Saturday, September 29, 2007

All hail the potty-mouth police - NOT!

I don’t know if NASCAR will do anything to punish Tony Stewart for using an expletive that aired during a Saturday morning practice session from Kansas Speedway.

And, to be totally honest with you, I absolutely do not care. I know there will be people who get their knickers in a bunch over it. Plenty of folks sitting around me in the media center got all worked up, running to tattle to NASCAR after hearing about the four-letter word from their respective networks of nervous Nellys.

A couple of hours later, I saw a knot of about a dozen of them camped behind the NASCAR trailer, apparently waiting to see if some official was going to come out and say that Stewart would be drawn and quartered, or flogged in the courthouse square.

I know Dale Earnhardt Jr. got penalized 25 points three years ago when he used a four-letter word in a victory lane interview. And I know that earlier this year, Juan Pablo Montoya got in trouble for making a gesture toward a cameraman when he didn’t know the camera was being used to send out a live picture.

But I also understand that this whole thing has gotten so far out of hand it’s not even funny any more. What you have now are a bunch of people sitting around their TVs looking for things to call in about. It’s getting to be as bad as golf, where people with nothing better to do than research obscure rules decisions looking for a way to get somebody slapped with a two-shot penalty.

If a NASCAR driver is looking dead into a camera with a reporter standing alongside of him asking him questions, the driver should be smart enough to know that he’s being interviewed and that he should watch his mouth. I really don’t know if points penalties are appropriate for that, but that’s the standard that has been set.

Now, though, the potty-mouth police are trying to extend their jurisdiction. Let a driver say “hell” or “damn” during an interview and my email box fills up with people asking why that’s not worth 25 points, even though it never has been. There are also times when a driver or crew chief has no way of knowing what he’s saying is being broadcast, but some fans still think anything these competitors say should be punishable. I say…well…I say a word that would probably hack off those prigs.

You can argue that Stewart shouldn’t use words like the one he used Saturday morning at all, and that’s fine. But I don’t think you can argue that he should be responsible for figuring out when a camera that’s on him is going out live or not. I thought the penalty against Montoya earlier this year was a travesty, too, because it’s not up to the competitor to look for the little red light.

NASCAR doesn’t want its race broadcasts to be “R-rated,” and I understand that. By and large, its competitors get that. But that doesn’t mean they should be held responsible if a microphone picks up something the competitor said without fair warning that it was being broadcast.

What it comes down to these days is a silly little game of “gotcha.” I, for one, am just through playing it.

Drag strip too much for speedway and airport neighbors

KANSAS CITY, Kansas - As I was leaving Kansas Speedway Friday afternoon, I drove out of the tunnel and took a left to go up a block to stop by the Arthrur Bryant's barbecue restaurant to pick up some supper.

It's hard for me to pass up Arthur Bryant's when I come here, but if I'd wanted to eat somewhere else I probably had about 30 choices within a 360-degree scan of the horizon from the top row of the race track.

As I drove through the area, past the Cabela's and the Nebraska Furniture and the whole "Village West" area that's grown up around the track here since it opened, I couldn't help but be reminded of a place a little closer to home.

The first time I went to Lowe's Motor Speedway, it was still called Charlotte Motor Speedway. And for several miles in any direction, that's just about all that was there.

Now, within a couple of miles, there's a golf course, a new resort hotel, a handful of new and used car lots, 25 to 30 restaurants of all shapes and sizes and one of those mega-malls that we're always told ranks among North Carolina's top "tourist attractions" each year.

Charlotte has grown in a lot of directions, and while technically the speedway area has been annexed by the nearby city of Concord - in what largely is a marriage of convenience concocted to work around my home state's convoluted laws governing alcohol sales - some of the growth in that area was inevitable.

But some of it, undoubtedly, was spurred by the presence of the track, too.

People also live out that way, and sometimes living near a place that brings in crowds of more than 150,000 brings with it challenges.

But the track has been in the same place since 1960, and what few people who've been there since then no doubt have largely made peace with all of that by now.

There is, however, a storm brewing that involves some folks who haven't been around quite as long as the speedway has.

There are folks, some of whom built or moved into their houses as recently as last year, who vow to fight LMS owner Bruton Smith on his desire to build a drag strip on the speedway's property. Some of the leaders from the city of Concord appear to be inclined to side with those who have concerns, too, and this does not sit well with Smith, who very much likes to get his way.

As of late this week, the permits and paperwork involved in undertaking such a project had been wrapped up. But Smith already had people moving dirt on the site where the $60 million drag strip facility would be built. The National Hot Rod Association has already saved Smith a slot on its 2008 schedule, Sept. 11-14, and in Smith's mind he could have the new place ready in plenty of time for that.

