NMPA
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

Hide the tattoo …

Practically anyone with even the slightest interest in NASCAR will stop what they are doing – and this includes those folks who are waiting in line for tattoos and various body piercings – to gladly tell you why this is the most important time of the racing season.

          I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s probably the most important time of the season because only a handful of races remain until the field is set for the annual Chase For The Restroom After The Race Has Finally Ended. Actually, that event took place earlier this season, following the Nextel Cup Series’ longest race, the Coca-Cola 6,000 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Or maybe it was 600. To be honest, most fans fell asleep and don’t remember how many miles were involved.

          It is true that when this year’s race began, driver Ken Schrader was 50 years old, and by the time he returned home, he was 51.

          So why is this the most important time of the year for race fans? It’s because this is the time of the year that’s known as “Silly Season,” a time when drivers and owners and sponsors begin to realize that months of hard work, long hours and – more importantly – millions of dollars, are headed down the nearest toilet because they don’t have something called “chemistry.” And because no one has enough sense to shut off the water valve.

          “Chemistry” is a term race teams like to use to explain why they are winning races even though, when pressed, they’ll admit they don’t have the foggiest idea.

          Generally speaking, “Silly Season” usually begins sometime after the Daytona 500 and runs through – and this is just a rough estimate – mid-November. Of course, there have been years when it’s lasted longer. But that was before NASCAR’s “Modern Era,” which according to the record book, began shortly after the invention of television and pizza on a stick.

          It’s at this time of the year when drivers who find themselves in “less than competitive” equipment begin to quietly send out “feelers” to gauge interest from other team owners in the garage. Usually the drivers do this by text messaging their resumes onto the large Nextel Vision screens in the infield. Right between other important messages such as: “Jef Gordun Rulz!” and “Phi Mu Gals Luv Jr.!”

          An example of “less than competitive” equipment would be: an AMC Pacer.

          An example of a “feeler” would be: “Even though money isn’t important, how many millions of dollars would you be willing to pay me to crash your team’s cars, thereby getting your sponsor invaluable time on network TV? Money not being an issue, of course.”

          Team owners aren’t blind, though. They know this is going on. So in order to make sure they aren’t caught off guard, they send out feelers, too.

          An example of a feeler from a team owner would be: “What’s the longest you’ve ever driven without running into anything?”

          Sponsors aren’t exempt from “Silly Season,” either. After investing what could best be described as “enough money to choke a horse” in a particular team, a sponsor must decide if it would be best to follow its driver to a new team, or stay with the current team and hope the new driver can provide the “chemistry” necessary to get to the winner’s circle.

          An example of “enough money to choke a horse” would be: Bill Gates’ weekly salary.

          Possibly those with the most invested in all of this, though, are the race fans. Instead of getting the den painted in their favorite driver’s colors this summer, a potential move to another team could put off the project for months. Which, as you surely have realized, could be well after the “Sizzlin’ Summer Paint Sale” has ended.

          As a result, some fans have begun sending out their own feelers.

          And example of a fan feeler would be: “If I get your car number tattooed on my shoulder and you switch teams, will my HMO pay for the laser surgery to have it removed?”

          As I said, it’s an important time in the racing season. 

Even Kahne not immune to oddities of Michigan

          They called it a race, but what it was for a number of competitors was a game of “What Can Go Wrong Next?”

The race winner collects the check and tells everyone how good his car was. He used to get to kiss the beauty queen, too, but that perk – or rather peck – has gone by the wayside in today’s world of NASCAR.

          Even Kasey Kahne, the youngster with the heavy right foot and smile that makes ’em swoon back home in Enumclaw, Wash., wasn’t immune to the oddities of stop No. 15 on the Nextel Cup Series schedule. Believe it or not, he had his chances to let this one get away, too.

          Well before the race started, the 26-year-old Kahne found himself playing catchup. But in the end, a crash in practice the day before Michigan’s 3M Performance 400 proved only to be a minor hurdle, and a lost lap early in the race didn’t turn out to be a nail in the coffin, either. Sure Kahne’s win came with the aid of rain, which shortened the race by 71 laps. But don’t go believing this one was handed to him on a soggy, gray platter. His three other wins this season (at Atlanta, Texas and Charlotte) came on dry ground. Or in this case, asphalt.

