Saturday, September 8, 2012

On being a very lucky racefan

I've been fortunate.

 Since 1999, I've had the chance to make my living in the field I love. For as long as I can remember, racecars going around in circles has fascinated me and I am one of the lucky ones to have found a niche of my own in the sport. For the most part, it's been a part-time pursuit since my wife and I had twin sons in 2008, and with each passing year I often wonder what opportunities will present themselves.

 In 2011, I had the good fortune to be asked to be on ARCA's internet radio broadcasts for their non-televised races. I've done some radio in the past, but usually as a pit reporter or a turn accouncer. Being the voice - or one of the voices, alongside my friend Dave "DC Bash" Campbell - was a huge honor for me. My grandparents were ARCA officials dating back to the 1960s, and I spent many Saturday nights at an ARCA sanctioned track as a youth.

 Being the ARCA radio guy gave me a chance to go to places I never thought I would have a chance to see: the two dirt miles at Springfield and DuQuoin most notably, and I finally had the opportunity to go to Berlin Raceway on the west side of Michigan. The two dirt tracks are 7 hours from Toledo, but Berlin is just a 3 hour cruise over on I-96. It's really strange that I've never been there before 2011, but I finally got to cross that off the old bucket list. I also added Madison International Speedway and, this season, Elko Speedway to the list of new tracks, which wouldn't have happened if not for the ARCA radio gig.

 One opportunity I never even dreamed about popped up at the end of July. A direct message on Twitter led to a phone call which led to sitting in the announcer's booth at Michigan International Speedway. My first job in racing was as the PA announcer at my home track, Toledo Speedway, all the way back in 1998. I've been fortunate to have held the mic at Mansfield, and in recent years I've subbed at Toledo a few times and it's always a lot of fun to call the race and interact with racefans in that role. But I had never once thought about doing that at a venue like MIS. It was definitely an eye-opening experience.

To me, the best part of the whole weekend was a tie-in to the past. Back in 1982, when I was just 9 years old, my dad took us kids on a camping trip to Hayes State Park, just a stone's throw from MIS. On the final day of the camping trip, we went to the Champion Spark Plug 400. Since he worked for Champion, we sat in the bleachers off turn 4 with hundreds of other Champion employees and their families. The race was won by Bobby Allison, who was driving for DiGard Racing. My uncle Bill Gardner was the owner of DiGard and somehow my aunt Chris found us and brought us through the tunnel and into victory lane. She suggested I go stand next to Bobby during his victory lane interview but I was way too shy to do such a thing. Thirty years later I was holding the microphone speaking to tens of thousands of racefans at the same racetrack on the same weekend.

Working alongside MRN Radio veteran (and all-around good guy) Jason Toy, not only did we keep the fans up to date on practice and qualifying speeds, but there are sponsor scripts that must be read, and the Sprint Vision screen that often is coordinated with what's on the speakers. It's a big leap from being a solo voice at a short track to working alongside broadcast professionals with a couple of producers and coordinators alongside. And looking through the glass to see the MRN booth on one side and the SPEED booth to the other side was a real thrill too.

 Unfortunately I wasn't able to work the entire weekend at MIS. Friday and Saturday were all I could do, since as soon as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race was over I had to point it to the southwest and head to the ARCA Racing Series race at Springfield. While it would have been great to be a part of the Sprint Cup raceday at MIS, it was a racefan's dream to head from MIS to a dirt mile for more ARCA racing. It was definitely a memorable weekend, one I will never forget.

 And hopefully one I can recreate again in 2013.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Live Blogging ARCA/USAC Championship Press Conference

Don't forget, ARCA championship finale this Sunday, live on SPEED at 2 pm ET. I will also be broadcasting the race along with DC Bash on

1:03 pm ET: Chris Buescher - "I really don't know what I will be doing next year right now. What I do know is it will be something. It all comes down to what we have funding to do. Right now RoushFenway has two Cup cars to sell and all of it's Nationwide program to sell, so they have their hands full. But it is really comforting to me to know I am still on the radar and they want me in a car somewhere."

12:58 pm ET: Ty Dillon - "The deal with Frank here in the spring should be over, I hope. I had a lot faster car at the time and he was definitely coming back to me. It's my job to come here and win and I didn't want to not win when we had the fastest car. But it was definitely a learning experience, which is exactly what we're here to do. I think if I am in the situation again in the near future I'll be a lot more patient. It's a real honor to come up here and lock up the ARCA championship. It's something I'll be able to hold over Austin's head, that's for sure, being the first Dillon to win a major championship."

12:29 pm ET: "We'll have the motorsports spotlight shining on Toledo on Sunday. We're proud of what we're doing here. We're dug in and we're going to be here long term. We're happy we can shine the spotlight on the city. We'll have 85 race teams here this weekend, none of which are local. We'll have thousands of race fans in to see these two national championship events this weekend bringing revenue into the city. We're proud we're able to do that."

12:23 pm ET: Toledo Speedway was built in 1960. Drager and partner Roy Mott purchased the track in 1999 and has made numerous capital improvement projects in the ensuing 12 years. The next project on the radar will happen over the winter as the original wooden and steel-scaffolding grandstands will be replaced. The speedway has been repaved, had a new catchfence installed, has moved the pits to the outside of the track to improve sightlines for the spectators, installed a pit road inside turns one and two, replaced the track's lighting system, added six suites, put in a 3,000 square foot inspection station in the pit area and now will be replacing the 50-year-old grandstand system. The closed-deck steel and aluminum grandstands will match what spectators use at nearby Michigan International Speedway.

12:21 pm ET: ARCA President Ron Drager now on stage. "We're proud of Ty and Chris and we are proud of the role we played in their development. We'll be seeing them race in much bigger venues for years to come."

12:20 pm ET: "I dont know where we're going. We have some things on the table but a lot of them are based on funding. We've had a lot of great sponsors this year but we're going to need more to move forward. We'll see what comes up. One thing is for sure we'll be racing somewhere."

12:19 pm ET: "I've raced a lot of different things and worked my way up through several different series. Learning how to adapt and getting wins on different types of racetracks is really big. You need all the pieces to fall in to place at any of these racetracks. Thankfully we've had a pretty consistent and smooth year. ARCA is a lot of fun because you do get to go to all these different tracks. Places like Salem, every stock car driver should have to go race there. It's so rough and so fast and it's a lot of fun."

12:18 pm ET: "I've always worked on the cars myself growing up. I really want to learn more of the chassis stuff on these cars. It's about learning the mechanics of the cars and getting laps behind the wheel."

12:17 pm ET: Chris Buescher - "We were only scheduled to do the speedway races so we've been taking it one by one all year. We didn't know what we were doing week to week sometimes. We ended up in some interesting points battles so it's been a really fun year for us. Toledo was really hard on us the first year but we came back with a new car last year and Gary Roulo has put on a setup that really works here. This is a great racetrack, you can race two and three wide here and it's a lot of fun."

12:16 pm ET: Next on stage is Chris Buescher. Although Buescher is behind Dillon in the season championship standings, he is a virtual lock to earn the 2011 ARCA rookie of the year award.

12:14 pm ET: "Our plans are to go full-time NCWTS racing next year. We'll have the same team working on my ARCA car move up with us."

12:12 pm ET: I love racing at Toledo. It's a cool track. It's got a great surface and enough banking to put on a great race. I had a ball the last time here and I think we'll have another great race this weekend."

12:11 pm ET: Ty Dillon - "Winning seven races in any series is very special. To win a championship in a series where you know everyone and have so much fun and respect with is really cool."

12:09 pm ET: Ty Dillon now takes the stage. As soon as he rolls off the grid on Sunday he will clinch the series championship.

12:05 pm ET: Press conference kicks off. Toledo Speedway welcomes both USAC Traxxas Silver Crown and ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards national championship events. USAC points battle comes down to Levi Jones and Jerry Coons, Jr. Jones leads by 12 points, with Kyle Larson in third 46 points behind and Tracy Hines in fourth 61 points out. Last year's event was the first for the Silver Crown cars and it was one of the most exciting USAC events of the entire season with points leader Bud Kaeding getting involved in a late-race crash and losing the title to Jones. The race is named after local Toledo USAC legend Rollie Beale.

11:57 am ET: ARCA champion-to-be Ty Dillon has arrived, as has second-place Chris Buescher. Dillon won here at Toledo in the spring and Buescher swept both races in 2010.

11:44 am ET: We've gathered here at the Toledo Speedway Bar and Grille for the pre-championship event press conference for the USAC Traxxas Silver Crown Series and ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. The USAC finale is tomorrow afternoon while the ARCA season ender is Sunday and will be televised live on SPEED.

Ty Dillon will speak of his 2011 season and answer questions from the media, and the speedway will also announce a significant capital improvement project for 2012.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What do Kyle Busch's 100 wins really mean?

One hundred.

If you have one hundred pennies, you have a dollar. In this day and age, a dollar isn't what it used to be. A hundred dollars? That's enough to take a family of four to the movies and get snacks. Or maybe -- maybe -- enough to buy a ticket to a NASCAR race near you and have enough left over for a T-shirt of your favorite driver.

One hundred years is a century. One hundred yards is a football field. Whenever a list of "the best of all time" is compiled, chances are it will be composed of 100 items, be they songs, movies, or racecar drivers.

When the definitive list of the all-time best NASCAR drivers is written, there is little doubt that Kyle Busch will be on it. He's proven he can win, any time, anywhere, in any type of racecar.

And he just reached his own "100" milestone: 100 career NASCAR national touring series wins. His 22 Cup wins, 49 Nationwide Series wins, and 29 Camping World Truck Series wins at just 26 years of age is indeed an impressive accomplishment.

But how impressive?

Does it put him in the same league as Richard Petty and David Pearson? Or even Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbourogh, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon? Afterall, he's publicly stated he'd like to reach 200 career NASCAR wins, a number heretofore reached only by one man: The King, Richard Petty.

The answer there, unfortunately for Busch's legacy, is not quite yet.

There's a real possibility that Busch will reach the 80 win plateau that so few before him have crested. But as of now, for the stat that matters, he's 178 wins behind Petty's total.

Sure, the bulk of Petty's wins came in the 1960s and into the 1970s, many on dusty dirt tracks and out of the way paved short tracks. Many were short races against short fields thin on any serious competition. But the fact of the matter is, even then, Petty's wins were in the top stock car series in the country. That still stands for something.

Busch has 22 wins, which is no small feat considering how hard it is to win just one race at the sport's highest level. But it's not quite time to put him in that elite group based on his prodigal win rate in the lower divisions.

If you're going to discredit many of Petty's wins due to the competition, or lack thereof, let's dissect Busch's 49 Nationwide wins. Who is the competition in that series? Sure, he has had to beat the likes of Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and lately Brad Keselowski, but beyond that who is there? During the past five seasons, the Nationwide Series has had the competitive depth of many of those fields that Petty whipped up on prior to the start of the sport's modern era in 1972.

In his 29 Camping World Truck Series wins, the only Cup competition he's faced is from Harvick and Bowyer.

The bottom line is Busch is driving superior equipment in those series, his Nationwide cars are provided by a Cup team with virtually unlimited access to technology and a budget double, triple, or even more than that of most of the Nationwide Series regulars. While he owns his own Truck team, he still has unlimited access to Cup technology and it's no secret he's spending way more than most would consider prudent in that series.

Since Martin Truex won the Nationwide Series championship in 2005, the final time a non-Cup driver won the title, Harvick, Edwards, Bowyer, Busch, and Keselowski have all taken the glory in the NNS. Meanwhile over in the Cup Series, it's been all Jimmie Johnson. Five consecutive times Johnson has celebrated on stage and taken home the big trophy, and really the only trophy in NASCAR that anyone truly cares about.

Can Busch knock Johnson off his throne and lay claim to a Cup championship? History says no, at least until he quits chasing after wins in lower divisions.

