Taking Our Sport Forward by First Taking a Look
A year end look at where our sport is, and where it is headed...
Dec 30th, 2007
An opinion from 3Wide
Let's Go Back... Way Back
I figured with it being the off season, it was a good time to take a look back at this season. I thought about what I liked this year, and what I didn't like... and I found myself less excited about this past year of racing than ever before. In years past I watched as summer drew to an end and knew that it was only a few weeks before all would be quiet again... with the long off season looming just ahead. That really used to bother me. The thought of 4 or 5 months before the new season would roll around seemed like forever, but when it did... and the new season was ready to begin, it was well worth the wait.
You guys remember... Practice day at the Nazareth 1/2 mile, usually held the first or 2nd weekend in March. Sure you could bet on all the great driver's of the day being there, but to me the real excitement was to be the first to get a glimpse at their new rides! Some would be completely new cars, while the keen eye of most could also spot those that had just been re-skinned... same chassis, just a new body and new paint. It was a really exciting time. We were sure to spend the next few week's drawing images of those cars in our school notebooks rather than taking notes as the teacher thought.
But this past year, I don't think I ever remember feeling sad or that feeling of loss as the end of the season grew closer. And that itself is very sad.
Instead of being able to focus on the 2007 season as the subject for this offering, I kept finding myself wanted to go further back and try to find what was missing... to try to find why I wasn't really sad to see the season end this year.... As it turns out, I had to go a lot further back than I ever expected.
It Was Called "Stock Car" Racing for a Reason, Right?
If you're planning on following me on this one, you might want to pack a lunch and bring a flashlight as I'm really not sure how far back I'm going to end up going. But here goes...
Sure, most of us would love to pull up to a local dirt track one weekend and find the pits full of coupes and sedans... Falcons and Mustangs.... maybe of Gremlins and Pintos... But other than some special shows featuring vintage cars and/or at least those with vintage bodies, that's not going to happen.
Maybe its just my narrow perspective having been born in 1960, but it seems to me that local "Stock Car Racing" remained pretty much unchanged through the 50's and 60's.... Maybe I have no business making a statement like that since I wasn't even around back then, but I've formed this opinion because I often find myself trying to determine the date of a photos as having been from the late 40's, the 50's, or in some cases maybe even into the 60's. Other than the tires, a little more professional lettering in some cases and some other modifications to beef up the suspension, to me, they all had a stock appearance, one that certainly had its roots from the decades before. I hope we can all agree that although the frame rails may have been changed, the cars were still worthy of their "Stock" name.
Along came the 70's and big changes began to occur. Of course there were big changes going on under the bodies, but to the casual fan, that's not what we noticed first. While the coupes and sedans would hold their own for the first few years of the new decade, it wasn't long before all the top running modifieds of the day were adorned with new shells. The Brenn #24 Coupe was replaced by the Brenn #24 Gremlin, which was eventually replaced by the Brenn #24 Grant King car. The Norcia #81 Coupe became the Mustang bodied #81 and eventually the Black Horse #81 Gremlin. By the mid to late 70's, for the most part, the once mighty coupes and sedans ended up as back markers in the sportsman and rookie fields. A sad end to their run.
We watched as some nights teams would tow in 2 cars... One would be the old reliable coupe bodied car, and right along side they'd have "the new car", just waiting for its moment to step in. It was just a matter of time. Sometimes it was more sudden than that... The old coupe or sedan would be in a bad wreck one week... and just like that, the replacement was put into service the very next week. We never got a chance to even say goodbye. The Falcon's and the Mustang's from the 60's, along with the Gremlin's, Vega's and Pinto's from the 70's were now front and center.
The older guys in the top row didn't have much good to say about them, and rightfully so. They weren't about to let their beloved coupes and sedans get muscled out by the such lowly models. While the street versions of the Falcon and the Mustang could usually hold their own, the street Gremlin never really commanded much respect. Same could be said for the the disposable Vega, and as far as the Pinto goes... was it possible to look at one on the street and not picturing a big "FLAMMABLE" triangle placard on its back??
At least a stock coupe or sedan could have been expected to have a reasonably sized power plant underhood and because of that, the vision in the mind of those more seasoned fans of power and speed could be translated to the speedway's surface... And while the Gremlin X could be optioned out with a rarely installed V8, most of them had low output 6 cylinder engines covered with band-aid type emission control devices of the mid 70's like air pumps, diverter valves, and the ever popular, often emptied - pellet style catalytic converter. Not much there to conjure up images of speed, power and broadsliding.
(Photo above by Ace Lane Jr. - Provided by Tom Carberry Sr.)
