Tony Stewart stole the show on Wednesday, when the biggest news to come out of Stewart-Haas Racing’s announcement that Aric Almriola will drive the team’s No. 10 Ford in 2018 was that Stewart is entertaining a return to NASCAR competition, potentially in the XFINITY Series on a road course.
There was something else that Stewart said, however, that should have attention called to it. According to Matt Weaver of Autoweek, Stewart discussed his disillusionment with the direction stock car racing has gone in over the past decade, stating that the increased emphasis on engineering and aerodynamics over driver skill was part of the reason why he chose to retire from Cup Series racing at the end of the 2016 season.
“That’s one of the reasons why I decided to do something different this year,” Stewart said. “I wanted to race cars where I felt like I could make a difference.”
“So that’s why I’m looking at the road courses for next year. They make you feel like you matter as a driver. I didn’t always feel that way on ovals as a driver last year because of the aerodynamics.”
Stewart’s statements tie into a bigger trend: That being the ever-growing dissatisfaction with NASCAR’s schedule and repeated pleas by top NASCAR drivers, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., for more short tracks to be integrated into the schedule. In the 2010s, NASCAR has made multiple moves away from smaller tracks in favor of big speedways, largely to protect the interests of International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports Inc. – The two companies that own most of the tracks where races in NASCAR’s top three divisions are held.
In spite of the opinions of fans and drivers alike, NASCAR has stayed the course. Just this year, it was announced that New Hampshire Motor Speedway will lose its Fall race in favor of a second date for Las Vegas Motor Speedway – Another one of the 1.5-mile tracks that have fallen out of favor due to the less-than-compelling racing product they have presented in the past decade.
This yearning for smaller tracks is a separation from the mentality that was associated with NASCAR’s growth: The desire to move from short tracks to bigger, faster facilities that put horsepower front and center. In the past, speedway racing presented the ultimate challenge of man and machine – A test of how fast one dared to go and whether or not he had the horsepower to go to the front.
For drivers like Stewart, this has become less appealing. Why, after all, could you go through all the off-track obligations that are associated with being a professional racecar driver just to get in a car that you don’t have much input into and can’t pull up and pass people with, when you can get in a Super Late Model or Sprint Car one night and drive a real racecar where you can make a difference?
This is a line of reasoning that NASCAR should pay attention to, especially now with its biggest stars opting to retire earlier than generations of drivers before them. In the past, drivers competed well into their fifties and well past their primes for the sake of continuing to race on the biggest tracks at the highest levels. Now, the sport has seen Stewart leave in favor of racing sprint cars more regularly and is two races away from Earnhardt Jr. retiring to focus on other endeavors – Including perhaps the occasional late model race at Hickory Speedway. Both drivers are in their early to mid-40s, as is Matt Kenseth, who last week stated that he would not seek a Cup Series ride for the 2018 season and may run his final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
There are a multitude of directions that NASCAR can go in: Either they can overhaul their racing product on speedways that dominate the schedule to make the races fun again for the competitors, they can give the competitors what they want and overhaul the schedule to include more tracks with emphasis on driver skill and close quarters – Or they can simply preserve the status quo, and continue to foster the discontent surrounding speedway racing in its current form.
Should NASCAR continue to cater to the wishes of the big speedway industry over the wishes of its fans and competitors, they risk creating a culture that is dangerous for the sport’s long-term health: A culture where the best drivers in stock car racing would rather race on the nation’s small, local racks, and where fans would rather see them compete there than at stock car racing’s highest levels.