Monday, March 31, 2008

Helton turned life into lessons

Darrell Waltrip was mad.

Ricky Craven had just knocked Waltrip's car into the wall during a race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.

"I was livid, fit to be tied," Waltrip remembers. "I ran into the garage and snatched Ricky's window net down. I was just about to get into it with him when some of the guys grabbed me and took me back to my hauler."

Max Helton, the NASCAR chaplain who had helped Waltrip and a small group of others form Motor Racing Outreach in 1988, was at Waltrip's hauler waiting.

"He was talking to me about not being a very good witness and asking me to think about what I was doing," Waltrip says. "But the more I thought about it, the madder I got.

"I told Max, 'I can't let this go. I am going back over there right now and have this out with Ricky.'"

Helton got up and stood in the doorway of the lounge in Waltrip's transporter.

"He put his arms across the door and said, 'Here, Darrell, take it out on me. Hit me instead. That will save you from making a big mistake.' And he was serious, he wasn't saying that trying to be funny."

Waltrip laughed anyway. "I said, 'I know I am being foolish,'" he said. "And so I sat back down."

It's a great story, but it doesn't end there. What happened next shows how Helton, who passed away Sunday at the age of 67 after a seven-month battle with brain cancer, turned life into lessons.

"The very next week at Phoenix, Max asked me if I would lead the opening prayer at the chapel service after the drivers' meeting," Waltrip said. "I got up and went to the front of the room and guess who was sitting there on front row. Ricky Craven.

"I said, I can't pray because I have this guilt on me. I have something to take care of fisrt. So I asked Ricky to come up there and I put my arm around Ricky and I asked him to forgive me. Then I prayed."

Helton served as the leader of MRO from its founding in 1988 until he left to take his message of "personal evangelism" to the worldwide racing community through another ministry he founded, WorldSpan Ministries, in 2002. During those years in the NASCAR garage, it sometimes seemed like there were about 10 Max Heltons.

He had a knack for being there when people needed him. He was there when called upon, as any good minister is, but Helton somehow seemed to anticipate those needs. On the starting grid before the race, he'd stop for a brief prayer or word of encouragement to dozens of drivers. He spoke as easily with millionaire car owners as he did garage mechanics who try to remember to wipe grease and oil off their hands with a cloth before greeting Max.

Steve Green's parents were teachers at Tennessee Temple University, where Helton studied. In 1958, Green was in junior high school and played baseball. Helton became his coach, and a life-long friendship began.

"He was like a big brother I never had," said Green, who will be one of the ministers officiating at Helton's memorial service on Wednesday. "I was in on a lot of his late-night collusion meetings where he worked up pranks to play on the night watchmen and the school's dean of men."

Once, Green said, Helton conspired to have an entire car taken apart and then re-assembled inside a snack shop students visited at the college. The next morning, the shop workers came in to discover it sitting there with no idea how it got there or how to get it out.

"Max never, ever got caught and he never got in trouble," Green said. "He could talk his way out of anything."

He could also talk his way into things, too.

Green was a counselor when Helton was putting together the foundations for Motor Racing Outreach in late 1988. Green said Helton called and began talking about how he needed to hire someone to serve as a counselor to address some of the family issues being faced by people who worked in the sport.

"He said, 'Steve, I have got to find ways to love on all of these people," Green said. "I said, 'You don't know what I do for a living?' Max said he didn't, and I believe he really didn't. So I told him I was basically doing that kind of work. He said, 'Well, then you quit your job and you come down and help me.' I told him he was crazy. But he said, 'That's why God had me call you to talk about this.'"

Green said the only way he could do that would be to make an annual salary of $60,000 - a sum he doubted Helton couldn't pay him.

"He said, 'That's no problem, you come on,'" Green said. "So I went and it just felt so right. But when I got there, he said, 'OK, now you need to go raise the money to pay your salary. And anything over $60,000 you raise you can help us pay the rent with."

Early on in MRO's existence, that $60,000 figure was laughable. Waltrip tells of Helton driving to Richmond and back - five hours each way - to conduct a one-hour Bible study with drivers because Helton didn't have the money for a hotel room. Green said Helton came in one day and said the lights and phones to MRO's offices were going to be shut down that day because the group was out of money.

"We didn't know until after that how bad it was," Waltrip said. "Max just had faith it was going to work out."

And, of course, it did.

