Saturday, May 26, 2007

It would take that perfect storm to take NASCAR down a notch

Ed Hinton might not always be right, but he’s never in doubt.

In his column from Indianapolis posted elsewhere on Saturday, you can see Ed in top form, speaking in the kind of absolutes that he lives by.

“If Danica Patrick becomes the first female winner of the (Indianapolis) 500, Indy might gain only a tie for international headlines. Six hours earlier because of the trans-Atlantic time difference, England’s Lewis Hamilton could become first black driver to win Monaco – or any major motor race, anywhere.

“Should either or both happen, nothing NASCAR could do could make the 600 more than it was until a decade ago: a Memorial Day afterthought.”

I don’t have any argument against that. (As an aside, you’ll also notice how Ed loves to translate obvious foreign words – like “grand prix” into great prize – for his readers. I can do that, too. For example, LaJoie is French for “the joie.”)

Well, maybe I do have one.

No matter who wins the Formula One race at Monaco Sunday, America won’t care.

Hamilton is, by all accounts, a remarkable talent who takes the lead in the F1 standings into Sunday’s event. But he’s not an American, and American sports fans simply don’t get worked up about any sport where Americans aren’t a factor.

Yes, there is an American driver in F1. His name is Scott Speed and I am sure his parents are proud of him. But he is not a competitive factor in that series, and until he is Americans aren’t going to connect with F1 just because Speed is marked “present” when the series takes roll.

A victory by Hamilton Sunday would be important in the grand scheme of motorsports, of course, and it would up the already keen pressure on NASCAR to find people of color to compete at its highest levels.

Internationally it would be a big story, too. World Cup soccer is a big deal internationally, but in the United States it never will be until our team has a shot to win it. I’m not saying that’s right, but I am saying that’s the way it is.

A Danica Patrick victory at Indianapolis, of course, is a whole other deal.

Patrick is already the only story anybody cares about in American open-wheel racing, which is a sad but nonetheless true state of affairs for that discipline. If she’s the one drinking milk in victory lane after 500 miles Sunday, she’ll be on the front page of virtually every newspaper in America on Monday.

But while Hinton is right in saying that if Patrick wins at Indy and Hamilton wins in Monaco, the Coca-Cola 600 will get only third billing around the world, what he doesn’t say is that unless all of that falls into place things will be right like they’ve been for the past 10 years or so.

If you’re a Formula One fan in this country, chances are it’s because you’re one of those people who gets pleasure out of knowing things about something obscure, like those people who listen only to bands who’ve not yet become commercially successful.

You get up at the crack of dawn on Sunday to watch races from all over the world on Speed, and knowing that not very many people are doing that makes you feel special.

As for Indianapolis, the fact that the Indy Racing League had that race on its schedule is the reason Ed Hinton is back there this May. If the Championship Auto Racing Teams faction in the open-wheel split had Indy, then the IRL might be as irrelevant as the ChampCar World Series, the direct CART descendant, is today.

Unless there’s the perfect scenario Hinton talks about, with Patrick and/or Hamilton winning Sunday, far more people who read the papers Ed works for will care who wins at Lowe’s Motor Speedway than about who wins at Indy and Monaco combined.

And I have no doubt about that.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Power list an inexact science