          Kahne was fast when it counted, and that’s what counts the most. He passed Reed Sorenson for the lead on lap 117 and for the next 12 laps watched in his rear-view mirror as everyone else waged their own battles.

          But what about those others, the handful of guys among those not-quite-so-fleet 42 left trailing in the wind? Didn’t some of them have their chances, too? Sure, but at the end of the day, most of ’em looked as if they left the dinner table before the main course was put on the table.

          It’s true that, more often than not, a driver doesn’t win a race so much as everyone else loses it. And there were more than a few of those at Michigan.

          Tony Stewart, fourth in points heading into Michigan, went from professional racer to part-time bodyshop employee when he climbed from his car to help beat out dents after a run-in with Jeff Green. Stewart eventually returned to the track, but his hopes of scoring his second win of the season were scattered somewhere in Turns 3 and 4, swept away with the debris from the crash.

          Jeff Gordon led the most laps (50). A handful of three-wide laps with, among others, teammate Jimmie Johnson, though, left Gordon more than a little perplexed. And mired a bit deeper in traffic than he wished.

          Gordon eventually suggested his team relay a message to Johnson, urging him to bring it on. “I thought we were teammates,” he radioed his crew.

          Kurt Busch, still trying to find his footing at Penske Racing South, finally strung together back-to-back top-10 finishes, coming home ninth after a runnerup effort at Pocono. But Busch had to battle back after pitting under green for what was thought to be a flat tire while running second.

          And a chink finally appears to have surfaced in the armor of Mark Martin’s Roush Racing team. Unable to make his way through the field, what few positions Martin did seem to gain on the track were often lost in the pits. It was enough to push the veteran to voice his complaints after yet another stop had cost him several positions on the track.

          “It’s the same thing,” he told his crew via radio. “Back of the pack, move up, back of the pack.”

          Matt Kenseth had an incident on pit road, then spun on the track. Kyle Busch was flagged for speeding on pit road – again. At one point, a lone shock absorber lay in the middle of the track, right at the entrance to pit road.

          For many, it summed up the day perfectly, an odd day for nearly everyone. 

Upside-down cars and feuding girlfriends

Texas Motor Speedway (the “Great American Speedway,” we’ve been told) can be counted on for a lot of things. Close racing may or may not be one of them.

          It just depends. There have been really exciting races here. And so-so races as well.

          But that’s no different from practically every other track hosting Nextel Cup races these days. Or, for that matter, those that don’t hold Cup races – such as Green Onion Speedway located in Rutabaga, Ala. They have close races there. And not-so-close races.

          Excuse the frivolity. No, sadly there is no Green Onion Speedway. In Rutabaga, Ala., or Tater Patch, Oklahoma or anywhere else, as far as I know. It’s just that when the series travels to Texas, the darndest things always seem to happen.

          We won’t go back and rehash the problems with the rain, the racing surface, or the traffic woes that plagued the track those first, uh, 10 years. All that’s in the past. After a decade of racing, I can honestly say that this time around, it didn’t rain, there were no problems with the race track – that an ace welder couldn’t fix – and the only traffic woes seemed to be suffered by competitors trying to get around lapped cars.

          But while the racing action on the track seemed interesting enough, it paled in comparison to what was going on elsewhere.

          I’m telling you, expect the strange when taking in a race here. Where else have you seen a television network’s cutaway car – which is used to help explain highly technical aspects of the sport (“This here’s a wheel!”) to the uninitiated – fall off its base and wind up on its roof? Daytona? Nope. Las Vegas? Nope. Texas? Of course.

          NASCAR’s official race report listed nine cautions. But, trust me, there were 10. They just didn’t put out the yellow flag when the 2006 Ford Fusion used by Fox got momentarily airborne in the infield, right there in front of the “Hollywood Hotel,” and rolled over on its top.

          It happened around lap 129. No yellow flag, but officials did quickly cover the car with a black tarp. Out of embarrassment. Or because they didn’t want other networks to see what kind of chassis setup and shock package they had under their car. You know how cutthroat those TV folks can be.

          But that wasn’t all. Oh no. Other tracks might have been content with such antics, but not Texas Motor Speedway (the “Great American Speedway,” we’ve been told).

