Monday, April 27, 2009

Some Talladega options apparently aren't open

Why is the idea of changing the track at Talladega Superspeedway so absurd?

All day on Monday, a lot of the same people who said they would look at all options to make things as safe as they can be at Talladega were also saying that altering the configuration of the race track isn’t an option.

“It goes without mention that the most exciting races we have today are both at Daytona and Talladega,” Sprint Cup Series director John Darby in a NASCAR teleconference about Sunday’s last-lap wreck in the Aaron’s 499. “That’s a big part of our sport, and those two tracks have been a big part of our sport for many, many years. There’s more value in continuing our safety efforts at those tracks than turning those two very historical, very exciting race tracks into parking lots.”

“For some reason, there is always a temptation to sensationalize the wrecks at Daytona and Talladega way beyond what happens at Lowe’s Motor Speedway or Atlanta Motor Speedway or any of the other tracks that we race on,” Darby said.

Let me ask you something. How is it possible to “sensationalize” what happened Sunday?

A 3,400-pound car driven by Carl Edwards came frighteningly close to flying into an area where hundreds of people could have been killed.

Is that in any way an exaggeration of what happened? I don’t think so. Is it possible to overstate the potential harm something like that could do? I don’t know how you could.

Then Darby, a man I respect and like very much, turned into a good little NASCAR/International Speedway Corporation soldier. ISC owns Talladega. The Charlotte and Atlanta tracks are owned by Speedway Motorsports. His implication is that the media give Bruton Smith’s company a pass while picking on poor olISC and its two biggest tracks.

Well, while we’re on that subject, let me ask a question.

Why did nobody at NASCAR ever say reconfiguring Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t an option when the drivers were complaining about it in 1998? What actually happened was NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. came to Texas on the morning of the track’s second race and took up a spot in the garage area so reporters could come find him. He told them SMI had better fix the track or lose the one Cup date it had, let alone asking for a second.

Let me flatly say two things.

First, if SMI owned Talladega then NASCAR would have forced that company to plow it up and rebuild no later than 1987, when Bobby Allison crashed in almost exactly the same way Edwards did Sunday. There’s no chance NASCAR would have tried as many things to change the cars and the rules to continue racing at Talladega if its sister company didn’t own the joint.

Second, there’s no way anybody – ISC or SMI or anybody – builds a track today and makes it a 2.66-mile trioval with high-banked turns. The track is an anachronism.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Let's not miss the point on Talladega insanity

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A lot of people are going to spend a lot of time this week arguing about the wrong things after Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

It has already started.

Within an hour of the checkered flag falling, I had two e-mails from fans telling me what happened on the final lap was caused by the yellow-line rule that prevents cars from going too far to the inside to make passes here.

I am sure others also will debate whether Brad Keselowski was far enough inside Carl Edwards' car that Edwards shouldn't have made the block that led to the wreck that led to Edwards' car nearly going into the frontstretch grandstands. Or whether Edwards was entitled to make the block in his effort to win the race.

None of that is the real issue. It's not even close.

Why is there a yellow-line rule? Why are there restrictor plates? Why does NASCAR beat its chest about how it's going to police the drivers from being too aggressive, even though it never lifts a finger to actually restrain the lunacy that goes on in its races here?

Why must a driver spend more time looking in his mirror to see what's happening behind him than he does looking at where he's going? Why must drivers block all over the race track, swerving from lane to lane hoping to deny those behind them a place to go with the momentum they've built up? Why must a driver slam the guy in front him and implore the guy behind him to ram him in the rear bumper in a 195-mph game of bumper cars?

All of those are symptoms or lame attempts at treatment for the real sickness. The real problem here isn't the cars or the rules or even the drivers who do exactly what they're expected to do even though what they're doing is abject insanity.

The real problem is the same as it has been for the 40 years this track has existed. From the very first weekend of racing held here, when speeds were too fast for tires to withstand and anybody with any regard for what's really safe would have called off the race, the problem is and always has been this race track.

It was crazy -- and I mean that word literally -- to ever let things get to a point where Bill Elliott could run 215 mph here. It was crazy to react to Bobby Allison's wreck into the fence, one that looked entirely too much like the wreck Carl Edwards had here Sunday for the comfort of anybody with good sense, by trying to write rules and change the cars to make this place safe. It's crazy to ask drivers to participate in the kind of racing that goes on at Talladega today and it's crazy for them to willingly do so.

It's also sad that fans who profess to love this sport and the people who compete in it not only tolerate this madness, but embrace it and celebrate it.

Instead of talking about how "cool" Sunday's race was with all of its wrecks and the near disaster that happened on the final lap, fans ought to be screaming their demands that NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation do something to make this race track safe to race on.

