Thursday, October 26, 2006

It's been a year, and you and I still need to catch up

Hey Daddy. I dropped by to visit for a minute early Thursday morning before coming to Atlanta for another race. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since that night last October when I didn’t get back before you had to go. Some days it seems like it has only been a little while. Other days, it seems like it has been forever.
I miss you, like I still miss Mama. A couple of months ago I turned in the relic of a cell phone the paper had me using for a newer model. When I was moving the numbers over into the new phone, I came to yours in the old one. I guess I’d never really reached a point where I was ready to take it out.
We used to talk about how many times the both of us had something happen and our first thought was, “Wait until Sue hears this one.” I guess it’s sort of like that “phantom pain” people have when a part of them is missing. Or something like that.
Your grandchildren are growing up. Megan graduated from high school in June, which doesn’t seem possible. On my side of the family, we’ve got a son in the Navy learning to work on nuclear reactors and a daughter who just gave birth to your first great-grandchild. Eli has been with us for 3½ weeks now, and I think I’ve already laid down a pretty good foundation for spoiling him.
I’ll have to work hard to match the standards you set in that, but everybody needs goals.
Eli has been a good boy. He fusses a little bit now and then, for the most part he just watches the world go by. I told him the other day as he tried to fight sleep that he should just go ahead and take a nap. “Eating and sleeping and messing up diapers, that’s your job right now,” I said. “It’s not the worst job you’ll ever have, either.”
Work is a zoo, as always. I know you’d probably be pulling for Mark Martin or Matt Kenseth to win the Chase this year, mainly because they drive Fords. Even though that truck you finally had to give up driving was a Chevrolet, you were always a Ford guy.
Well, that and an “anybody but Earnhardt” guy.
I think it’s a shame you didn’t get to go to the track more with me, though, because I am fairly well convinced that you would have liked Dale Earnhardt Jr. if you ever got a chance to know him.
Travel stinks. They’ve had to ban most liquids from airplanes because the world has gone bonkers. It had been a few weeks since I traveled, so when I left to come here I put this vial of lens cleaner in my carry-on bag. The drugstore near my house used to carry it and I love how it works, but they hadn’t had it in a while. They got some in and I had a bottle and had barely used it. But there it was and I just had to throw it away. It was my mistake, I could have just put it in the checked bags, but I just forgot about it.
It’s supposed to rain Friday at the track, but maybe it’ll let up long enough for them to get qualifying in. I remember last year that Friday was a very, very pretty day in Georgia. I was driving back to the hotel to pick up my stuff and head home to try to see you before you left, and the leaves were turning and the skies were as blue as they could be. It was way to pretty too turn out to be one of the worst days a son could ever have, that’s for sure.
They’re doing an OK job keeping up the place where you and Mama are resting. The grass is trimmed up and even though it has turned colder it’s still nice and green. The only reason I don’t cry about you being gone every day is that I know you and Mama are together now, watching me trying to play “Paw-Paw” to Eli and laughing at me when I try to figure out how to hold his little head correctly or know just how hard you’re supposed to rap on his back when he needs to burp.
Don’t worry. I’ll tell him about you guys. He’ll be sad he never really got to know you, but like I said, I don’t think the spoiling gene skipped a generation. All I can promise is that I’ll do the best job I can, because that’s all I ever saw you do.
Love you and miss you, David

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Come on already, the 'car of tomorrow' isn't a Pinto

