Saturday, August 29, 2009

On closing the deal eight years later, Chicago Motor Speedway, and improving the racing in the CWTS

Kyle Busch again dominated the Truck Series, this time in the series inaugural series race at Chicagoland Speedway. It's no surprise to see Busch in victory lane in a Truck but this win had to be especially sweet as it was redemption from 2001. Busch was within a handful of laps away from winning in just his second series start, as a 16-year-old, at the old Chicago Motor Speedway before fuel and eventually tire problems derailed his bid for victory. Not that Busch needs a redemption - afterall, he's since gone on to score 56 total wins among the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck series - but it puts a nice end to a story that was started just over eight years ago.

Seeing the highlight footage from the two truck races at Chicago Motor Speedway during the SPEED broadcast brought back memories. The track was wedged into property between a residential neighborhood and a solid waste transfer station in Cicero, just a couple of miles from Midway Airport. The track packed them in for a couple of CART Champ Car races, and drew a decent crowd for the first Truck race in 2000. But the attendance for the second Truck race in 2000 set an unofficial record for the smallest crowd to ever witness an official Truck Series event. Some veteran observers trackside estimated attendance at less than a thousand, making the cavernous grandstands that were capable of holding upwards of 60,000 to appear absolutely desolate. One joke going around on race morning in 2001 was that the drivers would go up into the grandstands and shake hands personally with the fans in attendance, and since there were so few of them there it wouldn't take any longer than the traditional driver intros do. It is a real shame the event didn't gain any traction because, despite its location, it was a cool racetrack. It was a tight paperclip, more of a Martinsville clone than even New Hampshire, and the racing was pretty good. It looked like a decent crowd was on hand Friday night at Chicagoland.

NASCAR's best kept secret has been the quality of the racing in the Truck Series. But rules changes in the engines and on pit road have degraded that competition this year. The tapered spacer that restricts horsepower means that drivers can run wide open around virtually every 1.5-mile track on the schedule. So rather than drivers testing themselves to see how deep they can run into the corner, they simply hold it to the mat and guide the truck - almost like a slot car. At Chicagoland, cameras caught some side-by-side racing (usually after restarts), but there was a lot of single-file running with very little racing for position. The pit stop rules that don't allow tire changes and refueling on the same pit stop hurt the quality of the on-track product too. If a team needs tires after a 60-lap green flag run, they must make two pit stops - one for tires and one for fuel. If a caution falls during a round of green flag stops, someone's night is essentially ruined. Hopefully things will change in 2010 and teams won't have to make the choices they are forced to make now. There are plenty of changes NASCAR can make that will improve the quality of the show without increasing the number of people that the teams need to take to the track. Allow four tires and fuel and eliminate the tire carriers. Only allow two tire changes during any one pit stop. Or go back to the way it was with full-blown four-tire changes.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On the surprising maturity of Kyle Busch, comparing win totals, and Jason White

Just when you thought you had it all figured out, Kyle Busch comes back and shows you he's still the man in charge. First he dominated the late stages of Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series race, then he makes a huge statement on Saturday night in winning the Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol. Busch is still on the outside looking in as far as the Chase is concerned, but with two tracks that Busch excells at - Atlanta and Richmond - dead ahead on the schedule, Matt Kenseth must feel like a proverbial sitting duck.

But that wasn't the most pleasant outcome of the weekend concerning Rowdy. Busch had the dominant car on Friday night too but was taken out when Chase Austin had a flat tire and tried to make a hard left onto pit road while the leaders were approaching. The crash was a big one and Busch's night was cut short. Busch was mad when he hopped out of the car, but he ignored the cameras and microphones on his way back to the trailer and calmed down. When he came out and did speak it was a shocking display of maturity and diplomacy instead of the verbal dynomite that many expected. Busch has shown he can do it. From a PR standpoint, his sponsors must have been thrilled with what they saw after his unfortunate early night on Friday.

- Note to the broadcasters and anyone else that has caught on to this: Kyle Busch has not exceeded Lee Petty's mark of 54 career Sprint Cup wins. Yes, Busch has 55 career NASCAR National Touring Series wins (that's the Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and Truck Series). But regardless of ESPN's efforts to make this a story the Nationwide and Truck Series wins simply do not carry as much weight as Cup wins do. Busch's win production is incredible, even in the Cup Series alone. Sixteen wins at this stage in his career is awesome. The 55 wins in all three series is equally awe-inspiring. But comparing that total to Lee Petty's career Cup win total is apples and paperclips. Also, keep in mind that Lee Petty didn't have a Nationwide Series or a Truck Series to compete in back in the 1950s and 1960s to bolster his win total.