If you want to talk about the problem, that is the only conversation worth having.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wherever the "line" is, this goes over it

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Lowe's Motor Speedway has been known to get a little outrageous with its promotions sometimes, but the one the track announced late Saturday goes over the line.

Beginning at noon on Monday, the Charlotte track will sell tickets to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 16 and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 at a special price.

A total of 1,000 combined tickets for those two races will be sold at a price equal to the number of cars involved in the biggest wreck in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

So if there's a 15-car wreck at Talladega, the Charlotte tickets will go for $15 each. Get it?

Now I suppose it could be argued that the best thing for fans would be for there to be only one-car incidents in the race at Talladega so Lowe's Motor Speedway would sell 1,000 tickets for $1 buck each.

But the very idea of tying ticket prices, even for a quick promotion, to the number of Sprint Cup drivers who get involved in a wreck at a place as scary as Talladega can be rubs me the wrong way.

You can tell me to "lighten up" if you want to, but I don't see the humor in what Matt Kenseth went through in his car in Saturday's Nationwide Series race. Kenseth wasn't hurt and everybody is thankful for that, but that doesn't mean anybody should be making light of what happens when cars start slamming into each other at 190 mph.

"The talk around the Talladega race is always about 'The Big One,' "said Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "But Sunday, if only a few drivers get caught up in the biggest wreck, the deal on Monday is that much sweeter. Plus, it gives the fans a chance to save some real money on another 'Big One,' the 50th running of the Coca-Cola 600."

Fans have to call (800) 455-FANS or go to the Lowe's Motor Speedway ticket office to take advantage of the offer beginning at noon Monday.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drag racing pioneer Chet Herbert passes away

If we're lucky, people come along in our lives and provide us with inspiration. They make us want to do what we know will be hard to do but that we also will be worthwhile if we can accomplish it.

Doug Herbert, the drag racer who lives in Huntersville and has his Top Fuel shop in Lincolnton, grew up with such a man living right there in his house. Chester "Chet" Herbert, Doug's father, passed away Thursday in California at the age of 81.

Chet Herbert grew up in Southern California in the age of the hot rod, when the sport of drag racing was just being invented as an organized way to do what people like Chet Herbert were already doing.

When he was 20, Chet Herbert was stricken with polio. He lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. The operative word in that previous sentence is "lived." Despite what polio did to him, Chet Herbert never stopped living.

"When my dad was 12, my grandma bought him a trumpet and hoped he would learn to play it," Doug Herbert said. "He traded the trumpet for a Cushman motorscooter and it was life in the fast lane ever since."

As Chet Herbert spent six months in an iron lung in a hospital in 1948, he started figuring out ways to make better parts for racing in his head. When he got out of the hospital, he developed the first roller camshafts. He was among the first to try nitromethane as a fuel after reading about how the Germans used it to power torpedoes in World War II. Nitro is still used in Top Fuel and Funny Cars today.

Chet Herbert was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.

“My dad was my hero," Doug Herbert said. "He taught me so much about how to be a strong and determined person. Despite the fact that he had polio and was in a wheelchair for much of his life, he never let that stop him from doing anything. He proved to everyone that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to; which taught me that, no matter how tough something may seem, if you fight hard enough, you can overcome it.

"I always looked up to him. I’m glad I had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and be involved in a sport that he helped to invent."

After Doug's sons, Jon and James, were killed in an automobile crash in January 2008, he and his father started working on a project together -- a streamlined car in which Doug Herbert wants to set a land speed record at better than 500 mph later this summer on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

"Some of my best memories with my dad were made over the past year," Doug Herbert said. "We had grown much closer since my boys died. ...I will miss my dad very much. I am lucky to have many wonderful memories of him that I will always cherish.”

Chet Herbert is survived by his wife, Leanne; his son, Doug; two daughters, Heather Herbert-Binetti and Tracey Drage, and a sister Doris, who as editor of Drag News, was also inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1855 Orange Olive Road, Orange, CA 92865. A private, graveside family service will be held that afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Fair Haven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Doug Herbert's Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe (BRAKES) program that promotes safe driving among teenagers. Send donations to BRAKES, 1443 E. Gaston St., Lincolnton, NC 28092 or go online at

We know where now, but the question is what

NASCAR announced officially Thursday that the Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony is moving from New York to Las Vegas. After being at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan each year since 1981, this year's championship celebration will be held Dec. 4 at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel.

That's great. Las Vegas is a place where a lot of fun things are always happening. The Cup awards ceremony could be great there. But a change of venue is not what that event needs most.

NASCAR said it doesn't yet know -- or at least it isn't ready to announce -- what format the banquet will take. Specifically, we don't know yet if fans will be allowed to be part of the champion's celebration.