Naming the most powerful people in NASCAR might be the most interesting thing I do all year. It’s absolutely one of the most maddening.
The list that appears in newspapers and on today is our 10th annual listing of the sport’s movers and shakers, and every year things change a little bit.
Last year, for example, I sent out emails to about 50 of my colleagues in the media and asked them how they’d do the same list. This year, I’ve gone back and forth with several industry people who’ve offered suggestions and criticism and I’ve put the list together.
For a couple of years, I also ranked the most powerful companies in the sport. Last year, we went from the 25 most powerful to a list of 43, matching the number of cars in a Nextel Cup starting lineup.
Some of the people I talk to about the list each year don’t like it that I sometimes list more than one person in a given position. I can understand that, and I’ll admit that I probably allow myself to use that “cheat” a little too much. But this year, for instance, how would I separate Dale Earnhardt Jr. from his sister, Kelley Elledge, who are an unbreakable team when it comes to determining where Earnhardt Jr. is going to race next year?
I will tell you that this year’s list looked very different every time I messed with it. I moved people in, moved some out. I moved some up and dropped some down – sometimes several positions at one whack.
If I looked at it 100 more times, I’d probably still make changes. You find yourself comparing people who wind up close to one another, trying to figure out how you can justify putting this guy ahead of that guy but behind a third guy. At some point, you just have to throw up your hands and say that’s about as good as it’s going to get.
I will plead guilty up front to perhaps assigning too much power to people in the television business. I wrote about sports on television before I started covering racing and maybe that makes me lean that way. But there’s no question television plays a critical role in what happens in racing today, so maybe I am not that far off base.
Power, of course, is a fleeting thing. One thing you worry about is that in the time between you have to turn this list and the time it actually runs something major is going to happen. If, for instance, Earnhardt Jr. got his deal done before the list went public, the car owner who signed him would automatically be too low on the list.
It’s also very hard to decide which drivers to list where.
Beyond Earnhardt Jr., whose influence is obvious right now, the list includes Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton. Mark Martin certainly has been and continues to be an influence on his peers, Jimmie Johnson is the reigning champion and Juan Pablo Montoya could be an emerging force. You could make arguments for at least those guys.
One thing I’ve learned in the past couple of years is that I don’t yet, even after nearly 11 years of doing this, feel comfortable that I’ve got the right people from the marketing side of the sport on this list. This year, I’ve got three lawyers and/or agents on the list and there are probably at least that many more I should be considering every year.
What I am saying is that this is a long way from an exact science. It never was meant to be. It’s aimed at making people think about a side of the sport they might not always think about.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Can't we all just get along?

One thing my brethren and sistren in the television business need to understand (at least better than they apparently do) is that the broadcast rights fees their networks pay don’t “buy” them a bit more right to be at the track than any other reporter.

Over the all-star weekend, I stated in this blog that the “TV pestilence” was spreading at an alarming rate at NASCAR tracks.

According to, “pestilence” means “a pernicious, evil influence or agent” or “something that is considered harmful, destructive or evil.” Evil might be just a tick strong, but otherwise that definition sounds about right.

The television compound continues to gobble up more room week after week. At Darlington they actually blocked off one road outside the track and another one inside the track to “accommodate the TV partners.” At Charlotte, what used to be the media’s press box parking lot has now been completely swallowed up by TV trucks and their annoying offspring, golf carts.

“You know how you get a good parking spot at the track?” one TV person told me after hearing me gripe. “Pay $4 billion for the right to be there. How much does the Observer pay for you to be at the track?”

That’s typical.

It’s also wrong-headed.

Television networks are invited to bid for NASCAR broadcast rights. The networks elect to do so because those rights grant them the opportunity to produce programming to air over said network. In return, the networks also have the right to sell advertising on the broadcasts. They also can use the NASCAR programming to promote other shows on the network, hoping to increase viewership through those promotional opportunities.

If a network didn’t think it could get more out of covering NASCAR than it is putting into it, why would it bid on the rights? Television rights fees are an opportunity to MAKE money, not an excuse to SPEND it.

It certainly costs a lot for networks to produce the programming, to hire its announcers and to effectively promote that programming, but if the network doesn’t come close enough to turning a profit or at least breaking even and accepting that overall having NASCAR is helping the network, then they’re not very good at the business they’re in.

Now, every television commentator and reporter who comes to the track is issued a media credential. That credential gives them access to the garage area and pit lane and other media areas around the track.

Guess what? My credential gives me the exact same access. NASCAR credentials media to “cover” the sport, and that’s what we’re all there to do. The rights fees don’t give anybody who works for Fox or TNT or ESPN one whit more of a right to be there than I have, just like my credential doesn’t give me any more right to be there than anybody else with the same “annual” credential or one-race passes.

I know most fans don’t care about our little intramural squabbles, but it bugs me when people tell me there in a different class than I am when they’re absolutely not.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The TV compound fracture

The TV pestilence is officially out of hand.

Last weekend at Darlington Raceway, I tried to turn onto the same road I've used for years to get into the infield tunnel and there wasn't a road there anymore.

Instead, there were TV production trucks parked every which way. The television "compound" had, and this is a conservative guess, tripled in size.

When I got my credentials for Lowe's Motor Speedway, the envelope indluded a letter saying that the parking lot for those of us who work out of the press box had moved, too. We've figured this was coming because the TV compound that once took up a third of that lot had been slowly creeping outward. But this was a quantum leap in land grabs.