Despite their lack of respect and attention given to these misfits of the highway, they still somehow managed to find a place in the hearts of many of us... especially those of us who were going through our teen years, with our developing skulls full of mush... still highly impressionable. Maybe we didn't know better, but we thought they were cool. And after all, they were still "stock" car bodies.
A Moment in the Sun
Better enjoy your day in the sun as in most cases, its fleeting at best. And so it was for those bodies that took center stage during the 70's. As was the case with disco and 8 track tapes, stock bodies on what were still called Modified "Stock" cars were becoming harder and harder to find... And while the end to disco couldn't come quick enough for many racefans, looking back, I don't think we could say the same for the demise of real stock bodies on stock cars.
We watched the Gremlin's, Pinto's, Mustang's and Vega's began to morph into something else as we closed out the decade of the 70's. Little by little the rooflines began to change... The side panels that once still held true to the original door handle cut outs or the little recessed triangle areas on the Gremlin's quarter panel soon yielded to the easier to work with flat sheets of aluminum. Yea, in most cases they still resembling the somewhat stock shape of a Gremlin or some other character from the great play we called "The 70's", but most no longer contained anything from a stock production car.
Why Did They Go?
Within a few years the only place a real bodied car could be found was in the newly created Late Model division. Those sightings too would run their course as the craftsmanship and fabrication skills needed to take a real car, or in some cases a real body and fabricate it to fit on top of a race car, was soon replaced by 4 X 8 sheets of flat aluminum, a brake operator, and a bunch of dzus buttons.
Was it because the new paneled cars offered an advantage because of the ability to control down force? Was it because they were easier to fabricate, and easier to repair? Was it because they were lighter?
Some will say that it was because the bodies became unavailable.... We'll eventually we did run out of coupes and sedans... but did we ever really run out of out of Chevettes and Valiants back then? Why didn't we just move into Citations and Escorts, or to Regals and K-Cars? The Cavalier got some play on the asphalt scene, but the dirt guys seemed to have had enough when it came to Detroit metal.
One theory is that the Gremlin was such a natural fit for a stock car that they quickly became the body of choice for many in the early 70's. (The roof and quarters would lay on a frame quite nicely... weld on the doors, expand the rear wheelwells and you were good to go! As they became more difficult to find, rather than taking on the additional fab work of fitting a different "stock" body to a frame, it became easier to just "fabricate" your own "Gremlin-like" creation.
And since we're talking fabrication, why take the time to make it exact, and include some of those little nuances of the stock model as previously mentioned like the quarter panel triangles... or the actual body lines. (Is it just me or did a car score extra high on the cool meter if they left the cut outs for where the tail lights were or the little Gremlin gas cap dead center in the back!). It seemed like the thought of the day became that "If we're gonna fabricate one, why not make that roof just a little wider... and maybe a little higher in the back, and maybe we'll pull those side panels (formerly known as doors) a little farther forward and maybe get a little of the rudder effect working for us."
Before you knew it, the few "stock" bodied cars that did manage to find there way into the early 80's began to look out of place. Like the perm and platform shoes, there time too was up....
"Hop in - the Water's Fine"
Whatever it was that caused the demise of stock bodies, I'm 100% sure of one thing that did not cause it... The fans. I don't remember any of us lobbying for new rules that would allow for sheet metal cars. None of us demanded that the old traditional stock bodies had to go in favor of the new "chic" flat paneled creations
But we let it happen.
We all saw the changes, and like a frog taking a relaxing dip in a pot of warm water on a stove... that eventually gets hotter.... and eventually boils... we missed our opportunity to jump out. We thought some of the creations were pretty cool... We even applauded some of the ingenuity... Hell, there are many who think there was never a finer looking racecar to blow the dust off the high side of the cushion at Flemington than a Troyer Mud Bus. But somewhere between the comfort of the water feeling nice and warm to where it became unsurvivable, we must have dozed off.
And while we were enjoying our little Jacuzzi, we left everything in the hands of the rules makers, the speed shops, the fabricators... just about everybody else except all those people who for all those years showed up to watch "stock" car racing. Unlike the frog, we all did somehow manage to make our way out of the pot on the stove... and as we had always done before, we headed back out to our favorite track.... We found our favorite seat.... But it was different.
Gone was the personality of the car. Gone was the ingenuity. Gone was the potential for an intimate relationship that only we could understand based on the shape and the stance of a stock bodied modified that for whatever reason, caught our eye more than any other. Try to explain that to a friend and you're guaranteed a really weird reaction... But I will tell you that just like a certain girl in a certain pair of jeans will stop you in your tracks, a coupe, a Falcon... or whatever with the tires hangin' out just right... with the right amount of rake would get our attention and admiration.