- It was a nice surprise to see Jason White run competitively at Bristol and lead the race for more than half its distance. White has improved greatly even in the past couple of years and with the depth of the Truck Series field thinner than it has been in recent years it's nice to see some new names make it to the front from time to time. Unfortunately for White his pit strategy was just a tick off and he had to give up the lead, but he did show that he can race with the leaders and not be in over his head. Hopefully that team will have another opportunity to show its strength before the end of the season.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On the continuing Kyle Busch saga, Keselowski's hometown win, and backseat drivers

The Kyle Busch saga continues.

It's been a long time since the NASCAR community has seen a driver with so much raw talent. Yes, there was Dale Earnhardt in 1979 and Tim Richmond in 1981 and Jess Gordon in 1993. But since then there have been a slew of "good" drivers but no truly "great" drivers.

Then along came Kyle.

He's won more races in NASCAR's top three national series in the past two years than most drivers could hope to win in their career.

When the greats of the sport like Petty, Pearson, Yarbourough, Allison, Waltrip, and Earnhardt were winning there was often controversy, but in general their efforts were applauded and appreciated by the audience.

So when then is Kyle Busch reviled?

Earnhardt was polarizing. You either loved him or hated him. But regardless of which side of the fence you were on, you respected his talent.

That's not the case for Kyle Busch. For the vast majority of racefans, he's the driver they love to hate. I have to suspect there are many in the media corps who feel the same way, though they could never admit it.

Perhaps it's incidents like post-race contact with Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen or post-race interviews at Michigan that cause the boo birds to jeer every time Busch is seen, heard, or mentioned.

What is it about those two races that has Busch so upset? Since when is racing someone hard a cheap shot? Did Ambrose do anything dirty in passing Busch entering the inner loop? Did Brian Vickers do anything dirty in chasing Busch down to the apron on the front stretch and taking his entry into turn one away from him? No contact was made in either instance and the result was that Busch was beaten, fair and square. Yet when the microphones appear, Busch becomes petulant and abrasive.

Yes, Earnhardt could lose his temper with reporters, and Waltrip could too. But the difference is once the moment passed they would return to their jovial, respectful selves. Busch has slid down the slope to where he rarely smiles on camera anymore, unless of course it's in victory lane.

Yes, winning is the ultimate goal for racecar drivers. Busch's attitude towards winning is refreshing since many believe a good portion of the starting field in the Sprint Cup Series are merely out there collecting money for their retirement funds. Being a good winner is important but so is being a good loser.

Especially when the race you just lost is in a minor-league series, not in a Cup race.

It would be one thing if Ambrose's dive-bomb into the inner loop at The Glen resulted in a crash or of Vickers' move on the frontstretch at Michigan was a tire-rubbing, fender-crunching body slam. But they weren't. They were clean moves, and Busch lost fair and square.

No one wants Busch to become a sponsor-plugging automaton. It's possible to have personality and give good interviews and still be upset you lost. Busch needs to find that middle ground, especially on Saturdays.

There is nothing lost by coming up to a reporter and saying how hard you were trying to lose and how much you wanted it only to fall short. There's nothing wrong with being upset with seven second-place finishes (remember the "what if those second places were all wins" line?) but when you have a pout on and you act like a school kid who lost the game so he took his ball and bat and went home, well, then there is something wrong with it.


Congratulations to Brad Keselowski on his surprising win at Michigan, his home track. ESPN paid lip service to the importance of this track to Brad and his family, but as someone who has known the Keselowski family since the early 1980s and is proud to have spent a lot of time with the entire clan in the latter years of their Truck Series involvement, I can say that the ESPN reporters have no real feeling for just how much that win means.


