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Column/Daily & Internet
Second Place
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com

 

At the heart of it all, it’s not about NASCAR; it’s about racing

            Ever have one of those conversations where what you take away isn’t really what the whole thing was about? I did this week and it made me think. If you read our Mirror Driving column this week, you saw where the meat of the conversation went. But what you missed was the heart of it all. After we finished the week’s topics, the conversation fell to baseball, among other things.
            Baseball was my first love. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love the game. I could read “Yastrzemski” before I read Dick and Jane. When my Dad took me to Fenway Park, its confines were more the field of my dreams than the wide open spaces where I grew up. My first job after college was working in fan relations for the Richmond Braves. NASCAR was that sport that meant we had no fans at the ballpark.
            When the conversation led around to talking of going back to baseball, though, I realized that I don’t want to. I deeply love the game and always will, though it lost a little luster when I lost my Dad-it’s not as much fun to watch without him. But if I had to give up writing about racing to do it, I realized that I don’t think I could. The music of the engines at full song is too strong a siren’s cry for me.
            There are times I hate NASCAR. It’s so easy sometimes to see where things went wrong and what needs to be changed but never will as long as Brian France runs the show. Sometimes, it’s easier to complain than to think. I hate the Chase and I hate the top 35 rule. I really hate the way the Nationwide Series has changed in the last decade. But underneath it all, I still love racing.
            Racing isn’t those things above. It’s not about the stupid playoff system, it’s not about the greed of the television networks. It’s not about Brian France, nor is it about how ugly the car is, nor the thousandth of an inch that whatever car was off last week. Really, it’s not about NASCAR at all, except that NASCAR is its largest national stage. It’s what racing is about that still makes my heart race at the roar that comes after those most famous words in motorsports.
            It’s not about Brian France; it’s about the fans. No, they’re not coming in droves like they once did. But when you do go to the track, talk to the stranger in the old Bill Elliott or Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt t-shirt sitting next to you. Don’t talk about the state of the sport-that fan already knows. Talk about what used to be. Talk about the drivers who have come and gone along the way-not just the Elliotts and Petties and Earnhardts, but about the Benny Parsons, the Ward Burtons, the Ricky Cravens. Talk to the family in the stands whose kids sport the gear of two heated rivals and who don’t care about all that, just that their heroes go fast and make them cheer. Take a lesson from those kids-our heroes still go fast and make us cheer, from the local short tracks to Talladega. As bad as the rest gets, there are 43 men (and sometimes women) out there doing all they can to run fast and turn left.
            It’s not about the racecar; it’s about how racers drive it. No, they’re not stock anymore and haven’t been for decades, unless you go back to the street stocks and four-cylinders at short tracks everywhere. But those men don’t want to win any less and their fans don’t cheer for them any less because the car isn’t what we want it to be.
            It’s not about a driver who “wins too much;” it’s about a kid who had big dreams and, against the odds, made them happen. One who had to grow up too fast because racing takes as well as gives. One who races with a raw, hungry tenacity borne not of arrogance, but of fear. Fear that he’ll wake up and it will all be gone, because under it all he’s still that same kid with the impossible dream. He wins because he’s scared not to win.
            It’s not about the driver who starts and parks, either; it’s about the racer who loves his sport enough to make a few laps in return for jeers and disparaging comments, because he’d rather race those few laps every week than not race at all. He hangs on each week hoping beyond hope that someone will notice him like they did that other kid. He doesn’t get rich, but he doesn’t get bitter, either. He knows what he’s up against. But he keeps trying, every single week, because he’s every bit as hungry as the one who wins too much and every bit the competitor that those other 42 are. He races because he doesn’t know what else to do.
            It’s not about the shill in the television booth, it’s about one of the greatest racers the sport has ever known. Sometimes – a lot of times – that racer gets in the way of the broadcaster. But the real shame is that so many fans don’t know the racer but only the shill in the booth. He drove a racecar once – brasher than anyone, bolder than anyone. He was arrogant and backed it up every step of the way. There was no fear in this one, only the burning desire to be the best - and for a time, he was. The broadcaster and the driver are the same man, but the racer always came first. At least until too many people forgot.
