LAS VEGAS - Jamie McMurray looked over his shoulder and said, "You know, with a bank as a sponsor you wouldn't get to do stuff like this."
It was hard to argue with the driver of the No. 26 Ford at that particular moment. We were flying in a helicopter over the Las Vegas Strip, heading out toward the mountains that ring this valley.
OK, let's get this out of the way first. It was my first helicopter ride. Ever. McMurray laughed at me the whole time, and that's OK. It was a fairly calm day and the ride wasn't bad at all.
But it's like the first few times you fly. You hear something whirring or feel a bump and, until you know that what you're hearing is "normal" you're like, "What's that?"
If I run over a raised seam or a lane marker in the highway driving a car, I know how to react to that. In a chopper, some little wiggle or wobble could be the beginning of a death plunge for all I know. So I wasn't exactly going "Wheeee!" the whole way.
Anyway, back to the story.
We met Thursday afternoon at Treasure Island. The occasion was the reveal of the winner in this year's Crown Royal "Your Name Here" contest to pick a fan for whom the May race at Richmond will be named.
Instead of pulling a piece of canvas off a board, Crown Royal went big - 10,000 square feet big.
The sponsor painted a mural of the race's logo on a dry lake bed a few miles outside of Las Vegas. Right in the middle of it was a tarp attached to the rear of a Roush Mustang. That tarp covered the name of the contest winner.
It was either going to be Dan Lowry of Waterford, Ohio., or Tim Weiland of De Pere, Wis. They were in one of the other two helicopters flying over the lake bed. I was in the other one, where McMurray was going to give the command for the Mustang to drive off and pull the tarp away.
The third chopper carried several people suffering from insanity. I knew this because they were hanging out of the side door filming the whole thing.
When everbody was in place, McMurray did his deal and the Mustang's driver hit the gas. Down below us several hundred feet, Mowry's name was printed inside the logo. So the Richmond race will be called the "Crown Royal Presents the Dan Mowry 400."
Mowry will be the guest of honor at "his" race in May, and he'll get to see and do things that few race fans would ever get to see or do.
But don't feel too bad for Weiland, either. Mowry won the "grand prize," but Weiland got the "first prize," - a Roush Mustang.
"My 13-year-old son already has given the car a name," he said. "He said we're calling it 'Sharon.' "
When we got back to the Treasure Island, our pilot made this big, sweeping right-to-left swing to line up for his landing. He maneuvered between the light poles on the top level of the parking deck and sat us down without so much as the slighest bump.
Yeah, I was impressed.
Friday, February 29, 2008
LAS VEGAS - Jamie McMurray looked over his shoulder and said, "You know, with a bank as a sponsor you wouldn't get to do stuff like this."
Thursday, February 28, 2008
LAS VEGAS - Every once in a while you see something that puts things in a new perspective.
I was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Wednesday morning doing the Sirius NASCAR Radio morning show - very early Wednesday morning since Las Vegas is on Pacific time and the show airs in Eastern time. As I was leaving, I noticed a couple of brightly colored cars sitting in the garage area.
They were the No. 34 Chevrolets that are here for John Andretti to drive in Sunday's UAW-Dodge 500 at Las Vegas. Instead of hauling those cars all the way back across the country and then back out here to race again, the team just stopped off here and went to work.
It is amazing how many miles the major teams' haulers are driving back and forth to get the right cars to races at California and Las Vegas and to a test scheduled for Monday and Tuesday at Phoenix. Throw in the rain delay at California and it has been a major undertaking for those teams to swap their cars back and forth.
But when you see guys at 8 a.m. who're already elbows deep in race cars sitting out in the open on a chilly morning, you understand that no matter how much money a team might have - or doesn't have, for that matter - this racing business is really about commitment.
The fact that people willingly travel as much as they have to, work the hours that have to do and work the magic they sometimes have to work reminds you just how much people care about this sport.
And it's not just at this level.
As the weather warms up in the next few weeks, hundreds of short tracks around the country will be roaring to life for their seasons. That means that all over the country there are people spending hours and hours getting their cars ready to go racing.