A quick examination of the Nationwide Series all time win list offers further proof. Mark Martin (49), Busch (49), Harvick (37), Edwards (33), and Jeff Burton (27) make up five of the top six on that list and scored the majority of their wins in that division while also being a full-time Cup Series driver. Their collective Nationwide Series win total: 195. Their collective Cup championship total: zero.

Busch has the makings of a Cup champion. But can he pull it off while double- and sometimes triple-dipping? Odds are no. Why? Simple: in order to beat Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, you have to be better than Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Johnson concentrates on one thing, winning the Sprint Cup Series championship. Knaus can reach Johnson any time of day, in the car or out. Can Dave Rogers reach Busch? Sure, when he's not in the Nationwide Series car or in the Truck. Some weekends there are ten to twelve hours, right square in the middle of the time when he's needed the most, that Busch is unavailable to his crew chief because he's busy racing in series that for a major league championship caliber driver just don't mean anything at all.

Mark Martin was a guaranteed Cup champion-to-be in the 1990s and into the 2000s. It was unfathomable that he'd go his career without a Cup title. But he spent the best part of his career, the years when he could have won multiple championships, bouncing back and forth between garages and taking time and effort away from where his main focus could be. He might not say it if asked, but chances are deep down he knows he would trade those meaningless 49 Nationwide Series wins for just one Cup Series championship.

Hopefully for Busch, he doesn't come to that realization too late.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Kentucky's traffic woes

Inaugural NASCAR events are fun. Whenever you add a track, everything is so new and the unknown adds a level of excitement to the routine that fans, teams, media and even officials have come to know week in and week out.

I had the pleasure of working with Mansfield Motorsports Park during 2003 and 2004 as the track prepared for its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event. My job was to handle the media and public relations, so I wasn't involved in all of the logistical planning meetings with NASCAR and state and local governments, but I can say the track spent countless hours working on ingress and egress plans for the 25,000 people we expected.

Despite all of those hours, traffic backed up. Part of it was outside our control: construction on the nearest highway. Part was just the sheer volume of cars coming in on roads that had never seen that amount of traffic before. Another part was we had hundreds of acres of parking that were rendered useless due to several inches of rain in the preceeding three days. All of it added up to stopped cars and rising tempers.

Just like our neighbors to the south in Kentucky would learn seven years later, we had angry fans due to something we spent a lot of time working on.

To the best of my knowledge, everyone who had a ticket made it in to the track before the green flag that day in May 2004. While fans were upset, most of the anger was the "blowing off steam" variety. Who hasn't needed to vent after spending two hours in traffic?

After getting to the track at 5:30 that morning, I went to the back gate and helped get teams and drivers in, then spent some time helping get cars parked in one of the usable grassy lots. I did hear lots of frustration from a lot of people, but it was actually very easy to deflect it. All I had to do was offer an immediate and sincere apology and tell them I we were glad they were here and we all hope they enjoy the race.

It's beyond my imagination that SMI, a company that has prides itself on the facilities it builds and its relationship with its customers, missed out on that final piece of the puzzle.

Traffic backups are part of life in NASCAR. Sure, the problems in Kentucky are now legendary, but having customer service reps there (or your parking attendants and security agents) apologize immediately would have defrayed a large part of the frustration. For those stuck in traffic on the highway, surely they were listening to the radio, so why not have track officials (if not Bruton Smith or Marcus Smith) on every radio station from Cincinnati to Louisville apologizing to them as they sat still on I-71?

I've been to Kentucky Speedway a dozen times since that first Truck race there in 2000. Their traffic issues then were well known and they addressed them and made significant changes. But the changes they made weren't ready for another 40,000 people thrown in the mix.

Now, since no one apologized to them until it was way too late, those who were seriously inconvenienced don't want to hear empty promises of how things will be different next year. They want someone to blame and take all of the anger and frustration they can dish out. Bruton Smith would have you believe it's the Commonwealth of Kentucky to blame since "I-71 is a horrible, terrible highway." But did Kentucky officials tell him to add the 40,000 seats before infrastructure was in place to handle 40,000 more people? Not likely.

So the fans will continue to vent their anger at SMI. The ticket exchange program announced on Monday may help deflect some of that anger, but the likelihood that it makes it all go away is very slim.

Will fans once again risk sitting in traffic for six hours or more to go to Kentucky Speedway? I hope they do because it's a great place to watch a race. But realistically, there's a significant portion of that audience that won't be back. Are there enough people who didn't go this year but are willing to take the chance in the future to do so?

It seems the answer will be no, based on what we've seen and heard in the past four days.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On the two-car draft and what's "real" racing

The question is continually raised after each of NASCAR's new-era restrictor plate races: is the two-car tandem draft "real racing"?

Racing is all about doing whatever it takes to get to the finish line first. In some cases, it's about having the fastest car. In others, it's about the fastest pit crew. Some races play out so that the winner is the one with the best fuel mileage. And in four races a year, it's about who gets the best push from their partner on the final lap.

The two-car draft isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Go back and watch Kevin Harvick move to the front down the backstretch on the final lap of the 2007 Daytona 500. It's just that now it's each driver, each green flag lap all race long.

There are questions by long-time, award-winning writers asking if the lead changes (which have come in record numbers with this style of racing) actually mean anything. The answer to that one is simple: does any lead change other than the last one ever mean anything? When Dale Earnhardt won at Talladega in 1984, did any of the first 73 lead changes that day mean anything? No, only the final one in which Earnhardt took the lead did. But here's the rub: any lead change could be the last one, even one on lap 2 at Daytona.

For too long, we've heard how the number of lead changes (and also the number of cars on the lead lap) are benchmarks of competitiveness. The more lead changes the more competitive the race, and by extension, the more exciting the show for the fans. While that's generally true, it's not always the case. One of the best races I've ever seen was a 400-lap ASA race at the quarter-mile Anderson Speedway that was led green to checkered by Steve Holzhausen. Conversely, some of the most tedious races I've watched were some plate races with the big packs and plenty of artificial lead changes.

Does today's plate racing offer edge-of-your-seat excitement from green to checkered? I think so. It's not because the drivers are in one big pack and one mistake could take out two-thirds of the field at any time. But instead it's because of the skill and timing it takes to successfully make a two-car draft work. You can go from first to sixteenth in one lap or sixteenth to first just as easily now as you could then, but the danger of wiping out half the field or more is dramatically lessened. And the bonus, at least to me, is the speed which often approaches or even exceeds 200 mph.

Sure, pack racing was exciting. The big wrecks were highlight reel material. But too often we saw The Big One break out early leaving 20+ cars to just ride around and log laps hoping to improve a position or two instead of being in contention to win.

As the pavement at Talladega and Daytona slowly loses grip it could be we'll see yet another evolution in plate racing. Maybe NASCAR will make some rules changes to mix things up once again. Until then, I'm going to continue to enjoy the new-era plate races and enjoy the unpredictability they offer.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On USAC and short track racing

There's always something special when open wheel cars race on a paved short track. The speeds are high, the racing is close, and the fans flock to watch the show.

My home track, Toledo Speedway, has hosted two high profile short track open wheel shows in recent weeks. The Fastest Short Track Show in the World annually takes place during the NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway and packs the fans in the stands for a winged supermodified and winged sprint car doubleheader. There's always a pilgramage of NASCAR drivers, crew members and media too since MIS is just an hour or so away. And the first Friday in July always brings the USAC Sprint cars and Midgets to Toledo for Hemelgarn Racing Night, sponsored by 1996 Indy 500 winning car owner Ron Hemelgarn.

Anticipation always runs high for both shows. The winged cars can run around the high-banked half-mile wide open with lap times coming close to the 11-second bracket. The flat-out speed is matched with a lot of close wheel-to-wheel racing, and that was no exception this year. The USAC cars run without wings, and although they are around two seconds per lap slower the speed is still impressive and the drivers come into the equation as they're running 130 miles per hour with virtually no downforce.

The only thing missing from these shows this season was a full field of cars. For many years, both weekends would jam the pits as much as the grandstand. The MSA Supermodifieds had 16 cars, enough for a good feature but not enough for any meaningful preliminaries. USAC's car counts were way off from the past, with only 12 sprint cars and 17 midgets on hand. In years past, USAC had sprint car heat races with 12 cars trying to race into the feature.

