Thursday, March 30, 2006

If you want to fight, do it in your motor home

I guess I am OK with NASCAR’s decision this week to fine Jeff Gordon $10,000 and put him on probation until Aug. 30 for his shove of Matt Kenseth following last week’s race at Bristol.

I will say that it bugs me to hear people say it’s no big deal when an argument between drivers turns physical. It could very easily turn into a big deal under the volatile circumstances that exist after a contentious NASCAR race, especially one at tracks like Bristol or Martinsville.

If Driver A shoves Driver B, then Driver B doesn’t keep his cool and takes a swing at Driver A, now you’ve got something going. Driver A’s pit crew runs up just in time to see their guy get clocked, not having seen how it started. So the catch-can man takes a poke at Driver B. Now, Driver B’s pit crew is arriving and those guys see their driver getting punched by somebody on the rival crew.

It’s on. Everybody starts swinging and scuffling and before you know it some television reporter’s hair gets mussed. Now we’ve really got problems.

That absolutely could happen, and it’d take about 20 seconds to go from one shove to a brawl. Some people might say, "So what?" Some folks believe that NASCAR needs a little spice like that every now and then.

Hey, I am all for drivers showing their emotions. But if you actually want to get into a fight with somebody, do it where there aren’t dozens of people standing around who could get swept up into your silliness. All of the drivers spend weekends at the track holed up in fenced-off, guarded motor home lots. Go at it in there if you’re really serious about it.

Getting back to the NASCAR fine of Gordon, though, it occurs to me that NASCAR uses its rulebook the same way crew chiefs do when they’re trying to get by with something.
Think about it.

When something happens, NASCAR has enough leeway written into its rulebook so that it can pretty much do whatever it pleases. Jimmy Spencer takes a poke at Kurt Busch through the window of a race car and gets suspended for a race. Gordon shoves hands on Kenseth and it’s a fine and probation.

That’s because nowhere in the rulebook does it say "a driver laying his hands on another driver in a physical confrontation shall get the following penalty…" Instead, there’s gray area in that "actions detrimental to NASCAR" rule that’s always cited.

So if NASCAR itself turns the rulebook into a pliable document that can be stretched, pulled and otherwise manipulated to its purposes, how can it reasonably expect its competitors not to try the same thing on their side of the equation?

Like they say, it starts at the top.

Monday, March 27, 2006

There are some Bristol leftovers, so let's pass them around

OK, there are a lot of leftover things from Bristol that I want to touch on and hear from you guys about:

1. I know you've heard about what Kevin Harvick said about Kurt Busch on Friday. I want to tell you how that happened. Harvick was the guest at the weekly "Nextel Wake-Up Call," a press opportunity that's done at every track.

He'd been asked about 10-12 questions covering a wide range of topics and we were coming to the end of the session. Several times this year, I've tried to ask Cup drivers a very open-ended question to see if there's anything on their minds that we might not be asking about.

I asked Harvick if there he felt there were things that people believe about him that are wrong, misconceptions or bad assessments that he'd like to challenge. It was a softball, frankly, and he turned that into a series of punch lines about Busch that turned into a big deal that would have turned into a HUGE deal if Harvick had been able to get to Busch's rear bumper in the final laps of Sunday's race.

There's never been any love lost between Harvick and Busch, and I know Harvick still had hard feelings from a late-race incident at Atlanta in which that pair and David Stremme were involved.

But I do believe that Busch was on the nose when he said Harvick's intent was to create a story to get the media off the trail of his contract situation with Richard Childress Racing and, potentially, Toyota.

Mission accomplished.

But the other side of that is that at Martinsville and beyond, Harvick absolutely cannot accuse the media of agitating that story by continuing to ask about it. He started it on his own terms.

2. I believe I could come up with a very convincing argument on both sides of whether what Busch did to Matt Kenseth on Lap 496 was fair.

On the one hand, drivers will tell you that it's against the "code" to try to wreck somebody to pass them, even if it's for the lead with five laps left at Bristol. Kenseth said that's what Busch did, and of course Busch did not agree.

For sure, Busch wasn't alongside Kenseth when he bumped him, he was behind him. In some drivers' eyes, that makes a difference. On the other hand, if Busch had just ridden around in second and not tried to win, what would people be saying about him?