The passion to race runs a lot deeper than NASCAR's top three series. From kids racing quarter-midgets to guys in their 50s and 60s still knocking around on a dirt track, they're all out there because they've got as much fire burning in their souls as they do in the engines that will power them around the track.
Sometimes it's good to just take a step back and remember that.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
FONTANA, Calif. – A lot of the motorsports writers out here for the Auto Club 500 had to work pretty hard Friday even though rain and “weepers” on the race track meant nothing happened in the NASCAR world.
That’s because they had to deal with the news that, after years of a schism that had all but wiped out open-wheel racing as a viable entity in this country, the Indy Racing League and Champ Car had agreed to a reunification deal.
It’s a much bigger story for the rest of the world than it is in the heart of NASCAR country back in Charlotte, at least from the sports point of view. From the business point of view, though, it is a pretty big deal.
Some of the people writing about the open-wheel reunification would have you believe that the split is the thing that allowed NASCAR to move to its predominant position in American motorsports.
I think there is a cause-and-effect relationship there, but I think they’ve got it exactly backward.
I think NASCAR caught its wave of momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as that built the folks in open-wheel racing started having arguments about how to combat that. That grew into the rift that resulted in the separation, opening the door for NASCAR to sweep in and sweep up.
That means a reunified open-wheel series has a lot of ground to make up. And that’s the trick.
Open-wheel racing has got to build itself back from pretty much the ground up, and that’s not going to happen overnight.
The easy decision, the obvious one, is the one that finally got made Friday. It took about 10 years longer than it should have to make it, but the idea that open-wheel needed one series to survive in this country was and is a no-brainer.
Now comes the hard part.
The “new” world of Indy Car racing has to put things together in a way that makes sense for everybody. They have to pick the right races to keep on future schedules. They have to come up with ways for teams to reach and maintain viability. They have to figure out how to keep drivers from going to NASCAR where the big money is. They have to get corporate America re-energized toward sponsoring their races and teams.
The Indy Car folks have to start doing all of that in the same challenged economy that NASCAR is trying to work in right now. It’s not going to be easy, and a lot of people are going to have to make a lot of smart decisions as Indy Car tries to retool and rebuild.
Let’s be clear here. Tony George, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and president of the IRL, won the battle. But that really was never in doubt. He had the trump card the whole time, the only truly relevant open-wheel race remaining once the two series split, in the Indianapolis 500. Everything else always was just details.
The people on the other side of the split had enough money, time and ego to keep the foolishness going for so long that they made George pay a dear price for his “victory.”
What could scuttle this whole reunion deal is if George or the people who run the newly reunited open-wheel series try to exact some kind of reparations for that from the teams that come back over from the “other side.”
This has to be a fair deal for everyone, or the bitterness that kept the chasm in place for so long will poison what everyone is trying to rebuild.
Friday, February 22, 2008
FONTANA, Calif. - Maybe this will come off as me being a "homer" for Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track in Charlotte where I am from, but so be it.
In 1998, water was seeping up through the surface at Texas Motor Speedway on qualifying day. The late Bill France Jr., who was still running NASCAR with dictatorial power in those days, flew in Sunday morning and stood behind the hauler as long as anybody wanted to talk to him.
He told people that instead of worrying about getting a second Cup race, Bruton Smith had better worry about getting his track fixed lest he lose the date he had.
So what happened Friday when water stated seeping through cracks in the track here? Well, nobody threatened to take away the track's races, for starters. But, then again, Bruton Smith doesn't own this track, either.
The Associated Press and NASCAR have made the right decision and will go back to including money earned by each driver as part of the results that are sent to the AP's member newspapers after Cup, Nationwide and Truck series races.
The results, known in newspaper jargon as "agate" for the size of type such information usually runs in, will now include both the money and the driver rating that NASCAR lobbied to have included.
The original plan was to leave out the money and just use driver rating. Fans don't know what the driver rating is or what the numbers even mean, and some papers will take the rating out before publishing results.
Maybe the number will grow on people and the rating will become a relevant statistic, but money is and always has been a part of the story in a NASCAR race. Including both money and the rating certainly is a reasonable compromise.
Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott both got into Sunday's Sprint Cup race because when the rulebook is used to set a field any former champion who is entered and not in the top 35 in owner points gets in.
When qualifying is held, only one former champion's spot is provided. But in a rainout, all former champions who need a slot get one. And they don't count against the maximum of six each former champion is allowed each year.
Kurt Busch technically made this race not as a former champion, but as a 2007 race winner.
After the top 35, the next available spots go to any driver who won a race last year not included in that top 35.
The confusing thing is that when there's rain this early in the year, points from LAST year are used to determine the top 35. But after you put in all the race winners and former champions, the rest of the field is determined by THIS year's owner points.
That's why John Andretti and Joe Nemecheck made the race and AJ Allmendinger and the 49 and 10 cars (driven now by Ken Schrader and Patrick Carpentier) didn't. Andretti is 39th and Nemechek 41st in owner points after one race this year. The 84, 49 and 10 didn't make the Daytona field and are lower in THIS year's standings.
Somebody was going around Friday. asking drivers who they'd like to have play them in a movie about their lives.
Someone suggested Tom Cruise to Mark Martin. Martin laughed and said Jon Heder, who played Napoleon Dynamite, might be a better idea.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked the same question.
"I don't think it would be a tough job," he said. "Why couldn't I play myself?"
Thursday, February 21, 2008
FONTANA, Calif. - I absolutely believe that Robby Gordon's team made an honest mistake at Daytona, putting an unapprove nose on the Dodge it submitted for inspection before Daytona 500 practice began.
Here's how it was explained to me. Gordon's team decided late in the preseason to switch to Dodge and in trying to get ready to go racing it got parts to get cars to Daytona. Somewhere in the process it got a couple of noses of a type that Dodge has submitted for NASCAR approval.
That approval has not yet come.
The team goes to Daytona with these new noses and gets rejected in inspection. In NASCAR's view - the only view NASCAR is in position to have - the team submitted a car with an unapproved part.
NASCAR let the team use the same car. The nose was not confiscated, the team had to get an approved nose from some other team's crash cart and replace the section of the nose it had with the proper section of the one it "borrowed." The car was then approved and Gordon practiced, qualified and raced.
Gordon's team got a $100,000 fine, 100-point deductions and a six-race suspension for its crew chief. Which is exactly what fines for unapproved parts on this race car got last year for the teams of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That's pretty much the end of the story, folks. Everything else you might put in the comments attached to this blog, how it wasn't Robby Gordon's fault and he had no way of knowing it was wrong and all of that, may all be 100 percent true. But it doesn't matter.
Robby Gordon's team is responsible for what's on it's race car. Not NASCAR, not Dodge, not Gillett Evernham Motorsports and not David Poole. If you don't know something is right, you need to check it out.
NASCAR treated Robby's team as fairly as that can possibly be done. Where it would be unfair would be to let the circumstances surrounding a a violation enter into the picture.
If you start weighing all of that stuff in, that's when it comes down to treating one team differently from another, and that's not right. That's the problem NASCAR needs to keep getting away from.
Isn't Dodge submitting a new nose for approval because it's better? Why else would it do that?
So if Gordon's car got through inspection with that nose on it, effectively he'd have an advantage over the other Dodge teams, at least. That's not right.
Again, this one is on the No. 7 team. Maybe you think the punishment is too steep, but it's the same thing others got for unapproved parts.
NASCAR got this one right, folks.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – You’ve seen the cartoons where somebody gets an idea and light bulb goes off over his head.
That didn’t literally happen to me the night I first thought about trying to find out whatever happened to Wessa Miller, but it really was something very much like that. The story that resulted from it appears in the Charlotte Observer and on thatsracin.com.
I was at home, late on a Saturday night, poking around the Internet looking for interesting or fun facts about the history of the Daytona 500. I looked back at some of the stories about Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the 1998 race, and remembered the story about the Make-A-Wish girl who gave Earnhardt a lucky penny the day before the race.
I can’t say I remembered the 6-year-old girl’s name, but I saw it in some of the second-day stories about Earnhardt’s historic win.
