Thursday, July 27, 2006

Open-wheel racing retains Danica Patrick, but there's still work to do

I hope the folks who run open-wheel racing in this country don’t really believe that anything that’s happened in the past few weeks means they’ve turned the corner in getting their part of the sport back to any significant level of national relevance.
That’s not to say the news hasn’t been good lately for those guys. Danica Patrick’s announcement this week that she’ll move to Andretti Green Racing but stay in the IndyCar Series after her contract with the Rahal-Letterman team runs out at the end of this season had to bring a collective sigh of relief from the IRL brass.
Patrick, like it or not, is The Franchise in open-wheel right now. I know she hasn’t won even one race, but if she’d decided to come to NASCAR to try to do that it would have been a public relations blow that the IRL might not have been able to survive.
There never really seemed to be a whole lot of chance that was going to happen, of course.
Patrick’s purposely public flirtation with stock cars was a transparent bluff aimed at raising the stakes on a new deal in IndyCars, but sometimes in poker even when you know someone is bluffing you can’t afford to call.
Patrick is smart enough to understand that at some point she has to win, and by joining AGR she has at least given herself the chance to do that.
It appears that her teammates next year will be Tony Kanaan, who won the most recent IRL event, and Marco Andretti, a third-generation driver whose runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 this year also gave open-wheel racing a boost. While the teams owned by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have dominated in the IndyCar Series so far this year, AGR is competitive enough that Patrick should at least go into every race next year knowing she can at least hope to keep up.
Patrick’s decision to keep trying to win IndyCar races and, in specific, the Indianapolis 500, sustains some of the momentum that open-wheel racing got out of Sam Hornish’s dramatic victory over Andretti at Indianapolis in May.
Like Patrick and Andretti, Hornish is another exceptionally talented American driver who needs to be part of the long-term growth in that discipline. So, too, is A.J. Allmendinger, the 24-year-old Californian who won three straight races after switching to a new team in the Champ Car World Series.
No sport in this country will ever flourish for any period of time without American-born stars.
That might not be the way some folks think it ought to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that’s how it is.
So all that has happened this summer amounts to a nice move in the right direction for open-wheel racing in the U.S. But the primary flaw in its ultimate revival still must be addressed.
As long as Patrick, Hornish and Andretti race in one series and Allmendinger competes in another, nothing is really repaired.
Open-wheel racing in America is fundamentally flawed as long as the IRL and ChampCar insist on living separate lives. It’s like a house with a faulty foundation. It doesn’t matter how nice the paint job is or how beautifully the yard is landscaped, you still have to fix the real problem.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Viewers have every right to demand more, but only so much is going to happen

I found myself listening to the guys on XM Radio's NASCAR channel Thursday night when they were talking about the "side by side" deal ESPN and ABC use on their IndyCar Series telecasts.
Specifically, they were addressing a story in the Long Island (N.Y.) Press about whether the format, in which commercials share the screen with a video image of what's happening on the track, might ever be used in NASCAR telecasts when ABC/ESPN resumes broadcasting stock-car events next year.
The specific sticking point was a quote from NASCAR managing director of corporate communications Ramsey Poston.
"We've looked at a lot of options to enhance the fan/viewer experience but feel that a split-screen presentation of ads and racing serves neither the fan nor advertiser," Poston said.
This comment, of course, was drawing hoots from fans and the hosts of the show alike. Fans' interests would certainly served by splitting the screen, as they would if race telecasts had no commercials at all.
Normally, it wouldn't bother me a bit to let Poston twist in the wind a little on this one. It's not that I don't like him, but he and I sometimes find ourselves with competing interests as he and I both try to do our jobs.
But I can't do it in this case. Poston didn't choose his words well. When I talked to him on the phone on Friday he said he realized after reading his comments he came off sounding like he was trying to speak for the fans more than he'd intended to do.
In clarifying his position, Poston said that NASCAR has looked at what ABC/ESPN does with the split screen and doesn't think that it does justice either to the race coverage or to advertisers.
And he's right.
You're hearing the commercial sound, and the only thing that can be said for the small view of the race is that it's better than nothing. But only barely.
Advertisers, meanwhile, are paying far more for commercial time on NASCAR races than they are on IRL broadcasts. NASCAR has a big-time TV deal, while the IRL basically sells the Indianapolis 500 to ABC and throws the rest of its series in with the deal.
It also should be pointed out that "side-by-side" certainly hasn't been a television ratings bonanza for the IRL, either. If an advertiser buys a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, he gets a full page. If an advertiser pays the going rate for a spot on a NASCAR telecast, that company ought to get what it's paying for as well.
It might be a more popular view to say otherwise, but it'd be hypocritical. I don't blame NASCAR fans for wanting to see races without commercials. I don't blame fans for complaining when restarts are missed or commercials get backed up and the coverage of races gets choppy.
I frequently get e-mails from fans who've timed commercials or written down how many laps of racing they see in a certain period of a telecast. I tell them time and time again that the commercial load in a NASCAR telecast isn't significantly larger than what you see in a night of prime-time shows.
Those shows have natural breaks, but NASCAR races do not. Commercials just seem more intrusive in the race broadcasts.
I heard Ken Schanzer of NBC Sports say once that NASCAR is the "best covered" sport on television because of all the places the networks can take cameras. I think he's absolutely right.
If something happens on a commercial, it's quickly replayed from 12 different angles. Fans don't miss much, if anything.
Fans want more than they'll ever get because that's natural. They never want to miss a pass or a pit stop or a restart. They always want to see 15 or 20 drivers interviewed in the postrace, and sometimes time simply doesn't allow that.
A fan's favorite driver can never be shown enough and the driver he hates most is always going to be shown too much.
That's how fans are. There are some fans out there who would be willing to pay to watch races commercial free, but not enough of them to make that a viable commercial entity.
So as long as advertisers are paying the bills - and they're very, very big bills - commercials are going to be part of NASCAR telecasts.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