"He was just my best buddy," Green said. "He loved people, and the real presence of God in his life was effervescent."

Max Helton, 67, is survived by his wife, Jean; daughters Melanie, Elain, Crista and Becky, and nine grandchildren. The family requests that memorial donations to be made to WorldSpan Ministries, P.O. Box 681117, Charlotte, N.C., 28216.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The sway bar and the way things are

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Jack Roush is probably getting tired of people talking about him like he’s a crazy ol’ coot over this business of Michael Waltrip Racing having one of his front sway bars from Dover in September until sometime in January.

Waltrip said Saturday that it was a mistake. The part got to his team by mistake and when somebody from Roush called to ask if they had it, Waltrip’s team looked for it, found it and returned it.

Waltrip is right when he says that stuff gets flung around in the garage area all of the time. When races end, crews pack their gear up rapidly because everyone’s trying to head for the plane or their cars to get home as fast as they can.

Supposedly this sway bar is longer than your average sway bar and wouldn’t fit in the place where sway bars normally live on a team’s tool box. This one was placed under Roush’s tool box in some manner and it seems possible that it could have literally rolled too far and been picked up by mistake by Waltrip’s team.

The way Waltrip tells it, somebody saw they had this oddly long bar painted in a different color and just put it aside figuring that there was no telling where it came from.

The way Roush tells it, though, in January a vendor called Roush Fenway Racing and said it had been contacted to see if that vendor could make pieces copying whatever it is that was special about the ends of this piece that the Roush guys had developed for the car of tomorrow.

OK, that’s where this story that so many people are joking about gets serious in my eyes.

Even if the way the part got “misplaced” was completely innocent, if somebody is trying to copy whatever makes this bar unusual then that’s a pretty sinister turn to the whole affair.

Some people have questioned what good a sway bar could do, how much better it could be and how much better it could make a car. Those are all legitimate questions, but if somebody saw what Roush Fenway Racing had done and decided it was good enough to try to copy, doesn’t that justify Roush’s contention the part had “proprietary” value?

The crux of the question, to me, is where the line is between right and wrong in the eyes of the garage area on this matter.

Roush said Friday that he’s been in the sport 22 years and never felt he’d had anything outright stolen from him or that he’d never condoned having anyone on his team steal anything from another team. Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he felt like a theft of that nature would be an egregious offense, too.

But others laughed at the idea of calling this a “theft.”

It is true that the garage area is open and teams “spy” on each other all of the time. Cars are inspected in the open. Every once in a while people stand around and watch a teardown. When a Daytona 500 winner’s car is put on display at the Daytona 500 Experience, other teams sometimes send somebody over there to take detailed pictures and even do drawings of certain parts of the winner’s car.

So are there really any parts or pieces that are “off limits” to such scrutiny?

What’s considered proper and what’s considered over the line in looking at what the other guy’s got?

That’s one of those questions that you can get 20 different answers on if you ask 20 different people.

I guess it’s also like stealing another teams signs in baseball or videotaping a rival football team’s coach when he’s signaling in plays. Some people think that’s dirty pool and others think that’s just the way the game is played. Any way you can get an advantage you get it.

If you’re walking through a hotel lobby and you see a copy of the playbook or game notes from the team you’re getting ready to play, what do you do? Do you pick it up and use it, feeling that the team that lost it should have known better? Do you just pretend you never saw it? Or do you pick it up and then call the opposing coach and tell him you’ve got it and arrange to return it?

That answer to that question, I think, depends on how much integrity you have. In racing, though, you wonder how much good integrity does you.

Cars that don’t pass postrace inspection can still win races. The garage-area mantra has always been “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

The rulebook is looked at as an outline of suggestions and interpreted whatever way it can be to justify whatever it is you’re trying. Where in all of that does honorable behavior fit in?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Drivers should be pros, win or lose

I didn't get to see Saturday's Nationwide Series race from Nashville because I was in Birmingham covering NCAA tournament basketball for my newspaper.

Based on what I've heard, though, some fans were a little put out by the way Kyle Busch reacted after the race in regard to a spin that took him out of the lead.

I did see Busch a week earlier at Bristol when he got wrecked in the rain-shortened Nationwide race. His car got damaged in an incident that wasn't his fault and Busch headed straight for the pedestrian tunnel taking him out of the track. An ESPN reporter -- who was doing his job -- followed Busch into the tunnel seeking a comment but got none, at least not that could be aired.

A driver who's upset after whatever happens in a NASCAR race is under no requirement to talk to the media, unless he finishes in the top three. The top three are, under NASCAR's postrace procedures, expected to go to the media center. Otherwise, a driver's participation in interviews after he's done racing is elective.

I found it illustrative to be at an NCAA basketball tournament venue over the weekend, though, because the NCAAA has pretty strict requirements for postgame interviews.

The winning team's coach and selected players come to an interview area after a 10-15 minute period in which the coach can speak to his team. Beginning when the coach and players leave to go the interview area, the team's locker room is also open. The coach and selected players from the losing team follow the winning team to the interview area, and the losing team's locker room is open, too.

Isn't it interesting that the NCAA expects its coaches and athletes, some of whom are less than a year out of high school, to be able to handle dealing with the evil media after an emotional loss in an NCAA game?

Most reporters aren't jackals, no matter what you may have seen in the movies. I don't have any idea how those people covering celebrities, chasing them up and down the roads screaming questions and snapping pictures, sleep at night, but most of us don't act that way.

When things go bad for a NASCAR driver, fans want to know what happened. When a driver suffers a heart-breaking loss, they want to see the driver talk about it on television and read about what he says the next day. That's why the media are there.

Several times already this year television reporters have been put in the uncomfortable position of talking to a driver who's led most of a race and not won, or who has let a chance to win get away from him late. No reporter wants to be in that position, certainly not on live television.

There's no way you can ask a question that sounds intelligent and compassionate at the same time. It's all pretty much some variation on "That's a tough break, how does it feel?" The driver knows what's coming, the reporter knows the driver knows what's coming and still it's an awkward moment. A driver can light the reporter up if he wants to, and in many ways the fans love that.

But in that situation, the reporter is simply doing the job he's there to do. Not every reporter handles every situation exactly right, but I will tell you right now the media's batting average in those situations is better than the drivers' typical performance.

There have been times when a driver has fallen into a pattern of acting like a 4-year-old toward the media. When that happens, someone will inevitably suggest that the next time that said driver enjoys success and WANTS to be interviewed, the media should turn its back and walk away.

But we don't. That's not our job. That's not being professional.

It would be nice if that were a two-way street, but I can only control the way I act, try to influence my colleagues to act in a respectful and professional manner and hope that as often as possible the drivers choose the same path.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Saying thanks to a champion

BRISTOL, Tenn. - When we walked into Bristol Motor Speedway Sunday morning there were people all over the backstretch grandstand laying out cards to be used in a stunt before the Food City 500.

It has the UPS logo on it, of course, since somebody had to pay the freight. But the message of the display is going to be very simple and very fitting.

It says, "Thanks Dale." Sunday's race is Dale Jarrett's final points race. I haven't written a long story about Jarrett this week because I am saving that for May when he actually drives for the last time in the Sprint All-Star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

My paper does a special section for the all-star race and one of my jobs is to figure out what would be a good story to put on the cover of that section.

I wasn't about to fire my Dale Jarrett "farewell" bullet on the same weekend my paper is trying to find room for the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament that's being played in Charlotte.

Jarrett deserves a spotlight that's all his own, and that's what I've got planned for May. For now, let's just say that "thanks" is about the only thing the sport really can say to a driver like Jarrett.

Like his father, Ned, Dale has been a champion on and off the track. He has won a Cup championship and 32 races, but he's also won a ton of resepct from fans and fellow drivers as well. He's starred in some of the best sports commercials, let alone NASCAR commercials, you've ever seen. He's been a leader in the garage and he's been a stand-up guy when controversies have flared.

It's going to make it a little easier for him to walk away from the driving side of the sport now that he's got a deal to help ESPN/ABC broadcast races. His father had a tremendous career in that field, too, and nothing about what Dale has done so far indicates to me that he's not going to be just as good at it.

I don't know where Dale Jarrett will finish Sunday in his final points race. I am sure it matters to him, but I don't think it matters to anybody else.

Jarrett deserves every nice thing people have said about him leading up to this race, and every nice think they'll say about him before the all-star race in May as well.

He deserves that great big "Thanks" that's coming in the prerace show, too.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Neither is exactly a hardship assignment

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Back at the race track Friday, but I have to admit my mind is elsewhere – at least to some degree.

If you grew up in the Carolinas, you’ve got a story about sneaking out of class to watch the ACC basketball tournament or sneaking a radio into class to keep up with the afternoon games.

It’s really odd for the tournament to be in Charlotte and for me not to be there, too, but it’s also unusual for us to be at Bristol on ACC tournament weekend. The way the calendar has worked for years, we’ve been in Las Vegas for the conference tournaments. Bristol has always been the week we go from 16 down to a Final Four.

It got me to thinking about one of those “what if” questions you sometimes ponder. What if I’d been given the choice to cover the NASCAR races at Bristol or the ACC tournament? Which would I have picked?

It’s a hard question.

I grew up pretending to be Dennis Wuycik, a North Carolina basketball player few non hard-core Tar Heels would likely even remember.

I decided I wanted to be a sportswriter the day after an ACC tournament final in which South Carolina upset North Carolina on a play that made me so mad I kicked the footrest on our recliner so hard I broke it.

The story in the next day’s paper was bad, I thought, and I decided I could do better (and I think I was 11 at the time). I had no idea about deadlines and things like that, of course, but it was the beginning of a career for me nonetheless.

I was so bad I infected my family. My mom was in the hospital once and was on one of those floors where they closely monitor the patients. Mom was watching a North Carolina game on the television and it was close when the nurses all scurried in with a “crash cart” thinking she had developed a major problem.

She did have a problem. The Tar Heels were behind.

I’ve watched a lot of great college basketball in my time. Before I started covering racing, I went to a couple of ACC tournaments and covered Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest – North Carolina’s so-called “Big Four” – through some great years.

I was there, in fact, for the first official function at which two new coaches appeared. N.C. State had hired Jim Valvano and Duke had hired Mike Krzyzewski, and they were at “Operation Basketball” at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Valvano put on a show.

ZZ Top was doing a concert that night in the arena. We were set up in a lobby area and about the time Valvano got up to speak the band started in with a sound check.

Valvano milked that and really put on a show. He told a joke about how the NCAA had banned off-campus recruiting in August. “I told my wife, Pam, ‘That’s great, honey! Now I will get to have sex 31 times in August,’” Valvano said.

“She said, ‘Great, put me down for two.’ ”

Krzyzewski got up last and joked about how he had figured out how the ACC worked. “They stick the Italian and the Polish guy last,” he said.

When it started raining at Bristol just before 1 p.m. Friday, clearly Bobcats Arena in Charlotte was the preferable place to be. The forecast doesn’t look good until Sunday, and a race track in the rain might be one of the worst places in the world to be.

All things being equal, though, if I had to pick between the ACC tournament and Bristol, I think I’d come to Bristol. Twenty years ago I would never even dreamed I would ever say that, but this place is just something special.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Where the rubber meets the road

What happens next?

For all of the talk about the tires Goodyear supplied last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, what matters now is what comes of it.

That’s why Tony Stewart fired his salvos about the tires following the Kobalt Tools 500. Nothing he said was going to fix what happened last weekend. What he’s trying to do is have an influence on whether it happens again or not. That’s all he can do now.

Texas Motor Speedway officials put out a press release Tuesday “announcing” that Goodyear plans to bring the same tire combination used there last year to its race next month. More to the point, the statement pointed out that the same tires used at Atlanta WON’T be used at Texas.
Goodyear has to love that.

Actually, that is part of the problem. Goodyear doesn’t like criticism, not even a little bit.

I’ve been covering NASCAR for more than 11 seasons now and I am still waiting for somebody who works for Goodyear to tell me: “You know what, we think the tire that blew out on the Such-and-Such car was just a bad tire. You have that from time to time. We hate it happened.”

No, there was always debris on the track and the tire got “cut,” or the brakes were too hot and the bead melted, or the team was too aggressive with camber or tire pressure.

All of those things DO happen, and Goodyear shouldn’t be blamed for every tire that goes down. But every once in while, it is Goodyear’s fault.

It’s always going to be that way. Nobody is perfect and nobody expects Goodyear to be. What I expect Goodyear to be is better, better today than it was yesterday and better tomorrow than it is today. That needs to be the goal.

Toward that end, Stewart is exactly right when he says Goodyear needs to have a test team that goes to tracks where NASCAR’s top series are going to race and runs lap after lap after lap trying to learn how to make the tires safer and more competitive.

