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Kenny Bruce, SceneDaily.com

FORMER ENGINE BUILDER LOU LAROSA SAYS SPORT NO LONGER EXISTS

Lou LaRosa doesn’t have an ax to grind.

“I’m real thankful for the time I spent in [the sport] and the wonderful people that I got to meet,” LaRosa says.

As head of the Richard Childress Racing engine department during the 1980s, LaRosa was a key player in the program that carried Dale Earnhardt to two of his seven championships (1986-87). It’s also worth noting that he was building engines for team owner Rod Osterlund when Earnhardt won the NASCAR Cup series’ rookie-of-the-year award in 1979, as well as the following year when Earnhardt notched his first Cup title.

But at the close of the 1989 season, after three championships and a truckload of wins, Lou LaRosa walked away.

The reason, he says, is simple.

“I don’t like the people in racing any more,” LaRosa says. “You can print that, I don’t care. I don’t think much of the racing. I wouldn’t call it racing. All the cars are the same. When you can get a template that can fit a Toyota, a Dodge, a Chevrolet and a Ford ... [and] I know the engines are all about the same.”

LaRosa’s not alone in his beliefs. Although NASCAR has gained unimagined attention during the past two decades, there are those who denounce the direction the sport has taken. Popularity has come with a price, and some – LaRosa included – believe that price was too steep.

“You need an attorney to figure out how to drive a car today,” he says. “You can’t pass under the [yellow] line, you can’t speed down pit road, you can’t pass if the sun is out on the East Coast. It’s all just stupid rules.

“We used to have three people in the engine room and maybe eight total. Now you’ve got teams with 400-500 people. That’s not a team, that’s a factory. And it’s all about money.

“You’ve got people, and I’m not going to mention names, but they couldn’t build a model car. The people that were in [the sport] were wonderful. Bud Moore, Junior Johnson, the Pettys in their heyday, the Wood brothers. They were innovative people, and I’m not talking about cheating. I’m talking about innovative people that knew how to build a motor and get the most out of it. Build a car and get the most out of it. Now you’ve got engineers, and it’s become like Formula One. It’s an engineering exercise.”

LaRosa, a former engine-builder-of-the-year award winner, was the jackman on three Unocal Pit Crew Championship-winning teams. He was successful. His engines were top of the line. By most accounts, he had it made.

And then he walked away.

Eventually, he landed in tiny Stuart, Va., just a short drive from Martinsville Speedway and for decades home of the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team.

“I love living up there,” he says. “ It’s not that crowded. The people are real country.”

The Brooklyn native has found peace in the hills of the Old Dominion.

And he’s not totally out of the engine-building business. Most days he can be found at Patrick Henry Community College, where he is heavily involved with the Motorsports Technology Program. He clearly enjoys passing on his knowledge and passion for engines to a younger generation. He’s just no longer enthralled with NASCAR.

“There is no racing today,” he says. “It’s a fraud, and that’s why they lose fans. That’s why people could care less about it.

“People I speak to don’t even watch it on TV anymore. It’s very boring; it’s all the same racing. You’ve got little punks in there driving. Print this. You’ve got little punks in there driving, 18- and 19-year-olds, and they didn’t pay their dues.”

Great drivers, he says, are those people who “spent 10, 11 years in a Late Model Sportsman that was just like a Winston Cup car. Or in a Modified. And they worked they way in, and they had years of experience. Now you get a little punk, they pay them millions of dollars. These people have got motorhomes, they’ve got servants, they fly to races. They’re not racers. They’re just show-boaters, they’re show-business celebrities.”

LaRosa isn’t complaining, just speaking from his heart.

“I did my time. I feel thankful that I met the great people that I did.,” he says. “NASCAR was a great organization; it was the best stock-car racing in the world, and they just turned it into nothing now. It’s nothing. I wouldn’t get out of the electric chair to watch it.

“I guess that won’t get me in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, will it?”

Lou LaRosa doesn’t have an ax to grind. Just some very strong opinions about a sport he once loved.

A sport, he says, that no longer exists.

MORE EVIDENCE THAT IN NASCAR, WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING

If winning were truly everything in NASCAR, then Kyle Busch and Steve Addington probably wouldn’t be saying their goodbyes after Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway.

The driver/crew chief combination won 12 times in less than two full years together. Jimmie Johnson, the barometer by which all things NASCAR are measured these days, won 13 races during the same time.

And it’s worth noting that there are more than a dozen full-time drivers with fewer career wins and a whole lot more starts competing in the series today.

In other words, Busch has been one of the hottest drivers in the series during the past two years.

But Johnson’s in the Chase For The Sprint Cup for the umpteenth time, Busch isn’t, and Addington is left to wonder if life off the road is in his immediate future.

Dave Rogers, a bright, capable crew chief for JGR in the Nationwide Series, will take over for Addington following the Talladega race, and if he isn’t concerned, he should be. Busch can, and likely will, win a slew of races. But the ultimate goal isn’t to win races anymore – it’s to win championships.