          Some tracks have been able to boast of post-race confrontations between drivers. Others have been the sites of heated exchanges between crew chiefs. There’s even been, allegedly, a throwdown between rival corn dog vendors at a certain facility.

          But only Texas, of course, has been able to provide fans with a showdown between, uh, significant others.

          Before the Fox cutaway car went belly up, literally, Kurt Busch made contact with Greg Biffle, and, as a result, Biffle’s day came to a halt against the Turn 3 wall. After leading 45 of the first 57 laps, he finished 42nd, and wasn’t happy. Neither was Nicole Lunders, Biffle’s longtime gal pal, who promptly marched nearly the length of pit road to converse with a certain female atop the pit box of Busch.

          Somehow, those crafty pit reporters that are always on top of a story along pit road during each race didn’t get an interview with either party after the chat. So we don’t really know if they were trading recipes or barbs. But it didn’t go unnoticed.

          “The 2 car [of Busch] took out the 16 [of Biffle], and Biffle’s girlfriend is down in the 2 pits hollerin’ at ’em,” someone from one outfit noted on the team’s radio.

          “I’ll bet she’s mad as hell. The question is, how far did she have to walk to get there?” came the reply from the team’s driver.

          Remember, it’s Texas Motor Speedway (the “Great American Speedway,” we’ve been told). Stuff like this might seem out of place elsewhere. But after 10 years, it’s right at home around here.

NASCAR a fond piece of home for U.S. sailors

Forget “Top Gun.” Forget the ridiculous notion that on some military base, located somewhere in the continental United States, there’s a brash young hotshot wannabe pilot hitting on an attractive female with a lame attempt at a Righteous Brothers tune. Because that’s Hollywood hokum. This is reality.

          This is the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, a little sliver of Americana tucked away on the southern end of the island of Cuba.

          It’s Saturday night at the Acey Deucy Club. Time to get loose, kick back and relax. On the television over in the corner, the green flag has just dropped on the Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

          The jukebox is blasting out AC/DC, there’s a wicked game of eight-ball going on over at the pool table by the front door, and patrons are lined up two-deep at the bar. The night started slow – or perhaps our original group of five started early – but either way, the activity in the joint has definitely picked up since the sun went down.

          “I’ve been here 11 months now,” Doug Kontra says, “and there are plenty of race fans, a lot more than you see here tonight. We’ve connected, some of us, but not everyone. Because we work so much down here. We’re on 12-hour schedules. ... It’s just hard for everyone to connect on your time off.”

          Kontra, 38, has one more year to complete a 20-year hitch in the Navy. A boson mate, he says he’s “seen the world. Just like the ad says.

          “The only place I haven’t been,” he says, “is Australia.”

          The next place he hopes to see? “Daytona. My ultimate goal is to go to Daytona and Bristol,” he says, adding he and a few friends have attended races at Martinsville and Dover.

          “I like football, but it’s not the same. There’s more of an association for the fans with the military tie-ins in NASCAR than in other sports. It gives us someone to cheer for, whether it’s [Joe] Nemechek in the Army car or Ken Schrader and the Air Force. And you’ve got Busch teams sponsored by the Marines and Navy and Coast Guard. So it’s pretty cool.”

          Kontra’s happy to talk racing but does so while keeping an eye on the television at the same time. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, he lets out a cheer any time the red No. 8 Chevrolet makes a pass. And he’s only too happy to taunt a fellow race fan, and professed follower of Jeff Gordon, any time the No. 24 Chevy falters.

          Byron Easley, the Gordon fan, gives as good as he takes, the good-natured ribbing flowing back and forth across the crowded table as the race wears on.

          “I’m just really happy that you guys came down here,” Easley says during a break in the action on the track. “I like Joe [Nemechek] and the fact that he’s driving the Army car.”

          Nemechek is scheduled to arrive the following day, part of a goodwill package from Goodyear, which has contracts with the Navy and NASCAR. Busch Series driver Ashton Lewis is on the guest list as well, and once they touch down, they get a quick tour of the base and nearly everything that goes on here on this piece of real estate.

          But that’s later. For now, Nemechek’s behind the wheel of the MB2 Chevrolet, headed toward a ninth-place finish. It would be his first top-10 of the year. Ironically, his car carried sponsorship from a company instead of the Army for the Charlotte event.

