Wednesday, June 03, 2020

COMMENTARY: Nashville Resurrection A Gutsy Ploy That Has Its Risks

NASCAR and Dover Motorsports, Inc. confirmed today that the NASCAR Cup Series will return to Nashville Superspeedway next season; the first major league motorsports event to take place there in nearly a decade.

In its prime, the 1.33-mile concrete oval -- located approximately 35 miles southeast of Nashville in Lebanon, Tennessee – hosted four major race weekends each season, headlined by the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series, along with IndyCar.

While attendance was good early in its 20-year run, ticket sales plummeted dramatically in the late 2000s, prompting Dover Motorsports to close the gates in August of 2011. At least two subsequent attempts to sell the track fell through, with the property being used most recently as an automobile storage facility. The track has not been part of the NASCAR discussion for nearly a decade, until rumors of its resurrection began to circulate late yesterday. In fact, the legendary Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway – located in metropolitan Nashville – has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, with talk of it own return to the NASCAR calendar.

Why the Superspeedway, instead of the Fairgrounds?

The answer to that question is interesting and multi-faceted, and addresses needs both current and future.

Simply put, a return to the Fairgrounds track is not an option without major improvements and renovations to the facility. Those projects cannot be undertaken without a substantial infusion of public capital, and the purse strings are currently controlled by Nashville mayor John Cooper and the Fairgrounds Board; neither of whom have been willing to commit money to the track in the past.

NSS has been silent for a decade.
So the question is not, “Which  Nashville track should we race at in 2021?”

The question is, “Do we want to race in Nashville next season or not?”

Dover International Speedway has underperformed in recent years from a revenue standpoint, selling far fewer tickets than they did even a decade ago. The reasons for that downturn are debatable, but the numbers are not. Dover Motorsports is a publicly held company, and coming back to the investors with a “business as usual” plan for 2021 would have been poorly received, to say the least.

Stockholders demanded change, and change is what they will have.

Dover Motorsports has always had the option to move races within its ownership portfolio, just as ISC/NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. have done in the past. 

The track known as “The Monster Mile” has downsized at least four times in recent years, beginning in the late 2000s when seating capacity was reduced from 140,000 to 113,000 seats. A second reduction in 2014 saw seating cut to 95,500, then 85,000 in 2016. Last year, seating was cut once again, to the track’s current capacity of 54,000.

Nashville Superspeedway currently has 50,000 permanent seats, meaning that Dover Motorsports is effectively swapping one 50,000-seat track for another.

Based on those numbers, there has to be more to the story.

NASCAR will return in 2021.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, sources say that Dover Motorsports’ decision to roll Nashville Superspeedway out of mothballs was made at the behest of SMI, in an effort to convince mayor Cooper and the Fairgrounds Board --  once and for all -- of the value of motorsports in the Nashville market.

The hope is that when NASCAR returns, fans will support Nashville Superspeedway in large numbers, lighting a fire under the politicians to spend the money needed to bring racing back to Music City in a first-class fashion.

That plan, however, is not without its share of risk. If fans fail to respond favorably to NASCAR’s return to the Superspeedway, the message sent to local politicos will be overwhelmingly negative, potentially putting the future of the Fairgrounds oval in jeopardy.

It’s a gutsy ploy by both Dover Motorsports and SMI; one that we will be watching closely in the months to come.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

COMMENTARY: In Today's NASCAR, Is 600 Miles Too Much?

Brad Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night, with the checkered flag falling at an hour when even the most rabid NASCAR fans struggled to maintain consciousness.

Already the longest race on NASCAR’s 2020 schedule, the 600’s traditional “daylight to darkness” format was stretched even further by an hour-long rain delay and an overtime finish. The only thing preventing it from being called a marathon was the fact that it ran longer than two marathons, with plenty of minutes still to spare.

And that, my friends, is becoming a problem.  

In 1960, when Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith first conjured up the idea of a 600-mile stock car race, the premise that “more is better” still applied. An unofficial graduate of the P.T, Barnum School of Promotion, Smith was always on the lookout for something new, something different, something that had never before been attempted, or even imagined. And in an era where 500-mile races were considered “outer limits,” a 600-miler was simply beyond the realm of human comprehension.

Smith’s “World 600” was designed to be the ultimate test of man and machine, and in the beginning, it was.

In its inaugural running in 1960, the event featured eight official caution flags for a total of 45 laps, with at least a dozen other incidents -- crashes and mechanical failures that failed to produce yellow flags -- included in real-time reports of the race. Cars withdrew on laps 5, 6, 27, 85, 138,176, 233, 246, 333, 341, 352 and 365 of the event, with issues ranging from “terminal crashes” to engine and transmission failures, fuel leaks and even a collapsed frame.  A total of 55 cars took the green flag that day, with only 36 of them surviving to see the checkered flag in a race that took 5:34:06 to complete on a day when the ambient temperature reached 89 degrees.

