Go all out to change the schedule
SPARTA, Ky. -- Steve O'Donnell was sweating profusely like the rest of us in the hot tent outside Kentucky Speedway where it became official Tuesday that the track would be added to the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule.
Unlike the rest of us, O'Donnell has been sweating over the schedule for the better part of the year. He's been in and out of enough meeting rooms with officials from Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. looking over enough scenarios to make one's head spin that NASCAR's senior vice president for racing operations deserves a nickname.
"Jackass," O'Donnell says with a laugh.
He can joke now. The wheeling and dealing is over. The schedule is done and ready to be released.
It has been a grind, but not nearly as painful as it would have been four or five years ago when the person in O'Donnell's shoes really felt like the rear end of a donkey.
That's because SMI and ISC officials put aside many of their selfish differences this year to work together better than they ever had. Smith was so happy after finally getting Kentucky Speedway on the schedule that he was complimentary of NASCAR chairman Brian France, something the chairman of SMI seldom if ever was with France's father.
"I like Brian," Smith says. "I enjoy doing business with him. It's a pleasure working with him. I find he listens."
This is the new NASCAR, where everybody listens, even the most hated of rivals SMI and ISC. Like drivers and team owners, they worked as one for the betterment of the sport.
That doesn't mean there wasn't some bickering and arguing. It just means it didn't get to the bitter stage that once upon a time would have kept the wholesale changes that will occur next year from happening.
SMI actually gave ISC the opener to the Chase.
"Three or four years ago, it was more about individuals and how a track succeeds and how a team succeeds," O'Donnell says. "We realize we all have to work together to give us the best opportunity."
That doesn't mean the schedule is perfect. There are moves even O'Donnell would have liked in a perfect world, although he would prefer to talk about them over a cold one at a later date.
I believe moving the Chase opener from New Hampshire to Chicagoland is a huge mistake. Sure it gives NASCAR the third-largest television market in the country, but how many people will be at the track if the Chicago Bears are playing in town -- or even on the road?
It could be disastrous if the Cubs or White Sox are in a pennant race.
There were better options.
Taking a race away from Atlanta when other tracks more deserved to lose one also was a mistake, but the politics of SMI and ISC haven't come far enough for there to have been another option.
Not having the nerve to put a road course in the Chase also showed a lack of forward thinking.
These are the kinds of arguments that make O'Donnell's job crazy, but he welcomes the input even if it's from the media. So we'll take a look at what NASCAR has come up with in hopes of re-energizing fans and building television interest, then we'll deal with what the governing body should have done to really jump-start things.
Here's what will happen:
• Kentucky joins the Cup schedule, hosting the second race weekend in July, which had belonged to Chicagoland. It's a good move from the standpoint that the area appears ready to support a facility that will be expanded to 116,000 seats. It'll give NASCAR exposure to 2.1 million people within a 50-mile radius of the track, 51 million within 300 miles. At a time when fans are traveling shorter distances, this was a great move.
• Atlanta loses its March date to open a date for Kentucky. It will be the first time in 50 years that arguably the best 1.5-mile track on the circuit won't host two events. The track will keep its Labor Day weekend event, a night race that has the potential to flourish. It's sad it came to this because even with only 80,000 of 125,000 seats filled, that's still more than many tracks hold.
• Chicagoland Speedway replaces New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the Chase opener. New Hampshire slides into the second weekend, followed by Dover and Kansas. It is good from the standpoint that the Chase will open in a large market, but the skepticism outlined above explains why this move is set up for failure.
• Kansas Speedway picks up a second date, as was expected when ISC added a hotel casino to the facility. The new race will be held June 5, with the other being the fourth race in the Chase. More on that below in the "what should have happened" section.
• California Speedway loses its Chase race so Kansas can have its second date. Its first date will move from the second weekend of the season after the Daytona 500 to the last weekend in March, between Bristol and Martinsville, with Phoenix moving into the No. 2 hole, followed by Las Vegas.
