Asphalt Modified racing is in some serious trouble right now. But this crisis isn't about rising costs, shrinking purses or even a live TV deal. Those topics might be good fodder for Modified fans to tie up bandwidth of internet forums about, but it isn't the biggest storm that has been ravaging the sport in recent weeks.
No, right now the trouble is simple and lands right back at the feet of the Modified drivers themselves. It's their driving. Now I know those might seem to be harsh words coming from a writer who has never raced anything at a higher level than a Pro Challenge car I know that it can't be easy to control 600 horsepower around tracks as small as a quarter-mile. But my criticism is a simple one - and an easy one to solve.
I ask Modified drivers just one simple thing - don't run into each other so much.
It used to be that over-aggressive driving and races with too many cautions to count were just trademarks of the SK Modified ranks, but that weekly style of Modified racing isn't alone these days when it comes to unnecessary roughness. Take for example what has happened in just the last two weekends alone.
- On Sunday, 119 of 200 laps were run under caution in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Martinsville Speedway (VA). This result from a total of 18 different caution periods and one red flag period. If that same pace had been applied to the 500-lap NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Martinsville, we would have been looking at 45 cautions periods and nearly 300 laps under the yellow flag in the race!
- The night before, Connecticut's James Civali got into a bumping match with defending Modified champion Tim Brown at Bowman Gray. There was a spin, the retaliation and then what observers described as a near-fight afterwards. The seed for all of this were actually planted in the last NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour races where Civali admitted that he felt wronged by Brown and in return spun him around on the track - bringing other competitors into the mess as well.
- Meanwhile, up in Connecticut on Saturday night, Waterford Speedbowl (CT) officials sidelined Justin Gaydosh for one race after he went after Keith Rocco with his car during a heat race, missed and ran up over another innocent competitor's Modified instead.
- The Modified Racing Series visited Thunder Road Speedbowl (VT) the Sunday before and after it took a over an hour to run heat races, you knew the day was going to be a long one.
Series officials even held a second drivers' meeting before the feature to remind everyone to keep their heads screwed on straight. It didn't seem to matter. Fans were “treated” to caution after caution, drivers wrecking on restarts time after time and a general lack of respect that led to incidents all race long. Some blamed the track or a lack of grip, but neither of those things turns the steering wheel just enough to squeeze another driver up the track and into the marbles or the wall. Nor do they hold down that gas pedal just long enough to turn the guy in front of you towards the infield or outfield of the track.
Yes, fans like physical racing and fans want to see drivers show their personality. But I can assure you that the fans don't want to folk over their hard earned money at ticket booths up and down the East Coast to see a race that is led by the pace car for more laps than their beloved Modifieds.
Fans also don't want to see races where drivers get hurt and with all of the stupid car tricks of late, that is going to happen before long - hopefully later than sooner.
Fans do like to see races with large car counts, but as teams that are already stretching their budgets during a tough economy keep having to buy clips and parts to keep their cars on track, you can bet that more than a few will cut back to limited schedules or cut out open shows as a result. Last Thursday, Thompson International Speedway (CT) held their first open competition show of 2010. Despite being located in the backyard of many Modified teams, less than 20 teams showed up to compete in this race before it got rained out. Surely the repair bills and workloads at area shops, many of which rely solely on volunteer crew members, had a little something to do with this.
It's widely accepted that the top level of Asphalt Modified racing is the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Competitors have not been shy about criticizing NASCAR for the way that they've run the Tour over recent years, but if they want to really see what the biggest problem in the sport right now is, they need not look towards the Daytona Beach headquarters of the sanctioning body, they ought to just look in their own mirrors instead. If the drivers (I can't quite stand to use the word racers here after what happened at Martinsville) of the Tour can clean up their act and things still don't get better, then NASCAR might deserve to take some heat. But how can a sanctioning body market the Tour successfully after some of garbage that has been taking place lately?
There are some really great and talented drivers in Modified racing right now. Between the different tours and tracks out there, I'll bet that I could find at least a dozen racers who have more natural talent than at least a quarter of the NASCAR Sprint Cup roster. But these drivers aren't always using that talent. They are better than this and it's a shame when they don't all drive like they are capable off.
No, the problem isn't with everyone, but it is contagious. There might be a few guys who are bigger trouble makers than the rest of the class, but just about everyone is behaving poorly at times. I talked to a winning Modified driver not too long ago and he struggled to come up with the names of three or four drivers who you can race cleanly with on the NASCAR Tour right now. Considering the great talent that is in that pit area right now, that commentary is nothing short of pathetic.
In just a few more weeks, the Modifieds take to their biggest stage of the year with a NASCAR Tour stop at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Magic Mile has been the site of some of the best racing that Modified fans have ever seen in the past and it has also been the site of a race so embarrassing that it had to be stopped early because of too many caution periods. What kind of race will the fans get this time around? For the good of the sport, I sure hope that the drivers involved buckle down and do everything in their power to make it a show to remember for all of the right reasons. NASCAR's oldest traveling series deserves nothing less.