spelled "bo-ring," to describe races.

So make every race a maximum of 400 miles or three hours, whichever comes first. Set a time limit, the way Formula One (two hours) has for decades. This makes for better, more predictable TV.

Leave only the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at their traditional lengths.

Rename the Chase for the series sponsor. Call it the Sprint. And make it just that -- an urgent playoff dash.

I think the reason you the fans don't like the Chase is that it's only a half-measure -- too liberal in the awarding of 12 berths and, "It's too long; there isn't enough drama," Waltrip said.

So take five drivers for four races. Every Sunday, somebody is eliminated, until there are two left standing for the finale.

And no, it's not a "reality show" format, any more than the NFL playoffs are, in which somebody is knocked out in every game.

Take the suggestion that has been led by Tony Stewart, and give the Chase drivers their own points system. Take this past Sunday at Phoenix: I'd have given Carl Edwards, who finished fourth in the race, second-place Chase points, because he was the next Chaser behind winner Jimmie Johnson.

As it stands, the Chase is a de facto second season in itself, without much sense of urgency.

This is absolutely nothing against Johnson's rout of the rest of the field this year. Under the tighter format, you probably would have the same two guys -- Johnson and Edwards -- left standing this weekend.

The change wouldn't be that drastic; the drama would just be more defined and pronounced.

A four-race Chase would eliminate Talladega from the playoffs. So if you must include a crapshoot, make it the finale, in a warm-weather place with a hallowed track with plenty of seats.

That is, move Daytona's summer race to make it the season ender.

Now commissioner Waltrip appoints his competition committee -- say, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, J.D. Gibbs and Richard Childress -- and directs them to cut costs in major ways.

First, you ban midweek testing altogether. Brian France is pondering just that, but he's been unable or unwilling to spell it out.

Waltrip and his committee would have it done already. And he would make the ban permanent, so teams could go ahead and conduct the painful layoffs of personnel hired specifically for testing. Because France hasn't spoken specifically, teams quietly fear a temporary ban on testing that would leave them in a quandary as to whether to keep their testing personnel.

Stop midweek testing, and that saves teams what top people tell me is a "fair" estimate of $100,000 per testing day, per car -- savings of $3 million to $5 million per team, per season.

Then, Waltrip says, you make every Friday of every race weekend the test day, even allowing teams to use telemetry. Hendrick, owner of NASCAR's richest team, has said he can go along with that. Track mogul Bruton Smith has advocated a Friday test day to open race weekends for years now.

Qualifying? Saturday. Always. Then you impound the cars until Sunday. That makes qualifying more exciting and more of an indicator of who will do well in the race, because teams must largely abandon their qualifying setups.

And make everybody qualify, every week, weather permitting. No more 35 guaranteed spots. Everybody goes or goes home. The way this economy seems to be headed, there might not be 35 big corporate sponsors demanding guarantees of making the field anyway.

The competition committee is comprised of the biggest teams for a reason -- to reach detente among the superpowers, and hopefully some disarmament.

Say they agree to eliminate "Sunday guys" -- the ringer athletes flown in on Sundays only, solely to pit the cars. They make up to $150,000 a year, apiece. Seven per car go over the wall.

Go back to having the mechanics themselves, who work on the cars Fridays and Saturdays, pit them Sundays. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was once a tire changer. Dale Earnhardt's greatest crew chief, Kirk Shelmerdine, was the team's front tire changer on every stop. Junior Johnson, as a car owner, was for years his team's jack man.

So you'd bring some folk heroism back to the pits and garages. And for them, every day of every race weekend would have a sense of urgency -- Friday's intense testing, Saturday qualifying and Sunday racing.

Without midweek testing, drivers and crew chiefs would actually get some days off during the week, rather than Learjetting hither and yon every day they're not at the track.

More rested, less harried -- maybe they'd show their real personalities more and we'd all like them better because we'd know them better.

Folk heroism plus sense of urgency plus simplicity would equal … well … at least a start to the restoration of the NASCAR so many want back.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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