Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The starting point of reference
The motorsports media breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when got back online.
It was down Sunday, and the first thing I thought of was that NASCAR had somehow managed to find a way to shut it down. I am a little embarrassed to admit that, since my first thought SHOULD have been, “Gee, I hope Alan Boodman is OK.”
Boodman is the guy who put the site together, and I did call to check on when I got back from California. When he got back to me he said he was fine but there had been a problem with his webhost’s server.
Whatever that means.
If you’re a NASCAR fan and you’ve never seen this website, I urge you to take a look at it. I don’t owe Boodman any money and he’s not paying me to give him a plug. Best I can tell, he doesn’t make money on the site anyhow.
I ran across it a couple of years ago doing research for my book on Tim Richmond when I was trying to find a definitive source for Richmond’s Busch Series records statistics.
The more I looked at it, the more interesting it was. It’s a database of EVERY Nextel Cup, Busch, Truck and International Race of Champions race. You can look up any driver’s career record. You can look up records by car owner. By season. By track. You can check a driver’s record at any track.
Go to the “driver vs. driver” section and type in the names of any two drivers in history. Within a second, you’ll know how many times they raced against each other what their comparative results were in those races.
For example, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have both been in 163 races. Johnson has won 21 of them and Gordon 16. Johnson has finished ahead of Gordon 89 times and behind Gordon 74 times in those races.
You can also go to the “driver rankings” page and get a list of, say, the drivers who’ve been running at the finish of the most races from 1996 until right now. Mark Martin tops that list, at 479 races, followed by Dale Jarrett, Ken Schrader and Sterling Marlin.
Now why would you want to know such a thing? Well, who knows? But if you did, it’s there.
I’ve been using for a couple of years now and have almost become its press agent. I’ve showed it to dozens of my colleagues and they use it now, too. Once you figure out what all is there, it’s incredibly easy to use and so far I haven’t found a single error on it.
Boodman lives in Pennsylvania and worked with databases for a living. He got interested in NASCAR and decided he wanted to do this, so he started building his records with history books and other such information.
If you’re really a fan, you should check it out. You can thank me later.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

F1 -- The soccer of motorsports

Since we’re about to head toward the traditional Fourth of July weekend’s visit to Daytona, it seems that a few words about how Americans like their sports are in order.
We’ll use Formula One major domo Bernie Ecclestone’s words in a recent article in The Times of London as a jumping-off point. If you didn’t see what His Bernieness said, here’s a quick review.
“It does not matter to Formula One if there is no grand prix in the U.S.,” Ecclestone said. “What do we get from America? Aggravation, that’s about all. If you say ‘good morning’ over there and it’s five past 12, you end up with a lawsuit.”
That’s an outstanding line, but after the ridiculous debacle that was the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis – in which just six cars actually raced following after a dispute over tires and safety and politics and egos and fun stuff like that – you would think Ecclestone would be a little less strident.
The contract for the U.S. Grand Prix is up after next weekend’s event, and Ecclestone appears to be in no mood to give the folks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway any kind of break on the $20 million price tag for hosting an F1 event.
“Why do we need to worry so much about America?” Ecclestone said. “America has never really taken to open-wheel racing. We have never got any sponsors out there. The television has never taken off. We have more viewers in Malta than over there.”
Clearly, Malta could beat our red, white and blue backsides in soccer (more on that in a minute), but if Ecclestone really doesn’t think the U.S. market is more important to his sport than Malta, then he’s just a dolt.
Having said that, I believe that the United States needs F1 no more than Ecclestone feels F1 needs us. The F1 series is, without any question, the world’s most popular motorsports series. But until is has at least one competitive American driver, it’s just not going to matter much in this country.
American sports fans pull for Americans. It’s not any more complicated than that.
That’s why the World Cup soccer tournament is the biggest thing in the world but struggles to find traction here.
This just in – on an international level we stink at soccer. Ghana knocked us out of the World Cup the other day.
That county has a total population of about 21 million people. There are nearly that many people in Texas. Are you telling me that a team of the best players in ANY sport from all of the other 49 states – even football – shouldn’t be able to beat a team of the best players from Texas? I know Ghana’s very best athletes all play soccer, while our best athletes are getting rich in other sports. But how can we get beat in anything that matters by Ghana?
We did, though. And that’s why no matter how much ESPN tries to hype it and no matter how much the “experts” try to force the World Cup down our collective throats, this country is not going to care about international soccer until we can beat people at it. I’m not saying that’s how it ought to be. But I am saying that’s how it is.
That gets us back to F1.
I know that American Scott Speed has a ride this year and will be competing next weekend at Indy. But until Speed and his team move way up the competitive ladder – or until Dale Earnhardt Jr. decides he wants to go F1 racing – nobody in this country is going to get terribly excited about that series.
Whether it races at Indianapolis or in Malta.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Is it next year yet?