Rough Water's Ahead...
This sport is in a lot of trouble. There are many reasons for that and I don't claim to have the answers. Nor am I delusional enough to think that bringing back real stock bodies to our sport will be enough to save short track stock car racing. But its a start.
What is happening at our local short track does not resemble "stock" car racing and anyone going there expecting to see such will leave greatly disappointed. Sure there are exciting moments, but often those moments are rare jewels hidden amongst laps and laps of similar shaped and striped cars leaning way over on the right rear, with their frames a flexing..., with their rev limiters a limiting. Rare jewels of excitement indeed, buried beneath hours and hours of meaningless qualifying races of multiple divisions where lacking car counts will ensure that most, if not all, are sure to have a place in the night's feature lineup regardless of the outcome.
It's become a place where much of the night is filled with contrived excitement. Where once there was so much to entertain the senses, now we are left to the piercing, treble filled voice from the PA telling us how exciting what we are looking at really is... (I think we all enjoy being informed by a good announcer, but I've been to too many races in the past year where the announcer sounded like he was calling a different race than the one we were all watching. (Here's an idea, let's put the excitement back into the cars, and back onto the track and just let me know who is behind the wheel of each one prior to the start of the green and I'll take it from there....
Oh No... I Gotta Go!
Speaking of making it exciting, maybe it was just me, but I can tell you that when the green flag was out at Flemington, you did not want to leave your seat. If you had to pee... well, too bad. There was no way you were leaving that seat while there were cars on the track.
In fact, if nature called... and you had already postponed the inevitable as long as you could, even if it was just a heat race, here's how you planned your own "pitstop".
...You began getting up from your seat as the cars were coming out of turn 2 on the final lap...
...You made your way to the aisle somehow without ever taking your eyes off the cars...
...You made your way down to the pipe rail fence (see photo above) as the leaders were heading through 4... and then you followed each car across the line before you finally raced down to the gravel below.
...You then took off in a dead run for the bathroom. Pretending to be Mike or Sammy, or maybe Billy O or Stan, you never ran so fast as you wove your way in between hotdog carrying lappers as you made your way behind the food stands, near fan club alley, finally arriving at the restrooms...
...You did your business, tossed a quarter into the porters tin pie tray, and then got back on the gas as you could hear Bill Singer's voice calling the lineup on the next event.... More lappers in the way... to the right you'd go around the teenage couple holding hands... A daring move to the left to just avoid the mom who stopped right in front of you, yelling at her kid who refused to leave Al and Jean Otto's Novelty Stand without mom buying him one of those little plastic racecars... finally out in the clear heading toward the first turn...
...up the walkway, apexing the turn just right as you crest the top and make your way along the walkway, brushing up against the pipe railing as you drifted high off the corner
...up the steps... a couple of "excuse me... sorry about that, excuse me..." and finally, you slam back down into your seat just in time to hear Bill say, "Alright... Harry Dee looks them over...." (the bugle plays sounds) and the green waves, and you congratulate yourself on a successful mission because you didn't miss a second of green flag action. You wouldn't dare.
Unpredictability: A Key to A Racefan's Heart?
A lot of that excitement was the unpredictability of it all. Who's car was pushing? Who's car was loose? Who's car looked like it was leaning over too much or was running too high or who was smoking or leaking something?. No two laps were the same, and no two cars were the same. If hell wasn't breaking loose, or if there wasn't a heated battle at the front of the pack, you still had plenty to be entertained by. Even when the red came out, you were never bored as your eyes took you on a stroll through the pits where the welder was trying to get an early evening fence victim back out in time for his consi, or maybe you'd spot Bobby Pickell walking through the pits over to see the lineup. Maybe if time allowed, they'd open up the back gate to let a few late arriving modifieds cross over into the pits while the fence crew fixed the boards in turn 1, or while they burned off the fuel from a flip over in turn 2.
And I have to believe that the cars themselves entertained us too.
In 2003, Bill Singer told me that "One of the problems with today's racing is that if you painted all the cars white, you wouldn't be able to pick out your favorite." Bill was right. That was certainly never the case before. How many of us could identify most modifieds on any given mid 70's Saturday Night at Flemington even if all the driver's had done just that, (painting their cars white with no numbers or letters?) I'd put money down that whether it was because of the cars unique body style, unique stance, wheelwell cutout, driver's helmet, the way the driver held the steering wheel or leaned his head... you guys would be able to name most of them!
