Friday, August 31, 2007

Planes, emotional drains and automobiles: The saga continues

ONTANA, Calif. – Apparently, I was wrong.

The "band," and I use that term in the broadest since possible, knew quite a few songs. Perhaps even more than the Grateful Dead. Its songs, however, all sounded the same, very much like what you might hear from a calliope or an old-timey merry-go-round, especially after the accordion player joined for the second show.

If you’re walking into this movie in the middle, sorry. Thursday night, I wrote a blog as I sat out a "weather delay" in the Atlanta airport on my trip toward California Speedway. I wanted to pay that off right quick for the few of you who might either care or take some sort of perverse pleasure in the travel travails of others.

We did leave Atlanta on Thursday, beating that deadline by about 45 minutes.

When I left off in the story, we were waiting for flight attendants who’d been diverted to Charleston, S.C., for refueling.

Their plane finally arrived in Atlanta around 9 p.m. They arrived at Gate A27 and we were at E28, so they were only about two Zip codes from us at that point. Which was progress.

We finally got loaded up, at least upstairs in the passenger portion of the plane, around 10. But we just kept sitting there, and when the Jet-way was wheeled back to the entry door I knew that wasn’t good.

Apparently, the plane that had been sitting there on the tarmac for nearly four hours while we waited on personnel had a mechanical issue with its cargo door that went neither discovered nor addressed in that interim.

What’s fascinating, of course, is that the airline kept apologizing to us about the delays but explaining that since it was weather related there was really nothing they could have done about it. I guess the cargo door must have swelled up in the heat, or contracted due to the rain?

Anyway, we arrived about the time I figured we would, at 15 minutes after Friday, local time.

That was 15 minutes after the car rental counter closed, of course, so I took a cab to my hotel and was in the bed at 2 a.m., 5 a.m. "body clock" time.

The radio show I was supposed to do two hours after that had been waved off late Thursday night. I had no confidence I was even going to get until sometime today, so we had to make a call on that and Sirius went to its bullpen.

But I’m at the track now, finally. Got another cab back to the airport this morning and got a car, then arrived here at 10 a.m. I was apparently moments too late to hear Kyle Busch basically confirm everything that’s being reported about Joe Gibbs Racing switching to Toyota, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

And just think. In only about 72 more hours, I get to climb back into the maw of the United States air travel system once again.

Can’t wait.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Weather delay

It’s 7 p.m. Do you know where your sanity is?

Sitting in the Crown Room at Atlanta’s airport, parked because there’s weather in the area.

Here’s how my luck runs. My airplane for the flight to Ontario, Calif., is here. Sitting at the gate, ready to rock and roll. The problem is that the flight attendants for our flight are not here.

Just about the time they were supposed to land, from goodness knows where, a thunderstorm rolled across the field. They circled for a while, and then for a while longer, and finally they were running low on fuel.

So that plane was sent to Charleston, S.C., to get refueled, and is supposed to get back here about 8:30.

Supposed to, of course, being the operative phrase.

That’s assuming things go perfectly for the good souls on that plane the rest of their evening. Which, most likely, ain’t happening. Best-case scenario, they get here and we’re ready to go by 9 or 9:15 Eastern, which puts us around 10:30 p.m.

I am going to set the over-under on midnight. I say that because I’ve been in this movie before. The last time I tried to get to Ontario, it was from Orlando and we got held up in Atlanta. We landed there, finally, about 11:55 p.m. Which worked out nicely, since the car rental place my company deals with closes at 12.

This is not my first rodeo.

I was sitting out at the gate for a while and I noticed this tingling sound. I thought it was in my head for a while, then I looked across the concourse and there was a lady sitting that tapping on a triangle – you know, the instrument that is to a band what right field is to Little League.

Sitting next to her, a guy had pulled out a fiddle. And he was playing, too. Within a little while, another fellow had sat down and he had a guitar. Now I am guessing they were all together, but you never know.

Any way, the problem was that I had specifically requested the "no hoe-down" section when I came into the airport. As we waited – I guess they’re on my flight, since there was no sign of any flight leaving from over there where they had set up the barn dance – they kept right on playing.

I can’t swear to it, but I think they know about four songs, and they all seem to feature some really intricate triangle playing.

