The NASCAR Cup Series schedule calls for teams to make their way to 36 points-paying races and two additional exhibition events over the course of each season. And indications seem to point to the probability that such a long season is taking its toll on the competitors involved in the sport. This past season a respected driver and a championship winning crew chief that seemingly could have had multiple years remaining in the sport decided to step away with both citing a need to spend more time with family as a chief reason for leaving.
Front Row Motorsports driver David Ragan, who had experienced a moderately successful career which had resulted in two victories and 40 top-10 finishes over the course of his 14 years at the sport’s top level. At only the age of 33, the Georgia native seemed to have enough sponsorship behind him to at least maintain his ride with the mid-pack organization. Instead, he opted to no longer race on a full-time basis. He plans to do something else with his time despite the fact that most drivers actually hit their peak in their mid to late 30’s.
“I’ve prayed and heavily considered this decision, but for myself and my family, I believe this is the right thing to do,” Ragan said in a statement released by FRM back in August. “I am a husband and a father to two young girls first, and I am a driver second. To compete in what I consider the greatest series in the world, you need full dedication of your time and focus. My children are growing up quickly, and I want to concentrate my time in being the best father and husband I can be. I feel this is where God is leading my life, and therefore I’m making this decision.”
Indeed, it would be difficult for any parent to be heavily involved in the lives of their children if they have to be on the road for almost three-fourths of the year. That’s exactly the position all who take part in this sport find themselves in.
Further keep in mind that these demands of time do not just apply to drivers and crew chiefs. Truck drivers, pit crew members, PR representatives, engineers, and every other part of these organizations are asked to give up everything else for the sake of their teams and the sport.
Granted, this is a life that many who have not had the opportunity to participate in would consider a dream. And no doubt, many who are actively playing roles on NASCAR teams do consider themselves lucky. At the same time, having a family life is also a dream for many and the time constraints of this sport make that very difficult for some.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season will kick off in its traditional locale when teams take part in the Busch Clash special event and then the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Those races will run on February 9th and 16th respectively. The season finale will take place at ISM Raceway in Phoenix on November 8th. Over that long stretch there are only three off weekends- one on Easter weekend and a two-week break during the summer.
At the end of the 2019 slate, crew chief Cole Pearn, who helped guide Martin Truex, Jr. to a NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2017 for Furniture Row Racing and to a highly successful effort in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing, made it known that he was leaving NASCAR to spend more time at home with his family and to seek other opportunities. Even at the relatively young age of 37, the grueling racing seasons had worn him down.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision,” Pearn said in a statement. “At the end of the day, I really want to spend time with my family and actually see my kids grow up. Being on the road, you are away from home so much and miss a lot of time with your family. I don’t want to miss that time anymore.
“I want to be there for all the things that my kids are going to experience while they are still young. I love racing and there isn’t a better place to be than Joe Gibbs Racing, but I don’t want to look back in 20 years and think about everything I missed with my wife and kids while I was gone. They are what is most important to me.”
The sport’s leadership seems to have recognized the grueling nature of their schedule. The 2020 schedule features a first of sorts in that the two races held at the Pocono Raceway will be staged on back-to-back days in June which freed up the space on the calendar for the somewhat unprecedented two-week summer hiatus. Also, the season will end one week earlier this year than last.
Still, this is a campaign that encompasses a full 41 weeks.
By comparison, the two NFL teams that ultimately make it to the Super Bowl this season will have played their pre-season games in mid-August through the February 2nd championship contest. That’s a time span of 25 weeks including one off weekend during the season and a break between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. And keep in mind that only half of those weekends are spent on the road.
The NBA and Major League Baseball have schedules that gobble up similar amounts of space on the calendar as NASCAR, but like the NFL, half of their games are played in their home stadiums or arenas with the participants having the ability to spend more time with family and sleep in their own beds.
Essentially all of NASCAR’s events are away games.
Indications are that NASCAR will indeed make significant schedule changes that will take effect in 2021. If the rumors prove to be true, there is a major shuffle in the works with some tracks losing dates and perhaps even new ones being brought onto the circuit. Could it be that a reduction in the number of events or a tightening of the schedule by the inclusion of midweek races might be part of those changes?
The recent loss of talent for the sake of getting away from the grind of a 38-event season ought to serve as a warning sign. From 1972 through 1997 the NASCAR Cup Series slate featured between 28 and 32 points-paying races. It seems as if the time has come to narrow back down to those sorts of numbers before more people suffer from burnout and leave the sport.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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