0912 Sullivan Path


Moments after Tony Stewart had swept around Kody Swanson to win his second consecutive SRX feature at his Eldora Speedway, the USAC Silver Crown cars hit the track. Even as the big cars circled around the half-mile, building engine heat, the crowd was buzzing. In some ways it had been a big party and, overall, the vast majority enjoyed what they had just witnessed. Not unexpectedly, a sizable group headed for the exits, but a fair number of fans stayed in place to watch the final race of the night.

Eldora has produced some memorable Silver Crown races, and the hope that we could see that kind of magic again hung in the air. Near the halfway point in the 50-lap affair it was clear that we were not in for a classic at this point. Make no mistake about it, there was great racing to be had, particularly for positions two through five.

As for the win, Tyler Courtney had the field covered, and at one point enjoyed a seven-second lead over Chris Windom. It was here that a notable difference between the two events contested on this warm evening was clear. There was no yellow flag displayed to retard Sunshine’s advantage. It was his race to win – and he did.

It is not uncommon for everyone involved in short track racing to remind ourselves and others that we are in the entertainment business. That this is 100 percent accurate is indisputable. Racing competes to capture the funds the average family sets aside for leisure in a world of myriad choices. It is clear today that this battle has become fiercer, both as a function of changing consumer tastes and, today, we now add the ability to stream races into your home.

The problem is that racing is also billed as a sport; thus, is a contest between individuals and teams for supremacy. While not often apparent, there is inherent tension at all times between the goal to be entertaining and to be a legitimate sport.

Take rules for instance. The World of Outlaws once used a slogan, “Run whatcha brung.” That is not an operating principle today – and for good reason. Templates are created in things such as car and engine specifications, and other rules are crafted to even out competition. Why, one asks? Some would reason if someone builds a better mousetrap, so be it. Yet, if that better mousetrap pulls a Tyler Courtney every race, then people get bored watching it, and participants will drop off.

Certainly, Kyle Larson continues to amaze, but he continues to amaze because we believe the ultimate crucible for his success is unbelievable talent. Yes, he has a great car and great people around him, but so do many of his peers. The edge, if one exists, is the man holding the steering wheel.

I’m never going to be a fan of contrived yellow flags or other gimmicks in racing to manufacture close finishes. I’m just not. The SRX has been clear that they will use competition yellows. They also use two-wide restarts after every yellow. This is right there for all to see. These rules are designed to increase drama in a made-for-television racing series. At Eldora they got everything they wanted. Once again, the bottom line is that the vast majority of people left feeling they were entertained and got their money’s worth. That’s hard to argue with. So, to be clear, what people saw was a show, and a good one.

What has been interesting is to watch the social media conversations about this series. Somewhere along the way is the notion that SRX is providing a model for others to follow. Here is where I tend to agree. This provides a roadmap for NASCAR more than any other series. The average attention span of an in-home viewer, and even those trackside, are taxed by 500-mile races where the bulk of the time there is little action. The two-hour window SRX uses is nearly perfect, as is the format. It also allows for other extras, such as fun interviews and a focus on the fan experience. Do vestiges of the imprint of television remain? Yes. Such as when we sat and waited for the right television moment for Tony to emerge from his car in victory lane.

Nonetheless the question looms, what can short track racing take from this? This is a far more complicated matter.

For the most part, the idea of a creative presentation in short track racing is to play AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” during driver introductions. Could that improve? Maybe. At present only one short track open-wheel series in America has the power to take over a local race track: the World of Outlaws. It’s just like when the circus comes to town. They have a product that does not come around every day, it is a product that people want to see, and by short track standards this all allows them to charge a premium amount for tickets.

Once on site, it is their show and they take over the production. In essence they have control. Consider also what we just witnessed at Eldora. Does every short track have the basic amenities and tools Eldora has? Hardly. The next weekend, SRX trekked to the venerable and historic Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Does this track have a major video board for fans in the stands, a world class sound system, and a dedicated production crew, etc.?

No. Few do.

Finally, there is the question of the program itself. There were people at Eldora – lots of them – to see Tony Stewart, Helio Castroneves, Bill Elliott, and other names of that stature. That matters. It is something I have witnessed firsthand. Salem Speedway once held a NASCAR night and the drivers there to race street stocks were not upper echelon stars. The place was packed. So many people clamor for fewer classes at weekly shows, the need to bring in coolers, and low ticket prices.

The problem is this all hangs together. If the All Stars or USAC come to a track, generally the number of support classes are reduced and concomitantly ticket prices go up to compensate for lost revenue. If that same track suggests that the SRX lineup of drivers would be on hand, would they be able to significantly raise ticket prices? Yes, and people would be standing in line. Is it economically feasible for said promoter to do this? Not unless they received CBS money.

Yet, the bottom line is SRX is doing things on the entertainment side of the equation exceedingly well, and every short track and short track series should pay attention and ponder what can be done to improve the fan experience. The SRX model works well for what it is intended to do, but that does not make the model universally transferable.

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As I have repeated many times, what owner/entrepreneur Steve Lewis tried to model with the famed Mopar Twin 25’s years ago at Indianapolis Raceway Park is still something that demands attention. Steve struck the right balance between entertainment and pure sport and it behooves us all to continue that quest. There’s no time like the present to get started.

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