It’s about time for the 2007 Nextel Cup schedule to become the object of much speculation among NASCAR beat writers.
What happens is that a few tracks start sending out ticket renewal forms to fans and word starts to leak out about what’s going to happen when. People then start trying to fill in the blanks from there and before you know it all kind of rumors are going around.
What has apparently set things off this year is a ticket letter that folks have gotten from New Hampshire International Speedway indicating that next year’s July race there will be held on July 1.
That’s two weekends earlier than this year. More significantly, it’s in the slot where the Pepsi 400 has traditionally been run – the weekend before July 4th.
To let you in on how some minds work, there are those who’re leaping to the conclusion that means a huge shakeup in the schedule is coming, one that might include moving the summer Daytona race back into the Chase somewhere.
That could happen, I guess, but it seems to me that it’s more about the calendar than anything else.
Daytona’s summer race is barely a July race this year – it’s on July 1. Most people who get time off for that holiday will still be working that Friday night – their vacation would be the next week. Next year, the Saturday night that weekend would be June 30. That’s not July. Daytona would rather have July 7 as its Pepsi 400 date, so it would in effect move back a week. That’d push Chicagoland back a week, too. But then you’d get right back on the same routine as this year with Pocono on July 22 and a open date on July 29.
One important thing to do when looking ahead at 2007 is to remember that Easter is always a factor. Next year, it falls on April 8, one weekend earlier than this year. You always have to fit Texas and Martinsville around that date. This year Martinsville was on April 2 and Texas on April 9. Things could stay in that order in 2007, but it’s also possible that Texas might be April 1 and Martinsville April 15.
The Daytona 500 will be on Feb. 18, but there is a question about what happens after that. The past two years it has been California-off weekend-Las Vegas with the Busch Series in Mexico that off week. But if the Busch Series goes to Montreal, as is expected, will it also go to Mexico City again? If it doesn’t, will that early off weekend for Cup be moved to later in the season somehow?
If I had to bet right now, I’d say things stay like they are. California on Feb. 25, off week, then Las Vegas on March 11 followed by Atlanta, then Bristol. Then you’d have either Texas or Martinsville, then Easter, then Texas or Martinsville followed by Phoenix and Talladega. Richmond would be May 5, then Darlington May 12, followed by the all-star race and Coca-Cola 600 to round out May.
Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Infineon, New Hampshire, Daytona, Chicagoland and Pocono would then come before the week off at the end of July – is that where the Montreal Busch race might go? Then back to the same schedule order we have now.
Kentucky wants a Cup date and Bruton Smith wants a second date for Las Vegas, too. Unless a track or two is sold, though, it’ll surprise me if either gets what it wants.
I don’t disagree completely with those who say too many tracks have two dates. If you were starting the Cup Series right now, not as many tracks would have a second date. You’d go to Kentucky, and maybe to Nashville or Gateway or the new track in Iowa. And you’d leave room for tracks down the road in Washington state and New York.
Here’s how. You’d set up a 26- or 27-race “regular season” and give each track one points race. Then, you’d have the 10 Chase races and you’d let each track bid on how much it’s willing to pay in terms of total purse for the right to host one of those events. No track gets more than one of those final 10.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mears, Vickers just doing what they need to do