            Really, it’s not about NASCAR; it’s about racing. The sanctioning body has distorted it and bastardized it, but they can’t take the essence of it. They don’t even control much of it-the racing to be found at the local tracks, even the NASCAR-sanctioned ones, remains unspoiled, a window to what racing once was, before the TV contracts and the hype, before the t-shirts and diecasts. At those tracks, as in NASCAR, there’s the kid who wins too much because he’s scared not to. And the one who races the lowliest car because it’s better than staying home. And the guy whose racing days are long past, but who still feels the pang every time the engines fire. There are still the fans, cheering for their heroes who go fast. It’s about the racing. It’s about the fans and the racers who show up every week from the local bullring to the Daytona 500. It’s not about NASCAR; that just gets in the way.
            It’s about guys who go fast and make us cheer. There was racing before NASCAR and there will be racing long after the luster fades and the front office in Daytona is a distant memory. There will be racing as long as there are racers who go fast and race fans who cheer. That’s the heart of the matter. That’s what it’s all about.

A sport in crisis: RPM just one card in NASCAR’s deck

            “The house of cards is finally falling for George Gillett’s Richard Petty Motorsports.”
            These words, written by FOX Sports’ Lee Spencer, began what has become the biggest story in racing this week. As Gillett’s empire crumbles around him, RPM could be the latest casualty for the beleaguered owner of several different properties, including the soon-to-be-divested Liverpool FC soccer club. But Gillett’s financial and personal woes are really just the tip of the iceberg of a Titanic-sized problem brewing for the number one stock car series in America. The team’s potential demise is a microcosm of a sport in crisis, the joker in a NASCAR house of cards becoming increasingly fragile.
            And now, the wind is blowing.
            As ratings plummet and sponsors balk at the cost of entering a sport with a dwindling fan base, NASCAR continues to deny that there is a real problem. CEO Brian France said last week that the “…racing is great, and over time that takes care of things … ultimately the racing, which is phenomenal, will carry the day.” The problem is that right now, the racing isn’t enough.
            France, who took the reins of the sport’s sanctioning body in 2003, has made several major changes to the sport, many of which have been widely unpopular. The ten-race playoff system that NASCAR dubbed The Chase failed to do what was intended: keep fans interested in the final weeks of the season, when NASCAR has to compete for viewers with the NFL. The revamped points system went over like a lead balloon with its audience, especially when the first Chase title went to a driver who had been just seventh in points before the Chase reset, while the driver who would have won under the previous system wound up third.
            And if the Chase wasn’t a bitter enough pill for fans to swallow, NASCAR changed its qualifying system, replacing the old format in which 38 of 43 cars qualified on speed, while the remained of the field was filled with provisional spots, in part to ensure that the biggest names didn’t miss the race. The new system basically flip-flopped the old, in essence giving the top 35 drivers a weekly provisional while requiring the rest of the field to compete for the last few spots on the grid. That system is almost as unpopular as the Chase.
            Finally, there was the four-car rule that took effect in 2010, limiting owners to four teams under a single ownership umbrella. While the rule does allow technical alliances between teams, it did result in the demise of one car. Those restrictions, and several smaller changes that have come down the pike, have done nothing toward their intent – encouraging new organizations to enter the sport on a competitive level.     The small teams that do come in struggle mightily, and new sponsors are nearly nonexistent.
            If RPM folds completely and new teams don’t enter the game, that leaves the Sprint Cup Series with just 29 full-time teams going into 2011. And even if they survive, RPM has stated that they will drop two cars next year. Start and park teams run rampant, but they seem, for the most part, content to stay as such; there is little incentive for them to do otherwise. Many weeks, those teams, had they managed to run all day, would likely often finish little better against the bigger teams than where they did by parking early, and they would have spent more on tires and equipment for a full race, in essence dropping their take-home pay some weeks. The start and park teams are trying to make it in an impossible situation, but many fans despise them. And whether the fans like the teams or not, the concept itself is a blight upon the sport.
            The picture isn’t rosy, and NASCAR, like Nero, continues to fiddle as Rome burns. The racing isn’t going to fix it this time. The stakes are too high, and the fall from grace has been too far, too fast to right, especially with what is, essentially, the status quo. The racing is the same as it was a year ago, but the ratings fall anyway. There is still hope, but it grows dimmer every day.
