Monday, February 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: NASCAR "Changes The Culture" With New Penalty Structure

For the first time in decades of NASCAR racing, crime no longer pays.

NASCAR announced last Monday that effective immediately, winning cars that fail post-race inspection with a Level 1 or 2 infraction will be stripped of their victory and placed last in the finishing order. The offending team will forfeit all points, prize money, stage points, playoff qualification and other benefits of the win, with the second-place finisher inheriting the victory.

The announcement ended a baffling era in the sport’s history where drivers could win with illegal race cars, but forfeit only a portion of their ill-gotten gains.

“We are changing the focus and changing the culture,” said NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell. “If you're not legal, you don't win the race.”

O’Donnell said teams have known for the last six months that the sanctioning body was moving in this direction, and that every team owner was in favor.

“We are tired of being the `We’ll work with you’ guys,” said NASCAR Sr. Vice President of Competition Scott Miller. “We need for these things to not be a story. We have to stop all of this.”

Under this new system, the winner, second-place finisher and a random car will undergo a 90-minute, post-race NASCAR inspection at the track, rather than being taken to the NASCAR R&D Center as in past seasons. When found to be in violation of the rules, the offending team will be sanctioned on the spot, eliminating the need for additional mid-week penalties. NASCAR also said that crew chief and car chief suspensions will be unlikely, going forward.

Very few drivers commented publicly on NASCAR’s announcement prior to their arrival in Daytona Beach, but a handful of crew chiefs spoke in favor of the change.

Childers: "I'm in favor."
“I’m in favor of it,” said Stewart Haas Racing crew chief Rodney Childers, who was suspended by NASCAR for an illegal rear spoiler on driver Kevin Harvick’s Ford late last season. “If I know for sure that nobody else is working outside the rules, I don’t have to do it, either.”

Whether or not NASCAR is required to overturn a victory this season, the mere threat will hopefully be sufficient to change the culture of the sport. No longer will NASCAR be known as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares. No longer will we be forced to explain to casual and non-fans how a competitor can drive a blatantly illegal race car to Victory Lane, then keep the win. We will also no longer spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on pins and needles, waiting for the weekly round of penalty announcements that – more often than not – eclipsed the weekend’s racing as the number-one topic of water cooler conversation.

Last week’s announcement marks the end of a policy first implemented by NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. in the early 1950s. At that time, France believed that fans should leave the track knowing who won the race, no matter what might occur in the post-race tech line. In today’s internet-based world, however, information travels at the speed of light, allowing fans to learn of post-race technical violations before making it to their cars in the speedway parking lot.

NASCAR’s “no DSQ” policy was an outdated relic from a day gone by, and made NASCAR the only motorsports sanctioning body on the planet unable to inspect its cars in a timely fashion, and unwilling to invoke a competitive death penalty on those who break the rules.

“Inspection is going to be open all the time,” promised NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller last week. “We will be inspecting cars all the time, (not) just during the official inspections. When we find something wrong… if you bring illegal parts and we make you take them off, you’re going to be issued an L1 penalty right there at the race track.

“We have to stop this. We tried to do it a little softer, but it didn’t work. So we’re going to try a new approach. You can’t unload your car with illegal stuff on it – period.”

Monday, January 14, 2019

COMMENTARY: So Long, J.D. Gibbs

J.D. Gibbs passed away late last week, at the much-too-young age of 49.

Gibbs, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Joe Gibbs Racing and son of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, had battled an unspecified degenerative neurological disease for the last four years.

J.D. played a major role in the formation and operation of JGR, and when his father accepted a second stint as coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins in 2004, 23-year old J.D. was an obvious choice to take the competitive helm. As team president, he oversaw a quartet of championships in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Bobby Labonte (2000), Tony Stewart (2002 and 2005) and Kyle Busch (2015). He signed Busch and Denny Hamlin – then a 23-year old Virginia Late Model racer – who went on to win 78 premier-series races for the team, and counting.