And in today’s NASCAR, you can’t win championships if you don’t qualify for the Chase.

Strange as it may seem, though, it’s only in NASCAR that you can succeed without winning. After all, clearly it isn’t a requirement that you win races to make the Chase. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya are proof that going winless through the first 26 races but finishing well enough, often enough, can lock in a spot in the top 12. To the best of my knowledge, their respective crew chiefs haven’t been chastised, threatened or, as will be the case with Addington, replaced.

Perhaps that was the problem with the Busch/Addington combination. Perhaps Busch won too much. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it. But what if he hadn’t won four times, but managed to qualify for the Chase? It’s not that farfetched to presume that had that been the case, it’s likely Addington wouldn’t be in line for a new job description.

But, as it turned out, Busch didn’t, falling just eight points shy of the final qualifying position for the Chase.

Does the Chase carry that much clout?

Unfortunately, it seems the answer is yes. The act of winning races, by itself, is no longer enough to guarantee job security.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Addington’s days were numbered regardless, but there certainly wasn’t any evidence to support that prior to the start of the Chase.

The bottom line is that there are no guarantees. At one time, winning races used to be the goal of every team. Now, it’s just one of the goals, and a lesser one at that.

That can’t be good for the sport, and it certainly wasn’t good for Addington.

DESPITE GOING FAST, MARK MARTIN’S IN NO HURRY

DARLINGTON, S.C. – From the “everything old is new again” files ...

Mark Martin wins another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race – not just any race mind you, but the much revered Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Big deal you say? Why does everyone insist on mentioning the fact he’s 50, you ask?

Well, consider this: Most of the drivers Martin whipped Saturday night at Darlington likely won’t be racing when they turn 50. A good many of them might not be “up on the wheel” when they turn 45. At least that’s what they tell us. Never mind the fact that we’ve yet to see a 40-something toss in the towel and say “So long, fellas, it’s been a thrill but I’m outta here.”

OK, Rusty Wallace stepped out at 48, but the list is a short one.

Martin’s a throwback and you can say he’s a guy who can’t keep his word and that’s all right. He knows he planned to run a scaled-down schedule when he and team owner Jack Roush parted ways back in 2006. He knows those plans didn’t exactly turn out the way he had imagined. Oh, they turned out the way he hoped, probably deep down, but just not the way he planned.

So now Martin, who has two wins this season, has accomplished something he hadn’t done since 1999. Multiple wins in a single season. More like multiple wins in a portion of a season. After all, it’s early yet and plenty of races, and opportunities, remain.

But he won’t go there. Look ahead? Martin’s not looking any further ahead than the next weekend. No need to, he says. The next one’s the most important one, and as for the rest? Well, all in good time.

Martin tried to walk away. Still raced but had time to do other things, his things, too. And that was nice, he says. It was necessary, he tells you. But he also realized that he still wanted to race, he still wanted to go fast and really, there was nothing else out there that could fill that void.

So when car owner Rick Hendrick called and said, ‘You know, we could put you in the 5 ride,’ or something to that effect, Martin decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was like getting a call to play for the New York Yankees.

Martin wanted to prove that he could still win, and now he has. Twice. He doesn’t want to prove that he can win a championship – something that has eluded him despite all those near-misses and close calls. He came back because he wanted to win. And nothing more.

It’s an odd way, perhaps, to approach a season. Everyone, from his crew chief to the guy who pulls the tear-offs from his windshield during those frequent pit stops – hopes to win a championship. It is, after all, the ultimate goal.

Maybe so. But it’s a goal Martin refuses to acknowledge. Maybe he’s been scarred by previous failures. Maybe he has learned that there is a better way. Experience will do that.

But it’s the only way Martin knew how to approach this season. One race at a time.

Speed may be king in NASCAR, but it also pays to be patient. And Mark Martin may be the most patient of them all.

JEFF GORDON LOOKING FORWARD TO A LITTLE FAMILY TIME

FORT WORTH, Texas – What’s next, bump stops for the pedal car?

“She has this little train set that she really likes,” Jeff Gordon says of Ella, his 22-month-old daughter “and I really felt like it needed updating. This one was pretty simple.”

It’s what happens when fathers become involved in their children’s fun and games. A simple oval train track layout soon became a twisting road course.

That’s part of the reason Gordon says he’s looking forward to spending the upcoming off week in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series schedule at home with his wife, Ingrid, and daughter. Toy tinkering aside, however, there’s a more immediate matter that requires his attention.

The four-time champion rolls off from the No. 2 position today when the Samsung 500 gets under way at Texas Motor Speedway. Career pole No. 68 has been put on hold – Gordon trailed surprisingly-fast David Reutimann by five one-hundredth’s of a second here on Friday after qualifying was completed.

