Thursday, July 30, 2009

On getting back to real stock car racing

The Brickyard 400 is in the rear view, and despite some doom-and-gloom predictions following last year's race the tires held up and well over 150,000 fans came out to watch. Television ratings are in, and bucking the double-digit loss trend, ratings were only down six percent from last year's race. There is still some magic about racing at Indianapolis, and the fact that many people showed up or watched on television proves it.

As for the race itself, while it was immensely better than last year, it still left something to be desired. The top of the field was separated by several football fields throughout much of the race and actual passes for position on the racetrack were few and far between. No one expects side-by-side restrictor-plate style racing at Indy, but it is blatantly obvious that the current Cup car does not race well on any type of flat, high-speed racetrack.

Why do long-time fans continue to dream about a return to the "glory days" of the past? No one wants to return to the days when races were won by 14 laps and only 10 cars running at the finish. But would it be so terrible to return to 1995?

As an example, the Brickyard 400 in 1995 was won by Dale Earnhardt. He started 13th out of the 41 starters. It was slowed by just one caution. There were 19 lead lap finishers, none of which got there due to a "Lucky Dog" free pass. Thirty-six of the 41 cars that started were still running at the finish. Nine drivers showed up wanting to race but weren't fast enough to make it in, including two former Indy 500 winners and another former Indy 500 pole winner. The starting field was comprised of teams owned by 36 different people. Earnhardt's winning margin that day was just 0.37 seconds. And he did it in a car that looked almost identical to what Chevrolet offered for sale to the car-buying public. That's the key right there: he did it in a "stock car".

In the past decade, we've seen the NASCAR media speak out on issues and force NASCAR into making changes. There is no more racing back to the caution flag. Head and neck restraints are mandated. Anyone going over the wall on a pit stop must wear a helmet. So where is the outrage from the media that all the cars look the same? Has everyone bought into the theory that spec racing is what the fans really want?

The "CoT" is a good idea but it was poorly executed. Safety enhancements are always a good thing. Making every car identical and only allowing very few adjustments to the cars is a bad thing. NASCAR had allowed the cars to get out of control once they want to common templates in 2002, the didn't resemble anything remotely like a street car and they actually looked more like a dirt late model than a full-bodied stock car.

NASCAR needs to get back to stock cars resembling stock cars. Re-energizing the fans with actual competition between a Chevrolet and a Ford instead of two cars that are exactly alike except for decals will be a good first step. And with manufacturers struggling and cutting back on NASCAR budgets, giving them a chance to get back to racing something that the public can identify with - and maybe even go and buy! - is also a good thing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On the maturation of Kyle Busch

I am a believer in Kyle Busch's talent. For my money, there is no one better in the Sprint Cup garage right now. He is aggressive and is mad at the world unless he's sitting in Victory Lane. He's often compared to the late Dale Earnhardt because of his aggessive nature and the reception he receives from race fans all across the country.

Yes, despite his posthumous notation as the most-loved driver in NASCAR history, Earnhardt was for much of his career the most hated driver on the circuit. But at some point, Earnhardt changed. The aggressive nature on the track stayed the same but the short-tempered nature off the track mellowed. And an amazing thing happened: what were once jeers from the grandstand changed to cheers.

Busch has been in the spotlight since 2001 when he ran a limited Truck Series schedule and nearly pulled off a win as a 16 year-old. It's tough to handle the spotlight as a mature 35 year-old, so to imagine an 18 year-old doing it is difficult.

Contrary to Earnhardt, for much of his early career, Busch's accomplishments were lauded. After a rousing battle with a gaggle of Toyotas - including Jack Sprague and Johnny Benson - Busch pulled off an amazing victory in a Truck race at Atlanta. The leaders tried to race off turn four to the checkered flag four wide and it didn't work, and only Busch kept it pointed straight and he took the victory. As he climbed from his Chevy truck the crowd showered him with adoration.

When Busch walks across the stage this fall at Atlanta, many of those fans who appreciated his accomplishment that day are going to boo him just as loudly. What changed?

For starters, Busch is a big winner, racking up 50 wins in the top three national series in a very short period of time. Some fans like a winner, others don't. Those who don't tend to be loud about it. Then there is the fact Busch pilots a Toyota, and like it or not, many of NASCAR's core fans still love to boo anything not seen as good old-fashioned American metal. Then there are those who don't like the chip he carries on his shoulder for the driver that replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It only incenses them more when Busch reminds the NASCAR community that he has outperformed Earnhardt dramatically over the past 18 months.

