Sunday, June 28, 2009

On Indy cars, double file restarts, Ron Hornaday, and the Nationwide Series

It's been a few weeks since I've shared my thoughts on the goings-on in the world of American motorsports. I apologize for the absence. That said there was a lot going on over the course of the past two weeks...

- One thing that has bothered me about the state of Indy car racing over the past half decade is the IRL is going down the same path that the CART series did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The owners aren't hiring drivers based on their talent, they are taking drivers with a check they can cash. While it might help their bottom line, it certainly doesn't do anything to build the series. Now, just a year after "reunification" the car count is back down to where it was prior to CART/Champ Car's demise. There are bright spots on the horizon, but there is a long way to go before Indy Car is a picture of health. Events in Texas, Iowa, and Richmond draw impressive crowds, but even long-time venues like Milwaukee are finding it hard to pay the sanction fee.

Indy cars are impressive to watch. They buzz around even the 1.5-mile ovals well over 200 miles per hour. At 3/4-mile Richmond, speeds were over 165 miles per hour meaning lap times were about 17 seconds. That's insane. But the Indy Cars have the same problem that faces NASCAR now: it's glorified spec racing with drivers no one has heard of or cares about. There is talk of more engine manufacturers ready to join whenever the IRL makes a change to their engine regulations (maybe in 2011) but they will all be bolted into the same Dallara chassis. Whatever happened to Indy being the hotbed of automotive engineering and development?

-Speaking of Indy cars, whats with the number of foreign born drivers driving cars sponsored by the US military? I think it's great that the branches of the service think motorsports is a good recruitment tool, and I also think it's great that drivers from all around the globe want to come to America and compete. But shouldn't American drivers represent American servicemen? I like Dan Wheldon, but honestly, is he getting any 18-year-old American kids to join the National Guard? And Raphael Matos surely doesn't represent the target audience for Air Force and Marine recruits. You mean to tell me that John Barnes, owner of Panther Racing, and Jay Penske, owner of Luczo Dragon Racing, couldn't find a young American hotshoe to fill those seats? I can think of a dozen guys driving USAC open wheel cars right now that would fit the bill and would also generate a lot more excitement, sales at the front gate, and television ratings if they were in an Indy car.

- The double file restarts are coming to all of NASCAR's national touring series. I continue to say that it is just a patch to fix a much bigger problem. Did they enhance the competition dramatically at Pocono? Not really, except for a couple of laps following each restart. And at Sonoma, I thought the single file restart would have actually made for a better race up front because Marcos Ambrose wouldn't have had to race for third over and over again, and he could have worked on racing to the leaders instead of repeatedly retaking his rightful position on the track. The fact remains that the new generation car simply isn't racey. The history books will show that when NASCAR instituted it's socialist-like "aero matching" bodies in 2002 is when competition started to decline and fans started to find other ways to spend their Sunday afternoons. If NASCAR suddenly decided to race cars that looked like something you could find on your local dealer's lot, I think you'd find a lot of the attendance and television declines start to reverse.

- Can anyone stop Ron Hornaday? After dominating at Milwaukee, he followed up with another dominant run at Memphis to score back-to-back wins. As tough as Hornaday is, I still think there are going to be a couple of times where his aggressive nature sends him to the garage for repairs (such as what happened last fall at Phoenix). The battle for the championship could turn out to be a classic hare vs. tortise match-up. The hare doesn't always win either: case in point, Travis Kvapil's unlikely run to the title in 2003. Matt Crafton has been impressively consistent so far in 2009 and could find himself in position to challenge for the title if Hornaday does have a speed bump or two in the second half of the season.

- So Kyle Busch's streak of misfortune in the Nationwide Series ended, giving him his first win since the guitar-bashing celebration in Nashville. That sound you may have heard, after all the boo-birds were done of course, was a huge yawn. Busch is the best in the business these days, no question about it. But the fans are tired of Cup guys dipping into the minor leagues and stealing the glory on Saturdays. The Cup owners that have moved into the Nationwide Series are to blame. And one day, when someone like Richard Childress or Jack Roush needs to fill a hole in the Cup Series with a qualified driver, there won't be any because they have chosen not to use their developmental series teams to develop drivers! Sure, Roush runs Erik Darnell and Ricky Stenhouse in partial schedules, but getting to run 15 races a year doesn't help hone the skills needed to race on Sundays at the level needed.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Texas, Nashville, and Pocono

It was a busy weekend to say the least, the first of the year that saw the Camping World Trucks, Nationwide cars, and Sprint Cup cars all in action at three different facilities in three different states. The trucks tackled the ultra-fast Texas Motor Speedway, the Nationwide cars rumbled in the concrete canyon that is Nashville Superspeedway, and the Sprint Cup guys were in resort country at Pocono Raceway.

Truckin' in Texas...

For a team that nearly shut down during the month-long break between Martinsville and Kansas, Todd Bodine's Germain Racing organization is extremely strong. Bodine had the worst streak of his Truck Series career with three consecutive wrecks at Martinsville, Kansas, and Charlotte, but that's all out the window as he scored his second win of the season at Texas. Bodine is a threat every time he races on the mile and a half tracks, but that's magnified at Texas where he's now won five times.

The weekend started with a surprise pole winner in Johnny Sauter. Sauter's team, ThorSport Racing, has struggled to get it's No. 13 truck running on par with the No. 88 driven by Matt Crafton for its entire existence dating back to 2004. Now with Sauter behind the wheel it seems that team has come together and is starting to become a weekly contender. Sauter was fifth at Dover last week and finished sixth at Texas in addition to scoring the pole. ThorSport Racing will enter its 300th race at Michigan this weekend on a major high: Crafton finished second at Texas and leads the points while Sauter is leading the rookie points.

The race was extremely clean with just two cautions, one for Dover winner Brian Scott bouncing off the wall and the other for debris. NASCAR has proved it can respond to fan input with the new double file restart proceedures, now it needs to heed the call of the fans and eliminate phantom debris cautions. And if there actually is debris on the track, the televion cameras need to show it to the audience at home to justify the caution.

Ten of the 33 starters were out of the race before 30 laps were complete. I am not a believer in the argument that for a race to be entertaining there needs to be a full field of 43 cars or trucks, but I also believe there needs to be more than 25 out there too. Hopefully the economy continues to recover and we'll get back to having deeper fields in the Truck Series soon.

Terry COok will also be making his 300th series start at Michigan this weekend. Terry didn't have the weekend he was hoping for in Texas and he banged up his favorite speedway truck to boot. No doubt Danny Rollins and crew were busy at work as soon as they could get the rig back to Martinsville to get it fixed for Cook's home track.

Even after scoring his best finish of the season at Texas, fourth, Johnny Benson's season has been one of frustration. Now, the news has broken that Red Horse Racing will park Benson's No. 1 truck due to lack of funding. That is a real shame as Benson is truly one of the good guys of the sport - not in it for the money but in it to do what he does best and that's win races. The real shame of the situation is the announcement comes just before Benson's home race at Michigan. My guess is there will be hundreds of Johnny Benson fan club members that are very disappointed at this turn of events and may not attend as a result. It closes a confusing chapter in Red Horse Racing's history, one that saw it dismiss a driver in David Starr within weeks of the start of the season although he had some sponsorship in his hip pocket in exchange for two drivers, one of which didn't have funding. Granted Benson is the defending champion and the team was banking on that luring in some significant sponsorship dollars. But that didn't happen. Thankfully for the team T.J. Bell is able to pay his own freight but the No. 11 truck is still devoid of any major sponsorship.

Nationwide in Nashville...

We could have all witnessed the best race in Nationwide Series history at Nashville, one with 70 lead changes and a last corner of the last lap pass for the win, and all we would be talking about is the victory lane celebration of winner Kyle Busch. The Gibson guitar given to the winners of all Nashville races is one of the most cherished in all of NASCAR racing. Yet as soon as he laid his hands on his, Busch tried to shatter it into dozens of pieces - supposedly to be shared among his crew. It doesn't matter that Sam Bass - the artist who spent 40 hours painting the guitar - didn't mind seeing his work destroyed because the fans have responded with disgust and disdain for the sport's leading personality. As an artist who has also spent dozens of hours on art for customers that I hope ultimately enjoy my work, I am torn. I hate to see Bass' labor destroyed. But the fact of the matter is the trophy is Busch's and he can do with it what he wants. He simply doesn't care what the people outside the catch fence think. I've heard that Gibson and Bass have been commissioned to do a couple more guitars for Busch, so maybe it's really not that big of a deal. But like Chocolate Myers said today on Sirius NASCAR Radio, Busch may think that the fans all hate him now, but just wait until he knows it for sure. I like Kyle and I like his style, but there's only so much negative PR a driver can cause before those supporting him start to back away.

Cuppers in Pocono...

The big news of the weekend was the new double file restart proceedure. Little did anyone know that we'd all get to see it within the first five laps of the race. After lighting up Pocono with two wins as a rookie, poor Denny Hamlin hasn't had any luck there at all, and that streak continued as his car faltered just a couple hundred feet past the green flag. That set up the first double file restart in a points race in Cup racing history. It is a good idea and does create some good racing for a couple laps, but I'd still like to hear everyone stop saying this is how it's done at the majority of short tracks across the country.

The coverage from TNT was a welcome respite after a tumultuous 13-race stretch on Fox. Even Bill Weber was tolerable, not digging deep down inside to pull on everyone's heart strings with every train of thought as he's done in years past. Kyle Petty has become the best analyst in the sport, and Wally Dallenbach is as solid as ever. The pictures delivered by the cameras and production team were great and not drowned out by graphics. Heck, even Larry McReynolds does a great job on TNT. It would be great if the producers at Fox kept everything under control the way the TNT team does.

The only downside to the telecast was the missed shot of Kasey Kahne's spin on the final corner and not following the story as some drivers trying to stretch it on gas started to run out of gas. It would have been nice to get an update on some of the front runners, particularly as they dropped back in the pack. And there was no replay of Kahne's spin even though we all got to see him come sliding off turn four in a cloud of smoke.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On Carl Long, standard starting times, double file restarts, Fox Sports, and Citizen Journalists

Some thoughts on some recent off-track news in the NASCAR world...

- It comes as no real surprise that the appeals board denied Carl Long's appeal of penalties levied by NASCAR after the All-Star Showdown at Charlotte. Yes, Long's engine was 0.17 cubic inches over the 358 c.i. limit, and therefore illegal. But is that really worth $200,000? Considering the engine blew up after three laps of practice and was never on the track in qualifying or the race, I say no. I am not suggesting a sliding scale, harsher penalties for bigger teams and smaller penalties for the little guys, but some common sense has to bubble to the surface here. Long was running a used engine that he had no hand in building. Maybe it's time NASCAR penalize the engine companies that supply the engines to the teams instead of the teams themselves.

- Some NASCAR track operators are pushing for standardized starting times, a move that should be applauded and implemented starting with the 2010 Daytona 500. The starting time should also be the time the green flag waves, not the time the pre-race show starts or the national anthem is performed. Standardized starting times should be something like this: daytime races in the eastern or central time zones go green at 1:30 P.M. Eastern; daytime races in the mountain or pacific time zones go green at 4:30 P.M. Eastern; night races - regardless of time zone - go green at 7:30 P.M. Eastern.

- I've been to almost 60 short tracks all across the country, and I can count on one hand the number of tracks that had double-file restarts. Maybe they do it that way in the Northeast where Mike Joy is from, but the vast majority of short tracks have single file restarts.

- An anonymous NASCAR executive reportedly has blamed Fox Sports' ill-conceived gopher cartoon character as the reason why television ratings have declined precipitously over the past two years. I wouldn't pin 100% of the blame on it, but it surely plays a part. The fact that millions of viewers only watched to see one particular driver do well has something to do with it too. The sport saw it's audience grow disproportionately on the back of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Now there is nothing wrong with being a Jr. fan, but the networks banked on Jr. to draw in viewers and by showing him even when he's running poorly it turned off a significant segment of the audience. Now, with Earnhardt running poorly, another significant chunk of the audience that tuned in only to see him run well is gone too. Those viewers may or may not come back when Earnhardt starts to improve on the track. Many viewers who can no longer tolerate Larry McReynolds' constant butchering of the English language and Darrell Waltip's conflict of interest-filled commentary towards his brother and his entire racing team probably won't be back until those two have retired. Fox came into the sport with a bang in 2001 and in many ways has raised the bar when it comes to covering motorsports of all types. But now Fox relies on too much bufoonery and self promotion and too little coverage of the actual event. What we need is much more Dick Berggren and Krista Voda and much less Chris Myers and Digger.

