Friday, December 29, 2006

People add up quickly in NASCAR's numbers game

I was up in Mooresville this week and had about 30 minutes to kill before I was supposed to meet up with someone, so I rode down the road where Robert Yates Racing’s shop sits.
When you come into the business park, you go down a hill and then back up it and the shop’s on the left. As you start down the hill, you can see the shop pretty well. The closer I got to it, the more I was wondering if I was missing a big story.
The place was absolutely deserted. I looked like it USED to be the home of Robert Yates Racing. The deal, of course, is that for about the only time on the calendar NASCAR was shut down.
With Christmas Day and New Year’s Day falling on Mondays this year, just about every team in the sport is taking this week off. It’s absolutely well-deserved on all fronts, but it is just spooky to go to a NASCAR team’s shop on a weekday and not see it bustling with activity.
I’ve spent a big part of my time the past couple of weeks finishing up a book that’s going to be called “Half the Battle.” It’s an inside look at Jeff Burton’s team as it went through the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup, and thanks to Burton and all of the guys on his team I think it’s going to be turn out well.
To gather the information to write it, I spent as much time as I could during the season’s final weeks hanging around with the guys on the No. 31 team’s truck and listening to them on the radio as they went through practices and the races.
It’s one thing to know how much work goes into getting a competitive race car on the track each weekend, but it’s an entirely eye-opening experience to see that up close with a focus on one team.
Week after week, I came away amazed at just how much has to be done right and how much has to be dealt with for a team to enjoy any kind of success in the sport.
I walked away after Homestead with a renewed respect for what all of the people who work in the sport do. I was seeing it up close with one team, but it also made me understand that I could walk into any truck up and down the garage and have the same experience if I hung around long enough.
About 25 people, maybe a few more, directly have a hand in getting the No. 31 Chevrolet onto the track for Burton to drive it each week. There are probably that many more back at Richard Childress Racing who don’t necessarily work on preparing that car, but work to make all of RCR’s cars go faster.
And then there’s another entire group who work to make RCR, the company, run so that the cars have a chance to race.
It’s staggering to do that math and multiply it by 43 cars. Even with the crossover work done on multicar teams, hundreds and hundreds of people have a hand in making these cars go.
Hundreds more work in NASCAR, inspecting cars and officiating the races, and each track had another few hundred people working to provide the sport its venues.
Here’s hoping that all of those folks who make a contribution to NASCAR got spend this week with their families and friends, enjoying the little bit of time when the race shops and the race tracks aren’t humming with activity.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bobby Hamilton is still fighting

