Sunday, August 31, 2008

TrackBite and barbecue and top names

INDIANAPOLIS -- There's good news and bad news from the U.S. Naitonals drag race, the last event before the National Hot Rod Association makes its inaugural visit to zMAX Dragway @ Concord.

The good news is that I was able to find a VERY respectable barbecue sandwich for sale on the concession midway here. Laugh if you will, but the propsect of finding decent barbecue this far north can be daunting.

The bad news is that I asked the folks who run the deal if they'd be in Concord in a couple of weeks. They said no. Surely somebody in the Carolinas will step in and fill that void.

* * *

It's just after 3 as I write this and there's one more round of pro qualifying to go. The big news there is that John Force is still not in the top 16 in Funny Car, which means if he doesn't go faster than 4.208 seconds in the final run he's going to fail to qualify for the NHRA's biggest race for a second straight year. (Here's the 4:50 pm update -- Force will NOT be in the show on Monday. He broke during his run in the final funny car qualifying round.)

One of Force's daughters, Courtney, has made elminations in Top Alcohol, but Brittany, another young Force, did not make the top 16. Ashley Force is safely in the field for Monday's eliminations, but John beat her in Sunday morning's first round of the U.S. Smokeless Showdown.

John's final qualifying run later Sunday will also be a semifinal matchup with Tim Wilkerson in the Showdown. It's entirely possible that Force could beat Wilkerson to move into the Showdown final but not go fast enough to make the top 16 in the overall event. That'd mean he'd run for a win in the Showdown at the end of today's program and then be done for the weekend.

People who hate NASCAR's top 35 rule point to the NHRA's cut-and-dried qualifying as an example of why letting the fastest 43 race each week - with no provisionals of any kind - would work. If John Force can be sent home from a drag race, why can't a Jeff Gordon or a Dale Earnhardt Jr. miss a Cup show?

I've said it before and I still believe it. I think NASCAR is right and the NHRA is wrong on this one. It doesn't do anybody any good for John Force not to be racing in the year's biggest event if he's healthy and able to go. The same goes for a driver like Tony Schumacher, the four-time defending top fuel champion who wasn't in the Top Ffuel top 16 until he put up a solid number Sunday morning.

* * *

My new mission in life is to find out what's in something called TrackBite.

In trying to get ready for the first drag race at the new place in North Carolina, I am trying to ask questions about things that make me curious figuring that people who read what I write about drag racing in the next few weeks might have the same questions.

So I am watching the NHRA folks swarm over the race track here before rounds for the pro classes, scraping up bits of rubber with tiny shovels and smearing all sorts of goo here and there trying to make the track sticky. A big part of this track preparation, I've been told, is this substance called VHT TrackBite Traction Concentrate.

OK, so what's in it?

Nobody seems to know. Or, if they know, they're not telling.

The internet tells me that it's made by Bazell Race Fuels, a company based in Ohio. It is, and I quote, "a unique formula that is designed to create adhesion between rubber, asphalt, and concrete. ...It stays tacky for weeks and won't run off, even in heavy rains. Most of all, it won't harm your track, it actually seals and protects the asphalt."

And, supposedly, it's biodegradable.

I promise I will keep digging on this important story.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The sites and sounds and more at the U.S. Nationals

INDIANAPOLIS – I am at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis this weekend for the U.S. Nationals, the biggest National Hot Rod Association drag race of the season.

I’m here because the NHRA makes its first visit to the new zMAX Dragway @ Concord in a couple of weeks and I am trying to both learn enough about drag racing to cover it properly and talk to some of the folks here for stories I’ll be writing before the Carolinas Nationals.

I walked around for a long time Friday and then again on Saturday morning. When I wasn’t talking to people like John Force, Tony Schumacher and Greg Anderson, I’ve been just trying to get a feel for this whole deal.

I keep going back into my mind to one of the first conversations I ever had with one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, Fox Sports chairman David Hill. Somehow we started talking about America’s infatuation with the automobile.

Hill is from Australia, but he has a remarkable understanding of what the car means in our culture. We talked about how getting a car and the legal right to drive it changes an American’s life on a very basic level. When you can get in the car and just go somewhere, that gives you control over your life in a way that cannot be overstated.

And if America is in love with the automobile, then this is Valentine’s Day.

There are, literally, hundreds of cars here to go down the drag strip in one class or competition or another. One sheet I saw Friday listed 778 entries for that day’s qualifying runs. I don’t know if all of them ever got to the starting line, much less the finish line, but I know it seems like there were 7,780 trucks and trailers and flatbeds and haulers and other conveyances parked all around this drag strip to get the cars that did show up here.