            One has to examine the picture of ownership in the sport today as well as the sanctioning body, though, in order to gain insight into the near-collapse of both RPM and the sport as a whole. Do that, and a pattern emerges quickly. The teams in the most immediate danger of going under aren’t owned by racers. They were started, or purchased, by investors. George Gillett is the perfect example – if he was in NASCAR for sheer love of the sport, he’s never let on. His team was an investment, made when times were good and business was booming. He teamed with Ray Evernham and later Richard Petty, hiring a string of people who understand racing to run the show, but racing wasn’t his passion. He was in it to make money, not for the joy or betterment of the sport. And he never quite got it.
            On the other hand, Rick Hendrick, by most accounts the most successful owner in the sport for the last twenty years, eats, sleeps, and breathes for his race teams. Hendrick owns dealerships to make money for them; he didn’t build race teams to tap into the bandwagon that was NASCAR racing for much of this decade. He built them because he wants to go racing.
            If you look at the other top surviving Cup teams – Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing – that pattern holds. These owners put everything they have into their cars. Their other ventures support their racing, not the other way around. That’s not a quality that George Gillett shares, and it doesn’t appear it’s one Brian France does as well. France’s grandfather founded NASCAR because he was a racer himself, and saw how organized racing could and should be. He was a harsh dictator, but his zeal was forever rooted in the love of the sport. It’s hard to see any of that same passion in Brian France, who grew up in the ivory tower that Bill France laid the foundation for and Bill France, Jr. built onto.
            Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as passion when it comes to finance, and that outlook gets bleaker every day. It’s no longer the lower-tier teams struggling to find sponsorship, it’s everybody. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon doesn’t have full funding yet for 2011. Only a handful of primary sponsors sign on for a full season anymore, muddying the waters when it comes to filling financial commitments. It now takes several mid-level sponsors to support most teams, and that hurts a rapidly evaporating NASCAR middle class. Where once a single company could sponsor a competitive car for $10 million a season, now it takes two or three at that level. That means that even if there are sponsors to be found, they’re sponsoring fewer races and fewer teams.
            A few years ago, there was so much young talent coming through the ranks of the sport that it seemed as though there was an endless supply of development drivers in the Nationwide Series. That’s all gone now, too. Even if there were Cup seats for the few who are left, there aren’t enough talented drivers ready to take them. As some Cup stars grow older, is there anyone to fill their seats and be competitive? The Nationwide Series has few true development drivers anymore, where a decade ago, it was thriving on this young talent and with teams who chose to run that series exclusively with healthy sponsorship.
            That series is now a wasteland of underfunded veterans running among a few young drivers with nowhere to go. The ones talented enough to move up have no seats to move up into, while the ones not ready stagnate midpack or disappear altogether after a season or so.
            The Camping World Truck Series may just be the healthiest in NASCAR. Sponsorship is hard to come by, but it’s less expensive than a Nationwide or Cup deal, and above all, without the superfluity of Cup drivers rampant in the Nationwide Series, sponsors get the exposure they pay for during the broadcasts. The series is, however, undermarketed and underexposed. Purses are woeful, and the TV package lags far behind the other two series.
            So many factors have combined in NASCAR to create this perfect storm, and before it’s done, the destruction in its wake could be devastating. Some will ride it out, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Short fields could force a renegotiation of television contracts, and as Cup stars retire, the caliber of racing will suffer as there are currently too few talented young drivers being groomed to take over.             The way the sport is being run is turning fans away faster than the excuses they make for the declining numbers.
            At this point, things need to change, and they need to change at the top. The sport’s health is in serious jeopardy. If sponsors don’t get exposure or get priced out of the market for a competitive team, they will leave. If sponsorships can’t be found, more teams will fold. If teams fold, NASCAR’s television contracts are in jeopardy. And if the fans are unhappy with all of this, they won’t watch, meaning the sponsors won’t get their exposure, and the other dominoes will fall. NASCAR is a sport in crisis as a new decade dawns.