He spearheaded JGR’s transition from General Motors to the Toyota camp, and made the call to shut down the team’s engine shop and go all-in with TRD power, a decision seen as pivotal in the current success of both organizations.

Gibbs was instrumental in JGR's success
Perhaps more important than his on-track results, however, was the personal impact he had on JGR’s drivers, crewmembers and employees, as well as everyone he contacted within the NASCAR garage. Literally thousands of condolence messages flooded social media in the hours following his death, all remembering a man whose ready smile and constant words of encouragement enriched the lives of all who knew him.

Busch eulogized Gibbs via Twitter, writing, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to succeed and for guiding me along the way. We won together and we lost together, but you had a way to light up a room and bring peace to all. It was truly an honor to call you a friend. Love you JD.”

Hamlin wrote, “His car. His number. His signature above my door. I will always be grateful for what his family did for mine and the opportunity he gave me 14 years ago. Now more than ever #doitforJD.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France said, “We were privileged to watch J.D. Gibbs grow within the sport, displaying an endearing personality, a keen eye for talent and the strong business acumen that helped grow Joe Gibbs Racing into a preeminent NASCAR team.”
Hamlin was a J.D. Gibbs find
Doctors were never able to pinpoint a specific diagnosis for the disease that ultimately claimed J.D. Gibbs, saying only that it was caused by “head injuries likely suffered earlier in life."

He played defensive back and quarterback at the College of William & Mary from 1987 to 1990, competed in motocross, enjoyed a brief, 30-race career as a NASCAR driver and enjoyed mountain biking and snowboarding. There were a few hard hits along the way, with Gibbs once saying of his athletic prowess, “as an athlete, I was one heck of a team president.”

That kind of self-deprecating humor was typical of J.D., and just part of what made him one of the NASCAR garage’s most beloved individuals.

By late 2015 – less than a year after it had first revealed itself -- J.D.’s disease had impacted his speech, cognition and ability to process information. His visits to the race track became less frequent, and while still gregarious and outgoing, he often struggled to remember names. There were occasional “good days,” when his face would brighten at the recognition of an old friend, but while those days gave us all hope, they gradually became fewer and farther between.
One more Victory Lane appearance
J.D. Gibbs did not so much pass away as slip away; the victim of a terrifying process that carried him a few inches further away with each passing day. Like two roads that separate slowly over many miles, J.D. became less and less a part of our daily lives, until eventually, he was gone.
Gone, but not forgotten.
Asked frequently for updates on his son’s condition in recent years, Joe Gibbs would reply simply, “pray for us,” an admission of the astronomical odds stacked against his son, tempered by his steadfast belief in the higher power that watches over us all.
Coach never missed an opportunity to remind everyone how important his eldest son had been in the success of his legendary organization.

"I want to make sure that everybody here (understands) J.D.'s input with our race team,” said Gibbs late last season. "Lots of times, I get put in a position where I get to represent our company, but I just want to reflect on everything that J.D. has done, and the fact that he's not with us (here today)."

Joe and youngest son Coy will continue to run the race team, as they have for the last three years. Wife Melissa and their four incredible boys will mourn the loss of their husband and father, as we will bemoan the loss of our dear friend.
Rest in Peace, J.D. It won’t be the same without you.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Patricia Driscoll Convicted On Multiple Federal Charges

Patricia Driscoll
Patricia Driscoll was convicted today in Washington DC Federal Court on five counts of first-degree fraud, wire fraud and income tax evasion.
Driscoll, the estranged former girlfriend of NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, was found guilty on two counts of tax evasion, two counts of wire fraud and a single count of first-degree fraud after being accused of misappropriating at least at least $500,000 earmarked for the Armed Forces Foundation to assist military members and their families.
Driscoll was convicted of using those funds to purchase jewelry, alcohol and other personal items, as well as to pay personal attorneys’ fees and expenses for her security firm, Frontline Defense Systems. Statements from the AFF – which shut down as a result of the controversy – set the amount of misappropriated funds at more than $900,000.
Three additional federal counts of mail fraud and interfering with the administration of IRS laws were dismissed.
Driscoll and Busch endured a highly publicized breakup in 2014, when she accused the former Monster Energy Cup Series champion of domestic abuse. No charges were filed, however, with prosecutors citing a lack of evidence.
In a biography on the Frontline Defense Systems website, Driscoll described herself as spending “the majority of her career in the narcotics and intelligence world.” During her relationship with Busch, Driscoll characterized herself to him and others as “a paid assassin,” displaying photos of deceased terrorists and claiming responsibility for their deaths. Busch had claimed she once returned from a clandestine nighttime outing wearing a trench coat over a blood-stained evening gown.
In an attempt to land a television reality show based on her life, Driscoll created and starred in a video called Pocket Commando, which showed her firing a series of high-caliber weapons and saying, "There's a lot of sensitive things that I work on. Most of them, you're never going to see."

At trial, Driscoll’s attorney blamed Busch for her legal problems, saying he had turned the NASCAR community against her. 

Today's wire fraud and first-degree fraud convictions each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, with the minimum sentence for her tax evasion conviction set at five years.

Her attorney says Driscoll will appeal.

Monday, November 19, 2018

COMMENTARY: Logano Deserves Your Respect

Joey Logano won the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series championship last night at Homestead Miami Speedway, and some folks are pretty darned unhappy about it.
A sizable contingent of NASCAR fans seems to view Logano as Public Enemy Number One these days, after he became embroiled in high-profile, on-track skirmishes with Martin Truex, Jr. and Matt Kenseth in the last couple of years. The Connecticut native is an easy target at times; running every lap like it’s the last lap; contesting every position and attacking each pass like it was for the lead. He approaches every race like the Homestead Miami finale, as if the championship were on the line. He is not afraid to apply his front bumper to the task for which it is was intended, and after doing so, offers none of the empty apologies many modern-day fans – and sadly, even competitors – seem to expect.
That earns Logano a load of disrespect from a fan base that somehow continues to lionize the late Dale Earnhardt for a virtually identical on-track approach.
Logano is an old-school racer who boyish looks and ever-present smile belie a ferocious on-track approach that gives no quarter and asks none in return. His allegiance is to his team and his sponsors, not those delicate souls who have lately come to view NASCAR as a new-age “safe place” where no one should ever get their feelings hurt or experience unhappiness or disappointment. His attitude mirrors that of his fellow Nutmeg State product – the late NASCAR Modified star Ted Christopher – who once famously said, “I didn’t come to race track to make friends. I brought my friends with me.”
Last week, Logano was named 2018 Comcast Community Champion of the Year, honoring him for contributing more than $2.7 million to hundreds of children’s-based charitable organizations through his Joey Logano Foundation. All that is largely ignored by the haters, of course, who pray nightly for the kind of bare-knuckled, fender-banging finish Logano provided earlier this year at Martinsville Speedway, then somehow proclaim their hatred for the man who answers those very prayers.
Since the checkered flag flew on the 2018 season last night, social media has been awash in temper tantrums thrown by people unhappy with yesterday’s Homestead Miami Speedway verdict; angry over a win accomplished on the sport’s grandest stage, under an unimaginable degree of Game Seven pressure and claimed – in case you failed to notice -- without putting as much as a single tire mark on any of his fellow competitors.
Logano and his Shell/Pennzoil team pitched the motorsports equivalent of a perfect game last night in South Florida. Their Ford Fusion was pitch-perfect, running among the Top-5 throughout the championship-deciding Ford EcoBoost 400. Their in-race adjustments were spot-on, in marked contrast to some of their fellow title contenders, who struggled to adapt to a changing race track. Their pit stops were flawless, routinely gaining Logano multiple positions on a night when a single spot ultimately decided the title.
The number-one pastime across NASCAR Nation today seems to be revisionist mathematics; the ill-willed tallying of championship points according to outdated procedures from a bygone era in an attempt to declare Logano “Not My Champion.” It is sadly reminiscent of what similarly disgruntled souls do when they disagree with the results of a presidential election these days; minus the window smashing, primal screams and mass cry-ins.
It is so hypocritical, and makes so little sense. Joey Logano won the 2018 champion by doing what stock car racers are supposed to do; racing hard, coming from behind and refusing to yield in the face of adversity. For that, he deserves your respect, not your disdain.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

COMMENTARY: Latest NASCAR Penalties Highlight Need For Change

NASCAR announced today that three of the top four finishing cars in last Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway had failed post-race technical inspections at the sanctioning body’s Research and Development Center in Concord, NC. 

Winner Kevin Harvick received an L1 penalty – the most severe in the sport -- for illegal modifications to his car’s rear spoiler. Runner-up Ryan Blaney’s machine was found with unapproved door front crush panels and fourth-place finisher Erik Jones’ car had infractions on the body and package tray that allowed air to flow illegally from inside the car. Both are  grounds for L1 penalties.

Harvick lost 40 championship driver and owner points, leaving him just three points above the cutoff line for advancement to next weekend’s season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Additionally, he will be without the services of crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith for the remainder of the season. Blaney and Jones each forfeited 20 points, with their crew chiefs fined $50,000 and their car chiefs suspended from the next two races.

This is not the first time NASCAR has busted race winners or other front runners with illegally modified cars. It happens all too often these days, and every time, the topic of water cooler talk changes instantly from what happened on the race track to what happened at the R&D Center.

There are a number of problems with that scenario and -- fair warning -- you’ve heard them all before.

NASCAR does itself a grave disservice in times like these by refusing to reveal the specifics of the violations. Were they something that was done quickly and clandestinely during a pit stop? Or were they something more nefarious, requiring weeks of planning and preparation at the shop, before somehow avoiding detection during multiple pre- and post-race inspections?

Harvick now in playoff danger
By not providing specifics, NASCAR allows – even encourages – fans to engage in wild speculation, ranging from a simple strip of tape to a complex, mechanical device that alters the angle and effect of the rear spoiler. Nothing good comes from speculation, and a simple explanatory statement from the sanctioning body could eliminate days of needless conjecture, with one stroke of the pen.

NASCAR also suffers from the timing of announcements like today’s. Ours is the only professional sport that throws a flag and walks-off penalty yardage, 72 hours after the game has ended. The fact that Kevin Harvick was the winner on Sunday, still the winner on Monday and STILL the winner on Tuesday… only to forfeit some of the proceeds of that win on Wednesday is patently inexplicable to casual fans. 

The optics are all wrong.

Today’s announcement – and others like it in the past – raise questions about the efficacy of the numerous at-track inspections conducted during race weekend. Granted, NASCAR is the only professional sport that includes a 3,400-pound mechanical device with literally thousands of moving parts. But if we’re missing serious violations like this at the race track – repeatedly -- perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to make fundamental changes to the inspection process, adding a lengthier, more stringent post-race examination for front-running cars.

Unfortunately, the problems do not end once the infraction is found.

NASCAR  is also the only professional sport that allows competitors to keep a significant portion of their ill-gotten gains. Harvick’s Stewart Haas Racing team earned a total of 60 championship points Sunday, with what NASCAR says was a seriously non-compliant race car. They were penalized only 40 of those 60 points, however, walking away with the equivalent of a 17th-place finish and -- more important – allowed to maintain their position just above the playoff cut line. For the record, NASCAR’s Penalty Grid calls for a deduction of between 10 to 40 championship points for an L1 penalty of this type, meaning that the sanctioning body dropped the heaviest hammer currently allowed by law. Based on the number of L1-level violations we’ve seen this season, however, perhaps it’s time for a new law and a heavier hammer.

Based on the current, widespread lack of compliance in the garage, It may be time for NASCAR to sharpen its teeth to a finer point and take a more meaningful – and painful -- bite out of crime.