There's a lot more television stuff needed these days with Speed, Fox, ESPN all doing various things. But that doesn't make it any less annoying.

Friday in the media center, a cameraman for ESPN pulled a chair away from the row where I was sitting and parked in it about 8 feet away from me. For an hour, he sat there on the cell phone trying to get some kind of piece of equipment for his camera shipped to him and talking to pretty much everybody he could think of to call on his phone list.

One place where this gets totally out of hand is at New Hampshire. The TV locusts come into the media center there and literally lay around in the floor when they're not out running around doing whatever it is they do. I am talking about literally lying on their backs like they're napping, with their equipment strewn about them on the floor. Last year, I actually took them a bag of marshmallows just in case they decided to make S'mores.

Smile for the camera

Speaking of TV, the people working for ABC News who're doing a series of shows on NASCAR that will run this summer are looking for people who've traveled to Charlotte this week from long distances.

They're particularly looking for people who're fans of Regan Smith, David Stremme, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson, or Mark Martin. If you're interested, you can email Alexa Danner at .

Friday, May 11, 2007

The latest on Dale Earnhardt Jr.? It's not like we're holding back

Good heavens, it's nuts at Darlington today.

It started last night. I'm flying down the highway trying to get here after working all day on the Dale Earnhardt Jr. story when the phone rings.

"Done deal," the caller says. "Earnhardt Jr. and Richard Childress are meeting right now. They're going to announce a deal Friday at Darlington."

I get to the hotel just before 11 and by the time I get to the room, my boss is on e-mail telling me a Charlotte television station is reporting just what the guy on the phone had said.

"Do we know anything about this?" he asked.

It's one of my favorite questions. What it actually means was, "If this is true and you didn't have it first, I will feed you to pit bulls."

Actually, I wonder if my boss thinks that if I knew something I would decide just not to share it with anybody. Readers and radio listeners think that, too.

"What's the real story," they ask me. Hey, if I know it, I write it. That's my job.

So I start calling and e-mailing people. Finally, about 11:45, I get a response. It goes something like this: "All I can tell you is Dale Jr. is signed with any other team."

Read that again, carefully. Either there's a "NOT" missing there or I've got a big story.

Actually, it was a denial of the TV reports. Dale Jr. is NOT signed with any other team. So I went to bed.

Buy 7 am, when the Sirius NASCAR Radio morning show started in the Darlington Media Center, my email was full of people asking me when the Richard Childress Racing press conference announcing Dale Jr.'s signing would be held.

"Three weeks?" I guessed.

First, it was 9:30. Then 10. Then 10:15. In the media center. In the garage.

There was no press conference. It was Childress holding one interview session so he could say nothing one time instead of holding 100 interviews to say it 100 times.

I've had people e-mail me with more scenarios than you could shake a stick at. Some people

STILL believe Earnhardt Jr. is going BACK to DEI!

Sorry, would love to write more. But Dale Jr. is having his "media availability" in the garage in three minutes. Can't miss that.

It's not like he answered 400 QUESTIONS just 24 hours ago or anything.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The facts about Junior-DEI split? Truth is, they're still evolving

At about 3:15 p.m. Wednesday, I sat down in a chair at MediaComm in south Charlotte to talk to ESPN in Bristol, Conn., for a segment on spotters on its "Outside the Lines" show.

As we were getting set up, a producer there asked a question that changed my day instantly.

"Have you heard anything about a news conference at JR Motorsports tomorrow?" he said.
I had not, but from that moment on it was pretty much the only thing on the radar in the NASCAR world.

At the beginning, the first thing was to simply find out if a press conference was actually going to happen. The first round of calls that Jim Utter and I made got us nowhere. Nobody was answering the phone. Which is, often, a clue in itself.

At some point, we found out that a company that helps assemble and set up sound systems for NASCAR-related press events had a full crew on site at JR Motorsports setting up for an "event" on Thursday.

OK, that means you're not chasing a ghost. Something actually is going on. Now, the question becomes what's going on.

That's where things got off the track, a little bit, I think.

For the next couple of hours, just about anybody we could get on the phone who knew anything or who we thought knew anything were saying that Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. would leave Dale Earnahrdt to drive Cup cars at JR Motorsports next year.

