What NASCAR Can Learn from The XFL
The XFL has generated a lot of positive discussion about how the XFL could influence the NFL for future changes. Unlike the first in 2001 which only lasted one season, the current XFL has brought innovations to improve the game which has been praised by sports journalists, players, and the fans. Innovation is defined as “the action or process of innovating,” where the word gimmick is defined as “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.” The 2001 XFL was criticized for being football, with added gimmicks such as the scramble instead of a coin toss, racy cheerleaders, and a more physical brand of football compared to the NFL.
The XFL today has none of the gimmicks from the 2001 league, and many have credited it for improving the game. So how can the current XFL help NASCAR with ideas for the future? It’s no secret NASCAR is not exactly where it was in 2005, changes are frequent, and endless debate about the direction of the sport continues. Simply, the XFL looked at three categories the NFL lacked, and made it a priority in the league, NASCAR, and in fact any other motorsport series can take the same approach as the XFL.
The three categorizes the XFL innovations can be grouped is innovative changes to the game, fan accessibility, and safety. These are the same areas NASCAR and other series should look at as times and fans change. One great change the XFL did, and NASCAR especially needs to consider, is changing the game/race.
In 2010 the Wall Street Journal took a look at NFL games, particularly how much time was spent with players playing football, and players not playing football. In total only 11 minutes of actual football were played, with most of the time spent on the play clock running, television timeouts, and other delays such as challenging plays. Considering games are 3 hours or more, not a-lot of action on the field.
The XFL went ahead and introduced a shorter play clock, 25 seconds instead of 40 seconds. Instead of nearly 3 minutes of time lost on the play clock, you have a minute and half spent under the XFL rule. This simple step results in more scoring and more field time for players. But the XFL also sped up officiated with the an additional referee for ball spotting, faster instant replay, and allowing all offensive players radio communication with the coach, not the quarterback only like the NFL. All these steps insured a faster game with less downtime for fans and television viewers.
NASCAR should look into shorting the race distances for most events. Most NASCAR fans would agree don’t shorten the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500 races. But, do we really need two 500 mile races at Texas? Reducing race distances to last between two to two and a half hours doesn’t seem like a massive change, fans will still get a good two hours or more of racing, the casual fans NASCAR wants, doesn’t have to commit nearly all day at the track or television.
Now, shortening the race distance is one step, but you are probably thinking about reducing downtime at the track, in which we’re talking about caution flags. Cautions stops on track racing and is very interruptive to the flow of a race. The Penznoil 400 in Las Vegas looked like it was going to be a battle between Ryan Blaney and a fast charging Alex Bowman, but a late spin, in which the wall was hit, resulted in a caution that lasted four laps. Another example of lengthy caution flags occurred at the Grand Prix of Portland Indycar race in 2019 when the first caution was 11 laps long! Reducing caution flags will result in faster races, some solutions include procedures in use currently.
The most common procedure is a local caution and this is commonly used on road courses. If a car spins out, a local yellow can be brought out for cars approaching to slow down and not pass, once cleared of the hazard, cars can race again. Race control can still issue a full course caution if needed, but the local yellows are one way of allowing the race to progress. This would be tricky for NASCAR and especially short tracks, but there is another tool available, the virtual safety car.
The FIA, which sanctions Formula 1, Formula E, and most motorsport series use the virtual safety car to slow down the cars until the hazard is cleared. This is faster than having a safety cage onto the track because all cars slow down and hold position immediately. Time is not lost trying to bunch up the field behind the safety car, especially on a larger course. A virtual safety car can be deployed after a single car spin without any contact with the wall. Once race control sees the car that spun is able to continue (no flat tire) or able to get to pit road, race control can countdown to green, and racing resumes much faster.
NASCAR still has the tools of a full course yellow, but allowing virtual safety car, or local yellows will give NASCAR the additional option of allowing more racing to occur on the track and continue to allow the race to end on time. There is the option of a time limit on the race, where if the race was unable to complete the full distance in the time allowed, it will end once the time runs out. A good example is the 2017 F1 race in Singapore, which completed 58 out of the 61 laps because it ran out of time. Television networks may like this option more, but NASCAR would want to consider the overtime rule since it would likely result in time running out.
NASCAR and other series that are not in the endurance racing spectrum can really benefit from shortening the races. Multiple studies show that Americans don’t want to be committed to long processes or activities. States are even seeing a decline in fishing and hunting permits because of the time investment required. This is one area the XFL capitalized on, and another area the XFL got right is fan accessibility, another area NASCAR can really look at innovating.
The XFL and most smaller leagues use accessibility to the athletes to bring in fans. A minor league baseball game allows fans more access to the players compared to Major League Baseball, the XFL has also embraced this as NFL players are not the most accessible to fans especially on game day. Indycar has mandatory driver’s autograph sessions so a new fan can meet any driver during the race weekend.
