Column: NASCAR turns to softer tires to goose All-Star race
By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) This is a strange time in NASCAR and one that often feels very close to the Wild West.
In this time of rebuilding, the mindset should be that anything goes and nothing is off the table. NASCAR can tinker with the rules and the regulations and the formats until something absolutely clicks. On Monday, less than two weeks away from the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR went ahead and added a fourth stage to its longest race of the year.
Which brings us to Saturday night's All-Star Race. If given a blank sheet of paper for a race that is basically a made-for-TV cash grab, why not shake the whole thing up?
Instead, what NASCAR, Charlotte Motor Speedway and the driver council came up with was the optional use of a softer tire for the event. This is as inside baseball as can possibly be. The ability to use a softer tire is something drivers and teams will strategize over, and the true gearheads will get geeked about.
The rest of the world? Well, there are probably a million other options that might have stirred a greater interest.
The race is three segments of 20 laps and one final 10-lap segment. The softer tire should be faster than the other option, but no one is certain how long the speed will last.
Teams are now challenged to decide if they will use the tires early to be one of the 10 cars advancing to the final shootout, or if they will save the tires for the final sprint to the $1 million prize.
Marcus Smith, the president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., believes the "bonus tire" is going to add excitement to the race.
"The teams are constantly engineering their way around the boundaries that are set," Smith said. "That's part of the idea in throwing a challenge at these really smart race car drivers. The bonus tire is going to put on a new challenge for them, force them to bring their creativity and thinking, and it's going to produce a fantastic race."
OK, but we're talking about tires. Even Smith concedes it is not the sexiest fix under the sun.
"We've done the best we know we can do, with the tools we have at this time," he said.
At a time when anything should go, softer tires were the best the industry could come up with for a showcase event. Here are some other ideas, some realistic and some ridiculous:
- Don't tell teams the rules - segment lengths, inversions, etc. - until the pre-race driver meeting. That gives them roughly 2 hours to figure out a strategy.
- Stage an iRacing online tournament for the drivers on the infield big screen to set the starting order.
- Make the drivers have a foot race to their car on pit road. They can begin the race whenever they climb in.
- Raise the purse to $5 million. Put a playoff berth on the line. Somehow, raise the stakes to make it a meaningful race.
- Make it be a true head-to-head of short shootouts in which drivers advance until one is left standing.
- Let it be a true race of technology and drivers get to pilot whatever their team builds, ala "run what you brung."
Smith doesn't dispute that some of the notions are enticing. He personally favors something from a reality TV format, but doesn't know how workable it is just yet.
"I'd like it to be like the show `Iron Chef,' and teams show up on Monday and get a secret part," Smith said. "There are no rules, whatever you can think of, just figure it out."
So why not let the teams run whatever they can build?
"Because it would be totally crazy and would favor the most well-heeled teams because they have an advantage," he said. "One day, I would love to get there, where we can be totally crazy. But this bonus tire is going to be cool. This bonus tire has that kind of potential."
Smith wouldn't dismiss possibly moving the race to another SMI-owned track: "I won't say never" when it comes to a move out of Charlotte. As for the track's road course, could that be in play for the All-Star race? "It could be," he said.
For now, we've got softer tires. Hopefully, that's enough.
More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org
Updated May 15, 2017