To the seasoned fan, today's cars leave little to relate to. Unless we are a relative or a friend of a particular driver, we really have very little at stake... very little involvement... very little association with what is on the stage and because of that, often very little reason to visit the racetrack anymore. To the new fan, there is even less to relate to. To many kids, rather than watching each event intensely, they look for reasons to get up and walk around rather than watch the on track activity. Once in a while if the red happens to come out, you'll see a bunch of them come running up to the fence from where they had been playing behind the grandstand... But once the regular racing resumes, they usually go back to whatever they were doing behind the stands not even noticing that the green is about to come out once again.. We played around too, but it was usually before the races... or at intermission... Not while there was racing on the track! And I really believe that if this is not addressed, the sport has no future. Think about it... the kids are there.... your top division is running.... and the kids aren't even watching.
I'm not much on predictions, but allow me to put on my Carnac hat and give this a shot.... I appreciate the effort that is being made in the state by the owners of our few remaining speedways, but if you follow the trend, where are we headed? Its difficult for me to say this, but I dont see the sport of dirt track stock car racing as we know it, with "Modifieds" and/or "Sportsman", with qualifying heats, consi's and features continuing beyond 2010 in the state of NJ, I think we are at the point where major changes need to be made to the content and core format of today's dirt track show.
Now what I'm looking for here is NOT a bunch of people to say, Yup, he's right... that's what I've been saying all along.... the sport is doomed. Actually, in some ways, I hope you don't agree with the last paragraph. I've watched races this year at New Egypt, Bridgeport, Grandview and although its asphalt, also at Wall. All had their good points, but I couldn't help feeling that something was lacking at all of them.
Instead of doom and gloom, I'm hoping that someone out there will be inspired to come up with your own solid ideas, write them down and provide them to your favorite speedway. I hope there is a way to change the direction that we are going, and I admit, I don't have the answer. I've got a couple of ideas that might help a little and a strong desire to see the sport continue for decades. I plan on supporting short track racing as long as there are short tracks for me to go to, but if that's all we do, we can expect more of the same of what it is that we're getting now...
I'm sure you guys have ideas too. My suggestion is to really think them through... write them down... think them through again... make some adjustments... and if they still seem like ideas that could help the sport grow, we need to get them in the hands of those who hold the future of our fragile sport in their hands. If you don't know where to send them, put them ON PAPER and mail them to us at the address at the bottom of this page, and we'll deliver them to the speedway of your choice.
Time to Get Down to the Business of the Business
Where do you start... I mean really, where do you start? It's hard enough starting out on a journey knowing that there really is a destination to which you can eventually arrive. In this case, I don't know if there is a destination out there for all of us long time fans, but I do know that staying where we are will only ensure that we never get anywhere. It will take many different ideas and many changes to today's program. Here's a basic formula that I had read in a Continental Airlines magazine about how the Nascar feels is the best way to make a successful racing show.
The article quoted Lesa France Kennedy (I think) and she said basically that in order for racing at any level to continue to grow it has to have the following 3 elements.
It Must be Unpredictable
It Must be Fun
It Must be Compelling
I ask you, when is the last time that you felt any of these three (unpredictable, fun and/or compelling) for any sustained period of time at a local short track event? We've all experienced a fleeting moment here or there of unpredictability... maybe a laugh or two after watching a driver threatened with a rolled up black flag for doing something that didn't meet with the flagger's approval... or maybe a couple "compelling laps of racing" that usually occur in the early stages of a feature between 2 old rivals making there way from the 17th and 18th starting spots to the front.
I don't have the answers and I don't have the ability, the time, the resources nor the intelligence to fix it all. But I do have a few ideas here and there... and I really don't think there is any "one idea" out there that will put a dent into where this sport finds itself. Many of us continue to try to search for the one idea that will fix everything, but in reality, to think this sport is only one idea away from being saved, well... I just don't see it that way. It will take many ideas and I'm afraid that some of the changes that will be necessary will leave us with very little resemblance of what we once knew as "Stock" car racing. Some of us may be even more disenchanted with what the sport may eventually become than what we already have.
I've heard some different ideas being tossed around, and I know that the ownership of our 2 existing dirt tracks would much rather see 2008 wrap up with less of a financial loss than did in 2007. I think there are some short term adjustments that can be made that will probably put them a better position come year's end, but I think to really fix things, someone eventually has to look at the product that is actually being served, and by that I'm talking about the actual cars on the track that we are are asking fans to sit and watch... and to find interesting.
The fact is that most fans do not find them interesting. There is absolutely nothing that they can relate to. I personally find them all to be "ok..." and in this case, being ok is not good enough. I want to see cars that are interesting, that are cool... to think that some may look a little awkward... to think some are too high or too low... to think some should be painted a different color.. and finally, to think some are just right. And I need them to have personality....