So I escaped to the Crown Room, a vestige of my 2006 experiment to fly with Delta from an airport in Charlotte that is dominated by another airline. It’s pretty easy to get to Los Angeles out of Charlotte on that airline, but – at least theoretically – Ontario works out easier on Delta. And Ontario’s airport is about five or 10 minutes from the California Speedway.
That, oddly enough, is where I am supposed to be at 3:30 a.m. Pacific time on Friday to get ready to do the Sirius Satellite Radio show I do, which begins at 7 a.m. Eastern.

Right now, at 7:16 p.m., I would say the odds of me getting to California by then are not better than fair. My wife, Katy, accuses me of borrowing trouble by worrying too much, but I don’t see it was worry. I see it as stark realism.

First, my question is this. The plane coming here that got diverted was almost certainly going to be flying somewhere else after it got here, right? OK, somewhere in this airport the crew that was going to work that flight is doing the same thing I am doing – waiting. Why can’t they get on our plane and we’ll be on our way?

I know, that puts them out of place and causes a big ol’ mess. But that’s what we’ve get here anyway.

Here’s my guess as to what’s getting ready to happen.
About 9:30, the flight attendants on the plane diverted to Charleston will roll in here and the regulations about "crew rest" will kick in, saying they can’t work a full four-hour flight to California tonight. Delta will exhaustively search for an alternate crew, and we’ll get out of here along about 10 or 10:30.

Friday morning, that is.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What went wrong at Bristol?

After watching Friday night’s Busch Series race at the new Bristol, I very nearly wrote a blog Saturday predicting that I was getting ready to see one of the best Nextel Cup races I’d seen in the nearly 11 seasons that I’ve been doing this.

I was certain that the Sharpie 500 was going to be memorable, given the prospect of having cars race two- and three-wide for 500 laps at my favorite NASCAR track.

When the race was over, though, I was trying to figure out who to blame. Who ruined this race? What caused Bristol to turn into Mini Michigan? I felt like Wilford Brimley in that scene from “Absence of Malice,” when he was telling Sally Field or Paul Newman or somebody that when he left he was going to have somebody’s backside in his briefcase to take with him.

I needed somebody to blame. I know some people think I am crazy. They saw cars running side-by-side at Bristol Saturday night, and they noted that a faster driver didn’t have to knock a slower one out of the way to pass him. This is because, for some reason, they enjoy watching racing a half lap or so away from the leaders. Me? I’ve never understood that.

The drivers loved the new track, thought it was fantastic. Well, bully for them. But they get paid to race, and it shouldn’t be about what they like. I don’t know a whole lot, apparently, but I do know that the more drivers like racing at a place the less likely fans are to want to watch races there.

Racing is about winning, isn’t it? I will guarantee you nobody among the 160,000 fans in attendance sat in hours of traffic afterward talking excitedly about how great it was to see three guys battle for 19th. Fans who see a race at Bristol will go home with great memories, but Saturday night most of those memories were about the place, the hoopla and the pre-race festivities.

The race itself? Kasey Kahne led 305 laps, then Carl Edwards led 182. David Ragan wrecked three times. And that’s just about it. It was, to say the least, a letdown. I spent much of the night and the entire drive home trying to figure out who or what to blame.

The Busch race was about as good as it gets, and that race was held on the same new track and on the same supposedly hard tires that the Cup guys had to race on. The only real variable I can think of is the car of tomorrow, but it seems too easy to lay all the blame at its feet. But I do think that’s part of the problem, and it’s a problem that ought to scare NASCAR to death.

What happened at the front of the field Saturday night, pure and simple, was that while the leader had clean air on the nose of his car he was unbeatable. That’s aero push, and if it’s that bad at Bristol with the COT what’s it going to be like next year when that car runs at California? I’ve been told a thousand times that when you take away mechanical grip, aero grip is all you have. The COT takes away downforce. Harder tires take away grip, too. So when you have less grip from other sources, air winds up being the trump card.

The only time things got a little racy up front at Bristol was when a leader came up on traffic and didn’t have the good air on the nose. So it seems to me that to fix that, you need to give the car itself more grip or give the teams tires that have more of it. NASCAR controls everything about the COT, so if it doesn’t have somebody at its research and development center working day and night on getting more grip into the car, then shame on NASCAR.

