ATLANTA -- New Year's resolutions are easy to make and hard to keep. The new year gives everyone a chance to start over, to lose a few pounds, to stop smoking, to become a better person.
As an organization, NASCAR can use the start of 2002 to make some necessary resolutions of its own. Ratings never have been higher; the sport's popularity has never been better. And yet, without careful direction, the sport easily could veer off course and follow the NBA to the back pages of the sports section.
The secret to any successful resolution is to not make dramatic lifestyle changes. Build on the positives. For NASCAR, that means to take all the things that work and do them better. After all, one of the oldest adages in the business, ''If you're caught up, you're already behind,'' doesn't just apply to race teams. It applies to the sport itself.
With that in mind, here's what NASCAR should resolve to do in 2002 and beyond:
l Don't forget the fans. Atlanta Motor Speedway embarked on a worthwhile project in November by gobbling up huge blocks of hotel rooms, then making those rooms available to race fans for a reasonable rate.
Raceways at Darlington, S.C.; Dover, Del.; Talladega, Ala.; Daytona Beach, Fla.; Watkins Glen, N.Y.; and Loudon, N.H., should follow Atlanta's lead to stop price gouging in its own back yard.
Charging people $500 for a three night minimum at a hotel with $39 a night stamped on the back of the door is an easy way for fans to beg for the return of the XFL.
l Don't forget the drivers. The death of Dale Earnhardt was the sport's darkest moment not because one of its biggest stars died, but because he was the fourth driver to die of the same kind of injuries in a 10-month span.
From that, however, was born a more-proactive attitude toward safety issues. A new research-and-development department is about to open its doors, and success will depend on its ability to bridge the garage area with scientists and engineers.
l Don't forget there are only 12 months in a year. The schedule is too demanding. Thirty-six regular-season races and two all-star events will keep the sport busy for 38 out of 40 weeks starting in February.
The worst part is a 20-week stretch to end the season. The sport's biggest fears were realized last year when the terrorist attacks forced the race at New Hampshire to be pushed back to the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The resignation of crew chiefs Robin Pemberton and Todd Parrott because of burnout and Jeff Gordon's refusal to participate in the International Race of Champions are telling signs that the season is too long.
l Don't forget to be consistent. The sport needs to establish a system of fines and punishment for bad behavior.
The sanctioning body hands out fines to some, threatens suspension to others and looks the other way with a few.
Aggressive driving needs to be handled the same way every time; otherwise the true victim is the sport's credibility.
At the same time, it needs to be less sensitive to what drivers say and more concerned about what they do. Fines for rough driving is one thing, but to hand out fines and warnings for words is another. To muzzle the different personalities is a direct contradiction to racing's treasured history.
And money collected in fines should be donated to charity, not thrown back into the point fund.
l Don't forget the past. Although a pension plan ventures far too closely to organized labor for NASCAR's taste, the sport needs to step beyond the veil that race teams are independent contractors to help the stars during retirement. NASCAR could use its collective clout to create a solid retirement plan to reward the people whose blood, sweat and tears made the sport so popular.
l And don't forget to look back. At the end of the season, the sport needs to figure out what resolutions are necessary for 2003.
And like resolutions of years past and years to come, they will be easy to make and hard to keep.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org
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