Here's why. There are going to be times at the races when cars are not side by side for a qualifying spot, when they are not up near the wall on the brink of disaster... or when they're not rubbin' nerf bars through the corners. And when none of that is going on, at some level, we need to still be entertained. And since it is a car race, well... I'd like to think the cars themselves should be entertaining and yes... memorable!
Is it the Cars, or is it What They're Doing Out There That Makes A Motorsports Event Exciting
I may be way off base here, but it seems like there are 2 types of motorsports. There are some types of motorsports where the action is so intense... where the risk of accident and mayhem is always present and often expected, and because of this, it is not as important for the cars to all have their own personalities. Often it is the event itself that is what keeps you riveted. Some examples here might include Funny Car and Top Fuel Drag Racing, Outlaw Sprint Car Racing, Hydroplanes, Superbike and Motocross, Indy Car Racing at Richmond, or maybe even NASCAR at tracks like Talledaga or Bristol. This types of racing can get away with vehicles that look the same except for the color and vinyl because the "Compelling" and Unpredictability" factors are usually satisfied by the track and the competition itself. Most of these events are watched with the "something is about to happen" attitude.
Then there are other forms of Motorsports or events that feature cars where the level of danger is not continuously present, lap after lap, and because of that, there is a lot of time where fans are really watching a more controlled type of an event. Without the ever present danger, we need to find other ways to be entertained... to find something to keep our interest so that we find value in the time and money spent in attending such an event. If we don't, we will not likely go back. Some examples might be the Super Comp Classes in Drag Racing (especially the bracket classes or the super comp classes), Monster Trucks, and even car shows where while there is certainly no "danger factor", it is the vehicles, and the individual personalities of each that become a big part of the show and determine whether the event is enjoyable and the spectator is most likely to return.
Where Does Short Track Racing Fit in With All of This...
I think that Dirt Track Modified Racing finds itself lost in the middle. While we are all glad of the safety innovations that have prevented many driver from injury and possible death, it can't be denied that a big part of what made places like Flemington, East Windsor, Nazareth, etc so exciting... so compelling... so unpredictable... was the ever present danger that was an inherent part of the competition, the cars, the closeness of the action. When you look at the way racing events were marketed back in the 40's and 50's it was one step above a circus act where somebody cut a woman in half and slightly beneath watching a wing walker on top of a bi-plane. The expectation was that there was danger, and in many cases it was that possibility of danger that made the event compelling and unpredictable. I wasn't there, but I'm thinking those things were what made the sport popular to many. The cars themselves were nothing more than vehicles for the men inside to show their bravery. I think fans back then were probably entertained for a variety of reasons. I kind of think that's how it was from the early days of stock car racing, right up until somewhere in the last decade or so.
While no true race fan ever wants to see someone injured or killed, and while we can certainly feel bad for that driver of a destroyed racecar who walks back to the pits dejectedly after losing a battle with the wall, there were many nights at Flemington when you'd run into people on Sunday morning after a Saturday night show and they'd always ask the following 2 questions:
Double pickups, wheels flying off of cars, driver's getting out of their cars after the accident to wave to the crowd and/or to show his displeasure to a fellow competitor... it was all part of a night at the local speedway.
And when any or all of the above wasn't happening at any particular moment, you still had those amazing original creations going around the track... under green... under yellow... stopped in front of you on a red... loping at idle through the pits getting staged for their upcoming event..... Coupes and Sedans, Gremlins and Pintos... Corvairs and Cudas... all with a different shape, attitude, and sound... The bottom line was there was something to capture everyone's attention... always. The cars themselves made certain of that.
What can we do? Well, we certainly can't and shouldn't put the danger back into the sport by making things more dangerous and/or less safe, (although that's exactly what they're doing in some parts of this country where I've seen TV events featuring drivers doing Figure 8 racing and Barrel Rolling competitions where the driver is wearing an old motocross helmet, a t-shirt and utilizing the stock vehicle seat belts.) We can never let our guard down when it comes to safety and must continue to look for ways to make it even safer.
But here's something that we can do to bring back some excitement. Make the cars part of the show again. Make the cars interesting.
Let's first recognize that Modified Stock Car racing is NO LONGER as Unpredictable, Compelling and Fun as it once was. While each season produces some amazing moments, there is no denying that if you went to a show this past year expecting to be as entertained and surprised as you were by a typical Saturday Night at Flemington in the 60's or 70's, you left disappointed. And if you are disappointed a couple of times in a row, its only a matter of time before going to the races became a chore rather than a pleasure. And that is the beginning of the end for this sport. If the sport can't even capture the person who it should matter most to (people who claim to be racefans), what chance does it have in capturing a new fan base, using the same tired format featuring unrecognizable, highly specialized "Modified" racecars?