It often amazes me how people react to things.
Just about everybody seems to believe that Casey Mears is going to wind up driving the No. 25 Chevrolets for Hendrick Motorsports next year, and that certainly jibes with everything I’m hearing, too. The rumor mill also has Brian Vickers, who’s getting out of that ride, going over to Team Red Bull to drive a Toyota.
The basic reactions to both presumed moves have me a little puzzled.
For starters, there seems to be a little bit of a backlash against Mears in some circles because a couple of weeks ago he was saying that he was trying to work out a way to stay with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. And now, as soon as a job comes open at Hendrick Motorsports, he’s changing that tune.
Well, I wasn’t party to his negotiations and, in fact, I’ve yet to actually speak to Mears myself since all of this happened. But what, exactly, is he supposed to have done that’s wrong?
Mears has a contract with Ganassi that’s up at season’s end. The reality that is NASCAR these days is that any driver whose contract is up can’t wait much longer than this far into the final year of his deal to get something locked down for his future. So Mears has undoubtedly been talking to other people in addition to Ganassi to make sure he does what he has every right to do – find the best possible opportunity for himself to succeed at the Nextel Cup level.
If he said a few weeks ago that his first option was to stay where he is, maybe that was before somebody at Hendrick passed the word that a slot could be coming open.
Or, perhaps, Mears didn’t want to say anything about having that possibility in mind because he didn’t want to put Vickers and his team in the rumor mill jackpot. That’s precisely what would have happened, of course, if Mears had even hinted that he might be looking at moving to Rick Hendrick’s team.
I do feel for Donnie Wingo, the crew chief on the No. 42 Dodge team who lost Jamie McMurray last year and now will lose Mears after this season. That’s tough sledding for a crew chief and his guys, to keep having to adjust to a new driver.
But let’s be honest about all of this. Last year at Watkins Glen, I watched Mears sit through a press conference where it was announced that he was going to be shuffled to a fourth team that Ganassi planned to begin and be asked to start the 2006 season without having the points he’d amassed in the No. 41 Dodges.
Remember that? McMurray was still going to be in the 42, David Stremme had the 40 and Reed Sorenson the 41. Mears was going to be shuffled to a car sponsored by Home 123. That all changed when Ganassi agreed to let McMurray go to Roush Racing for this year, but Mears wasn’t exactly treated like he was the pick of the litter.
Hey, I don’t blame Ganassi for doing what he needed to do, just like I don’t blame Mears for doing the same thing.
No, Mears has not won a Cup race yet. He probably would have at Homestead last year had it not been for a phantom debris caution from NASCAR, but that stuff happens.
Vickers hasn’t won in a Cup car yet, either. But that doesn’t mean Team Red Bull or any other team looking at him should ignore the fact that Vickers is still young and has a lot of ability. If he drives a Toyota in 2007 and beyond, it may take a couple more years for him to get that win, who knows. And it may never happen.
Personally, I think the Toyota teams are going to get ripped by some fans no matter what they do. What if Team Red Bull went out and “stole” a top-name driver with a bunch of wins on his resume from an existing team? That’d be another example of Toyota trying to “ruin” the sport, wouldn’t it? But if the Toyota teams hire drivers who haven’t had tons of Cup-level success, some critics are going to talk about how they’re giving ridiculous money to drivers who haven’t done enough to deserve it.
There is not a “driver shortage” in NASCAR right now. There is, however, an imagination shortage. There are few obvious choices to fill the various openings that exist or will exist in the Cup ranks. In the absence of these, fans and media perceive that mean good choices don’t exist.
But they do. And the owners who successfully navigate their way through the changes that are coming are the ones who’ll be successful down the road. That’s going to involve having the ability to recognize potential and provide opportunities for that to take root and grow.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

It's more than a numbers game to some of us

I absolutely plead guilty to being too fascinated by numbers. It goes way back.
My relatives tell me, and it certainly fits in with the way I remember things, that I pretty much taught myself how to do division by figuring baseball batting averages.
I vividly remember when I was about 8 having one of those "eureka" moments when I finally grasped how a pitcher's earned run average was determined.
Statistics in sports have always been interesting to me. It's difficult to compare eras in sports, but statistics are often the best - and always the most dispassionate - way to try.
So about two-thirds through Sunday's Neighborhood 400 at Dover International Speedway, Jeff Burton was leading and I looked up how many races it had been since his most recent victory. I knew it was around 150, and the actual number was 160.
If Burton won, it would have made a good chart to list the most number of races between two wins in a Cup driver's career.
But that's not a list that, as far as I could tell at the time, anybody had handy.
Never fear, I said to myself, I can figure this out before the race is over. Back a few years ago, I wanted to know how old the top winners in the sport were when they won their races. So I spent a pretty good while making a list of people who'd won 20 or more races, looking up their birthdays and the dates of races, then doing a spreadsheet of how old they were at the time of each win.
By the time I was done, I realized that I was well on my way to having a list of ALL of the races in Cup history. So that winter, between the end of one season and the beginning of the next, I finished that list off.
It's on a spreadsheet in my laptop (backed up on discs and flash drives six ways to Sunday) and it has the number of the race, the race date, the track name, the track site, the winning driver, the driver's birthday, his age at that win and the car owner's name.
Off that list, I can create lists of wins by driver, by track, by owner and by age.
And with the list by driver, Sunday at Dover I started going down the list looking for big gaps between victories by the same driver.
About the time that Burton no longer had the lead, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the list. The complicating factor was that there were some really big gaps that are misleading.
There is, for instance, a span of 417 races between Paul Goldsmith victories on the Daytona beach course in 1958 and on the Daytona International Speedway track in 1966. But Goldsmith actually ran in only 24 of those 418. So it was a little too complicated to have any shot at getting right on the fly like that.
Had Burton won, or even Jamie McMurray, who could have broken a 124-race drought of his own, it would have been something I would have spent time Sunday night figuring up for a Tuesday follow story. But once it was on my mind, there's no way I could walk away from it.
My friend Monte Dutton, who covers NASCAR for the Gaston (N.C) Gazette, rightly accuses me of being a "wonk" when it comes to such things. So, after getting back home Monday, I sat down with my list of races and found what I think to be the list of long streaks between wins.
Goldsmith's 417-race streak is the longest in terms of the total number of races held, but in terms of races started between victories the longest all-time streak is held by...somebody whose name will appear at the top of a chart you'll be able to find in the Charlotte Observer and on when Burton or McMurray or anybody else with more than 100 wins between their most recent victories goes to victory lane.
Hey, I might be obsessed and therefore compelled to do all that research But I ain't stupid enough to give it away for free.