I saw the other day where NBA commissioner David Stern said that he doesn’t care how much players gripe about the new basketball being introduced into the league this year, the decision to use it is not going to change.
The ball isn’t made out of leather, like the old one was, and some of the players think the new “composite” ball will be too slippery or feel too different or something like that. As far as I know, though, the new ball is the same size and it’s also still round.
Now you and I both know that every player who’s made it all the way to the NBA has spent his whole life shooting any kind of basketball he could get his hands on into any kind of hoop he could find while he was honing his skills. They’ve played with balls that had too little air in them and too much air. They’ve played with balls that got soaking wet every time they rolled off the end of a schoolyard blacktop into a puddle or got dirt all over them when they were dribbled off a root that worked its way up through after the grass got killed on the backyard court they first started playing on.
In case you can’t figure out where I am going with this and how I am going to get it over to NASCAR, think of the new NBA ball as the “car of tomorrow.”
Nextel Cup drivers have almost all raced somewhere in go-karts or midget cars or short-track late model junkers assembled under a bad fluorescent light in some buddy’s garage. They helped spend every dime their parents could muster or went around begging for a car to drive just because they wanted to race.
Now, they’ve reached the pinnacle of their sport and few of them have the time to touch a car any more. A team of engineers and artisans take cars from a computer screen and turn it into steel and rubber and speed, then paint it up and roll it out for these guys to do what they always dreamed of doing.
In a way, you can understand why somebody who gets to do that would be leery of the kind of change that’s coming to NASCAR beginning next season. The drivers aren’t stupid. They know how much money, time and sweat have gone into the cars they drive today, and when they hear that NASCAR is going to basically make that car obsolete over the next two or three years, you can’t blame them for not jumping up and down with glee.
I completely understand the resistance to NASCAR’s plan for implement the “car of tomorrow.” And there’s no way I can tell you right now that the new vehicle, which is taller and wider and boxier than the current car, won’t be a total disaster after it’s rolled out.
It very well might be too ugly for anybody to love. It very well might do the opposite of what it’s intended to do and make it more difficult for drivers to race in traffic, in dirty air and side by side. I might very well be the kind of mistake that “new Coke” was, for all I know, but there’s no way that I or anybody else can say that right now.
For the better part of a couple of years now, NASCAR has been telling its teams this car is coming. From the very first time they heard about it, many race teams decided that the car is a bad idea and that NASCAR would eventually “come to its senses” and abandon the project. They decided that it would be a waste of time of effort to worry about it and prepare for its arrival.
But NASCAR hasn’t backed down, and now some of those teams are in a panic.
The car of tomorrow is, beginning at Bristol in the spring of 2007, going to be the car of right now. One thing I can guarantee you is that NASCAR will run a race that day, and if teams want to be part of that they’d better be there with a car that fits the templates to NASCAR’s satisfaction.
NASCAR is going to have to do a much better job than it has of getting the rules for the new car set and let teams start building the cars with confidence they’re not going to have to start completely over at some point down the road. NASCAR also needs to get its inspection process for the new car lined up in a way that makes teams believe things will work with reasonable dispatch when it comes time to put them on the track.
But NASCAR is also going to have to be willing to listen to withering criticism from people who don’t like change, from inside the garage and from the grandstands, and be willing to stick by this project. At the same time, it also needs to listen to the people who race the cars and make reasonable changes that might need to be made once the car is actually in use. These changes can’t be knee-jerk, either. This project is to important to the sport for it to not to be handled well.
There are going to be some spectacularly bad races in the first couple of years the new car is being used. Some teams are going to be ahead of others in figuring out how to make the new car work, and the people who’re getting beat are going to scream bloody murder. But you know what, that also happens right now. There are bad races and good races with the same cars the sport has basically been using for, what, 20 years? And there are days when one team whips everybody else’s butt.
That’s called racing. I will leave you with the answer Jeff Burton gave when he was asked about the “car of tomorrow” at Martinsville over the weekend, because he’s exactly right.
"I think there's going to be a learning period,” Burton said. “I think there's going to be things that happen with the car of tomorrow that we don't know about. I think some of those things could affect the quality of racing early with the car.
“But at the end of the day, this is what I truly believe. If you give Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Racing, (Richard) Childress Racing a Pinto and said 'Here's a Pinto. You guys are going to go racing.' There'd be a heck of a race here Sunday. That's what I believe.
“I believe the race teams will figure out how to make it work. We're all worried about it and talking about it and we're all flipped out about it. A year from now it won't even be a conversation. Is the car safer as intended? I believe it to be. Do I think competition will be better? I don't know. Only time will tell.”

Saturday, October 21, 2006

How the suits took Martinsville's hot dog for a walk

At the risk of releasing the "fat joke" hounds, I come today in praise of the Martinsville hot dog.
I am not going to pretend these culinary delights have any nutritional value. They are most certainly not good for you, but they are good. And sometimes, that ought to be enough.
Here’s the Martinsville hot dog deal. Bun, bright-red Jesse Jones wiener (has to be Jesse Jones, with extra red dye coloring), with chili, mustard, onions and slaw. The dogs can be ordered with no slaw or with no onions or pretty much anyway you want one, but the get the full experience you at least have to do the chili and mustard.
They’re $2 apiece and they come wrapped in wax paper.
A couple of years ago, soon after International Speedway Corp. bought the track from the family of the late Clay Earles, who had founded it, we got here one Friday and something had changed.
The hot dogs were being served in little foam boxes. You got them pretty much plain and had to go apply your own condiments. And they weren’t quite red enough.
It was, quite frankly, an outrage.
Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers team from nearby Stuart, Va., was fighting mad about it. He found NASCAR president Mike Helton and demanded things be put back the way they were. Immediately.
Before long, word of the crisis got back to hot dog connoisseur Bill France Jr. and phone calls were immediately made. This was serious business.
The problem, of course, was symptomatic of what’s happening in our society. Instead of letting the people who’d made the hot dogs here for years keep right on making them, the people from ISC’s concession company, Americrown, came in here and thought they needed to make things "better."
By the end of that fateful day, the wax paper was back. Personally, I don’t think the hot dogs have ever quite made it back to the quality they were before the Americrown goons got hold of them. But maybe that’s just my imagination.
Regardless, people still eat them when they come here. In bunches.
I vividly recall walking into the track one cool, foggy morning several years ago at about 8 a.m. and nodding at Richard Petty as he walked by taking a chomp out of a Martinsville dog.
As I was standing behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s hauler telling tales Friday afternoon, a veteran of the garage area told the story of a guy showing up one day and having Dale Earnhardt Sr. motion him into the transporter.
"Here’s $20," Earnhardt said. "Go get as many hot dogs as this will buy and bring them to the side door of the trailer. And whatever you do, don’t tell Teresa."
Back before the Americrownistas took over, lunch on Friday for the media consisted of someone bringing in several boxes full of hot dogs. This was done as rapidly as possible, with no prior warning, so as the persons making said deliveries might have hope of getting out of the way safely before the locusts swept in.
Make all the jokes you want about sportswriters and buffets, but watching those hot dogs disappear was better than a Las Vegas magic act. Photographers, who frequently wear vests with all sorts of extra pockets, somehow managed to be particularly adept at cleaning out those boxes.
I hear from race fans all of the time telling me how NASCAR is being ruined because too many things are changing too fast. I don’t always agree with that, but I will tell you that there are some things that ought not be messed with – like Labor Day weekend racing and the true Martinsville hot dog.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trying to fathom the Ward Burton mania

There’s an interesting fascination with a driver who’ll be trying to make his first Nextel Cup start in a long time at Martinsville this weekend.
It has been almost two full seasons, since the race at Phoenix in November 2004, since Ward Burton took the green flag for a Cup race. His last top-five finish came four years ago Friday on Oct. 20, 2002, when he was fifth at Martinsville in the Bill Davis-owned No. 22 Dodge.
But people everywhere still want to know about Ward. At Daytona in July, I ran into him in the garage area and walked along talking to him about his desire to come back to the Cup series. He said he thought he had a sponsor just about lined up and was looking to find the right team to go with so he could be competitive.
As we walked along, I told him that there’s hardly a week that goes by without me getting a question either in person on via e-mail about his status. “The fans love you,” I told him.
About that time, we turned the corner of the garage and began walking along underneath Daytona’ “Fan Walk” area. As soon as people saw Ward, they started yelling at him.
“Ward, when are you coming back?” they said. “Ward, we miss you.” I looked at him and said, “I told you.”
I wasn’t at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the start of this week’s Cup test down there on Monday, but I did hear a clip of a media interview with Chase for the Nextel Cup points leader Jeff Burton, who’s Ward’s younger brother.
Guess what the first question to Jeff was? It wasn’t about his third-place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway or about his lead in the standings. It was about Ward’s “comeback.”
Jeff Burton said he was glad to see his brother get a shot because he knows how much Ward wants to come back. “I want for him what he wants,” Jeff told the reporters.
I could overanalyze this phenomenon and come up with all sorts of explanations for the Ward-mania some fans seem to have. But I think the reasons are pretty simple.
First, I think fans believe Ward Burton is just a good guy. His accent, of course, makes him stand out from the crowd. In college one time, a guy from New England told me “I just love to hear you talk.” I told him that as long as we were in the South, I wasn’t the one with the accent. But no matter how Southern you think you are, Ward Burton’s accent is unique.
There’s also the fact that Ward has been around a while, and I think fans enjoy seeing somebody who’s old enough to have been able to vote in more than one presidential election get a shot these days. Ward will turn 45 on Oct. 25th, and that’s significant when you consider that his brother, at 39, is the oldest driver who’s won a Nextel Cup race this year.
The first job for Ward will be to get the No. 4 Chevrolet into Sunday’s race. Martinsville’s a good place for him to try that, since he started second, fourth and sixth in his previous three races there before the two-year hiatus.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Let's stop talking about what's wrong with racing and look at ... well, the racing