“I can’t say enough about the warm reception from Las Vegas,” said NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer France. “Las Vegas really made it a priority to get the awards ceremony moved there. We were able to come to an agreement on reasonable room blocks, banquet facilities, and approvals to hold fan activities on the famous Las Vegas Strip.”

I don't really have a problem if the ceremony itself is invitation only for the top drivers, their teams and their sponsors the way it was in New York. I'd prefer it if fans could come, too, but that's not a make-or-break thing.

The ceremony will be a success in Las Vegas only if there are events surrounding it that fans can take part in. NASCAR said the "Victory Lap," where cars parade on city streets, will return in Vegas, and that's good. The logistics of that just got out of hand in midtown Manhattan.

I've said this before and it still holds true, but the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony should copy everything it can from country music's "Fan Fest" in Nashville. Make it a weeklong party where fans get several chances to meet the sport's biggest stars. Have some fun with it. Do some things that could be memorable. The biggest thing that was wrong with New York is that NASCAR acted like it was staging a cotillion where everybody was being graded on his or her manners. It's a party, not a church service.

NASCAR also announced that it will combine the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series banquets into one event at the Loews Miami Beach on Monday, Nov. 23, the Monday after the season-ending championship weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway.

That date makes a lot of sense and I have no problem with combining those two series into one event. The only drawback is that it means that only the top five in each series -- instead of the top 10 in each -- will be honored at the banquet.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Talladega outrage!

It's an outrage. An outrage!!!!

Talladega Superspeedway wants to break a world record this weekend. It plans to ask about 125,000 people to do "The Chicken Dance," which would nearly double the existing record of 72,000 set at a fair in Canfield, Ohio, in 1996.

The record attempt is being sponsored by KFC, and the animal rights advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a problem with that. PETA said it will ask the folks with the Guinness Book of World Records not to certify the record because of its issues with how KFC treats chickens.

Isn't that the dumbest thing you've ever heard?

No, not the PETA part.

People who don't want to eat meat don't bother me. I figure it's their loss. More for the rest of us who don't mind being at the top of the food chain. (Besides, how exactly would a company that's in the business of killing chickens so people can eat them ever get on PETA's good side?)

The outrage here is that Talladega Superspeedway has the gall to ask 125,000 good, decent NASCAR fans to actually do "The Chicken Dance."

If you're not familiar with "The Chicken Dance," congratulations on a life well-lived. It's a pox (pun intended) on humanity. Announcers as minor league baseball games and racing short tracks have been inducing crowds to participate in it for years, and that's bad enough. But the idea of 125,000 doing at one time is mass humiliation.

"If this record is allowed, it could encourage other animal abusers to attempt silly feats that make a mockery of animal protection," Tracy Reiman, executive vice president of PETA, told the newspaper in Birmingham.

The species being mocked in "The Chicken Dance" isn't chickens. You don't see chickens doing the Electric Slide, the Macarena or, God forbid, the Shag do you?

I have to be honest. I smell a rat. I know how people who work for race tracks think. I would just about bet you that somebody from Talladega Superspeedway sought out PETA on this one.

By making sure PETA is lined up against the record-breaking effort, the track allows fans to mask their shame of participating as an act of defying the unpopular animal rights group. Stand up to PETA! Make a fool of yourself! That will show them!

Don't fall for it, folks. "The Chicken Dance" is neither poultry nor is it dance.

What it is is an outrage.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Earnhardt Jr., Mears go on probation

First, NASCAR said it wasn't going to do anything to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears for their postrace bumping incident following Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix.

Then, on Tuesday, NASCAR changed its mind. It decided to do nothing.

Actually, it decided to do the same nothing it did to Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch after almost exactly the same kind of incident at Bristol last year. So, for the sake of consistency, instead of not doing anything it did nothing.

OK, technically NASCAR did something. It placed Earnhardt and Mears on probation for six races. The probation begins with this weekend's race at Talladega.

What does probation mean? Effectively, nothing. Actually, all it does is back NASCAR into a corner if Earnhardt or Mears commits some other kind of "actions detrimental to NASCAR" during the probation period.

If a driver on probation misbehaves, does that mean he gets a double dose of punishment for the second act? Nobody's sure, because probation pretty much means anything NASCAR wants it to mean.

When NASCAR said it would take no action against Earnhardt and Mears, though, that was pretty hard to justify. The Edwards-Busch circumstances at Bristol involved a battle for the lead, so its consequences might have been more profound than the Mears-Earnhardt collision that sent Earnhardt's fading Chevrolet into the wall. But the postrace hi-jinks, with Earnhardt turning Mears on the cool-down lap and Mears bumping Earnhardt in retaliation as they went toward the garage, still violated Section 12-4-A (actions detrimental to stock car racing; hitting another competitor’s car after the race had concluded) of the 2009 NASCAR rule book.

