c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
P.O. Box 500
Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Non-daily Columns
First Place

Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene

Will NASCAR Become Official Vodka Of Pit Road’?

So the Magic 8 Ball now says “Outlook good” when I finally get around to asking it this week’s MIP (Most Important Question): “Is NASCAR really preparing to break from tradition and allow hard liquor companies as sponsors in the Nextel Cup Series?”

Funny. Just a few weeks back, I posed the same question, and the 8 Ball came up with “Reply hazy. Try again.”

Then again, that could have been the day I was inquiring about Kurt Busch’s chances at winning the 2004 championship.

Of course, the Magic 8 Ball has been known to be less than accurate at times. Which, when you think about it, makes it a perfect fit for this sport. It’s at least as precise as NASCAR’s pit road timing system.

“Dang it! Joe Lee barely had the car out of second gear. Ain’t no way he was a-speedin’!”

“Oh yeah? Well the Magic 8 Ball said, ‘All signs point to yes.’ So there!”

But back to the liquor issue. To date, NASCAR has made no announcement stating that liquor companies would be allowed to sponsor race teams.

But officials don’t seem to be denying the possibility as feverently as they were in the past, either. After months and months of comments like, “We’ve had discussions, but have not changed our stance,” the “Chivas Regal” of racing organizations now appears ready to roll out a 180-proof welcome to companies that produce distilled spirits.

Which, naturally, leads to numerous questions. Questions such as:

“What previously unknown information was stumbled upon to cause such a shift in the organization’s stance?”

“What argument was presented to NASCAR officials that was so convincing that it erased a policy nearly as old as the sport itself?”

“What spin was put on the presentation to make such companies appear more family oriented and less likely to offend the non-drinking fans?”
But more importantly, “Who came up with the correct figure on the check?”

If NASCAR does indeed reverse its stance, an official announcement likely won’t occur until after the 2004 season has been completed. Or until the check clears. Whichever comes first.

By then, NASCAR no doubt will have made the appropriate sales pitches to any and all companies interested in coming aboard. But such a process could take time. After all, you don’t just throw together a program touting the “Official sour mash whiskey of NASCAR” overnight.

And the only way liquor companies will be welcomed is if at least one is willing to pony up the necessary cash to become an “official” whatever of NASCAR. And there are still plenty of “official” titles out there for grabs. For instance, for approximately more money than will ever be printed, a liquor company might be able to become the “Official vodka of pit road.” And receive much publicity when another company signs on to become the “Official vodka of all even-numbered pit stalls.” Both companies will want their products, or large plastic representations of the same, in the winner’s circle. Which will, in the end, finally make it impossible for a winning driver to actually pull his car into victory lane.

And as a result, families leaving their houses on Sunday afternoon will inadvertantly drive their cars into the winner’s circle, thinking they have stumbled upon a new Super Wal-Mart.

Allowing liquor companies in the sport is a move that could eventually make NASCAR even bigger, more well-known, than ever. A whole new world of marketing opportunities arise outside the race track. For instance, racing-themed drinks could start popping up in bars all across the country. Instead of ordering a Screwdriver, race fans could order an Air Wrench. On the rocks.

Rather than an Alabama Slammer, they could ask for a Talladega Twister. Forget the Fuzzy Navel, go for the Greasy Knuckle. A Kamikazee? No thanks, I’ll have a Bristol Shooter. A Harvey Wallbanger? OK, some mixed-drink names already seem made for the sport.

So will it really happen? Will NASCAR, a sport touted for its family values, give in to the lure of money and abolish its long-held stance against liquor sponsors?

Only the Magic 8 Ball knows for sure. And right now it’s too busy checking for speeders on pit road to say.

For Fans The Sky Isn’t The Limit

Fans of NASCAR, the sport desperately needs your help. Because in order to continue to maintain the title of “America’s Fastest Growing Sport and Traveling Mobile Home Park,” NASCAR needs to be “in the news.” A lot. Often for no apparent reason at all. Sort of like Ashlee Simpson.

A year ago, that wasn’t a problem. Fodder for the fans? The folks at NASCAR went out of their way to see that the sport continued to be a hot topic, unveiling a new “points format,” announcing “radical changes” in the schedule and unveiling plans to be more “Disney-like.”