NASCAR has done a good job at improving accessibility lately for the fans. Cheaper tickets lately to increase the attendance also allows new fans in. Another step NASCAR has done is introduce more fan zones at places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Richmond, and Daytona. Fans now can see the teams in the garage, be closer to Victory Lane celebrations, and be closer to the action, these are all good steps NASCAR should continue.
However, there is another way to make the drivers more accessible, and NASCAR already has the tools in place to make this happen. NASCAR should utilize their Home Track program to have Cup Series drivers do appearances at local tracks. In 2019 Jordan Anderson from the Gander Truck Series race Late Models at Alaska Raceway Park, a NASCAR Home Track. This brought in fans to the short track, more name recognition for Jordan, and a win for all parties. The year before Ken Schrader visited Alaska Raceway Park, and brought in fans and new fans wanting to meet a NASCAR racer.
NASCAR currently has over 50 NASCAR Home Tracks across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Having a Cup Series driver appear at a state like Oregon, with two NASCAR Home Tracks, can bring more fans to the track, allow fans to meet the driver, and encourage fans to watch the next race on television. Having a connection with a racer can make the difference from watching a race with no vested interest, to having a driver to follow during the entire season. This is an easy way to bring people closer to the drivers in the Cup Series.
The final area the XFL has brought changes to, is the safety of the players on the field. With the side effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) becoming more known, safety has become a hot topic in the NFL. The NFL went from promoting big hits in the “jacked up” segment to throwing penalty flags if helmet to helmet contact was made. The XFL took it further with changes to the game and players' mindset. The most notable change to the game is the kickoff return, where players have less chances of being injured from another player running at full speed. Not only does this reduce the risk of serious injuries, it has also generated more on field action with kick-off returns being on average longer than the NFL.
Another simple rule change is the XFL uses the NCAA one foot inbound rule instead of both feet. XFL CEO and Commissioner Oliver Luck explained that the rule change allowed players to focus on catching the football and not sacrifice falling over trying to keep both feet inbound. This reduced uncontrolled falls and also sped off game officiated since only one foot has to be inbound. These rules have contributed to reducing the number of injuries, changed the nature of the game, and keeps the flow of the game going.
NASCAR has several areas for improvement when it comes to increasing safety, some of which hasn’t been changed to keep the sport “entertaining” such as the lug nut rule. It is well known NASCAR can run with a single lug nut on each wheel, but so far has opted to keep five lug nuts to increase chances of loose lug nuts, potential crashes, and “drama.” With a single lug nut, pit spots will be faster, which means less time the pit crew is exposed to traffic, reduced the chances of a caution cause a car reentered with a loose wheel, and we still have the same fastest pit stop battles. At the end, it should be a no brainier for NASCAR to switch to the single lug nut.
Changing the drivers mindset is important too. Similar to the NFL throwing a penalty for helmet to helmet contact, NASCAR can exercise their authority to regulate drivers’ behavior. Two areas that NASCAR can improve are the elimination of the overtime rule and introduce a blocking rule for certain races. The overtime rule encourages reckless attempts to improve position, with the knowledge that if a wreck occurs before the white flag, another attempt to finish the race. Compared to knowing the race is going to end no matter what, drivers won’t sacrifice a top 10 finish for a careless move to improve one or two positions.
Daytona and Talladega have seen drivers block multiple lanes, weaving back and forth, and too often causing crashes that take out too many cars. NASCAR is the only major motorsport series to not have any blocking rule as the FIA, Indycar, and all other global series have a blocking rule. A basic blocking rule is the lead car may make one move to block a car after exiting a corner, but cannot make a second move to block. A good example is if the leader exiting turn two at a superspeedway moved from the top line to block the bottom line of cars. That move is the one block, if the outside line starts gaining, the lead car may not move back up until after turn 4.
This simple rule still allows blocking, but reduces the chances of a serious wreck and a caution. This mainly would be focused on the super speedways as the current package creates large packs of cars that have little time to react to a crash up front. In fact, NBC Sports reported 80%of cars in the last three years have been wrecked. This is costly for team owners and the long caution or red flag period just brings the action to a stop. The “big one” everyone talks about sometimes is a turnoff, when a fan favorite is out, some fans tune out, not really caring about who wins the race.
At the end, NASCAR can bring innovative changes to lure fans back in with shorter races, increase the accessibility of the drivers to the fans, and bringing more safety chances to reduce injury and slowdown of the races. These changes are not as drastic to the racing product compared to the introduction of the Chase (playoffs), COT, or the race stages. These changes keep the product the same for the most part, encourage more fan outreach, and can hopefully spur the next wave of new NASCAR fans.
Thank you for reading,