I sort of wonder about people who'd buy a house located between a major private aviation airport and an oval track that has cars on it maybe 200 days a year, adjacent to a major interstate and within just a few miles of every kind of shop, store or service one could imagine and still think a drag strip would interrupt their quiet, serene bucolic lifestyle.

The residents who oppose a drag strip at Lowe's Motor Speedway have every right to make those feelings known, and the people elected to serve those citizens apparently have some tough decisions to make in the next few weeks.

But if there's one thing I've learned in the 11 years I've been doing what I do, it's that the people who build places like Lowe's Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway aren't the kind of people who usually sit still or who think small.

And once they get a ball rolling, it's awfully hard to stop it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How Dale Jr. got No. 88

DALLAS – So we now have a pretty good idea of how this whole Dale Earnhardt Jr. deal with Hendrick Motorsports and his new car number and sponsors went down.

Based on the conversations and interviews done at Wednesday’s news conference at the Dallas Convention Center, the leading number in the clubhouse was, for quite a while, the 81.

Somewhere along the way, though, as trademarks and things like that were being researched, it was discovered that there’s an apparel company called Company 81 that sells a lot of the same kind of shirts and things you’d sell to race fans with a car number on it.

Hendrick Motorsports could have trademarked a particular design of an 81, but there’s nothing that could have been done to stop that company from putting out its own shirts with that number on it. That would have caused a type of confusion in the marketplace nobody wants any part of.

(There also was the fact that "81" is a number sometimes associated with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle group. Supposedly, members of that group sometimes have that number tattooed on them because the "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet and the "A" is the first, so "81" also can stand for "HA." Team owner Rick Hendrick, though, said that wasn’t a factor in the decision to move away from the 81.)

Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick and everyone involved wanted a number with an "8" in it. They never thought much about the 88, figuring that number is already taken by Robert Yates Racing.

But since the number 28 isn’t being used right now, and since Earnhardt Jr. is keen on the sport’s history, that was the next target.

Kelley Earnhardt Elledge called Yates to ask about the 28 or, if Yates wanted to bring back the 28, maybe getting the 38. Yates said the 28 meant so much to him, because it was Davey Allison’s number and the number Yates started his team with, he’d rather keep that and bring it back himself. (That means you can figure the two cars Doug Yates will own next year will probably be the 28 and the 38.)

Robert Yates suggested the idea of giving the 88 to Earnhardt Jr.
That was fine with Earnhardt Jr. and Elledge and Hendrick. The number has a legacy in the sport, with 65 victories. Dale Jarrett is a driver Earnhardt Jr. respects, and he had the most recent success with it. Darrell Waltrip also won 25 races in that number, and DW also won championships driving in the Mountain Dew sponsored car.
So that all worked out nicely.

"Robert said ‘two eights are better than one,’" Elledge said.
To try to keep reporters guessing, Hendrick said the team put in trademark applications for several numbers it had no intention of using. He also said there were decals of other car numbers, figuring that information would get out and lead people to jump to conclusions. Some did.

Earnhardt Jr. said he had fun "playing the game" with reporters about the number and sponsor all summer. Hendrick was laughing, too, about the efforts to throw reporters off the scent.

But the whole thing just drove Elledge about half crazy, she said.

"I wish people could have just waited until we had it all to show everybody," she said. "There were times when I felt like I was in the middle of a big gossip ring."

Of course, if nobody cared enough to keep asking the questions, then Wednesday’s press conference wouldn’t have been carried live on several cable channels, including a home shopping channel. And a plane load of media from Charlotte wouldn’t have traveled halfway across country to see two paint jobs, either.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Plenty of room for racing

LOUDON, N.H. - There's a story going around up this way that New Hampshire International Speedway is for sale. I've been coming here 11 years now, and that sentence could have been written virtually every time I've been here.

Bob Bahre not only owns this track, it's like he's part of it. You see him around the garage and several other places all the time, far more than you ever see any other track owner unless you happen to be hob-nobbing in some corporate suite.

(That might not be totally fair. Dr. Joe Mattioli at Pocono is around a lot, too. But he and Bahre are certainly 1 and 1A in that department.)

Every time I'm here, I go into the little diner/snack bar next door to the media center for lunch on Friday. The food's good and the prices (yes, I pay) are very reasonable.

Every time, there's a big table in a corner with Bahre sitting there talking to NASCAR's top officials, usually including Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton and John Darby or at least some combination of the above.