But as the sport heads into the 2005 season, NASCAR is searching for new ways and new concepts to generate publicity and convince new fans to embrace the sport.

Which is where you, the real race fan, can help.

Race fans who really, really love the sport and want to continue to see it grow by leaps and huge profit margins can do their part by getting involved in one of the few remaining areas not yet tapped by the sports world. By naming a star after their favorite race car driver.

What? You’ve never thought of that? The hordes of Dale Earnhardt fans who spent their life savings to see the seven-time champion wreak havoc on the field, purchasing everything from officially licensed door knobs to the occasional non-licensed turnip bearing a resemblance to the Intimidator, never looked to the heavens and said: “I know, I think I’ll name a star after him. A comet maybe. One zipping through the universe, rattling cages and lighting up the night sky?”

It’s the perfect way to show you really, really care, that in your world of ballcap and diecast collections, framed autographs and used lug nuts, someone’s Numero Uno. The Big Cheese. And more importantly, when CNN breaks from its daily programming to tell us that, “There is a really, really big rock the size of Nebraska hurtling towards Earth. Run for your lives!” knowledgeable race fans can say, “Hey, that looks like Rusty!” Then rush outside, fire up the grill and tailgate to their heart’s content.

I know, it’s hard to believe such an effort to take NASCAR to “new heights” hasn’t been thought of before now. But I’ve checked. I’ve gone to the official source, the International Astronomical Union, and found hundreds, maybe even thousands, of names that have been bestowed on various chunks of rocks floating around in space. I know the IAU is official, because anyone can go to its Web site and find interesting tidbits of information on upcoming meetings, covering key topics such as “The Scientific Requirements for Extremely Large Telescopes.”

Well, for starters, I bet it has to be really, really big. Beyond that ... .

But back to those names. Or the lack of. There’s an Abbott and a Costello, a Jerrylewis and jesseeowens. The Beatles as one, and individually – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr (a star named Starr). Even a Yoko (Oh, no!), some fans of the Fab Four will be disappointed to learn. A Zappafrank. Bach and Beethoven. A Jodiefoster for goodness sakes.

But not a single Earnhardt. Or Junior. Or Gordon. No sign of a France, or a NASCAR. Mike Helton, president of the sanctioning body, is zero-for-the-stars as well. However, there is a Newman, a Wallace, and a Johnson, although it’s inconclusive if we’re talking about that Newman, Wallace or Johnson. But who knows?

There’s a Ford and a Toyota, but alas, no Chevrolet or Dodge.

So if NASCAR really wants to continue to grow and continue to keep its name in the news, it’s up to the race fans to do everything they can to help out. They need to prove that the sport is still moving forward, and not just here on our little chunk of matter but growing in places outside the Milky Way as well.

So the next time you’re stuck in race traffic, hours after the race, you can gaze up at the stars and proudly tell your friends: “See that little bitty speck over there? That’s Kasey Kahne.”

Unless, of course, it’s really just a bug on your windshield. The important thing is that it’s out there. Somewhere.

For True Collectors, The Chase Is On

A sign that you are a fan of a particular NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver is that, somewhere buried among all that closet-congesting paraphernalia you have hauled back from various race tracks, trade shows and autograph signings, you have at least one of his die-cast collectible cars. Maybe it’s no longer enclosed in the original plastic packaging, maybe there are a few bite marks across the hood from that time your dog mistook it for a brand-new rawhide chew toy, but it’s in your possession just the same.

A sign that you are a real fan of a particular driver? You own not one, but several of the die-cast cars (as well as an assortment of souvenir T-shirts, caps, programs with his likeness on the cover, etc.) that cover a portion of his career. Perhaps you even have your collection poised in some sort of fancy, staggered lineup across a bookshelf, much to the dismay of your “life partner” and several design show hosts.

A sure sign that you are a true fanatic? You not only own every die-cast of every car your favorite driver has ever driven in competition, complete with authentic autographs (as well as the T-shirts, caps, etc.), have them displayed prominently, and none include bite marks across the hoods, but you are the proud owner of his pre-season test car die-casts as well. You know, those tiny, often primer gray 1:24th, 1:36th, 1:whatevereth-scale models that feature ... well, you can’t exactly call them paint “schemes.” They may be schemes all right, just of a different sort. But they’re out there just the same.

