Provisional starting positions are a necessary part of series racing

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One subject that is almost certain to start a debate among those who follow just about any form of auto racing is the use of provisional starting positions being given out for drivers who may have otherwise failed to make a feature race through qualifying, heat races, last chance races or whatever other format may be used. Some see provisionals as a free pass to a main event while others view the usage of provisionals as an essential way of taking care of those who have demonstrated loyalty by following a particular series.

Almost every type of series race event has some form of provisional starting positions built into the race’s format. Further, some series, particularly the national tours, offer a variety of other means for drivers to get into the feature race, including past champion provisionals for those who have previously won a series title and emergency provisionals for drivers wishing to start a race for points but not payout from the purse money. Also, some tracks will even allow for a provisional to be used by the fastest qualifier who didn’t otherwise make the show or as a way of getting one of their local stars into the primary race.

NASCAR has used provisionals in one form or another for decades to assure that star drivers and those who demonstrate the loyalty of following the series will indeed get to race. Past champion provisionals began being used when legendary drivers such as Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Jarrett needed help making fields late in their careers. However, those came to abused as car owners would hire drivers simply to take advantage of the past champion provisionals to make sure their car would make the field, even if it would not be very competitive once it got there.

NASCAR racers like Brad Keselowski(2) and Denny Hamlin don’t always get the results in qualifying they need.

NASCAR has taken that a step further in recent years by granting charters to a certain number of car owners. Those charters essentially guarantee that team’s entry into every race, and thus guarantees the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series that those cars will indeed show up every week.

Some fans, and even racers, are adamantly against the use of provisionals and/or charters in any way, shape, or form. They see the use of such as an undeserved free pass. At the same time, other fans and racers view the use of provisionals as a necessity.

As is often the case, I recently used my Twitter account(@RichardAllenIDR) to poll my followers regarding the use of provisional starting positions. The question I posed was – How many provisionals do you think a racing series/track should give out for a touring series feature?

A total of 368 Twitter users voted. Of those who responded, 18% replied that zero is the appropriate number of provisionals to be used for a racing event. With 61%, the largest percentage of voters agreed that 1 or 2 provisionals is the right amount. Another 13% chose 3 or 4 provisionals while 8% went with the choice of “as many as needed”.

Most noteworthy seems to be that 79% of those who responded selected the lowest number of provisionals when the totals for zero and two or less are combined. Apparently most fans do not agree with an excessive use of these “free passes”.

For my part, I have never really understood the disdain for the use of provisionals. At the same time, I don’t discount the opinions of those who do dislike them.

Those who dislike them often declare that drivers should have to earn their way into features. Further, these folks often add that not making a race after having opportunities in qualifying, heat races, and last chance races is simply part of the reality of racing.

But consider this. Without provisionals, it would be tough for a series to ask teams to pull across three or four states on a weekly basis only to hear “that’s just part of racing” or “that’s the way it goes” after they have suffered some bad luck and miss out on the feature. Far fewer drivers would be willing to risk the expense of towing long distances only to miss a feature race. As a result, car counts would almost certainly fall off and fan dissatisfaction with paying higher ticket prices for special events would likely increase.

Drivers such as Scott Bloomquist(0) and Jimmy Owens would be taking a financial risk to travel with a series without provisionals.

And consider the spectators in this debate as well. Often times fans will travel significant distances to watch special events such as those sanctioned by NASCAR, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series or the World of Outlaws Late Model Series. A fan who travels hundreds of miles to see his/her favorite star in action might be less willing to make that same trip the next time if that particular driver fails to start the feature because he had some bad luck in qualifying or a heat race.

One point made on Twitter was that a fan might not want to see their favorite driver start at the tail of the field then struggle at the back of the pack for a few laps before pulling off. I would offer as an example the case of Mike Marlar in the 2012 Hillbilly 100. The Tennessee racer started the 2012 Hillbilly 100 from 24th yet managed to win the race. He didn’t find out he was in the feature until just minutes prior to the start. While that may be a rare exception, it does prove that such a thing can happen so a driver may not be out of contention just because he is at the tail of the field when the green flag drops.

Along with the poll question, there were some who offered opinions regarding the use of provisionals on Twitter.

Bobby Pierce

Driver Bobby Pierce said, “The Summer Nationals gives an amount of emergency provisionals each week to series drivers (thumbs up sign). It’s good to have a safety net but w/o abusing it.”

@davidycus2 declared, “If the guy I came to see isn’t good that night and the track doesn’t allow passing I don’t like seeing him start in the rear, stay in the rear, and pull off early.”

@Scott_Snook offered, “No provisionals. I don’t care about your name or what you’ve done in the past. Everyone has bad nights and things can go wrong so why should someone be rewarded for it? JMO but either you are fast or you are not.”

@start_82 countered that by saying, “You’re not being rewarded for having a bad night. You’re being rewarded for spending thousands of dollars to support one series and not having your season ruined because a 5 buck part broke in your heat.”

There are clearly mixed opinions among fans and racers regarding provisional starting positions. But the reality is that without them, fewer drivers would be willing to race very far from home. As a result, travelling series would likely fade away due to lack of support from drivers and teams.

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