There's a social element to the gathering, and of course there's lunch, too. But Bahre is also asking the NASCAR brass if there are any problems that need to be attended to as well. If something comes up, he'll take care of it. He won't disptach a minion to do it, either.

Bahre is 81 years old. He goes like he's half that age, but one of these days he's not going to want to put up with doing all he has to do to run a big-time race track. He's got a son, Gary, but Gary has apparently made it abundantly clear that he doesn't have this place in his blood the way his father has.

So with Nextel Cup dates worth their weight in dollar bills, the fact that ownership of this track might one day change hands stirs great interest.

Bahre has talked to International Speedway Corp. and to Speedway Motorsports Inc. (and its owner Bruton Smith), and the latest story is he has talked to John Henry, the man whose Fenway Sports Group bought into Roush Racing earlier this year.

That would be a perfect marriage, between the Boston Red Sox and this track.

You can't swing a rope around your head here without hitting someone in a Red Sox hat, and while the rest of the country this week has been paying a lot of attention to the New England Patriots' "spygate" affair the folks up here are obsessing over every pitch of a weekend series at Fenway Park with the New York Yankees.

There's absolutely no question that the Sox own this region. The Patriots might be a dynasty, but I once was at a Super Bowl where the Pats played the Carolina Panthers and all the Boston media could talk about was the latest developments on the baseball team's pitching staff.

That having been said, these folks also love racing. It rained all morning Saturday and it took until the start of the Truck Series race at 3 p.m. to get anything on the track.

The weather cleared and the Trucks raced, then the Whelen Modified cars took the track. As the sun went down behind the grandstands, the wind picked up and it was beginning to get a little chilly (by my standards, at least). But there were still plenty of people in the grandstands watching that race.

When this track is sold one day, the new owner might have plans to take one of the Cup dates away. That'd be wrong. The fans here fill this place up. They've done nothing to warrant losing a race. They support this track and support racing on all levels.

If selling it to John Henry and the Fenway group, maybe that means the New England roots will hold and those fans won't face that fate. Baseball might be king in New England, but there's plenty of room for racing here, too.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dale Jr., Kahne announcements coming soon

Next week is shaping up to be big week for NASCAR and the beverage business, with two major sponsorship announcements scheduled.
First, on Tuesday, Gillett Evernham Motorsports has set a 10. a.m. news conference at the team's shop near Statesville to announce the primary sponsor for Kasey Kahne’s Dodges for 2008.
Numerous sources and published reports have said that Budweiser will be that sponsor, moving to Kahne’s team after being on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No.. 8 Chevrolets.
Earnhardt Jr., of course, is moving from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports next year, and the final pieces of that puzzle will come together the next day in Dallas, Texas.
The Hendrick team has schedule a news conference for 1:30. p.m. on Wednesday to announce Earnhardt Jr.’s primary sponsor and to reveal the car number and paint scheme.
Why Dallas? reported Thursday that there is a major meeting of Pepsi Cola Company executives there on Wednesday. That would jibe with sources who have told the Observer that Pepsi-owned Mountain Dew and Amp, an energy drink affiliated with the Mountain Dew brand, will be featured on Earnhardt Jr.’s cars.
As for the number, as of now that remains a question.
Hendrick Motorsports has applied for trademarks on several numbers, most recently the No.. 28 adding that to a list that includes the 38, 51, 58, 81 and 82.
Team owner Rick Hendrick said last week in Richmond that the new number would "likely have an 8 in it."
The 88, currently used by Robert Yates Racing, also can’t be ruled out. Driver Ricky Rudd is retiring at the end of the year and Travis Kvapil, who will take over that ride in 2008, said earlier this week he doesn’t know what his number will be.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

NFL following NASCAR's lead

Somehow it's fitting that NASCAR is going to New England this weekend, isn't it?

All of a sudden, fans who pull for race car drivers aren't the only ones having to fall back on the whole "everybody does it" defense when it comes to living outside the rules.

The high and mighty New England Patriots, coached by the widely proclaimed "super genius" Bill Belichick, find themselves right in the middle of what we used to call a "BOM" story when I worked on the news side a thousand years ago. "BOM" stood for "Big Ol' Mess."

During Sunday's game against the New York Jets, NFL security removed someone who worked for the Patriots because he was suspected of attempting to steal the Jets' signals. The miscreant's video cameras and tape were also seized.

This comes after the NFL specifically warned teams they would face severe penalties if they were caught videotaping other teams' signals.

If you're a NASCAR fan, doesn't this all sound familiar? NASCAR tells teams not to mess with the car of tomorrow body or we're going to hit you hard, and when the penalties come down people act like they're stunned to be getting them.