Edwards and Busch got six-race probations last year at Bristol and now this latest incident has drawn the same sanction.

That seems fair, I guess.

But it's hard to say it's better than nothing when nothing really is exactly what it is.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mark Martin a popular winner

All you had to see Saturday night was the parade.

After Mark Martin's victory in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, victory lane was a very crowded place. Martin's fellow drivers and others in the sport lined up for an opportunity to congratulate the race winner, demonstrating both their respect for Martin and their happiness upon his return to victory lane.

Martin started first and led much of the evening. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson ran their own race and didn't panic when it seemed that strategies employed by some others might work against them.

Martin might have got a big break when Kyle Busch was hit with a penalty for speeding as he left pit road on the final caution. Then again, the reason Busch appeared to put himself in position to make a late challenge to win was that he exceeded the allowed speed. It seemed that Busch decided the only way he could win would be to take a shot hoping NASCAR wouldn't make the call in that situation. But it did.

Ryan Newman stayed out -- it was good to see that somebody at least tried that -- but Martin made quick work of him and went on to win for the 36th time in his career. Martin hadn't won since 2005 and had run 97 races since then. Only 14 times in NASCAR history has a driver won a race after running more than 100 races since a previous victory.

As you've probably heard by now, Martin is just the fourth driver to win a Cup race after reaching his 50th birthday. At 50 years, three months and nine days, he's the third oldest to win. Only Harry Gant and Morgan Shepherd have won at an older age. The remarkable Gant won eight times after he turned 50. Shepherd and Bobby Allison each won once after that milestone and those 10 races are the only time that's happened until Saturday night.

After beginning the season with a string of bad luck, Martin is now just nine points out of the top 12 in the Cup standings. Only 110 points separates Jeff Burton in 11th from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 19th after eight races, so this year's race to the Chase is shaping up to be a good one.

Martin is right in the middle of it, and that makes things very interesting. If you think his peers were happy to see him win Saturday night's race, imagine the outpouring of support and respect Martin would get if he could finally win is first championship this year.

We're a long way from that, of course, and the fact that Martin's victory at Phoenix made as much history as it did only emphasizes how great the odds are against him. But whenever I tell people about what the statistics show, I also try to remind them that the numbers only tell you what has and hasn't been done. They don't tell you what can or can't be done.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Talking racin'

I am home in North Carolina, watching the Phoenix race on television like everybody else this weekend, but that doesn't mean I have been totally goofing off.

This is the 50th season for Lowe's Motor Speedway and the Observer is preparing to mark that with a special project. We're going to provide 600 hours of anniversary coverage -- that's 25 days -- beginning May 1 and running through the day after this year's Coca-Cola 600.

In preparing for that, I've been talking to people who've lived the track's history. I'm not even close to being done. I am supposed to talk to Buddy Baker, for example, Tuesday night, and there are a lot of other drivers, current and former, I still have to sit down with to talk about their memories of what I consider to be the template for the modern American race track.

But what I did get done this week was pretty cool.

On Monday, I sat down the three guys who've all done the same job I'm doing now. Tom Higgins, Bob Moore and Bob Myers all covered NASCAR for newspapers here in Charlotte. When Myers left the road, he moved to the sports desk at the Observer. When he retired, that opened the spot on the desk that I wound up getting. About 6 1/2 years later, after the 1996 season, Higgins retired as the NASCAR beat writer and I took the job I've got now.

We sat around for nearly three hours and I listened to those guys talk about all the racing they've seen at Charlotte. Myers was telling us about a "race" he saw one time when Curtis Turner and a couple of his buddies showed off racing around in the dirt outside the track for a couple of Hollywood celebrities who'd come to town. Moore's perspective on the sport's history is really interesting. After working for newspapers he went to work for Sports Marketing Enterprises, the group that handled the NASCAR sponsorship for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. So he saw that side of things, too.

Friday, I spent the afternoon at Humpy Wheeler's house. It was like taking a graduate school course in NASCAR history. We talked about his 30-plus years at the track for what I am doing for the paper. Then, we had one of those discussions about what sport in America might look like 20 years from now. It'll never make the paper, but if one of these days you're watching a ball game or a race at a massive stadium that exists only in some kind of virtual reality, I hope Humpy and I both are around to say we told you so.

I started trying to do the math while I was shaking my head at the completely shameless sponsor shilling that passed for a Fox prerace show before Saturday night's race. I've covered the Coca-Cola 600 11 times now (I missed a year for a family emergency) for the Observer. Myers was at every 600 from the first one in 1960 through 2004. Higgins and Moore have probably been to at least 40 each. Wheeler was at every one from 1976 through 2008 and a few more before that.

The way I figure it, among the five of us we were good for seeing the 600 right about 200 times. That folks, is a lot of left turns.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Does anybody really know what time it is?

There has been a lot of talk about starting times for NASCAR races over the past few years, and in some cases things are entirely out of hand. I've said before I think the television audience is considered way too much more than the live audience sometimes, and as a general rule I still think that's true.

This weekend's races at Phoenix International Raceway, however, offer and interesting case study. Friday night's Nationwide race won't begin until sometime after 9:30 p.m. Eastern time, which is awfully late for a televised race for viewers in the East. Saturday night's Cup race starts around 8:40 p.m. Eastern. Both races will probably end within a few minutes on either side of midnight, which is a little later than some the Cup races at Richmond, Darlington and Charlotte will wind up but not all that much different.

The problem for me, as somebody who'll be watching on television this week, is that starts that late give viewers in the East a lot of reasons not to watch. You pretty much have to either plan to do something earlier and get home for the race or just wait around for what will seem like a long time before anything starts.

But, there's another side of this. If you're somebody who is actually going to the track at Phoenix to watch the race, the times make a lot of sense.

Take the Nationwide race. It starts at 6:30 p.m. Phoenix time. If you work until 4 or 5, you could still get out to the track in time to see the green flag. Saturday's race starts at 5:30, which means you get to see the race and can be back home before 2 or 3 in the morning.

NASCAR fans who live out West deserve the chance to see races, too. And those who buy tickets have a right to see the race at a reasonable time.

Yeah, an 8:40 start is hard on reporters who have Eastern time zone deadlines. That's one reason I am not going. Jim Utter is there for the Observer and if you can barely get one story in part of your Sunday morning press run there's really no reason to pay to have two people there. Jim might well be the only daily newspaper writer from the eastern two-thirds of the United States who attends the Subway Fresh Fit 500. That's not all good for NASCAR, but that's an entirely different topic.

The way the sun sets over Turn 1 at Phoenix it might even be better to start the races a little later, but NASCAR needs as much of a television audience as it can get, especially for the Cup race.

It's a delicate balance figuring out when to drop the green flag, and the balance is even harder to strike when you're racing out West.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Voices carry

It was tough to hear Monday that Harry Kalas, the longtime announcer of the Philadelphia Phillies who also did extensive work for NFL Films, had passed away.

Kalas was distinctive. His voice evoked memories of Michael Jack Schmidt and all things Philadelphia.

If you grew up loving baseball the way I did, an announcer's voice became part of the city or team he worked for. Milo Hamilton was the Atlanta Braves for me. Vin Scully is as much a part of the Los Angeles Dodgers as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Jack Buck was just another way to say St. Louis Cardinals.

I remember the first time I heard Wes Durham doing a Georgia Tech football game. My first thought was "Why would Woody Durham be on the radio here?" Wes is the son of longtime North Carolina Tar Heels announcer Woody Durham and Wes sounds JUST like his father.

One thing NASCAR has going for it is that its broadcasters -- the good ones -- do so many events that last for so long that people get used to them.

Fans have become accustomed to having Motor Racing Network's Barney Hall and Fox's Mike Joy in their homes each weekend. They know Eli Gold's voice when they hear it. Many of them do a passable imitation of the legendary Chris Economaki, who has spent several racing generations in the garages and pit stalls at NASCAR and open-wheel race tracks.

The late Benny Parsons was so good as an analyst on television that a lot of fans almost forgot about the fact he was a championship-quality driver. Ned Jarrett had a brilliant career as a driver, but his contributions to the sport can't be effectively measured without acknowledgment of his work as a broadcaster. The death of Neil Bonnett not only took a driver that fans loved, but a man who had a long future ahead of him as race analyst.

I loved Buddy Baker in the booth. These days Baker is still telling his stories on Sirius Satellite Radio and he's entertaining long-time fans of the sport while helping to make new ones.

Of course, there's Darrell Waltrip. When Waltrip retired from driving and moved into the booth at Fox, I told someone I know at that network that he would be NASCAR's John Madden and I believe that's how things have played out.

There's a long, long list of names I could mention -- Bob Jenkins, Dr. Jerry Punch, Ken Squier, Joe Moore, Allen Bestwick, the late Hal Hamrick and many, many more -- that would make some race fans remember a moment or a call and smile.

Let's do this, and this is something we'll carry over onto "The Morning Drive" on Sirius NASCAR Radio on Wednesday morning. If you could have any three people working in the booth for one race, what threesome would that be?

