(EDITOR’S NOTE: 51’s X-Factor is a new, weekly feature on Speed51.com that features opinions from 51 columnists on racing’s hottest topics. Brandon Paul, the author of this editorial, is the Editor for Speed51.com. The views which are expressed in the following column are his own and not necessarily the views of Speed51.com and/or its partners.)
Growing up in the Northeast region, this writer very well may have been spoiled – spoiled with great racing from the minute I arrived at the race track until the final checkered flag waved.
Much of that has to do with qualifying heat races that the majority of tracks and touring series in the region use. Not only do fans get to witness great feature racing action, but they also get additional qualifying races for the price of admission.
More tracks and touring series throughout the country should consider using this qualifying method in order to maximize the fan’s experience at their local short track.
In a sport that is criticized for its lack of interest from outsiders, why not do more to peak that interest and entertain the fans paying to watch the sport? Why not only offer them feature action, but offer them extra (heat) racing instead of the time trial format used by many tracks and series?
Before we dive into more on this and why heat racing should be used more often throughout the short track racing world, lets first off make it known that this writer understands the major gripe against heat racing: wrecking race cars. I get it. There’s a risk there. Nobody wants to tear up their equipment while attempting to get in a race or determine their starting position, but let’s all remember why people buy race cars.
That is to race.
Let’s also remember why racers are able to show up at a race track and participate in a sport they love.
That is the fans.
What happens when the fans go away? No racing.
So why not do our best to grab the interest of new fans and maximize their money spent on entertainment?
Let’s face it, there’s some great racing in areas other than the Northeast. Over the past few years, this writer has travelled to many great short track racing events around the country and enjoyed every single one of them.
But one area that lacks in entertainment at many of these events is qualifying. Even as a diehard short track racing fan, it’s hard to be entertained by single-car time trials.
Green. Vroom. White. Vroom. Checkered. Repeat.
One of the major gripes from the so-called “NASCAR haters” is that the sport is repetitive. We hear it all the time. “It’s just making a bunch of left turns.”
What’s more repetitive than a single car circling the track, followed by another, over and over and over again?
In reality, the issue of non-entertaining qualifying formats starts at the top. It starts with NASCAR’s top-three series. But love it or hate it, credit NASCAR. They recognized a potential problem and they’ve made a conscious effort to make qualifying more entertaining for the fans.
Will they ever go to heat races? Probably not. But one can only imagine the audience and the excitement they would get if each weekend featured mini-duels similar to those used at the Daytona 500.
Talking to many drivers, crew chiefs and car owners from the Northeast region that are accustomed to having to race their way into a show, they all understand the risks of qualifying heats. Many of them have, at one point or the other, ended up on the receiving end of a bad situation during qualifying heats. But they also understand why they are forced to qualify that way.
Most of the time it comes down to one word: entertainment.
Take a look at one of the biggest short track racing events of the racing season, the Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway (ME), to see exactly why qualifying heats work.
From the pill draw to the start of the first qualifying heat race to the final checkered flag after 250 laps, fans in the grandstands are glued to the product on the race track. If driver A, who is a defending race winner or former champion, draws a bad pill, those fans in the stands want to watch to see if that driver can race his way into the race.
Granted that driver may not be too happy about having to race his car from 13th to fourth in order to lock into the race instead of turning down one or two fast laps, but that’s now what we care about. We care about the fans. We care about generating interest in the sport and keeping those already interested in the sport entertained.
Throughout race day at the Oxford 250, emotions are high. Drivers who are otherwise cold-blooded end up feeling the pressure. Those emotions and that pressure to qualify into the race transfers from the fans to the drivers and help to attach them to the product.
While the drama and entertainment of qualifying for what is coined as the “richest single day event in short track racing” may not be matched on a regular basis, it does provide an example of exactly how exciting qualifying can be.
In addition to the excitement of qualifying heat races compared to time trials, this type of qualifying format allows fans to witness more underdog stories. It gives the drivers who may not exactly have the fastest car that day the opportunity to race their way into the feature, start near the front and compete for a race win.
After all, everyone loves an underdog story. Nobody wants to see the same driver setting fast time in qualifying, starting on the pole and dominating a division week in and week out.
In closing, this column wasn’t written in order to bash the system that’s currently in place and used by many in the short track racing world. Obviously the time trial format has worked as the primary qualifying format for quite some time. But in a day in age when the average person has to think twice about how they want to spend their money on entertainment, why not try to help them make their decision by offering them the best entertainment value possible?
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: Eric Lafleche/VLFPhotos.com
-Photo credit: Speed51.com