Thursday, May 28, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend Racing Roundup

Some random thoughts from a great Memorial Day weekend of racing action...

- The Indianapolis 500 continues to be the most magical sporting event in the world in this writer's opinion. To see the emotion on the face of winner Helio Castroneves proves it. Sure, Helio would have been emotional no matter what race he won, but it was even more emotional to be at Indy.

-Others have reported that the crowd at Indy was way up, and it might have been, but there were still some patches of empty seats all around the track. I don't know what needs to be done to right the ship, but I am sure IMS management is doing all it can to ensure more and more people come to the 500. I still thing returning the magic to the rest of the month is a big start. Make Indy the bed of automotive innovation it once was and give fans the chance to hear "it's a new track record" from time to time and race fans and casual sports fans alike will return.

- I am a stock car guy to the core but I always get a kick out of attendance at Lowe's Motor Speedway for it's May events. I've had plenty of conversations with people who have relocated to the Charlotte area to be near the hub of the sport and they always tell you how everyone that lives there is totally into stock car racing. If that's the case, why so many empty seats? Now granted, it did rain and that always affects attendance, but if Charlotte truly is the world capital of motorsports wouldn't the die-hard fans there sit through any type of weather to see the sport they can't live without? The truth is these are the same fair-weather fans that couldn't be bothered to drive 90 minutes to either Rockingham or Darlington yet complained loudly when both venues lost their races.

- It's funny how first time winners come in groups. Brad Keselowski won at Talladega and now David Reutimann wins at Lowe's. Last year in the Truck Series there was a stretch of three first time winners in three races. I think it's likely we'll see another first time winner in Cup racing this year but I would be surprised to see it happen again so quickly. My pick for the next winner: Marcos Ambrose.

- There is nothing little about the "Little 500". For those of you unfamilair, it is a sprint car race held annually at Anderson Speedway in Indiana. It is a tight quarter mile bullring, and if you've heard the comment about Bristol being like "jet fighters in a gymnasium", well, Dick Trickle originally said that about driving at Anderson nearly 25 years ago. The race features 33 starters lined up in eleven rows of three, just like the Indy 500 does. There are live pit stops, and even under green there are push trucks out on the track as the cars race past at speed. Dave Steele won his second little 500 passing eight-time winner Eric Gordon with 32 laps to go. How tough is 500 laps around a quarter mile? There were just 11 drivers running at the finish, and most were eliminated in accidents. There were numerous different engine and chassis combinations, just like the Indy 500 used to have back in the day, and some of the cars were built at home by the driver. The coolest of them all was the creation Chet Fillip drove, but unfortunately he was eliminated very early on in a very hard crash in turn three.

- Like many others, I too think it was a very respectful gesture to stop the race at 3 P.M. on Monday in observance of the National Moment of Remembrance. Memorial Day is special for many reasons, especially if you have a loved one that perished fighting for our freedoms. NASCAR takes heat for a lot of the things they do, but this one was a home run even on a day when the weather was problematic.

- I know that in the world of today's technology and instantaneous access to information it makes those in the media work hard to be the first to break a story. I have faced that numerous times myself, trying to gather as much info as I can during the post-race scramble at Truck Series races. I would gather the info - and many times it was raw audio collected from nearly a dozen drivers, writing the stories (and sending in the audio to be edited), and then publish it to the web all within the 60 to 90 minutes following the checkered flag. I would say 99.9% of the time my reports were accurate. One time I can recall there being a discrepancy was at Kansas in 2006 when I reported injuiries suffered by Kelly Sutton in a hard crash that weren't exactly accurate. I hadn't spoken to Kelly or anyone with her team, but I reported what track officials had told the media. It turns out it wasn't right and we made a correction, but that didn't appease the editor who screamed at me over the phone about how important it was to get things right.

Now a slight error in an injury at a third-tier race was a big deal to those of us on that beat, in the grand scheme of the motorsports world it was barely a blip on the radar. Wednesday's "breaking news" that Tony George was ousted by the board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the subsequent denial by the George family is much bigger. George controls what is arguably the biggest motorsports venue in the world. He hosts events from Indy Car, NASCAR, and MotoGP and he has constantly said he'd like to bring back Formula One. Robin Miller broke the story for I like Robin, he's in tune with the open wheel world like no other and is just irreverent enough to be a pain in the side to just about everyone. But the fact is Robin was dead wrong on this story. I wonder if my old editor, who is now the editor at, had anything to say to Miller over the story being 100% wrong? Of course it's a lot easier to scream at someone who has been a trackside reporter for four years versus someone who has been writing for 35 years, isn't it?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It should be race week in Mansfield, and it makes me sad that it's not

It's been a beautiful week in Northwestern Ohio. The weather has turned from the cool, damp days of April to the bright, sunny, and warm days of late May. The buds on the trees have turned to leaves and the alarm clock has given way to nature as the birds loudly proclaim the approaching morning. Personally, life has never been better as our five-year-old daughter becomes more of a young lady every day and our twin boys quickly approach their first birthday.

Yet among all of this happiness, there is a huge tinge of sadness.

For four of the past five years, I had been directly involved in the promotion of Ohio's only national-level NASCAR event, the Camping World Truck Series race at Mansfield Motorsports Park.

That event, as you by now know, was canceled earlier this season and moved to Iowa Speedway.

Last year at this time, and the year before that for that matter, I was neck deep in five hundred phone calls a day. My e-mail box was overflowing with credential requests, questions from my friends in the media corps or with the racing teams, and even from the fans wanting to settle up last minute details for their Memorial Day weekend trip to Mansfield.

This year the phone is eerily silent. My e-mail box is full, but only because I haven't gone through and read or deleted a couple of weeks worth of press releases and spam. I should be sifting through credentials and sorting them into envelopes. I should be meeting with city leaders and police to finalize plans Thursday's festival downtown. I should be running on pure adrenaline and very limited sleep. But I'm not.

I've always said that when my time on the merry-go-round that is NASCAR racing ends, I will gladly hop off and tell everyone who will listen "thanks for the ride". This chapter in my racing career is no different. The memories I have from the events in Mansfield will last a lifetime. From erecting the hospitality village at 1 A.M. in 40 degree temperatures in the pouring rain with only the light from a couple of pickup trucks and an ambulance the night before the first practice in 2004, to speaking to SPEED's producers as a tornado struck the grounds and lifted a section of grandstands onto the racetrack the day before the track opened in 2005; from the ringing in my ears that lasted for days after watching the race from the press box, to watching nearly 40 fully-loaded transporters line up four abreast in downtown Mansfield for Race Fest, to cracking jokes with the media in the press box during the endless rain delay in 2007 -- each moment was precious. For a guy that is still happy buying a ticket and watching a short track race at the top of the grandstands, being integrally involved in the production and promotion of an event of that caliber was the chance of a lifetime.

One of my favorite moments during the NCWTS' run at Mansfield: presenting a painting of the late Bobby Hamilton's No. 18 Dodge to Lori Hamilton and the BHR teams prior to the 2007 event.

Unfortunately, it seems nothing lasts forever.

I am sad because I won't be seeing my friends in the Truck Series this weekend. I am sad the racing fans in Ohio, who waited 49 years and fifty weeks between the last national series NASCAR race in Ohio and the 2004 Truck race at Mansfield, won't have a chance to see an event of that stature again this year. And the likelihood of it happening again any time soon is slim to none.

To all of the fans who came to the festival in downtown Mansfield or to the track for the race, thank you. To the city officials in Mansfield who so graciously supported the track and the efforts to promote NASCAR racing, thank you. To the teams and the sponsors and the media who came, and despite not having a lot of extra space or budget managed to put on and cover a wonderful show, thank you. I hope somewhere down the road we can find someplace else and do it all over again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Art of Retaliation - the right way and the wrong way

It's always interesting when you go and see a sport at the grass roots level. Whether it's a minor league baseball game where managers stress the fundamentals or a minor league hockey game where the brawling takes precedence over the game itself, you tend to get that particular sport in its rawest form.

When you go to a minor league stock car race, whether its a local Saturday night short track or a touring series event somewhere, you're bound to see some excitement. Drivers are learning their craft and learning how to control their emotions as they fight it out fender-to-fender on some short track somewhere.

As could be expected, sometimes the drivers lose control of their emotions. While it's not good for the teams that must rebuild the cars it usually leads to some excitement for those in the grandstands.

When a driver gets put into the wall, sometimes he understands it was an accident. Sometimes he thinks he's been wronged and seeks to exact revenge. Sometimes the payback doesn't come for a couple of races or even the majority of the season. Sometimes the payback comes back before the end of the race.

I don't have a problem with retaliation. If someone truly wrecks your racecar, turnabout is fair play. But there is a right way and a wrong way to pay back that favor.

Exhibit A: The Right Way

Last fall Scott Speed was dumped going into turn three at Toledo Speedway. The guy who dumped him, Ricky Stenhouse, also was challenging Speed for the ARCA championship. It was the season finale, and rather than let the championship be stolen from him and given to the guy who crashed him, Speed made the decision to repay the favor immediately. It was a textbook payback that settled the score.

Exhibit B: The Not-So-Right Way

Sunday, Patrick Sheltra felt like Paul Menard dumped him going into turn one. Sheltra's car was significantly damaged but his crew patched it together enough to get him back out. He undoubtedly was looking forward to being lapped on the track by Menard, but due to a series of cautions the two never came close on the track. That is until the final restart - a green-white-checkered two-lap dash. Sheltra laid back and coasted around the track until Menard caught him in turn three of the final lap. Sheltra took a dive at him and instead of taking Menard out, caused a huge crash that took out Craig Goess who until then had never had a problem with Sheltra.

If you feel the need to retaliate, fine by me. But don't take out people who had nothing to do with the reason why you're mad. Sheltra's crew was seen laughing about the incident, and reportedly laughed about it when confronted by Eddie Sharp Racing team members. ESR is a four-car team, and should they so desire could make life very difficult for Sheltra over the course of the summer. Sheltra's team also tried to play off the incident as if he had a tire going down and that's what caused him to be off the pace and what caused him to swerve into Menard on the last lap.

Do what Speed did: be up front and honest about it. Say "we took him out" and move on. Everyone in the grandstands saw the initial incident and Sheltra's animated response to it on the pit wall as Menard drove past on the next lap. We all knew what to expect once the No. 60 car was back on track.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Busy news week leaves lots to talk about

It's been a busy week in the motorsports news cycle. From Mark Martin scoring his second win of the year at Darlington to Helio Castroneves winning the pole for the Indy 500 there are great stories all around. Unfortunately, there is also the Jeremy Mayfield story, one that seems to have more questions than answers at this point.

- As for Mark Martin, what more can be said? He is the surprise of the season to this point and is now making himself a solid threat to not only make the Chase but contend for the crown too. Who ever would have thought that the guy that would step up and challenge Kyle Busch as the dominant force at the front of the field would be a 50-year old who has only run a partial season the past two years and previously declared he was retired from the sport?

- The Darlington race has re-evolved into one of my favorites of the year. There was a time, maybe when there were two races at the fabled facility, when I thought the racing had lost it's luster. I had also tired (pun intended) of the tire wear issues that were the big story every time NASCAR came to town for the past several years. Now, with speeds approaching 190 at the end of the straightaways and very little racing room to be had, it reminds me of the Darlington of old. Yes, it's trecherous and mean and a tad on the dangerous side and that's exactly what makes it so appealing.

- It's a shame Kyle Busch lost the Nationwide race on Saturday night in the fashion that he did. He avoided the crash on the backstretch involving Joe Nemechek but picked up some debris and lost a tire as a result. He did the right thing and came down pit road to have the tire changed, but as it turned out Morgan Shepherd crashed on the ensuing restart and the field was instantly frozen and the race was over. Had Busch stayed out, all he would have had to have done was made it to turn one in the lead and he would have won the race. I recall Jack Sprague losing a Truck race at Darlington under similar cirumstances: he had a flat tire on pit road during a rain delay. The race restarted under caution and he came to change the flat, and as soon as he did the skies opened up and the race was declared official. Both are extremely tough ways to lose.

