It wasn't that long ago when the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale was an event that I really looked forward to. I remember for a few years that it was an annual tradition to assemble at the Maine home of a fellow racing journalist and his wife to watch the SPEED telecast of the race on their not so small screen. Crew members from teams that didn't make the trip stopped by to watch the race too. It was a short tracker version of a Superbowl party.
This year, I also watched the race on SPEED. Well, to be completely honest, I set the DVR for it because I didn't tune in that late to watch it live. When I did watch it, my fellow viewers were my pair of dogs. They didn't seem quite as interested in the race as the company that I used to keep.
It used to be that each of the top 15 finishers in the point standings of the NASCAR North or East Series (the exact title of the series depends on the year you are referring to), as well as the West Series, got an invite to the Showdown. Nearly everyone accepted the invitation. In fact, I know of several teams that decided to run the entire schedule just to slip into the top 15 of the standings and earn an invitation. Going out West was an adventure as well - I can remember hearing of teams taking their time to make the trip and stopping at places like the Grand Canyon to take in the sights of America on the way.
This year, only three of the top ten point getters in the K&N Pro Series East made the trip. Two-time champion Ryan Truex wasn't there, nor were New England fan favorites Eddie MacDonald or D.J. Shaw. Points runner-up Brett Moffitt wasn't in the field and Team Red Bull decided not to send West an entry for their driver Cole Whitt. The four-car team of Revolution Racing only sent a pair of cars to the show.
All of that made it hard for any avid fans of the East Series to feel that there was much “Us vs. Them” pride on the line. I can remember a time when fans from the East and fans from the West actually went online and talked smack against each other on Internet message boards when it came to bragging rights for this race. That seems to be a thing of the past though.
So the original purpose of the race, to pit the 15 best from the West against the 15 best from the East in a “All-Star” Showdown seems lost. NASCAR has tried to keep that flavor alive by offering a guaranteed spot in the race to all of their 2010 touring champions, and the intent there is good, but reality sets in when you realize that any champion would likely have to bring money or sponsors along to find a ride in the Showdown. We'd love to see Burt Myers, Keith Rocco or Bobby Santos, III in the field, but none of those champions can likely afford the price of admission.
Ironically though, the shift from a short track All-Star race to more of a general “Semi Star” one might have boosted the event in popularity with casual race fans. While hardcore short track fans might have missed Truex, MacDonald and Shaw, more tickets were probably sold because guys like Steve Wallace, Travis Pastrana and even Kevin Conway were there this year. For the second year in a row, in fact, the event was sold out.
It's very much a positive fact too that those fans got to watch some great racing action during the night - especially the action-packed closing laps of the Super Late Model show. If those fans liked what they saw, they could very well be back at Irwindale on a Saturday night this summer to watch more short track racing.
There is no question that the competitors felt it was all worth it too. You can just tell by the fact that Tim Huddleston got nosed into the fronstretch wall head-first late in the Super Late Model race and then got out to ham it up to the crowd and show a few fist pumps into the air before having to hop into a waiting ambulance. Without points on the line, we also got to see a lighter side of the competitors as well, proven by just about anything that Travis Pastrana did or the fact that Sean Caisse playfully asked SPEED's Dr. Dick Berggren for a hug while being interviewed after an early exit from the event.
And while the East Coast guys were under-represented, the West Coast racers got a great chance to shine in front of a packed house and national television audience. Not only did the stock of Jason Bowles rise thanks to his victory in the K&N Pro Series portion of the race, a number of other drivers including Derek Thorn, Paulie Harraka, David Mayhew and Greg Pursley all had moments in the sun during their race. Even Canadian fans had something to cheer about after D.J. Kennington ran a very smart race on the way to a runner-up finish.
The bottom line? The NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown is healthy and possibly a biggest event than event. It's just not quite as relevant anymore to this East Coast hardcore race fan. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, I might not get what I want, but short track racing is getting what it needs - more mainstream exposure.