About 10 days earlier, we’d been at Dale Earnhardt Inc. on the preseason media tour and I had walked around the lobby looking at some of the display cases there. In one about Earnhardt’s 1998 victory in the sport’s biggest race I saw a picture of the little girl and remembered her story fondly.
But nothing clicked. It wasn’t until I saw it online again that Saturday night at home that I started thinking about her.
I have to be honest. My first thought was, “I wonder if she’s still with us?” It has been 10 years.
Sadly, too many of the children who have their wishes granted by the marvelous Make-A-Wish aren’t around to have their stories told 10 years later.
My next thought was how do I find her?
I went to Google and typed in her name. I found a blog, or something of that nature, written by a professional wrestler in Kentucky who’d met Wessa and her parents at some kind of fundraiser after they had been to meet Earnhardt. I have no idea who the wrestler is or how old that blog was, but it was a lead.
The blog named a school in Fedscreek, Ky. So I went to whitepages.com and tried to find a listing for Booker Miller or Wessa Miller there. It wasn’t going to be that easy, though.
I sent e-mails that night to a couple of people at Dale Earnhardt Inc., hoping somebody there might have a contact.
Max Siegel, DEI’s president, offered to do anything he could to help me. Kevin Woods, one of the team’s public relations people, suggested I try the Make-A-Wish folks in Charlotte, who wind up handling a lot of NASCAR-related wishes.
I got in touch with Amy Laws at that office. She contacted the Kentucky chapter and found an address and phone number for the Millers. By Monday night, I was calling their house.
Juanita was serving supper when I first called. We arranged for me to call back later that evening and I did. I talked to Booker first, then to Juanita, then to Wessa for a few minutes, then to Juanita again. When I looked up, we’d been on the phone more than an hour.
I was going back through my notes, shaking my head and wiping a few tears from my eyes, when Juanita called me back with one more story. I thanked her, shed a few more tears and went downstairs.
“If I can’t write this story,” I told my wife, Katy, “they need to ban me from ever using a laptop again.”
I woke up at 3 the next morning and went back upstairs. I wrote the first draft of the story in about three hours. I did my Sirius NASCAR Radio show and then flew to Daytona.
I’ve been here since, and I’ve talked to Juanita Miller a half-dozen times on the phone since then. I sent her a copy of one version of the story to make sure I had the details right. I called her back to check with her and she thanked me.
“I hope the Lord blesses you for wanting to write Wessa’s story,” she said.
He already has, ma’am. He already has.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A guy gets a job in a sawmill.
“You have to cut 12 cords of wood a day to meet your quota,” his supervisor says.
But at the end of the first day, though, he’s only cut six.
“What’s the problem?” the supervisor asks.
“I don’t know, I can’t figure it out,” the guy says.
“Maybe something is wrong with your saw,” the supervisor says. “Let me look at it.” He pulls the starter cord and the power saw fires up.
“What’s that sound?” the guy asks.
That’s a joke I heard in the garage Sunday morning.
Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR told another joke. The saw joke was lots funnier.
What did NASCAR do by putting Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart on 6-race probations for their actions after Friday night’s on-track incident in Budwesier Shootout practice?
Nothing. Well, nothing except lie to its fans.
Think “lie” is too strong of a word?
NASCAR said the sanctions handed down Tuesday were not for what happened in the hauler when Busch and Stewart were summoned there.
Then what was Stewart sanctioned for? Busch was the one who used his car to ram Stewart’s as they came toward pit road. Stewart didn’t do anything with his car that warranted a penalty, not that I saw.
So, via the media, fans are being told one thing when another thing is obviously true. If “lie” isn’t the right word for that, pick a better one.
What’s sad is that some fans love it when NASCAR stiffs the media. That’s sad, because when NASCAR talks to the media what it’s really doing is talking to the fans.
Reporters aren’t here because we just like to be around each other for two weeks in February.
We’re here because fans care and they want to know what’s going on. You don’t have to like the media, and we don’t always do our jobs perfectly, but we’re pretty much all you’ve got when it comes to fining out what’s really going on.
So on Tuesday, NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said NASCAR is “going to redefine what probation means.” Then he said the drivers “clearly understand” the new definition, but also said “they understand what might happen, without getting into nailing down for you guys what we will do if that happens.”