If that sounds torturous to you, consider that this year’s race – with an hourlong weather delay and an overtime finish thrown in for good measure – took almost exactly as long to compete. At a whopping 607.6 miles, Sunday’s marathon was the longest event in the 60-plus year history of NASCAR.  

Keselowski won the Coke 600
What once was designed to be the ultimate test of both man and machine has arguably become neither.

Race cars do not fail anymore. Engines no longer spew their guts on the back straightaway, erupting in billowing plumes of white smoke while chunks of piston and connecting rod cartwheel wildly in all directions. Wheels don’t collapse, tires don’t blow (at least with the regularity that they did in 1960), and it has been decades since the “Reason Out” column of the Monday morning race report contained words like “Fuel Leak” or “Frame Failure.”

In the early days of NASCAR, the question “Will my driver win” could only be answered after first determining “Will my driver finish?” Today, however, there is only one question needing to be answered. Finishing the race is virtually guaranteed, and it’s been decades since fans had reason to worry that their driver’s big lead would be erased within sight of Victory Lane by the failure of a 25-cent junkyard part.

Asked if Sunday’s race had taxed the endurance of the machines involved, defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch responded quickly in the negative.

“Is it (tough) on the cars? No,” he said. “The cars are way too sophisticated now. We could probably go 800, maybe even 1,000 miles on a race car before you’d start to see problems.”

Bruton Smith
He’s right of course, meaning that an extra-distance event like the Coke 600 is perilously close to becoming a game of “wait and see,” with a final verdict that takes far too long to determine. In today’s modern, microwave society where instant gratification is king, “wait and see” is no longer something the average Joe is willing to do.

In the 1960 World 600, second-place finisher Johnny Beauchamp rolled home four laps behind winner Joe Lee Johnson. Sunday, being four laps behind earned you 25th and 26th place at the drop of the checkered flag, as Ty Dillon and Matt Kenseth will unhappily attest.

In 1960, 35% of the field failed to make it to the checkered flag. Sunday, 37 of the 40 starters were still running at the finish, 19 of them on the lead lap. Only JJ Yeley, Bubba Wallace (hub) and Clint Bowyer (crash) fell out of the race before it was over.

Casual fans who sample our sport only once or twice a year – the way many of us experience the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 – have little interest in subjecting themselves to a 4½-hour motorsports marathon, no matter how good the racing may be. NASCAR is currently embroiled in a daily competition for the hearts, minds and attention of the North American sporting public. In recent weeks, we have recently major steps toward winning that competition, thanks to a healthy dose of “outside the box’ thinking.

Let’s not stop now.

Not long ago, the very idea of trimming the Coca-Cola 600 to a shorter, more user-friendly length amounted to nothing less than treason.

“Tradition” was reason enough to leave everything the way it was. If 600 miles was good enough for Grandpappy in 1963, it was good enough for us. Not because it was the right thing to do, necessarily, but because it had always been done that way.

Now, however, the world has changed. Three months in COVID-19 quarantine have allowed many of us to begin examining things from a whole new perspective. We no longer take things for granted, simply because they have always been there.

Wednesday night Cup racing? Why not?

Doubleheader weekends? 500 kilometers instead of 500 miles? Sure! Let’s try it! What do we have to lose?

It is time to ask ourselves whether the Coca-Cola 600 puts NASCAR’s best foot forward the way it once did. Smith’s revolutionary "more is better" concept no longer resonates with a significant percentage of the racing public. With 300 television channels, instantaneous access to the worldwide web and dozens of readily available flavors of social media on-call to entertain us on demand, “too much of a good thing” May finally have become... too much.

We have “been there” and “done that,” and with a major revamping of the 2021 schedule already promised by NASCAR, perhaps it is time to re-examine our sport’s longest race, to see if we can come up with something new, something different, something fun; in a way that will honor the legacy of Smith, the Great Innovator himself.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Puts Necessary Teeth In Its At-Track Protocol

