While there are unquestionable similarities, the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience — SRX for short — is not IROC (the International Race of Champions) 2.0 or even IROC Lite.
Founded in 1974, by the time it folded in 2006, IROC essentially had run its course, both in terms of popularity among fans as well as revenue. While the series continually moved around to different racetracks to try and keep things fresh, fans and eventually drivers just didn’t get as pumped up about it in the waning final years as they did in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
SRX will likely not have that problem. Enough time — 15 years — has passed since IROC closed its doors that a new generation of fans, particularly millennials and Gen Xers, as well as arguably one of the most under-represented segment of racing fans — those who love grassroots short track racing — will likely gravitate to SRX, particularly with a cast of characters including NASCAR Hall of Famers Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte.
— Camping World SRX Series (@SRXracing) June 23, 2021
While IROC was reluctant to change to keep itself relevant in its final years, SRX is definitely not that way. Just four days after SRX’s debut at Stafford Speedway in Connecticut drew rave reviews, SRX officials and founders Stewart, Ray Evernham, George Pyne and Sandy Montag responded to fan feedback generated from the first race and quickly made several adjustments to the format.
That not only is unprecedented in sports, it also shows just how much the SRX brain trust is tuned in to what the fans want — and will give it to them. Fans at Stafford said they wanted to see the two 15-minute heats shortened, and SRX officials did just that for this past weekend’s race in Knoxville, Iowa, reducing the heat events for the 12-car field to just 12 minutes apiece.
And in a nod to attention spans of both fans and TV viewers alike, SRX subsequently shortened its main event from 100 laps to 50 laps — but with a caveat: all 50 laps must be green-flag laps. Forget throwaway yellow flag race finishes. With SRX, there will be unlimited attempts for the equally-prepared, 700-horsepower cars to assure each race finishes under green flag conditions.
To me, that is huge. Sure, the season and series debut went 20 minutes over its prescribed time both at Stafford and on CBS, but the lessons learned from that overall event were not lost on SRX officials, particularly with a sellout at-track attendance of over 10,000 and a TV audience of more than 1.3 million (and this past Sunday’s race at Knoxville put up similar TV numbers).
“As good as we felt our first race was, there are always things that can be improved,” Evernham said after the first race. “I lived by this mantra as a crew chief and team owner and I still live by it today.
“There were things we saw that we immediately knew we could make better for the next Camping World SRX Series race at Knoxville, but we also received real-time feedback from fans. Their insights were spot on and we’ve worked hard to implement them in time for Saturday night.
“The Camping World SRX Series was created for the fans, and our quest to deliver exciting races with engaging personalities will never end. We want Knoxville to be better than Stafford, and when we go to Eldora (this weekend), we want that event to be better than Knoxville. We heard from our fans after Stafford and we’ll continue to listen to make the Camping World SRX Series the best it can be.”
Granted, it’s only been two races, but does SRX have what it takes to carve out another niche in the motorsports genre? While not designed to go head-to-head with NASCAR or even ARCA, it definitely has promise, particularly with the Hall of Fame names both behind it and the cast of superstars racing on the asphalt and dirt pavements from Stafford to Knoxville, Eldora (Ohio) to Brownsburg (Ind.), and from Slinger (Wisconsin) to Nashville (Tenn.).
More precisely, SRX’s closest competition would appear to be grassroots racing, typically made up of amateur sportsman racers who compete at the nearly 1,000 short tracks across the U.S. and Canada.
So the multi-million dollar question remains: will SRX survive?
Based on the numbers we’ve seen thus far in both the grandstands and TV viewership, SRX is definitely off to a good start. But it has to keep its core audience in mind. It can’t go Hollywood. It has to remain Humblewood.
It also has to keep ticket prices and souvenirs reasonable. That may be a bit trickier, as it’s likely many of the cast of competitors may want a bigger piece of the pie once the SRX gets bigger.
Sure, there is a component of gimmickry and schtick with SRX. But at the same time, and if the first two races are any barometer, drivers seem to actually be having fun, not having to worry about things like points and standings (within reason for the guys who will compete in all or almost all of the six races in this inaugural season).
Even though there are still four more races for the first season, what will SRX look like in 2022? It’s doubtful they can keep things at six races. A more realistic number if the series wants to experience reasonable growth is perhaps 10 or 12 races.
And one other thing: rather than this year’s six straight races on six straight Saturdays, SRX and CBS will have to agree on the second season having at least one or maybe two breaks in between consecutive periods of weekends. Perhaps have races for three weeks in a row, followed by an off-weekend, and then repeat the same way two or three more times.
For those new SRX fans, don’t expect the series to pull the kind of here today, gone tomorrow routine that we saw in football over the last few years with the XFL and the Alliance of American Football. Stewart, Evernham, Pyne and the rest of the SRX corporate brain trust wouldn’t have put up millions of their own dollars to see this four-wheeled enterprise fail quickly.
Plus, quite frankly, the overall idea of the SRX is nothing short of genius. While NASCAR has lost millions of fans (although it is slowly starting to recover some), particularly in the middle of the last decade, SRX is going where many former NASCAR fans have gone to — namely, short tracks.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) June 20, 2021
Short tracks have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the last few years, and the reason isn’t hard to understand: exciting racing at affordable prices, short heat races and main event, giving everyone a chance to cheer their heads off while not having to break the bank to bring the family along. It’s a no-brainer for racing fans starved for entertainment, especially as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s where SRX will not only shine, it will also likely help grassroots racing grow even more popular. And no matter how much success they’ve gone on to in their careers, virtually every member of the SRX leadership and cast of drivers have been and always will be short track racing fans themselves.
“I just feel like the future of motorsports, the best part of it is going to be done on short tracks,” Stewart told Men’s Journal. “The fan base that goes to short track races on a weekly basis speaks for itself.”
At the same time, what’s good for grassroots racing and SRX will likely be good for NASCAR and ARCA, as well.
The first two SRX races admittedly had some hiccups, particularly the debut race at Stafford. But let’s look at the flipside: a local boy made good: Northeast modified racing legend Doug Coby stole the show and beat all the big names including Stewart, Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Labonte, Elliott and others, making them almost look like chumps.
And then one week later, Stewart, arguably the most popular driver in the SRX ranks, showed that he hasn’t missed a beat since his retirement from NASCAR after the 2016 season, and only a month after turning the big 5-0.
— Camping World SRX Series (@SRXracing) June 20, 2021
Even if it wanted to, SRX couldn’t pay enough for that kind of publicity – not to mention how it will likely significantly increase ticket sales at the four upcoming races.
Another plus for SRX racing is CBS’ use of aerial drones. That certainly caught viewers’ eyes, for sure.
There were some down elements, particularly Danica Patrick’s seemingly less-than-interested “analysis” for CBS in the SRX debut round. She didn’t display the same mindset that she had while serving in a similar analyst role for NBC’s telecast of the Indianapolis 500.
In closing, one thing must be said: SRX is not stock car racing. It’s not open-wheel racing. It’s not even modified racing — although that’s about as close as a comparison as you can get.
What it is is true racing, tough competition, inexpensive entertainment and something that racing fans everywhere can get behind. Yes, the SRX is here for good, and to borrow a line from the movie The Italian Job, “You should get on it, it’s a good train.”
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski