Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gillett-Petty merger apparently complete

While no official announcement has been made, all signs point to the fact that the merger between Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises is done.

Sources close to the Petty team said Wednesday that all of its employees who were not let go in a round of layoffs earlier this month have been told this is their final official week of employment with that company.

It appears that seven-time Cup Series champion Richard Petty will have an ownership piece along with George Gillett in a company to most likely will be called Richard Petty Motorsports.

That company will field the No. 43 Dodges, likely out of the GEM shops in Statesville and likely with Reed Sorenson as its driver. In effect, what was the No. 10 team at Gillett-Evernham Motorsports will become the No. 43 team.

Boston Ventures, the company that bought majority ownership of the Petty team earlier in 2008, will keep the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

When the Petty team announced that Bobby Labonte was being let out of his driver contract, it said it was in exclusive merger talks with GEM. Spokesman for both the GEM and Petty teams continued Wednesday to decline comment about the status of those negotiations.

Some will see such a merger as the end of the Petty family’s era in NASCAR – an era that goes all the way back to the first race in 1949 in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. But the Petty family technically hasn’t owned a NASCAR team since the deal was cut with Boston Ventures.

GEM has Budweiser as a full-season sponsor for Kasey Kahne in the No. 9 Dodge. It had Best Buy and Stanley Tools as primary sponsors for the No. 19 Dodges that Elliott Sadler drove in 2008. While no official word has come down on this, either, it appears that AJ Allmendinger will replace Sadler in that car for 2009.

Sorenson, who drove for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in 2008, signed to drive for GEM in 2009. It was believed he would go into the No. 10, in which Patrick Carpentier began and Allmendinger finished the ’08 season. That car had sponsorship announced for only a handful of races, however. The No. 43 car from the Petty team lacked full sponsorship for 2009 as well.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rockingham readies for the Polar Bear 150

It was a cool, misty morning at Martinsville Speedway. I was walking along, heading into the media center I think, when I ran across Andy Hillenburg.
We started talking about how things were going at Rockingham Speedway, the track Hillenburg bought in late 2007 and brought back to racing life this year. He had built a smaller track out behind the 1-mile oval that people were calling “Little Rock.” It’s almost a copy of Martinsville and it was already getting used by some Cup teams for testing.
Hillenburg and I had been talking for about 45 seconds when somebody from a race team and asked him about the Polar Bear 150. A few minutes later somebody else stopped and asked about that. Before I left, another three or four people had stopped to talk about Rockingham and the race that will be run there Thursday.
I knew the race was scheduled, but it wasn’t until that day that I got an appreciation for just how many people in NASCAR had their eye on the race for street stock cars. In the weeks since, I’ve heard all kind of tales about guys in the sport building cars and getting ready to go to Rockingham for what could be a fun afternoon.
Things actually get started Wednesday with a pair of afternoon practice sessions. There will be a New Year’s Eve party in the garage area beginning at 7:30 p.m., and then the race is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday.
The idea, as crazy as it sounds, is to start as many as 99 cars. Three wide. At Rockingham. I’ve heard that about 85 cars were supposed to be there as of early this week, but who knows what the actual number will wind up being. If it’s anywhere close to even 75, I am going to bet you that first set of turns is going to be a doozy.
A lot of people with NASCAR ties are going to be there, either racing or helping a friend race. Hillenburg wants you, the race fans, to come, too.
Tickets are $20 on race day and kids get in free with a paying adult. If you want more information, call the speedway at (910) 205-8800 or visit .

Evernham still wants a role in NASCAR

Ray Evernham called "The Morning Drive" on Sirius NASCAR Radio this morning after his name came up Monday while we were talking about the reports that Elliott Sadler will be replaced by AJ Allmendinger in the No. 19 Dodges next season at Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Evernham no longer has a major day-to-day role in the team he ran after leaving Hendrick Motorsports as Jeff Gordon's crew chief to help Dodge come back to big-time NASCAR competition. He sold most of his interest into the team to George Gillett and his family and has scaled back more and more over the past couple of years.

Two seasons ago, on the final weekend of the 2007 Cup season at Homestead, I talked to Evernham in the garage and he spoke about his plans to cut back. On that day, he said he reckoned that he was "burned out."

So in talking about what has happened at GEM in recent days, I mentioned that term "burned out" and Evernham wanted to make sure it was clear that he's not down on NASCAR or racing.

Evernham wants to be involved in racing. But as a team owner, he discovered that was a job he wasn't going to be able to do at a level he could feel good about.

"I guess you can say that some of my biggest strengths are also my weaknesses," he admitted. And that's exactly what I was talking about when I said what I said Monday.

Evernham doesn't have a "good enough" switch. You're talking about a guy whose work as Gordon's crew chief help redefined the way Cup teams compete. Evernham and his "Rainbow Warriors" changed the game, helping bring specialization and a level of attention to detail the sport had never seen before. By the time they were done, Evernham and Gordon had three championships together and Evernham had established himself as one of the sport's greatest all-time crew chiefs.

Evernham said Tuesday that "it will probably always haunt me" that he didn't win a championship as a team owner, but he's proud of what he helped build at GEM. He's not sure he agrees with everything that's being done there now, but he also said that it's no longer his call.

As for the situation with Sadler and Allmendinger, there wasn't much he could say. That's pretty much what has been going on with that story since it first surfaced over the weekend. Sadler signed a contract extension in May and my hunch is that as lots of people wearing suits and carrying briefcases are discussing all of that everybody involved has been told to remain quiet until everybody's as happy as they're going to be.

If I wanted to hype something Evernham said, I could use this quote: "When I left as a crew chief I said the only way I would come back in that job is to be Jeff Gordon's crew chief again." But that's not Evernham angling for Steve Letarte's job. It just means that Evernham isn't going to be a crew chief again just for the sake of having that title.

I've suspected all along that one day -- maybe three or four years down the road -- Evernham will find another driver who he thinks has what it takes to be special and he'll help that driver get to the sport's top level. He sort of said that's what he expects, too. "That doesn't mean that one day I won't go to Rick Hendrick or Jeff Gordon and say, 'Hey, I've got a guy that maybe we could do something with.'"

For right now, Evernham is working on getting East Lincoln Speedway -- the short track he recently bought -- ready for a new season. He even got denim overalls, which is apparently the official working uniform of that track, for the job.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Pearce goes the extra mile for charity

Al Pearce gets around.

He's as good as anybody I've met in my years as a motorsports reporter at finding the most economically efficient -- and often adventursome -- way of getting from one place to the next.

He's also one of those guys who gets an idea in his head and can't get it out until he's done what he's set out to do. That marries nicely with his knack for travel when it comes to what he's been doing for the past few years.

Pearce is now a NASCAR correspondent for Autoweek. He wrote for the paper in Newport News, Va., and has been around the track for nearly 40 years now. Over all of those years he's developed a lot of friends and a lot of contacts.

He was one of the first guys to sign on when Kyle Petty started doing charity motorcycle rides across the country and he decided right from the get-go that Victory Junction Gang Camp was something he not only appreciated, but something he wanted to support. So he got the idea of having one helmet signed by race car drivers who have something in common.

He's done Daytona 500 winners and NASCAR Cup champions. He did Indianapolis 500 winners. Once he gets the signatures of everyone who's still around, he sells the helmet and gives the money to Victory Junction and to Petty's chairty ride. Tony Stewart, for instance, gave Pearce $10,000 for the Indy 500 winners' helmet.

Last year, Pearce decided to go global. His 2008 project was a helmet signed by every living driver who'd won a Formula 1 world driving championship.

He got Phil Hill in late 2007 before Hill passed away. There were 18 other names to get -- then 19 after Lewis Hamilton won his first title in 2008.

So Pearce went to eight countries. He made five trips to Europe. He went to Brazil. He took a ferry across the English Channel. He rode trains, buses and subways. He covered, a friend estimated, about 67,000 miles.

And he got every signature he needed, closing the deal by going to London late in the year to get Hamilton and then going down to Brazil to get Nelson Piquet.

I asked Al the other day if it wouldn't have been cheaper for him to forget about getting the signatures and just give all the money he spent trying to get them to the camp. That depends, he said, on how much he can get for the helmet. But he reckons that through his careful planning and economic travels -- "You'd be surprised at how many places you can find a McDonald's or a Burger King to eat at," he said -- he spent only around $5,000 to complete the project.

Pearce doesn't know yet how he'll sell the F1. He might give it to the camp and let them see what they can get, or he might put in an online auction himself. It seems to me that he could find a bunch of potential customers at the Rolex 24 at Daytona next month. If somebody comes up with an offer that feels like a home run, Pearce might just sell it on the spot.

All Pearce wants to do is get as much money as he can for the helmet, and he doesn't keep a dime.

How much is one single helmet with autographs of 20 world driving champions on it worth? Well, I don't have a clue. But you have to wonder if there's another item of any kind like it anywhere in the world. It's hard to do better than one-of-a-kind.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bill Davis Racing shows financial consolidation

Monday's announcement that Marty Gaunt and Mike Held had bought Triad Racing Development along with a majority interest in Bill Davis Racing brought news of what seems like a intriguing business venture.

Triad Racing Development supplies engines and chassis to several teams that run Toyotas across the NASCAR racing platform, from the Cup Series through trucks and the Camping World series. Gaunt and Held believe that as the economic issues facing NASCAR continue to ripple through the garage, more teams might be forced to choose not to build their own engines or chassis and look to a supplier like the company they're buying to provide those things.

If you think about worst-case scenarios for the sport, that would include a pullout by the American auto makers. Teams get their engine blocks and other parts from manufacturers, and if that ended NASCAR would have to designate certain companies as approved suppliers for teams. Gaunt and Held figure that Triad Racing Development could be one of those companies, allowing them to pick up client and grow their business.

