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NASCAR changes take public opinion to heart

NASCAR stages races for stock cars, trucks and open-wheel modifieds.

It needs a series for hot-air balloons.

No corporation — let alone a racing organization — is better than NASCAR at launching trial balloons. Before making a major rule or procedural change, NASCAR floats the idea to see which way public opinion blows.

It’s a good strategy and is the closest any major racing series gets to soliciting how fans, racers and media will accept change.

Never before have so many outlets been available for fans to share thoughts. Newspapers, magazines, TV, Web sites and message boards. Satellite radio is the latest wave of interaction.

And NASCAR seems to listen. Occasionally.

It’s always fun to poke at the 800-pound NASCAR gorilla, but the series hasn’t risen to the top of American motor sports by accident or from feeble management of other major racing institutions.

An example of NASCAR’s conservative but effective approach to change was this week’s announcements.

One move will send fines collected from penalized drivers to NASCAR Foundation charities. Previously, fine payments were funneled into the driver’s championship fund, and that money went back to the top drivers at the end of the year.

Public opinion voiced indignation over the laundering of fines, and that has been fixed.

Drivers and fans also wanted to intensify the drama of qualifying, and one big change has been made.

In the past, drivers would draw numbers to determine where to fall in line for qualifying. Drivers in the top 35 with locked-in spots for a race were mixed in with those who had to earn starting positions.

This year, in each of NASCAR’s three national series, those not in the top 35 in owners points will be grouped together at the end of qualifying for single runs when race and weather conditions should be similar.

NASCAR also is considering raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 for drivers in the Sprint Cup series.

It wasn’t until 2001 that drivers had to be 18 to race in NASCAR’s top three series.

That change was forced by laws regarding tobacco sponsorship when Las Vegas native Kyle Busch, then 16, had competed in six Craftsman Truck races before he was pulled from his Roush Racing truck after being fastest in qualifying at California Speedway because Marlboro cigarettes sponsored the event.

At the time, Winston was the Cup sponsor, and six weeks later NASCAR raised its minimum driver age to 18 in its top three series to satisfy federal regulations regarding tobacco sponsorships.

Busch was detoured for two years into regional stock-car series not sanctioned by NASCAR. In 2003, at age 18, Busch made his part-time debut in what then was called the Busch series. A year later, as a full-time rookie, he finished second in points.

The question should not be a driver’s age, provided he is over 18; the concern is experience.

Only drivers ages 18 to 20 who have completed a full season in NASCAR trucks (25 races) or the Nationwide series (35 races), or a combination of 30 truck and Nationwide races, should be allowed to try to qualify for a Cup race.

Experience is needed off and on the track before a teenager moves up to the major leagues, and in NASCAR that’s the Cup series.

As America’s premier racing series, NASCAR should ensure it has the most talented and experienced drivers in Cup races. If a kid has talent at 18, he only will be better with at least a year of seasoning in NASCAR’s truck or Nationwide series under his seat belt.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.

 

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