Racing down the track at speeds approaching 200 mph, practically skidding around dangerous turns, tires screeching on the asphalt -- it's traditional NASCAR stock car racing. But starting this season, the sport is getting a boost and -- officials hope -- speeding back into many long-time fans' hearts.
With Speedweek right around the corner and the Daytona 500 coming up Feb. 14, NASCAR officials and fans alike are anxious to see if changes announced in January for the 2010 season will be enough to kick the sport back into overdrive.
"If you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing," NASCAR president Mike Helton told reporters last month in announcing one of the biggest changes: getting rid of bump-drafting rules at the super speedways. The change will allow drivers to touch the rear bumper of a car it is drafting without an automatic penalty. The practice was restricted after seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in 2001 after another car bumped his left rear fender, ultimately sending Earnhardt's car into a wall.
NASCAR is also reintroducing a larger restrictor plate at certain races, including the upcoming Daytona 500, to give the cars more horsepower. And for NASCAR's Sprint Cup series, the current aerodynamic wings on the rear of the cars will be replaced gradually with a lower profile spoiler to give the car a more conventional NASCAR look.
NASCAR fans have missed the competition and rivalry between the drivers. Bump-drafting – one car lined up behind another to reduce drag with a little bump from the rear car to push the lead one ahead -- allowed drivers to pick up more speed. It's a technique that became a crucial part of racing at Talladega and Daytona Super Speedways. But when performed incorrectly or too aggressively, bump-drafting could end in a crash, so as a result, it was banned.
Over the course of the last several years, safety has been "increased, we have safer barriers, we have an overall safer car," said Ramsey Poston, a NASCAR spokesman. Now, with the new rules, drivers are "going to have a lot more leeway on the track to race the cars. They'll be able to be more aggressive, and that's a result of the safety efforts we've implemented over the last few years."
Safer Cars = Drivers Who Take Risks
Among the changes, sparked by Earnhardt's death, were stricter regulations of seat belts and seats, the installation of SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers on the tracks, and mandatory head and neck restraints.
"But we haven't done enough to loosen up our regulation of the sport so we think that now's the time to take steps to put the driving back in the driver's hands," Poston said.
Russell Sobel, professor of economics at West Virginia University, says ironically, the safety precautions NASCAR has taken may lead to more crashes. "As the cars become safer, drivers are willing to take more risks with the cars," he said.
Sobel co-authored the paper "Automobile Safety Regulation and the Incentive to Drive Recklessly: Evidence from NASCAR," published in the Southern Economic Journal in 2007 with the help of his colleague Todd Nesbit. And while the number of accidents may go up, Sobel said that doesn't necessarily spell danger for the drivers. "As we make the cars in NASCAR safer, the evidence suggests that the drivers with safer cars are willing to take more risks in those cars," he said, "because their chances of getting hurt are lower."
Sobel says that it can be a win-win situation for both sides of the spectrum. "It's probably better for both the industry and the fans," he said. "It lowers the number of injuries and ups the numbers of [minor] accidents."
Which makes the sport more exciting to its fans and TV viewers, NASCAR hopes. Long-time fans like Thomas Wells are eager to see NASCAR make an attempt to return to its traditional policies.
Wells started watching when he was 7 and was an avid fan up until things started to change. "From 1993 to 2003, there was just so much competition, just about anybody could win and there were lots of rivalries going on and it was just so much fun to watch," Wells said. "Then they started to change everything."
From bump-drafting rules to the addition of the wing to inconsistent start times for the races, Wells knew that the sport was changing. "It was really upsetting," Wells said. "I never fully quit watching but my ritual changed."
'I Had to Watch It Live'
Overall declines in attendance and viewership continued into 2009 and helped prompt NASCAR to make changes in part to draw back some of their old fans.
"It used to be I had to watch it live," Wells said. "But now I might not even go back and watch the whole race. It kind of scared me a little bit because it was such a ritual that pretty much defined me as a person."
Dwight Drum, a recent University of South Florida graduate, thinks that NASCAR is doing its best to bring back the sport's excitement. "This year they held town hall meetings and listened to what the drivers want," Drum said. "They've also opened up a lot of social media outlets to listen to the fans."
Drum is confident that this season's changes will help get NASCAR back on top of ratings charts and back into fans' hearts.
"As far as the bump-drafting goes, that's going to help the very spirit of NASCAR, the drivers will like that and I think it will transfer to the track," Drum said. "It's the same for the fans -- they really can't tell you what it is, but they can tell you that they like it."
Jared Ewing, a junior at Columbia College, has been dedicated to NASCAR since 1998. He never lost interest in the sport and is excited for the upcoming season. "There are new faces, old rules and old-fashioned speed. When the green flag drops at Daytona, we will be in for a great year," he said.