NASCAR puts changes on hold to hang on to traditional fans

CONCORD, N.C. -- Earlier and more consistent starting times. Drivers who aren't afraid to show their personalities for fear of being fined. Races that depend more on the drivers than the engineers and crew chiefs who prepare the cars.

After several years of change -- from the move to a playoff format to the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow to a new series sponsor -- NASCAR has decided it has had enough.

Chairman Brian France kicked off the 2008 Sprint Cup media tour Monday by basically saying it's time to go back to the basics, back to the way things were when Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers fought in the infield after the 1979 Daytona 500.

No, France isn't condoning brawls. But he and the rest of the governing body do see the need to get back in touch with the grassroots fans who made the sport what it is today.

"We've got all the change that we think the sport can stand or needs," France said from NASCAR's Research and Development Center.

France wouldn't say the changes are why television ratings have dipped over the past two years any more than he would admit that the sport is in trouble. But everything he said suggested there is great concern about the direction things are going.

"I know when they change something at my favorite restaurant, it takes me a little while how to get there," France said. "If you change too many things, that's confusing a little bit.

"Our interest is to make sure that in the future, we keep changes to a minimum."

So instead of a big announcement such as those that have been commonplace at recent media tours, there was talk of putting the focus back on the driver and what happens on the track.

"We need to get back to banjos and get rid of the violins," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the longtime president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, which hosts the tour. "We got a little too fancy there for a while. There were all kinds of forces moving in different directions in this to make it fancy.

"It's not a fancy sport. It's guys with big hands and getting sweaty and getting out there and banging on each other and knocking each other around and all-American fans sitting there having a good time."

Earlier and more consistent starting times is the first move to correct things. When NASCAR announces starting times Tuesday, races beginning at 2 p.m. or earlier will go from 15 to 18 on the 36-race schedule.

"There were a lot of things that we tried to introduce into this that just flat didn't work and are not going to work," Wheeler said. "That's something that [Brian France] certainly realizes now. This is meat and potatoes. It's not caviar and smoked salmon."

Wheeler agrees with earlier starting times even though his track is the biggest violator, hosting the Coca-Cola 600 at 5:40 p.m. in May and an October race that runs on Saturday night.

"Here I violate all of those things, but it's good to get things back consistently," he said. "Earlier start times for Truck and [Nationwide] series races, that's going to make a lot of difference. You start the truck race at 9 o'clock, that's going to make a lot of difference.

There were a lot of things that we tried to introduce into this that just flat didn't work and are not going to work. That's something that [Brian France] certainly realizes now. This is meat and potatoes. It's not caviar and smoked salmon.

-- H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler

"We all yielded to pressure from the networks maybe a little more than we should have. Now we've paid the price for it and we're getting back to sanity again."

Before France's speech on less change, the media tour kicked off with a session that had everything to do with change -- NASCAR's version of the United Nations.

Chip Ganassi Racing introduced its stable of drivers -- not all NASCAR, mind you -- who represent six countries. It even looked like a U.N. meeting with flags from the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Colombia, Mexico and Scotland behind the main podium and smaller versions on each table.

That sort of change France is for. He says that it's good for the sport and that he's not concerned that the influx of foreign drivers -- Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti from Ganassi, Jacques Villenueve at Bill Davis Racing, and Patrick Carpentier at Gillett Evernham Motorsports -- will alienate those grassroots fans who had trouble with late starting times.

But if you looked below the color and pageantry of the flags, there was another problem that France & Co. can't escape: The uneasy economic times are having an impact on the sport.

Franchitti was supposed to be an easy sale to sponsors as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion and husband of actress Ashley Judd. But less than a month from the Daytona 500, his car remains sponsorless for a handful of races.

"We're working hard at it," Ganassi said. "It's gonna be a patchwork thing put together, but we're OK. It's a challenging sponsorship world out there, no question."

Steve Lauletta, the president of Ganassi Racing, said that being different from everybody else with foreign drivers is good for the organization, that it eventually will help bring in new sponsors when Franchitti gets in front of CEOs who haven't had time to get to know him.

So from that aspect, change is good.

From every other aspect preached by France, change isn't so good.

But it is necessary. For example, NASCAR president Mike Helton said it was necessary to rein in drivers with fines for cursing and unnecessary roughness in 2005 and 2006. Now that everybody -- officials hope -- has the message, he says it's time to loosen up.

The intent, he insisted, was never to control personalities.

"NASCAR has a responsibility to have an environment where the competitors play out the sport to where they do not have to look over their shoulder and worry about what's going to happen to them from something other than a racing accident and racing incident," he said. "So when we do react and try to get the attitude back in line, that's why. We're not out there to change their personalities. We have no desire. We love them the way they are. Even if we don't agree with them, we have to respect them because they are who they are."

To change or not to change? That was the question on the opening day of the media tour.

Stay tuned.

"Our interest is to make sure that in the future, we keep changes to a minimum," France said. "We will get where we want to go in this series."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.