Over in the pro pits, Don Schumacher’s mega-team had something like a dozen big-dollar transporters on hand to support all of its cars. Way out in the sportsman pits, dozens upon dozens of people were crawling around on the ground and diving into their engines working, at their own level, with as much passion on trying to win as every professional team on the property.

There’s a big buzz in the NHRA garage about the upcoming visit to the Charlotte area. People who’ve seen the $60 million facility they’ll be racing at have told people who haven’t seen it how nice it’s going to be. One driver told me Saturday that he thinks that by next year – not 10 years from now, but by next year – the Carolina Nationals could be considered as important to do well at as these U.S. Nationals.

That may be a little much – this is the sport’s Daytona 500 – but I think the NHRA is going to really enjoy its first race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

One thing I think fans in the Carolinas are going to love about drag racing is how accessible the drivers are.

Several times each day, most drivers will walk over to the ropes of their work areas and stand talking to and signing autographs for fans. You can stand close enough to see the crews piecing the cars together and, when the engines are being warmed up, you can get a face full of nitro fumes. The back of my throat may be burning for days.

The big news this weekend so far has been that Alan Johnson, the crew chief for four-time defending Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, is leaving Don Schumacher Racing at season’s end to start his a team that will have one Top Fuel car and one Funny Car in 2009. Alan Johnson Racing will operate in partnership with Al-Anabi Racing, which is owned by His Highness Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani of the nation of Qatar.

Translated to NASCAR terms, this would be very much like Chad Knaus of Jimmie Johnson’s team starting a Sprint Cup operation with backing from the prince of an Arab nation. Needless to say, if that happened in NASCAR I’d be writing more than two paragraphs in a blog about it.

Friday night, the first car that went down the track in Funny Car qualifying was the one owned by Conrad (Connie) Kalitta. Jeff Arend was driving it, but the name above the door still was “SCOTT.” It was the first time Kalitta’s team had brought a Funny Car back to a race since Connie’s son, Scott, was killed in a crash at a race in Englishtown, N.J., earlier this year.

It was a truly moving moment, especially when Arend made a good, solid pass down the track.

Saturday afternoon, during a round of Super Gas or Super Alcohol or Super Comp or Super Something (I told you I was just learning this), somehow a foam block on the center line at the finish line got knocked out of the way. This left the electric eye beams in both lanes that turn the clock off at the end of the track staring right at each other, basically messing up the whole timing system.

So one entire round of one class and part of round in another class had to be wiped out and rescheduled for later in the day. The NHRA reshuffled the schedule and everybody just dealt with it as best they could.

In NASCAR, that kind of snafu would have ignited hours or arguments and discussions at the track and days of speculation about grand conspiracies afterward. Lots of people would have been convinced NASCAR did it on purpose to help – or to hurt – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fair for one guy ought to be fair for the other

Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway certainly gives NASCAR Nation plenty to talk about until next weekend, huh?

As I mentioned briefly in what I wrote for the Observer on Monday, don't ask me to tell what's right and what's wrong when it comes to the "ettiquette" of bumping a guy to take the lead from him on a short-track.

Here's what I do know about it, though.

It doesn't seem right to me for fans to be critical of one driver for bumping others and then say he gets what he deserves when he gets bumped. If you don't like Kyle Busch because you think he knocks people out of the way too often, then what you're telling me you don't like is the bumping and not the guy doing it. OK, then, if Busch gets bumped isn't he as much of the victim as somebody that he bumps? If it's the bumping that's wrong, then it's wrong no matter who does it, right?

I know there's a difference between bumping somebody and wrecking somebody. That's obvious. But don't tell me you're surprised Busch got mad Saturday night when Carl Edwards hit him and moved him up the track. You might just feel that it's part of short-track racing, but surely you understand WHY Busch was angry. He'd led 415 straight laps but didn't win the race. You have to let him have a little room to be bummed about that, don't you?

I will say this. Over the course of a short-track race bumps just like the one Edwards gave Busch happen 100 times or more around the track somewhere in the field. Some you see, some you don't. Some cause wrecks. Some cause guys to get mad and wreck the guy who bumped him. But they happen everywhere. The one we'll be talking about all week, though, happened for the lead with 30 laps to go. Just because it's more prominent, shouldn't it fall under the same rules of the racing road as any bump happening anywhere in the field? Or are the rules different when it comes to first and second?

Give Edwards credit for not pulling the old "Man, I am so sorry that happened" routine. Like it or not, Edwards told the truth. You have to like that.