But the company also needs to keep having tire tests with current, active teams on a regular, rotating basis to get those teams’ input in making tires better. It’s a two-part process. Goodyear’s own tests would get them closer to having the right combinations for teams to help hone even further in their outings.

The defense of what happened last week is that Goodyear didn’t want tires blowing out and creating a dangerous situation for the drivers. That, of course, is the proper course. But Goodyear can’t get a pass for going all the way to the “safe” end of the scale.

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Sunday evening, there has to be a middle ground somewhere between too soft to live and too hard to race. Goodyear’s job is to find that balance, as difficult as that might be to do. If you’re or two notches toward the “safe” side, that’s better than being one or two notches off the other way. But slamming the design all the way to the conservative end of the scale isn’t doing the job right. It’s covering your corporate backside.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Wheat from chaff and fact from fiction

HAMPTON, Ga. - I had a little discussion with a caller to the Sirius NASCAR Radio morning show Friday morning about reporters like me trying to find out "the truth."

The caller admonished me or some other "investigative reporter" to go out and find out the truth on reports that dynamometer tests run earlier this year show that Toyota has a clear horsepower advantage over the other makes.

Citing numbers given to them by sources, presumably from those other manufacturers, some people have reported a 20-horsepower gap between Toyota and Chevrolet, for instance.

The caller said he wants to know the real numbers and expects people like me to get them.

My point to him was that even if I had the actual report printed out and given to NASCAR with the raw data from the test itself, I'd have no more of a chance of telling him "the truth" than the people who're reporting the numbers they've got have been able to do.

Mabye I could tell him what that test of those particular cars done on that particular dyno on that particular day under those particular conditions with those particular operators doing the testing. But what would the numbers mean?

I could show those numbers to people working for all four manufacturers and get four different interpretations. NASCAR, undoubtedly, would give me a fifth.

If I could find 40 "independent" experts, they might give me 40 different readings of the data.

Or they might tell me that data, in and of itself, really tells you nothing. Horsepower is only one part of what makes a race car go fast, you know.

The point I was trying to make became even more relevant, I think, later in the day with all the action and reaction over penalties levied against Carl Edwards' team for violations found after his win at Las Vegas.

This literally happened, word for word and step for step.

Jack Roush came to the media center to defend his team and aver that it had no culpability in the lid being off the oil reservoir containter in Edwards' Ford after the race last weekend. There was another news conference scheduled in the media center, so we followed Roush to the 99 hauler and he continued his defense.

So I spent maybe 45 minutes hearing Roush's side of what happened. I then walked out of the back of the 99 hauler and walked immediately into another team's hauler in the garage.

I hadn't even made it to the lounge in the back before somebody stopped me and told me that what the 99 team did at Vegas was one of the most blatant examples of cheating he'd ever seen.

I had drivers roll their eyes, literally, at the explanation offered by Roush Fenway Racing that a fastener "failed" because of vibration harmonics. Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually called that explanation "comedy."

NASCAR penalized the team. Some people think Edwards got the 100-point/$100,000 fine/six-week crew chief suspension version of a penalty because it came in a "car of tomorrow" and that's sort of the standard penatly.

But a NASCAR official told me this week that this is not that type of violation.

That means that if NASCAR didn't think this type of infraction was serious the team likely would have received smaller penalties.

OK, which version of "the truth" do you want me to write? Roush's version, the garage area's version or NASCAR's version?

About all I can do is lay out all three and let you make your own judgment as a reader. I can try to ask as many people as I can what they think, but everybody you talk to has a bias one way or another.

When I write columns or this blog, I can give you my opinion. That's "the truth" as best as I can figure it out, and at best that's going to have to factor in my own views on things no matter how fair I try to be in drawing my conclusions.

I certainly would be great if I could tell you "the truth" in everything I write. But in this context, the opposite of truth isn't so much lies as it is viewpoints.

"The truth" is there somewhere. I understand that.

What I would tell you, though, is to be wary of anybody who acts like they've got the franchise for handing it out. More often than not, those people wouldn't know truth if it socked them upside the head.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Rulings raise new questions about commission's role

So much for the National Stock Car Commission being a NASCAR rubber stamp. After what's happened this week, capped by Wednesday's impossible-to-decipher ruling on the Robby Gordon case, it seems more like the commission has become a runaway court.