You've got to do what you can to win, don't you? It certainly makes for a good debate.

3. If Robby Gordon had shoved Matt Kenseth after the race, reckon he'd get the same discipline from NASCAR that Jeff Gordon gets?

4. Bumping somebody out of the way constitutes "aggressive driving" and draws a penalty at Daytona. Bumping somebody out of the way at Bristol is "how you pass?"

5. Some folks have pointed out to me that the rear TV panel on Dale Jarrett's Ford might not have been made out of sheet metal but out of Fiberglas. OK, but when it flies off the car into the stands it's still a projectile.

If that situation had been addressed as it was happening by NASCAR, the whole outcome of Sunday's race might have changed given Jarrett's role in keeping Kenseth behind him as Busch was catching up.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Snow? You've got to wonder what's next

Signs of the Apocalypse?
It's 8:40 a.m. on race day at Bristol and light snow is gently falling on the still empty grandstands. I jab a pencil into my thigh and wipe the ensuing tears from my eyes.

Yep, I am actually awake. This is not one of those dreams I keep having where I wake up and say, "Dang, I wish I could remember that because it would have made a heck of a movie."

Look, I acknowledge that I'm from the South and that, as a rule, we really don't know how to act when snow is falling. We were in New York City one year for the Cup banquet and it was snowing about as hard as it was here Sunday morning. I was giving an award at the National Motorsports Press Association's breakfast there and before I started I made a quick apology.
"Sorry," I said. "I understand that with all of these folks here from the Carolinas that the switchboard was flooded this morning with people asking where they could run out to buy a loaf of bread and a quart of milk."

People who deal with snow all winter long probably laugh at how much of a fit everybody has made over the flakes that have fallen here this weekend. But for NASCAR fans, this has just plain been weird.

The video from Saturday's Busch race, with this whole place turned into a giant snowball fight, will be played for years. Friday night, as Speed Channel was taping "Trackside" outside and the snow started flying, fans gathered for that show started singing Christmas carols.

It's now 8:55 a.m. and I swear it looks like the snow is falling up. I know it's the wind and how it swirls inside this giant bowl, but it's still just strange to look at.

The weather has been a story pretty much all of this season. The Daytona 500 was run in a mist that made Florida look more like the Scottish moors. California was nice, but it was as cold as the devil's heart at Las Vegas, there was a rainout at Atlanta and now, this.

It's supposed to clear off in time for a race this afternoon. We'll see. All I know is that if it starts raining frogs or locusts, I am heading for the house.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A little bit of Bristol

I’ll let you in on a little secret. A lot of NASCAR drivers secretly hate Bristol Motor Speedway, the .533-mile track that so many fans love.

Bristol’s concrete surface is very rough – there are plans to redo it after this year’s two races, in fact – and it really is a one-groove track when you get right down to it. Drivers prefer nice, wide tracks where they have plenty or room to race and plenty of room for error. There is no room for a mistake at Bristol.

You seldom hear drivers utter discouraging words about Bristol, though, because they know the fans really enjoy watching them run it. Heck, most of the drivers will even tell you that if they could watch the race instead of run in it, they’d love it, too.

You really can’t blame a driver for having trepidations. He can have the best car in the field by two-tenths of a second per lap and be running away from everybody and still get caught up in somebody else’s mess in the blink of an eye. There’s a randomness to it, and drivers by and large enjoy at least having the illusion of control.

At the same time, I promise you that if they’d let me run NASCAR my schedule would come here about every six weeks. I’d give the teams just enough time to get the cars rebuilt and we’d line up and go again.

I am an unabashed Bristol fan.

The city of Bristol straddles the state line – the actual border is State Street downtown, with one side in Virginia and the other in Tennessee. The track is several miles on the Tennessee side, but when they completed the upper deck in Turn 1 I joked that some of those seats were so high they were in Virginia airspace.

The stands are right on top of the track and it feels like if you stumbled forward walking down the steps you might land in the racing groove. Out behind the grandstands, beyond either end of the track, large campgrounds are stacked with campers and motor homes that give shelter to thousands of fans.