            There is hope, but it’s becoming apparent that drastic changes are needed, and to make those changes, there has to be a dramatic shift of thinking from the top down. Mistakes need to be admitted and made right. Richard Petty Motorsports is merely a refection of something much deeper. The grand façade is crumbling around the sport, and the wind is blowing hard on NASCAR’s house of cards. This time, the racing might not be enough to save it.

 

Unqualified failure: Racing isn’t about speed anymore

            While 43 race teams prepared their cars for Saturday’s last practice sessions and Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, what was happening to three other teams told an entirely different story. As race preparations began, the No. 90 Keyed-Up Motorsports entry driven by Casey Mears, the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet driven by Johnny Sauter, and the No. 46 Dodge of Whitney Motorsports and driver Terry Cook were packed up and pushed onto their haulers for the long trip home, having qualified 44th-46th for 43 spots. It happens every week, and it’s never fun to watch. But the slowest cars have to go home, right?
            Wrong.
            The slowest cars didn’t leave Fontana. Mears, the fastest of the three drivers cut out of the field, was faster than five drivers who raced on Sunday, and would have made a field based on speed and not politics.    So would Sauter and Cook, whose runs clocked in at 42nd and 43rd fastest on the day. But politics have shaped qualifying in a sport once shaped by speed, and it only continues to get uglier as time marches on.
            There have been numerous changes to qualifying over the last dozen or so years, all catering more to the complaints of a few than to the good of the sport. In the mid-90’s, qualifying was a bit of a complicated process. On Friday, all entries made an attempt to qualify. The fastest 25 were locked into those positions. Anybody from 26th on back had a decision to make: stand on Friday’s time, or make a second attempt on Saturday. Any team choosing to make a second run would take Saturday’s first practice in qualifying trim, preparing for that qualifying attempt. Everyone else practiced in race trim.
            The cars making a second run would slot in on speed from 26th on back. If the fastest car beat the pole speed, it still started 26th. What usually happened though, was that the cars making a second run slotted in around those who had stood on time. A driver who, in his second run, was slower than one who stood on time but faster than the next one would start between them. Positions from 39th to 43rd were provisional positions based on points and the past champion’s provisional, which was awarded first to the most recent champion.
            But teams complained that this system was unfair to those who chose, or were forced by their first run, to requalify, because it robbed those teams of practice time in race trim, given that the locked in teams ran Saturday morning practice in race trim. So NASCAR changed it.
The next incarnation for the qualifying procedure implemented circa 2001, was simple enough: One round for the top 36 spots, and then provisionals awarded in the same manner as before-by points and past champion’s provisional. That way, the lineup was determined all at once, and everyone had equal practice time in race trim. But under this system, teams complained about the use of unlimited provisional starting spots, thus allowing teams to gain more points and therefore, more provisional spots.
            So NASCAR limited the number of provisionals to six, with the opportunity to earn a handful more by attempting races all season. The complaint here was that teams would wait until many teams had exhausted their allotment and then make races on provisionals when they were clearly not good enough to make the field otherwise. In a final attempt to appease the latest group of complainers NASCAR devised the current system, locking in the top 35 in owners’ points and making everyone else race for what has become only seven other positions, as teams use semi-retired champions to make the field in the 43rd spot, which remains the past champion’s provisional.
            Now, nearly every week faster teams go home while slower teams race. It was especially pronounced at Talladega a few years back, where teams qualifying in the top 10 and top 20 were sent home while slower cars limped in based on past accomplishments. The system is still abused. Teams are allowed to use points that they buy at the end of the season-points the team or driver never earned-to make races over faster teams. This past week at Fontana, Mears outqualified three teams who bought the owner points they used to make the race over him. Sauter and Cook each outran two of those. Only Robby Gordon and Travis Kvapil’s teams actually earned the points they used to vault in over these three teams (while Kvapil did not drive the No. 34 in 2009, the team finished 35th with John Andretti behind the wheel). And that’s unacceptable.
In a sport based on speed, no team who relies on recycling somebody else’s points should be racing. Really, why should anyone be allowed to rest on their laurels and slide into the field based on something they did last week, or even last year? That’s not racing, that’s politics.