I don't think NASCAR will penalize anybody for the post-race stuff. Busch got called to the NASCAR hauler, but Edwards did not. Still, it should be at least pointed out that this kind of stuff is dangerous. Busch bumped Edwards about 20 feet from a line of cars heading to the garage/pit area. Edwards turned right back into Busch in retaliation. If one of those cars jerks in an unexpected direction during all of that, somebody could have been hit who wasn't part of the deal. I don't like drivers using their cars as weapons, period.

All of that having been said, you have to at least admit that this is exactly why Bristol is the phenomenon it is. You may not think it's fair or sportsmanlike or whatever, but they jam 160,000 or so in there because there's a reasonable expectation that something memorable and controversial is going to happen. And on a fairly regular basis, it does.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some quick thoughts on a Saturday at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. - A few quick notes as the crowd gathers for tonight's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway:

* * *

On the way back to the hotel in Johnson City last night, I passed a store with a lighted signboard that read:


Sometimes you can say a lot with just a few words.

* * *

Not for nothing, but there's a can of White Rain hair spray in the men's bathroom in the press box. I hope they didn't think this was the TV booth by mistake.

* * *

They keep saying that cockroaches will be the only thing that survives a nuclear holocaust. I disagree. I think golf carts will make it, too. Even if you destroyed 95 percent of the ones that are swarming around this place there'd still be enough rolling to make it look like an anthill.

* * *

So I am watching the Olympics the other night and they show the gold-medal race for BMX bicycles. Americans got the silver and the bronze, but the gold went to somebody from Latvia.


How in goodness name is anybody from Latvia the best BMX bike racer in the world? There are 20 kids at every park in the United States, driving down steps and jumping over sidewalks, who should be able to wax the best rider there has ever even been in Latvia.

* * *

Have you seen the deal where the guy from Cuba who got disqualified from a taekwondo match in the Olympics kicked the referee who made that call right in the face? Just hauled off and put a Bruce Lee right on the ref's chops. If Cuba has a World Wide Wrestling equivalent, that guy's gonna get rich.

* * *

Paula Deen was here Friday, serving as the grand marhsal for the Nationwide race. Deen's story is a great one and she's my kind of cook. But I am telling you that if Paula had seen the fried chicken the track's caterers had the nerve to serve for dinner that night she would have had a stroke.

* * *

Seriously, how many engineers did it take and how long did they have to work to develop hotel pillows that are precisely too thin to use one at a time but entirely too thick to use in a stack of two?

* * *

Have I mentioned that I truly do hate The Wave?

Childress likely has a big points play up his sleeve

BRISTOL, Tenn. - We had us an interesting little news conference here at Bristol a little while ago, with Richard Childress announcing that Casey Mears will join his team as a driver in 2009.

The twist, which had been rumored in the past 10 days or so, is that Mears will NOT be driving the No. 33 car that will be added to the Richard Childress Racing fleet next season. Mears, instead, will go into the No. 07 car sponsored by Jack Daniels.

Clint Bowyer, who got that car and that team into the Chase last year and is trying to make it back there this year, will be moving to the new car sponsored by General Mills, which is moving to RCR from Petty Enterprises next year.

What's more, the points that Bowyer earns this year will stay with the 07 next year and that means it's Mears who'll be protected for the first five races of 2009 - inside the top 35 in points and therefore not in danger of missing a race.

Childress, though, hinted that Bowyer might not have to run without a net. He said the team has been looking into some things and is "working on some stuff" that might keep Bowyer from being exposed to miss a race if he crashes on a qualifying lap or rain interferes in the season's first five weeks.

Don't ask me what that means. The way NASCAR has allowed people to play fast and loose with owner points in the past few years I suppose anything is possible.

I know this much. RCR has four primary sponsors - Caterpillar for Jeff Burton, Shell for Kevin Harvick, General Mills for Bowyer and Jack Daniel's for Mears. Is there another Chevrolet team that has more teams than it has sponsors right now, perhaps a team with which Childress is already sharing an engine-building venture?

Dale Earnhardt Inc. has four cars right now, but I am not sure even DEI's officials could make the case they've got four full sponorships lined up for 2009.

Could Childress "buy" one of the DEI teams and harvest the owner points for the team Bowyer will be with next year?

And you thought this stuff was almost over with.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In accepting responsibility, Gibbs makes the right call

If you are a fan of Joe Gibbs Racing, you should be proud of that team today.

Here's what team owner and founder Joe Gibbs said Wednesday after NASCAR announced penalties against his team for their cheating - and that's precisely what it was -at Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Michigan.

"We want to apologize to NASCAR, all of our partners, all of our families at JGR and all of our fans. ... A poor decision was made by some key members of our organization, and 100 percent of the blame rests with us. ...We take full responsibility."