NHRA fans just like their drivers fast

Congratulations to J.R. Todd for becoming the first African-American driver to win in the National Hot Rod Association’s top fuel division over the weekend.
Actually, I should say it this way. Congratulations to Todd for getting his first top fuel victory, and congratulations to the NHRA for having a big jump on other American racing series when it comes to diversity.
Melanie Troxel is in the running for the top fuel championship this year and there are several female drivers competing at drag racing’s top level, too. Shirley Muldowney was winning races in the NHRA before a lot of current competitors were born. And it’s nice that fans of drag racing don’t seem to care too much about what color or gender the driver is, just whether he or she can get down the track really, really fast.

  • Speaking of drag racing, I meant to mention “Driving Force” before it debuted Monday night on the A&E cable network. The show is about John Force, the Funny Car driving legend, and his relationship with his daughters who are all, to one degree or another, involved in the sport as well.
    Force is, well, he’s John Force. He’s a little bit of Elvis Pressley, a little bit of Evel Knievel and a little bit of Robin Williams all kind of mashed up into one. Force talks like he races, wide open, but he never hits the chute.
    When I first heard that they were going to make a television series about Force and his family, my reaction was, “And people thought Ozzy Osbourne was nuts.”
  • Barney Hall might be as far away, personality-wise, from John Force as is possible. Hall, the voice of NASCAR on Motor Racing Network, is absolutely the nicest man in racing. There are a lot of good people in the sport, but I promise you there is nobody who’s a better human being than Barney Hall.
    I went to Barney one day and asked him if he’d let me write a book about all he’s seen and done since he started working races more than 40 years ago. He said that was a fine idea, but that Ben White had already beaten me to the draw.
    So I owe Ben White one. No, actually, Ben’s too nice of a guy to be mad at either. Ben and Barney finally got around to writing their book and it’s out now. “Barney Hall’s Tales from Trackside” is a great, great read. The story about how Barney learned to fly his own airplane, the story about how he got arrested trying to go to work at Daytona one day and the story about the legendary Chris Economacki correcting Ken Squier’s grammar on the air one day are among my favorites.
    Pick it up. You’ll be glad you did.

  • Friday, July 14, 2006

    Warning! Road-weary motorsports writer unloading ahead

    OK, fair warning right up front. I have been spending a lot of time on the road lately, and I’m getting pretty cranky about it. Don’t say you have not been warned.