Can we all admit it finally? I don't care what D.I.R.T says or writes, today's cars are no longer unique and compelling enough to capture our attention and no longer demand that we make room in that hard drive in our head known as long term memory. Can anyone tell me anything unique about the car that Frank Cozze drove in 2005 compared to 2006, or that the car that Pauch drove in 2003 compared to 2004? Would I get a better response if I asked about the Maul Missile.... or The Big Donkey that Ploski wheeled.... or Joe Bullock's Falcon with Gerry behind the wheel? I think so. Strange that I can remember Cozze's little white #44 coupe and Pauch's little white and blue Mustang sportsman, with his bandana waving in the breeze than I can the cars the they drove this past year!
Let's also realize that if a speedway is going to try to put people in the stands by providing "car" racing, and if the excitement and danger level is not continuously present lap after lap, then the cars themselves have to be "Entertaining" to look at. This is NOT happening, and has not been happening for quite a while now. Not only that, but it is NOT being addressed at any level within short track racing nor is there any plans of it being addressed. I've heard rumors of putting sail panels on some of the classes, and while that's something that may help distinguish one class from another, it will do nothing to distinguish one competitor from another in the same event.
Right now meetings are taking place regarding crate motors... which heads are allowed.... which tires can be run....what head and neck restraints are mandatory.... and whether or not to allow alcohol or racing fuel. Those things do have to be worked out, and it goes without saying that steps need to be taken to reduce the cost to the average racer and to increase safety.
But here's the problem with each one of these things that are being discussed mentioned above: Unless a person is a relative or a close friend of one of the competitors, NOT ONE of those things is going to put a single person in the stands and certainly none of these proposed changes are going to ensure the type of entertainment that is going to make any fan feel compelled to return the following week.
Yea... We Know, "If You Don't Race, Shut Up."
For starters, someone needs to be a voice for the ever dwindling group of people that used to be known as fans. I'm talking about those of us who would show up regardless of it being a little chilly... a little windy... or even if it looked like rain. And not just because our brother-in-law is racing... or some guy that our wife works with is racing... We will be there because there is enough value for us to want to be there. We find the show compelling, fun and unpredictable enough that there is no other place we'd rather be.
There were a couple of fair crowds this year at some events, but as soon as the weather is a little iffy... or there's a Nascar race on... many elect to just stay home. (The image at the top of this page was based on a photo taken at New Egypt Speedway on one of the nights where they had an exceptional crowd. Unfortunately, this was not the case each Saturday Night and I think all would agree that the crowds were down this year overall.)
It's common on message boards to see people who are directly involved with a car to tell those who are not to shut up since they are only fans and as such have very little on the line. I have a hard time with this as it seems to me that everyone has a lot more to gain if the grandstands are full of fans. I think we all need to realize that all parties need to work together (track owners, track managers, drivers, car owners and fans.) Seems the problem we have is that we often only champion what makes the most sense for our own personal situation. I am no different, but I would like to think that anything I champion is also for the overall good of the sport.
Maybe its time that the fans stop talking with their feet and instead make their opinions known.
As mentioned before, we don't need flips and double pick ups and wheels flying off of cars. But since it is a venue that features "cars racing" I think we have an obligation to put something on the track that the majority of the spectators will find interesting to look at. AND WE ARE NOT DOING THAT TODAY.
I've wasted my breath on many occasions trying to explain to a new fan what was actually going on at the track and it usually goes something like this: "The cars coming out onto the track right now are not modifieds, but are actually sportsman because they have smaller engines than the modifieds... and they don't cost quite as much as a modified... although sometimes someone will put a bigger engine in a sportsman and then it becomes a modified...." (Did I lose anyone yet?)
Here's an Idea
Here's the first thing I would do for starters:
Announce the creation of the "REAL DEAL - REAL STEEL SPORTSMAN" CLASS
Acknowledge that today's modifieds are not appealing and most of society (old and young) do not relate to them. All the fancy stripes and graphics provide us with nothing more than a field of similarly looking space buggies circling a track at a high rate of speed. This may be exciting for the person who is a friend or a relative of the person inside the car, but for most of the other spectators, after a few laps, its just another car with stripes and vinyl.