It wasn't NASCAR's fault. It wasn't the media's fault. It didn't have anything to do with how many teams might have cheated in the past or with how many might cheat in the future.

We did it, Gibbs said. We shouldn't have, but we did and we take all the blame.

Seven members of the Gibbs team were suspended indefinitely by NASCAR. You would assume that means longer than six races, which has been the standard suspension of late, but indefinite means we don't know how long that means.

Gibbs, though, said that regardless of what NASCAR means, the team will suspend those involved, including crew chief Jason Ratcliff of the No. 18 team and Dave Rogers of the No. 20 team, for at least the remainder of this season. The team will also impose additional fines, above the $50,000 fine levied by NASCAR, on those involved and will make those people pay those fines.

Ratcliff and Rogers were among those suspended Wednesday. So were the car chiefs (Dorian Thorsen on the 18 and Richard Bray from the 20) and engine tuners (Michael Johnson from the 18 and Dan Bajek from the 20). The seventh person suspended was Toby Bigelow, a crew member on the No. 18 team.

We don't know all about who did what or who knew about what was being done, but we know that Gibbs and his team are holding those seven people accountable. And It's about damn time a team in stock car racing showed it knows what that word means.

I've had fans tell me this wasn't cheating because the shims weren't in the car during the race, so it didn't have any impact on the performance of the cars. That's completely idiotic.

Brad Keselowski said it right when he said that by using the shims to try to fool NASCAR's dyno tests, the JGR culprits were trying to cheat for the rest of this year and the first part of next year - until such time as NASCAR does another dyno test on Nationwide cars.

When NASCAR ordered Toyota teams to use a carburetor spacer with smaller holes to let air in, cutting them by about 15 horsepower, it surprised nobody that Toyota teams and officials objected to that decision.

But that's NASCAR's call. Once it was made, the fact that somebody at JGR disagreed with it or tried to hide the fact they'd worked their way around it wasn't justified.

Even if an official makes an obviously poor call, no participant in any sport is thereby justified in proceeding as though the call wasn't made. If the Green Bay Packers don't like a holding call, they can't ignore the penalty and snap the ball anywhere they want to on the field, can they?

You can't choose what portion of the rules you want to play by, not if you want to play with any honor or integrity. In dealing with this situation the way it has, Joe Gibbs Racing has showed that it has honor and integrity and it should be applauded for that.

What's so disheartening about stock car racing sometimes is that there are people who'll still say that the only thing JGR did wrong was get caught.

The culture in NASCAR that glorifies those who break the rules sickens me, and it always has.

You can be an innovator and not be a cheater. Thousands of dedicated racers have developed ways to go faster in this sport's history and they've done it the right way. They're the ones who should be praised and honored, not those who're constantly looking for shortcuts.

Cheating is another way of saying you don't have the ability to do things the right way and still be a success.

Cheating is a way of saying that you want to win, but only the easy way. You don't want to win badly enough and can't do your job well enough to do it fair and square.

Cheating is a cowardly, selfish act. It's taking responsibility for it and taking steps to keep it from happening again, as JGR has done in this case, that takes courage.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

NASCAR has yet another chance to send a message on cheating

Why would somebody who works for Joe Gibbs Racing stoop to sticking magnets on the bottom of the accelerators of the No. 18 and No. 20 Nationwide Series cars, hoping to keep NASCAR from getting a true reading on horsepower test when the engine was put on the chassis dyno after Saturday's race at Michigan?

I don't know.

And I don't care.

The magnets, which acted like door stops to keep the throttle from being opened 100 percent, were there. Joe Gibbs Racing is responsible for everything that's in or on its race cars. Under NASCAR rules, the crew chief is held responsible for the actions of his team.

So when NASCAR lowers the penalty boom on the teams next week, crew chief Jason Ratcliff on the No. 18 and Dave Rogers on the No. 20 should be suspended for the rest of the season.

NASCAR can and most likely will fine the team and deduct points, and that's entirely proper. But there has to be a clear message sent for such a blatant effort to subvert NASCAR's efforts to keep the racing fair.

I know some people think NASCAR was wrong to take horsepower away from Toyota's Nationwide Series teams a few weeks ago. Maybe you can construe that, if you're so inclined, into some justification for somebody at JGR to try to fudge the numbers with NASCAR testing cars again after Saturday's race.

But now that they've been caught - and because the same thing was done on two cars let's, please, not have anybody say this was simply some kind of mistake - whoever did this has placed a cloud over everything the Gibbs Nationwide teams have done this year.

Fair or not, that's reality.

