Why criticism of NASCAR Cup calendar can’t be counteracted easily

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The NASCAR Cup Series calendar was one of last year’s biggest talking points as leading drivers criticised it, but demands for action must wait – major changes cannot come before 2020.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch was the most critical in 2018, describing the series’ current calendar as “stale”. Kevin Harvick, like Busch, believes the season finale should be rotated between venues in an attempt to emulate the National Football League’s Superbowl.

There has been a groundswell of criticism regarding “cookie-cutter” or 1.5-mile tracks, deemed to be too similar to each other and lacking interest compared to other circuits. That’s led to a demand for more short tracks in the ilk of the popular Bristol.

It was no surprise that in the yearly state of NASCAR media conference, president Steve Phelps was asked for his take on the calendar.

“I think everything is in play. So we’ve heard from our fan base that they would like to see more short-track racing,” he said.

“They want to see more road courses. They want to see less cookie-cutter tracks, whatever that means.

“We are looking with our broadcast partners, tracks, teams and drivers to get input on what each of them believes would be an ideal schedule, and then we’re obviously doing fan research as part of it.

“Do I believe that everything is on the table? I do. Will we see a lot of the things that have been talked about, so more short tracks, more road courses, double‑headers, mid‑week racing, pulling the season forward? All those things would be in play.”

In fairness to NASCAR, it did make changes for 2018. The addition of Charlotte’s Roval (pictured above) proved highly popular and entertaining, and changes such as a second Las Vegas race and a rearranged Indianapolis were also met with approval.

But NASCAR can do very little to counteract the criticism immediately, with its calendar largely predetermined through to 2020. This is because the series signed long-term deals with the tracks back in ’15, with a narrow window of dates for the two major track-owning companies: The International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports Inc.

The two companies own all but three tracks on the 2018 calendar – Indianapolis, Pocono and Dover are the exceptions – meaning just fives races a year fall outside of their jurisdiction.

The ISC is also owned by the NASCAR’s France family, and the series recently offered to buy the remaining shares of ISC it did not own in order to merge the two companies in a future-looking and “strategic” move.

Other pushes from drivers this year have included calls for a reduction in races per year and midweek events like of the National Football League and Major League Baseball, while a shared weekend with IndyCar has even been mooted by those within the series.

One thing is for certain; NASCAR needs to react. In a year that was critical after the exit of several star names, Sports Media Watch reported that 27 races hit new or decade-plus viewership lows last year. Joey Logano’s title win at Homestead was the least-watched finale since 2001, and adds further credence to the idea that NASCAR needs a shake-up in its near future.

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