In August, Rick Minter from the Atlanta paper and I sat in Bobby Hamilton’s motor home at Bristol Motor Speedway and talked with him about his fight with cancer.
All of the reports about his three months of treatment for the cancer doctors had found in his neck were optimistic. The radiation and chemotherapy had taken their toll, but Hamilton was upright and moving forward.
Rick and I both wanted to write stories saying that Hamilton had defeated cancer. We kept wanting Hamilton and his fiancée, Lori, to say he was cured. They would not.
“She’s very careful about that,” Lori said, speaking of Hamilton’s lead physician, Dr. Barbara Murphy. “She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re cured of cancer, you’re 100 percent clean.’”
The scans and everything that could be done from outside Hamilton’s body looked good. But some of the doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville wanted to do surgery to dissect Hamilton’s lymph node to make sure the cancer cells were gone. Some of them didn’t think it was necessary, but Hamilton did.
“I don’t want to go to bed at night,” Hamilton says, “thinking we half-assed it.” Rick and I left and wrote our stories, saying that Hamilton would have that surgery done the following week. I can’t speak for Rick, but I guess I just assumed that no news was good news so I didn’t think about checking in after the surgery to make sure everything was OK.
Then, one day last week, I got an e-mail saying that Hamilton had hired Ken Schrader to drive the No. 18 Dodge in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2007.
Hamilton had said on March 17 when he announced that he was beginning treatments that he wanted to return to drive his truck beginning with the opener at Daytona in ’07. After seeing him in August I knew he had a long road ahead of him to get back behind the wheel. But the Schrader announcement prompted me to send Lori an e-mail asking her how Hamilton was coming along and whether he was going to get to race at Daytona.
Lori answered me quickly, but politely said it’d be a couple of days before they really would have anything to tell us. Maybe I should have been worried by that, but I guess I was still in the wishful thinking mode.
And then, Wednesday afternoon, Amanda Jones sent out a release from Bobby Hamilton Racing.
“In August after extensive treatment from chemotherapy and radiation Hamilton and his doctors were optimistic about findings in his post-treatment CT Scan,” it read. “However, microscopic cancer cells still remained in the right side of his neck. Since that time, Hamilton is continuing his chemotherapy treatment and has gone through several procedures to keep the cancer at bay.”
Hamilton is still fighting. “Cancer is an ongoing battle, and once you are diagnosed you always live with the thought of the disease in your body,” he said. “It is the worst thing you could ever imagine. We are going to continue to search for the best available treatment for my form of cancer. I have flown to several places for other opinions. We know there are some of the brightest minds in the world working on a cure for cancer.
“I didn’t want to be labeled as a victim when I announced it and I sure won’t lie down and be a victim now.”
I hope everybody who reads this will say a prayer for Bobby and Lori and their families, and one for his doctors and another one for all of the smart, dedicated people in this world who’re working every day to kick cancer’s ass.
Everybody who knows Bobby Hamilton would love to see him back behind the wheel for the Craftsman Truck Series season opener at Daytona. But it looks like that won’t happen in 2007.
That’s OK, because 2008 or 2009 works just fine, too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fans will be key ingredient in upcoming radio gig

I am really, really looking forward to Jan. 1.
I hope most of you have heard by now that I am going to be part of the “Morning Drive” show that will air from 7 to 11 a.m. weekdays on Sirius NASCAR Radio channel 128. Our show starts Jan. 1 when NASCAR’s satellite radio rights move from XM to Sirius.
I will be doing the show with Marty Snider, who was a pit reporter for NBC and TNT and will continue to be part of TNT’s team in the new contract. He and I agree on some things and disagree on others, which is about the best you can hope for.
I am going to do that show as well as maintain my job as beat writer for The Charlotte Observer.
It means more work, sure, but I’ve been telling people that I talk about racing all day anyway. I might as well get paid and put some of it on the air.
We want our show every day to be a conversation among ourselves, race fans and the people in the sport. We’re going to talk about whatever the fans want to talk about and about what we think the fans are going to want to know. Some days I hope we’ll get it right, and other days I know we’ll wish we could have done better. But the idea is to have fun and to provide fans with what I think has been missing.
NASCAR chairman Brian France has said repeatedly that he thinks NASCAR is an “undercovered” sport. He has talked about how he wants the sport to be talked about and written about not just on race weekends, but all week long.
Well, that’s where we come in. In some of our meetings leading up to the first show, people have said they just hope we’ll have callers. That doesn’t worry me a bit. I know there are race fans out there with strong opinions they want to express. Read my e-mail or the comments on these blogs and you’ll see that. We want our show to be a home for those fans. If you’re fired up about something that has or hasn’t happened, we want you to know that we’ll be there four hours Monday through Friday talking about it.
We’ve talked about having on guys who work in the sport who fans don’t know yet but who we know work hard and do tremendous jobs. We’ll have drivers on, sure, and I hope any driver in the sport will feel totally comfortable to pick up the phone and call us up if he has something to say about an issue we’re discussing. But we also hope any tire changer or transport driver will do the same thing – as well as any fan.
Marty and I want to try to get to the bottom of things as fast as we can. When we hear a rumor, we’re going to check it out and get the people who’re involved in it on the air as soon as we can.
Of course, that’s not very much different at all from what we do now. It’s just that now we’ll have that four-hour block each morning to get what we find out to the listeners. Maybe we can stop a few bad rumors before they really get started.
One thing I hope fans will know right from the start is that NASCAR does not control what we can and can’t say. Sirius is paying NASCAR for the satellite radio rights, and the name of the channel is Sirius NASCAR Radio. But NASCAR won’t control the content. Like anybody else, they’ll try to spin things their way when news is coming out. But we’re going to call it like we see it. If the listeners think we’re shills for NASCAR, we won’t last on the air long. And I hope to be doing this for a long, long time.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Scribe's efforts benefit Victory Junction Gang Camp

I always hate to go to a movie when I know there are going to be reporters depicted in some way.
They always show reporters hanging around in a big group hollering obnoxious questions at victims of horrible tragedies. The way people talk to me about people who cover NASCAR for a living, they think the only thing we do is sit around and wait for free food to be served.
(Let me say this about that. Yeah, they feed us. But once this year somebody was doing a survey and asked me which track serves the best food to the media. I thought about it a long, long time and could not come up with an answer to the question. It's edible, don't get me wrong, but it's not like we're being hand fed grapes by vestal virgins or anything.)
There are some deadbeats in the racing media, just like there are almost certainly some wherever you work. But there are some pretty good people, too.
One of them is a guy named Al Pearce. Al has been covering racing for a long, long time. Nobody in the media, I'd bet, has traveled to NASCAR races via more diffent modes of transportation than Al has, either. He's taken trains, planes, buses, trucks, cars and motorcycles to get to the track.
He's also been on Kyle Petty's charity motorcycle ride every year he's been able to make it, and he's adopted the Victory Junction Gang Camp as a cause.
Two years ago, Al got a plain, white driver's helmet and went around getting every living Cup Series champion to sign it. Last year, he got every living winner of the Daytona 500 to sign a similar helmet. Once he's got all the signatures, he donates the helmet to Victory Junction, and it's then auctioned off to raise money for the camp.
This year, Al's project was to get every living driver who has won the Indianapolis 500 to sign one helmet. As far as some of the historians at Indianapolis know, there's no other helmet out there with all of those names on it.
Al has one to go -- Kenny Brack -- and he's arranged to get the helmet to Brack this week (UPS and FedEx have helped him ship the helmet to some drivers and then get it back to Al after it was signed). He collected a bunch when the IRL came to Richmond earlier this year and has been working on it pretty much all summer. He's also promising whoever winds up buying the helmet at auction that he'll see to any subsequent winner of the Indy 500 adds his name to the helmet.
Al and a group of family, friends and fans around his home in southeastern Virginia have raised nearly $45,000 for the camp with the helmets and a couple of other projects.
Once Brack signs, Al will give the helmet to the folks at Victory Junction and they'll decide when, where and how to sell it to raise the most money for the camp.
It's a really cool thing that Al has done, and there has to be some Indianapolis 500 memorabilia collector out there who's willing to pay top dollar for the helmet Al has put together.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

New York: If you can't make it there ...