Some people will go so far as to say it taints what Gibbs cars have done in Cup racing, but I don't buy that. The engine package is different between the two series. But if you are predisposed to believe that cheating happens, what happened after Saturday's race indicates that at least somebody who works at JGR is willing to break the rules to get ahead. (And no, before you say it, nobody was "bending" the rules here.

This was cheating, pure and simple.) That's not something any team should want to be associated with.

Do I think Ratcliff and/or Rogers had anything to do with how or why this was done?

I don't know.

And I don't care.

It does not matter. The rule is they're responsible. If J.D. Gibbs, the team's president, wants to fire somebody who admits to being responsible for this that's fine. From the NASCAR perspective, though, Ratcliff and Rogers are the responsible parties. They need to pay the price and NASCAR needs to make an example of them.

I am SO tired of hearing that "if you're not cheating, you're not trying."

No, if you're cheating, you're cheating.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

When gadgets go wrong

With me, it’s always something.

Before you start, what follows is not whining. It’s not really complaining, although my run of luck is something I’d just as soon see end.

I guess it started at Indianapolis. I was riding down the street, talking to Sirius NASCAR Radio executive producer Daniel Norwood on my Blackberry. I said something and Daniel didn’t answer. I said something else and he said, “Hello?” I kept talking, he couldn’t hear me.

Dropped calls happen, but this was odd. I could hear him. I was actually on a headset, since I was driving, so I took it out and dialed him back. Same thing. I could hear him but he couldn’t hear me.

I was on the way to the hotel to check in, and when I got there the room wasn’t ready. So I looked up the location of the nearest Sprint store and took it over there. The guy took it apart while I waited for like 30 minutes. “Yep,” he said when he was done. “It’s broken.”

So I let the Sprint folks at the race track look at it. They said my Blackberry was toast and swapped it out with a new one. They transferred all my contacts over and everything, but until I could get it to the folks in my office I couldn’t get e-mails on it through my Observer account. A Blackberry without e-mail is a cell phone, but there you go.

Then there was my car. I had to get a state inspection the other day and there were four light bulbs – a headlamp, the third brake light and two lights on either side of my license plate – not working.

They were all replaced and the car passed inspection. But the next night when it got dark, some of the perimeter lights that stay on when you turn the car off until you can get inside came on and stayed on. I mean stayed on. We came home in my wife’s car and I thought someone was waiting for us in the driveway. It was my car.

Now this had happened once before. I took some of the fuses out so my battery wouldn’t die and when I took it to be looked at it stopped doing it. And it hadn’t done it for weeks, a couple of months actually. But it’s back and for three days this week it sat in my yard with about 10 fuses pulled out and laid in the driver’s seat.

I put them back in today and the lights worked fine. So I couldn’t go get it checked. Tonight, my lights are flickering on and off as I write this. I’m through with the fuses and the battery in my 1998 Olds Aurora is – I swear – located under the bench of the back seat in a place you can’t get to with an act of Congress. If the car’s dead in the morning I may just shoot it – or me. One of us needs relief.

I also discovered that somehow in my recent move I have lost my iPod. It may be here in an unpacked box, but I can’t locate it. OK, I needed an excuse to get a fancier one anyhow. And it came.

So when I went to put my music library on it I had to reclaim that out of old files on my wife’s desktop. I decided to back up my songs to CDs, and spent much of last weekend doing that and then putting them on my laptop.

So naturally, I killed my laptop on Monday.

It started with something stupid that I did. I spilled some soda into the keyboard and fried the hard drive. Yes, I am an idiot. But I paid for the warranty and they sent me a new hard drive. I reinstalled the operating system and all the stuff I could, and got a very nice person from Dell tech support who did a lot of things I never could have figured out how to do. I thought I had it back on the road to recovery.

Until today.

First, I had to take it to the office to get some Observer software put on it so I can link to the system there. While they were at it they put the e-mail on the Blackberry, too. So I brought the laptop home and tonight the little touchpad thing stopped working. The thing that allows you to move the cursor around? Kaput. I went to Wal-Mart at 9:30 to buy a mouse and it seems to be working as I write this.

So by morning I could have a car with a dead battery, a laptop that I can move the cursor on, a cell phone that might dial Tibet on its own and an iPod that interferes with air traffic controllers.

Saturday’s job? Hooking the TV in my office at the new house to cable.

Cover your ears, folks.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

NASCAR suit a messy tangle of cultural and legal issues

There has been a run of stories in the past few days about the $225 million lawsuit filed against NASCAR by former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant, capped off by Sunday morning’s issue of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” series on the topic.