I think I'd have to say Mike Joy, Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker. I'd have Chris Economaki, Jerry Punch and Allen Bestwick in the pits. And on the radio I'd have Barney Hall and Eli Gold in the booth.

Changes at the top coming for ISC

Jim France will step down as chief executive officer of International Speedway Corporation effective June 1 with Lesa Kennedy succeeding him in that role.

Jim France is the son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brother of former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. and uncle of current NASCAR chairman Brian France. Brian France is Lesa Kennedy’s brother.

Jim France will retain his role as chairman of ISC’s board of directors. Lesa Kennedy will remain vice chair of the ISC board.

The announcement was made to ISC stockholders Tuesday morning.

“While I will miss being involved in the daily operations of ISC, I will continue to provide strategic oversight and support to Lesa and the rest of the ISC senior management team,” Jim France said in a memo to ISC employees. “Under Lesa’s outstanding leadership, the company’s Board of Directors has every confidence that ISC will remain a dynamic and successful company for many years to come.”

John Saunders, currently the executive vice president and chief operating officer of ISC, will take over as ISC president – the title previously held by Lesa Kennedy.

Roger VanDerSnick, currently senior vice president of marketing and business operations, becomes executive vice president and chief operating officer. Daniel Houser moves from vice president to senior vice president while remaining chief financial officer and treasurer.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Weekly, regional banquets coming here

NASCAR will honor its weekly and regional touring series champions in a pair of banquets in the Charlotte area in mid-November.

The Whelen All-American Series champions will be honored on Friday, Nov. 13 and the champions of the Camping World East, Camping World West, Whelen Modified, Whelen Southern Modified and Canadian Tire series will be crowned the following evening.

The ceremonies will be held at the Embassy Suites Hotel/Concord Convention Center and will cap a week of activities for participants, team owners and track owners in the various series.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to raise the bar for all of NASCAR’s developmental racing series, by bringing the champions from all of our series to the core of much of the motorsports industry,” said George Silbermann, managing director of racing operations. “We are planning a number of special activities for our series champions, for attending track operators, and for the industry. We look to take full advantage of what this hub of the stock car racing industry has to offer.”

The Whelen All-American Series ceremony will feature the national champion, track champions from all 58 NASCAR-sanctioned tracks and champions from each state and Canadian province.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Good news, bad news in Cup

AJ Allmendinger got some very good news on Wednesday, but Aric Almirola got the other kind of phone call earlier this week.

Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Hunt Brothers Pizza will sponsor Allmendinger’s No. 44 Dodges in six points races as well as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Challenge events. That means the team is now set to run through the Sept. 12 race at Richmond.

That means Allmendinger will at least get the full 26-race regular season as he tries to pull a surprise and make the Chase for the Nextel Cup. He’s 20th through seven races.

The sponsorship is for the April race at Talladega, the all-star event and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May, Chicagoland in July, Bristol in August and Atlanta and Richmond in September.

“My focus has been on the track trying to get the car to perform its best,” Allmendinger said in an interview on ESPN2’s “NASCAR Now.” “I always figured if we went out there and did our job in the race car everything else would take care of itself.”

Almirola, on the other hand, said he was told in a telephone call Monday night from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing officials that his No. 8 Chevrolet team had suspended operations.

“We knew it was coming,” Almirola said on “NASCAR Now.” “On the Monday after the Texas race I knew I was going to get a phone call and it was going to be good or bad. And it wasn’t good.”

The team, lacking sponsorship to continue, has suspended operations. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing officials say a search for sponsorship will continue, but published reports have said up to 50 employees could lose their jobs.

As for Almirola, he said he doesn’t know what the setback will mean for his career.

“Every day that goes by and I am not in a race car I feel I am slipping further and further behind in my learning process,” he said.

Almirola said he is trying to stay positive.

“I am disappointed for sure,” he said. “But I don’t think the end is here. It’s bad but I don’t think it’s the end of the world by any means. …It’s humbling experience but at the same time it’s a part of life. Not all of life is going to be hunky-dory.”

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Making Mom proud

I was in Daytona when my mother died a week before the 1999 Daytona 500. She cared about sports because I did and she followed the North Carolina men's basketball team because that's where I went to school.

A couple of years before she passed, she was in the hospital after surgery and they still had monitors on her to check her vital signs. Those signs were being watched at a central nurse's station on that floor. Mom was watching a Carolina game on television and it was a close one. She was getting worked up.

All of a sudden people start crashing into the room, pulling in equipment and scrambling to address a crisis. Mom was so worked up that she'd set off alarms at the nurse's station. They thought she was "coding." She and I laughed about that for the rest of the days she was with us.

I thought about her Monday night when I watched Tyler Hansbrough and his teammates celebrate their victory over Michigan State in the NCAA men's basketball championship game. Whenever Mom saw anybody as happy as Hansbrough was in a circumstance such as that, she's always say something like, "And don't you know his mama is proud of him?"

I remember that statement whenever I see somebody accomplish something that's as important to him or her as a national championship was to Hansbrough and his teammates. I hear Mama Sue saying it, for instance, every time somebody wins his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race. There's always a great story about what it took for a driver to reach that goal, and there's almost always this stew of joy and relief and happiness that's remarkable to see.

I've seen it when a golfer wins his first tournament and his first major. I've seen it in NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball locker rooms. I've seen it after state championship high school games.

I believe it's one of the biggest reasons we all love sports as much as we do.

I know it's one of the biggest reasons I do.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Changes making a difference for Gordon

FORT WORTH, Texas – Jeff Gordon hadn’t won a Sprint Cup points race in a long time before he won Sunday’s Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway – since October 2007 at Charlotte, a span of 47 races.

But when it comes to giving winner’s interviews, he hasn’t lost his fastball.

Gordon’s session with the print media after Sunday’s win went for nearly 40 minutes and covered a wide range of topics.

One I didn’t get into in my story for Monday’s paper as much I wanted to was how this track had a lot to do with changing how Gordon changed his approach to the difficult task of balancing his role as one of NASCAR’s biggest stars with that of being a husband and a father.

Last spring, Gordon’s 2008 season was off to an OK start. He’d had three top-five finishes including a second at Martinsville in the race before the one here and he and crew chief Steve Letarte thought things were going along OK.

Until this race a year ago, Gordon’s wife, Ingrid, and their daughter, Ella, who will 2 in June, came to the track when Gordon did at the start of race weekends whenever they could. Gordon loved being able to be with his family on Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the motor home they have at the track.

It was here, though, that started to change. Gordon’s car wasn’t good from the first lap on the track a year ago at Texas and it didn’t get any better as the weekend went along. Almost as if she could sense the problem, Ella didn’t have a good weekend either. She cried a lot and Gordon spent much of the night up trying to comfort her.

“It was a miserable weekend,” said Gordon, who then finished 43rd – last – in the race on Sunday.

“We kind of made a decision at that time that they were mainly going to come on Sundays,” Gordon said. “This is a tough sport. You’ve got to take it seriously, and you’ve got to be committed. And this is my job. So they come every chance that they can. And when it doesn't work out, you know, it doesn't work out.”

So Gordon was missing them in victory lane after he’d won here for the first time ever. But that thought process shows as well as anything how as great as Gordon has been in his career he, too, had something to learn even after winning 81 races (82 now) and four championships.

The idea is for Gordon to focus on the race car until he and Letarte have done their work getting ready to race. When it works, the family then comes in Saturday night or Sunday morning to watch Gordon race.

It’s part of re-commitment Gordon said he made with Letarte and their whole team after their winless season in 2008.

“I'm so proud of Steve,” Gordon said. “He stepped up and made some crucial changes in our team at the end of last year, as well as continued with that road over the off‑season. And I saw that effort being put in and that's when I decided, you know, to start training more, to make sure that my family had the opportunity to come to the race but not necessarily Friday and Saturday, so that I could give this team 100 percent of my focus as well as any time they need to test or do anything that I'm there 100 percent for them.

“I don't know how many more years I do have left. So when you know that the cars are there and the team's there and you still think you've got it or you want to prove to yourself, I wanted to make sure there were no excuses. …So I'm giving these guys everything that I've got and we're just ‑‑ we're doing things a little different, and it's all paying off.”

Saturday, April 04, 2009

How was this good?

FORT WORTH, Texas -- It is not Kyle Busch's job to provide good racing. Quite the contrary, it's his or any other driver's job to make a race look exactly like what most of Saturday's O'Reilly 300 did.

Busch demolished the field, one filled with fellow drivers stepping down from the Sprint Cup Series, in winning his second Nationwide Series race of the year and his 12th over the past two seasons. His No. 18 Toyota started from the pole and just beat every other car in the race to submission.

I walked out to pit road just before the midway point of the race to take a look at how many people paid to see the race and thought it was a pretty good crowd. Not tremendous, but respectable.

But I can't imagine that anybody who saw that race went home saying, "Man, I can't wait for the next chance I get to pay money to see a Nationwide race."

Busch has won the past three Nationwide Series races here. He led 300 of the 400 laps in the two races last year and led 178 this time. Brad Keselowski closed in over the final laps and got a caution on Lap 187 that set up a little bit of drama for the folks on television to talk about, but Busch still finished it off. There was a scrum for second after the last restart, but there was never any doubt about the winner.