NASCAR issued a new technical bulletin yesterday, putting some teeth in the sanctioning body’s newly announced COVID-19 event protocol. 
Race teams were issued a lengthy list of policies and procedures late last week that will govern their May 17 return to competition at Darlington Raceway, as well as subsequent events. That protocol includes a major reduction in the number of team members allowed to attend each race event, multiple health and temperature checks before, during and after each race, controlled entry and egress from the garage area and mandatory masks and social distancing for all personnel. 
Yesterday, NASCAR made it clear that they take those guidelines seriously, warning that Cup Series personnel who fail to comply can be fined between $10,000 and $50,000. Violations in the Xfinity Series garage will result in fines of $5,000 to $25,000, with Truck Series offenders docked between $2,500 and $12,500.
There is a reason why the powers-that-be in Daytona Beach are taking their new mandates so seriously. 
The world is quite literally watching right now, and how NASCAR and its members conduct themselves in the coming weeks could play a major role in determining whether more states relax their stay at home restrictions and allow NASCAR (and other professional sports) to return to the playing field. 
North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have led the way in that regard, becoming the first states to relax their standards and allow NASCAR racing to resume. When the cars return to the track at Darlington, they will do so as part of a single-day program that includes no practice, no qualifying and no fans in the grandstands. 
It is imperative that our sport get it right at “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” and in the days that follow at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If people play fast-and-loose with the guidelines set forth by NASCAR to keep them healthy, they are quite literally jeopardizing the short-term future of the sport. It wasn’t easy for NASCAR to make its way back to the track, as the first professional sport to return to competition. The necessary state and federal officials have all given their thumbs-up to the plan with varying degrees of trepidation, and not everyone agrees with the decision to do so. The Governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have faced considerable criticism since NASCAR’s plan was announced, from those who consider our return to competition to be premature, ill-advised and even downright dangerous.
If our sport fails to follow the guidelines and procedures set forth – or even worse, returns home from Darlington with new cases of Coronavirus – the Governors of those states can (and will) shut things down again, as quickly as they allowed them to restart.
After Darlington and Charlotte, reliable sources say that additional races are planned for Martinsville Speedway on May 31, Bristol Motor Speedway on June 3, Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 7 and Homestead Miami Speedway on June 14. Those events have not yet been formally announced, as the sanctioning body reportedly waits for the official go-ahead from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, whose timeline for reopening his state is a good deal more conservative than that of his counterparts in the Carolinas and Florida.
What happens in the next three weeks can play a major role in helping him make up his mind.
NASCAR has a golden opportunity to prove to prove to Gov. Northam and others that it is competent, trustworthy and capable of policing itself and keeping its people safe in the midst of a pandemic. Success on that front will almost certainly open additional doors; both for NASCAR and perhaps even society in general. 
For better or worse, our sport has taken on the role of the nation’s guinea pig, and this is a test that we cannot afford to fail.
On the off chance that there is a crew member or two who fail to take that responsibility seriously, the prospect of a $10-50,000 fine should reinforce the message quite nicely.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Virginia Moving To Relax COVID-19 Guidelines

Va. Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said yesterday that he will reopen a select number of businesses and other activities next Friday, May 15, as the first stage of a three-step plan for returning the Commonwealth to a more normal mode of operation. 
COVID-19 hospitalizations are down across the state, and at a news conference in Richmond yesterday, Northam said that he will allow some businesses – including hair salons, restaurants, entertainment centers, gyms and retailers to reopen with reduced capacity and enhanced safety measures in place. 
Businesses and offices will be required to enhance physical distancing and do more cleaning and disinfecting, with employees allowed regular breaks for hand-washing. 
Northam said he expects the first phase of reopening to continue for approximately three weeks, with a subsequent further relaxation of guidelines for social gatherings to follow. Phases Two and Three also will last about three weeks, so long as infection data does not spike. 
Martinsville Speedway: Still uncertain
Northam said yesterday that his executive order closing most nonessential businesses has been extended from May 8 to May 15. He added that a separate stay-at-home order set to expire on June 10 will remain in place, for now. 
While no official announcement has yet been made, NASCAR is believed to be targeting Sunday, May 31 for a 500-lap Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway; the fifth event of its resurrected Cup Series schedule.
Northam did not mention NASCAR during yesterday’s press conference, and the sanctioning body has not commented on what impact his latest announcement might have on that event.
In a related story, a NASCAR spokesperson has confirmed to NBC Sports that voting for the 2021 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame has been postponed. 
Originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 20, Voting Day has been pushed back to a date to be announced;  the latest postponement attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
The 2021 Modern Era Ballot – for drivers whose careers began within the past 60 years – include new, first-time nominees Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Carl Edwards, along with Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine and Mike Stefanik. 
Nominees on the 2021 Pioneer Ballot – for careers beginning more than 60 years ago – include first-time crew chief selection “Suitcase” Jake Elder and car builder/team owner Banjo Matthews, along with returning nominees Red Farmer, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody. 
Voters will be tasked with selecting two Modern Era nominees and one from the Pioneer Era for induction into the 2021 Hall of Fame Class.

Monday, May 04, 2020

NASCAR Announces Rules Updates

NASCAR issued an updated rules bulletin to its Cup Series teams on Friday, implementing several rule changes in the aftermath of the crash that injured Ryan Newman on the final lap of the Daytona 500. 

Many of the changes are safety related, some are not.

Most noteworthy on the list of updates is the addition of a new roll bar support, intrusion plate and upper-main roll bar support on superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega). The additions stem from the damage done to the upper driver’s-side roof area of Newman’s car in that Daytona crash, damage that played a role in him suffering a head injury that sidelined him temporarily from the sport. 

The additional bars will be optional for use on smaller tracks.

NASCAR has also eliminated the use of aero ducts at superspeedways, and reduced the size of the throttle body from 59/64” to 57/64” That change, while relatively small, is expected to decrease horsepower from 510 to around 480 or 490 at the sport’s largest and fastest ovals.

NASCAR will now mandate the addition of a check valve to oil reservoirs and overflow expansion tanks, to prevent spillage in the event that a car overturns, and there will be updated roll bar padding specifications for all tracks beginning June 1. 