Gaunt and Held are not newcomers to racing or to NASCAR. Gaunt worked with Michael Kranefuss through the formation of his team and its partnership with Roger Penske's team and then was the first general manager with Red Bull Racing. Held is most widely known in NASCAR circles for his partnership in helping Robby Gordon form his own stock-car team. These are not guys who're coming into this deal blind, they know NASCAR is a business and they're hoping this turns into a profitable deal.

Gaunt and Held say they don't yet know what will happen on the racing side of the deal. They would like to keep the No. 22 Sprint Cup team going, but they say they won't put the team on the track without sponsorship. BDR won the 2008 Truck Series title with Johnny Benson driving, but Benson has moved on to another team and details of the former BDR team's plans in the Truck Series for 2009 are pending, too.

There's more to this than the business and the racing pieces, though. The personal piece matters, too.

If this is the end of the full-blown racing road for Bill Davis and his wife, Gail, the sport will miss them. Davis-owned Cup, Nationwide and Truck cars have run in 1,341 events and have won 40 times, including a Daytona 500 victory by Ward Burton. But it's about more than how many races Davis and his team have run and how many they won. Bill and Gail Davis have made it a way of life to give back to the sport and to the people in it, and they've long been admired not only as racers, but as friends and part of the NASCAR family.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Early odds for 2009 title: Johnson at 4-1

Jimmie Johnson, at 4-1, is the favorite to win a fourth straight title.

Micah Roberts, who works for the Station casinos in Las Vegas, has sent over the opening line odds for the 2009 Sprint Cup championship, the Daytona 500 and the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona.

Jimmie Johnson, fittingly, has 4-1 odds to win a fourth straight Cup title. Carl Edwards is the next choice at 9-2 while Kyle Busch is 5-1.

Greg Biffle is 10-1 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 12-1. Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin are each 13-1 while Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth are 18-1. Jeff Burton is 20-1 and Kevin Harvick is 22-1.

Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, David Ragan and Kurt Busch are 30-1. Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano are 40-1. Brian Vickers is the longest shot at 75-1. Everyone else would be part of the 30-1 "field" bet.

Kyle Busch is the favorite, at 7-2 odds, in both the 500 and the Shootout.

Earnhardt is 6-1 in the 500 while Johnson is 7-1. Gordon and Hamlin are 12-1 with Martin and Kurt Busch is 15-1. Edwards is 17-1 to win the 500. Stewart is 18-1 and defending 500 champion Ryan Newman is 40-1. Michael Waltrip is 75-1 and he's won the Daytona 500 before. Logano hadn't run a lap at Daytona until he did an Automobile Racing Club of America test there last week, but his odds to win the 500 are 25-1.

Earnhardt Jr. is the second pick at 5-1 for the Shootout. Gordon and Hamlin are 6-1.

* * *

The zMax Dragway at Lowe's Motor Speedway has set its schedule for its first full year in 2009 including a series of open tests and tunes and seven street-racing events.

The first test and tune is set for March 5, followed on March 26 by the street racing opener. Street racing events are also set for April 8, June 10, July 16, August 13, October 1 and Nov. 5.

The second annual National Hot Rod Association national event is set for Sept. 17-20. The dragway will also host the taping of an episode of Speed's "Pinks All Out" series on April 24-25.

June includes the AMA Drag Bikes on the 6th and 7th and the Super Chevy Show from the 25th through the 28th. There will be an NMCA Muscle Car event Aug. 6-8 and a nostalgia drag racing show on Oct. 30.

Here's the complete schedule:

5 -- Open Test & Tune; 26 -- Street Racing Opener

8 -- Street Racing Event #2; 17 -- Open Test & Tune; 18 -- Pro Tree Racers Association PAO Qualifying Event; 24-25 -- PINKS All Out

13 -- NASCAR Team Night; 28 -- Open Test & Tune

6 -7 -- AMA Drag Bike; 10 -- Street Racing Event #3; 25-28 -- Super Chevy Show
10 -- Open Test & Tune; 16 -- Street Racing Event #4; 30 -- Open Test & Tune
6-9 -- NMCA Muscle Car Racing; 13 -- Street Racing Event #5

3 -- Open Test & Tune; 9-10 -- Open Test for NHRA Teams; 17-20 -- NHRA Nationals

1 -- Street Racing Event #6; 21 -- NASCAR Team Night; 30 -- Good Guys Nostalgia Drag Race

5 -- Street Racing Event #7 Finale

Friday, December 19, 2008

Coleman out of limbo, back with Gibbs team

Brad Coleman’s head must have been spinning at one point this year.

One week he was named to replace J.J. Yeley in the No. 96 Sprint Cup car at Hall of Fame Racing. He earns the very last spot available for the field in his first try at Michigan in August.

But then, after finishing 38th in that race, Coleman was suddenly and Ken Schrader was back in it. Coleman, meanwhile, was also out of his Nationwide Series ride. The whole thing left the 20-year-old driver in a scary state of limbo.

Things are looking up again for Coleman, however. On Friday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Coleman will join Joey Logano and Denny Hamiln in sharing the No. 20 Nationwide Series ride in 2009.

It’s a homecoming for Coleman, who ran 17 Nationwide races for the Gibbs team in 2007 with three top-five finishes.

“I never would have left Gibbs in the first place, but the team just didn’t have the sponsorship available to put me in a full-time Nationwide ride in 2008 and we felt like I needed the seat time,” Coleman said.

J.D. Gibbs said Coleman is impressive.

“Brad showed us a lot of natural talent when we launched his Nationwide career here in 2007 and has matured a great deal by going through some tough challenges since then,” J.D. Gibbs said. “He has a bright future ahead of him and our entire organization is happy to have him back on the team.”

Coleman’s pretty happy, too.

“I feel like I got two years of experience all rolled into one in 2008,” he said. “Not only racing experience at the top two levels of the sport, but life experiences as well. I can promise you this, you will be hard pressed to find a harder working, more focused driver in the garage next year.”

* * *

The modifieds are coming to Bristol.

NASCAR’s oldest series will be part of Bristol Motor Speedway’s August weekend with a race on Wednesday, Aug. 19. The 150-lap race will join the Camping World Truck Series in a doubleheader that evening.

Drivers will get points in both the Whelen Modified and Whelen Southern Modified tours for this event.

“This is an event we have wanted to host at Bristol Motor Speedway for some time,” track president and general manager Jeff Byrd said. “There is a tremendous history up north and in the New England area for modified racing with guys like Richie Evans, Jerry Cook, Mike Stefanik and my buddy Jimmy Spencer. But there is an incredible passion for this racing in the south as well. They run a great program in my hometown of Winston-Salem at Bowman-Gray.”

* * *

Two groups who’re working to help displaced workers from NASCAR teams through find new jobs and restart their lives have joined forces

The N.C. Motorsports Association’s Motorsports Employment Task Force and, an online resource for networking and the posting of resumes by displace workers are working together.

The web site was started by workers who lost their jobs at Dale Earnhardt Inc. The site has now been updated and relaunched and will post resumes of displaced workers from any team.

The NMCA group also has set up an employee assistance program through the Charlotte-based McLaughlin Young Group and consumer credit counseling and mortgage default insurance from United Family Services.

Let's hope settlement isn't the end

The lawyer for Mauricia Grant, the former Nationwide Series official who sued NASCAR for $225 million for racial discrimination and sexual harassment, says his client is pleased with the settlement reached in that suit.

"She'd been out of work a long time," Benedect Morelli told the Associated Press on Friday. "We thought it was in the best interest of our client not to drag this out two to three years. She needed closure. She's a young woman, and when you make the sort of allegations she did, it's difficult to move forward and get on with your life."

Both sides agreed to keep the settlement terms confidential and neither side admitted wrongdoing in the settlement, reached after mediation that was suggested by the judge in the case.

Morelli also told the AP he though NASCAR "wanted to put this behind them, as well."

I hope he’s wrong about that.

The thing that bothered me all along since Grant filed her suit in June was that NASCAR never substantively denied the thrust of lurid allegations leveled in the complaint.

It said Grant never reported the hostile treatment she was getting to her supervisors (Grant says she did). Some officials also hinted that Grant’s suit had no merit because she was a willing participant in the jokes and other behavior she wound up complaining about.

Legally, that might be a defense. In reality though, that makes it no less reprehensible, I don’t care how much "fun" a bunch of people think they’re having, when the atmosphere is such that attacking others over their sex, their color, their nationality, their religion or their physical appearance you’re setting yourself up for trouble.

Let’s hope this lawsuit leads to a commitment from NASCAR to ensure that its officials treat each other with more respect and more dignity than what was apparently happening between January 2005 and October 2007 when Grant worked there.

That’s the least the sport should settle for.

* * *

The IndyCar Series race in Detroit, the Belle Isle Grand Prix, won’t be held this year on Labor Day weekend. The American LeMans Series race that week also has been scrapped.

The decision came after Detroit city and Michigan state officials talked with sponsors and decided the auto industry crisis made it prudent not to go forward.

"We don't want to conduct an event we are not proud of," event chairman Bud Denker said. "Right now, the whole industry – manufacturers, sponsors, workers – they are going through some pain. The Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix has been a labor of love for me. Hopefully, we can be back in 2010."

* * *

Dan Stillman will be crew chief for Carl Edwards’ No. 60 Fords in the Nationwide Series next year, replacing Drew Blickensderfer. Blickensderfer has moved on to become crew chief for Matt Kenseth’s Sprint Cup car.

Stillman was crew chief for Regan Smith’s Sprint Cup team at Dale Earnhardt Inc. last season.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Preseason Thunder at Daytona set for Jan 16-17

Daytona International Speedway won't have any NASCAR testing in January, but the site for the 51st running of the Daytona 500 will have its annual Preseason Thunder Fan Fests on Jan. 16-17.

