Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On not all illeglal engines being the same, aggressive driving, closing the deal, and the jinx of the fill-in PR rep

It wasn't long ago that Carl Long was penalized $200,000 for an engine violation during the All-Star race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Long was driving a car with a third-hand engine that was destined to run at the back of the pack before the engine mercifully blew apart. NASCAR took that engine for some reason, and discovered it was seventeen-hundredths of an inch over the 358 cubic inch limit. "Illegal is illegal" was the NASCAR stance and Long was hit with the biggest penalty in NASCAR history.

Fast forward five months.

Roush Fenway Racing violated the NASCAR sealed engine rule.

The engine in question won the Nationwide race at Darlington in May, then was sealed to be used again at a later date. Since the engine won a race, after its second race it was to be torn down and inspected according to NASCAR rules. However, before it could be looked over by officials it was torn apart and rebuilt.

Team officials and NASCAR agreed that a clerical error led to the engine being disassembled prior to being inspected. Team officials did not appeal NASCAR's $30,000 fine or 100 point penalties to driver Matt Kenseth or owner Jack Roush.

While it's unlikely the engine was illegal, no one will ever know. A team with unlimited resources is tagged with a $30,000 fine, where the guy scraping along and rolling coins found in the couch cushions to race is pegged for $200 large.

That doesn't seem like a level playing field to me.

-Brad Keselowski didn't do himself any favors with his aggressive nature in winning at Memphis, but kudos go to Mike Bliss and Carl Edwards for their reactions to racing with Kes. Neither whined about the contact, but they simply said they would file it away and remember that the next time they were racing Brad with something on the line. There's nothing wrong with the bump-and-run, as long as you don't complain when it comes back at you. Somehow I have the feeling Brad won't be whining when Carl repays him somewhere down the road.

-Speaking of Keselowski, how cool is it that he won at Memphis? It wasn't all that long ago that Brad had the opportunity of a lifetime - subbing for Ted Musgrave, who was suspended for one race by NASCAR - at, of all places, Memphis Motorsports Park. Brad won the pole, led 62 laps that night, and was in the lead with a handful of laps to go when he was hit from behind and spun out of the lead. He ended up 16th that day back in 2007, but it put him on the radar screen and opened the door for the opportunities that followed.

-Congrats to Timothy Peters on picking up his first career Camping World Truck Series win at Martinsville. Tim's win should give hope to every short tracker out there with visions of making the big time and winning. It's harder than ever, but it can still be done. I had a chance to talk to Tim for a few moments at Iowa while I was on my three-race tour of duty with the HT Motorsports team and he said he drives to the shop from his home in Virginia every day. That's about two hours there, and two hours home. He does it so his guys know how much he wants it. Some (like me!) might think he's crazy, but there is no questioning Tim's commitment to be a winner and it finally paid off.

-Congrats to the HT Motorsports team for finally getting back into the top ten, as David Starr finished eighth and Terry Cook was tenth. I guess we know where the recent bad luck came from since it mysteriously ended when the fill-in PR guy returns to the couch!

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Charlotte attendance and Hall of Fame induction process

Just a couple of thoughts from last weekend's events at Lowe's Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Hall of Fame announcement...

- Following the recent Fontana weekend, some in the Charlotte media called for the Auto Club Speedway to lose one of its two Sprint Cup races because of all of the empty seats during the Pepsi 500. What's fair is fair. There were many more empties at LMS over the weekend than there at Fontana. So where is the call from that same media outlet that LMS should lose a date? Charlotte has three Sprint Cup weekends and it only approaches capacity on one of them. I would argue that Charlotte doesn't support NASCAR and it should lose one of its dates. One of the best lines I've heard about attendance at Charlotte: "There are blue seats there in turn four that have been there for over ten years now and have never had a butt in them."

- The recent announcement of the first class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame brought no real surprises. However, there is no shortage of debate on who should and shouldn't have been in. One thing is obvious: five inductees per year is not enough. The sport has sixty-plus years of history. There is no way you can do justice to the founding fathers of our sport with just five inductees per year. The voting criteria should allow for the following: the top five in the voting plus any other nominee that receives at least 80 percent of the vote. Surely names like Pearson, Allison, and Yarbourough should be included in that first class, yet they were left out because of the five inductee limit. I'd also like to see the people voting for the Hall of Fame actually have some sort of historical reference for their vote. There are undoubtedly people with votes that never saw Richard Petty race (even on television), and that's a shame.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On phantom cautions ruining the integrity of the sport

It's the fourth quarter. It's quickly approaching the two-minute warning. Pittsburgh, chasing their seventh Super Bowl title, leads 42-17 over the resurgent Redskins who are looking to pick up the Lombardi trophy for the first time since Joe Gibbs was coach. The ball is Washington's, and they've just moved into field goal range with four fresh downs and two timeouts left. Just as the clock ticks to 2:00, the referee cues his mic on the field: "scorekeeper, please adjust the score for Washington to 39 points."

