Call 'em the chameleons of NASCAR
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Are you ready for the light show? That massive blur streaking down the 3,000-foot backstretch here? Crossing your eyes for almost three hours so that sometimes you can't make out the noses or tails of individual cars?
NASCAR counts Saturday night's event here as a race. But it's a light show, all right. It even has a long, blurry drafting line of a name: the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola.
To add further confusion, there will be the various special paint schemes. But walking the garages here Thursday morning, it was hard to determine what could be called special and what could be called normal.
"There is no normal," one media colleague cracked.
"Change is normal," another countered.
So a better term nowadays might be the paint-scheme rotations -- every car a kaleidoscope week to week.
I lamented the mass refusal to stick with one identifiable paint scheme a while back, and many of you agreed, saying the constant changing of the cars makes it harder to keep up with who is who from one race to the next.
But many said you like the special schemes and implied the effects of age upon my eyesight are showing. (For the record, I still have 20/20 distance vision as of last month's eye exam.)
Just walking by Matt Kenseth's No. 17 was enough to get me started again.
Blatantly breaking the normal rotation of the red, white and blue of Valvoline and the purple, white and gold -- and sometimes black -- of Crown Royal, Kenseth's Ford this weekend sports red, yellow and white for Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Vodka.
But for this lament, I've brought in an expert witness for support. I phoned the all-time guru of NASCAR showbiz, the man who brought night racing to the Cup series.
Let it never be said of Howard A. Wheeler Jr. -- known throughout NASCAR for decades simply as Humpy -- that he doesn't care about the fans, first and foremost.
Humpy no longer is trying to sell you a ticket, but he never really gets you off his mind. You've been his life for so long that, two years into retirement from the presidency of America's second-largest -- and most dynamic -- track conglomerate, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Wheeler is still inclined to obsess over you from time to time.
Now, he mainly ponders ways to bring you back -- "in droves," he says -- to fill those empty seats you see at virtually every track these days, including Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.
Wheeler believes "immediate identification," the instant the spectator sets eyes on a car at speed, is vital. But "the one thing that's completely missing today is consistency."
Wheeler's night racing, beginning at Charlotte, begat the special paint schemes -- even though he warned against them from the outset when Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt brought them in.
And now the schemes have gotten completely out of hand. This not just from me, but from the maestro of all race promoters, the man who initiated the building of all those six-figure-capacity grandstands, mainly because his finger was always on the pulse of you, the paying fan, and it still is.
Teams' constant changing of paint schemes "really hurts the spectator who comes to the track more than anybody else," he says. "It's not quite as bad on TV if the car you're looking for is leading. But if your driver is not in the top 10, you probably will have a difficult time finding him.
"Particularly at a 2.5-mile track," he says, not coincidentally bringing up Daytona's circumference, second among oval tracks only to 2.66-mile Talladega, where night races are not run.
With the long drafting lines here, "When they're running in packs, it's more exciting, but it makes them more difficult to see," Wheeler points out.
Of all the schemes, "The worst example, bar none, is the camouflage car," Wheeler says. "Why do you camouflage something anyway? So you can't see it."
He acknowledges that "you have to be careful when you say that because it's usually an armed forces theme. So you don't want to come out against that.
"It's just the difficulty of seeing it."
This weekend's livery of Kasey Kahne's No. 9 strikes a bizarre balance between hard to see and easy to see. It's red camouflage, in a Budweiser salute to the armed forces.
I have been talking to NASCAR for five years. I have been writing letters. I have been talking to car owners. I've been talking to drivers. I've been talking to everybody I can to try to get this thing resolved.” -- Humpy Wheeler
The good news for the light show is that some of the likely contenders, such as Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, are in fairly normal livery -- if any schemes can really be considered normal anymore -- so flashes in the blur might seem familiar.
Wheeler would make the schemes consistent for an entire season.
"NASCAR should tell the car owners now that by November, they have to submit a sketch of what the car is going to look like for the 2011 season," he says. "If it's going to be a blue-and-white car, then submit the color scheme of that, and then in 2011 that car must be within 90 percent of that color scheme, every race. That does allow them a little leeway to celebrate something, but it's not enough leeway to change the color."
Sponsor logos could be interchangeable, but sponsors must be flexible on color schemes for that vital instant recognition.
As a hypothetical, take Kenseth's 17 and the standard rotation of Valvoline red, white and blue and Crown Royal purple, gold, white and black.
"If I were [owner] Jack Roush," Wheeler says, "I'd go to a graphic artist and say, 'Look, I've got two sponsors. Make my car as compatible as you can to both, so when I switch it won't look so screwy,'"
Commercial saturation has long been accepted in NASCAR, but now the almost total deference to sponsors has changed a fundamental concept of sports.
"Every other sport has learned that consistency in colors is extremely important," Wheeler notes. "Teams can get permission from the league to have a nostalgia look, but that nostalgia look is usually in the same color scheme."
Plus, there are only two color schemes on an athletic field. If you have the Pittsburgh Steelers in old-style uniforms playing the Dallas Cowboys in old-style uniforms, the immediate recognition is far simpler than for 43 cars with paint jobs that change week to week.
"I have been talking to NASCAR for five years," Wheeler says. "I have been writing letters. I have been talking to car owners. I've been talking to drivers. I've been talking to everybody I can to try to get this thing resolved.
"Of course, the car owners get real upset about it because they want to get out of the hole they're in from an expense standpoint [by pleasing multiple sponsors].
"I think NASCAR would like to do something about it," Wheeler continues. "They're in a Catch-22 on this thing.
"Somebody's going to have to make a decision to do something about it because it's just gotten completely out of hand."
Wheeler's long-running diagnosis of Indy car racing's problems with spectators is that the cars are ill-configured for instant recognition. There just isn't enough space on the cars and wings to make even the numbers obvious at first glance.
NASCAR has long had a decided advantage with spectators because there's plenty of space for numbers and colors. But could NASCAR be going the way of Indy cars?
"I definitely think that can happen," Wheeler says.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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