Late last week, NASCAR used the media to unleash a campaign to discredit Grant by dredging up some legal issues she faced in years before she was employed by NASCAR. It was a shameful tactic, suggesting that since NASCAR couldn’t go at Grant on the substance of what she claims happened to her while working there the company needed a diversionary tactic.

Let’s deal with that first and move on. Even if we assume that Grant did everything NASCAR says she did to the worst possible degree, that does not change by one molecule the level to which she is protected, by law, against discrimination and harassment on the job. It is not more acceptable to discriminate against or to harass a “bad” person than it is a “good” one, no matter who is drawing the lines between who’s bad and who’s good.

On Friday, then, NASCAR filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York a 29-page document outlining its defense in Grant’s suit. In rough outline, NASCAR says that Grant was habitually tardy for car pools leaving to take her and fellow officials to work at the track.

It says she was fired because of her on-the-job actions and performance and not because she complained about the way she was being treated by the fellow officials she named in her suit. In fact, NASCAR continues to contend that Grant never complained about that treatment to her superiors, as is required by NASCAR’s internal policies.

Then on Sunday morning’s 30-minute “Outside the Lines,” ESPN interviewed Grant along with three men – two of them black and the third from Mexico – as well as two former female employees. They all spoke about the culture that exists inside the garage and about the way women and people of color have to act to survive in that culture.

“I think minorities have adapted to NASCAR,” said Chris Justice, one of the black men interviewed on the ESPN show. “I don’t think NASCAR has adapted to minorities.”

OK, so after all of that where do we stand?

Grant’s lawsuit is a legal issue. The crux of that suit is whether, as her employer, NASCAR treated her fairly within the boundaries of the law and its own policies.

Does NASCAR have a clear policy regarding discrimination and harassment? NASCAR says it does, and I have personally seen documentation that shows that Grant was among the NASCAR officials who attended two training sessions, in January 2006 and January 2007, regarding those matters.

The existence of the policy alone, however, is not enough. It must be enforced and enforced fairly.

Grant says that it took her so long to finally complain about the treatment she was getting because she was afraid that the act of complaining would make her a target for retribution, a fear she contends was eventually realized.

On “Outside the Lines” Sunday morning, others echoed those same fears. The policy is no good if the culture makes it taboo to use it.

So the legal issues are entwined with the cultural ones. It’s hard to separate cleanly the “ways” of the NASCAR garage from the legal ramifications of this issue, and in some ways those two things can never be totally separated. That’s why diversity is so important.

Justice, one of the black men interviewed Sunday by ESPN, said he was working one day when he heard a fellow employee, who was white, refer to the way something was accomplished by using the term “nigger-rigging.” That phrase means to temporarily or haphazardly rig something only to the point where it works, with the inference being that it’s not worth the time or effort (or that the time isn’t available) to do it “right.”

Justice said that when he looked at the person who uttered the phrase, the white employee realized he’d used an offensive term and apologized.

If you have different people from different backgrounds working together side-by-side, eventually the kind of ignorance and prejudice that led to the very existence of that term will break down. But progress on that front can be glacial, and as an employer it is part of your job to make sure that, first, your workplace is diverse enough for the process to begin and, second, that the process takes place in a professional atmosphere.

Look, I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck. I’ve worked in some absolutely toxic environments in my life.

When I was still in high school I spent my summer days defending myself because the “boss” was a friend of the family who’d helped me get the summer job. I was “the boss’s boy” and “college boy” because I planned to get an education.

Because I didn’t yet have a couple of dozen stories of wild sexual escapades to share with my co-workers (who had hundreds of them, true or not), I was called just about every synonym for “gay” that you can think of.

Over the years I’ve been in some conversations that were held in what I felt to be all in good fun that involved jokes and sarcasm about racial and sexual stereotypes. So have a lot of you. So have a lot of people who work in racing.

The existence of that reality, in life as well as in NASCAR, means that whenever this moves from the personal level to a legal level it’s a messy thing.

Part of NASCAR’s defense in the Grant suit is that it was Grant, herself, who came up with the phrase “colored people’s time” to explain away why she was sometimes late for a car pool ride. Instead of laughing at that and perpetuating it, though, what her NASCAR supervisor(s) should have done right then is cut that off and say he or she didn’t want to hear it again, from Grant or anybody else.

Grant’s suit against NASCAR details several instances where fellow employees showed or threatened to show Grant private parts of their anatomy. Some of this allegedly happened away from the track at hotels where NASCAR officials were staying together and sharing meals or other refreshments in each others’ company.

You might argue this was not during “on-the-clock” time, but still. If a situation develops where anybody deems it appropriate to unzip his pants to make his point, somebody needs to step up and question the propriety of the proceedings.