The "Backseat Drivers" experiment during the Nationwide broadcast was interesting. Dale Jarrett showed he can be a very competent play-by-play announcer, and the rest of the cast - Andy Petree, Rusty Wallace, and Ray Evernham - did a decent job throughout. It was interesting but not something I'd like to see every week. One has to wonder if this experiment was done as an audition as Dr. Jerry Punch continues to struggle with generating excitement as lead play-by-play announcer.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On the weather, Hornaday, Iowa, Belleville, and Indy cars

- What has NASCAR done to anger the weather gods this racing season? How many practices, qualifying sessions, and races have been canceled or postponed due to rain? From my position, it always seems when things are going good - fans are happy, sponsors are lined up at the front door and maybe even trying to sneak in through the windows to get involved, and the racing on the track is excellent - the weather seems to always be bright. Maybe this is Mother Nature's way of letting us all know that she's unhappy with the current state of motorsport too.

- Ron Hornaday has won, this time at Nashville, for the fifth consecutive time in Camping World Truck Series action. Taking nothing away from Hornaday's accomplishment (or crew chief Rick Ren, who now is the leading crew chief winner in the series), but the domination of the series by one driver is doing nothing to increase interest in the series with die-hard fans. While the series is low on entrants out to actually race, it would be nice to see a variety of winners rather than one dominant team and driver. But it's Hornaday's job to get it done, and that's exactly what he's doing. Is it too early to call the championship in Hornaday's favor? Matt Crafton is in second but it's the largest first-to-second spread in the history of the series at this point in the season. Hornaday will have th have the wheels fall off on the first lap in consecutive races if anyone has any hope of closing that gap.

- The Natrionwide Series took to the Iowa Speedway for the first time, and the event can only be categorized as a complete success. Hopefully traffic ingress and egress was better than our first Truck race at Mansfield in 2004. It is amazing to think that 55,000 people showed up for a Nationwide race virtually out in the middle of nowhere. But even more amazing is that Iowa Speedway has attrracted upwards of 20,000 for ARCA races and nealy 40,000 for the IndyCar Series. It's blatantly obvious trhat whatever they are doing in Iowa is working. Congrats to the management team out there for putting on a great show.

- The Belleville Nationals, one of the most prestigious Midget races in the country, went off this weekend. The three day show was plagued by low car counts and - you guessed it - bad weather. There used to be a time when Belleville attracted one of the biggest fields in Midget racing. In 2009, there was barely a full field. Hopefully the economics of short track racing will get back into the green in coming years and events like Belleville regain their status as "must see" races.

- It's not just the USAC fields that are struggling, but its virtually all of the short track world. Car counts are down everywhere and promoters are fighting to get every fan through the front gate possible. It doesn't hurt that today's sports fan equates "NASCAR" with "auto racing", particularly "NASCAR Sprint Cup Series". And it also doesn't hurt that none of the sports networks broadcast live short track racing anymore.

- The Indy Car Series was at Kentucky over the weekend, and if you didn't notice, join the club. The event flew under the radar as the series has been struggling with boring races and trying to build an audience on a new network, Versus. The first part of the race was a continuation of the start of the season, a single-file parade of cars so glued to the track they can hug the white line all the way around the track. The final segment of the race was a barnburner, with unsung Ed Carpenter nearly doing the impossible and knocking Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe off the top of the scoring pylon. Carpenter missed his first win by just 0.016 seconds, or just about a foot and a half. After a season of dull racing and domination by the series' two superteams, the race at Kentucky was just what the open wheel fan needed to re-energize for the run to the championship. But one race does not a revival make - hopefully races at Chicago and Homestead are similarly exciting.

- The IndyCar Series released its 2010 schedule over the weekend, and there were no real surprises but some significant disappointments. It's a shame the series wouldn't leave a hole in the schedule for the new Milwaukee promoters, who seem closer and closer to getting their deal finalized for 2010. It's also a shame that the New Hampshire track wasn't added. It seems the management at NHMS is bullish on the Indy cars when most of the rest of the motorsports world couldn't care less, so why leave them off? It's also a disappointment that the series is now made up of a majority of road and street circuits. There is nothing wrong with road racing, and for much of this season they've been the most exciting races for sure. But for those purists among us, Indy cars are all about high speed oval racing. It's a shame the powers that be in Indianapolis don't get that or have lost their "vision" of that fact. For a series that is struggling to remain relevant, there is no real "wow factor" on the schedule. Sure, the superspeedway races have the potential to be exciting, as Kentucky proved, but they also have the potential to be snoozers, as Texas and Kansas proved earlier in the season. IndyCar needs to revisit everything it's doing, from scheduling to the engine and chassis formula, and it needs to do it immediately. There is a lot wrong in the world of Indy car racing these days, but most importantly the powers that be need to understand that spec racing at the sport's highest levels is not captivating and it is not going to draw in spectators. The Indy 500, and the series of races that lead up to it and support it, should be the ultimate test of automotive ingenuity. F1 is all about technology, but Indy used to be about innovative technology, amazing speeds, and the ability to make it endure for 500 miles. Now it's about 33 drivers in the same car with the same engine and the same tires all going the same speed.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On the Trucks delivering value

