Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hey Now, You're An All Star: Can ANOTHER New Format Make It Fun Again?

I  know what you're thinking: Whoa, Lucas is talking about stock cars? Well, of course! Much like the girl who stood me up at junior prom, NASCAR will always be my first love, even if I only check in now and again to see how it's doing on social media these days. (Except stock car racing never tried to sell me AVON over Facebook.)
But the Month of May brings a dash of excitement from Indy down below the Mason-Dixon line to the gorgeous Queen City of The Carolinas as NASCAR hosts their All Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for some under the lights fun after the drama of Pole Day for The 500.

I have always been a proponent for the All Star Race. I think it's a great opportunity for everyone in the sport, and the fans, to let their hair down and party. The drivers get to parade around spiffy paint jobs and race for a million smackers, and the fans get a short, sweet, and exciting show. People say the race is useless, unimportant, too gimmicky (although isn't that the point to this race?), a glorified practice session for the World 600.
I'll defend the All Star Race against any argument, except one: We can all agree that for a very, VERY long time, the race...well, it's not been very good. Really, it hasn't. The only "Moment" from the last decade that stands out in my immediate memory was the Busch Brothers Divebomb Fiesta, and that was a full decade ago. Once one of the most fun nights on the schedule, NASCAR's big night has been plagued by lackluster racing, confusing, ever-changing formats, bad attendance, and toxic apathy. A lot of fans don't care to watch the All Star, or even care about it at all, largely for reasons listed above. Nobody can argue this event needs a shot in the arm, and this year, if NASCAR does just one thing right, we could be in for, ahem, One Hot Night.
Let's take another trip back to the 90s, shall we?

It's 1991, the mullet is a fashion staple, Roseanne Barr is inescapable, and thanks to grunge, rock and roll is said to be dying. Dying, too is The Winston; the brainchild of both NASCAR and the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. The concept at first was simple. Yeah, you had the Busch Clash, the showdown of pole award winners from the previous year, but those were NASCAR's fastest drivers. This race was said to showcase the all around best, the fan favorites, the winners, 70 balls to the wall laps to determine who gets $200,000 and a year's bragging rights. And in the early years, it worked. Aside from the ill fated idea to rotate the venue year to year, the race was a success. The Pass In The Grass in '87 and the brawl between Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip's crews in '89 proved that, especially for an exhibition race, The Winston was one of racing's hot spots for drama. But by 1991, the aura and novelty had worn off, television rights bounced around, and the 1991 Winston (Won by Davey Allison) itself was a ho-hum affair with a confusingly, eternally long 200 mile Winston Open (Won by Michael Waltrip) as the prelude.
Despite its largest attendance that year (according to Ken Squire on the broadcast), The Winston was considered dead. NASCAR and RJ Reynolds considered scrapping the race entirely, until Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler decided to perform CPR on the event, calling Musco to help make the Queen City shine.
The result was the instant classic (in a month filled with classic races worldwide) dubbed "One Hot Night." The finish alone lived up to the hype, and The Winston was spared execution thanks to a half lap of chaos and a shower of sparks. The following years produced surprises in the form of a Waltrip winning in 1996, folklore in the form of a T-Rex, soggy classics, and hidden gems.
The Winston-branded era of The All Star ended in 2003, with an elimination concept called "Survival Of The Fastest," and for the few years it was implemented, it was fun.
But in 2004, Sprint/Nextel's sponsorship of the event made it feel more like an infomercial for cell phones than an auto race, and soon after the fun factor started to fade. Within a decade, the formats were more convoluted than playing Monopoly with someone whose made up rules counter yours, and the racing was like dinner at Chili's; mediocre at best. And while not exactly on the chopping block like in '91, a new series sponsor in Monster brings a renewed sense of hope that the All Star Race may have a shot at pumping out special moments again.

And why not? New, too, is the format, yet again. However, it plays upon both "One Hot Night" and "Survival Of The Fastest" with modern twists. Clocking in at 70 laps, just like in '92, involving eliminations like the early '00s, and the final 10 laps consisting of the 10 drivers with the best average position through the rest of the night sets the table for fans to dine on plenty of drama. Add to it, for the first time in race history the option of multiple tire compounds to be used, there's plenty of new and old to crow about.

Could we see One Hot Night 2: Electric Boogaloo? It's possible, but not probable. Although this new format seems a step in the right direction. One thing is certain, though. For the first time since I was in high school, I'm making damn sure to watch the All Star Race, hoping to see some excitement. And I think you should too.

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