          Patrons continue to flow in and out of the bar and the crowd around the single pool table is constant. With the race winding down, a whoop goes up and Kontra is on his feet. Gordon’s colorful Chevy is headed to the garage, the engine having expired with 33 laps remaining in the 334-lap race.

          Easley wanders over to see what the fuss is about. Shrugging his shoulders, he turns and heads back toward the bar.

          Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t win – that honor goes to Kasey Kahne – but his fourth-place finish does put him fifth in the Chase For The Nextel Cup.

          “I just love it,” Kontra says. “I love my job, I love my country, and I love NASCAR.”

‘Headless’ Harry Gant

It’s the quiet ones who have the stories to tell. And Harry Gant, at 66 still looking as if he could climb behind the wheel of a race car and compete with the best of them, had a couple to share.

          Gant, one of five inductees welcomed into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame April 27, seemed genuinely awed to be chosen along with a group that included Janet Guthrie, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, Jack Roush and Dale Earnhardt. That the man presenting him on this star-filled night was Ned Jarrett, a two-time champion, made it even more special.

          It was Jarrett, after all, who “discovered” Gant during a time when the youngster was working days building houses and spending his evenings racing at North Carolina’s Hickory Speedway, among other places. Jarrett was then owner and promoter at the popular 4/10ths-mile dirt track.

          And it was Jarrett who helped Gant secure his first Cup ride, with legendary car owner Junie Donlavey in 1973 in the Truxmore Industries No. 90 Ford.

          “We’d won the track championship that year [at Hickory],” Gant said, “and Ned said, ‘Hey, do you want to go down and run a [Cup] car at Charlotte in October?’”

          With the local racing over for the season, Gant figured why not?

          “We practiced and we finished real good in Junie’s car,” Gant said of his 11th-place debut. “And we ended up running again at North Wilkesboro [the following year]. I think we finished pretty good there, too.”

          In fact, Gant finished ninth, scoring the first of what would be 208 career top-10s. But for whatever reason, the owner and driver went their separate ways.

          “I still kid Junie to this day,” Gant said. “I tell him, ‘I waited all these years and never did get a phone call back from you.’”

          On hand to celebrate his induction were several close family members, including Gant’s mother, Carmen.

          “My mom, when I first started racing, she wouldn’t go to the races over at Hickory Speedway when it was a dirt track,” Gant said. “My uncles and everyone got together and made her go there one night. I was running a ’53 Plymouth.”

          The car, Gant recalled, was geared a bit too high for the track. The quickest remedy of the day, he said, was to put smaller tires on the rear of the car. And the smallest tires that would fit came off a nearby trailer. As luck, bad luck that is, would have it, on the first night his mother came to see her son race, Gant’s fortunes took a turn for the worse.

          “She was watching the race and that right rear tire broke off, the wheel broke off, and the car turned over seven times,” Gant said.

And that was just the beginning. As his car continued to roll across the track, Gant’s helmet flew off, exited the car and went bouncing down the track. His left arm, he said, was “flopping out the window.”

Worse, he added, was, “They thought my head was still in my helmet.”

Today, Gant can laugh about it.

“My mom, she didn’t go back anymore,” he said. “She wouldn’t ever go back to the races anymore.”

Well, he admitted, that last part wasn’t exactly true.

By 1982, Gant was running the Cup series full time for car owner Hal Needham. And his mother had decided to return to the track to see her son compete. At Martinsville that year, she was on hand to see Gant win his first Cup race.

“Then she decided she’d go to Charlotte in October that year,” he said, “and I won my second Winston Cup race, my first speedway race.

          “But the thing about it, she didn’t go enough. ... She quit going after that. I said if she had kept going, I could have maybe won more races.”

          More wins did come his way, eventually, including 18 total at the Cup level and 21 in the Busch Series. He was also the 1985 IROC champion.

          “Harry grew up in the small town of Taylorsville [N.C.],” Jarrett said in introducing Gant, “and he never got very far from his roots. He’s a family man and has carried those values with him all his life. ... He always kept himself in tip-top condition. Today, I believe he could still get out there and get the job done on the race track if somebody would call him.”

          Just don’t expect his mom to tag along.