Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Concern Over Too Many Divisions

A familiar complaint. There are too many divisions and not enough cars. I noticed a thread on a forum talking about needing to get rid of Mini Trucks and Four Bangers at Antioch, or combining the two classes and not running them as much. Really, I feel your pain, but they simply can't do that. Why? Well, for one thing, the two divisions are different enough it wouldn't be fair. Also, those drivers have money in their cars and are a source for the money that goes into other purses. Feeder classes. But, I'll get back to that.

Back in 1988, racing lost one of it's best, most open to anything, race tracks in the Bay Area. We lost Baylands. The things they did at that facility. You could race just about anything there, and they had immense driver support. The Stock Car program, billed as Automania, and the open wheel Sprint Car nights were mainstays, and they had cars. It was huge. Baylands gave us the 360 Sprint Car Class, Enduro races and the Enduro inspired American Stock class.

So, when the gates closed for the last time, they had huge fields of Sprint Cars and American Stocks with no home track, Mini Stocks of different varieties and a Sprint 100 class. The Outlaw Sprint Buggies and Sprint 100's formed clubs and traveled, but David Vodden negotiated a deal with John Soares Sr. to give the rest of those racers a home at Petaluma Speedway. The car counts Petaluma had for the next few seasons were huge, and they usually got it all in before curfew too. It was amazing.

Sure, Pops made a lot of money on the deal, but he also did it for the racers. If he hadn't stepped in, where would they have gone? Nobody was interested in Mini Stocks back then, and most tracks already had the slightly faster Street Stocks and didn't need American Stocks. I'll grant you that San Jose would have gladly filled the void for the 360 Sprint class. So, the All Pro Series was born at Petaluma in 1989, a brilliant move by Vodden and Soares, in my opinion.

What sprang from that, however, was promoters deciding to add divisions to increase the pit gate, rather than maintaining the car counts in the divisions they had. First, they did it with traveling support classes. There were the NCMA Modifieds, SORA Sprint 100's, Northern Stars Mini Sprints, PCDCRA and Nor Cal Dwarf Cars and the grand daddy of them all, the BCRA Midgets, who could still headline at the time.

Another thing that promoters have usually been on top of through the years is putting that next big division out there. From Midgets and Jalopies in the early days, to Hardtops and Super Mofidieds in the 50's and 60's, to Stock Cars, Sportsman and Sprint Cars through the 60's and 70's, to Late Models, Sprint Cars and Street Stocks in the 80's, to Dirt Modifieds, Sprint Cars and Street Stocks or Pure Stocks in the 90's.

One thing I have noticed in this last decade, however, is that this"next big thing" in short track racing never really happened. It did? Name the division? I'd love to say Spec Sprints, and they have been a great class, but it still hasn't spread as wide as the last "next big thing" the Dirt Modifieds. Folks, that was 20 years ago. It's well past time for the thing that will take us through the next decade as the "must see" in racing. As is, Dirt Modifieds, Sprint Cars and some variation of Street Stocks have filled the void.

Promoters have tried to reinvent the Late Model division, but it just isn't happening. In fact, they tried throughout the last decade. Do you really think it's working?

In the last decade or so, I've witnessed all these new divisions added to the show. The only one to have an immediate impact was Spec Sprints. That's not just the ego of knowing I was a part of it. Just a fact. It debuted with 12 cars at Antioch and never had anything less until some ten car shows two years ago. Limited Late Models, Pure Stocks, Mini Trucks and Four Bangers all debuted with four cars or less. You might think that wouldn't be the case, but it was. Why do you suppose that is?

Here's my problem with this whole deal, and I will not name names. It seems to me that some of these divisions were backed by drivers who couldn't get it done in the division they were in and needed to start a class they could be the champion in. This is particularly the case in Limited Late Models and Mini Trucks. I don't want to be a jerk about it, but it's true as far as I can see.

So, Antioch starts fragmenting divisions and dividing car counts. I could understand in the NASCAR days adding Pure Stocks to be the entry level class. Street Stocks were evolving and the Modifieds were headlining. We had three good classes. The racing, quite frankly, sucked in the Moidifieds with all the crashing, but there were still some good racers in the field. Too many yellows, particularly when Regional points were at stake.

I stand by Spec Sprints, and history has proven me right about that. It's still Sprint Car racing for the working man or woman, and even if that driver next to you spends twice as much as you do, you can compete with him if you know what you are doing.

In theory, Limited Late Models seemed like a good idea. Take old chassis and bring them out of the weeds for one last run. Problem was, it served to take drivers out of a competitive Street Stock class, and this division never grew beyond 16-18 cars at it's best. Now, the two divisions have merged.

Pure Stocks hit a brick wall in the last few years, but I really think rule changes in the early part of the decade didn't help either. Plus, new drivers came in and ran the Mini Truck division instead, and then Four Bangers were added as well.

There's an identity problem at the track, and there should be fewer divisions with sensible rules. We've effectively fragmented divisions to a point where, rather than have two or three divisions with 25-30 cars and full programs, we have 12-16 car fields or less and shows that aren't as good as they could be. Fans want more cars and less divisions, a sense of competition and more of a sense of excitement.

Drop the Four Bangers? Well, when this class was first added. I hated it. It felt like a money grab to me and didn't add value to the races. People in my section, at least, didn't like them. But, I still supported it and tried to help it grow. At it's height, there were about 20 cars, but then things happened and John Soares Jr. dropped the class. I know a little of what went down, but that's not important. The thing is, it easily would have had a 30 plus car count by now if that hadn't happened. So, I can't blame him for trying again this year.

Pit car count is important, because that's where the purse usually comes from. The more cars, the better. Problem is, six divisions is too much. Somebody once used the phrase "cookie cutter" divisions. Seems about right to me.

At the moment, the Dirt Modifieds and Spec Sprints still top the list. Super Stocks, the marriage between Limited Late Models and Street Stocks, have a decent car count for the intermediate class. Then, you have Pure Stocks, Mini Tricks and Four Bangers. I'm not sure where you put the Dwarf Cars, but I disagree with the assumption they need to be dropped.

What I would do if it were my call and I could afford to is cut down to three, no more than four, divisions per week and rotate. Dirt Modifieds and Spec Sprints never on the same night, Super Stocks and Dwarf Cars never on the same night, Pure Stocks, Four Bangers and Mini Trucks, never more than two of these on the same night.

We'd have time trials to establish the starting grids and set new tracks records so the fans could get into just how fast these cars are going. Trophy dashes for all. I'd prefer fully inverted heat races, but I suppose staggering the heats to set a main event grid if we have enough cars for a B Main would be acceptable. I'd have drivers out of their cars before the main event sometimes to do autographs. I'd do special races for mechanics, driver's wives. a reverse race, hot dog races and other fun things the fans can get into.

And, I'd have at least one 100 lap Main Event for two divisions and one 50 lap race each for the other classes. We'd make them special races and honor somebody from the track's past.

Crazy ideas, I suppose. I just don't think you can cut divisions now. Cut race dates for drivers in this economy to make it possible for them to support all the races they have. They are more apt to make every race if we're talking 12-14 races, than if it's 18-20 races. And, did you look at the point standings at Antioch last season? No disrespect to the champions who earned what they got, but what snooze fests. Are fans supposed to be excited about that? The best championship battle they had was in the Dwarf Cars, a division that has been a positive part of the program since John added them to the regular rotation in 1998.

Anyway, that's just my opinion on the matter. I'm for anything that will attract more cars and make for better racing. Putting more people in the grandstands is what it's really all about.