They will also require that slip tape be applied to the entire lower rear bumper cover and extension at Daytona and Talladega.

The sanctioning body has lifted the temporary testing ban that was implemented at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, though open, on-track testing is still not allowed in the Cup, Xfinity or Truck Series for the remainder of the 2020 season. Cup Series organizations are allowed a maximum of 150 hours of wind tunnel testing time through December 31 of this year.

And finally, all "new-parts submission" meetings for the remainder of 2020 have been cancelled in the interest of cost-containment, while the minimum number of short block sealed engines allowed per team has been reduced from 13 to eight.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

COMMENTARY: While Imperfect, NASCAR's Return Plan Checks A Lot Of Boxes

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said yesterday that after consulting with NASCAR, track and state public health officials, he believes that  the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway can be run as scheduled on May 25, providing there are no fans in the grandstands and health conditions in the state continue to hold steady, or even improve. 
 North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, who had urged the Governor to designate NASCAR an essential business, called the decision “an important step in bringing our economy back, bringing businesses back, and bringing exciting competitive events back to North Carolina."
As this column hits the Worldwide Web at 9 AM ET Wednesday, there has been no confirmation of NASCAR’s return to competition. But sometime today or tomorrow, NASCAR is expected to announce a schedule for returning to the track, beginning with a 400-mile event at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on Sunday, May 17. That will be followed by an additional 310-mile race at Darlington the following Wednesday night, May 20. The next week will see back-to-back races at Charlotte Motor Speedway; the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, May 24 and another 310-mile event on Wednesday night, May 27. Additional races are expected to be run on Sunday, May 31 at Martinsville Speedway, Wednesday night, June 3 at Bristol, Sunday, June 7 at Atlanta and Sunday, June 14 at Homestead Miami Speedway.
There is a method to NASCAR’s madness when it comes to determining what tracks reopen first, and in what order. North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have relaxed their guidelines to allow racing to take place, a step that not all states have yet been willing to take. 
Another concern is travel. Teams are not looking to put their personnel on airplanes at present, either commercial or charter. Hotels not not an option at present, either, leaving tracks within driving distance -- Charlotte, Darlington, Martinsville, Atlanta, Bristol and Homestead – to carry the load in the short term. 
NASCAR is also restarting its resurrected 2020 season with four consecutive races using the 550-hp, high-downforce aerodynamic package, allowing teams to use cars they had previously prepared for postponed events at Atlanta, Homestead and Texas. With NASCAR teams just now reopening their shops and getting back to work, rolling out short track, superspeedway or road course cars in the next 2-3 weeks would likely be a burden too heavy to bear.
When NASCAR does return to action, what will it looks like? 
Back to business at Darlington?
Expect strict limits on the number of team members allowed at the race track, for at least the foreseeable future. Social distancing and masks will be the order of the day, with personnel checked for fever every time they enter the race track. That’s not a 100% effective means of identifying people infected with the COVID-19 virus, since it is possible to have the virus and still be asymptomatic. But with no failsafe, quick test presently available to identify those with COVID-19, temperature checks are better than nothing at all.
Many -- if not all -- of the rescheduled races are expected to be single-day events, with practice reduced dramatically and qualifying based on either practice speeds or championship points. The idea is to open the garage in the morning, roll off the event in an expedient, efficient manner and send teams home that same night. 
On multi-event weekends, the Gander Truck and Xfinity Series garages are expected to follow a similar plan, opening only on race day. That reduces the total number of people on-site on any given day, reduces the risk of transmission, expedites testing and makes social distancing easier to accomplish.
The Wednesday night races will be shorter in distance – roughly 300 miles – compacting the program, making midweek racing more palatable for the television audience and ensuring that people can get off to bed at a reasonable hour, with their NASCAR fix satisfied. 
Live pit stops are unlikely to take place, with timed cautions allowing tire changes and basic pit service to be performed at a slower pace, before drivers return to the track in the same order they left. That allows teams to reduce their payroll and transport fewer team members to the track. 
It's not a perfect scenario, by any means. 
In a perfect world, we would prefer to return to competition in a “business as usual fashion,” complete with multi-day events, live pit stops and all the competitive whistles and bells we have come to expect from NASCAR. 
Unfortunately, this is far from a perfect world right now, and very few of us are conducting "business as usual."
In the short term – at least for the next two months – NASCAR will have to ease back into action, the first sport to do so. 
It’s not perfect, but it will do as a means to get back on track, get some revenue flowing to race teams severely in need of capital, and get racing back on television for an audience that has been severely affected by simultaneous outbreaks of COVID-19 and Cabin Fever.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

COMMENTARY: Kenseth Is The Right Man For The Job

We learned yesterday that Matt Kenseth will return to the NASCAR Cup Series this season, driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

He replaces Kyle Larson, who was released by the team after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event two weeks ago. Yesterday’s announcement caught virtually everyone by surprise, including Kenseth himself, who admitted thinking his NASCAR career was over as little as two weeks ago. Some are questioning Ganassi’s decision to call upon Kenseth, instead of young lion Ross Chastain, to take over the reins of the No. 42 Chevy.

