By Jerry Bonkowski
I love All-Star sports events, be it Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the NFL’s Pro Bowl, or the NBA or NHL All-Star Games.
I also enjoy NASCAR’s annual All-Star Race, which in theory is slated to bring out the best in the best – but it doesn’t always turn out that way.
Don’t get me wrong, the theory of the All-Star Race is good. But how do you make things different or grab fan attention year after year, decade after decade, when you have the same drivers, same teams and same concept each year?
Sure, NASCAR does a good job in trying to change up formats every year. But that’s also part of the problem: fans like uniformity and continuity.
When you seemingly change the format from one year to another, and oftentimes in the past having produced a convoluting system that fans struggle to keep up with, then there’s a problem.
For maybe the first 20-plus years of the NASCAR All-Star Race (or as I like to call it, ASR for short), it was an outstanding event. But as many of the original drivers that competed in the All-Star event, namely, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and others of the same ilk began to retire, much of the luster of the ASR kind of began to slowly fade away.
Sure, NASCAR tried to make the race relevant, but in doing so, changing the format seemingly every year ultimately seemed to do more damage – and caused less fan interest – with each passing year.
During its 35-plus year history, there have been over a dozen different formats, including different numbers of laps, different numbers and lengths of segments/stages, and other gimmicks and gizmos that were supposed to create excitement and fan interest.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out that way.
And then there have been geographic changes. Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted 34 of the first 35 ASR’s (Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted the second race back in 1986).
Then, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the decision was made to move the ASR to Bristol Motor Speedway in 2020. But rather than return to Charlotte in 2021, the decision was made to move the ASR to Texas Motor Speedway, the same venue that this weekend’s race will once again be held at.
Granted, there had been a number of years where teams, drivers and fans all wanted to see the ASR in other venues, but NASCAR was adamant to keep it in Charlotte. And, for that matter, even if giving up the venue was what the fans wanted, each ASR to date has always been held in a Speedway Motorsports Inc. track, be it Charlotte, Bristol and most recently Texas.
There is already some speculation that the ASR may move next year to another track, with the betting money on Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Not surprisingly, that’s also a SMI track.
Why not have the ASR at a NASCAR-owned track, like Daytona or Talladega or Darlington? I think fans would turn out in droves for places like that.
But getting back to the original problem at hand, namely, the format and consistency within, why can’t NASCAR do different things like we see other sports leagues do with their all-star events?
The NBA All-Star Game weekend has the dunk contest, the rookie game and other complementary events. Major League Baseball has the home run hitting contest and other sidelight events.
Maybe NASCAR could have something like a driving skills contest, or a burnout contest or a kind of threading the needle thing where drivers need to get through something with only a couple inches on either side (and if they scratch the car, they lose points).
Or maybe bring in the Xfinity and even Truck Series to do some special sidelight events as kind of an undercard event to the ASR.
Or how about this one (my personal favorite): find a way to bring back some of the sport’s greats to race in a competition – kind of like an old-timer’s game (or in this case, an old-timer’s race).
Now, that may be a bit more difficult to do because, let’s face it, former drivers that are now in their 60s, 70s and even 80s just don’t have the reaction time or performance ability they once had in their prime.
But maybe there’s a way we could do something like an iRacing event where guys like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and so many other past greats would be able to battle against each other – and not worry about getting hurt in the process.
With all the technology available today, a race like that would be a natural to be aired not only on TV, but also on the big screen monitors at various tracks where the ASR would also be held.
Let’s face it, the NASCAR ASR isn’t really all that much different from every one of the 36 points-paying races we already have on the Cup schedule. And that’s where the rub is for many fans. If they see Joey Logano going head-to-head with Kyle Busch or Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson in an ASR, how much different is that from when they go head-to-head week after week at places like Daytona, Darlington, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas and so many other tracks?
If we put on our thinking caps, I’m sure there’s even more ideas we can come up with that would help the NASCAR ASR regain some of its lost luster and make it an all-star event that fans would once again flock to watch.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski