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Could Shorter Races Actually Help NASCAR Last Longer?

The cars of  Martin Truex Jr., (78) and Regan Smith (95) pass in front of empty grandstands during the 1000Bulbs.com500 on October 14, 2018 at Talladega Superspeedway.

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Next on NASCAR’s docket is the 500-mile Cup spring race from the superspeedway at Talladega, Ala., which Big Bill France designed to be bigger and faster than Daytona. Talladega was so fast that it was dangerous — a place where cars could fly, and not in a good way.

That primal need for speed has always been, and still is, a drawing card for NASCAR. But what about the 500-mile part? The famous race at Indianapolis was 500 miles, not 1,000, because officials then wanted the race to be completed in one day. That is no longer an issue, but races are too long. Even the 188 laps in a 500-mile race at Talladega are a lot to click off.

NASCAR all but conceded that its Cup races were too long two years ago when it split its races into three or four “stages.” The yellow flag was thrown after a predesignated lap, the field was bunched back up, the stage winner got some points, and the race resumed.

From a competition standpoint, it was just about one of the worst ideas ever — like resetting the scoreboard back to zeroes after each quarter of a football game. But NASCAR had added incentive to race hard early in races (not to mention more commercial breaks).

But basically, all but the three Cup races on road courses still feature cars running around in literally hundreds of circles for between 2½ and 3½ hours.

More short tracks, more road courses and fewer races are among the ideas being bandied about by NASCAR and its fans to re-inject some excitement into competitions that are attracting smaller live crowds and television audiences. So why not shorter races?

Not every race needs to be shorter; there could still be a 500-mile race at Talladega, a Daytona 500, a Southern 500 and even a Coca-Cola 600. But there could be even 50-lap and 100-lap races elsewhere. A couple of shorter races could be bundled into a doubleheader. Why not try it?

This might be something NASCAR is thinking about, anyway. The 2020 schedule includes a pair of 400-mile Cup races at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania on back-to-back days. Why not a pair of 200-mile Cup races at Pocono on the same day? Better than “stages.”

Take a look at the 1960 NASCAR Grand National season. The World 600 was added at the newly built Charlotte Motor Speedway that season as stock-car’s answer to the Indianapolis 500. The World 600 was to be a test of both speed and endurance.

Of the 43 other races on the schedule that year, 28 — twenty-eight! — were 100 miles or less. Junior Johnson won a 38-mile race on the quarter-mile track at South Boston, Va., that included 12 lead changes. Three days later, Glen Wood won a 50-miler at Winston-Salem.

There were only four Grand National races that year of at least 500 miles, at Daytona, Charlotte, Darlington and Atlanta. The closest of those four races was Johnson’s 23-second victory in the second Daytona 500. Joe Lee Johnson won the first World 600 by four laps.

Stock cars were much less durable 60 years ago, which explains why only 18 of the 60 cars entered in the World 600 were running at the finish. In contrast, 35 of 40 cars were running at the end of the Coca-Cola 600 last May, a race won by Kyle Busch.

So the need to prove that these cars can withstand a long-mileage test is long gone. People don’t have as much free time or the attention spans they used to have. The recent slide in attendance is a sign that NASCAR might not need all of those long races at big stadiums anymore.

There is too much down time for fans between the spectacle of the pre-race ceremonies and flying start of a colorful pack of cars, and the excitement of a car taking a checkered flag (and doing the obligatory smoky donuts). End of story, full stop.


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