Thursday, November 30, 2006

A quick New York story

I went to the NASCAR/NMPA Myers Brothers Awards luncheon today at Cipriani's, a restaurtant in a wonderful old building on 42nd Street just across the street from Grand Central Terminal.
Before today, I would have written Grand Central Station. That's what I always thought it was called. When my friends and I used to run in and out of the house when we were kids, my mom would say, "Hey, this is NOT Grand Central Station." Well, come to find out it's Grand Central Terminal. Says so right there, carved into the building and everything.
Anyway, I was seated at the same table as Jeff Burton and he told us this story.
On Wednesday, he had occasion to be in Saks Fifth Avenue. I think he said his wife, Kim, was shopping but it was a big table and I can't be sure that's right. Anyway, he said he remembered he needed a couple of pair of black socks.
"So I take these two pair of socks over the register and the guy goes, 'That'll be $246.'" Burton looked around to see who the clerk was talking to. There was nobody else there.
"I said, 'There has to be some mistake,'" Burton said.
No mistake, the clerk said. The socks were 100 percent cashmere. They were $120 per pair -- $60 a sock.
"I said, 'Well let me ask you, where are the plain old cotton socks?'" Burton said.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Contests a good time to review season

Tuesday night was the annual fun-with-arts-and-crafts night in "The Annex," the over-the-garage apartment that's now my office in the house we've just moved into.

At the end of each season, I rake up all of the sports sections since the start of the race season and go through them looking for my best stories of the year. (We pause now for all of you who think I am a hack to make up your own joke.)

There are various contests each year for sportswriters to enter. The folks at the Observer hand entries into the North Carolina Press Association (I never win anything there) and the Associated Press Sports Editors (where I've done OK) contests. But I have to do my own entries for the National Motorsports Press Association and the Miller Lite Motorsports Journalism awards.

This process involves cutting out stories and slicing them up to make them fit on 8-by-11½ inch pieces of paper. You have to cut away the pictures and bylines and any kind of publication information.

It also involves a glue stick, which I have a complete lack of ability to use effectively. I usually wind up gluing at least one piece of paper to my desk (and did so again this year) and inevitably wind up with half of a last paragraph to a story that won't fit on the page.

Some of the people in the newspaper business don't like contests. At least they say they don't. I like entering them and like doing well in them, although I never have been able to figure out how the judging might go.

I just finished my 10th year of covering NASCAR for the Observer, and in those 10 years there are three or four stories that I would rank among my favorite ones I've ever done. I liked the topic, I liked the way the interviews went and I liked the way they turned out. And none of them ever won squat.

Halfway through the average race lead -- the story for the next day's paper about a given race -- I am usually either disgusted with how it's going or happily surprised that it's going pretty well. Nine times out of 10, though, when it comes time to pick race leads to enter in the contests I don't pick ones I liked when I was writing them.

The best thing about arts-and-crafts night, though, is that it serves as a way to review the season. Things tend to run together once the year gets cranked up. When you go back to February and look at stories written when the season was just getting started, you sometimes remember how wrong you were about what you thought was going to happen. Sometimes you realize you might have been more right than you thought you were, too. But not often.

A NASCAR year is a long, long time. The season runs from just before Valentine's Day until just before Thanksgiving. The annual contest process is one of the ways I turn the page from one year to another. As soon as next week's banquet in New York is over, I'll start working as a travel agent arranging things for another season in 2007.

And it will start all over again.

-- Written by and posted for David Poole

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The season's end would be a fine time for NASCAR to fix the 'Buschwhacker' problem

Some quick thoughts as Ford Championship Weekend in Miami comes up over the horizon.

  • Ford Championship Weekend is happening in Homestead. Miami is 30 miles north and still has the same roads torn up that have been torn up since the Cup series started coming here.
    Construction? How can be it “construction” unless something “constructive” is being done?
  • If hell has an airport, it’s a Delta Connection hub.
  • I keep waiting for NASCAR to figure out how to fix the “Buschwhacker” problem on its own, but I guess I am going to have to go ahead and give it to them.
    Nobody in the top 30 in this year’s final Nextel Cup Series driver standings gets any points, driver points or owner points for the car owner, in the first five Busch races next year. After those five races, no one in the current top 30 in the Cup series gets points for racing in Busch races.
    Cup drivers can still race all they want to in Busch races. But they’re racing for prize money in races only. They also have to qualify to make the race – no guaranteed spots in Busch fields with no points. Car owners and sponsors decide if they want to run for the Busch championship. If they do, they get a driver who’s on his way up the ladder or who’s decided Cup’s not for him. If they don’t, put anybody in the car you want to and go to town.
    Give that system two seasons and the Buschwhacker problem would fix itself.
  • People who work in NASCAR used to get excited about the end of the season. Those who travel every weekend saw the promise of a real life ahead of them and were gleeful.
    Now? Not so much. Here it is, in depressing reality for my friends and colleagues who do what I do. It’s Homestead, Thanksgiving, banquet week, Christmas shopping, New Year’s Day and then testing. Where’s the offseason in there?
  • When the 2006 season began, I kept asking people how the folks in Dodge’s racing program could let its teams get so far apart and working at such cross purposes that different teams were bringing different cars to the track. You didn’t have to be particularly smart to see that wasn’t going to work out particularly well for Dodge teams this year.
    Now, as the season ends, I am looking at what’s happened to Ford’s racing program with the same degree of confusion. How could Ford let Robert Yates get to a point where he’s even thinking about auctioning off the car owner points for the 88 and trying to field only one team next year?
    How could Ford not step in and make damn sure that there were Ford cars and trucks for Mark Martin to drive in any combination of races he wants to run next season?
    One year ago today, the two biggest stories in Nextel Cup were that Tony Stewart was in command of the Chase and that Roush had done something incredible by getting five cars into that Chase. Now, there’s a game of crew chief musical chairs going on over there and things appear to be in at least mild disarray.
    And people wonder why mechanics and other crewmen might want to look into working with Toyota teams?
  • Speaking of hell, there’s a corner of it saved for the man who invented the magnetic key card that’s used to open hotel room doors. In that corner is all the cold, refreshing water that man could want for eternity. But it’s locked behind a door and the guy’s key card won’t open it.
  • Make sure you check out in the next day or so and look at where things would stand in the WARM system – the “Winning A Race Matters” points system I’ve proposed – going into this weekend.
    I told you it was good.

  • Sunday, November 12, 2006

    It's the points, not the Chase in need of fixing

    I am sitting here in the closet they call a media center at Phoenix International Raceway, four hours before the start of today’s Checker Auto Parts 500, shaking my head.
    A racing writer’s daily ritual, whether they admit this or not, is to check the various racing web sites to see what everyone else is writing about. A NASCAR reporter who tells you he or she doesn’t check, for instance, is just a liar.
    As has been the case for the past couple of weeks, today’s digest of stories on Jay’s site includes a load of people complaining about how the Chase for the Nextel Cup is flawed because Tony Stewart is winning races but isn’t in the Chase.
    I had to be at the track here at 7 a.m. local time to be on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” show to discuss the same topic. In fairness to the ESPN folks, especially reporter Mike Massaro’s piece around which the discussion was built, they at least accurately explored the various sides of the matter.
    On the show, I tried to make the point that the real problem people seem to have with the way NASCAR picks a champion has next to nothing to do with the Chase format itself. The flaw is, as it has always been, with the points system itself.
    Stewart has won three of the past six races but, because he did not make the Chase cut after 26 races, he can’t win the championship. But if there were no Chase, Stewart would have been mathematically eliminated from championship contention DESPITE the fact he won at Texas last weekend and would have been practically eliminated weeks earlier.
    The Chase hasn’t changed that a bit. What the Chase has done is make more people more relevant for more weeks in the championship discussion. Under the old format, by Labor Day the title race usually had been winnowed down to three or four teams, and it was only on rare occasions that more than two teams were really part of the discussion in the season’s final weeks.
    The Chase keeps 12 to 15 teams, at least, in the picture until the end of September and keeps at least a handful of racers in contention until after Halloween. There could, and most likely will, soon come a year when a driver in the Chase has the kind of fall Stewart is having and wraps things up before we go to Homestead. But unless something very odd happens here this afternoon, the Chase is going to be three-for-three in doing what it was designed to do, and that’s carry the championship battle into the season’s final week.
    The argument that drivers who win multiple races should fare better in the points standings is every bit as valid now as it was under the old system. But again, that’s not a Chase issue. It’s a points issue. And until the way points are tabulated is changed, the Chase is going to feel the effects of that issue.
    First place should be significantly more rewarding than second place, and the gap between those two positions should be wider than the gap between any other in the finishing order. Make winning races more important toward winning championships and the racers in the sport will adapt to that system, Chase or no Chase.
    There’s no question that Stewart’s team is one of the best in NASCAR. That’s never been an issue. But that team had 26 changes to make the Chase this year, and it failed.
    It’s like a golfer playing in a major championship. If he shoots 86 on the first day, he can shoot 66 on the second day and still miss the cut.
    The difference in NASCAR, of course, is that the teams that don’t make the “cut” still get to play in the later rounds. The analogy may not be perfect, but the fact remains that a golfer’s bad shots count just as much as his good ones do, and that’s how it is – and ought to be – in racing as well.
    There was a movie several years about starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore called “Disclosure,” based on a Michael Crichton book. Douglas’s character is basically set up to take the fall for a failure with his company’s latest major project, and an anonymous tipster keeps advising him not to worry so much about what’s happening to him and to instead spend his time and energy on fixing the problem that’s at the root of everything to start with.
    “Solve the problem,” is the message Douglas keeps getting from his anonymous source. That’s a good message for NASCAR, too. The problem is not the Chase, it’s the points. Solve that, and the Chase will take care of itself.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    NASCAR garage area isn’t a playground at some elementary school

