Hey there, internet! Sorry these past few weeks have been so busy. It’s been a while since I’ve had a hot take to share with you, hasn’t it?
Not that there’s been a lack of stuff to talk about. Stadium Super Trucks got banned from Australia, FIA World Rallycross debuted in the United States, and Sebastien Ogier left M-Sport for Citroen in the WRC. Those are all huge stories, but instead, let me turn my attention to the number one thing that’s bothering me in the world of racing right now: the Charlotte ROVAL(TM) that just debuted in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Many people loved it. I never want to see one again.
There are a number of you who probably want to tune me out right now on the basis of hating fun or something like that. Considering that just about my entire racing media career so far has been focused on covering off-road racing, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
What I do hate, though, is half-hearted executions of reasonably decent ideas. And this was one of them.
Everybody seems to want more road racing in Cup. There’s an appreciation for what it takes to win at those tracks now, which is part of why (I think) there are fewer and fewer competitive road course ringers compared to 10 years ago, and definitely compared to 20. Drivers know that they can’t afford to mail it in for those two weekends a year, and they work hard at their road racing craft—and beyond that, it’s become clear that they have a ton of fun doing it.
And there are a ton of great road courses in North America. NASCAR visits a lot of them: Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International at the Cup level, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Trucks, and a ton of them in the Xfinity Series, including Road America and Mid-Ohio. That’s not even including places on the IndyCar and IMSA calendars, like Barber Motorsports Park, Road Atlanta, and yes, even Circuit of the Americas (though we know that won’t happen as long as Eddie Gossage is running Texas Motor Speedway).
The problem, of course, is that the NASCAR schedule is locked in through 2020. And most of its 36 race dates at the Cup level are married to two conglomerates, ISC and SMI, which probably wouldn’t be too keen on losing any race dates in 2021. But most of the tracks that they own, and certainly the majority of the ones hit on the Cup schedule, are ovals.
Enter the ROVAL(TM).
Yes, Daytona International Speedway has been running an infield road course for ages with the Rolex 24. And Indianapolis Motor Speedway built a road course to host Formula 1, and now uses it for IndyCar races. But those are courses built for, and predominantly used by, not only road racing drivers, but road racing cars. They have enough space in them to give the road racers a proper opportunity to do what they do best.
Charlotte Motor Speedway, the home track for something like 90 percent of the NASCAR paddock, doesn’t need a gimmick like that. It already gets the All-Star Race every single year, an event that was originally supposed to be rotated between various tracks, and was saved while floundering by the original NASCAR gimmick: “One Hot Night,” the installation of permanent lighting in the early 1990s that allowed them to move that to a night race.
But a gimmick was what we got on Sunday. And no less, one in an elimination race in the Chase—itself an even bigger gimmick, considering that playoffs in racing seem redundant when everyone faces everyone head to head every week anyway.
After all the practice crashes in both spring testing and this weekend, we had no idea what to expect from the race itself. The action alternated between an uninspiring first half and rookie-level online multiplayer towards the end. Seeing just about the entire group of front-runners plow straight into the “Tums Heartburn Turn” on a late restart was, frankly, below what those of us watching what’s supposed to be America’s top level racing series should be showing up for.
But because people like to equate wrecks with good racing, many are going to act like this was a great race instead of a farce. Jimmie Johnson made one aggressive move, lost it, took leader Martin Truex Jr. with him, and left the door wide open for Ryan Blaney to snatch his first Cup victory with Team Penske. It wasn’t exactly Davey Allison sneaking by Kyle Petty to win The Winston 20-plus years ago, though. It wasn’t even the kind of finish that’s easy to stomach when you’re watching a bunch of first-timers play iRacing.
And yet, like the Wildcat offense in football, defensive shifts in baseball, or teams with orange third jerseys making them their full-time look in every single sport, the buzz leading up to this made it clear that every track with two Cup dates is going to look into doing this in 2019 or beyond. And just like all of those other cases, the rovals are going to be done to death, losing their entertainment value remarkably quickly because of how predictably awful the racing is.
The drivers are going to get frustrated with taking on more tracks that feature off-camber Daytona road course knockoffs shoehorned into cramped infields. The owners will lose their patience with how many torn-up racecars they go home with, just like they do at Daytona and Talladega. And as the series descends into sheer randomness and survival determining who’s on top, an issue it’s already going to have with the tapered spacers and aero ducts in the All-Star racing package that’s coming to more events in 2019, the ratings decline will only accelerate.
People like watching things that are fun. I’m all for fun. This was fun—once. (For most of you, anyway—me, I’m being generous.) It won’t be fun when it’s overdone.
NASCAR gets credit here for trying different things, and certainly for recognizing that it needed to come up with another way to shake things up. But something this chaotic and untested shouldn’t have come with the consequences that it did. You want to try Cup cars on the Charlotte ROVAL(TM)? Do it in the All-Star Race when it doesn’t matter. Don’t ruin a bunch of guys’ championship chances, and inspire every other track on the circuit to adopt a half-baked idea for the sake of self-preservation, just because you can’t fully commit to the thing that everybody actually wants to happen until 2021.
Especially when there’s a perfectly good dirt oval just off the backstretch you could’ve run on instead.
The views expressed in Spinning Wheels are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any other entity.