  • The two guys signing on the Applebee’s commercials? I hope they hitch a ride with the “Can you hear me now?” guy and drive off a cliff.
  • Something is going on with me and hotel maids. (No, gutter minds, not that.) Their newsletter must have a whole section about me or something.
    Earlier this year, on a Sunday morning, one knocked on my door at 7:30 wanting to clean the room. At least she knocked. Last weekend near Chicagoland Speedway, the maid used her pass key to come into the room on both Sunday and Monday mornings without bothering.
    Look, I know this sounds petty. But when I am in a hotel room, that’s my space. I put my stuff in the bathroom where I want it. The maids need to leave it alone. Again, in the same hotel in Illinois, they had this little lap desk thing in the room. It’s lovely, but I don’t use it. So I sort found a hole for it beside the TV cabinet. Every day, the maid kept putting it right back on the bed. Why? They do that, but if ice has melted in the ice bucket they don’t DARE pour that water out.
  • Just because the airlines say you can use your cell phone as long as the plane is parked at the gate, that doesn’t mean you have to. Nor is it a rule that you have to turn it back on as soon as the wheels touch the ground.
    There are people who are important enough that they need to be in contact with the world as much as possible. These folks, however, almost always have assistants and aides who take care of that for them.
    You, almost certainly, are not that big of a deal. That sales call you’re yelling into your phone about while the rest of us are trying to find an extra inch or leg room? It can wait. A decade ago very, very few people had cell phones and the world kept going.
  • Having said that, I like my Blackberry. I think it’s silly when people say Blackberry users are “addicted.” It’s a tool. I check my e-mail from more places now than I used to be able to, but that’s the point. If I go to the hardware store and buy a hammer, it’s because I need a hammer to drive nails with. Ask me after the fact if I find I am driving more nails than I did before I had a hammer, I am most likely going to say yes.
    That’s not my point, though. I like almost everything about the Blackberry, but it has two absolutely horrible design flaws. The button you touch to answer a call is actually a little wheel.
    If you don’t manage to push it directly in and turn the wheel every so slightly downward, the option you’re choosing changes from “Answer” to “Ignore.” And then, the button to end a call is right below that wheel – and right where you put your hand to hold the thing to actually talk on a call.
    It’s not as maddening as the Applebee’s guys. But it’s close.
  • I absolutely agree that people who get in the passing lane and go slower than the speed limit are annoying. But I submit they’re not anywhere near as bad as people who go 25 miles per hour over the speed limit and act like you’re in their way. Don’t hand me this “I am just going with the flow of traffic,” either. If you’re changing lanes every 100 yards that’s not about being in any kind of flow. That’s you being a dimwit.
    If you constantly find yourself uncomfortably close to the rear bumper of the car in front of you, you’re the menace.
  • Cruise control? You’ve got it but you do not HAVE to use it. If the speed limit is 65 and you’ve got your cruise control set on 80, you do not know HOW to use it.
  • Your mother should have taught you a couple of things that she apparently overlooked.
    First, when the door of an elevator opens (and this applies to a bus or a tram or anything remotely resembling that) the people coming off have the right-of-way. Let them come off before you try to get on.
    Second, if you’re part of a group of people waiting for a bus (or a tram or a taxi or a subway or anything remotely resembling that) even if people aren’t standing in one the principles of a line still apply. If the rental car bus (or the airport parking bus or the little train that takes you from one part of the airport to another or anything remotely resembling that) just happens to stop directly in front of where you’re standing, the person who has been waiting the longest still has the right to get on first.
    As that noted philosopher George Costanza once said, “We’re living in a society, here, people!”
  • That sign that says “No parking?” Yes, that does mean you, too.

  • Monday, July 10, 2006

    Bump, bump...who's there?

    I hesitate to even offer an opinion about what happened on Lap 264 of Sunday’s USG 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
    Because Jeff Gordon was involved, a great many fans automatically have an unalterable position on the incident. Gordon haters think it was dirty pool. Gordon’s fans think it was either just a racing incident or justified payback for what happened earlier this year at Bristol.
    Matt Kenseth’s fans, meanwhile, are obviously upset. Kenseth said he’d probably have run out of gas anyway, and it looked like Gordon would likely be fast enough to make the pass before the checkered flag even if Kenseth kept going. But that doesn’t ease the frustration of seeing your favorite driver’s car being spun out while running in the lead with only a few laps left.
    I don’t really have a dog in the fight, aside from the fact that it gave us all something to write about and argue about after the race.
    I never have thought that NASCAR can – or should – try to officiate all of the contact out of stock-car racing. Rubbin’, after all, is racin.’
    But what always has fascinated me is the situational officiating involved in the sport. Everything seems to depend on who’s involved or when something happens. And in that regard, NASCAR’s not all that different from any other sport.
    In basketball, a foul should be a foul. But the same contact called in the first five minutes of a big game is not necessarily going to be called in the final five minutes, and everybody understands that.
    Have you ever noticed how rarely you see holding called on an offensive lineman if an NFL or big-time college team is driving for a late touchdown? I have. On the other hand, a defensive back gets a little more leeway on contact sometimes when it’s late in a close game.
    I have been covering NASCAR for 10 seasons now, full-time, and I don’t think I can ever remember a car contending for a victory being called for a pit-road speeding penalty on his final stop.
    One of these days, I would love to see NASCAR hand out to the media a printout of what its new computers that supposedly measure pit road speeds showed for every car on every trip down pit road. But I am not going to hold my breath waiting to see that data.
    Which brings us to what happened Sunday.
    I honestly believe that if Gordon had done the same thing to Kenseth on Lap 50 of a race at Daytona or Talladega, NASCAR would have given Gordon a “rough driving” penalty. And if it was something that should have drawn a penalty in those circumstances, then it should have been met with some kind of sanction on Sunday.
    Having said that, though, haven’t a lot of drivers throughout the sport’s history made a name for themselves by showing how much they wanted to win by driving “tough” in similar circumstances throughout their careers?
    Gordon talked after Sunday’s incident about being hungry for wins and about how Kenseth should have expected what happened, especially given what happened with Kenseth bumping Gordon late in the race at Bristol earlier this year. He also hinted that he still owes Tony Stewart one, from an incident last year between those two, and that if Stewart sees Gordon coming in a similar situation he’d better “be ready.”
    If you closed your eyes, that sounded a whole lot like a fellow named Earnhardt used to sound after he’d shown how hungry he was to win.