    OK, and I am really dating myself here, but I am reminded of a line in a song by America called “Sister Golden Hair” about being “one poor correspondent.”
    It has been nearly two weeks since I’ve updated this blog, and that’s bad. I’ve got reasons, which we’ll get to, but that’s still fairly lame.
    But we’re moving. When I way we, of course, I mean my wife is trying to move the stuff we own from one house to another. It’s maybe 2 miles from one place to another, but it might as well be from Charlotte to Phoenix, which is where I am flying today (which is Thursday, in case this winds up being posted for more than week, too).
    I went to Texas last weekend for the race there, of course, and Katy had one of her good friends down to, at least in theory, see the grandbaby. Pam, who’s from Illinois, wound up getting drafted into the moving vortex and we’re hoping that she’ll still speak to us after a respectful cooling off period.
    Moving is about as much fun as…well…I can’t think of a decent metaphor. Working in an asbestos mine? Mucking out pig sties? You fill in the blanks.
    Anyway, while I had a minute before the plane took off I thought I would comment about the incident after the race in Texas in which Kevin and Delana Harvick and a NASCAR official went down after a confrontation with someone on the No. 10 team.
    Whenever there’s some kind of postrace altercation, I usually get feedback from fans who tell me that I overreact when I say NASCAR is right to fine, suspend and otherwise penalize people for such antics. Let these guys show a little emotion, these folks say.
    Well, I am here to tell you that the garage is a very dangerous place right after a race. A lot of people are moving around a lot of heavy stuff in a big hurry, trying to get the gear packed up so they can all race to the airport and brag about how fast they got back to Charlotte.
    If you’re going into the garage after a race, you have to have your head on a swivel and be ready to react to just about anything. You can get run over by all manner of contraptions in there if you’re not careful.
    Now, if you add to that environment someone who’s out of control in anger over something that happened near the end or after a race, you’ve got a mess on your hands.
    I didn’t see what happened Sunday night, but I’ve talked to people who either did or talked to people who did. There’s a ramp that runs down from pit road into the garage area at Texas, and the best I can tell someone pushed Harvick on that ramp and he lost his balance. That set up a bowling-pin effect, with Delana and the NASCAR official going down, and then a crash cart ran over the official’s ankle.
    NASCAR was right to suspend the crew member from the 10 team who apparently pushed Harvick to start all of that. It would have been nice if NASCAR had anticipated the confrontation and taken more measures to keep it from happening, but that’s revisionist history. Sometimes people who’re hot at each other wind up in the same place and there’s nothing you can do to stop that.
    As to what happened on the track to lead to the postrace incident, I will say the same thing about this one that I say about all of them. I don’t care what happened on the track. I don’t care who was right or who was wrong. It doesn’t matter. You can’t bring that into the volatile postrace environment without creating unnecessary risk to people who have no dog in the fight, and there’s no place for it in the sport.
    I’ve heard all the old stories about people chasing each other around after races swinging tire irons or pulling pistols on each other. I could say that’s all part of the sport’s colorful past and times have changed. But that’s wrong. It was just as insane for people to act that way 20, 30 or 40 years ago as it would be today.
    The garage area isn’t a playground at some elementary school where the worst thing that’s likely to happen is a skinned elbow. There’s too much happening after a race to let this kind of stuff go on, and NASCAR was right in moving quickly to address the issue. And the next time it happens, the penalty should be more severe.
    Actually, just like with me moving, let’s hope it’s a LONG time before there is a next time.