ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
NASCAR's latest revamping may or may not bring in more fans, but it will change how stock car racing fans watch. Races used to be one long event - 500 miles or so. You earned points. The higher you finished, the more points you won. And the top 16 point earners at the end of the season moved on to the post-season.
Well, now each race will have three stages. Essentially fans will have three races in one to enjoy, and drivers will have more opportunities to earn points. But will everyone enjoy the new system? Well, for that, we turn to Scott Fowler, sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer. Welcome to the program.
SCOTT FOWLER: Thank you very much. I'm a big fan.
SIEGEL: Why is NASCAR doing this?
FOWLER: NASCAR needs a boost. NASCAR was a very hot sport, Robert, in - 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. Now stadiums are half empty. Millennials don't want to sit around and watch a four-hour race. They're a little bit desperate here, but ultimately I think it's a smart move. They are trying to give you more of a reason to watch for a longer period of time.
SIEGEL: And the period of time at issue is really, say, the first hour of the race when now it's consequential. Somebody could earn some points by winning.
FOWLER: Exactly. There's something around here we call a NASCAR nap, which is what you could take after the start of a race for about three hours until the end of the race when all - everything was decided in the last 20 laps or so. Other than crashes or something, there wasn't a lot going on.
These races are long. The shortest ones usually are 400 miles. So think of driving, say, from Washington to New York and back. That's 400 miles. That's how long the shortest ones of these races are. So it's a long time to make people pay attention. And you know how attention spans are these days.
SIEGEL: Well, are the breaks after the first third and the second third of the race - are these going to be like periods in a basketball game or a hockey game? That is, will it stop and break for commercials and interview people?
FOWLER: Yes. It will be kind of pre-determined breaks much like almost two halftimes I guess you could say. They're shorter, but that will be the time where fans will naturally go to the refrigerator. Or if they're in the stands, hopefully they're going to go and buy some more concessions. I'm sure the track operators would like that.
SIEGEL: The first race of the season, the Daytona 500, is barely a month away. It doesn't seem like a lot of time for drivers and their teams to adjust to what sounds like a pretty radical change. Isn't that rather fast?
FOWLER: I think that's a fair statement, yeah. I think people who are doing this right now just went from taking algebra two to taking a graduate-level calculus class. I really think there's a lot of permutations that not everyone has thought of yet that will only become apparent when it happens.
But that's kind of exciting, and NASCAR, like I was mentioning, needs a jolt of excitement. Everyone knows what it's like to go in a car and punch an accelerator and go fast and that thrill. And they're trying to get back to that a little bit more opportunistically I suppose in this digital age where they really have to capture people's attention.
The other thing I should point out - one thing this sport doesn't have - and this will not change. There is no Dale Earnhardt Sr. coming back into the fore. I mean he was this sport's absolute superstar - died in 2001 in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. And in some ways, things have not been quite the same since. His son is a very popular racer in NASCAR but has not had the same level of success. And this sport is looking for that as well. It needs another superstar.
SIEGEL: That's Scott Fowler, sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer. Thanks for talking with us.
FOWLER: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE LEISURE SOCIETY SONG, "JUST LIKE THE KNIFE")
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