How many football fans would erupt over the notion? How many would chose not to watch if the NFL blatantly evened the score to give the audience a better show?

The answer is that the NFL audience would be incensed and a very large and significant portion of them would easily find something else to do with their Sunday afternoons.

Manipulating competition is what the WWE does. Sure, professional wrestlers use many athletic moves and must be in tip-top shape (and often use performance enhancing drugs to get into that shape), but their events are orchestrated and scripted. Therefore, true sports fans who watch to see who wins and who loses in a true competitive format don't generally watch professional wrestling.

NASCAR might not script races the way WWE does wrestling matches, but they are closer than ever before. In fact, they are manipulating the competition through the nefarious "debris caution".

There are many problems in NASCAR right now, many that will take a generation of new drivers to fix, but the debris caution is something that can be fixed immediately. But it will take a fresh new attitude by the officials in the tower to make it happen.

The thought is they are giving the fans a better show by bunching up the cars. The reality is they are impacting the competition and driving fans away. Do they want the same audience that the WWE has? Or do they want the once fiercely loyal audience that made the sport a powerhouse back in the 1990s?

When the tower calls for a caution, there needs to be an actual reason for it. Jimmie Johnson leading by seven seconds is not a good reason for the caution flag. Sports fans know that sometimes you get a great game from start to finish, sometimes a boring game gets good at the end, and sometimes it's a blowout from the opening kickoff. The same thing should happen in NASCAR - except for the fact that the powers that be insist on trying to manipulate the competition to ensure every race is a classic.

Johnson did hold on to win after a couple of late twists in the Pepsi 500 - not to mention a huge wreck that never would have happened if not for a phantom caution. One has to wonder what officials like David Hoots and John Darby think about the Indy Car race at Homestead, which went green-to-checkered caution free. Dario Franchitti averaged over 200 miles per hour to win, and he did it through pit strategy by savig fuel to make one less stop than Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Imagine that! A race where drivers had to adjust they way they drove based upon actual strategy!

Quit with the phantom yellows. Ensure every call an official makes - whether it's a loose lug nut, too many men over the wall, or debris on track - is backed up by actual verifiable proof. Otherwise, all NASCAR is doing is evening the score. We wouldn't accept it from the NFL, NBA, or MLB, so why should we accept it from NASCAR?

Monday, October 5, 2009

On being almost illegal and over-managed competition

What is all this talk about cars nearly failing inspection? If you pass, you pass. Now, NASCAR is warning teams the tolerances are too close? Is this really where we are going? Soon you will have cars confiscated for being "too close". Inspection has changed greatly since the 1990s; it used to be in a team presented a car from inspection prior to practice and there was a slight infraction with a measurement the team could work on it and fix it. Now the team faces losing the car and a huge monetary fine. NASCAR has now determined if you present a car for pre-practice inspection illegal, no matter what the infraction may be, that's how you intended to race it and therefore they can penalize you. If you're illegal before the race, go ahead and fix it and make the inspectors happy. If you're illegal after the race, then you should be disqualified. None of this keeping your position and then being fined points and money. You should be removed from the results altogether! The never-ending quest for a level playing field has brought us down a road with cars that are all exactly alike and tolerances that are smaller than the thickness of a dime. Maybe a return to common sense is due here: get back to cars (and trucks) that resemble their actual street counterpart. Running real stock cars (in a racing sense, not in an actual street car sense) again instead of cars that resemble a boxier version of a dirt late model will eliminate much of the fudging teams try on the bodies. And we wouldn't have to hear about cars being *almost* illegal.

What's with NASCAR feeling the need to micromanage every aspect of the competition? In addition to the ridiculous warning to Hendrick Motorsports that their cars are *almost* illegal, the powers that be in the tower feel the need to warn drivers about how they are driving on the track too. Warning Brad Keselowski about his driving after a brush with Juan Montoya is seriously laughable. What's even better is it is being done from afar by people who have never been in a racecar. How about letting the drivers actually get out there and race? If there is an incident, let the drivers figure it out. If it means on-track retaliation, so be it. Drivers have a wonderful way of remembering incidents and policing themselves. And guess what? That usually gives ticket buyers a little extra action too. Now that NASCAR has invented a racecar that doesn't spin out (at least according to Darrell Waltrip) maybe they are trying to ensure that drivers never, ever make contact therefore eliminating all accidents? There are 12 drivers going after a championship. There are 31 that aren't. Maybe the 12 that are need to watch themselves around the 31 that aren't. Afterall, they are the ones with the most to lose, right? Keselowski is doing what is best for him, that's going after wins. No one should be getting in his ear and distracting him from doing that, especially from the tower. NASCAR officials should be there to enforce the rules, not manage the competition.