Fan forums, show cars, music, a blood drive and the Richard Petty Driving Experience will all be part of the activities, as will autograph sessions with top NASCAR drivers.

Tickets are $15 and go on sale Saturday at 9 a.m. Each autograph session will be limited to 100 people per driver in advance. To purchase tickets and request access to the special autograph sessions, call (800) PITSHOP. Ride-only packages for the Richard Petty Driving Experience can be purchased on-site, but driving packages must be purchased in advance at (800) BE-PETTY.

The schedule for autograph sessions includes:

Friday, Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. -- Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Reed Sorenson, Aric Almirola, Casey Mears, Greg Biffle, Travis Kvapil, David Gilliland, Mike Skinner and Jon Wes Townley.

Saturday, Jan, 17, noon to 4 p.m. -- Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, David Ragan, Colin Braun, Erik Darnell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard and Alex Garcia.

Saturday 4-8 p.m. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Ron Hornaday Jr.

Additional drivers and more details about the NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fests will be released in the coming weeks.

Dave Despain re-ups with Speed

Speed has signed Dave Despain to a new two-year deal, keeping the popular host of the Sunday night program Wind Tunnel on the team through 2010.

“Very few people can step from one motor sports discipline to another with the ease and proficiency that Dave manages on a weekly basis,” said SPEED President Hunter Nickell. “Dave has worked hard to become one of the true icons in racing and SPEED is privileged to have him continue as part of our team.”

Johnson's NHRA team to be based in Indiana

The new National Hot Rod Association team being formed by five-time Top Fuel championship winning crew chief Alan Johnson will locate its shop in Brownsburg, Ind., which is also home to many of drag racing's other top teams.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Moving on, moving up, moving about

Drew Blickensderfer will be Matt Kenseth’s crew chief in the Sprint Cup Series in 2009 as the No. 17 Ford team at Roush Fenway Racing basically returns to an old leadership structure.
Before becoming Kenseth’s crew chief last year, Chip Bolin served as the team’s engineer alongside crew chief Robbie Reiser. When Reiser moved into a management role with Roush Fenway, Boling took over as crew chief.
But Reiser said Wednesday on Sirius NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that Bolin wanted to go back to working more directly on the team’s cars, so he is returning to his engineer’s post.
Blickensderfer worked with Kenseth in 2007 and part of 2008 in the Nationwide Series before moving over to be crew chief for Carl Edwards in that series. Edwards won seven of the season’s final 19 Nationwide races with Blickensderfer in charge.
No new crew chief for Edwards’ Nationwide team has been named.
* * *
Not unexpectedly, rumors about the status of driver Bobby Labonte, now a free agent, and the teams most often connected to his situation are plentiful this week.
There were at least one report Wednesday that Labonte has a done deal to drive the No. 41 car for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2009, and one rumor that some crew members had been told they will work with that team with an announcement coming as early as Thursday.
If that comes to pass, though, sources in Labonte’s camp said that it will come as a surprise to them.
It’s no secret that Labonte would be interested in the No. 41 ride and that the merged Earnhardt-Ganassi team would be interested in having the former champion.
But no one should assume that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is a lock to have four teams in 2009. It currently has sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops for the No. 1 car and Martin Truex Jr., Target for the No. 41 and Wrigley for half the races for Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42. That’s funding for 2∏ full-time cars, not four. Given the way things have been going for the sport in recent weeks, finding funding for another 1∏ seasons worth of racing is going to be a tall order.
It’s the same mistake people have made in assuming that if a merger between Gillett Evernham Motorsports and the former Petty team is completed that team will wind up with four cars. GEM does not have backing, at least not announced, for the No. 10 car that Reed Sorenson is in line to drive. If the No. 43 Petty car comes over, sans sponsorship, why would the team try to run four cars with sponsorship for less that three full teams? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make what would have been the No. 10 into the No. 43 and just run three teams?
GEM has already curtailed its Nationwide Series operation and let people go from its engine shop since no matter what else happens its going to have fewer clients for Dodge engines next year with the demise of one Petty-owned car (at least) and Robby Gordon’s switch to Toyota.
* * *
You can drive your own car around the track at Lowe’s Motor Speedway one more time this year on Saturday. Three laps around the 1.5-mile track in your street car will cost you $25.
The offer is good from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Drivers should come to the track’s main entrance and register at the ticket office. They will be directed to the Gate 1 and the Turn 4 tunnel and will be assembled in groups for laps of the track behind one its pace cars.

The case against euthanizing NASCAR

If NASCAR is euthanized, as author Robert Weintraub suggests, the hundreds of men and women who work with NASCAR, its teams and related industries would be collateral damage. (AP photo by Wilfredo Lee)

After calling your attention yesterday to a piece at calling for NASCAR to be “euthanized,” I’ve done a considerable amount of thinking about what its author, Robert Weintraub, had to say.

Let me begin by saying that it’s absolutely valid to point out that I have a considerable stake in NASCAR’s survival. I cover the sport for a newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, that still thinks racing is worth devoting its resources to covering. I host a talk show five mornings each week on Sirius NASCAR Radio. The demise of big-time stock-car racing in this country would not be good news for me professionally.

Having acknowledged that, I contend that doesn’t disqualify me from making a legitimate case against Weintraub’s primary arguments.

If you haven’t read the piece, the brief summary is that Weintraub, who says he is a NASCAR fan, believes that the financial crisis gripping America’s major auto manufacturers makes this “the right time to put the sport out of its misery.”

Citing some of the most familiar refrains of disgruntled long-time fans of NASCAR, he points to declining ticket sales and television ratings, dislike of the Chase format, discontent over changes to the sport and the overall blandness of its drivers as examples of said misery. He even sings the “Dale Earnnhardt Jr. is nothing but an average driver” song that’s sure to strike chords with a broad strain of racing nay-sayers.

What he conveniently ignores, of course, is that far, far more people buy tickets or turn their television sets to NASCAR events now than they did 20 or even 10 years ago. Or that before there was a Chase the same fans who hate it hated the old points system just as purely. Or that there certainly are just as many interesting characters and stories – and, to be frank, considerably fewer criminals – among the 45 or so drivers who regularly compete in NASCAR’s top series as there are on any single NFL, any two Major League Baseball or any three NBA team rosters that contain roughly the same number of people.

But the bigger problem, Weintraub argues, is that in a world where hybrid cars and alternative fuels are to be the next big thing, “it’s hard to see where gas-guzzling, emission-belching stock cars fit in.” In conclusion, he argues that even if the Big Three auto companies survive there’s no way they could justify spending money on an anachronistic diversion such as NASCAR.

It would be easy to be as dismissive of Weintraub’s arguments as he is of all of what NASCAR brings to the millions of fans who still love and follow the sport. That would be wrong. His points about alternative fuels and technology are valid. NASCAR should be leading its fans down roads toward the next generation of the American automobile, not clinging to the industry’s long-abandoned past.

NASCAR certainly had other issues to deal with, serious issues such as increasing its diversity and melding new safety technology with the need for close competition, even before America’s economic crisis hit. Nobody is saying that NASCAR isn’t facing critical issues as that tsunami washes over the sport and the country.

But Weintraub’s central point is not that the sport CAN not be saved. His premise is that it SHOULD not be saved.

Why? Because, he says, “continuing to fund stock-car racing would be a sign that Detroit simply cannot function in the new century.”

The idea that Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota “fund” stock-car racing implies that these companies do that because they consider it either a playground or a charitable enterprise. That premise, of course, ignores both history and reality.

Manufacturers, for one reason or another, have pulled their support of stock-car racing several times in the past. They have returned each time, however, not because they simply missed being in racing or because they had a few spare millions of dollars they decided to blow on a pointless diversion. They’ve returned because racing makes sense for them as a business proposition.

Research by the Sports Business Journal showed that the value of exposure for sponsors in the Cup Series this year, on television alone, was nearly $1.7 billion. Chevrolet got $126 million, with Toyota and Ford each getting better than $73 million. That’s not counting logos on driver or crew uniforms or on the cars’ quarter-panels.

It also doesn’t measure the impact of any at-track displays or other sponsor contact with fans who actually buy tickets to go see the races. And oh, by the way, there are millions of those. Even with the short-term dip in ticket sales, one that could be even more pronounced in 2009, NASCAR events draw huge crowds. Those people come into communities that have race tracks and stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and buy gas. Or they bring in their campers, go to the grocery stores and buy diesel.

Weintraub says NASCAR should suspend operations because, at least partly, it is a diversion. “Once it goes,” he says, “we’ll probably wonder why it ever existed in the first place.”

But if Weintraub had his way those fans wouldn’t be able to do something they love to do. Those communities wouldn't get that revenue. Several thousand people with NASCAR, race teams and various support businesses would be out of work. That’s a lot of leftover misery from what Weintraub would call a mercy killing.

If NASCAR doesn’t get enough things right as it goes forward, Weintraub and the fans who think he’s on to something will get their wish. That’s how business works. If the issue is whether NASCAR is so essential that it should be propped up or bailed out amid a financial crisis, the argument for its demise would be infinitely easier to make.

If the auto makers pull their support completely, NASCAR will either adapt to that new reality or it will die.

Over its history, NASCAR had adapted to its world quite successfully. Even stock-car racing’s harshest critics have to admit that the work and vision of the sport’s leadership has carried it to heights that never could have been imagined when NASCAR was formed in late 1947.

If today’s leaders truly do lack vision or if the work they do and the changes they make loosen the sport from its real foundations, NASCAR’s death will become a matter of fact, not debate. But anybody who believes that death is imminent – or should out of some sense of the greater good be hastened – is far more misguided that anyone who ever has led or ever will lead the sport.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Time for NASCAR to just go away?

Is it time for the sun to set on NASCAR? At least one writer thinks the sport's time has passed.

You knew it was coming. The wonder is that nobody has done it before now.

But there’s a column/blog/whatever on the web today that calls, out right, for NASCAR to just go away.

The writer is Robert Weintraub, who says he’s based in Atlanta and who worked as a producer on the “NBS 24/7” show.

To summarize his points, he says NASCAR should be “put out of its misery” for several reasons.

First, he says, the sport “has been leaking oil for some time.” He cites declining attendance and television ratings, poor reception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, the “disconnect” of the sport from its hardcore fan base and the changing face of the sport’s stars.

“The most visible part of NASCAR, the driver corps, has morphed from a crew of heroic-yet-relatable, older, mostly mustachioed hell-raisers to an interchangeable posse of corporate-ready drones fresh out of driver's ed,” Weintraub writes, citing three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson as someone who is “excellent but dull.”

But Weintraub adds that “a couple of sexy drivers or a breathless season finale” won’t fix the sport’s biggest problem.

“The sport can't escape the fact that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels are technologies on a steep downslope. With hybrids and electrics on the way in, it's hard to see where gas-guzzling, emission-belching stock cars fit in. Unlike the Indy Racing League and Formula 1…NASCAR has yet to implement alternative-fuel programs — hell, it only switched to unleaded gasoline last season! Open-wheel racing isn't immune from the economic turmoil…but it stands a better chance at survival. Formula 1 and the Indy crowd run machines that are less cars than science experiments, highly engineered equipment that can and will adapt easily to new technologies. Stock cars are just tricked-out Dodges and Chevys — you know, the ones that nobody's buying anymore.”

He also points out that if the American automakers do get money from the government to stay alive, it’s hard to see how they can justify spending any of that on “a diversion like NASCAR.”

Weintraub’s conclusion?

“There is an unshakeable anachronistic whiff to NASCAR these days. Like the saber-toothed tiger and the cassette tape, stock cars had their time — but that time is now past. …Detroit's nightmare is an opportunity for NASCAR to do the right thing and suspend operations. Once it goes, we'll probably wonder why it ever existed in the first place.”

I think he’s full of horse feathers. Whenever there are issues with gas prices or supply or other economic hard times, somebody always says we can’t “afford” diversions that take us away from finding real solutions. That’s nonsense. Movies, music and sports help us recharge to face those problems, in my mind.

I agree that NASCAR needs to start working toward using different technologies and fuels to make what its cars do on the track more relative to what’s going on with cars on America’s roads now and in the future. But you can’t convince me that what goes into making an Indy car go 225 mph has anything to do with making street cars better, either.

I also don’t agree that NASCAR can’t survive without the manufacturers. The fact is that history shows the opposite is true. Manufacturers have pulled out of racing before, several times, and every time they’ve come back. If you’re going to sell cars, you’re going to have to advertise to potential buyers. People who come to NASCAR events, by and large, are the kind of people who like cars. The best advertising is the kind that’s aimed at likely customers, and I think it would be short-sighted for auto makers, no matter what form the industry takes going forward, not to try to appeal to race fans.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Assistance for displaced NASCAR workers

News and notes from a NASCAR Monday:

The motorsports employment task force being set up by the North Carolina Motorsports Association has set up a program for displaced NASCAR team workers who are having credit and mortgage problems.

The workers can get help through United Family Services’ office in Cornelius. UFS is a non-profit dedicated to assisting families in need.

Unemployed race team workers can contact UFS at 9624 Bailey Road, Suite 290, Cornelius, N.C. 28031, or call (704) 655-8745.

* * *

Kyle Busch is the winner of the fourth quarter Pocono Spirit Award from the National Motorsports Press Association for his donation of $100,000 to Sam Ard and his family after Busch’s win in the Nationwide Series race at Texas this fall.

Ard, a two-time series champion, suffers from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, creating large medical bills.

“Sam Ard is one of the pioneers of this (series), and to be tied with at 10 wins is something that’s pretty spectacular and really, really special to me,’’ Busch said after the win. “I’m going to try to help him out and see what I can do. It’s not much, but it’s something that can try to help.’’

Juan Pablo Montoya, the late T. Taylor Warren and Richard Childress won the awards in the first three quarters of 2008. The year’s overall winner will be announced at the NMPA convention in January.

* * *

Carl Edwards didn’t win the Race of Champions event Sunday in London, but the runner-up in this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide series did make it to the semifinals and scored a big win along the way.

Edwards defeated retired Formula One champion Michael Schumacher of Germany in the quarterfinal round before losing to David Coulthard in the semis. Coulthard then lost in the best-of-three final to Sebastian Loeb on the course inside London’s famed Wembley Stadium.

Schumacher helped lead Germany to the title in the team portion of the event.

While in England, Edwards also received an award sponsored by Tag Heuer. It was set up this year to determine, by statistics, the best racing driver in the world. A team of eight jurors analyzed the weekly performances of more than 150 drivers in F1, NASCAR and the World Rally Championship before selecting Edwards.

* * *

Red Horse Racing has made it official. Johnny Benson will drive a No. 1 Toyota for that team in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2009, joining David Starr’s No. 11 Toyota as a teammate. Benson won the 2008 Truck Series title will Bill Davis Racing.

* * *

Here are your Martinsville hot dog fabulous fun facts for the day.

The track reports that it sold 93,000 of its famous hot dogs during the two Sprint Cup races this year. OK, that’s a lot of hot dogs, but track public relations man Mike Smith took it a step further.

Using 6 inches as the measurement for each dog Smith – who admits he had help from somebody who can add and multiply – says that comes out to nine miles of Jesse Jones wieners, or 18 laps of the Martinsville track.

And no I, personally, did not account for an entire lap by myself.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A couple of positives to talk about for a change

This has been a tough offseason already for NASCAR, its teams and its fans. The talk has been about teams laying people off or even closing their doors. It has been about how the sport will have to change to survive, and we all know how much NASCAR fans despise change.

It has been so bad, so depressing that you find yourself looking for good things to write about. It reminds you that you should do more of that even when times are good.

This, then, has not been a wasted week at all.

Let’s start with something that’s very, very good and is something you’ll have the chance to see Saturday night at 9 p.m. on CMT.

It’s a new film from CMT Films and the NASCAR Media Group called “Ride of Their Lives.” It’s good. It’s really good.

It is, in fact, so good that I am asking that you watch it. If you’re a NASCAR fan, you will love it. If you’re one of those fans whose love for the sport is in relapse over how all of the changes have “ruined” everything, I honestly believe this movie will touch whatever part of your heart that still burns for NASCAR.

I watched it and I thought for the first few minutes that it was going to be just another movie telling the same old NASCAR story. I was wrong.

This is a movie with NASCAR’s in-house production brand on it that talks, in considerable detail, about Wendell Scott and issues about race and the Confederate flag. There’s a great section about Tim Richmond, unquestionably the longest look anything with a NASCAR seal of approval has ever taken at that fallen star.

At no point, though, does it get preachy. It’s not a sociology project. It just deals with real things in a real way.

The film’s focus is families. The Frances, the Pettys and the Allisons are prominent, as they should be. But family also includes Darrell Waltrip and his wife, Jeff Gordon as his stepfather, Scott and his sons and Richmond’s sister.

The stories are well-told. There are moments when you’ll be near tears and there are moments that will make you smile. There’s tremendous footage, some you’ll see for the first time and more that you haven’t seen in too long.

Watch it. Please. You will not regret it.

Here’s one more bright spot.

Some of the women who work as officials in the garage have put together a cookbook with more than 200 recipes from all kinds of people in the sport. The book is called “Recipes from the Garage” and it’s being sold to raise money for Motor Racing Outreach.

The books are $15 each, plus shipping. You can order them online at and if you order now you can still get them in time to give them as holiday gifts.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Split could open new doors for driver and team

It would be really easy to second-guess Bobby Labonte right now. But I'll pass.

Earlier this year, after General Mills announced it would leave Petty Enterprises and its No. 43 Dodges after the 2008 season to go to Richard Childress Racing, there was widespread speculation that Labonte would go along with the sponsor and drive the fourth RCR car.

First, we don't know for sure that was even a possibility. Second, I find it very difficult to criticize Labonte for being willing to stay with a team where he'd been for three seasons hoping that would help the team find a new sponsor. Third, the sale of majority ownership to Boston Ventures in June offered the hope of a bright future for the Petty team.

In hindsight, it's easy to say that Labonte might have found himself in a better position today had he not remained committed to being a part of what he and everyone at the team hoped would be a renaissance for the Petty team.

It'd also be easy to lash out at Boston Ventures for not having better fortune in taking on the challenge of moving the team forward. But did anyone really accurately forecast the economic meltdown that's having such a profound impact on NASCAR and the rest of our lives right now?

A lot of companies, those in racing included, are doing everything they can just to survive right now.

It seems reasonable to assume that the new contract Labonte signed this year included some provisions that could have complicated any deal to allow the Petty team to merge with another team so it could go on. With Labonte and the team agreeing to do away with their deal, both the driver and the team now figure to be in more flexible positions to continue working on what might come next.

I don't have much doubt that Bobby Labonte will be in a Cup car in 2009.

I certainly hope that the No 43 car will be on the track next year and still somehow maintain a connection to Richard Petty and his family's racing legacy.

It has been since 1971 that there has been a race in what's now the Cup series that the Petty family hasn't at least entered one car. There has been a Petty-owned car in 2,083 of 2,210 races held in the sport's history -- including Lee Petty's entry in the first Strictly Stock race back in 1949 in Charlotte.

Labonte no longer under contract

Bobby Labonte is parting ways with Petty Enterprises and will be, as of an announcement scheduled for later this morning, looking for a ride in the Sprint Cup Series for 2009.
Labonte, the 2000 Cup Series champion who has 21 career victories, has been the driver of the No. 43 Dodges for the past three seasons.
Petty Enterprises is expected to announce today that it is continuing talks about a potential merger with other teams. But Labonte will be released from his contract leaving him without a deal for 2009.
Labonte had re-signed with the team in June when Boston Ventures announced that it had purchased majority ownership in the Petty team. But the team has been unable to find a sponsor to replace General Mills as the primary sponsor on the No. 43 Dodges. General Mills is moving to Richard Childress Racing for 2009.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

There simply are no simple answers

The solution to NASCAR's problems is for Sprint Cup drivers to make lower salaries?

Please don't tell me you think things work that simply.

Drivers at NASCAR's top level make a lot of money because they should make a lot of money. The best at anything make the most money among those who do the same thing. Where that level falls within the rest of the best doing the rest of the jobs depends on how much money there is in a particular line of work.

Should race car drivers make more than teachers? Again, please. The world doesn't work that way. We don't pay people based on their contributions to society. If we did, there wouldn't be a rich rap singer alive. And just think how little sports writers would make.

Race teams that win will stay in business unless the sport absolutely comes unhinged, and despite all of the stuff that's going on these days there's no real danger of that happening.

If you're going to win, you're going to have to have a top-tier driver these days. And if a driver starts winning, he's going to be offered top-tier money to drive for somebody.

It sounds simple to say that if a driver takes a $500,000 pay cut then his team can keep $500,000 worth of employees on the payroll. And if it comes to that, if most top-tier drivers believe that taking that kind of pay cut will help their team stay competitive, the smart drivers will make that happen.

But, as one driver said the other day, if cutting $500,000 off the driver's salary means that a team is going to keep six or seven people employed just for the sake of not having to lay them off, that's another matter. It's just not that easy.

We waste a lot of time these days looking for easy answers to complicated things.

The housing crunch didn't happen because two Democrats took over committees in Congress two years ago, no matter how many times a right-wing radio gasbag tries to tell you it was their fault. Those two Democrats might have been among the dozens of factors in the story, but the housing issue is a tangle of 10,000 wires, not a knot in your shoelace.

Automakers aren't in trouble because unions ruined them or because the chief executive officers make huge salaries. It's a million times more complicated than that.

NHRA's Schumacher wins driver balloting

A handful (OK, I know four is not officially a handful, but play along) of quick updates:

Top driver vote goes to NHRA's Schumacher

Just got the release a little while ago that Tony Schumacher has won the 2008 Driver of the Year Award in a really - I mean really - close vote.

Schumacher dominated the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel division in historic fashion with an NHRA record-tying 15 victories and the championship this year. He got six votes - including mine - from the 18-member media panel that votes for this award. Three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson got five votes. So did Carl Edwards. Kyle Busch got one vote and Tony Stewart got the other. Schumacher joins John Force and Greg Anderson as the only drag racers to win the award in its 42-year history.

Latest layoffs may signal Petty-GEM merger near

I made some calls Tuesday trying to find out what's really going on with Petty Enterprises. You may have heard by now that the team laid off another 35-40 employees on Monday.

Nobody was saying much Tuesday, but it still appears that a merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports is the likely outcome, with the No. 43 car running out of that team's stable next season.

Foursome testing Goodyears at Vegas

Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and David Stremme are testing tires for Goodyear Wednesday and Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It seems like that would particularly valuable for Martin, who'll get a chance to work with his new team at Hendrick Motorsports, and Stremme, who's taking over in the No. 12 Dodges. With testing banned as of Jan. 1, this will be a chance for Martin and Stremme to at least introduce themselves to the guys they'll be working with in 2009.

Johnny Benson completes 2009 deal

Johnny Benson, the 2008 Truck Series champion, and crew chief Trip Bruce have officially found a home for 2009. They'll race next season for Red Horse Racing as a teammate with David Starr.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Here's one top stories list

It's the time of the year when those of us in the media start voting on our 10 biggest stories of the previous year.

We're planning to start our year-in-review stuff on this week's That's Racin' page with a look back at the Nationwide and Truck Series, followed by a two-part look at the year's top 10 NASCAR stories. I am also working on a story about the biggest non-NASCAR stories for Charlotte and the Carolinas for an upcoming Sunday column. asked the folks registered on that site to choose the year's top 10 stories last week and the results are now out. More than 180 people voted.

The problem with the stories nominated on that site, of course, is that the list was limited to "competitive" stories -- stuff that happened on the track. That means that a half-dozen or so of the stories that will make most year-end top 10 lists -- the economic woes, tire problems at Indianapolis, issues with the car of tomorrow and former official Mauricia Grant's discrimination suit -- weren't among the nominees this time.

Anyway, here's how the voting turned out. It's not my list, so don't kill the messenger:

1. Jimmie Johnson wins a record-tying third straight championship (75 first-place votes, 1,727 points)

2. Kyle Busch wins 21 races in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series (13 first-place votes, 1,574 points)

3. Tony Stewart leaves Joe Gibbs Racing

4. Carl Edwards wins nine Cup races and finishes second in the Cup and Nationwide standings.

5. Jeff Gordon goes winless in Cup for the first time since 1994.

6. Ryan Newman gets his first Daytona 500 victory and the first for car owner Roger Penske.

7. Johnny Benson edges Ron Hornaday Jr. to win the Truck Series title.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. snaps a 76-race winless streak after moving to Hendrick Motorsports.

9. Clint Bowyer wins the Nationwide Series title.

10. Joey Logano makes his Nationwide debut and wins at Kentucky Speedway

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stocks for Tots among my favorite events

Stocks for Tots celebrates its 20th anniversary Tuesday night at the Charles Mack Citizens Center in downtown Mooresville.

This is one of my favorite events each year. I started going to it back when it was held in the Lakeside industrial park just off Interstate 77. Race fans used to go from race shop to race shop getting autographs and it always seemed that the event fell on the coldest night in history. It always amazed me how many fans put themselves through so much misery to do something so nice.

Now the event is mostly indoors. There will be food, entertainment and racing show cars outside the Citizens Center beginning about 5:30 p.m. At 4:30, a group of legends including Tom Pistone, Rex White and Neil Castles will be signing autographs in the event's auction room.

Doors open for the main autograph session at 7 p.m. To get autographs or attend the live memorabila auction, fans need wristbands that can be obtained only by donating at least $10 in cash and a new unwrapped toy valued at at least $10. Wristbands can be picked up from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday at The Pit karting center in Mooresville and then at the Citizens Center's doors beginning at 4.

One of my favorite memories of being at Stocks for Tots were the couple of years I got lucky and they let me sit next to Buddy Baker at one of the tables. People would come along with models of various cars Buddy drove during his years behind the wheel and Buddy would have a story about every one of them. I joked with Baker about how I didn't even know they had plastic back when he drove. He laughed. Most of the time.

Baker, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson Randy Lajoie, Tim Brewer and Larry McReynolds are among the NASCAR heroes who're scheduled to attend and meet the fans.

Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, David Stremme, Colin Braun, Joe Nemechek, Kevin Lepage, Sam Hornish Jr., Mike Bliss, John Andretti, Travis Kvapil and Chrissy Wallace are among the current NASCAR drivers set to be there. From drag racing, you can meet drivers like Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Doug Herbert, Bob Gilbertson, Melanie Troxel and Tommy Johnson Jr.

If you want to check an updated list of those scheduled to attend, or if you need any more information about the event, go to and it's all there for you. If you're in the Mooresville area on Tuesday -- or can get there -- you won't be disappointed, I promise. It's really one of the best nights of the year to be connected to racing in any way.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

'Live' a lie during NASCAR awards broadcast

So there you are, NASCAR fan, sitting in your home waiting until just after midnight to see the big surprise ending of the 2008 Sprint Cup awards ceremony from New York City.

Gosh, you're thinking, this thing sure is running late. After all, you've heard all the stories after the great champion's parties that have happened after these banquets in previous years. If they're just getting to the champion's speech as Friday turns to Saturday, when does the actual party begin?

You smile, though, as NASCAR chairman Brian France introduces the man who'll present Jimmie Johnson with his ring for winning the Cup championship for a third straight year.

It's Cale Yarborough, the only other driver in the sport's history to win three straight titles. What a nice touch, you think. And even though you're not in the magnificent Waldorf-Astoria's grand ballroom with all the rest of the sublimely dressed swells – hey, did you notice? Tom Cruise is here! – you're seeing this as it takes place.

You know this because right up there in the right-hand corner of your television screen is the word "LIVE" in big white letters across a bright red background. It has been there all night long on the ESPN Classic broadcast, and surely the World Wide Leader wouldn't just be outright lying to you.

But hey, wait a minute.

Although the name of this thing is officially the Sprint Cup awards "ceremony," you know that for years the shorthand name for this black-tie affair has been the "banquet." Don't people eat at a banquet? Were Tom Cruise and the rest of the gang sneaking bites of their dinner and dessert during the commercial breaks? When did the waiters come get the salad plates and serve the main course? You didn't see any of that.

What's the deal?

Then, you remember hearing Jeff Burton say something about how he got fired up hearing Richard Petty talk "before we got started." But you saw Richard Petty, along with actor Kevin Costner and Betty Jane France, the widow of former NASCAR president Bill France Jr., do a long historical segment that was nice but seemed to have no point. What's this about "before we got started?"

Slowly you begin to figure it out.

You ARE being lied to. Blatantly. Repeatedly. Without compunction.

ESPN Classic is telling you – basically SCREAMING at you – that what you're watching is LIVE. As far as you know, LIVE means this is happening right now as you are watching it.

But that's not what it means to ESPN Classic.

In the real world, Yarborough surprised Johnson about an hour earlier than he did on your television. In the real world, by the time you watched Johnson give his speech at the end of the evening the after-party was under way in the grand ballroom.

Does it matter that ESPN Classic lied all night about being LIVE? I can't answer that. You have to decide that.

You have to decide if the fact that they're so willing to lie so blatantly means they don't think you're smart enough to figure them out.

You also have to decide if knowing that they lied to you makes you wonder what else the ESPN family of networks might be lying about when they cover NASCAR or any other sport.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Isn't NASCAR's awards ceremony long enough?

Let me get this straight. Somebody actually asked Kevin Costner to make his segment on NASCAR history during the Sprint Cup awards ceremony LONGER?

He said it, right there in front of Richard Petty and everybody. “They asked me to kill a couple of minutes here,” he said.

Of course, this was after he called Dale Earnhardt “The Terminator” during his review of the sport’s 60 seasons. I choose to believe that’s not because he doesn’t know that Earnhardt was called “The Intimidator,” but that he was having trouble reading the Telepromter.

Now I ask you, if Kevin Costner has trouble working with that thing, what kind of chance does Tony Stewart have in looking natural with it?

I have no problem with NASCAR acknowledging its history. It was refreshing, in fact, to see at least a couple of seconds of Tim Richmond’s image on the screen during Costner’s segment. But the only thing that the segment Friday night needed was a point.

I do have a couple of observations about the first hour of the broadcast that aired on ESPN Classic, too.

First, I think the director must have been overserved at the cocktail reception that precedes the banquet. At no point did he appear to have any idea what the viewer at home should be seeing. Once a cameraman on the floor shooting a crowd reaction shot got up and walked away from whoever he was shooting at the view from his camera was on the air the whole time.

Comedian John Pinette is a pretty funny guy, actually. But I am still scratching my head trying to figure out why the fact that the turnips his sister prepared for the Thanksgiving meal gave him gas has anything to do with racing. And with all due respect, the cleanliness of his colon is really not Jimmie Johnson’s concern.

Matchbox 20 or Matchbox Twenty or whatever was right in line with your typical NASCAR banquet choices. One of the great all-time moments in this event’s history came a few years ago when Joe Gibbs’ wife actually sat on stage with her fingers in her ears as a band called Third Eye Blind (or, as I call them now, Two Ears Deaf) played a few feet away.

NASCAR isn't announcing how much money each driver is getting from the points fund this year, which is precisely the opposite of what the focus of this event usually is. But with people having lost jobs in the sport and with teams either folding or merging about every day that didn't really surprise me. The idea of bragging about handing out $25 million at a dinner that probably cost $300 or so a plate probably wasn't the right tone for this night.

But I am not sure this was the right setting for NASCAR folks to lobby repeatedy on behalf of a bailout for the American auto industry, either. The industry's support for NASCAR is important, but the banquet isn't being aired on C-SPAN (although, if ESPN had its way, it might be next year).

It’s now 11 p.m. I am guessing the banquet is actually over, but ESPN Classic still has an hour and the top five drivers left to go. I have to watch to get a fresh quote from Johnson for my story for tomorrow’s paper. If I were actually in New York this would all be over. But then again, I ain’t exactly wearing a tuxedo here at home right now, either.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

John Force: No scrimping on safety

There are a handful of rules you have to live by when you do the job I do. Wear comfortable shoes. Look both ways – at least twice – before crossing any lane race cars are in. And never, ever turn down an opportunity to interview John Force.

Force was in North Carolina Wednesday evening to pick up the Motorsports Engineering Achievement Award at a banquet during the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s annual motorsports engineering conference. The conference was held at the Embassy Suites near Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord.

“I came here to thank them,” said Force, who flew in for the day from California. “Not for giving me an award, but for what all those people in the room have done.”

Safety is Force’s passion these days. It has been since Eric Medlen died during a test in a Funny Car owned by John Force Racing.

Force has invested his heart and his money into the Eric Medlen Project. Ford has supported him with money, manpower and expertise and he’s worked closely with the leadership of the National Hot Rod Association on safety initiatives.

Force is convinced the work that’s been done to develop a car that offers its driver more protection from the forces at play at better than 300 mph in a drag race helped save his life when had a violent crash in late 2007.

“At the end of the day, racing is about speed,” Force said. “It’s a bullfight and you hang your neck out. If you don’t want to get hurt don’t get in the car.

“But you have to believe the car is right. Right now I have the best thing we could create. I believe it’s seven times stronger.”

But it’s not strong enough, not safe enough. Force’s daughter, Ashley, and his son-in-law, Robert Hight, drive for John Force Racing too, and Force can’t rest until he’s sure he’s done everything he can possibly do to keep them safe.

There are other forces at work in motorsports these days, of course, and Force has to deal with those too. He’s a 14-time Funny Car champion in the National Hot Rod Association, but like everybody else in racing he’s dealing with the challenges of a tough economy.

“We’ve looked at everything,” Force said. “We looked at where the gravy is and the gravy is gone.”

Force said he’s cutting one man off each of his teams. He’s canceled orders on some equipment he wants for his shop just outside of Indianapolis. He’s delayed plans to start building his own bodies for his cars. He’s not going to do any extensive testing before the new NHRA season. He even flew coach on his cross-country trip to pick up the award.

“We’re going t have to work more for less, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “All of us in motorsports have to do it. …We have to put this country back on its feet and everybody is going to have to cut. We’re all in the same boat.”

Force said one thing he won’t cut back on, however, is the effort to make racing safer.

“If I can’t build a car that’s safe I am going to quit,” Force said. That’s not a threat, he said, just the way it is.

“I have a grandbaby that I want to be able to look in the eye and say, ‘Your daddy is going to come home,’” Force said. “I got where I couldn’t tell Ashley she was safe. I was always able to tell her the car was her best friend and I was wrong. I believe now we’ve got a car that will protect you. But it’s still not where it needs to be.

“If the safety element is taken away because of a lack of funds, I am done. …If I can’t race knowing I’ve can make something better I won’t go on. …If we have to cut out everything, even performance, safety has to come first. We’ll build safety first and then we’ll consider racing. …You can’t say that because there’s no money we have to give up safety. I am not giving up my kid.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More shuffling of NASCAR crew chiefs

A couple of things:

The shuffle of Sprint Cup crew chiefs continues as NASCAR heads into its offseason.

None of the moves announced so far have been huge surprises. We knew throughout the final weeks of the season that Larry Carter would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing and Jamie McMurray's No. 26 Fords. Carter is going to Yates Racing to work with Paul Menard there.

On Tuesday, Roush Fenway confirmed that Donnie Wingo will move from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates to rejoin McMurray. Wingo was McMurray's crew chief for three seasons at the Ganassi team.

McMurray finished third in the final three races of the 2008 season and has said he is looking forward to being reunited with Wingo, who started 2008 as Juan Pablo Montoya's crew chief and finished it working with Reed Sorenson on the No. 41 team.

Red Bull Racing announced Monday that Ryan Pemberton will move to that team to work with Brian Vickers on the No. 83 Toyotas. Pemberton comes from Michael Waltrip Racing, so his departure left an opening on the No. 00 Toyotas that David Reutimann will drive in 2009.

According to, that spot will be filled by Rodney Childers. Childers was Elliott Sadler's crew chief at Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2008.

* * *

One high-profile part of championship week activities in New York City from recent years won't be happening this year. The "Victory Lap" parade of the top-10 finishers' cars around several blocks of busy midtown Manhattan streets is a thing of the past.

As you might imagine, closing several streets not far from Times Square in the middle of the morning was not something that endeared NASCAR to some grizzled New Yorkers. The fact that happened the morning after a bunch of streets near Rockefeller Center were closed for the annual Christmas tree lighting wasn't good timing, either.

Last year several drivers ignored instructions not to do burnouts during the parade. Also last year, coverage of the lap on ABC's "Good Morning America" basically was shoved aside to only a few seconds at the end of the show because the network was going ga-ga over the finale of last year's "Dancing with the Stars" competition that had aired the night before.

Add it all up and it was a stunt whose time had just passed.

Monday, December 01, 2008

NASCAR should include fans in festivities

I am not going to New York City for the Sprint Cup awards ceremony this year. Our newspaper looked at the expense and decided it was something we could do without, and in these tough times I have to say I think that was the right call.

I have never thought that having the banquet in New York does as much for NASCAR as NASCAR seems to think it does, but there's always the chance that I just don't understand it on the level that NASCAR's officials believe they do.

It's not exactly new news to anybody that I believe the banquet is, well, dopey. The drivers come up on stage and are forced to read prepared (and carefully edited) remarks off a Teleprompter. That's not what these guys do and they come off looking stiff, at best, or scared to death, at worst. NASCAR usually tries to spice things up with some kind of comedic element that doesn't work and a musical act that seems awkward and/or out of place.

What the NASCAR championship celebration sorely lacks is a fan element.

I don't necessarily think the fans need to be part of any kind of formal ceremony where sponsors get thanked. I am not sure that's needed at all, but the last thing you need is for the champion to be booed by thousands of fans who don't particularly like that year's winner.

Still, the fans have to be a bigger part of NASCAR's year-end celebrations. The various awards ceremonies are the only major events each year that seem to be set up precisely in a way to exclude fans, and I don't understand that at all.

So how do you do it? Well, the obvious model is Nashville's annual country music Fan Fair. It's a week's worth of events designed to let the fans see, feel, hear and touch the industry's biggest stars and introduce them to some of those who might be up and coming.

You can't have a fan-centered NASCAR event in New York. You just can't.

So where do you have it?

Well, once the NASCAR Hall of Fame opens in Charlotte that's a logical place. You could have it in Las Vegas, for sure. You could have it in Daytona, too, and make it part of a celebration of the season that just ended as well as a look ahead to the new year. You could even have it in Southern California and make the Toyota Showdown at the track in Irwindale, Calif., a part of the week's activities.

There are a lot of ways it could be done that would make sense. The only truly critical thing is you make it less about NASCAR and the sponsors and more about the fans.

How to fix the BCS

Yes, I know I cover NASCAR. I understand that.

But for all the grief fans give the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, I will tell you right now there's no way that NASCAR now has -- or has ever had a championship system that's anywhere near as messed up as college football's Bowl Championship Series.

What's going on this weekend and will continue until after next week's conference championship games is a joke. An absolute joke. The idea that two teams, and only two teams, will come out of this mess with a chance to win a championship is beyond dumb.

The idea that major college football can't come up with an actual way to determine a champion on the field is equally absurd. The fact is that this year it's so clear-cut that you'd actaully have to work to find the final team to fill out your playoff berth.

You have 11 conferences playing in the top tier of college football. Six -- the ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific 10 and the SEC -- are the current BCS leagues. And they're the sport's big-time leagues, no doubt.

But the five other leagues -- the MAC, the Mountain West, Conference USA, the WAC and the Sun Belt -- play, too. And their champions deserve to have a right to play for the championship, too.

That's 11 teams. All you need to add is five more (four more, really) and you've got this year covered.

ACC -- The winner of the championship game between Virginia Tech and Boston gets the ACC spot.

Big East -- Cincinnati won the Big East and that's it.

Big Ten -- Penn State gets the automatic bid. Ohio State is one of the five at-large teams.

Big 12 -- For the record, the fact that Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech have an unbreakable three-way tie really isn't the BCS's fault. The conference needs a better way to break a three-way tie to determine who plays Missouri in the Big 12 title game. Anyway, in my system no league can have more than three teams in the 16-team playoff. So if whoever makes the game next week beats Missouri then Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech all advance. If Missouri wins, it gets the league's No. 1 spot and Texas Tech (sorry) is bumped.

Pacific 10 -- Southern Cal inherits the bid No. 1 spot with Oregon State's loss Saturday. If Oregon State had won, both teams would have made it and we'd have had a solid 16.

SEC -- Alabama and Florida play for the No. 1 berth in the SEC title game. The loser also makes the playoff. Georgia would be in the running for the 16th slot along with Oregon (after its win over Oregon State).

Add in Utah, Boise State and Ball State, three very deserving teams, with the Conference USA winner (East Carolina or Tulsa) and Troy from the Sun Belt and there's your 16 teams.

On the weekend of Dec. 19-21, we play eight games at on-campus sites of the top eight seeds. Only conference champions get these home games. So here's my first round this year:
(16) Troy at (1) SEC No. 1
(15) ECU/Tulsa at (2) Big 12 No. 1
(14) Ball State at (3) Southern Cal
(13) Georgia or Oregon at (4) Penn State
(12) Big 12 No. 3 at (5) Boston College or Va. Tech
(11) Ohio State at (6) Cincinnati
(10) SEC No. 2 at (7) Utah
(9) Big 12 No. 2 at Boise State

We take Christmas weekend off, then on Jan. 2-3, you'd have four quarterfinal games. If you want to call them the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Gator bowls, knock yourself out. Think anybody would get excited about a second-round that might include Florida AND Alabama against two of those three Big 12 teams, USC vs. Ohio State and Penn State against a third Big 12 team or the ACC winner?

The semifinals, in the Rose and Sugar bowls let's say, would be the next weekend (Jan. 9-10).
Then you take a week off and play the college championship game on Jan. 25, the Sunday between the NFC and AFC championship games and the Super Bowl.

I know it doesn't take any particular genius to propose this. But if I am going to constantly have to listen to people gripe about the Chase and pick through ten thousand ways to change it, I ought to get one shot at talking about college football.

Hey, I am a fan, too.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hits, misses in preseason predictions

Now that the season is over, I guess it's only fair for us to look back at how I thought 2008 would go and see how I did with my preseason predictions.

These predictions ran two days before this year's Daytona 500 on the That's Racin' weekly page that appears in the Observer and other publications.

My first prediction worked out pretty well. Here's what I wrote:

SPRINT CUP CHAMPION: It's hard to pick against Jimmie Johnson, so I won't. The third consecutive championship will be the hardest, but somebody is going to have to prove to me the No. 48 team can be defeated.

OK, so far so good.

My next pick was who would be a surprise to either make or not make the Chase. I said Casey Mears would have a big year and Clint Bowyer "might take a half step backward." Well, Mears and Bowyer did wind up being linked -- Mears will move into Bowyer's former ride in 2009 -- but I still have to admit I was wrong twice there.

I also said that NASCAR had "painted itself into a corner with this business about letting drivers show their emotions. Somebody WILL go too far." I can't really say that happened, either.

But I did get another one right. I said, "A lot of big-time driver contracts are, to varying degrees, not locked up long-term as tight as you might think they would be. Don't think Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be the last top-tier driver to change jobs."

OK, so I didn't really go way out on a limb there. But Tony Stewart leaving Joe Gibbs Racing certainly qualifies as making that a good call.

Fellow Observer reporter Jim Utter said Kyle Busch would be champion, but he also said the biggest issue facing NASCAR would be "the impending budget crunch on the economy, which affects everything from the reporters sent by media to cover the sport, to the lack of big-money sponsors for teams, to the cost fans face to watch races."

So he was dead on the money there. He also correctly said the best championship battle would be in the Truck Series.

Jim Pedley of the Kansas City Star picked Jeff Gordon as his champion, said Earnhardt Jr. would win four races and predicted that a driver from Canada would win a Cup race this year. But he was right in saying all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas would make the Chase.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Here's an alternative format for Chase

I have never truly liked the idea of a Chase for the Sprint Cup format that puts everything on the final race to pick a champion.

Some people do. One of the ideas that keeps popping up for that is to "eliminate" a driver from the Chase each week. The driver among those qualifying for the Chase who finishes lowest at Loudon in the first Chase race would be knocked out. The next week at Dover, the driver among the remaining 11 with the worst finish would be out.

That would continue until there are only three drivers left for the final race at Homestead. Then, the driver among those three who finishes best would be the champion.

I hate that for two reasons.

First, and fundamentally, the championship should not hinge on who beats who in one race. That would create a "race for the championship," no dobut, but it would do so in a much more arbitrary and artificial way than the current format tries to do.

This year, for instance, the championship would have come down to Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick at Homestead. While Jimmie Johnson had the most Chase-race points, he would have been knocked out when he finished 15th at Texas.

My second problem with this "last man out" approach is that it would turn the focus in the first nine Chase races to who's running poorly, not who's running well. I am always trying to put the spotlight on who wins races because that's what should be important.

So, if you insist on having it where you have to earn your way into a chance for the championship at Homestead, there'd be a better way to do that.

Instead of saying the worst Chase finisher is eliminated, how about saying anybody who qualifies for the Chase has to WIN a Chase race to earn his way into the championship finale. Only Chase drivers could qualify this way because your regular season has to mean something.

However, to appease all of those who think that the Chase "excludes" people who didn't qualify for it from being part of the final 10 races, let's add this wrinkle. The driver who earns the most points in the first nine Chase race without winning one of those races -- regardless of where he stood in points after 26 races -- earns a "wild card" slot in the championship finale.

At least that way, getting a title shot in the finale would involve winning races and running well and not depend on who doesn't run the worst.

As I said, it's not a road I'd prefer going down. But if you're going down it, you might as well choose the right lane.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Earnhardt yardstick really isn't a fair measure

Look, you don't have to be a genius to figure out that if you write about Dale Earnhardt Jr. race fans are going to get fired up, especially when you're talking about drawing conclusions about his performance or his standing in NASCAR.

The reason I wrote a blog Friday about what Jimmy Spencer said on last week's prerace show is that I felt people would be interested in hearing what Spencer said when we asked him to expand on his remarks when he was on "The Morning Drive" on Sirius NASCAR Radio.

I love it when people accuse reporters or people who write on the internet of "just trying to get hits" or merely writing something so people will read it. Well, duh. What are we supposed to do? Look for obscure things to report about people nobody gives a dang about?

But anyway, back to Earnhardt Jr.

If you're a Dale Jr. fan and you believe that "the media" has put unreasonable expectations on him as a driver, I would point out to you that the reason he said he was going to Hendrick Motorsports was to win races and contend for championships.

The media didn't say that, he did.

He made the Chase this year, but was never, ever a factor in it. He won just one points race and, more to the point, his team did not seem to get better as the season went along. Indeed, he was much stronger earlier in the season than later. Was that because his team fell off or because other teams got better at a faster rate than his did? I don't know, but it doesn't matter.

When the championship is on the line during the Chase your team has to not only be at its best, it has to be better than everybody else.

I will guarantee you that Earnhardt Jr. was disappointed that his team didn't wind up beating any other team that made the Chase.

On the other hand, I will also guarantee you that if you're one of the Dale Jr. haters who thinks you're insulting him by saying he'll never be as good as his father, you're never going to hear Earnhardt Jr. himself argue with that. While he has said he wants to be a champion, he has never said he wants to be his father. In fact, he's gone out of his way to say he knows he'll never be that.

And this just in, nobody else will be, either.

Dale Earnhardt will be in the first class to enter NASCAR's Hall of Fame. There's absolutely no question or argument about that. He, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bill France Sr. are slam dunks for the inaugural class. Earnhardt changed the sport and he was one of the great figures in all of American sport.

If you're trying to hold Dale Jr. - or any other current driver - up to the Earnhardt standard, he's absolutely going to fall short. But there's nothing wrong with measuring Earnhardt Jr. to the standards he set for himself, which are by the way the same standards any top-tier driver should be reaching toward.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Was Dale Jr. a failure at Hendrick?