Blink-of-an-eye stuff. No matter. Gordon’s more focused on where he finishes today than where he starts. That’s a big part of the reason he’s sitting atop the point standings six races into the 2009 season. A big part of the reason he’s been atop the standings since the season’s third week.

Gordon’s fashioned four top-five finishes in his last five starts, and placed fourth or better in his last three. He’s led laps in all but one race this year, including 147 a week ago at Martinsville.

His Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet has been, for the better part of the past dozen years, frequently spotted in victory lane. Must have felt like it just drove itself there, without any prodding, during those times when the wins were rolling in like waves on a beach.

They came at tracks that are no longer on the schedule (North Wilkesboro and Rockingham), at least one track that has always been on the schedule (Martinsville), and those venues most recently added to the schedule (Kansas, Chicago). And everywhere else in between.

Then, late in the 2007 season, the wins stopped. Checkered flag no. 81 came at the same track, Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where he had won his first Cup race 13 years earlier.

Forty-seven races have come and gone since that last win. Gordon, 37, knows the tally. He also knows where he’s won and where he hasn’t, he says, because he’s constantly reminded of it by those of us in the media. Those places where he has yet to win are easy enough to recall, in part because they are so few in number – Homestead-Miami and here.

Not that he hasn’t almost pulled it off. At Texas last fall, Gordon finished second to winner Carl Edwards. It wasn’t a close second, mind you – eight seconds plus was Edwards’ winning margin – but it was second nonetheless. He has a half-dozen top-five finishes in 16 career starts here.

But nearly as many finishes of 25th or worse.

Second place doesn’t come with a trophy though. Or bring an end to lengthy dry spells.

Still, 47 isn’t much of a winless streak by Cup standards. Nearly a dozen full-time drivers in today’s field have gone longer without a win.

But when winning seems to come so naturally, when it comes so often and for so long, well ...

Maybe it ends here today. Maybe another string of wins is just around the corner. Or, maybe it isn’t. Gordon’s been around long enough to know the difference between having a chance and having no chance. And right now, he says, he likes where his team is headed.

Regardless of the outcome, by nightfall he’ll be headed home. A little girl and her toys are waiting.

NASCAR MUST FIND WAY TO KEEP CARS FROM GOING AIRBORNE

Just because NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide series are in Richmond this weekend ...

Just because it’s been a week now, and seriously, we need to move on, folks ...

Just because no one was killed ...

Forget about Talladega. Forget about Matt Kenseth’s violent crash on the backstretch that took place on Saturday.

Forget about Carl Edwards’ Ford launching off the track and into the fence, then slamming back onto the racing surface on Sunday.

Forget about the fans seated in the grandstands who were injured by debris. At least one, smeared in blood, left on a stretcher.

It’s a new week. We’re off to Richmond. Forget about it.

Like hell I will.

In spite of all the safety measures that have been implemented in the sport in recent years, NASCAR has yet to devise a way to keep race cars from becoming airborne. And that’s wrong.

Yes, the catch fence did its job in keeping Edwards’ car from sailing into the grandstands. Yes, Kenseth and Edwards escaped injury.

That’s fantastic. Some folks might call it a miracle. But the fact remains. Two cars came off the ground. One nearly made it into the
grandstands.

It didn’t, though, and because of that, there are folks who believe such situations aren’t an issue. Well, it’s not an issue, I guess, until someone loses his or her life.

Are we willing to sit on our hands and wait for that to happen?

If it wasn’t an issue, why were roof flaps mandated in 1994?

If it wasn’t an issue, why are all Cup cars required to compete with restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega?

Wrecks are going to occur in racing. They always have, and they always will. No amount of legislation by the sanctioning body is going to eliminate that. NASCAR does have a tremendous amount of influence, however, on what happens, or more importantly what doesn’t happen, during those wrecks.

It’s a sad truth that many of the safety measures found in the sport today came about only as a result of serious injury or death. NASCAR can’t anticipate every situation, every set of circumstances, but it has proved time and time again that when a problem has surfaced, it has been willing to develop, or help develop, measures to make the sport safer for everyone involved. Window nets, roll bars, fuel cells, inner liners, full-faced helmets, HANS devices, SAFER barriers ... the list goes on and on.

This is no different, and the sooner officials admit that, the sooner something can be done.

No, it’s not a problem at every race track. That, however, doesn’t make it any less of an issue. Should we ignore the danger because “it only happens at a couple of tracks?” Of course not.

How many times does a car have to come off the ground, tumble violently across the asphalt and shatter into hundreds of pieces before the realization that a problem exists hits home? Five? Ten? Until the unthinkable occurs?

Yes, racing is a dangerous sport. Drivers choose to get behind the wheel. Fans choose to attend the events. But does that mean we should turn a blind eye to the danger? Does that mean if an issue arises, we should just shake our heads, say “That’s too bad” and move on?

That’s not an answer. That’s ignorance. And it has no place in NASCAR.