Sorry to be a little late about commenting on this, but with all of this “idle” time I have on my hands this “offseason” I sometimes let the hours just slip away.
(If you can’t detect the sarcasm, trust me, it’s there. There is no offseason any more.)
The announcement earlier this week that International Speedway Corporation has bailed on its plans to build a speedway on a site on Staten Island is certainly not great news for that company. ISC invested considerable time and money into getting those plans off the ground, and it’s a shame to see that come to nothing.
I know ISC and, by extension, NASCAR want to have a track in the New York City market. Goodness knows the folks who run stock-car racing desperately want New York to love them.
What I’ve never really understood about the idea of building a track there, though, is where’s the demand? Does anybody really get a sense that there are people living within, say, an hour of midtown Manhattan who are “underserved” by NASCAR?
Pocono and Watkins Glen are certainly within a reasonable drive of New York City. Race fans in other parts of the country routinely drive several hours to see a race. If there are fans who want to see racing living in the five boroughs, are they somehow deprived of that right?
ISC wanted to build a three-quarter mile track with about 80,000 seats on Staten Island and use ferries and helicopters and buses to supplement the bridges that might carry fans to and from events. One of these days, mass transit may play a major role in moving fans on race days. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Can you imagine a few thousand motorcoaches and RVs pouring onto Staten Island for a NASCAR weekend? Actually, I don’t see how it could negatively impact New York City traffic because it’s already worse than I thought possible. But still, the thought boggles the mind.
There are tracks in Nashville, Kentucky and near St. Louis that would love to have Cup race. Already built, already up and running. There’s a new track in Iowa that, by all accounts, is very nice, too. ISC doesn’t own any of them of course, so that means NASCAR doesn’t have much desire to go there. (Not that there’s any conflict of interest between NASCAR and ISC, which are two entirely separate companies that just happen to both be controlled by the same family, the Frances, and who just happen to share the same headquarters building in Daytona.)
You know, of course, that a track in New York isn’t about fans at all. NASCAR would give away every one of those 80,000 tickets at a track there in exchange for having a venue in that market. Every seat could be filled by a corporate partner’s fanny and stock-car racing’s governing bodies would be deliriously happy.
I am beginning to think that’s one of the major things wrong with the sport right now. The folks in Daytona and in their branch offices in New York and Charlotte and Los Angeles have done an outstanding job establishing and nurturing relationships with sponsors and other corporate partners. That part of the industry is more robust than it has ever been, and NASCAR should be lauded for that.
But that’s only part of the equation. If NASCAR doesn’t take care of its fans better – the fans who pay to come watch the races, not to come do business at them – the sponsors and corporate partners eventually won’t have any customers to service through the sport.
It’s like watering the leaves of a plant and letting the roots go dangerously dry. Ultimately, that’s bad business.

Friday, December 01, 2006

New York parties go on without me

I am not staying at the Waldorf-Astoria.

NASCAR broke me of that a few years back when they overbooked reservations for championship weekend and I got placed in a room in the Waldorf Towers at about $575 a night. The Observer paid that bill, but they weren't too happy and I don't blame them.

I always try to find something in the neighborhood, and for the past few years I've been in a little hotel down about two blocks that's nice and costs, by New York City standards, a reasonable rate. I won't tell you the name, though. Find your own secret New York City place.

Anyway, Friday I had an afternoon meeting up near Rockefeller Center and decided to swing by the Waldorf to pick up my banquet ticket on the way. As I went into the massive lobby (the Waldorf really is a fabulous place, until you actually go to the closets they call rooms), I started seeing a few NASCAR folks.

Some of them looked OK, but several of them were kind of, well, bleary-eyed. One guy I won't name was asking me if they had a Starbucks in the hotel because he needed coffee, badly, and was afraid it was about to start raining outside. Acutally, there is a Starbucks off the entrance on the Park Avenue side.

This guy, and several others I ran across, had been to Thursday night's big party at a place called Marquis. This is the second year that party has been held, and last year it was by all accounts quite the throwdown. That event, in fact, was the final blow for the Myers Brothers Breakfast that used to be held on Friday mornings. Several people who were supposed to give or receive awards at that breakfast last year had not sufficiently recovered from the Marquis party to do so.

No, I didn't go. Not last year, not this year. I am too old and too married for that kind of foolishness. I don't drink, either, and that pretty much seems to be the whole point of this party, too.

Anyway, initial reports are that while this year's event was wall-to-wall people having a very good time, there were far fewer misbehaving celebrants than last year.

There's another chance, though, after the awards ceremony tonight. The post-banquet party seems to have calmed down some in recent years, too. There apparently still hasn't been one yet to match the 1992 party thrown by Alan Kulwicki, which legend has it included Richard Petty dancing in a Conga line and Kulwicki and several Winston officials digging in their tuxedo pockets for enough money to pay the band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attacks, to keep playing for an extra hour or two.

Sorry, but I won't be able to confirm or deny what happens there, either. I have to file a story after the banquet, and once I am back in my room it'd take an act of Congress to get me to go back to the Waldorf and get in the middle of all of that.

-- Written by and posted for David Poole