Jimmy Spencer is never at a loss for an opinion, which is a good thing because Speed pays him to give his opinions on television.

Before last week’s final Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Spencer’s opinion was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been “a failure” in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports. We had him on “The Morning Drive” on Sirius NASCAR Radio Friday morning and he talked about why he felt that way.

“I had really high expectations for Junior this year,” Spencer said. “But I don’t think his performance this year was a whole lot better than it was when he was in the 8 car. He did make the Chase this year, but that was because he didn’t blow up a lot of engines.”

Earnhardt Jr. did win one points race, at Michigan, and the Bud Shootout at Daytona. But he finished 12th in the Chase standings.

“I think it’s a lack of focus,” Spencer said. “He’d be running in the top five and then he’d start arguing with his crew.”

Spencer said he speaks from experience from his own years as a driver.

“I lacked focus,” he said. “We were leading a race at Bristol and I made a pit stop and had to come back in and get a loose lug nut fixed. I was mad at the crew and I lost focus on doing my job and got into a wreck.

“Focus means you have to keep your head on. If you make a mistake or if the team makes a mistake you have to deal with it. It’s like in golf. If you hit a 7-iron you can’t be thinking about what went wrong the last time you hit it. Boris Said told me that on a road course if you miss a turn you can’t go back and do it again, you have to keep going.

“When your car is off a little bit and the team makes a chance and it doesn’t react the way you wanted it to, you can’t blow up. You have to stay clam and feed information back to the team and you have to let them do their jobs and keep doing your job.”

Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., is the driver’s cousin and sometimes they fight like brothers. If they were winning races and contending for the championship, people would be talking about how honest they are with each other in their communication. But when things aren’t great, their relationship is often construed as a detriment to the team.

Earnhardt Jr. has steadfastly stood by Eury Jr. He said he doesn’t want to race against him and get beat by him, he’d rather race with him and win together.

Until they start winning at the same kind of level that Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch won at this year, though, the No. 88 team isn’t going to get where it wants to be.

Is it fair to say that team was a “failure” this year?

Well, I don’t think anyone would say that Earnhardt Jr. and his team attained “success” in 2008. And in this context, isn’t “failure” the opposite of that?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How three drivers dominated

When you look at this season's final results for the Sprint Cup Series, it's hard not to be a little puzzled.

You can say that three teams dominated the season, but you have to be careful how you use the word "team." Roush Fenway Racing won 11 races this year. Joe Gibbs Racing won 10 and Hendrick Motorsports won eight. That's 29 of 36 races.

But if you look at it, Carl Edwards won nine of the 11 at Roush. Kyle Busch won eight of the 10 at Gibbs. Jimmie Johnson won seven of the eight at Hendrick. So those three drivers won 24 of those 29 that their teams won. It wasn't that multicar teams dominated as much as it was that particular drivers and their teams did.

I actually have a theory about why that is.

I believe that the new car that Sprint Cup teams used this year is a big part of that. Specifically, I believe that teams haven't figured out nearly as many ways to adjust on the car and make it both comfortable for a driver and fast enough to be competitive as they had with the old car.

What that means is that a team gets the car as good as it can get it. From that point, it's up to the driver to adapt to the car. It's no longer - or at least not right now - a matter of conitnuing to work on the car to give the driver the feel he's looking for. The successful teams are the ones where the driver has been able to adapt to how the car feels when the team finds a way to make it go fast. The driver becomes the variable, not the car.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Johnson, Edwards and Busch are the best drivers. This year, though, they were able to adapt their styles better to this car. Either that, or what is best for this car is also what is best (or significantly better) for them. Maybe both.

I don't think that Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs would set things up where one team is far and away better than all of its others. I think those teams share information freely, so it's not a matter of the 48, the 99 or the 18 having big secrets.

What I believe is that the three guys who dominated this year reached a point where they decided that the new car is what it is. To make it go fast, you can't drive it the way you drove the old car and you can't keep searching for that old car's feel. You have to learn what "right" is in this car.

To me, that's another reason Johnson's third straight title is so impressive. Clearly at the start of the season Johnson was not getting along very well with the new car. He and his team tested extensively and I think Johnson learned as much about how to change himself as the team did about changing the car.

Just my theory.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASCAR driver of the year? I vote for ...

On the way home from Homestead the other day, I started thinking about two votes I had to cast this week.

One was for the Driver of the Year Award, which is picked by a panel of media members that I am on. The other was for the Richard Petty Driver of the Year Award, which is chosen by the members of the National Motorsports Press Association.

The first award includes all forms of motorsports that compete in North America. The second is basically the NASCAR driver of the year honor.

My problem was this. I knew that the top candidate for the overall award from the National Hot Rod Association was record-setting Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher. Scott Dixon, the Indy Racing League champion, was the clear choice from open wheel.

But then came NASCAR and the vote for the NMPA award. I couldn't compare NASCAR's top driver with Schumacher and Dixon until I decided who to vote for in the award named after Richard Petty.

Jimmie Johnson won his third championship and seven races this year. Say what you will about the system, but Johnson won the title with the one that's in place. He also beat Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, the other two candidates, for top honors in the sport's premiere series.

Edwards won 16 times in the Cup and Nationwide Series and finished with more top fives (19) and top 10s (27) in Cup than anyone else. He also finished second in the Cup and Nationwide standings and was closing fast at the end in both series.

Then there was Busch. In 84 total races in Cup, Nationwide and Trucks this year he won a remarkable 21 times. His bid to win the Cup title fizzled when he got off to a slow start in the Chase, but he tied Sam Ard's record with 10 Nationwide wins and had 57 top-10 finishes all year -- 36 in 48 starts in Nationwide and Cup.

You can't flip a three-sided coin, as far as I know, so what I decided to do was to ask listeners to the Sirius NASCAR Radio show, "The Morning Drive," that I co-host each weekday.

Between the calls and e-mails, we probably had 50 or 60 votes. It was pretty close, but the pick was Busch because of his overall excellence this year. It's the same rationale that made sense to me in 2001 when Kevin Harvick won the Busch Series title and did so well after being called on to replace the late Dale Earnhardt in Cup.

Harvick got the award in 2001 and Busch got my vote in the NMPA balloting this year. We'll see in January how the rest of the NMPA voted and who gets the award.

As for the broader Driver of the Year contest, I went with Schumacher. Nobody dominated his sport like Schumacher did this year. The driver of the Top Fuel car owned by his father, Don, won 15 NHRA races and had 76 round wins. He became the No. 1 Top Fuel winner of all-time in the process and, unlike Busch, he did win his championship.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Max Siegel on a difficult week at DEI

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Normally, the final week of a NASCAR season feels like the last day of school.

After nine months of seeing the same people just about every weekend, it’s time to go back and finally unpack the suitcase and reintroduce yourself to the family and the neighbors.

Somebody always figures out how many days it is until the new year starts in Daytona, and everybody gives a good-natured groan when they hear that number. It’s usually a lot of “Happy Holidays!” and see-you-soon hugs and handshakes.

Not this time.

Homestead-Miami Speedway is not a bad place. We’re not that far from Key West and even closer to South Beach. The weather is absolutely glorious.

But it’s a depressing place to be this weekend. Instead of a sense of accomplishment for those who’ve had a good year and a sense of hope for those looking for better luck next year, there’s a sense of dread. Instead of being relieved to be at the end of a long season, too many people are fearful over what next week will bring.

Nobody really knows how many people in NASCAR will lose their jobs at the end of this season. With Dale Earnhardt Inc. cutting 116 positions this week on the heels of several other, smaller layoffs by other teams, the number is already well north of 200. Some believe that number could be 1,000 – or more – before the bloodletting is done.

It doesn’t really matter, at least not in any human terms, what the actual numbers are. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers when things are this bad and forget that each person losing a job is a person – somebody with a family and a mortgage and a car payment. Not to mention a passion that has driven them to come into the racing industry in the first place, a passion they may have to abandon as teams all across the NASCAR spectrum trim their payrolls.

Max Siegel knows that all too well.

As president of global operations for DEI, Siegel spent his week letting those 116 people know they weren’t going to have jobs once DEI completed its merger with Chip Ganassi Racing. DEI had four Cup cars and Ganassi had two, but those six teams will be streamlined back to four in 2009.

“It was a very tough week,” Siegel said Saturday at Homestead. “It’s gut-wrenching to try to go through and make those decisions. You’re balancing the best interests of the business and the impact you’re having on somebody’s life. It’s very emotional. It’s a very difficult thing to do.”

Nobody likes firing people. But without a merger, DEI might have ceased to exist and nobody would have had a job.

“You go and try to stabilize your business and you’re trying to save jobs,” Siegel said. “On the one hand you feel relieved you’re able to keep people employed that you’re passionate about. On the other side, it never leaves you the impact you’re having on other people.”

What makes it harder, Siegel said, is that the people you’re letting go are losing jobs they really, really want to keep.

“Everyone who works in this sport does it because they love it,” Siegel said. “They make tremendous personal sacrifices. The season is long and you make a commitment and give it everything you have every single week. It’s extremely difficult.”

Siegel said he’s going to stay on at the merged company for at least as long as it takes to get the new arrangements in place. Beyond that, he’s not sure. In this economy, nobody is.

DEI gave severance packages and out-placement counseling to the people it let go. Siegel said everyone in the motorsports industry is trying to help each other out as much as possible.

“We just tried to make sure people were in the best place they could be,” Siegel said.

Still, things were a long way from being easy. “There’s shock, anger, a high level of anxiety, confusion – a wide range of emotions,” Siegel said. “People deal with those in different ways. …It’s sobering what’s going on.”