By admin | May 19, 2010
By Richard Allen
Whenever one of the NASCAR hierarchy makes his or her way into the Fox broadcast booth Darrell Waltrip goes into full scale groveling mode. On Sunday, he reached an all time high, or low, depending on your point of view.
As the regular Fox trio of Waltrip, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds discussed the opening of NASCAR’s new Hall of Fame and the upcoming induction ceremonies, Waltrip told NASCAR President Mike Helton that he could well be a future Hall of Famer. Hopefully, that comment was made in jest, although it likely was not.
So with that said, a look at Helton’s tenure at the helm of this sport deserves review.
Helton was named Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for NASCAR in 1999 with the charge of handling the day to day operation of the sanctioning body. One year later he became the first person not named France to be named President of NASCAR. That was quite a rise in stature for the former program director of an AM radio sports talk station.
Since Helton assumed his leadership role of NASCAR some of the most sweeping changes in the history of the sport have taken place. The Chase for the Championship, the Car of Tomorrow and significant schedule changes have marked the current president’s time at the helm.
Each of the three major changes mentioned above have taken a heavy toll on the sport. After a decade of explosive growth in attendance during the 1990s, NASCAR has seen a steady decline in those numbers over the most recent years. At different times, NASCAR and its apologists have pointed to issues such as gas prices and the lagging economy to explain away these declines.
If fans were still enthusiastic about the sport then television ratings would remain solid if not even improve were the economy the only thing keeping fans away. However, that has not happened. Television ratings have suffered every bit as much as attendance over the last five or six years.
Many disgruntled fans point to the Chase for the Championship and seasons filled with ‘points racing’ as a point of disgust. They believe the relatively new system has created as a reason for drifting away from the sport. It is the opinion of more than a few that drivers have become too accepting of finishes other than first place in individual races. That, in turn, has dulled the competition.
Many fans will no doubt agree that having the creation of the Chase for the Championship on a resume does not exactly equate to a Hall of Fame credential.
But there’s more. Helton was also in command of the sport when the Car of Tomorrow was brought to being.
If there is anything that raises the ire of a traditional NASCAR fan more than the Chase it is the CoT. After the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. the sanctioning body set out to create a safer car, or at least that was the story. The result was a car stripped of any and all brand identity which has proven to be an aerodynamically sensitive, unmanageable beast of a machine. That beast has proven to provide racing of a less than exciting sort.
And lastly, during Helton’s reign NASCAR made the colossal error of awarding the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California a second date and that date was placed on the Labor Day weekend. To call the crowds there sparse would be a gross understatement. Empty seats often outnumber filled ones, even after the track offers massive price reductions and giveaways.
The situation in California was so embarrassing that NASCAR has been forced to do something it rarely does, admit a mistake. They did so by moving the second California race to a later date in hopes of getting better weather and generating excitement with a Chase race. At least last year, it did not work.
There have been improvements during Helton’s tenure. Without question, the sport is safer than it ever has been. While the CoT is a terrible race car, it is at least a safe one. Also, SAFER walls are in place on every track the top three series’ compete on.
And more, double file restarts and multiple green/white/checkered finishes have added excitement to the end of races, although some would argue that has come at the expense of rendering the first 90% of each race meaningless.
Well, there is Mike Helton’s resume for the NASCAR Hall of Fame so far. I’m sorry DW, but I don’t think you are going to find many people who will share your view.
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Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly columns appear in The Mountain Press and The Knoxville Journal.
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