People who run race tracks tell us all the time that they need Busch and Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth and other Cup drivers to run on Saturday to help sell tickets for Nationwide races. But if having those Cup guys with Cup-level resources competing against the people with Nationwide Series budgets means the latter have no real chance of competing, does it really do the second-tier series any good?

How do you fix it? I've always felt that if you didn't give Nationwide points to anybody currently in the top 30 in Sprint Cup points, you'd change the equation just a little bit. But at a time where tracks need help selling every ticket they can't, I wouldn't hold my breath for anything to change.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

An update with a lot of thank yous

The NASCAR Foundation's online auction to benefit Pennies For Wessa ended late last week and the total raised was about $4,600.

Add $5,000 donated by Rusty Wallace from his participation in the Saturday Night Special race at Bristol and another $1,000 from Richard Childress and more than $10,000 was raised for Wessa Miller and her family. That's awesome.

There have also been a number of donations made directly to since the auction began a few weeks ago, so we've done a lot of good for the young lady who 11 years ago gave Dale Earnhardt a lucky penny before he won the 1998 Daytona 500.

As great as it was to see all of that money raised, it was just as nice to see how much fun Wessa and her parents, Booker and Juanita, had when they visited Bristol for the race a couple of weeks ago. They met a lot of people who were very nice to them and had a great time.

Wessa got to meet her favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. She also seemed to connect to Bootie Barker, Michael Waltrip's crew chief. Barker is also in a wheelchair and because the No. 55 team's hauler has to be accessible for him Wessa was able to go up into the transporter and see what that's like.

I would never be able to list all of the people who were part of making that weekend successful. Tom Sullivan and Kim Hyde and Shannon Wiseman and Lori Worley and Wes Ramey and my wife, Katy, and well, as I said, I can't list them all, but thanks to everybody involved.

It has been an important few weeks for Wessa. Last Sunday she was baptized at her church in Kentucky. Heaven continues to smile on the Millers, because as nice as it is that so many people have helped their family out financially, they've always been rich because they've got each other.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hamlin, Busch deal disasters differently

Sometimes you wish these guys wouldn’t make it so easy.

Sunday afternoon Denny Hamlin loses a race at Martinsville that he dominated after getting contact from the guy, Jimmie Johnson, who winds up beating him. Hamlin gets out of the car and calmly and patiently answers questions.

Hamlin is not happy about losing. In fact, he’s fed up with it. But he behaves as an adult, expressing clearly both his frustration and his determination with his comments.

A day later, Kyle Busch is leading the weather-delayed Truck Series race when he gets rapped in the rear by Kevin Harvick.

Harvick eventually wins the race while Busch, because of a clear-cut error he made in running over the pit-road commitment line, has to serve a penalty and finishes 17th.

When the race ends, Busch parks his truck and climbs out. He sheds his helmet and HANS device, dumping it on the bed of the truck, and then proceeds to jog down pit lane while other trucks are still coming off the track. He hops pit wall, crosses the race track, jumps the outside wall and runs off into the parking lots.

It wasn’t just a tantrum, it was tantrum as grand gesture. He didn’t literally pull down his driver’s suit and his skivvies, but he still did what my dear, departed mom once characterized as “showing his fanny.”

Busch didn’t have to say a single word to any reporter following the Truck Series race. He could have simply waved off every television, radio and print reporter – it happens all the time. Or, he could have simply said he felt like he wasn’t raced fairly and left Harvick to answer his own questions about the end of the race.

It’s not impossible to behave as a professional after a disappointing outcome. Hamlin demonstrated that. What Busch demonstrated was something else altogether.

Remember the date, and be wary

It's April 1st, folks. Remember that.

If you read a story that sounds too bizarre or too far out there to be true, chances are good that it's not true. It's probably somebody's idea of a joke for April Fool's Day.

I am trying to walk a fine line here, because the last thing I want to do is drive people to an internet site where sometime late yesterday there was a story posted that got race fans all riled up.

If you know the story I am talking about, I hope you've figured out by now that there's no truth to it.

If you haven't seen the story and don't know what I am referring to, let me just say that a magazine's web site is not going to be the one that breaks -- at the exclusion of all other media outlets -- what would be the biggest story in racing this year 36 hours after a supposed statement is released from an official government source.

When I was in college, I was part of a April Fool's day stunt at our college newspaper. We filled in a few of the answers in the master crossword puzzle, a couple of them incorrectly, so that when you got your paper the next morning it looked like somebody had messed up your puzzle. That went over like, well, about like you might think it would have. But we were in college and we thought everything we did was funny back then.

I know better now.