• The eighth race of the Chase at Texas is moved to night. This is good for track president Eddie Gossage because all the deer hunters who wouldn't buy tickets for a day race can attend.
• New Hampshire will adjust its first race from late June to July 17 to accommodate other tweaks, but this move isn't big enough for most to notice.
Now that we know what will happen, here's what should have happened:
• To make this plan work, ISC and SMI have to put aside all differences and throw all the tracks in a hat. Eliminating the politics is the only way to truly make the best schedule because more ISC tracks deserve to lose races than SMI tracks.
• Now that we have unity, add another race at Kentucky and eliminate a race at Michigan, Pocono, Dover and California. That gets the schedule down to 33 weekends. It's still not the 30 it should be to keep the shorter attention span of fans, but it's a start.
• Call this radical, but start the season at California in January the week before the Super Bowl. That gets the season started two weeks early, so -- along with cutting those three races -- it can end five weeks earlier. This isn't sacrilege. The sport opened at Riverside, Calif., from 1970 to 1981. In 1968, Daytona was the fourth race of the year. Let there be some buildup to the biggest race of the season. It also might attract more fans at California because it would be the first race of a new season and not the anti-climactic follower of the 500 position that might doom any event.
• Stay on the West Coast for Week 2 and go to Phoenix the Saturday night before the Super Bowl. Nothing else is going on, so it'll be a good spot for ratings.
• Now we're in Daytona for the third race. Interest has been building, and fans are ready for the 500 and restrictor-plate excitement.
• We won't go through the regular season race by race because that would take more inches than the boss is willing to dedicate. Let's move to the race before the Chase. Have the regular-season finale at Darlington, returning the Southern 500 to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend. The track has done well on the Saturday night of Mother's Day weekend -- Atlanta gets that date in 2011 -- but it never had a night race on Labor Day, as it will now so fans can't complain about how miserably hot it is.
As added incentive, if you win on NASCAR's toughest track, you're automatically in the Chase if you're in the top 20 in points.
• Now for the bold move. Start the Chase with a Sunday night race at Bristol. Even with college football and NFL kicking into gear, people will get jacked for this one. Under the lights. At a track where tempers flare and sheet metal flies. If NASCAR can't market this into greatness, it might as well close up shop.
• From Bristol, we'll go to regular Chase stops New Hampshire, Dover, Charlotte and Martinsville. If you noticed that Kansas is missing, that's because it doesn't deserve a second date just because a casino hotel is next to the track.
• From here, we go to Phoenix and Sonoma. Yes, a road course deserves to be in the Chase. NASCAR will argue that it isn't representative of the entire schedule, which has only two road course events in 36. But the percentages have shrunk with two in 33, and the championship needs to best represent the best overall driver. You can't have that without a road course.
• Texas at night is a great idea. Any race at night in the Chase is a great idea. Just make sure it's planned when the Cowboys are out of town. Football and deer hunters might send Gossage over the edge.
• What better way to shake things up before the regular-season finale than a trip to Talladega, where there is potential for a huge swing in points with one big wreck? It might be a little cool this time of the year for campers, but they'll buy plenty of firewood, which would be another boost for the local economy.
• Viva Las Vegas. End the season where Smith has lobbied to have it happen for several years. It's not the greatest racing on the circuit, but it's a great destination for fans and they'll come regardless. We're not stopping with that change, though. This will be a prime-time Thursday night race. If you're gonna be in the home of neon, why not do it up right?
While everyone is in town, toss on the tuxedos and gowns and hold the banquet on Saturday night. Season over. No week break for Thanksgiving before the final party.
In case you're wondering what happened to Homestead, I traded it with Vegas' early-season race. It still has a place on the schedule, but the racing isn't good enough at either track to warrant two events.
O'Donnell might like a few of these ideas. He might think it is a jackass of a plan.
"Let's talk about that over a beer sometime," he says.
Now that's a good plan.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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