By Jerry Bonkowski
In life, we are guaranteed only two things in this world: death and taxes. Try as you may, you can’t avoid either.
Now, if you were a NASCAR fan for the better part of the 1980s, 1990s and even into the early part of the 2000s, there was one other thing you were also guaranteed: a lack of change within the sport.
“Change” was arguably one of the dirtiest words in the NASCAR vocabulary.
Sure, we saw several new racetracks that were built and opened during that era, places like Texas, Las Vegas, Chicago, Kansas and more.
But other than shiny new venues, NASCAR was still NASCAR for the most part – and that meant change was about as welcome as the tax man knocking on your door.
Hear me out on this:
Bored with cookie-cutter 1.5-mile tracks that became the primary venue of choice for the sport by its leaders, fans constantly begged for new types of races, particularly more road course events and more short tracks and/or races.
But NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. and then his son and successor, Brian, adhered to maintaining the status quo, no matter what.
To paraphrase a well-worn saying – and which became NASCAR’s unofficial mantra during that period of time, seemingly borrowing language from prehistoric cavemen: status quo good, change bad.
Yet when the economy tanked in 2008 and NASCAR lost not only countless fans, teams and employees, change began to come about by necessity. Sure, it took several years for that change to come, but finally, thankfully, the NASCAR of today is far from what our grandfathers and fathers cheered for and followed.
And that’s a good thing – a very, very good thing.
After years of insisting that NASCAR only needed two road course races in a typical 30-plus season schedule – and ONLY at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway – 2021 brought about one of the biggest changes the sport has ever seen, with SEVEN road course races on the schedule.
That made up nearly 20 percent of the 36-race tilt. And fans loved it. That’s why we’re seeing that same number in 2022.
But NASCAR wasn’t done with change, no sir-ree, not by a long shot.
New for 2022 is a completely redesigned race car in the Cup Series, something that is so monumental in terms of change that it has two different names: the Next Generation car (Next Gen for short) and Gen 7 (short for Generation 7).
Development of the new car took three years, with nearly one of those years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ll finally see the new ride come to life for the first time on February 6 in the non-points Busch Light Clash exhibition.
Wait, there’s more change! The Clash will be held in one of the most legendary sports venues in the world, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR spent a reported $1-plus million to construct the quarter-mile flat track that will circle the outside of Coliseum’s infield.
Sure, the Coliseum has seen other racing events over the years, including motocross, off-road trucks, etc., but nothing like what we’ll see on Feb. 6. And if persistent rumors come true, we may see the Coliseum host a regular Cup race every season going forward.
Wait, there’s even more change! For the first time in NASCAR history – yes, in more than 70 years since the sanctioning body was first organized at Daytona Beach’s Streamline Hotel – fans, media and teams will play witness to arguably the most revolutionary mechanical change that the sport has ever seen.
After nearly 75 years of having five lug nuts per wheel on every Cup car, starting with this season and going forward potentially ad infinitum, NASCAR has completely done away with five lug nuts per wheel and instead has mandated one-lug wheel hubs, very similar to what has been around sports car racing for a long time.
Do you know what the one-lug wheel hub means? MUCH faster pit stops, saving perhaps as much as two seconds per stop!
But wait, there’s even more change! The Goodyear tires Cup cars – and eventually Xfinity cars and Trucks will ride upon – will be wider and lighter. Plus, the air gun that pit crew members have used for much of the last 30-plus years, will now basically be twice the size and twice the weight.
And fuel cells will be smaller, requiring more pit stops and new pit strategy than has been the norm for the last several decades.
Much of all these changes are to make Cup cars – and eventually Xfinity and Truck vehicles – more akin to the actual cars Joe and Jean Fan can buy at their local Ford, Chevrolet or Toyota dealer (and potentially soon to be adding Dodge, hopefully).
Those changes will also make NASCAR rides more like sports cars mechanically, aerodynamically and psychologically. Again, something that for decades NASCAR fought hardly against adapting.