I am SO tired of hearing that Goodyear had to be “conservative” with the tire because they didn’t get to test tires on Cup cars before the race at Bristol or somewhere else. Teams pay $2,000 a set for four new tires and the average team gets eight to 10 sets of tires per weekend. Do that math for 43 teams over 36 races and doesn’t it seem like Goodyear could afford to have its own testing program? If Goodyear can’t afford such a program, maybe NASCAR could help fund it, or find a tire supplier than can pay what should be that cost of doing business.

Why doesn’t NASCAR have about five or six people who either still work for Goodyear or once did and who know all there is to know about racing tires working with them on making the COT better? Maybe they already do, but if those guys are already on the job there was little evidence at Bristol that they’re making any headway.

I get a lot of feedback from race fans these days about all of the things they think are wrong with NASCAR. They complain about how much it costs to buy tickets and reserve camping spots. They gripe about the sport being too vanilla, or too politically correct. Television ratings are down, significantly, and NASCAR has all kinds of excuses about why. Fans say it’s because of when the races start, because the broadcasts have too many commercials and annoying announcers or, as happened at the end of Friday’s Busch race, somebody goofs up and turns off the satellite feed.

Frankly, I am sick of all that, too.

Not because fans don’t have the right to complain, but because they’re complaining about a bunch of little stuff that wouldn’t matter one bit if the product was what it ought to be. If a race leader got passed in the final 100 miles of race on any regular basis anymore, would people really care whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the No. 8? If fans felt like races were competitive tests of man and machine instead of a three-hour science class, would anybody be worked up over ESPN missing a restart by two or three seconds? I don’t think so.

So, in a way, I guess I blame myself. Apparently, I haven’t been focused on the right problems when trying to understand what’s going on in NASCAR. I still have to write and talk about whether Joe Gibbs Racing is going to Toyota and about what companies are going to sponsor Earnhardt Jr. in his number whatever car next year. But I promise you that as of Saturday night I am going to spend as much time as I can asking people if the road that NASCAR is heading down is really the road to competitive ruin.

When you mess up Bristol, things have gone entirely too far.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hard to find any real winners in AT&T vs. NASCAR, but neither wants to be the loser

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t the smart thing to do, and vice versa.

The trick, I think, is not to get backed into a position to have to choose between the two too often.

That’s where I think NASCAR is right now, midday on Friday, on this whole thing with AT&T and its sponsorship of the No. 31 Chevrolets owned by Richard Childress and driven by Jeff Burton.

NASCAR, I think, has allowed itself to be cornered into a no-win public relations situation.

Burton’s No. 31 car is making laps at Bristol Motor Speedway with no sponsor logos on it, at all, and AT&T is managing to make that look like NASCAR’s fault.

It doesn’t matter that the situation is far, far more complicated than that. What matters is that NASCAR comes off looking like the bad guys, and is beginning to look a little petty, to boot.

Late this morning, a NASCAR public relations person sent an e-mail to various broadcast elements within the sport saying that "during this weekend's…coverage of the Sharpie 500 and in any on-air discussions, the Number 31 car should be referred to ONLY AS the "RCR Chevrolet."

"If you could clearly communicate this to your producers and hosts, it would be greatly appreciated."

This was "communicated" to me near the end of our show on Sirius radio. So we only had a few minutes to rip NASCAR for taking such a ridiculous stand. But we did take full advantage of it.

OK, a quick review.

The No. 31 car was sponsored by Cingular when Nextel took over as title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series. NASCAR gave the team, along with the Alltel-sponsored team for Ryan Newman, a clause saying they could keep those sponsors even though no other telecommunications deals could be made to conflict with exclusivity promised to Nextel.

Then, AT&T bought out its partners in Cingular and moved to change the name to AT&T Mobility. It wanted the No. 31 car to reflect that change, but NASCAR said that’s not what the grandfather clause allowed. Cingular was OK, AT&T was not.

AT&T sued. NASCAR countersued. In May, AT&T got an injunction allowing its logos to go on the car. Last week, an appeals court overturned that injunction. The actual case is still pending, but as the legal proceedings stand right now, NASCAR has the right to tell AT&T to take its logos off the No. 31 car.

NASCAR says it is trying to protect all of the teams in the sport by defending the title sponsor’s right to exclusivity. RCR and its fans feel NASCAR is trying to deny it the right to associate itself with a sponsor that has been in the sport for a long time and merely wants to stay.

It’s a tough spot all the way around.

NASCAR is trying to land a title sponsor for what’s now the Busch Series. If it tells a company it can guarantee exclusivity, that company could look at the Nextel-AT&T thing and wonder if that’s true. It also has to think about its major series sponsorships down the line. If AT&T has some right to challenge Nextel’s position, why couldn’t Firestone try to side-door Goodyear?

RCR wants to keep going with what used to be Cingular and feels like it should have every right to do that. Further, the appeals court decision last week basically denied that Cingular has "standing" to sue over this deal.

The aggrieved party would be RCR, the court says. That means that to show its sponsor it’s willing to fight for its rights, RCR needs to sue NASCAR. NASCAR, meanwhile, needs to show the industry it’s willing to fight by fighting in court, too.

All this week, AT&T has been looking for other avenues to use the courts to get its way. As of this writing, it has failed. There’s no question that AT&T is going to the mat to fight this thing, and NASCAR isn’t all that keen on that. NASCAR likes to get its way, too.

NASCAR this week rejected a couple of alternative paint schemes submitted by the team. In response, AT&T is portraying itself as a martyr for the team and the sport.

"I can’t think of too many occasions when a sponsor has run a car without a logo or any other identifying markings," said Mark Siegel, executive director of media and industry analyst relations for AT&T, in an e-mailed statement. "That is because NASCAR left us with no choice.

"We thought (the alternative paint schemes rejected) was more than a fair compromise, given the Court of Appeals’ recent ruling. NASCAR rejected this proposed paint scheme, leaving us little choice but to go with a logo-less, brand-less approach.

"Because we love the sport, we are willing to take this approach, which literally does nothing for our brand image or identity. We don’t want to disappoint the great NASCAR fans, and we want to continue to support Jeff Burton and Richard Childress Racing."

This battle has become one that neither side wants to lose. They’re fighting for what they think is right.

What needs to happen is for both sides to find some solution that works for everybody. I think that’s what would be smart.

Monday, August 20, 2007

David Poole Max Doppler 3000 says ...

2:30 p.m. Monday -- Yeah, it's raining again at Michigan.

It's not raining hard. Not nearly as hard as it was overnight when Kasey Kahne said it was keeping him awake as he tried to sleep inhis motorhome.

But it is raining enough to discourage most of the optimism that was spreading through the garage an hour ago.

NASCAR had the teams start rolling the cars toward pit road about 2 p.m. The jet dryers were on the track and crews were setting up their war wagons on pit road.

People were talking about the "hole" opening up in the weather and how there was a "window" in which it looked like we could get at least 101 laps -- halfway plus one -- in to make it official.

All around me in the media center, people are looking at weather radar on their computers. A few minutes ago, I took two quarters out of my pocket and flipped them over to two guys sitting across from me.

"Take this," I said. "This is something I just developed. I call it David Poole Max Doppler 3000. Heads means it's going to rain. Tails means it's not. It tells you as much as anything you're looking at."

I've stopped worrying about it. I don't fly home until Wednesday now, whether they race today, tomorrow or whenever. I did enough laundry last night to tide me over until then.

I got to the track this morning about 6:30 to do the Sirius radio show, which starts at 7. The garage opened at 9, so the gates near the building where the radio rooms are were locked.

I got on a golf cart with somebody from the track to ride around the back of the garage where a gate was open. It didn't have a roof. It took us maybe 3 minutes, and I looked like a drowned rat by the time we got there. The guy who was driving me had to ride back, though, so I guess I was lucky.

The jet dryers are still working, perhaps fighting a losing battle (we'll see). From the media center, I can see a few rows of grandstands and there are race fans sitting there, waiting and hoping. You have to appreciate that.

Yesterday afternoon, when NASCAR mentioned that in a worst-case scenario we might have to come back up here the week after Thanksgiving, some of the people sitting around me started getting hotel rooms for that weekend. And people think I am a pessimist.

All I can do is wait.

While I do, I will sit here and try to think more about why all week the local newscasters in Detroit have seemed obsessed with the story of a hurricane approaching and passing Jamaica and Grand Cayman. That's a long way from here, right?

Sort of like home.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Quick thoughts from the track at Michigan:

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The story about Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Teresa Earnhardt doesn't have anything to do with the number 8. It's all about the age of 8, which is about how old Earnhardt Jr. was when his relationship with his stepmother took shape.

The best-selling book in the history of NASCAR could be one that tells the whole story about their relationship and everything that has been said and done in their negotiations this year.

But it's a book nobody will probably ever get to write, because to do it right you'd have to have co-operation from both sides. And the minute one side finds out you've got a deal with the other side, that ends any hope of making the deal with the second side.
* * *
I keep trying to remember this when I am watching ESPN's NASCAR coverage: green air is good, yellow air is bad?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Winning is the only feeling that counts

Eight times.

I went back and counted.

Eight different times during Tuesday’s press conference announcing Kyle Busch’s deal with Joe Gibbs Racing, the same question was asked in one way or another.

Basically, it came down to this: Can Kyle Busch find a way to fit in JGR and get along with the drivers who’ll be his teammates, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin?

To be fair, the media didn’t start it. The entire affair kicked off with team owner Joe Gibbs doing a routine on videotape from Washington Redskins training camp.

"I got to thinking about this," Gibbs said as he addressed his son, team president J.D. Gibbs. "We’ve got Tony and the way Tony acts sometimes, and we’ve found that Denny is no piece of cake. Now we have Kyle? J.D.? ‘Good luck.’"

So that set the tone, and for the next 45 minutes or so there was a lot of collective hand-wringing about whether the 22-year-old Busch will ever grow up enough to fit in or whether his new team will let him be who he is more than he is allowed to be at the team he’ll leave at season’s end, Hendrick Motorsports.

For goodness sake.

There was a funny moment when somebody asked J.D. Gibbs if he’d be able to keep Kyle in line along with the team’s other drivers. Without missing a beat, Gibbs wondered aloud if JGR has managed to keep Stewart "in line" over his tenure at the team.

In case you’ve missed it, there have been times where having Stewart on the team has presented its challenges.

At the same time, Stewart has won three of the past four races and has to be considered a contender to win a third championship this year. He and his crew chief Greg Zipadelli have the longest driver-crew chief relationship running in Cup today, and a strong core group has been on Stewart’s No. 20 team since it first formed at JGR.

Winning goes a long, long way to smoothing over hurt feelings.

There’s not one reason in this world to think that Kyle Busch, who already has four Cup victories and could even win a championship at Hendrick Motorsports this year before he leaves that team to come to JGR, won’t be a winning driver for years to come with his new team.

That’s why when Busch became available, after Rick Hendrick made the decision to sign Dale Earnhardt Jr. instead of re-upping with Busch, there was a line of owners stretching out the door trying to sign him up.

"There were say 15 teams that really couldn’t have cared less about what Kyle Busch did off the track, around the track and to people at the track," said Jeff Dickerson, Busch’s agent. "I think that speaks volumes about where people’s priorities are. He can drive. All of the people that we wanted to talk to we were able to talk to."

Fans speak with a forked tongue on the whole issue of drivers and their personalities. They don’t want "vanilla" drivers, but let a guy they don’t like for some reason show a little bit of anger or tempestuousness and all of a sudden that guy is the devil.

"I think I've done a very good job at tricking everybody," Busch said Tuesday. "You know, I show them the bad side. I don't show them the good side. Why show the good side? Then I'd be Carl Edwards or something. Just kidding. See, there's some sense of humor. They're laughing, good. No, I'm kidding."

Carl Edwards is great for NASCAR, but the sport doesn’t need 25 of him. It doesn’t need 25 of any one type of guy.

As the press conference went on and on, Busch seemed to get worn down by the same question time and time again. He finally started talking about getting people to "help" him.

"I guess I've got a few edges here or there, but hopefully none where I can't just grind them down a little bit and soften them up some," he said.

Have there been times when Busch could have chosen his words or actions better so far in his career? Of course there have. But this business of anybody expecting him to become a different person just because he’s changing race teams or might celebrate a few more birthdays is just another indication of how absurd things get sometimes in this sport.

He is who he is, and he is one incredibly talented driver.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Qualifying should be same at all tracks

NASCAR made official Friday something that we already know, but something that it hates to admit. Some races are just more important than others.

Two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, rain on Friday forced a schedule shuffle that moved qualifying from Saturday morning to that afternoon. It was the right call to make, since it gave everybody at least a fighting chance to make one of the season's most anticipated events. But if the schedule is what it is at one track, that's how it ought to be everywhere.

When it rained Friday at Watkins Glen, NASCAR went right back to its default procedure. Qualifying was canceled, not shuffled around, and the field for Sunday's race was set by the Nextel Cup rule book.

So teams that traveled to Watkins Glen for the opportunity to compete went home without getting that. Fundamentally, that's wrong.

If the schedule is going to be moved around at Indy to give everybody a fair shot of making the Allstate 400, why can't the same thing be done at the Glen?

There was no Busch race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the weekend there, but there was one a few miles away at O'Reilly Raceway Park. Several of the drivers that were in the Nextel Cup race were also in the Busch race that weekend, and when things were moved around it complicated their lives.

Yes, reworking the schedule at the Glen to fit in Cup practice, Cup and Busch qualifying and the Busch race might take some doing. But isn't it worth the effort, or at least wouldn't it be for the teams that went home from the Glen without even getting a chance to qualify?

NASCAR has never done it, of course, but letting only the cars in the go-or-go-home category make runs is a better alternative than what happens when it rains out qualifying.

You could write it right into the rulebook. The eight teams that make it in the abbreviated qualifying start 13th, 18th, 23rd, 28th, 33rd, 38th, 42nd and 43rd in the race. Sure, it's arbitrary, but is it even more arbitrary than letting postmarks and number of entries and things like that determine who races and who doesn't?

Watkins Glen isn't as big a race as Indianapolis. No offense to the fine folks in the Finger Lakes region of New York, but that's a fact. You know it, I know it and NASCAR knows it. But it shouldn't act that way. Every race should be dealt with under the same policies and procedures.
And the guiding principle behind all of those procedures should be to make every possible effort to give everyone a chance to make the race.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Curses! Overwhelmed by reaction again!

Thank goodness, the world is saved!

Tony Stewart was fined Tuesday for the four-letter word he said Sunday after winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. We can all take a deep breath and know the world won't wobble off its axis today.

Seconds -- SECONDS! -- after he said that expeletive Sunday afternoon I had three e-mails from fans wanting to make sure I heard it. If a driver swears in the woods and nobody's there to hear it, does it still offend anybody?

NASCAR is right to fine drivers from saying swear words when the drivers KNOWS he's being interviewed. And since money slows nobody down any more, points have become a necessary evil as part of those sanctions. Stewart lost 25 points and was fined $25,000 for this incident.

If NASCAR didn't levy fines and take points, drivers would curse more than they do. Say what you want to about them being overcome with emotion and not being able to control themselves, but the fact is they do control themselves more than they would if there were no penalties for bad language.

NASCAR ought to try to keep that stuff to a minimum because people do watch races with their families. People shouldn't have to hear that language if they don't want to. If you don't watch "Deadwood" or "The Sopranos" on HBO because you don't like the language, that's your right. Fans shouldn't have to make the decision to watch or not watch racing on that basis, though.

At the same time though, the hand-wringers who get all blubberfaced about one four-letter word on TV every three months are just out of their trees. If you're worried that your child is going to be permanently warped if he hears one swear word, then don't let him out of the house until he's about 23.

It's fake outrage. What goes on when something like this happens is like 5 year olds giggling when somebody says "doo-doo." People get all indignant when 10 minutes earlier they mindlessly used the expletive part of Stewart's word in this context: "BLANK, where's the remote?"

Fining somebody for using a cuss word is pure symbolism. Sometimes, that's important. It shows you're paying attention and that you want people to know it's not necessary to talk like that when people are letting you in their homes on TV.

But it's no more childish to use words like the one Stewart used than it is to react to them the way some people do.