I can say with a great degree of certainty that some NASCAR employees have been treated, are being treated and have treated each other improperly as human beings. But the courts don’t have clear jurisdiction on that. The courts do, however, have a say in how companies treat their employees.

There are laws, there are rules and there are policies that the courts help define and administer.

Mauricia Grant’s lawsuit is about that, and ultimately that’s what will be ruled upon. As for the rest of it, no verdict or no settlement is going to change the fact that people sometimes just don’t treat each other well.

We’ll never fix that, entirely, but surely that doesn’t mean we ought to stop trying.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The road course debate rages on

Every time NASCAR takes its show to a road course, like the one the guys will be racing on this weekend at Watkins Glen, N.Y., I get lectured.

People start telling me how great road-course racing is, how fans love it and how it's actually far, far superior to the kind of racing you see on oval tracks.

Every year, I have the same reaction.

What are you talking about?

Look, I don't like to see stock cars racing on road courses because I don't think they're very good at it. But if you like to see Cup cars on road courses then more power to you. We'll just disagree on that one.

But how can anyone argue that road course racing is preferred by fans in this country, much less by fans of NASCAR? Where's the first shred of evidence of that?

Did NASCAR become popular because it runs two road course races each year? No. In fact, NASCAR's explosion in popularity came almost specficially because it was an oval track series.

If you don't think there's a difference between the two disciplines, think about the split in the open-wheel racing world that just this year has come to and end. The Indy Racing League was built around the idea that American race fans prefer ovals, and even though the IRL has had some success with the occasional street-course events, it was the racing marketplace that soundly rejected ChampCar, a series that ran primarly on road and street courses.

There are two sports-car series that run on road courses now, the Grand American and American LeMans series. Even if they put the two series together and there was one road-course series with all of the best cars and best drivers in it, would you invest your own money in backing that series in a head-to-head battle with NASCAR?

Not if you had a brain you wouldn't.

If road-course racing is so great, where's the big-time television contract for that? Why aren't the networks lining up to show drivers turning right, as though that simple act alone indiciates superior skill?

Oval-track racing is one skill. Road-course racing is another skill. Sometimes specialists in one discipline will cross over to compete in the other, and that's fine. But if one skill was so vastly superior to the other, why wouldn't somebody who excels at the harder one wipe the floor with people when they crossed over to the easier one?

That simply doesn't happen.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Nationwide drivers racing blind is inexcusable

LONG POND, Pa. - OK, I have to tell you that NASCAR now has me completely confused.

Let's go back a week to Indianapolis. Tires were wearing out in eight to 10 laps and NASCAR took the correct action to continue throwing cautions to maintain what could have become a dangerous situation.

Make no mistake, if NASCAR had let the Cup teams manage the tire issues themselves at Indy somebody would have pushed it beyond all sense of logic and reason. I can't say for sure somebody would have been hurt, but it's almost a certainty that the safety of the new race car would have been tested in at least a handful of tire-related crashes.

NASCAR chose to come down on the side of safety and took the race down to seven laps to go before turning the guys loose to race. Some fans complained about that, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

OK, we fast forward six days.

The Nationwide Series goes to Montreal for a race on the road course there. It rains. Hard. And NASCAR turns the cars loose on rain tires, using them in a race in the Nationwide or Cup series for the first time ever.

By the time NASCAR finally called the race, it was raining so hard that people were wrecking under caution. Marcos Ambrose dominated the race but got a speeding penalty because he couldn't see the lines that told him where he had to adhere to the speed limit. Some of the cars had a windshield wiper, but other drivers had to reach outside their cars with squeegies to clean them when they could. Even if the outside was clear, many drivers couldn't see because the interior side of the windshield was fogging up.

So let me see if I understand this. It's OK to race when the people driving the cars CAN'T SEE?

You're kidding me, right?

I've never been able to understand why fans wanted to see stock cars race in the rain, especially on a road course. These cars can barely race on a dry road course, let alone one with pools of water all over it.

I tried to watch some of Saturday's Nationwide race, but I just couldn't bring myself to participate in that lunacy.

I guess it has the same kind of appeal that golf fans get when they see the pros playing in the British Open trying to hit shots into a 50 mph headwind through rain that's falling sideways. That's never appealed to me either. I know what it's like to play golf poorly - I can do that myself. I want to see these guys hitting great shots and making long putts.

When it comes to racing, I want to see guys going as fast as they can go and still stay headed in the right direction, but that has to be done within the bounds of reason. There are some fans out there who keep e-mailing me telling me that part of racing's appeal is seeing drivers risk wrecking and getting hurt, but that just seems bloodthirsty to me. Racing can be exciting and entertaining without being unnecessarily perilous.