The appeals panel's job is to decide whether NASCAR has fairly applied its rules in cases where teams or drivers have run afoul of those laws. Its job is not to rewrite the rulebook or invent its own methods for handing out penalties that are not provided for in those rules.

Yet twice earlier this week, in cases involving Nationwide Series teams, the commission shifted responsibilities for fines from a team's crew chief to the team's owner. That might not be a big deal, since in many cases the team owner pays the fines anyway. But the rulebook specifically says the crew chief is the responsible party. So the commission is simply making that process up out of thin air.

On top of that, the commission threw out one penalty and reduced a couple of others for loose lids on oil tank reservoirs in Nationwide cars. Apparently, teams started arguing about what the rule that said those lids have to be "securely fastened" actually means.

So when it came time to penalize Carl Edwards's team for its loose oil tank containter lid from Sunday's race in Las Vegas, NASCAR didn't even cite the rule about the loose oil reservoir lid. Instead, in the Edwards penalty it cited another rule that prohibits anything unapproved that allows air to pass from outside the car to the inside or vice versa.

That's what this whole thing is about. If you leave that lid loose you're basically providing a chimney for air to flow up from under the car into the cockpit. That basicially sucks the car down on the track, creating downforce that teams desperately want and need with this new race car now being used.

Roush Fenway Racing says a bolt holding the lid down vibrated to the point it failed. People who're in a position to know tell me that cover is supposed to have four bolts holding it down, and if they all shook loose the mirrors and steering wheel would shake loose, too. But what do I know?

After all, the whole "It's not my fault!" defense seemed to work OK for Gordon, who got back his 100 driver and owner points and had crew chief Frank Kerr's suspension eliminated by the suddenly rogue commission.

Gordon is going to spin that as vindication. But let's be clear about this. The part on the car was unapproved and the commission ruled that Gordon was still responsible for it being on the car. It also increased his team's fine to $150,000 - the largest ever levied in NASCAR. So Gordon was not cleared of the violation.

Instead, the commission seems suddenly to be in the business of substituting its judgment for the rulebook's. Since the points deductions really might be tougher on Gordon's team than it might be on one of Jack Roush's or Rick Hendrick's teams, the commission gave back the points and increased the fine, apparently figuring that Dodge, which screwed up by giving Gordon the wrong part, would pay it anyway.

That probably will help Gordon's team. The point, though, is that the commission has no business thinking about that.

The commission is not empaneled to keep a team in business or run it off. The commission's job is to decide if proper procedures were applied in assessing and penalizing violations.

In the eyes of the commission all drivers and all team owners should be the same, no matter who they are or how much money they have.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Spare me the blue guys and give me some good crushed ice

LAS VEGAS - So I'm sitting here about 90 minutes before the race at Las Vegas and they're getting ready to start the prerace show featuring Men with Plumbing (sorry, I just never have managed to "get" the Blue Man Group point).

I should be thinking about something pithy or prescient about today's UAW-Dodge 400, but I've got nothing. I have been in North Carolina 36 hours since Feb. 5 and on Pacific time for 12 days. I am lucky to be vertical, quite honestly.

It's windy here this morning, danged windy. It's blowing down the frontstretch toward Turn 1 and some people expect it to cause problems.

Personally, I think everybody's going to be so cautious on the track today given all that's gone on this weekend that it will be a pretty clean race. (I hereby reserve the right to edit this blog later if that last sentence turns out to be dead wrong.)

I will tell you what's on my mind right now. That's supposedly what a blog is all about, right?

I am thinking about crushed ice. OK, I know I am weird. But crushed ice has actually become something of an obsession with me lately.

Why in the name of Pete doesn't some major national fast-food chain drop cubed ice and go to crushed ice in all of its outlets. If Burger King or Wendy's wants to give people a reason not to go do McDonald's, crushed ice might be the answer.

I stopped at a place out here called Raising Caine's. If you're from my part of the world, it's a lot like Zaxby's. They serve chicken fingers and french fries and cole slaw and it's good. But they also give you crushed ice for your drink cup.

And we're talking real crushed ice. Not the little pellets, which are better than cubes but not as good as honest-to-goodness shaved ice flakes - the kind that you can just take a mouthful of and let it melt its way down the throat.

Crushed ice done properly reminds you of a sno-cone, but not quite a slushy. Once the liquid is gone from the cup, you've still got something to work with.

I promise you that if one of the major chains went to crushed ice, that would be a difference maker for some customers - at least one for sure.