What you need to understand about that is that when Hunter says “you guys,” he might have been referring to the media but actually he was talking to the fans.
NASCAR knows what “probation” means and it says the drivers know what it means. But you’re not entitled to know. You don’t need to know, but if we think of something we feel like telling you, we will let you know.
Again, they may be talking at the media when they say that, but it’s you – the fans – they’re talking to.
How funny is that?
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – You know, sometimes I come on this blog and complain about travel woes or traffic at the race tracks. I make a snide remark about how many hours I work or how hard it is to find the person you need to talk to.
All of that is true. I know fans don’t want to hear it, but it is true.
But what’s also true is that there are a lot of times when this job I have does not suck.
It’s late Monday night, one of the two “dark” days at Daytona International Speedway during Speedweeks, and I just got back from dinner with the folks from Michael Waltrip Racing.
It was a great meal, but more to the point it was a great time. Michael Waltrip, as you might imagine, is in a pretty good mood after qualifying second on Sunday. He said some very nice things about a story I wrote for him for Sunday’s paper, and I appreciate that.
I sat next to Darrell Waltrip the whole night and we laughed so hard my sides ache. If I told you some of the stuff we talked about over dinner, you wouldn’t believe it. (And, by the way, I’d never be invited back to another dinner of that nature in my life.)
The best part of it, though, was that I had a chance to just talk to Darrell about his victory in the Daytona 500 in 1989. In his 17th try, he won the Daytona 500 in car No. 17 while pitting in pit stall No. 17.
I knew all the numerology. You can look that stuff up. What you don’t get from the history books is the look in a man’s eye when he talks about one of the most special days of his life.
What I wanted to hear him talk about, not in a formal interview but just in conversation, was how he felt that night after accomplishing something that means more and more to him with each passing day. He talked mainly about just how relieved he was to finally have done something he so badly wanted to do.
Sunday morning I was walking back toward the media center from the garage when I saw Leonard Wood and Dale Inman leaning against stacks of tires behind the Wood Brothers’ transporter.
I try to make it a policy to never walk past either of those two guys without stopping even when I see them individually, let alone telling stories and swapping tales with one another.
These are two of the absolute legendary mechanics in NASCAR. Both of them will be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame someday – soon, if there’s any justice – and both of them also happen to be wonderful human beings.
I stopped and stood there for about 45 minutes. I didn’t have my tape recorder on me and wouldn’t have pulled it out if I’d had it. This was me sharing in a conversation between two warriors who have done and seen it all at Daytona. It was too good to waste air asking questions. I was there to listen.
They talked about 1976.
“I still can’t believe you wrecked us,” Inman said, referring to the last-lap tangle between David Pearson in the Wood Brothers car and Richard Petty in the car Inman worked on.
Inman was telling a story about he got mad at Petty one day. Petty had said he thought something Inman did could have been done better a different way, and Inman was in no mood to hear that at that particular moment.
“I said, ‘I didn’t have the privilege of working with the smartest (fill in the blank at your discretion) here who ever lived, Albert Einstein,’” Inman said. “‘But dang if I ain’t working for the second smartest. I think I am going to get me a granite stone and carve in a list of the world’s smartest (fill in the blanks). I am going to put No. 1 – Albert Einstein and No. 2 – Richard Petty. Beneath that I will just keep a list of who’s next at that particular moment.”
Wood threw his head back and laughed. He worked with some pretty “smart” people in his career, too.
Inman and Wood also talked about coming to Daytona for the first time.
Wood missed the first 500 in 1959 because, I think he said, he was in the military.
“Rookie,” Inman said, with a grin.
Inman wasn’t here in 1960 – something about Junior Johnson wanting him to change tires but Inman thought it would be too cold.
So they both weren’t here at the same time until 1961. Good gosh, can you imagine all of the history they’ve made and seen?
History is big at Daytona this year, what with it being the 50th running of the Daytona 500 and all. Twenty-four former winners of the race are supposed to be here this weekend, talking about their memories and serving as grand marshals for this year’s race.
I imagine I’ll spend a while talking to some of those guys as the week goes along. Boy, I sure hope so.