Why a 48-year old veteran, instead of a 27-year old, up-and-coming youngster?

In a word, stability.

Make no mistake about it, Matt Kenseth is not the long-term solution for Chip Ganassi Racing. Five years from now, we will not be talking about a 53-year old Kenseth laboring behind the wheel of any NASCAR Cup Series race car, much less the No. 42 machine.

Despite yesterday’s announcement, Chastain remains the heir-apparent for that ride; or the No.1 Chevy currently manned by Ganassi’s other veteran wheelman, Kurt Busch. But the timing for Chastain is not quite right, and here’s why.

In the aftermath of Larson’s controversial dismissal, Chip Ganassi has spent the last two weeks in damage-control mode. A significant portion of the last 14 days has been spent patching the hole Larson unwittingly punched in the hull of CGR’s corporate battleship, making amends with understandably jittery sponsors – McDonald’s, Credit One Bank, Advent Health -- and assembling an unassailable list of reasons why they should stay on board, rather than look elsewhere in the sport.

Kenseth fills the bill in virtually every way.

Kenseth fills the bill.
He is a steady, veteran presence who will calm the waters at CGR almost immediately. He is a former NASCAR Cup Series champion who finished Top-10 in the championship standings in seven of his last eight full-time seasons. Other than a somewhat fiery on-track spat with Joey Logano a few years ago – a dispute that lasted exactly two races – he has been essentially controversy-free through more than two decades under the white-hot spotlight of the NASCAR Cup Series.

Ganassi said it perfectly yesterday when he said Kenseth brings “no baggage” to the dance.

Ganassi knows what he is getting with Kenseth. He’s getting a driver who has unfailingly upgraded the performance of every single team he has driven for, from Robbie Reiser to Jack Roush (twice) to Joe Gibbs. He will do the same for Chip Ganassi.

Kenseth arrives at CGR boasting a ready-made relationship with his teammate, having worked alongside Kurt Busch for a number of years at Roush Fenway Racing. Both drivers refer to each other as the best teammate they’ve ever had, and putting that particular band back together makes absolute sense for Ganassi.

The team has petitioned NASCAR for a waiver that would make Kenseth eligible for the 2020 playoffs, and despite having to dig out of a four-race hole, it’s not hard to imagine him satisfying all the requirements necessary for playoff qualification and perhaps even winning a race or two along the way.

Don’t worry about Ross Chastain. He will contest strongly for the 2020 Xfinity Series title with Kaulig Racing, continuing to pad a resume that already ranks him as a can’t-miss star of the future. He remains under contract with Ganassi Racing, and he remains a big part of that organization’s future plans.

But the future is not now.

At this precise moment in time, Chip Ganassi does not have the luxury of thinking half a decade down the road. Right now, he needs to focus on stopping the organizational bleeding, pacifying his sponsors and charting a calm, steady, even-handed course through the remainder of a 2020 campaign that has already seen far too much upheaval and uncertainty.

Matt Kenseth is the right man for that job. That’s my view, for what it’s worth. When we come back, Tyler Reddick.

Friday, April 24, 2020

NASCAR Set For May 17 Darlington Return

NC Gov. Roy Cooper: Not ready for
business as usual

The governor of North Carolina delivered good news and bad news to NASCAR fans yesterday, extending the state’s stay-at-home order through May 8 and failing to take direct action on a request to allow the Coca-Cola 600 to be run as scheduled on May 24 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Republican lawmakers had called on Gov. Roy Cooper to curtail his stay-at-home order and reopen the track, but he chose instead to continue as-is for the time being, while phase-in a more gradual return to normalcy in coming weeks. 

He said, “I’ve been in contact with NASCAR officials, track owners, team owners. They have come forward with a plan to try and protect their employees. So we’ll be coming forward with an announcement on that pretty soon.”

Cooper said NASCAR teams can return to work at their shops, if they maintain proper social distancing guidelines. He added that in his opinion, NASCAR has qualified as an essential business all along, and could have been working with restrictions in place. 

His comments do not necessarily clear the way for crewmembers to return to work, though, since local and county governments may still have restrictions of their own in place.

Cabarrus County – home of Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart Haas Racing, Roush Fenway, Chip Ganassi and JTG Daugherty Racing currently as a stay-at-home order in place that appears to prevent a return to work until next Tuesday. Mecklenburg County (home of Joe Gibbs Racing) amended its order last week to mirror whatever guidelines are put forth by the state, which could conceivably prevent teams from returning until the state order is withdrawn. Neighboring Iredell County currently has no countywide stay-at home order in effect. Adding to the confusion, the Hendrick Motorsports campus is partially located in Mecklenburg County, with most of its race shops in Cabarrus.

Darlington prepping to host
NASCAR's return?
Despite the uncertainty surrounding race shop reopening, the road now appears clear for NASCAR to return to the race track in three weeks. South Carolina’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Duane Parrish confirmed yesterday that Darlington Raceway will indeed host a race this spring.