But I think the biggest struggle Busch is facing now is one within himself. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's something everyone one of us goes through. We all grow up. We all learn from mistakes. We all make the transition from tempestuous kid to street-wise adult. Busch is doing that in front of millions every week.

Being replaced on the biggest and most successful team in NASCAR was a big blow to his ego and self esteem. Despite the successes he's seen since, one can gather there is still resentment there. And with the performance of the driver that was chosen to replace him no where near his own, Busch could rightfully believe that he wasn't replaced by someone who could out drive him but by someone who could out sell him on souvenir row.

It's only a matter of time until that wound closes. They all do. And it's only a matter of time before Busch completes that transformation from aggressive youngster to the world-wise, savvy, and mature "grown up" he's destined to be. His brother has done just that, and despite some rough years early on Kurt Busch continues to gain fans in the grandstands and respect from his competitors.

Busch may be upset at how last Saturday's race at Daytona played out. He really doesn't have anyone to blame but himself. Replays showed over and over that Tony Stewart had pulled alongside Busch's car and once contact was made there was little either driver could have done to prevent the inevitable. As upset as he was, Busch invoked more angre from the fans by walking up pit road (seemingly to go to victory lane to confront Stewart, although I doubted that at the time). Busch never commented on it on Saturday and made imbittered comments on Thursday at Chicagoland leading up to this weekend's race.

Imagine the fan response to Kyle Busch if he had channeled the later Dale Earnhardt after hopping out of his wrecked racecar on Saturday night. Instead of storming up pit road, what Busch should have done is grab the first microphone he saw and told everyone he was okay, was upset he wasn't sitting in victory lane but what everyone had just been a part of racing and that Stewart had simply "rattled his cage a little bit." My guess is the lines in front of the Kyle Busch souvenir trailers would have been enormous and the cheers from the grandstands deafening.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On getting rid of restrictor plates, the finish, TNT, and The King's 1984 Pontiac

The Coke Zero 400 will be remembered for its thrilling finish. It certainly was exciting, but was it a "great finish"?

Petty vs. Yarbourough in 1984 was a great finish. Even Elliott vs. Wilson in 1988 was a great way to end stock car racing's Independence Day celebration. Where does Shrub vs. Smoke rate?

Unfortanately for those who believe today's style of racing to be more exciting than days gone by, I wouldn't rate it in the "great" category or even as "good". Exciting as it was, it merely highlights the need to change the way NASCAR handles racing at Daytona and Talladega.

Restrictor plates have long since outlived their usefulness. Sure, it's a low-tech way to manage speed. But with each of the four participating manufacturers having developed brand spanking new engines over the course of the past three years, shouldn't that development have been done on an engine that would allow drivers to run at Daytona and Talladega at speeds approaching 190 mph without a restrictor plate?

That development could have been done on a six-cylinder engine with a smaller displacement, similar to what each of the manufacturers run in the street versions of the racecars they put on the track. The biggest problem with restrictor plates is the same as it was when it was first introduced in 1988: there is no throttle response. Drivers have to run wide open all the way around, whereas in the pre-plate days drivers running in the draft could run at half or even three-quarters throttle and maintain speed.

I continue to believe the cars need to have less downforce, which will make them handle differently and will break up the packs that cause the big wrecks. Teams need to be able to choose their own shocks and springs, and they need to be able to work on wing angles and let the driver's butt and bravery determine what is best. Spec racing is boring, and with the COT and all of the NASCAR-mandated shocks, springs, wings, and tire pressures, that is exactly what we have now.

- As for the finish of Saturday's race, yes, it was exciting. But what have we learned from Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch and their failed attempts to block? I think we've learned that drivers running in second will give you one move, but the second one is going to end up with the leader going for a ride.

- I read one long-time writer's comments that Kyle Busch's crash was eerily similar to Carl Edwards' because Busch also became airborne during the wreck. It doesn't take a genius to see that Busch's car only came off the ground as the result of contact with the wall. There was no aerodynamic lift at all in Busch's crash. Sure, he "landed" on Kasey Kahne's roof, but only after Kahne drove underneath the rear of Busch's machine. It's not the same as Edwards landing on Ryan Newman at Talladega.