True fans? Oh yeah, true fans will buy just about anything.

And since that is indeed the case, then why stop at die-casts of a driver’s test cars? Any real entrepreneur worth his or her salt wouldn’t let such a grand idea end there. And any real fan with excessive amounts of storage space and no particular clue concerning interior design wouldn’t want them to. Why not carry the notion a bit further? So you think that primer gray car completes your collection? Think again.

Coming soon to a collectible store near you, your favorite driver’s die-cast car featuring – its pole winning qualifying setup! Sure, it may look just like the regular die-cast, but don’t be fooled. Underneath that tiny, microscopic piece of metal and plastic rests the setup that put your favorite driver in the No. 1 qualifying position. Of course, only the true fan will be able to tell the difference. Or at least never admit he or she can’t.

And what collection would be complete without a die-cast of the car after the race? Realistically marked up with the dings and donuts, the bent sheet metal, maybe even a piece or two of duct tape as well. And the ever-present blue bottle attached to the roof.

But wait, there’s more. Why not be the first to own that tiny hunk of dull, pockmarked metal perched on a shiny wooden base, a replica of the very ore that eventually became the iron, that eventually became the chassis, that eventually took up residence underneath the sheet metal (primer gray, of course) surrounding your favorite driver’s die-cast test vehicle? That way, you could sleep comfortably at night, safe and secure in the knowledge that, as the 2005 Nextel Cup Series prepares to head to the warm, sunny beaches of Daytona, you’re Numero Uno in Collector-ville. No one else need apply.

Until, of course, you get word of your neighbor’s collection. Which features prominently as its centerpiece among the numerous die-casts, a diorama (those miniature versions of life-sized scenes you were forced to create during Art 1 back in the eighth grade) depicting workers actually hauling the iron ore out of a mineshaft. And getting it ready to be shipped overseas. Where it will be shaped and crafted into the iron that becomes the chassis, that eventually finds its way to ... well, you know the rest.

True fans? True fans would rush to purchase such a thrilling gift. Your favorite driver will thank you, your collectibles store owner will thank you, but most of all, your dog will thank you.

When It Comes To Marketing, This NASCAR Idea Is A ‘Crock’

I don’t know about you, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting in my favorite chair at home in front of the TV, waiting for that week’s race to get under way, when I gaze at my wife sitting across from me on the couch and say: “Sweetheart, our dog has some serious gas issues.”
OK, that’s not what I really say. What I have often said is this: “As popular as the sport of auto racing in general, and the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series in particular, has become, I wonder why someone hasn’t come up with a good, inexpensive Crock-Pot slow cooker decorated with photographs of many of the sport’s favorite drivers?”

I can imagine you too, as you read this, are thinking to yourself, “Heavens! He’s right. How many times have I started to cook a 6-lb. rump roast, taken down my Crock-Pot slow cooker from the cabinet over the stove (which, as everyone knows, is the universal storage space for Crock-Pot slow cookers), and become embarrassed because it did not feature my favorite NASCAR Nextel Cup driver? Just what kind of fan am I?”

Well, those embarrassing moments are over. Thanks to those wonderful marketing whiz kids at NASCAR, Crock-Pot users everywhere can now cheerfully display the official Crock-Pot Racing NASCAR slow cooker on kitchen counters all across America. For a mere $29.95 ... OK, two easy payments of $29.95 ... OK, two easy payments of $29.95 plus $12.99 to cover shipping charges. In other words, for $70.89. Did I mention that, according to the Web site, the company offers an easy payment plan?

This is good news for our household because, truthfully, to this day we continue to use the same Crock-Pot slow cooker that I received as a graduation gift several years ago. I think I also was given a number of 8-track tapes for graduation as well that year. So no, our Crock-Pot is not exactly new.

It also has only two of the original “feet” remaining on its bottom, meaning that every time my wife and I want to prepare something in the slow cooker, we have to prop up one side of it with a dish towel. Or a handy 8-track tape.
Now, thanks to Rival and NASCAR, we can put that old Crock-Pot out to pasture  and decorate our kitchen with a new, custom-designed slow cooker featuring one of 17 different Cup drivers. The lineup includes Rusty Wallace, who, according to a news release announcing the special edition Crock-Pot, had this to say:

“The Crock-Pot slow cooker is a quality product that can be used at home or at the track. With many styles of cooking, this is a product that fits every category. It’s durable and easy to use and I am glad to be a part of this new, unique NASCAR special edition.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I really doubt that Wallace actually had that to say about his likeness, and the likeness of his car, being plastered all over a kitchen appliance. If anything, it’s more likely that he said something such as, “This Crock-Pot is a real hot rod and it’ll flat cook the you-know-what out of whatever you put in it. If you’re like me, you probably can’t wait to get home and fire that baby up.”