He did not specify a date for the event, but multiple reports say that NASCAR is set to return to on-track competition at Darlington on May 17.

There is no word at this point on whether the track will run its traditional Southern 500 on that date – rescheduled from Labor Day weekend – or be awarded an additional, second date in an attempt to help make-up one of the race’s postponed by the COVID-19 shutdown. Track President Kerry Tharp has not yet commented on this week’s reports.

After Darlington, NASCAR will reportedly run the Coke 600 at Charlotte the following week, May 24. Prior to that, sources say that CMS could also host an additional, mid-week race on Wednesday night, May 20. Following those two events in Charlotte, sources say the NASCAR Cup Series will travel to Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday night, May 27, completing a run of four races in 11 days.

All events will include a strict testing regimen implemented by NASCAR for team members, track workers and media. Limits would be placed on who can come to the track, with personnel checked for fever before being admitted to the venue. At this time, all events are scheduled to be run without fans in the grandstands.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Could Return Within 30 Days

One week ago, the prospect of a NASCAR race anytime in the foreseeable future seemed to be the most unlikely of prospects. With the country still enmeshed in the COVID-19 shutdown and social distancing the order of the day, NASCAR spent its sixth weekend of inactivity placating itself with iRacing and longing for the day – apparently far in the future – that it might return to the race track in earnest.

Today, a return to competition in the next 30 days appears not only possible, but likely. And as that likelihood increases, a handful of track operators are positioning themselves to the first in line when the green flag falls.

Several Republican members of the North Carolina General Assembly called on Governor Roy Cooper this week to reopen Charlotte Motor Speedway in time for the track’s traditional Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. State senators from Gaston, Cabarrus, Union, Iredell and Rowan counties requested that Cooper green-light the event, while keeping the grandstands closed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Union County Senator Todd Johnson said, “People are going stir-crazy with very few live sports underway. And allowing NASCAR racing in Charlotte would be a good first step toward returning to some semblance of normalcy. Gov. Cooper should permit fan-less racing.”

Cabarrus County Sen. Paul Newton said, “NASCAR has already demonstrated it can safely run races without fans while practicing social distancing.”

Despite Newton’s claim, NASCAR has not yet conducted races without fans in attendance, though the sanctioning body is believed to have a plan in place to do so.

Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said Sunday, “We want to do everything possible to support NASCAR, the dozens of race teams in North Carolina and the fans to get back on track. We will work with the governor, state and local government and health officials to make that happen.”

Charlotte Motor Speedway: First to return?
While Charlotte positions itself to host a possible NASCAR return later this month, sister track Texas Motor Speedway may be poised to deliver a bump-and-run to those plans.

Yesterday afternoon, Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted that he had spoken to NASCAR leaders and that, “They’re working to return to Texas Motor Speedway very soon. I hope to announce the exciting details in the near future. To prevent the spread of COVID19, it will be without fans. But they will put on a great show for TV.”

Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage’s reaction to that announcement was initially lukewarm, at best. He said he was not happy with the prospect of racing in front of empty grandstands, calling it “not a good alternative” while acknowledging that it may be the only option the sport has at the moment.

With 24 hours to mull Gov, Abbott’s comments, Gossage took things to the next level yesterday.  A graduate of the unofficial Humpy Wheeler School of Promotional Excess (that’s a compliment), Gossage now says that not only does he want to host NASCAR’s three National Series on the weekend of June 6, he wants to add IndyCar’s Genesys 600 to the mix, creating a four-division buffet.

A week ago, Gossage turned thumbs-down on the prospect of a standalone IndyCar race at TMS. But yesterday, he said the TV money that comes from the track’s NASCAR weekend would make it financially feasible for him to add IndyCar to the mix, saying, “There is a scale of economics in place.” He explained that support staff -- EMT’s, firemen, ambulance workers, Infield Care Center medical staff, TV and radio personnel – would already be in place and ready to work, making IndyCar a better bet in tandem with NASCAR than it is on its own.

If it happens, Texas’ quadrupleheader would trump Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which announced plans recently to hold a combination NASCAR/IndyCar weekend there on July 4 weekend, utilizing the infield road course for Saturday’s GMR IndyCar Grand Prix and the NASCAR Xfinity Series, followed by the traditional quad-oval for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 NASCAR Cup Series event.

Gossage touting NASCAR/IndyCar
Gossage played it coy yesterday, saying that the decision would be totally up to NASCAR, and that he understands the scheduling challenges that will be faced by the sanctioning body in the coming weeks. But he also made it clear that if the NASCAR/IndyCar quad-bill does not take place on the opening weekend of June, it is unlikely that IndyCar will appear at TMS at all this season, unless the track is allowed to sell tickets and fill the grandstands to help pay the bills.

“If the IndyCar race doesn’t happen that weekend, it would be unlikely to find another date where we could afford to do it,” said Gossage to “I have my fingers crossed we could get it done that weekend and have a great race, which is the norm for the first weekend in June and two weekends after Indy to do it here.