Kelley Elledge said a month ago that JR Motorsports, which fields Busch and late model cars, isn't ready to be a Cup team. And it frankly would make no sense for Earnhardt Jr. to leave DEI for a start-up team that he'd own when the whole stated purpose of the contract talks has been to get him into a situation where he can win races and contend for championships.

Still, at that point in the late afternoon, that's what just about everyone was saying would be announced. As soon as we got official word that there would be a news conference at 11 a.m., I was also talking to people at Sirius NASCAR Radio about trying to arrange for me to be up there in Mooresville for the announcement and for Sirius to somehow cover it live.

Dave Moody was also on the air at that time on his Sirius show, and I also knew we needed to get something up on On the web, we put up the fact that a news conference was scheduled and that was about it. Moody, meanwhile, was hearing some of the same stuff from his "people" and started talking about the speculation and conjecturing about what might happen if that turned out to be the case.

Before long, other people were reporting the same thing. Some, were even citing Moody as their source, which shows that nobody else was getting their phone calls returned, either.

Meanwhile, Jim Utter and I were still talking trying to get people who actually know what's going on to tell us something. As the Truex/JR Motorsports/Hendrick story got out there, some folks started calling back to tell us that was not accurate.

By the time the deadline for the newspaper arrived, the story I had was that Earnhardt Jr. would announce he's leaving DEI and won't say where he's will go. Others had different information, and they wrote what they thought they knew. I wrote what Jim and I had.

That's how this business works. Sometimes it gets a little confusing, and the last thing you want to do is confuse readers, listeners and viewers. But sometimes, the information actually changes and with the 24-7 news cycle we have, it takes a while for the right stuff to catch up.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Tinkering with rules a tricky business now

Rick Hendrick's teams have won seven of this year's 10 races and all four of the "car of tomorrow" races. Chevrolets have won nine of 10 races. And a bunch of drivers are finding it difficult to even make races.

Should NASCAR "do" something?

Where you stand on that likely depends on who you pull for. Hendrick fans, for instance, think Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch have won races and are all in the top six in points because they have good teams. Hendrick haters are convinced NASCAR is somehow stacking the deck.

Ford and Dodge fans have good reason to be unhappy about how things have gone this season. Nobody enjoys getting whipped. It's easier to believe that's happening because something fishy is going on than it is to say, "Hey, our guys need to suck it up and get better."

The folks on the down side of this debate can certainly point to places in the NASCAR timeline when, if things were this out of whack in terms of results, the sanctioning body would have stepped in to alter the rules to move things back toward a balance.

But that's not what has happened in the past few years. Even before the COT was introduced, the cars are so much more alike than they've ever been NASCAR is limited on what it can do. The new cars, regardless of make, are all measured under the exact same massive template set that looks like "Skeletor." How does NASCAR change that to benefit one make or take the advantage away from one that has it?

Let's say NASCAR could take 10 percent of something away from the Hendrick cars. Well, wouldn't that also take 10 percent from Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing? How would that make a difference on the track?

It is true, on the other hand, that it seems to be Toyota and Ford teams that find themselves struggling most just to make races. But when Johnny Benson qualifies to run a Toyota at Richmond for a team that doesn't run full-time in the Cup Series, how do you make the point that Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett and Jeremy Mayfield need help? Brian Vickers missed Richmond, too, but A.J. Allmendinger qualified 13th in cars built by the same team. How do you figure that?

Back when NASCAR did change the rules, it seemed, every six weeks or so, fans clamored against that. Set the rules before the season and live with then, many fans said. Usually, they were fans of the team or make that was winning.

Now that NASCAR is doing precisely that, it's not working for some fans, either.

What should NASCAR do? In my opinion, nothing.

If you're getting beaten, whether it's in qualifying or on race day, there is really only one thing you can do about. Go faster. Race better. Beat somebody.

The more teams that do that, the better off they -- and the sport -- will be.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Watching from a far

My newspaper has me helping with coverage of the PGA Tour event in Charlotte this week, so I am not at Richmond for the Jim Stewart 400.
It's always interesting to cover another sport that's out of your regular element. For one thing, you get asked a lot why you're not where people are convinced you're supposed to be. But I will be back at the track next weekend at Darlington.
Just wanted you guys to know I haven't fallen off the face of the earth or anything.