Put rules in effect today to allow for the gradual change over to make sportman cars NOT resemble modifieds, but instead take on a more stock appearance. Let modifieds retain their current look with their big, wide "driver hiding" bodies, however open up the rules to allow sportsman to use ANY STEEL BODY from any year and encourage the use of bodies that reflect the cars that fans can relate to. A few old coupes... fine. A few old Falcons or Gremlins.... finer still. A few Honda Accords, Pontiac Bonnevilles, PT Cruisers, new style "Retro" Mustangs... way cool! The body would have to be stock in appearance from the firewall back with courtesy given to accommodate all safety concerns regarding window openings. The roof should be stock, along with the tops of the doors (doors can be extended if necessary), the truck/deck lid and the back (where the tail lights would go) should remain stock in appearance. The name of the car model must be painted across the back of the car or at the bottom of the doors in a manner that is visible from the grandstands. Documentation proving that it is an original bodied car must be available for inspection at all times when the car enters competition. (Proof could be in the form of a picture book showing comparisons of the current body configuration next to the original model of car that the body was taken from.)
Offer performance incentives such as allowing a bigger carburetor, aluminum wheels, a weight break, etc to those who dare to be different and take the extra time to fabricate a body that will have more eye appeal to the fans. (These incentives would be to offset any loss in down force that may be experienced by not having a current style wide body so that guys with "Real Steel" could be "real" competitive.) The use of inner panels would also be allowed. Reward those guys that are not only competing, but doing something extra to help the sport grow. This would also give those fabrication guys who have been prematurely put out to pasture a chance to come back to the shop and use those fabrication skills that to many think has become a lost art.
The cars utilizing steel factory bodies are not to be run in a separate class but will run right along side today's wide bodied sportsman cars until one day, hopefully the wide body sportsman car will be a thing of the past.
Finding the Future by First Looking Back
(Photo above by Allen Clark - Provided by Allen Clark)
What is it that today's cars are supposed to represent again? (Spare me the story about the transformation from Coupe to Gremlin, to bodies to provide down force, to D.I.R.T. standards.) I'm asking, what is a car like the one pictured above supposed to represent to the average fan who shows up at a local dirt track? Does it look like anything they parked next to in the parking lot? If the answer is know, then it shouldn't be on the track either.
Is it cool - sure, I'll give you that. But when you run endless heats and endless consi's only to be followed up by 24 or more of these identically looking cars squaring off in a feature where often the only difference between the appearance of the car in 1st place and the car in 24th is the color and vinyl lettering, you gotta ask, "Are we really providing a total experience for the "auto" racing fan?"
Does the car above look like anything that you've ever seen driving up the Garden State Turnpike?
Hey... wait a minute... what about the car pictured below? (We'll its been a few years, but I think I remember seeing a couple of these!)
(Photo above by Allen Clark - Provided by Allen Clark)
Allen Clark, the fabricator on the Falcon above, tells us that what we are looking at is the rough fit of a 60's Falcon body to a 90s frame. He adds, "I narrowed the rear quarters and trunk lid 4 1/2", left the roof width original but moved it back about 12" and also took about 12" of the front of the doors to keep the A pillar rake about the same. I didn't want to use the original A pillars because they just looked to big and bulky and they were pretty heavy as I cut the windshield tray off the front of the roof for the same reason. He says "From engineering things in the past, I left everything "too big" and whittled away at it as I figured it was easier to take stuff off then try to put it back on."
(Photo above by Allen Clark - Provided by Allen Clark)
(Photo above by Allen Clark - Provided by Allen Clark)
Now before all of you start thinking, "Where are you going to come up with old Falcon, Gremlin and Vega bodies", let me stop you by saying that's not what I'm advocating. While the car above absolutely pins the cool meter in my book and yes, it is the same car pictured above as the white #4, (and you bet I'd love to see it out on the track, side by side spanking some refrigerator box), I'm open to the use of any "real steel" body. Not just old bodies, but as mentioned above, any steel body from the mid 1930's to present day. Chevrolets, Nissans, Subaru's, Pacifica's... bring them on and bring your torch!. I think they'd have a much better chance of catching the fans attention, all of the fans: Some would appeal to us older guys, and yup, we'd probably not like some of them, and they'd probably be the ones that appeal to the teenagers and maybe even younger. And that is key to the future of this sport.
What's This... People Lined Up to See a Motorsports Event at a Short Track in NJ in 2007?
It might surprise you to find that one of the largest crowds to attend a Motorsports event in NJ wasn't at Bridgeport... wasn't at New Egypt.... and some of you might not even call it a "Motorsports Event" at all. These people in the photo below were lined up at 10:30am for an event that wasn't scheduled to start until noon. I think it cost $25 to get in and another $10 or so to park.
(Photo above by 3Wide - Provided by 3Wide)
They came not to watch their relatives race, or to see that guy your wife works with race that I mentioned before... They came to be entertained... to have fun. To see stuff they could relate to. And if you can't tell from the picture, probably 90% of the crowd was between 15 - 25 years old....