- Busch may be the most intense and competitive driver in the field, but there also needs to be a little perspective added to the mix. It's not like the Nationwide car is his top priority. Winning is great and should be celebrated, but losing should be handled with class. Stomping off in a huff isn't necessarily the most mature way to handle the situation. Sure, there will be those who claim he's very busy and was obviously in a hurry to get to some obligation (much as they said when he left Martinsville after he gave away the Truck race last month). No one is in that much of a hurry that they can't stop and talk to the TV cameras for 30 seconds. I love Kyle for his on-track performance and even for his off-track attitude and demeanor, I'd just like it a little more if he handled defeat a little better, especially when he's dipping into the minor leagues. Can you imagine Bobby Allison or Ken Schrader reacting like that after a tough loss somewhere?

- So NASCAR is going to do some investigation on why their television ratings continue to decrease. No race has had a ratings increase this season and the average throughout Fox's first eleven telecasts is a -11% change. Here is my advice, free of charge, to NASCAR, Fox, and the rest of the sport's television partners: start the races at a regular time. The RACES not the broadcast. Fans should know well in advance when the green flag is going to fly. Everyone knows that when you tune into an NFL game at 1 P.M., you are just minutes away from kickoff. That isn't the case any more with NASCAR. You can tune in at 2 P.M., exactly when the program guide on your digital cable box or satellite box says the race is going to start, and still be subjected to 80 minutes of pre-race yip-yap. Sometimes I want to see the pre-race. Sometimes I want to tune in exactly when the command to fire engines is given. NASCAR needs to do what the NFL does: offer a one-hour pre-race show that starts at 1 P.M. for every daytime race and 6 P.M. for every night time race. That pre-race show should conclude with the Star Spangled Banner. Exactly one hour after the pre-race show starts, the race broadcast should start with the command to fire engines. A brief recap of the weekend - any incidents in practice and qualifying, personnel movements, and major news of the week - can be offered during the time the cars are warming up on pit road. Once the cars roll off, give the complete starting grid. This means no chit-chat with a driver on the pace laps until everyone has had their name and starting position given. Once the line-up is given, the analysts can break down the race (i.e. Larry Mac can give us the FedEx Race Breakdown or whatever it's called). It's a simple formula, and the networks have gotten too far away from it. Ease up on trying to get us to buy your swag at the track or online and give us what we want to see: the actual race itself.

- Good for Helio that he will start the Indy 500 from the pole. I tend to agree with the Indianapolis Star's Curt Cavin: Helio has a very good shot at joining A.J., Big Al, and Slick Rick as four-time 500 winners.

- While talking about the 500, I sure wish we could return to the pre-IRL feel of the race. I miss the innovation that the 500 used to create. There was always some wild chassis/engine combination trying to make the field. There were track record speeds. There was a constant element of danger. While I will always love the 500 for the race that it is, the rest of the Month of May is now meaningless. That said, I am anxiously awaiting the traditional pre-race ceremonies, the command to start engines, the balloons being released, and eleven rows of three to come screaming down the frontstretch and barrell off into turn one at 200 miles per hour.

- Maybe some of the relevance of the Indy 500 would return if the purse increased. Emerson Fittipaldi won a million dollars for his victory in 1989. Now, twenty years later, the race still pays around a million bucks to win. I still think that if the race paid five million to win it would again become one of the most talked about sporting events in the country.

- If Charlotte is as those who live there proclaim it is, the World Capital of all things motorsport, then why is there ever an event at Lowe's Motor Speedway that isn't a sell-out? With all these race fans down there they can't find 100,000 of them to buy tickets? Maybe three Cup races there is an oversaturation? Look at what happened to Darlington as an example: they cut one date and instantly made the other one a must-have ticket. Charlotte and California could easily trim one of their dates and see their remaining events become healthier.

- Is there anyone out there that actually believed the first driver busted for substance abuse by NASCAR would be Jeremy Mayfield? Yes, he's somewhat hard to work with (based on his history with Penske and Evernham), but he never seemed like the type to be doing anything illicit. I know the NASCAR drug czar is going to stand behind the results of the test he administered, and I also know Mayfield is going to proclaim his innocence. This is where the NASCAR system needs to be refined: there are still too many questions to be answered even after the announcement of Mayfield's failed test. What was he on? How valid are his claims that it's a mix of OTC and prescription medications? If he failed his test at Richmond, why was he allowed to participate at all at Darlington? I go back to when Aaron Fike was suspended for shooting up heroin in the back of a rented SUV at King's Island leading up to the Truck race at Kentucky a couple of years ago: at least we knew what he was doing. There is always speculation in situations like this, and in many instances the speculation is much worse than the actual offense. Take Shane Hmiel for instance. He is suspended for life by NASCAR. For what? Is smoking marijuana on a Tuesday of an off-week the same as shooting up heroin two days before a race? But no one knows what Hmiel was doing with any degree of certainty because it's never been released what he was busted for. It could have been pot. It could have crack, or heroin or meth or whatever other poisons people like to inject, smoke, or inhale. The journalist in me wants to know exactly what these guys did wrong, not just vague generalities.

- It's a damn shame the race fans of the state of Ohio don't have a Truck race to look forward to this Memorial Day weekend.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cars won't stop getting airborne so it's time to strengthen the fences

Well, you knew it was coming.

A week after the events at Talladega and some writers are still chirping about cars becoming airborne in crashes at the two restrictor plate tracks.

Yes, NASCAR and the track operators MUST do everything within their power to prevent injuries in the grandstands. But as far as the cars becoming airborne, the only way to prevent it is to keep them parked safely in the garages.

What has NASCAR done in recent years to keep them on the ground? In the very first race run with restrictor plates at Daytona in February 1988, Richard Petty barrel-rolled through the short chute at Daytona and did damage to the catch fence there. NASCAR has implemented roof rails to disrupt the air flowing over the cars as they turn sideways, they've added skirts to the sides of the cars, they've actually flattened the sheet metal on the sides of the cars, they've put in lexan side windows, they've mandated roof flaps, and the list goes on and on...

And since that initial restrictor plate race there have been dozens of aero flips or blow-overs, and it's not been limited to just the two plate tracks. We've seen cars in the air at places like Michigan, Charlotte, and Pocono too.

No one wants to see anyone hurt. But professional racecar drivers have accepted that risk. And as a fan watching, I want to see an element of danger. I don't want just anyone driving racecars; I want the best and the bravest. Guys like Cale Yabourough, Bobby Allison, and yes, even the late Dale Earnhardt. It seems the cars have become so safe, so planted to the track via downforce and millions of dollars in engineering, that the drivers are almost like the jockeys lining up for the Kentucky Derby: they're fly weights that are guiding slotcars pinned to the track.

NASCAR should keep researching what causes their racecars to fly in certain situations. But they also need to understand that no matter what is done, nothing will ever fully prevent a racecar from lifting off and flipping through the air.

As much fun as it would be to turn them loose at Talladega without a restrictor plate and see who the bravest of the brave really is, that won't ever happen. But my guess is the millions of fans out there now have as much interest as I do in watching 43 cars drone around at 150 miles per hour planted to the asphalt. So here is our dilemma: let them run 190 and risk them getting airborne from time to time or slow them down to the point where they are virtually guaranteed not to get into the air when they turn sideways and lose the audience.

The answer isn't in keeping the cars on the ground. Truth is it makes for spectacular theater when someone goes for a barrel-rolling ride down the backstretch (as Matt Kenseth did on Saturday) or someone turns over through the tri-oval (as Carl Edwards did on Sunday). The answer is continuing to refine the catch fence and other barriers to prevent debris - even small pieces the size of a lugnut - from reaching the audience.