Belichick "apologized" on Wednesday and said only that he had explained to NFL commissioner Roger Goddell that the case stemmed from a "interpretation" of the league's rules. The only thing he didn't say -- or at least I haven't heard it -- was anything about gray areas, working outside the box or pushing the envelope, but it's the same principle.

Anybody who has paid the slightest bit of attention to me when it comes to penalties in NASCAR knows that I have little tolerance for the "if you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying" attitude. If you can't play by the rules, you don't get to play.

Well, don't expect me to be different when it comes to the Patriots and Belichick.

Take away draft picks? That's even more importent than NASCAR fining people money and points. Suspending Belichick for one game or more? That works for me -- I like the idea of a four-game sit down, matching what the NFL does to players who don't play by the substance abuse rules.

But there should be more. The Patriots won a game they didn't play fair in. I don't care if they won 130-0, if they cheated the win shouldn't count. Maybe you don't give the Jets the win, either, but no way should the Patriots get to count that victory.

Friday, September 07, 2007

As news days go, Friday was another big one

Good grief.

Every once in a while you have a slow news day when you're covering NASCAR racing. Friday was not one of those days.

There's something about this race track in Richmond. Every time we come here, all heck breaks loose.

Maybe it's just the time of the year. In early May, the season has been going long enough for stuff to start shaking out. In late September, we're about to start the Chase and some teams are starting to turn the page on next year.

But it's strange. When they announced the settlement of the Texas lawsuit that led to "modernizing tradition" with changes to the schedule, that was announced here.

When they announced they were going to put restrictor plates on cars for a race at New Hampshire, that came out here. Dale Earnhardt held court about that in his hauler that day for more than an hour, but only about 10 minutes worth of what he said was printable.

Early Friday morning, DEI confirmed what everybody had been zeroed in on in saying that Mark Martin and Aric Almirola will drive the No. 8 and Regan Smith will get into what's now the No. 01.

A little while later, we noticed people scurrying about around the No. 31 Chevrolet. AT&T logos were being brought back out and slapped on the car. Something was afoot, and we later learned there had been a settlement in that legal battle involving NASCAR and Sprint Nextel along with AT&T and Richard Childress Racing.

Oh yeah, it looks like Dario Franchitti is coming to NASCAR to replace David Stremme at United Nations Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. That's big - Ashley Judd in the Cup garage!

Jimmie Johnson won the pole for Saturday night's race and hardly anybody noticed. But as everybody tried to wind up their day, an e-mail blast announced that Robert Yates is retiring, selling his team to his son, Doug, canceling the announced partnership with
Newman/Haas/Lanigan and naming Travis Kvapil to replace Ricky Rudd in the No. 88 next year.

Other than that, as an old friend of mine once said, ain't much happening.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The fun of being a NASCAR fan

One thing I don't understand about sports fans is how - or why - they keep trying to draw boundaries around the whole concept of "fandom."

In NASCAR, for instance, I get fans telling me that they can't understand why anybody would follow a driver when he switches from one team to another. I get just as many fans who tell me they can't understand how you can be a fan of a driver and NOT follow him when he goes to a new team.

The same goes for manufacturers. A long time ago in stock-car racing, people pulled for Ford or Chevrolet or Plymouth, not for the drivers who were in those cars. Over the past 20 years or so, however, that has changed dramatically. In recent years, it's all about the drivers.

But that pendulum may be swinging back a little bit. A lot of fans have complained to me this year that Chevrolet has been too dominant in NASCAR, too successful for the overall good of the sport. I think it does matter, on the grand scale, that more than one type of car is a threat to win.

That's one of the reasons I think it's good, in that whole big picture way, that Joe Gibbs Racing is going to swap to Toyota for 2008 and beyond.

I am in favor of anything that creates potential rivalries in NASCAR, whether it's driver vs. driver or team vs. team or whatever. If you look at the driver lineups for next year, Tony Stewart-Denny Hamlin-Kyle Busch (at Gibbs) vs. Jeff Gordon-Jimmie Johnson-Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Casey Mears (at Hendrick) is good stuff. The fact that they will now be in different types of cars makes it that much better, I think.

If a fan who has been behind Tony Stewart for his whole career decides he or she can't pull for him in a Toyota, that fan has every right to feel that way. If an Earnhardt Jr. fan can bring himself to pull for a driver at Hendrick Motorsports, that's OK, too.

The whole point I am trying to make is that I don't think it's my place to tell anybody why he should or shouldn't like or dislike anybody or anything there is about sports.