As cold as it’s supposed to be this weekend, it’s going to be essential for those folks to have plenty of gas for their generators or firewood for their campfires. It’s also going to be tough on the drivers, who’ll be trying to get enough heat in their tires to make laps in around 15 seconds around the track in practice and qualifying on Friday. It won’t be easy, and that’s a big reason it’s so much fun to watch.

The common question is "Why doesn’t somebody build another Bristol?" The actually is a fairly simple answer. You really can’t do anything else on this track but race. I know that may sound a little silly, but other tracks get revenue from driving schools and corporate outings and a lot of other things that Bristol just isn’t all that good for.

If you’re going to invest $150 million or more in building a new track, you have to have more than just two or three weekends a year where you generate revenue to make it make sense. Bristol has a great drag strip on the grounds and wrings out what it can from things like a holiday lights display in December, but the oval’s general use is limited.

Still, I completely agree with the marketing slogan this track uses.

Bristol is, indeed, "racing the way it oughta be."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A few thoughts on Bill Lester

Bill Lester's participation in Monday's Golden Corral 500 was a very, very big deal. I know there are some NASCAR fans who don't feel that way, but I hope the large majority of true fans who love the sport and want it to flourish for a long time to come understand the significance.
Yes, Bill finished six laps down. What did you expect? He was in a Cup car for the first time in his career with a team that has NO manufacturer's support, at least from the manufacturer of its current cars.
There are many different agendas in every Cup race. A lot of teams go into the race thinking they can win. But the midway point of the race there's only about 8-10 teams still really focused on that. Other teams are just trying to get the best finish they can.
Lester's goal on Monday was to not become a part of the story in the wrong way. He didn't want to have an impact on who won, he didn't want to knock anybody out by making a mistake. He didn't. He wanted to get as much experience as he could and he got 319 laps of it. That part of the mission was accomplished.
Afterward, Lester talked about how he's looking forward to the day when his racing is about racing, not race. We all are. But you have to remember it had been nearly 20 years since an African-American even qualified for a Cup race. If it wasn't a big deal, that gap wouldn't have existed. It won't be 20 years until some other African-American joins Lester in the sport's history. It might not even been two years. And the sooner we lose track of how many black drivers have competed -- or women or Hispanics or Asians or whatever -- the better off the sport is going to be in the long run.
One day, NASCAR is going to get its Tiger Woods. I don't mean somebody who'll dominate the sport the way Woods does golf. I mean a minority participant who is so talented and who accomplishes so much immediately that his credentials can in no way be fairly questioned.
That will be a great day for racing, just like Monday was a great day for Bill Lester.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Why this name

Boy, do rainouts stink.
A rainy track on race day is one of the most depressing places in the world. You know that all of the people who've worked to put together an event the size of a Nextel Cup race have worked thousands of hours to make it happen. Everything is set up for that day, and the logistics of making a stadium the size of Atlanta Motor Speedway work again the next day are staggering.
Anyway, now that my own blog space is up and running, they asked me to pick a name for it. I chose "Life in the Turn Lane" for several reasons and thought I'd just tell share them with you.
First, I have always been a huge fan of the Eagles (the band, not the Philadelphia football team). The first time I heard the "Hotel California" album was when I was a senior in high school and I loved it. I saw them on tour that next summer and have probably seen them 15 times since. "Life in the Fast Lane" is only about the sixth or seventh best song on that album, but it's still pretty dang good.
When I was a senior in college at North Carolina (George Mason? Sheesh.), I had a humor column that ran on Mondays in the school newspaper. And the title of that column was "Life in the Turn Lane." I called it that because I'm the kind of guy who always chooses the wrong lane in traffic.
Sunday, coming out of the infield tunnel at the track, I went into the second of two lanes going out because I knew I had to turn left at the main road. While I was sitting in the tunnel, the police decided to lead buses carrying pit crew members out of the track in the lane that had been used to let people come in. A bunch of cars and vans fell in behind them and suddenly there were three lanes going out.
So when I got to the top of the ramp going up and out, guess which lane got cut off and squeezed out? The "middle" lane that I suddenly got stuck in, of course.
That's the story behind the name.