“We have our fingers crossed. NASCAR has eight or nine races they have to reschedule somewhere. It is their intent, as I understand it from my conversations with them, to run the Coca-Cola 600 and then run every week thereafter. It may not suit them to run the weekend of June 5-6 to pair up with an IndyCar race because it works best for us. Time will tell on that one.
“If you are looking at a standalone later in the summer, I don’t see that happening.”

“If the governor had said ‘no,’ there’s no reason to pursue those points until he changed his position,” Gossage said. “But he’s incredibly enthusiastic about it and wants the world to know Texas is pro-business and `What can I do to help?’ What this does is give us the green light to proceed with planning for a race. There’s a lot of details to work out.

“Our new normal is going to be different,” he said. “We’re all going to have to find ways to make it work. It’s counterintuitive to me to promote a race where you aren’t selling tickets to. It’s a strange way of thinking, but it’s our new normal.

“This too shall pass. We’ll get beyond this and down the road, but it’s quite different right now. The good news is during this time when we are all stuck at home, hopefully those TV ratings for races will be way up and that will be a good thing for all of us.”

Gossage said he spoke recently with new Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske, enthusiastically supported the idea of a NASCAR/IndyCar weekend in The Lone Star State and offered his support.

Charlotte and Texas are not the only tracks attempting to jostle their way to the front of the post-shutdown line these days.

Darlington Raceway could end up in the post-COVID-19 mix as well, after South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster issued a new executive order yesterday, putting the decision on reopening the state’s beached back in the hands of local municipalities and allowing the conditional reopening of some retail stores. McMaster advocated a “gradual return to normalcy” that could indicate a willingness to allow racing to resume at Darlington Raceway, with conditions.
Unfortunately, all the governmental cheerleading in the world won’t change one simple fact. Unless and until NASCAR teams are allowed to reopen their shops and put crewmembers back to work, there will be no racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, or anywhere else. In order for that to happen, Gov. Cooper will have to designate NASCAR as an essential business, much like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did for World Wrestling Entertainment earlier this month, allowing them to resume hosting live events in the Sunshine State.
“The governor of North Carolina has not allowed the shops to reopen, so unless and until he does, there’s nothing for us to do,” said Gossage. “That’s Step 1. None of this matters until that happens. They’ll likely need a couple weeks to get cars prepped and ready.”

Until that happens for NASCAR, any talk of returning to the race track is nothing more than a terminal case of putting the cart in front of the horse.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

COMMENTARY: Larson Gets It, But He May Be In The Minority

Personal responsibility may not be dead, but it’s in critical condition these days.

As the last 36 hours on social media will attest, a significant portion of NASCAR Nation has spent much of its time recently looking for someone to blame for Kyle Larson’s current predicament, other than Larson himself.

For those  who have been living under a rock for the last day or two, Larson got himself into hot water Sunday night, using a racial slur – the dreaded n-word – while taking part in an online iRace. His use of that word triggered a landslide of discussion and debate that continues today, with a shocking number of people defending what was said, and blaming people other than Larson for saying it.

Almost immediately, some online experts went to the tried-and-true tactic of blaming the media for Larson’s mess. After all, nobody would have known about his indiscretion if they hadn’t read about it in the newspaper, seen it on TV, heard it on the radio or seen it online. For the record, “the media” did not drop an n-bomb Sunday night, Kyle Larson did. Blaming the media for his current situation is like blaming the mailman for running up your credit card bill.

iRacing is also not to blame for Kyle’s current plight. There were calls yesterday for NASCAR drivers to show support for Larson by boycotting future iRacing events, based on the colossally ridiculous premise that iRacing had sinned by providing the venue Larson used to say what he said.

Some chastised NASCAR for “overreacting” to Larson’s statement and “attempting to destroy his career.” In reality, NASCAR has done nothing more than suspend Larson from a sport that is itself suspended, while providing him with an easy-to-follow road map back into the good graces of the sport. 

All NASCAR has asked of Larson is that he complete a Sensitivity Training course. The last driver to receive such a sanction was back on the race track in two weeks, and there is no reason to think that Larson will be any less successful. He has the ability to attend those sessions, make himself valedictorian of his class and be reinstated by NASCAR, long before our sport returns from the COVID-19 shutdown.

So much for destroying his career.

Larson is in hot water.
People are angry at Chip Ganassi for suspending Larson indefinitely, without pay. Put yourself in Ganassi’s shoes, for just one moment. You are the owner of a multi-million dollar NASCAR, IndyCar and Sports Car racing collossus, with hundreds of employees who depend on you to put food on the table, pay the monthly mortgage and buy little Timmy a new pair of shoes. You have major sponsors, without whom your organization will grind to a complete and total halt, and one of your employees has put that entire process in jeopardy by saying something that much of the country finds extremely distasteful. 

Under those circumstances, doing nothing – saying nothing -- is not an option. If you are Chip Ganassi, failure to take decisive action would be seen as tacit approval, and one can only imagine the outcry that would rightfully result from a NASCAR team owner saying, “We have no problem with our driver using the n-word.”

