Volume IX, Issue 11, Page 106

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Countdown? Chasedown? Boredown!

When Tom Compton announced the Countdown to the Championship last year at Indy I wrote an editorial at the time saying that I would reserve judgment on his decision until after the first season of this new Championship points system was over, and I urged everyone else to do the same. Well, I’ve been through a year of the “Countdown” or “Chase” or whatever you want to call it and I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate it. But I have the nagging doubt that I might be in the minority in this. {Ed note: Almost 75% of the nearly 3000 readers voting in our pole said they HATED it.]

The fact is that all major sports with the exception of the IRL, CART, F-1 golf and  boxing all have a countdown of sorts. That seems to be the way Gen-X or Gen-Y want it. Still, call me a curmudgeon or just living in the past, but I think the very idea in major sports of a championship being awarded based upon a racer’s or team’s performance in a single week or on a single day is just ludicrous. I guess my feelings really are a sign that I’m getting old.

I can remember when the baseball and football teams that finished first in points in their leagues or division met at the end of a season for a series or single game that determined the World Champ. The teams that finished second took the rest of the season off. Boxing had just one Heavyweight Champ now there are so many I’ve lost count. Thankfully the other sport I really love Golf determines their “champ” by who wins the most money in one season not in a playoff But now, in a move purely motivated by profit  the owners of baseball, football, hockey and basketball leagues plus the NHRA season-long excellence is no longer the measure of a champion. The guy with the most wins or points isn’t necessarily the champ. Huh? Somebody explain that logic to me please?

The sad fact is that in those sports the season is really split into two parts. No matter how good a baseball team plays for 162 games or a hockey or basketball team plays for 80+ games, all they are really just hoping they win enough games to qualify for the second season of play. Then the team with the worst record, one who won just over half their regular season games can win the baseball’s World Championship. That’s what the St. Louis Cardinals did in 2006.  

One of the things I always loved about the elite classes of drag racing was that in order to win the Championship you had to be on your game all season long. There were no do-overs, no buy-backs, and no second chances. The Champs were the teams that were on their game for the entire season not just the last two races! I sneered at those weak sisters in the stick and ball sports who got a second chance at the end of the season to get it right. I scoffed at the NASCAR greedy owner’s decision to change their championship into some kind of double-elimination, high school tournament. So,I thought oval track racing on asphalt is as boring as I always thought it was, I said to myself. “They had to find a way, they hoped, to keep the fans and media interested until the end of the long season. Hah, I thought, not in drag racing, pal; we’re different, drag racing doesn’t need help to keep its fans excited. We’ve got nitro, 300-mph cars, explosions, half-track burnouts and if you’re late on the light you lose.

Evidently the management at the NHRA and ESPN2 didn’t agree. Now we have a points system that really doesn’t reward excellence. In reality, it punishes the best. Remember when Jim Head said he wasn’t racing to win this season but rather just to qualify. Gag me with a spoon! Consider this: if you go into the U.S. Nationals with a 200-point lead over your nearest opponent and you win everything in sight at the Nationals and set the National ET record at the same time, your reward for the effort will be to have enough points deducted from your points total to give you a ten point lead over the next closest racer.  

I tell you that kind of stuff is just plain un-American! It’s equivalent to NASCAR’s throwing the yellow for “debris on the race track” to allow everyone to catch up to the leader.

American Drag Racing League president Kenny Nowling has a race at the end of the season called the “Battle for the Belts” where the top eight in points race for the Championship. This year one racer barely got in the field on the last race and went on to he win the ADRL championship when the season-long point’s leader had one bad race. I don’t like that. Nowling says I’m just living in the past and everybody has playoffs, that it is a generational thing to not like playoffs”  Who decided we should have playoffs? I’m thinking it was the same guy who thought up buy-backs.

To be totally honest, Tom Compton’s “Countdown” worked to perfection for the NHRA this year. At the last race of the season virtually every title was up for grabs -- of course only two teams had a chance to win. Nevertheless, the race to determine the NHRA World Champs for 2007 was absolutely one of the most dramatic season-ending races in drag racing  history.

In my opinion the drama far exceeded the Funny Car championship race of 2005, which went to the last lap at Pomona or last year’s Top Fuel battle that also went to the very last lap. This year all of the professional Champs were determined at the last day of the year and NHRA deserves kudos for that. By the way, it also made for a great TV show.

But what the “Countdown” was supposed to do -- attract more interest from the casual fan, mainstream stick and ball sportswriters or mainstream publications -- didn’t as far as I can tell work at all. Frankly, I’m convinced that there just aren’t any moves that drag racing can make to increase the popularity of the sport.

NASCAR’s rise in popularity can be traced to a single live televised race at Daytona in the late 1970’s which featured a close finish and a fist fight between drivers on live TV after the race was over. Maybe if Connie Kalitta had got in a fistfight on the starting line with Alan Johnson last year at Pomona after the final round in Top Fuel…

So, even if I’m out here on this branch by myself, I’m sticking to my opinion. I don’t like playoffs of any kind. I don’t like second chances, buy-backs or double elimination programs in competitive sports. I like my contests to be simple, brutal, and easy to understand. You lose, you leave. You win -- and in the case of auto racing, win more than the other racers over a season -- then you are crowned the champ. Rewarding consistency is what they do in bracket racing not drag racing.

And by the way, one more thing that bothers me about the Countdown is that, in my opinion, it diminishes the importance of winning in the first 16 races of the season, and that includes the U.S. Nationals. The real championship season for drag racing begins with the race after the U.S. Nationals.

The NHRA long ago changed the elimination ladder to favor the quickest cars and now they’ve changed the championship to basically reward the racer and team who get their act together for the last two races of the season. And, despite this rant, I don’t expect that to change any time soon.