I just think it's lunacy to put people on the race track when they have no traction with their tires and limited to no visibility. Maybe that makes me a weenie, but if it does then so be it.

Talk about tires brings out some interesting details

LONG POND, Pa. -- I had an interesting discussion today with Stu Grant, the general manager of global race tires for Goodyear, about what happened in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard last Sunday.

Grant and Goodyear issued a statement Saturday morning explaining the steps Goodyear will take to figure out what happened to the right-rear tires in the race at Indianapolis and its plans to see that it doesn't happen again. He then came on Sirius NASCAR Radio's "Press Pass," which I co-hosted with Steve Post, to talk about that release and about last weekend.

I was having a conversation with Grant on the radio and wasn't taking notes, but some of the things he said stuck with me.

For instance, he said Goodyear has looked at what went into the tires it build for Indianapolis and found nothing out of the ordinary. Grant said Goodyear has confirmed that the compound used this year was the same as the one used last year at the Brickyard. That means nothing was mixed improperly or left out of the process. Grant said Goodyear even went so far as going to the suppliers of the elements used in the tire construction process to see if those suppliers had changed anything from a year ago. Nothing out of the ordinary was found.

So if the tire was the same, the obvious next step is to figure out what was different. The clear answer to that is the car, since this year was the first time the "car of tomorrow" was used at Indianapolis.

What Goodyear has found so far is that drivers went into Indy's four 90-degree turns in a completely different way in this new car. Grant said drivers were pitching the car into the corner and then sliding the right-rear tire as they tried to get the new car to turn.

That's important because it basically changed the direction in which the tire was going through the turn. Instead of having the contact patch of the tire riding along with the grain of the grooves in the track's diamond ground surface, the tire was basically sliding across those grooves on the diagonal. Grant said that may be why the tire was turning into a fine powder instead of coming off in the kind of small pellets that would stick to the track off the previous car.

Goodyear is working with a company with expertise in computer modeling to see if the interaction between the tire and the track can be reconstructed in a model. Potential changes to the tire could then be tested in greater detail against that same model.

How do you make the tires react differently to the track?

Well, one idea could be to add something to the tire -- a resin, perhaps -- that would be stickier as it comes off the tire.

In the bigger picture, though, the solution could be making the tires bigger or wider (or both) so that it will hold more air. In general terms, the more air in the tire the more forces it can withstand. If you make bigger tires, of course, you have to made adjustments to the race car. So before Goodyear did that it would have to work with NASCAR and the Cup teams to make that work.

The one thing fans should know is that Grant never once tried to shirk responsibility for the problems at Indy. He said it's Goodyear's job as NASCAR's tire supplier to figure out how to build tires that will work on the car that NASCAR is now using in the Cup Series, and promised that's what the company will keep trying to do.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Johnson, team appear to be 'catching up'

LONG POND, Pa. - I wrote about Jimmie Johnson for the "That's Racin' " page this week, so I didn't think I'd need to write something else about him this early in the weekend (although, I'll tell you right now that unless something major happens he's going to be my pick to win here Sunday).

But Johnson was in the media center before the Cup practice on Friday and was talking about how hard his team has been working to get "caught up" this year. That's an amazing thing to hear coming from a guy whose team has won the past two championships.

But Johnson was talking about how he and his No. 48 Chevrolet team got to Las Vegas earlier this year and were just horrible.

"We thought, 'Aw, maybe it was just a bad test,'" Johnson said, referring to a preseason test session at the Vegas track. But when he went back to race, Johnson didn't wreck but still couldn't run within two seconds of the fastest cars' speeds. He finished 29th and was never even close to being competitive.

Johnson said that after that race he and his team were still reluctant to believe they really had real, fundamental issues.

"It took three or four races before we could even admit it," he said. "It was like one of those addiction recovery things where you have to admit it first before you can deal with it."

Johnson said it wasn't that his team didn't work hard in the offseason. "We were just working in the wrong areas," Johnson said.

What's remarkable about that is it shows how tough this business is. Johnson's team has been at the absolute top of its game for the past two seasons and has been pretty darn good since the No. 48 Chevrolet was first rolled out, but still it managed to get "lost" just like any other team.

Johnson said the team tested at Pocono and figured out some things about how the new car, the bump stops and the tires need to work on big tracks like this one. It took a little while to digest all of that and put it into their race cars, but Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus seem to be back on track now.

All of those people who believe this sport is only about "going around in circles" or "rednecks turning left" don't have a clue how complicated it is and how hard these guys work.

- David Poole