- TNT continues to set the bar very high for both Fox and ESPN's coverage of NASCAR racing. Ralph Shaheen has done an admirable job of taking over the play-by-play role for Bill Weber, and both Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach are among the best analysts in motorsports. All of the pit reporters are solid too (and kudos to Adam Alexander to hopping in and getting up to speed immediately). ESPN will take over in a couple of weeks and they definitely have their work cut out for them if they want to match TNT. Based on their Nationwide coverage, those who have gotten used to the way TNT does things are going to be somewhat disappointed.

- How cool was it to see the car Richard Petty won with at Daytona in 1984 on the grid before the race? Looking at that car and its similarities to a street version of a 1984 Pontiac Grand Prix, is there anyone who is glad all of today's current racecars look exactly the same?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On reviving the Truck Series

The rumors of the Truck Series' demise have been floating for as long as I've been a part of it, which this season is ten years. There has always been someone talking about NASCAR shutting it down due to one reason or another. Most have to due with races taking place in front of empty grandstands or because the manufacturers don't support it at the level they do their Cup and Nationwide programs.

Earlier this week, NASCAR's Jim Hunter stated that NASCAR has no intention of shutting down the Truck Series any time soon. That is a nice vote of confidence - but unfortunately there is an inaccuracy in Mr. Hunter's remaining thoughts on the matter. He also said that NASCAR has never given up on a series, but for those of us that remember the Busch All-Star Tour, the Goody's Dash Series, the old NASCAR North Tour, and most recently the four regional touring late model series, we know that isn't the case. So with that in mind, those that love the Truck Series hope that NASCAR is willing to do whatever it takes to breathe life into our favorite form of motorsports.

I do think that NASCAR is committed to the Truck Series. There is value there, to sponsors, to track operators, and even to the teams and of course the fans. But there are things that need to be done to ensure the future is brighter and on a firmer foundation.

Sponsor value has always been a weak link for the Truck teams. Because of the costs of participating, they continue to need to ask for more from sponsors although the value they return hasn't increased at the same rate. Sponsor value has stayed flat, and according to some experts, has even dropped. Why? Because at best, the Trucks are plaing second-fiddle to the Nationwide Series and third-fiddle to both Cup and Nationwide on race weekends. With the demise of the Mansfield race, there isn't a single venue on the schedule where the Trucks are the top attraction. If NASCAR wants to add sponsor value, then it needs to eliminate some conjunction races and take the Trucks back to markets that the Nationwide and Cup cars don't go. Second races at Martinsville and Texas should be moved to markets like the Pacific Northwest and/or the upper Midwest. Other races that have no value, such as the California race, should also be moved elsewhere.

Track operators will benefit from redistribution of the schedule too. More tracks could be a part of the NASCAR family, and fans craving NASCAR action in underserved parts of the country can finally come and see big league racing. And those tracks that continue to hold conjunction races will benefit too since triple-headers will be less common, marketing them as something the fans don't have a chance to see often will help attract customers into the seats.

Teams will benefit because sponsors will again return to the series. As it is now, why would a sponsor come in when the majority of races are held in areas where Cup and Nationwide sponsors already saturate the market? What chance does a small ($2.5-$3 million) sponsor have when trying to activate next to someone spending ten times that much? But that smaller sponsor will find value in markets that aren't already saturated. That's what helped the series flourish in 1995 through 1998. As an example, in 1995 over half the Truck races were held at tracks that didn't host a Nationwide or Cup race. That had dropped to 25 percent in 1999, and now in 2009 there are no races held at tracks that don't have a Nationwide or Cup race.

There are plenty of racetracks out there that could help diversify the Truck Series schedule. Road courses in the Pacific Northwest, a number of good short tracks in the Upper Midwest, and even some venues in Canada that would fit the bill.

Racing at huge cathedrals of speed like Daytona and Charlotte does have value. But so does reaching the grassroots fan at places like I-70 Speedway and Evergreen Speedway, two tracks that are unfortunately long gone from the Truck Series schedule. There are other tracks in underserved markets that should be looked at and added. Then maybe ther Trucks will again be a series that is growing and flourishing instead of simply treading water and fighting for survival.