But wait, there’s even MORE change! Once NASCAR kicks off the season on February 20th with the Daytona 500, the next race on the schedule will be February 27th at Auto Club Speedway.
You definitely don’t want to miss that race either on TV or if you’re lucky enough, in-person. For after the last NASCAR hauler leaves the infield of the two-mile superspeedway, when the sport returns there in 2023, Auto Club Speedway will be transformed from a massive two-mile facility into a high-speed, high-banked half-mile short track, a hybrid of sorts that will bring together the tight-quarters racing we have seen for years at Martinsville Speedway, coupled with the high banks that Bristol Motor Speedway has become famous for.
It’s not surprising, though, when you think about it. Fans spent years wanting more road courses on the schedule, and now they have them. Fans also wanted more short tracks on the schedule, and ACS (and potentially the LA Coliseum) will soon accommodate their wishes.
And don’t be surprised if we see another new short track built – potentially in the Pacific Northwest – in the next five years. That’s a market NASCAR has long coveted and, to borrow a familiar sports phrase, if they build it, they will come, namely, NASCAR will build it and fans will flock to it.
Wait, there’s even MORE, MORE change! The NASCAR of 2022 will continue its emphasis on greater diversity within the sport, particularly in attracting more fans, drivers, crew chiefs and team members of color. Michael Jordan is already all-in as a team owner, as is rapper Pitbull. And Bubba Wallace has become one of the up-and-coming faces of the sport, with many more folks of color on the horizon.
Wait, there’s even MORE, MORE, MORE (sounds like an Andrea True song from the 70s – Google it if you want to know what it means) change! Sunday’s race at the LA Coliseum will also mark the return of stadium racing to the sport.
Many fans may think Sunday is the first time that a stadium has hosted a race. Wrong. There used to be several stadiums that NASCAR visited, primarily in the 1950s and into the 1960s before being displaced by more modern true speedways like Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Michigan and more.
Of course, there still is at least one stadium where races have continued on since the 1960s, namely, Bowman Gray Stadium in North Carolina. The facility is built on the edge of the home football field for Winston-Salem State University, and has hosted primarily late model racing for decades.
Yet on Sunday, stadium racing will be back in NASCAR in LA, not coincidentally one week before Super Bowl 56, which will be held the following Sunday just a few miles southward in Inglewood, California. Holding the race at the Coliseum was a genius move on NASCAR’s part, as the event will likely attract thousands of fans who may be coming to LA for the Super Bowl a week early to escape Old Man Winter and have some fun in the sun, at the beach and in the Coliseum.
So, you see, while it took NASCAR a long time to embrace change, it finally has – and what a beautiful sight it has become.
But I have to admit something: as much as I like all the changes, NASCAR’s change movement still needs to take one more step.
Unfortunately, that may be the hardest thing to change of all. If NASCAR can multiply the number of road course events by nearly 400 percent, if it can bring in a totally new car and have just one lug nut (hub), if it can bring back more short tracks and reintroduce stadium racing, I ask two simple questions:
Is going back to NASCAR’s original roots and racing on the beach once again – like it used to do in the 1940s and 1950s south of Daytona Beach – a potential possibility? And for the ultimate in change, how about something fans have clamored for for decades: a street course race?
Hey, if it works great for IndyCar at places like St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Toronto, what does NASCAR have to lose? Heck, given last year’s NASCAR and IndyCar weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, how about a combo weekend at Long Beach or those other venues?
Am I asking too much that NASCAR finally return fully to its roots and once again hold a race on the beach? Sure, commercial and residential development has pretty much wiped out the four-plus beach course that once was just south of Daytona Beach.
But if it looks long and hard, somewhere, somehow, I’m sure NASCAR can come up with a beach course like the sport enjoyed more than 60 years ago. After all, if it can truck in dirt and lay it atop the half-mile track at Bristol, surely there’s a place that – environmental concerns notwithstanding – can accomplish that.
I’d be the first to buy a ticket to that, for sure!
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski