Craig Murto: Should NASCAR time races?

Craig Murto

NASCAR (as well as most other major sports) is concerned about its drop in TV ratings and at-the-track attendance.

These concerns have been ongoing. They’ve led to changes in how we determine a champion (The Chase) to how we run the races (Lucky Dog wave-arounds to get back on the lead lap, Caution Clock at Camping World Truck Series races) and even to the rules for the Cup cars (harder tires and less down force).

Now some are proposing a change that may be the most radical of all: Timed events.

Timed events are not uncommon in motorsports. We have six-, 12-, and 24-hour sports car races. Formula One races aren’t supposed to last longer than two hours, and if they get delayed officials turn to the clock to determine when the race ends rather than lap count. The same thing happens in IndyCar races on road courses, and many regional road racing events are measured in track time.

Even at local dirt and paved ovals, there have been timed events for lower divisions so that fans don’t have to watch 12 mini stocks roll around under caution for an hour while they wait for the Late Model feature. It’s not uncommon for lower divisions to be given a limit of 20 laps or 30 minutes, for example.

Motorcycle’s Supercross series opened last weekend at Anaheim, Calif., and utilized timed races rather than laps. Outdoor motocross has always used timed events, but this is the first time Supercross has gone to this system. The qualifying races were five minutes, the features were 15 minutes for the 250cc bikes and 20 minutes for the 450 class. The entire show fit nicely within the three-hour allotted TV time.

And that is precisely why some believe NASCAR should set time limits on their races, the fact that TV audiences and crowds at the track don’t have the patience to sit five hours for a race.

We’ve seen the move toward shorter races. Tracks such as Pocono and Dover shortened their races to 400 miles from 500. New Hampshire’s Cup race is 300 miles. And many races that use the traditional 500 as part of the race name are actually 500 kilometers.

Current NASCAR fans will certainly rebel if NASCAR set a limit of, say, 2.5 hours per event so that it fit within a three-hour TV window. But the sad truth is that NASCAR shouldn’t be concerned with current fans; it needs to worry about new fans, without whom the sport will continue to decline. And younger people raised in a society that offers instant gratification, from fast food to streaming video on the internet on demand, are not likely to sit for five hours or more to watch a race broadcast.

Of course, there will be traditional events that should remain untouched. The Daytona 500 just won’t have the same appeal if it becomes a 500-kilometer race. The 600-mile race at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend needs to remain, as does the Southern 500 at Darlington, which thankfully returned to its traditional Labor Day weekend.

But don’t be surprised if in the not-too-distant future, NASCAR implements time limits on some of its events. Perhaps it’ll start at the most likely spot, the road courses at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Sonoma, Calif. Watkins Glen could be 80 laps or 2.5 hours, whichever comes first.

If NASCAR is smart, you will not hear about this type of change in 2017. Fans are frankly getting worn out with annual changes to the cars and to The Chase. Some will tell you they’ve had enough. In fact, race fans really enjoy complaining when things change, even when the changes are for the best. So to keep the peace and keep things positive for 2017, NASCAR would be ill-advised to set time limits on races anytime soon.

But don’t be surprised if in coming years NASCAR sets time limits. Maybe a road course event, or a track that currently doesn’t have a Cup race, such as Iowa Speedway, is awarded a race that becomes “The Two Hours of Iowa.” Maybe they’ll first experiment with it in the Camping World Truck Series or the Xfinity Series.

With Monster Energy coming in as the new sponsor for the Cup Series, the last thing NASCAR wants to see is more decline. If 2017 TV ratings don’t improve over 2016, don’t be surprised if timed races become a real possibility.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.