Ray Dunlap published an excellent column this week on about some potential changes that NASCAR could make or in fact may make to consolidate the Camping World Truck Series schedule. These changes, you guessed it, would save the teams money - allowing current teams to stay in business and maybe even recruit new teams into the series.

Dunlap has been around the racing world a long time, from carrying his own video camera to short tracks across the Midwest to produce his own motorsports news program to being the PR guru for ARCA and eventually on to becoming one of the best pit reporters in the business for ESPN and now SPEED. His opinion carries a lot of weight and he has the best interest of the series at heart. Ray is right, NASCAR should look at changing the schedule in the interest of saving teams money - but they also need to change the schedule to deliver teams, and their sponsors, more value.

Do the Trucks have any value at all as a third-tier series in markets that also host Sprint Cup and Nationwide races? Do they have any value at all racing on Fridays of a tripleheader weekend with the Cup and Nationwide cars? When the Truck Series was new and had 50 teams and drivers that were working to climb up the ladder, like it did in 1996 or 1997, the answer would have been yes. Now, with many of the drivers dipping down from the Cup Series to the Trucks and the series struggling to fill fields, that answer is no.

In the early days of the Truck Series, there was value built in to the schedule. Races were held in areas of the country where the Sprint Cup and/or Nationwide cars didn't go. If there was a conjunction race held with the Cup cars it was at a track the Nationwide cars didn't race. There wasn't an oversaturation of any market, and in many cases the Truck Series race was the only national NASCAR race in town.

Places like Bakersfield, Louisville, Portland, Seattle, Flemington, Topeka, Kansas City, and Denver were penetrated by the Truck Series. Costs were inherently lower for the teams because there were no live pit stops and the vehicles themselves didn't need to be aerodynamically slick because every track was a mile in length or less.

Then came the addition of places like Las Vegas and Michigan: big, wide, and fast. That meant the trucks were now going to wind tunnels. And being at tracks that hosted Cup races started to erode the inherent value of the Truck Series.

Eventually the Truck Series schedule morphed from mainly short tracks where the Trucks were the biggest show in town to superspeedways where they were the third-level series, often on the same weekend. The last track that hosted a Truck race and no other national NASCAR series was Mansfield, and it fell off the schedule after the 2008 race. Sponsors who were used to getting exposure in front of thousands of fans in markets that weren't over saturated with NASCAR racing were now being drowned out by the multi-million dollar activation programs by Cup's biggest sponsors.

Cutting costs should be a huge priority for NASCAR. Making it less expensive to race will bolster fields and allow some drivers who are good on the local racing scene to try to reach their dreams to be a NASCAR champion. Engines should revert back to the tried-and-true 9.5:1 compression ratio as they were when the series started. Bodies should become more stock - with stock hoods, fenders, greenhouses, and bed rails and contours in the doors to match the street version of each truck.

And the schedule should be revamped from top to bottom. Certain conjunction events should be kept, but the series needs to get back to its roots and deliver the product to racing fans that can't get to a Cup or Nationwide race. There are dozens of quality short tracks across the country that could host races, as well as numerous quality road courses. Tracks shouldn't have more than one Truck race, meaning second races at Texas and Martinsville should move elsewhere. The tripleheader, currently held at places like Dover, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead, should be kept to a minimum or even eliminated all together.

The Truck schedule doesn't necessarily need to mirror the Cup and Nationwide schedules. In the late 90s, the series opened in January at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, and the crowds were huge and enthusiastic. The Trucks can deliver more value when they aren't competing with - and against - the Cup and Nationwide series. The Truck champion has been crowned at Homestead since 2003, often in front of barren, empty grandstands. NASCAR could move the finale to Las Vegas, where ticket promotions with casinos put upwards of 50,000 people in the stands and give teams and sponsors the value they desire and deserve.