The Sports Revolution: Match Play NASCAR

Let me set the scene for you: it’s Lap 97 of 250 in a NASCAR race, and a whole lot of cars are moving counter-clockwise in an oval, with some stopped getting gas. And nobody is watching on television.

Let me reset the scene for you: it’s Lap 9 of 10 in a NASCAR race, and only two cars are moving clockwise in an oval, and there’s no getting gas or anything. And some people are watching on television.

Some upfront honesty: The appeal of NASCAR has always escaped me. I, too, can drive, and occasionally at high speeds. I can also turn right.

It is possible that NASCAR may never appeal to the high-minded intellectual that I present myself to be. Even my more regional Formula One falls short of my high standards for transcendence in sport. But this does not mean NASCAR can rest on its laurels and deny its need for improvement. There is, in fact, one very obvious way for the sport to become much more competitive, much more interesting, and far more entertaining: NASCAR needs to become a one-on-one event.

Instead of hundreds of laps involving 40 or so cars, and time trials to determine poll position, and strategy to decide when to pit stop and when not to, and caution flags, and maybe 10 interesting laps all day, NASCAR needs to embrace a model closer to tennis than golf. A tournament, as it were, with seeding, and with two drivers matched one-on-one for 10 laps.

A one-on-one race is instantly more compelling than a 40-man miasmic free-for-all in which one driver’s mistake often eliminates a handful of other “unlucky” drivers. A one-on-one race embraces strict competition while infusing the event with a bit of street racing’s attitude. It also builds rivalries in a sport that has long attempted to promote them to little avail. A Jeff Gordon v. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. match—whenever it occurs in the course of the weekend—becomes a must-see race in a manner that none of NASCAR currently is.

Each individual match becomes more about racing itself than about the tangential elements that so often affect the outcome of a NASCAR race; namely, crashes and pit strategy. I am not usually one for eliminating strategy, but knowing when to get gas is not, to me, all that impressive.* It comes down to racing: Which car is faster, and which car maneuvers around the track and the other car better?

*Perhaps if the drivers themselves had to get out of the car and pump their own gas and rotate their own tires, my opinion here would change. As is, all pit rows seem to be located in New Jersey.

Here’s how it works in the bigger picture: Thirty-two drivers are invited each weekend, a small step-down from the 40 or so that currently qualify for most NASCAR races. They are seeded 1 through 32, based, much like tennis, on world rankings and eventually points. Unlike tennis, the seeding will mean something, as 1 plays 32, 2 plays 31 and so on and so forth. The 16 matches of the first round would be held on Saturday, with only the winners moving on to Sunday’s final 15 matches. You can extend the semifinals and finals to 15 or 20 laps, or maybe even make them a best-of-three series. However you decide these small details, this much is clear: By late Sunday afternoon, you will have two cars with 10 laps to go and the title on the line. And they have earned their way to be there without the help of any exterior luck or technicality.

Now, within each match, the better seed gets the inside position. But there’s an important caveat here: halfway through the match, the cars have to change direction. You heard me right. It’s imbecilic that NASCAR drivers only turn left, as if the entire event is designed to raise a middle finger at Derek Zoolander. The cars start going counter-clockwise; after completing five laps, they have to abruptly brake and change directions. You have to admit this much: This would be an extremely significant and over-the-top exciting moment in every match. It also involves more skill than any current part of a NASCAR race. You can imagine it already: Well, Dale Jarrett has a nice lead on Robby Gordon, but you know Gordon is the best in the business at the turn. Is it big enough yet?

For those of you who think this idea is absurd and dangerous, well, please. Like people aren’t watching NASCAR for the crashes? This brings in the chance of a crash, but one that penalizes all parties relatively equally—instead of the “take half the field out of the race” crashes that lead to cautions that override any kind of pit “strategy.” Even after a crash in a one-on-one race, it becomes a sprint to the finish line to see who can do more with what they have left. We can even infuse this point in the match with a little mathematical terminology and call it the “inflection point.” Yeah, a little better than a caution flag, no?*

*Of course, this idea can be scrapped down the road, provided new tracks are built with both left and right turns.

What are the negatives? Eight fewer drivers qualify? There’s more downtime? (Yeah, like the time in-between races is no less exciting than Laps 5-240 in a 250-lap race?) There are fewer big crashes and fires and injuries?

They are all outweighed by the positives of a true mano-a-mano competition with the potential for countless photo finishes, intense rivalries, and truly skillful driving. And you know what? If that’s the case, maybe even Pierre would watch. You know, once in a while.

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