- NASCAR has announced it will support a group of Citizen Journalists to enhance the sports coverage in the media. I read Michael Knight's SpinDoctor500Blog regularly, and he was upset that bloggers and fan sites were given room in the media center at the Indianapolis 500. I enjoy Knight's commentary and have learned a lot from reading his blog archives over the past few months, but I disagree with his stance on this one. As a former track public relations representative, I appreciated coverage wherever I could find it. Granted, not all bloggers are created equal. But like the Supreme Court says about obscenity, you know a good one when you see it. There is nothing wrong with inviting a talented blogger to sit next to a professional journalist in today's modern world. In fact, in some of the media centers I have been in, finding a "real" journalist that is truly knowledgable about the sport (particularly the Nationwide or Truck level) can be a real challenge. Kudos to NASCAR for openly welcoming Citizen Journalists into their media circle.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Talkin' Trucks: Dover

The Truck Series race at Dover was quite interesting to say the least. Tire problems caused several favorites to drop out of contention and allowed a few new faces to pop up at the front of the field. Brian Scott, who looked like a dart without feathers the first time I ever saw him race in a USAR ProCup race at Mansfield a few years ago, stayed out when the leaders pitted with about 15 laps to go and held onto the lead to collect his first win. Scott has come a long way since that Mansfield race, and under the tutelage of Jeff Hensley he is becoming a weekly contender for top five finishes.

It was nice to see the Xpress Motorsports team back in victory lane, although there really is nothing remaining of the organization that was started by Steve Coulter and then led by Dave Fuge. Under Coulter's leadership, the team scored it's initial victory with Randy Tolsma at Mesa Marin back in 1997. The team went Busch racing for a couple years and then rejoined the Truck Series in late 2001 with Mike Bliss at the wheel. Bliss won five races en route to the championship in 2002. Travis Kvapil took over the ride in 2003, and despite only winning once (at Bristol when leader Kevin Harvick popped a tire coming to the white flag) he too won the championship. Coulter sold the team to Fuge for 2004 and three-time champion Jack Sprague took over and collected a handful of wins too. When GM's sponsorship went away late in 2005 Sprague departed and that allowed Bliss to hop back in and he gave the team it's final victory at Atlanta in 2006.

Ironically, the only two drivers from the state of Idaho to win in Truck Series competition drove for the same team: Xpress Motorsports. Randy Tolsma hailed from Meridian, Idaho while Brian Scott is originally from Boise, Idaho.

What more can be said about Dennis Setzer? Setzer isn't flashy, he doesn't seek out the spotlight, but he does deliver. He gave team owner Dave Malcolmsen his second runner-up finish (Chad McCumbee also finished second for MRD at Charlotte last year) by following Scott and staying out under the last caution. Setzer and this team have no sponsorship and are on a limited schedule, but have shown they are to be reckoned with every time they roll off the trailer.

The HT Motorsports team has delivered this year too, with drivers Terry Cook and David Starr both registering top-five finishes along the way. This weekend it was Starr's turn to battle at the front and he clearly had the fastest truck at the end after stopping for tires. He got mired in traffic and before he could break out Scott and Setzer broke away to a big lead. It's ironic that both of HT Motorsports' drivers, Cook and Starr, were both cast off from different teams in 2008 (Cook split with Wyler Racing with five races left last season while Starr was let go from Red Horse Racing with just four weeks left before the start of the 2009 season) yet both are consistently outperforming their old teams.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see Jason White come home with a top-five result, crossing the line in fourth. White has been a journeyman driver for years, but with the Truck Series grid now evolving with the loss of manufacturer support and some of the bigger teams of years past on the sidelines, White has shown flashes of competitiveness and promise. White also drives a Dodge, which provides zero support in the Trucks this season. Good job by Doug Howe and crew on getting the team's first ever top-five finish.

The save of the year so far: Terry Cook on lap one after getting clobbered by Mike Skinner. Cook was about 30 degrees sideways pointed towards the unforgiving inside wall on the frontstretch at Dover and somehow managed to keep it under control.

Race fans pay their money to buy tickets to see drivers push it hard and run fast. There certainly is no shortage of drivers willing to do that in the Truck Series, even when there are six start-and-parks on the grid. But sometimes running at the edge every lap doesn't get you into victory lane. Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday are known for keeping the hammer down regardless, and they win more than their fair share that way. But Saturday that strategy cost them both as they had tire issues and slapped the wall. I can recall a time back in 2005 and 2006 that Mike Skinner was untouchable when it came to raw speed but his hard charging style punished the right front tire and he had numerous bouts with the outside wall as a result. With the seeming unpredictability from the Goodyear tires and their durability, that could open the door for drivers that conserve their equipment a little more to pick up some race wins and contend for the championship.