Saturday, February 09, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The only thing NASCAR should have done to Kurt Busch for his antics following Friday night's incident with Tony Stewart is the one thing it has shown it doesn't have the stones to do.
Busch should have been parked for the Budweiser Shootout. It's a non-points event, so they shouldn't take points away for Busch using his car to express his displeasure. Fines don't matter. That's been established. Probation is a joke. Busch lives on probation.
The benefits of racing Saturday night included getting valuable seat time in the new car being used here for the first time. Depriving Busch of that opportunity would have been a reasonable and effective measure.
There was, however, never any chance that NASCAR officials would take it.
They'll sit on their thumbs through this weekend and put out some lame fine Monday or Tuesday. They may even wait until the week after the Daytona 500 so as not to spoil all the hoopla they hope will be building up to the 50th running of the 500 next Sunday.
Whatever they do will be wrong.
We ought to be used to that by now. And please, let's don't get all confused here over this whole business about letting drivers show their personality more this year.
If Busch and Stewart had come to pit road, gotten out of their cars and started calling each other names and making up clever, derogatory nicknames for each other, that would have been fine.
But let's hope NASCAR at least tries to make it clear - even if it's in the weak-kneed way it usually does - that using your car as a revenge-delivering battering ram is not acceptable.
As for what supposedly happened in the NASCAR hauler in the meeting subsequent to the accident, all I have to say about that is I hope the fans who actually believe it's good for NASCAR to have its top stars act like drunken sailors on shore leave are happy now.
Monday, February 04, 2008
NASCAR fans tend to hate it when you compare their favorite sport to stick-and-ball sports. So let’s switch that around.
All along, most everyone thought the New England Patriots were going to wind up being more like Jimmie Johnson’s Sprint Cup team. Come to find out, however, they’re Jeff Gordon’s team.
Following a tremendous season in Cup competition in 2007, a year in which he broke records with 30 top-10 finishes, Gordon came up short in NASCAR’s playoffs and did not win the championship.
You will notice I did not say that Gordon “lost” the championship to Jimmie Johnson, because Gordon raced like a champion throughout the 10-race playoff. He had an average finish of 5.1 in those pivotal races, which in a typical year would have been more than enough to carry him across the threshold of a championship.
Johnson, however, did an even better job in the playoff. Whereas Gordon won two Chase races, Johnson won four. Johnson and his team averaged a 5.0 finish in the Chase and that was enough to earn him and his team the title.
When it was over, the one thing Gordon kept saying over and over again was that he and his team accomplished everything they set out to do in 2007 except for one thing – winning the championship.
Surely that’s the only way to sum up what happened to the New England Patriots in the NFL season that concluded with Sunday’s Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
The Patriots set regular-season records for the most points scored. Quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Randy Moss set touchdown records. And, speaking of records, the Patriots’ record was unblemished at 16-0, an historic accomplishment that should never be regarded as anything other than remarkable.
But, with the championship on the line, another team outperformed them.
Let’s be clear. Even though the “news” is that New England’s quest for perfection was denied, the story was the New York Giants played a tremendous game when it mattered most. Give credit to the Patriots for all they accomplished, but the Giants won this one. They played tremendously and they are deserving champions.
They’re deserving because they won under the sport’s playoff system. Years ago, the NFL decided that excitement generated by postseason play was worthwhile and wanted more of that. They broadened the playoffs by adding wild-card teams, teams that qualified for the postseason without winning their division championships.
That brought more teams into the championship picture, and it was done to bring more attention, more revenue, more excitement and more television viewership to the league and the game it has stewardship over.
Which, of course, are precisely and exactly the same reasons NASCAR started the Chase for the Cup format for the 2004 season.
If the Patriots had completed a perfect 19-0 season by winning the Super Bowl, the comparisons to Johnson’s NASCAR team could have been extended.
One team is led by a “coach” or “crew chief" who is supremely confident – to the point that if you don’t like his team you might consider him smug. That confidence is so complete, in fact, there are times when that leader tends to substitute his opinions about what’s fair and just for what the rulebook actually says is fair and just.
The other team, of course, is led by Bill Belichick.