    Monday, July 03, 2006

    Chasing a better title format

    Two guys I like and respect very much, Terry Blount of the Dallas Morning News and Dave DeSpain of Speed Channel, have weighed in with their opinions about what tweaks NASCAR should make to the Chase for the Nextel Cup in 2007.
    If you missed it late last week, NASCAR chairman Brian France said some changes in the format are likely after this year, which will be the third under the current plan.
    I am sure other guys have expressed their opinions, too. But Blount and DeSpain each brought up something I wanted to address.
    We’ll start with Blount.
    One of the things NASCAR apparently wants to do is increase the chance that more than 10 drivers might qualify for the Chase in a given year. They could, of course, simply say the top 12 or top 15 gets into the “playoffs,” but for some reason it seems NASCAR would rather have the number “float.”
    There’s talk of widening the window in which a team would make the Chase from within 400 points of first to within 500 or even 600. I’d prefer 500, because I want to see good teams miss the Chase, which is what makes the season’s first 26 races worthwhile.
    Blount’s idea is to make it so any driver who wins one of the first 26 races makes for the Chase. I might could be talked into that if you added one codicil – any driver who runs in ALL 26 of those races and wins one of them makes the Chase.
    No disrespect to Boris Said, because it would be a wonderful story if it happens, but if Said wins at Watkins Glen next month that doesn’t mean he should get a shot at winning the championship. Last year, Kasey Kahne won at Richmond in May but his team did not perform to a level where that win should have given him a berth in the Chase.
    I think Blount would settle for a version of the 500-point idea I’ve been pushing for two years.
    Give a driver a 500-point bonus for his first win in the regular season. Not for every win, mind you, just the first one. Every driver who wins a race gets that bonus, so if more than 10 win during the first 26 races it then becomes a matter of consistency among those winners. A 500-point bonus, conversely, would not be enough to get a part-time team into the Chase.
    During the Chase, reset the counter so that a driver gets the bonus again for winning one of those 10 races. The championship contenders know that to win the title they have to win a Chase race, and drivers not in the Chase could go a long way toward finishing 11th or moving up in the final standings by stealing one of those wins away.
    People freak out when I suggest a 500-point bonus, but the number doesn’t matter as long as it’s enough to make winning the most important thing toward making the Chase. If only 10 full-time drivers win during the first 26 races, I agree with Blount that those should be the 10 guys with a shot at the championship.
    DeSpain believes that NASCAR has grown to a point where it needs to expand.
    He advocates dividing into two “leagues” for the first 25 races, with one league running on Saturday and the other on Sunday. Then, the top 10 or 15 from each league moves into the championship series.
    I just think it’s fairly well established that dividing your sport is not the way to go. If open-wheel racing cobbled together a season-ending five-race playoff between the best from the IndyCar Series and the best from ChampCar, would that be better than having all of the good drivers and all of the good teams racing on the same track’s all season long? I don’t think so, and I don’t see how having Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth at one track and having Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson at another on the same weekend helps NASCAR.
    Another smart guy, Jeff Burton, said over the weekend at Daytona that NASCAR might think about putting 15 guys in a Chase with 15 races to go, then cutting it to 10 with 10 to go and five with five to go like a true playoff. That’s better than the two leagues idea, I think.