To give it even more of a NASCAR look (as if that were necessary), the temperature knob and settings display are designed to look like – are you ready for this? – a tachometer typically found inside a NASCAR Nextel Cup car. According to the release, these add “additional excitement for fans and help create that genuine NASCAR feel.”

No doubt, these items will literally fly off the shelves. And I urge anyone who does not currently own a Crock-Pot slow cooker, or has to prop up the one they do own with either a dish towel or possibly an 8-track tape, to seriously consider taking out a loan so that you, too, can become a part of this incredibly popular sport.

In NASCAR, It’s Not What You Say But How You Say It

The idea popped up while speaking with a Goodyear representative about the company’s decision to remove several hundred tires from use during Speedweeks at Daytona.

Tires, apparently all from the same production run, had shown excessive wear during practice, so much so that they began coming apart after limited use on the track. The damage to some of the tires was so severe that even hard-core race fans, who have been known to grab anything even slightly race-related, actually ignored several of the large, smoldering pieces of rubber while scouring the garage for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Surprisingly, Goodyear officials did not race into the media center, look members of the press – and a few assorted fans looking for Earnhardt Jr. – in the eye ... and blame the problems on some exotic setup being used by certain teams.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. Instead, they blamed the problem on ... sabotage.

“Earl just hasn’t been the same since his wife up and run off with that door-to-door NASCAR collectibles salesman. We probably shoulda’ kept a closer eye on him, but you know, him being a 30-year employee and all, we just figured he was better off without her.”

OK, so maybe they didn’t blame it on that, either. But the conversation did uncover one of the major problems faced by those who cover the sport.
“So you guys recalled the tires,” one reporter suggested.

“We don’t like to use the word “recall,” the official explained. “They were pulled, I guess you could say.”

Of course, the two explanations mean the same thing. The tires weren’t up to snuff, so they’re no longer in use. Goodyear, like any smart company, simply wanted to avoid casting a negative light on its product. And “recall” denotes a serious problem with a product.

Perhaps that’s the same approach that ought to taken when it comes to NASCAR Nextel Cup competition. A bit of “creative reporting” for the sport may be in order.

How often do we hear or see in print the mention of a driver’s “losing streak?” Makes it sound like the guy has no business on the track, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it sound much better if, from now on, we referred to it as a driver’s run of “non-winning ventures?” His “incredible ability to avoid success” perhaps?

What about those in the spotlight who suddenly find themselves unemployed? We say, “Roscoe Highball was fired by Low-Buck Motorsports.”

Sounds like ol’ Roscoe can’t drive, or change tires, or set up a race car, doesn’t it? But if we say, “Due to a series of performances that failed to meet expectations, Roscoe Highball and Low-Buck Motorsports have decided to go their separate ways,” we don’t place blame on either party. Maybe the two parties decided to “explore other opportunities.” It could be that ol’ Roscoe can’t drive a lick and deserved to be fired. Then again, maybe Low-Buck’s owner expected Roscoe to win the championship despite spending all the sponsorship money on a condo in the Bahamas, a new motorhome and none of it on the race team.

We see smoke pouring from a car’s exhaust on the race track and we say the motor blew. But if we say the car’s engine, “performed flawlessly for 450 of the race’s 500 laps,” we take some of the heat off the hard-working guys back in the team’s engine shop. It didn’t blow; it “ceased to run.”

We say a driver “wrecked” coming out of Turn 4. But did he really wreck? Perhaps he simply “overdrove” the corner.

Then again, maybe he was too concerned about his streak of “non-winning ventures” and his owner’s decision to “go their separate ways” to notice that his tires had been inspected by Earl and the engine was smoking like a freight train leaving Memphis.

As a result, he “overdrove” the corner and now finds himself “exploring other opportunities.”

Or we could just say he wrecked. But where’s the fun in that?