Don't tell me that just because I live near Charlotte the Dallas Cowboys can't be my favorite NFL team. Don't tell me I can't pull for a team because a guy I liked 20 years ago played there, but also don't tell me I can't completely lose interest in a team if my favorite player retires or goes somewhere else.

A fan can be as illogical and as irrational as he or she wants to be in deciding who or what to pull for or to pull against. That's why the whole thing is so much fun.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Hollywood? Nope, and certainly not Darlington

It has been a while since I’ve engaged in much idle speculation about changes to the NASCAR Cup schedule that aren’t going to happen, but being in California on Labor Day weekend always sort of puts me in that mood.

There’s just no good reason for us to be here this weekend. Everybody knows that, and I think that even includes the people all the way to the top in NASCAR. This is the fourth time the Cup series has raced here on this weekend, and the experiment has just completely failed.

Yeah, it’s laughably hot here this weekend. Actually, it’s probably not that funny since there’s a very real hazard that fans who brave the 105-degree (or more) heat to come to the track are going to have to be careful about things like heat stroke as they wait for the green flags. Almost nobody came to the track for qualifying on Friday, but it’s hard to find fault with fans for that. It was just too hot to enjoy anything about being here.

It’s usually hot in Darlington, S.C., on this weekend, too, and every once in a while a hurricane might be menacing that area around the first of September. That’s where I think we still ought to be going on this weekend every year, but it’s actually kind of unfair to advocate that solely on the basis of weather.

The Southern 500 began on Labor Day weekend in 1950 and for 50 years that’s what race fans did on this weekend. The people in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina embraced the event and made it part of their summer-ending holiday traditions, too.

It took a while for the race to take root, and maybe California Speedway hasn’t had enough time to create the same situation here. But there’s absolutely no sign it ever will.

Friday night after qualifying, the “fan zone” outside the track was a ghost town, locked up and shut down. One reason is that the track doesn’t allow people to camp outside the track. The only overnight guests allowed must be in the track’s infield, and that’s a very different approach from the one other tracks take.

There’s also a real dunderheadedness about how this track markets itself. Wednesday night, it brought in some drivers and some celebrities and held a $2,500 per ticket fund-raising “Hollywood party” about 50 miles away at a Los Angeles club.

Aside from the charity angle, who was that for?

People who hang out on the Sunset Strip are never, no matter how badly NASCAR desires it, going to be in stock-car racing’s demographic.

The folks who live around Fontana and the many cities north and east, aren’t stars. They’re hardworking people who endure the weather and other challenges of living in the Inland Empire year-round.

But when the track hires 43 model-actress wannabes to act as “ambassadors” and pitches its entire marketing approach around low-rent celebrities and around having a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the fan zone, it seems like those people are being told the track isn’t particularly looking to do business with them.

I think California Speedway needs two races a year.

It’s easy for me to say this track should add variable banking to make the racing better, but it also hosts open-wheel events and that has to be considered, too. Pushing this track’s second date back into Chase for the Nextel Cup seems like an obvious idea, both because of the weather and because the interest level might ramp up.

The simple fix would be to swap this track with New Hampshire’s second date. New Hampshire would likely have better weather this time of the year, for one thing. But that doesn’t address the Darlington issue and it also would further skew the track mix in the Chase toward the intermediate style track.

I think the answer is Kansas Speedway. Put this race where Kansas is. Put Kansas where Dover is, the first week in June, and move Dover’s first race to the first weekend in May.

Slide Richmond back from that weekend to Mother’s Day Saturday night, and move Darlington back to Labor Day. You also leave Dover out of it and just put Kansas in the early May slot.

That leaves the mix of tracks in the Chase relatively unchanged – you actually get slightly more variety since you’re taking about a 1.5-mile track and putting in a 2-mile. It takes away Kansas’ value of having a race in the Chase, but a race in early May or early June in Kansas doesn’t ring any other obvious alarms in my head.

If you really want to get creative and put the open weekend that many people believe we need right before the Chase starts, I can make that work, too.

New Hampshire comes to Labor Day. There’s the open week, then Richmond opens the Chase.

California goes to where Kansas is. Kansas moves to Dover’s slot in June. Dover moves to where Richmond is now, and Richmond moves to the open date in April that will exist next year because NASCAR is eliminating the open date after the season’s second race here in February.

Getting Darlington back to Labor Day is more complicated in that scenario, and maybe that ship has sailed. Darlington’s doing pretty good on Mother’s Day weekend now, and if the trade-off for leaving it alone is a commitment that the track is going to get the money it needs to make the right improvements and the support it needs to keep that May race flourishing, then I am OK with that. Especially if it creates the kind of break at the end of the regular season that all of the rain we had at Michigan showed is needed.