By Paul Blaufuss

When I was a kid I was crazy about pro wrestling. I watched very week on television and went to every match in person when the circus came through town. I vividly recall a match when Rowdy Roddy Piper wrestled Hulk Hogan. My friends and I made kilts out of cheap plaid tablecloths to wear to the match downtown. The funny part was that this match took place in January. In Buffalo. It was cold.

Over time it became obvious that wrestling was scripted ‘sports entertainment’ as opposed to a true sport, and later the wrestling sanctioning bodies admitted as much. I grew up, moved on, and have not watched since.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love concerts and music. I have probably been to almost as many concerts in my life as races. My 15-year-old daughter inherited this gene as well, and music has become our bond. I have taken her to see favorite bands from my era, and she has taken me to see some of her’s. We are regulars at Amos’, the Fillmore and the local Amphitheaters.

Recently we went to see Van Halen. Watching Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo alone was worth the price of admission. It was like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. I felt I was watching a pure genius create art that will never be equaled. Recently we also went to the Fillmore to see one of her more modern bands. I do not believe anyone in the band played more than one chord, if they were playing at all. You see, when they stopped playing their guitars to clap with the crowd or whatever,
the guitar sound kept playing. Pre recorded filler tracks were used, obviously. There was a lot of screaming excitement and enthusiasm, but so much for creative, real, valuable live music. Van Halen still influences music and young guitar players almost 40 years after their debut. I doubt anyone will even remember my daughter’s band 4 years, or maybe even 4 months, from now.

What does all this have to do with racing you may ask? I suppose nothing on one hand, and everything on the other.

Racing is obviously part of the sporting/ entertainment industry. Ultimately the only stock in trade any sport or entertainment enterprise has is the quality of the product. That may encompass many things: among them entertainment value, competitiveness and excitement of the event. However, most important to me is the honesty of the product, integrity of the competition, and consistent, fair and equal application of the rules in a logical and consistent manner.

Which brings me to the events that took place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville last weekend, and the state of NASCAR in general. I have a major problem with the impetuous behavior of Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, but moreover the condition in which these recent events may leave the sport. To recap, there has been some bad blood between Matt and Joey for some time. Joey dumped Matt at Kansas. Kenseth’s title chances were for all intents gone in that one instant. Retaliation was sure to come, and so it did this past week. After a wreck earlier in the race Kenseth, while running ten laps down, saw his opportunity and dumped Logano entering turn one. The behavior on both parts has been rather infantile, but has always been part of stock car racing. Remember when Dale Sr. just said he wanted to rattle Terry Labonte’s cage a little bit at Bristol? There has always been an unwritten rule in the drivers’ code of conduct, regarding settling things on the track. Respect and trust exists between drivers, as does retaliation when those lines are crossed.

To double down on the problem, a few years ago NASCAR told the drivers “boys have at it” giving them free reign to settle scores on the track. Then when the drivers do, NASCAR imposes penalties subjectively and inconsistently. Kenseth was suspended two races; Logano, not at all for his indiscretion.

What would the reaction be if Major League Baseball redefined the strike zone just before the World Series, and then arbitrarily manipulated how balls and strikes were called retroactively when the game was completed?

The ultimate problem as I see it has to do with ‘the Chase’, or current ‘playoff’ format in NASCAR. A few years ago, in order to boost sagging interest, ratings and attendance (especially in late season races), NASCAR created ‘the Chase’, a sort of playoff where, in its current format, the top 16 teams qualify for the playoffs, with four drivers being eliminated after blocks of three races. The season champion is decided by the winner of only the last race from the final four drivers.

And this creates the conundrum. In times past, being taken out of a race by a competitor may have just cost that one race, but likely not a championship. Currently, obviously being taken out by a competitor during the Chase races, or even having a simple component failure in one of the final races, carries much more severe consequences in the current ‘playoff’ championship format, than in the traditional point system when all races counted equally. Should a champion really be decided by the outcome of one race?

Now I do not have a philosophical problem with a ‘playoff’ in general as a concept. I do think it makes much more sense in stick and ball sports, where the entire competition is based around one team vs. another, with the best team moving on to an ultimate championship. And bad luck may factor into all sports. If the best football team loses their star quarterback to injury in the last game of the season, their championship hopes are likely dashed by a random dose of bad luck.

I think a playoff format works just fine in NHRA drag racing. However as with stick and ball sports, the entire premise of straight line racing is based on head to head competition; one race, mano/womano -a- mano/womano, and the winner moves on. A playoff/ elimination formula in that particular format makes perfect sense. It is honest, consistent, logical, and fits the character and integrity of the series.

However I do not think it quite the same in other forms of motorsports. Racing is just not the same as the other sports. Should not the best drivers of the season be considered in contention for the championship? Last year it worked out ok, as the most dominant driver/ team of the season won the championship. This year, that will not be the case. Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth both dominated large portions of the season, winning six and five races respectively. Yet now because of mutually assured destruction and infantile behavior in two races, neither of the two most dominant drivers of the past season will likely win the championship. And I have a serious problem with that. I understand Jeff Gordon is technically now the points leader, after accomplishing very little on the track all season. If he becomes champion, can anyone honestly say he is deserving of it, based on performance across the full season? And think back to last year, Ryan Newman almost won the championship at the end of the last race, despite having no wins for the season!

It troubles me that the new NASCAR Cup champion, who will join the ranks of Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt and all the others, be decided because of a forced, contrived, gimmicky ‘playoff’ formula, where a flat tire, part failure or immature behavior on the part of a competitor (or their teammate) may cost the championship earned by a season’s worth of top level performance.

The current ‘playoff’ format has ratcheted driver behavior up to a level of recklessness that may threaten the very essence and integrity of the competition on the track and thereby the credibility and viability of the sport itself going forward. But hey, I guess it’s about what you want your product to be and what you ultimately value. Do you create something of lasting value that will be around for generations to come, or something cheaper and simpler that relies on short term thrills in hope that it gets you by?

Or hey, maybe we could decide the championship by running a few laps and then let the top drivers get out and decide the championship in the squared circle. Maybe a tag team steel cage match. Just as long as no one sneaks in a foreign object in his trunks. That would be cheating, unless of course the referee does not see it.

But hey settling the championship that way would be about as credible and meaningful as what we have right now.

Boys have at it.