            Compounding the problem was the cars who made the race and then promptly parked – that must have been a real comfort, particularly to Mears, whose team says that they will not start and park. It’s unfortunate that trying to accommodate a few teams’ complaints has turned into a joke. There are options, but does NASCAR want to hear them?
            The best option for the sport would be to drop locked in positions completely. This is easily done-if NASCAR kept the past champion’s provisional and perhaps two “regular” provisionals based on points, the field would be set the way it should-by the fastest cars this week. Not last week or last year, but right now.
            But wait-it’s not quite that simple, you say. What if a top driver wrecks in qualifying? Should he go home? Well, yes. And no. So, to fix that, the simplest thing is to go back to the second round of qualifying. That’s right, with a few minor issues, NASCAR had it right 15 years ago, and only got this screwed up by their subsequent changes. But it would be easy to correct those issues. So, if the top 25 in qualifying lock in, and the others are forced to either stand on time or requalify, what about the complaints regarding practice time?
            Easy enough. Simply have one half-hour practice before second round only for those teams who have relinquished their times to make a second attempt, and hold either two practices after the morning qualifying runs or one extended happy hour practice later. The practice issue is solved, and that way, one mistake during Friday’s run isn’t fatal.
And as for the worries that a top driver might still go home - this is racing, not little league soccer where everyone gets to play. If you can’t get the car fast enough to make the race after two attempts, you don’t deserve to race, whether your name is Johnson or Earnhardt, Mears or Sauter or Cook.
            If NASCAR can’t see it clear to base the race on speed, they need to at least look at dropping the number of locked in teams drastically to ten or fifteen at the outside. From there on back, it should be go or go home. Also, the sanctioning body should not allow the transfer of points from one team to another-only the team that earns those points should benefit. If a team goes away, like the No. 44 at Richard Petty Motorsports or the No. 07 at Richard Childress Racing, those points should go away as well. The only possible exception to this should be if a team should choose to transfer those points to the driver’s new team, or, in an even bigger stretch, if the crew goes intact to a new team and wishes to negotiate for them. In other words, only the No. 90 should have even been considered to be eligible to buy the No. 07’s points-as Mears, not Regan Smith in the No. 78 who reaped the benefit, earned the points. But even that’s a gray area.
            Racing is, and should be, a sport based on one thing – how fast a competitor can go on any given day. What he did last week, or last year, shouldn’t be a part of that equation. There shouldn’t be seven spots up for grabs, there should be at least 40, if not all 43. It’s about racing, and regardless of your name or the number of trophies on your shelf it should all come down to one thing. Go. Or go home.

As the Nationwide Series loses its identity, NASCAR stands silently by

            Watching Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race from Richmond was a bit of an eye opener for me. No, I didn’t see some young talent and wonder why a bigger team hasn’t picked him up. I didn’t see a series veteran taking the younger guys to school. Watching the race, I saw just how bad it’s gotten.
            I’m not trying to fool myself; I’ve known for a long time that it’s bad. I guess I just didn’t want to believe it was this bad. Like a case of dry rot in the framework of a house, thinks look OK if you don’t look too closely, but after awhile, you can’t ignore the damage – and by then, it might be too late to fix it.
            Since the Nationwide Series took on its current incarnation in the early 1980’s, there have been Sprint Cup drivers interloping. Just look at the record books: the name at the top of the list is Mark Martin. But what’s different these days is the frequency that Cup drivers are looking to pad their statistics with Nationwide Series wins and championships. That, and the money involved as they do it.
            In the ’80’s and ’90’s, Martin was the exception, not the rule. He ran a good, solid percentage of the Nationwide (then Busch Series) races, but never a full season. And he was different from many of today’s Cup stars running the series in that his Sprint Cup owner was not always the one fielding his race cars. Martin ran for many years for owner Bill Davis, before Davis’ days of moderate success as a Cup team owner. He ran some of his own cars, too. Though Martin began driving for Jack Roush’s Cup operation in 1988, he did not run a single Nationwide race under the Roush banner until 1993. That’s different from today: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski are racing the full Nationwide schedule funded by the same car owners who foot the bill for their Sprint Cup teams as well.