Amazingly, some people out there are even upset with Larson’s sponsors for withdrawing their financial support. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear; companies like McDonald’s, Credit One Bank, Advent Health, Chevrolet, Clover and Lucas Oil made Kyle Larson a millionaire. They bankrolled his NASCAR and World of Outlaws Sprint Car operations, allowing him to do what he loves at the highest possible level, while asking only that he be a positive representative for their respective brands. 

Larson obviously dropped the ball in that regard Sunday night, putting himself – and by association them – directly in the crosshairs of controversy, subjecting them to scrutiny and criticism that they did nothing to earn and do not deserve.

Can you imagine the response if McDonald’s had not reacted yesterday? Can you imagine the international tumult that would have ensued had the iconic Golden Arches simply shrugged their collective shoulders and said, “Oh well. Not our problem?"

 Those corporations had to react, and they reacted appropriately.

There is a road back...
If you’re questioning the fairness of yesterday’s sponsor withdrawals – and yes, it was a tough 90 minutes or so as they stepped away, one after another – ask yourself this. Is it coincidental that six highly successful corporations all responded to Larson’s comments in exactly the same way? Or was it a justifiable reaction to a serious breach of contract?

Despite the reams of red tape in the standard NASCAR sponsorship contract, the agreement is fairly simple. As a sponsor, we fund your race team at a colossally generous level, and you agree not to make us look bad.

Unwittingly and unintentionally, Larson made his sponsors look bad. It's guilt by association, and all six companies reacted in the best interest of their companies, their stockholders and their employees.

Here’s one of the few bits of good news in this mess. While a significant portion of NASCAR Nation flails its arms angrily in the dark, looking for someone to scapegoat other than the ridiculously handsome, incredibly talented, immensely likeable young man they see on television every Sunday afternoon, Kyle Larson gets it.

He knows who is to blame, and he said so yesterday in a 42-second apology video that was both heartfelt and sincere. He did not pass the buck. He did not blame NASCAR, iRacing, his sponsors or the media. He blamed himself for a momentary lapse of judgement that offended many, impacted thousands of innocent individuals who did nothing at all wrong, and plunged this sport (yet again) into an age-old controversy that has nothing to do with racing and everything to do with race.

In cases like this, it is possible to hate the sin, while loving the sinner. Very few people – and none outside the lunatic fringe – want Kyle Larson to be fired for his use of the n-word Sunday. It may happen, but no one looks forward to that possibility.

Supporting Larson in his bid to be reinstated by NASCAR is possible without defending the action that got him into this pickle. You can like and respect Larson (as I do) while still disliking what he said and the impact it has had on our sport.

I sincerely hope that Larson is able to rebound from this controversy by taking the steps NASCAR has laid out. People have short memories, and Larson will almost certainly receive another opportunity in this sport, whether with CGR or elsewhere.

Larson is in a dark place today, but the sun will eventually rise again. There is a road map back to the good graces of NASCAR, as proven by former series champion Kurt Busch.

Not so many years ago, Busch was as controversial a figure as this sport has ever seen. A negative-publicity generating machine, Busch alienated fans, media, team members and sponsors to the point where he was released by Penske Racing after being deemed more trouble than he was worth.

That experience was humbling in the extreme, forcing Busch to take a then-second tier ride with Furniture Row Racing, which was then  a few years away from its championship prime. Busch humbled himself, paid his penance and began the process of reclaiming both his image and his place in the sport. Today, he is a respected veteran and a stabilizing influence, ironically serving as a teammate/mentor for Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing.

If asked, Busch can draw a map that leads his young teammate back to the good graces of the game. And honestly, Larson is already off to a solid start.

He can remain a vital, important and valuable contributor to our sport. He is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who made a serious mistake that hopefully will not characterize the rest of his life, or the rest of his career.

Kyle Larson is not evil, and he is not a bad guy. He messed up Sunday, making a colossal mess that will take some time to clean up. But we all mess-up from time to time, in one way or another. The key is to learn from our mistakes, and not make the same one twice.

There is opportunity here for both learning and growth; for both Larson and the sport. His road back will not be easy. It will require him to humble himself and do some soul-searching, to determine where that ugly word came from, and how it slipped so easily from his lips.

But let’s be clear about one thing. This week’s controversy has nothing to do with political correctness and nothing to do with Free Speech. It has everything to do with treating your fellow human beings with dignity and respect. 

Intentionally saying things to people that you know to be hurtful and inflammatory does not make you a champion of free speech. It makes you a bully and a boor.

To those who appeared so angrily on social media yesterday, I’m truly sorry that you feel deprived of your perceived Constitutional right to utter racial slurs with impunity. 

I’m sorry you find it unfair that African Americans say a word to each other that we Caucasians are not allowed to use. 

I’m sorry that you have somehow de-evolved to a place where decrying racial slurs makes someone a snowflake. 

I can’t help you with any of those issues, but I know where the answer lies.

It’s right there, in your mirror. Examine it (or not) at your leisure.