Friday's USAC racing was close and exciting and hotly contested at the front, but the lack of a full field meant there wasn't any lapped traffic to race through, eliminating a major opportunity for the drivers behind the leader to make a move or force a mistake.

Maybe USAC needs to look at recombining the Pavement Championship back into the overall series championship points to draw a full contingent of drivers and teams to the asphalt tracks. The costs of pavement racing have grown, so it's understandable that they've spun that part of the schedule off on its own, but in the grand scheme of things it really doesn't help because now the dirt specialists don't have to run the paved tracks at all to stay in the hunt for the title. Why not find a way to run a balanced schedule, split evenly between paved and dirt tracks and crown the champion as the driver that masters both?

Television played a major role in bringing USAC sprint car and midget racing from obscurity in the early 1980s to their peak well into the 1990s and 2000s. TV has gone away, and much of the sponsorship money has left too. But the racing is just as good if not better than it once was. Maybe someone out there can put together the right package and get USAC back on live TV. With Versus looking to make the move from a niche network to the NBC Sports challenger to ABC's ESPN maybe a newly revived "Thursday Night Thunder" could bring USAC back to the masses. It's going to take sponsors and people with a strong vision to make it happen, and unfortunately those are sorely lacking in the short track world right now.

In the meantime, if you have a chance to visit your local short track please, by any means possible, do it. Even if it means recording a Saturday night NASCAR race on the DVR, get out and enjoy your local track. The drivers aren't multi-millionaire superstars that you read about on Jayski or even on TMZ. They're regular people, just like you and your neighbors. They spend money they often don't have to be there and chase their dreams and the checkered flag. They run hard, and most times, are happy to sign a checkered flag, a photo, or a T-shirt and then actually thank you for asking for an autograph. It truly is racing as it should be.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On a great weekend of racing, sleeping good at night, and mean ol' Mother Nature

There's no question about it. Between Monaco, Indianapolis, and Charlotte the three Memorial Day Sunday races combined to give race fans the best full day of racing we've ever witnessed. There may have been better Monaco Grands Prix, there may have been better Indianapolis 500s, and there may have been better Coca Cola 600s, but never have each of them been so intense and enthralling on the same day, back to back.

I wonder if J.R. Hildebrand has found a way to go to sleep at night since last Sunday?

We saw Dale Earnhardt, Jr. handle his defeat graciously, only emphasizing the belief of many that he will indeed be back in victory lane soon. But I wonder of Steve Letarte has found a way to go to sleep at night since last Sunday? That defeat seemed to sting him the most.

How many times did the Ganassi teams miscalculate fuel throughout the Month of May at Indianapolis? Both Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon had issues on their pole qualifying runs and in the latter stages of the Indy 500.

The mojo of the Indianapolis 500 is definitely returning, and the crowd is better than it's been in years. But to say it's the best since The Split is just plain wrong. The first race after the formation of the IRL in 1996 played to a full house. It took several years of unknown drivers (and a rain-plagued 1997 race) to whittle away raceday attendance. There were some empty seats this year, but yet another thrilling race and a return to the atmosphere of days gone by should help fill those seats in the future.

Does Dan Wheldon's second Indy 500 win put him among the top 33 drivers in 500 history? Not only does he have two wins, he has two runner-up finishes too. And in eight starts he only has two finishes out of the top six. Those are some pretty solid numbers right there.

Unfortunately Mother Nature didn't see fit to allow the Little 500 to go off as scheduled on Saturday. If you've never seen it, it's a 500-lap pavement sprint car race on a tiny quarter-mile track in Anderson, Indiana, about a half an hour north of Indianapolis. The 33-car field lines up in eleven rows of three, just like the "other" 500 just down the road. A shower popped up about 90 minutes before the start, and after two hours of track drying another shower popped up and pushed the race to the next night. Chris Windom took the lead with five laps to go to collect his first Little 500 victory, defeating Eric Gordon who was looking for his record tenth race win.