            A fan pointed out to me in the comments to a recent installment of Mirror Driving that Martin, Dale Earnhardt, and a few others had a tendency to cherry-pick races, running only the most lucrative ones in the series. Now, that is true – the drivers picked their favorite tracks, or races that were most worth their while. But what was different was that they never ran for the season title, and they didn’t win every single week. Instead, the regulars won often enough that the series’ integrity was not compromised.
            Even in Martin’s most successful season in the Nationwide Series, 1993, when he won seven times, the race results tell a different story. Not entirely different: half of the first ten races were won by Cup regulars Martin, Earnhardt, and Michael Waltrip. But the other five of those season-opening races were won by Nationwide regulars Robert Pressley, Steve Grissom, and Ward Burton, a trio with just two Cup starts between them prior to 1994. In the next ten races of that year, series regulars won six times, and of the final eight races, they won five. Of 28 races, series regulars won 16 times. That’s just not possible today. In 2009, Nationwide regulars won just five times in 35 tries, with four of those going to Brad Keselowski, running on Hendrick Motorsports’ nearly unlimited budget.
            If a race is a microcosm of a season, the disparity is evident as well. In Friday night’s race, just two series regulars managed to post top-10 finishes among eight Cup regulars. In the spring race in 1993, though Martin won the race, the remaining nine positions in the top 10 were all series regulars. In fact, there were just five drivers who drove Cup full-time in the field, and only Martin and Terry Labonte finished better than 30th.
            Let’s compare that to Friday’s race, where there were a dozen Cup drivers, a full third of the field, and eight of them finished in the top 10. Only two – both running on the limited funding of small-time teams – finished lower than 30th.
            So while many try to bring up Martin’s record numbers, it’s just not the same. Prior to this decade, the series was a viable entity on its own. It crowned a champion from its own ranks (for the record, the 1993 Busch Series champion was Steve Grissom, driving for a family-owned team.) By 2010, the family-owned operation has all but disappeared as they are priced out of the market by Cup owners. Also, the series in those days did not have to rely on Cup companion races to draw an audience. Now, NASCAR claims that they need the companion events and Cup drivers to fill the seats. The unfortunate part is they have thoroughly (and probably irrevocably) destroyed the series in the process of shifting to that philosophy.
            The sanctioning body decided they needed more companion races at about the same time the huge influx of uninformed new fans exploded onto the scene, and demanded to see the Cup drivers because they were the only names these fans bothered to learn. NASCAR raked in the money and threw away their integrity in the process.
            Some Cup drivers were all for it. After all, there was more money, more wins to pad the stat sites, and more chances at winning a season title. And they threw away their integrity in the process as well. They claim to do it in the name of fun and racing, but the racers who really feel that way are fielding late models and dirt cars or running a few Nationwide or truck races at their most favorite tracks. You don’t see them running for a season title in a lower series. Another thing you don’t see is a single Cup champion trying to take the title in what was once a true development series with a few veterans thrown in for good measure. Whether it’s to fulfill some need for attention, to feed a hungry ego, or something else, I do not buy and never will that a single Cup regular is racing for the Nationwide title just for fun.
            It’s a bit of a paradox, because while I don’t think that any one driver winning “too much” is the least bit detrimental to the Sprint Cup Series’ overall health, I firmly believe that Sprint Cup drivers winning all the time in Nationwide is killing the series. If it hasn’t gotten to the point of no return, it probably will soon. NASCAR had better start rowing as hard as they can in the other direction.
            The Nationwide Series can be a healthy series on its own, with its own stars and its own champions. NASCAR’s refusal to make rules to ensure that and to market the series as such are puzzling. I have had a series veteran tell me point blank that the veterans look at the championship they once fought for “meaningless,” and a development driver who should be a series star, and who is driving for a Cup owner, tell me before the season even started that he had no realistic chance of winning the title. That’s not a healthy series, that’s a dying series, and NASCAR continues to turn a blind eye. I find it telling that while NASCAR.com lists Cup Statistics, I had to search high and low to find something as simple as the all-time winners’ list for Nationwide. Even NASCAR’s own media site doesn’t have them; there’s a menu for Nationwide statistics, but only a dead link for what should be relevant information.
            A dead link for a dying series. A sad irony for another casualty of NASCAR’s popularity and the monster it created.