(Photo above by 3Wide - Provided by 3Wide)
It was the Formula D Drifting event at Wall Stadium on September 8th and it was mobbed. The event featured cars with stock bodies that those in attendance could relate to, sliding sideways inches from each other and only inches from the wall... There were Nissans, Mustangs, Chargers, Mazda's, Toyotas, a Porsche.. and even a Lexus. And there were a lot of these same types of cars in the parking lot. Most of the drivers had names that those in attendance couldn't even pronounce, but one thing was for sure... The fans loved the cars and they loved the on track action.
The cars competed on the same asphalt surface that the modifieds run on each Saturday Night although as you can see from the photos above, they ran in a counter-clockwise manner and utilized the infield to cross back up to complete a second lap.
Something to think about... Do you think the thousands of people that were there would have been as interested in the on track action if all of the cars had to fit a template enforced by some sanctioning body in the name of providing even competition? If D.I.R.T. gets a hold of drifting, that's exactly what would probably happen. And oh yea, the guys who then sell the approved body panels, and the guys whose jobs would be to enforce uniformity and I guess some of the competitors might be happy, but I think they'd see their fan base dwindle just as we have.
Give the People What They Want and Stop Expecting Them to Accept What Our Sport Has Become
Is hanging out with a bunch of young people listening to loud music with no shortage of eye candy what needs to be offered at NES or Bridgeport? Its not really my thing, and no, I'm not suggesting that's what should be done. But I do think it's not wise to ignore the success of these kinds of events and to see if there is something to learned that may help us.
In 2007, NJ's dirt tracks tried Modifieds, Sportsman, Big Blocks, 358's, D.I.R.T. Events, Non-D.I.R.T. Events, SS Sprints, Super Stocks, Outlaw Stocks, Krate Motors, 600 cc Micros, Enduros, Demo Derbys, URC Sprints, Outlaws, Super Late Models, Mud Hops, Concerts... 1 day events... 2 day events... and nothing - NOTHING came close to the crowd that was on hand at Wall back in September. The amount of young people, the energy and the excitement... it was all there. And they were not disappointed. I would expect there to be a similar crowd at future events of this type.
And while there were a lot of other things going on in the midway, in the pit area... different vendors, DJ's, bikini girls signing posters, I couldn't help but notice how everyone made their way back to their place in the grandstand once the on track action was about to begin. They couldn't wait to get back to their seats to experience this NEW idea of watching cars slide sideways... flirting with the edge of being out of control....
(Photo above by Ken Sooy - Provided By: Russ Dodge)
But didn't we always know that watching cars that we liked, cars that we could relate too, fishtailing... backing into the corners, sometimes inches off the wall really cool? Wasn't there a time when we were afraid to leave our seats because the action was so compelling and so unpredictable? (How many of you that are reading this would have been able to leave your seat if you saw the car above, with the driver at the wheel slinging it around the high side?) We HAD to go back week after week. We didn't want to miss the fun that a day at the racetrack, with all the characters and the excitement was sure to provide.
We all knew we were a part of something special. It was the real deal.
How sad that our sport continues to suffer. It continues to search for an audience and continues to expect to find one based on what sanctioning bodies want, based on what the competitors and owners demand, but without given much consideration to what the people want. Its no secret that the few fans that can now be found scattered throughout the grandstands on a weekly basis at the local short tracks here in NJ consists mainly of the family and friends of those who are competing. Amongst them each year there are fewer and fewer of us diehards... those who still show up hoping to see something that resembles what we once had, like a fisherman returning to that same spot even though its been years since he's had a bite.... Yea, sometimes if the weather is just right, and there's no other event pulling people in a 1000 other directions, the stands are a little fuller, but that is occurring less and less at our local short tracks. Its become quite obvious that many of those who have attended a show recently are not finding it unpredictable... are not finding it compelling... are not finding it fun, and unfortunately, are returning less and less..
We're not attracting new fans. Young people are nowhere to be found, and us diehards are staying home more and more. The sport is dying and maybe one way to move it in a forward direction is to start by taking a look back... way back, and asking ourselves what it was that made us want to go to the races each week, and more importantly, what it was that made us want to come back over and over again. Once we really understand that, and more importantly, once the owners and staff of our few remaining short tracks acknowledge it, then maybe we can all begin to move forward.
If you have ideas that you think will help the sport, write them down (hand written, or type and then print) and mail them to your local speedway below, or if you prefer, mail them to us at the address provided. (I have it on good authority that suggestions received in writting are given priority over those found on the internet, so click on the links below to get their address!)
New Egypt Speedway:
720 Route 539
New Egypt, NJ
83 Floodgates Road
1803 Rt. 34
3 Wide's Picture Vault
P.O. Box 22
Allentown, NJ 08501
Attn: Speedway Improvement Ideas
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