So I am watching the end of the Busch Series race from Lowe’s Motor Speedway at Charlotte Friday night and I find myself wondering about something.
Every couple of days or so, I get an e-mail from a NASCAR fan or read something on a bulletin board about how the guys racing at the top level of stock-car racing don’t race as hard as people used to race.
Really? I wonder what races they’ve been watching lately.Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth at Dover? Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega? Casey Mears and Carl Edwards and then Dave Blaney and Kenseth in the Dollar General 300 at Charlotte?
I think it’s time we stopped talking about what’s wrong with racing for just a minute or two and say a word or two about what these guys have been up to.
I would suggest we start with "Wow."
The fact that the first and/or second place cars have wrecked three times in the waning laps in the past two NASCAR races – the Vickers-Johnson-Earnhardt Jr. incident at Talladega and the Edwards-Mears and Blaney-Kenseth ones in the Busch race Friday night – tells me that some drivers in race cars these days care a whole lot about finishing first.
This is not about saying who did what or who said what or who’s mad at who. Forget all of that middle-school drama. What I want to appreciate for a minute here is the sheer "want-to" factor that has been on display.
Yes, Vickers made a mistake at Talladega and Mears made one at Charlotte, taking out guys who were leading races. But they both made those mistakes going for wins, and race fans ought to be happy to at least know that’s what they were trying to do.
Blaney and Kenseth went door-to-door for the win in the Charlotte Busch race, just like Kenseth and Burton did in the Cup race at Dover. Kenseth eventually ran out of gas at Dover and he wrecked trying to hold on to win at Charlotte, but don’t tell me that son of a gun doesn’t hang it out trying to win.
Let’s also pause a minute to brag on Dave Blaney. He’s been running markedly better in the Cup races lately and his win at Charlotte was an example of things finally falling his way. Here’s a word of warning to those of you who don’t think Toyota’s Cup driver roster in 2007 looks all that formidable. Give Blaney race cars with the kind of financial and engineering support Bill Davis Racing is going to get from Toyota and you might be surprised at how that teams winds up running next season.It’s late Friday night – actually, early Saturday morning – as I write this. The Bank of America 500 at Charlotte could wind up being a runaway snooze fest, but even if that happens it wouldn’t change the fact that race fans have seen some pretty cool stuff in the past few weeks.
I just thought that was something I should point out.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What is it about night racing?

Night racing brings out the beast in race car drivers. At least, that’s what Lowe’s Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler believes.
"Night brings out an intensity in athletes you simply don't get during the day," Wheeler said. "Possibly this goes back to primitive man whose greater alertness at night often meant life or death.
"Animal behavior is certainly different in the dark. Sharks, tigers, lions and other big cats hunt primarily at night. Ask anyone who has ever hooked a big shark at night if it wasn't a great deal scarier than the same hookup in the daytime."
Leave it to Wheeler to equate racing in the Bank of America 500 at his track to caveman survival and late-night shark fishing.
Saturday night’s race is the only Chase for the Nextel Cup race that will be run completely at night, so Wheeler has spent the past couple of weeks trying to quantify what that means.
He’s right, based on every conversation I’ve ever had with a NASCAR driver, about at least one thing.
"I believe drivers can actually see and focus better on properly lit tracks," Wheeler said. "The lights here produce about 120 foot-candles of light on every part of the racing surface. Many high school baseball or football fields only produce 40 to 60 foot candles. And with the light concentrated on the racing surface, everything in the background is blacked out and the driver's eyes can focus on the surface itself."
Drivers also will tell you that one thing they really struggle with when it comes to night races is the actual waiting around part.
"On most race days, you're used to getting up at a certain time, eating at a certain time, you go check out the car," said Dr. Bill Thierfelder, a sports performance psychologist and former athlete who’s now president of Belmont Abbey College. "You have your normal flow of what you do and then it's race time and it all sequences together.
"Sometimes when a race is at night and, in a sense delayed, it can be a little challenging for an athlete because you feel like you're waiting."
Jimmie Johnson leads this year’s Chase drivers with five night victories in 36 starts – all at LMS – over the past five years. In that span, Matt Kenseth has the most top-10s at night, with 24, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 22. Both have 14 top fives, with Kenseth winning three times and Earnhardt Jr. twice. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton are the only two Chase drivers who don’t have night wins.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jeff Burton and the keys to Talladega survival

I was talking to Jeff Burton about Talladega the other day and he said something that I thought made a whole lot of sense.
"There's probably going to be at least one big wreck that takes out some cars in a race at Talladega," Burton said. "You understand that going in.
"The only thing you can do is try to control what you can control. The cars don't start the wrecks there. The drivers do. So the first thing you have to do when thinking about a race there is to try not to start the wreck."
Burton is not naive. He knows as well as you or I do that wrecks happen at Talladega because cars get into situations there they don't get into at any other track -- even Daytona. But the reality is, as Burton said, those cars don't get into those impossible situations by themselves. Drivers put them there. There might come a point when a wreck is inevitable, but until that point is reached it's still in the driver's hands.
Burton said the key to survival at Talladega is developing a full, realistic understanding of what your car is capable of doing and not asking it to do anything more than that.
This, of course, is insanely difficult to do. You see cars coming from the back to the front in a lap or two and know that if you get in the right line with the right momentum, you could do that, too. But the fact is that even though racing at Talladega looks like a high-speed lottery, there are cars that are better than some others and some drivers who're better at restrictor-plate racing than others.
Get a good driver in a good car and he can set the tone for what's happening behind him. The rest of the cars are reacting to moves that guy (or the handful of drivers who might be in the same position) makes.
That explains why it seems that sometimes at Talladega a driver will "settle" for staying behind one or two guys all day. You have to know what you and your car is capable of, and the trouble most often starts when somebody goes past either of those lines.