Those who claim that NASCAR racing has become boring certainly got validation of that contention last Saturday at the Brickyard 400. Never before have so many watched so little for so long.
As one observer put it, "NASCAR painted the town, and the fans showed up to watch it dry."
- Now, contrast that snoozer to the excitement of the Mosport American Le Mans Series race, televised on NBC on Sunday. The race had me on the edge of my seat right to the checkered flag. It had everything - fast, sophisticated machinery, treacherous conditions (dry track to wet track, then drying again), complicated strategy (what tires to run, and when), and hairs-breadth finishes in both the Prototype and GTS classes.
Rinaldo Capello, in an Audi Prototype on intermediate tires, edged Jorg Muller's charging slick-shod BMW by inches, while the GTS victory went to Karl Wendlinger's Viper by a similar margin after a stirring battle with Andy Pilgrim's Corvette.
Unfortunately, most race fans in this country don't realize that there is anything beyond NASCAR, and thus miss some outstanding racing.
- Having said that, we should see a good race this weekend, as the Winston Cup runs its second and final road course race of the season, at Watkins Glen.
With aerodynamic rules parity making parades of most oval track races these days, the two road course events have become Winston Cup's best tests of driver skill.
Watch out for the road course specialists in today's race (Ron Fellows, Boris Said, Tom Hubert, P.J. Jones and Brian Simo) to capture some of the top finishing spots. Of course, Jeff Gordon is the odds-on favorite to add a seventh consecutive road course victory to his portfolio.
- In addition to the poor racing (funny, but increasing the number of competitive teams seems to have decreased the competition), there are other clouds on NASCAR's horizon.
The five-year, $2.4 billion deal with Fox and NBC for TV rights to NASCAR races may not turn out to be such a good deal after all. TV ratings are down (the Brickyard 400 viewership was off 16 percent from last year), making it more difficult for Fox and NBC to raise their advertising rates; a raise of 50 percent is needed to recoup their licensing fees.
If they can't raise the rates, the networks have to sell more ads, reducing air time for the actual racing and driving still more fans away, lowering the ratings yet again.
Then there's the perception that NASCAR is giving preference to International Speedway Corporation (ISC) tracks in assigning race dates. Although ISC is publicly traded, it is still controlled by the France family, who deny any preferential treatment. Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports owns the second-largest number of tracks, is upset about the allocation of dates.
Rumblings of antitrust legal action are circulating, which is understandable given that the average Winston Cup date infuses about $11 million into the host track.
There is also the succession issue. Bill France Jr., 67, is reported to be quite ill with both lung cancer (the downside of Winston sponsorship?) and the side effects of chemotherapy.
NASCAR has always been a family business and a benevolent dictatorship, but there doesn't seem to be a dominant candidate for the top spot among the current crop of Frances -Jim, Brian and Lesa.
In fact, much of the power in NASCAR is now held by Mike Helton, but it remains to be seen what will happen when Bill finally lets go of the reins for good.
Due to space considerations here, I can only skim the surface of NASCAR's current challenges. If you want to read an in-depth study of where the organization is today, and where it's likely going, get a copy of the August 21 issue of Forbes Magazine and read the article by John Gorham entitled "Flameout."
It's a real eye-opener.
- The deal between Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates was finally consummated last week. Ganassi, the open-wheel racing king, takes more than 80 percent of the two-car Winston Cup team, which will run Dodge chassis. Maybe Ganassi can put some interest back into the series.
(Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist. Write to him at email@example.com.)