A word now, if I may, on the view being expressed in some corners that teams should not be penalized for  infractions that evade detection earlier in the weekend. That makes as much sense as saying, “If you make it out the front door of the bank with a bag full of money, the cops should not be allowed to arrest you 20 miles down the road.”

If you catch your teenage daughter climbing out of her bedroom window at 2 AM, the excuse that, “I did it last night and didn’t get caught” is not going to hold much water. Right is right, wrong is wrong and illegal is illegal, no matter when you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

The saddest part of today’s announcement is that it once again reinforces NASCAR’s image as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares. In the next four hours, we will hear from a plethora of NASCAR fans espousing such tired old lines as “you’re not cheating until you get caught,” and “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”

I continue to hope for a certain degree of hypocrisy on the topic, hoping that NASCAR fans apply a higher standard of conduct to themselves and their children than they do to their favorite sport.

Monday, October 29, 2018

COMMENTARY: Give The People What They Want

NASCAR has a lot of challenges on its plate these days. 

In-person attendance is declining, television ratings are on the wane, the cost of competition has skyrocketed and there is weekly infighting among drivers, owners and the sanctioning body over the future direction of the sport.

These problems are multi-faceted and will not be easy to solve. But in recent weeks, it has become abundantly clear that part of the answer is a major infusion of short track and road course racing to all three NASCAR National Series schedules.

In the 1980s and `90s, NASCAR could do no wrong. It was a “hot button,” trendy sport, with new fans flocking to speedways and television ratings skyrocketing. Tracks sold seats faster than they could build them, and new speedways sprung up across the country like daffodils in the spring. Unfortunately, most of those new venues were carbon copies of each other; 1.5-mile, moderately-banked triovals more suited to the construction of luxury suites than the generation of great racing.

Over time, these so-called “cookie cutter” tracks have fallen out of favor with fans, who have lost interest in the type of ho-hum, aerodynamically dominated competition they seem to produce. Veteran fans watched with dismay as traditional speedways fell by the wayside, abandoned in favor of newer, shinier venues in more romantic locales.

In recent years, however, the tide has begun to turn. Everything old is new again, as the fickle favor of fandom swings back in favor of short track and road course racing.

Martinsville delivered. Again.
The reason for that change is simple. Over the last 5-7 years, the best racing in NASCAR has invariably been found on road courses and short tracks. Tired of “aero push” and eight-second leads, fans have once again begun to embrace the fender-banging, frayed tempers and last-lap drama found at venues like Martinsville, Watkins Glen, Bristol and Sonoma.

They are voting with their wallets and credit cards, and NASCAR is beginning to listen.

Speedway Motorsports, Inc. President and COO Marcus Smith has led the charge, constructing the revolutionary ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway and spearheading talks to return NASCAR racing to the venerable Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Multiple sources say that the Music City oval could host a NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series doubleheader as soon as next season, with a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race – possibly the All-Star Race – to follow.

Behind the scenes, those who run the sport say a major shakeup is coming in 2020, when the current round of sanctioning agreements expires and the table is clear for a much needed, chassis-off makeover.

In recent seasons, “major change” has consisted of going to the same old race tracks on slightly different weekends. In 2020, however, it appears that NASCAR is finally prepared to upset the apple cart and make major, substantive changes. Venues that have traditionally hosted a pair of MENCS races each season may see their calendars trimmed to a single event, while tracks that struggle to sell tickets and produce competitive racing are jettisoned from the schedule outright.

It’s time to shuffle the deck, forging a new season slate based on competition and excitement, rather than stagnant, decades-old relationships that long ago fell out of favor with fans. All three National Series schedules – Cup, Xfinity and Trucks – would benefit greatly from an infusion of short track and road course excitement, and it’s time to push those particular buttons.

It’s time to take all three series back to the Nashville Fairgrounds. It’s time to excise Indianapolis Motor Speedway – a race with all the excitement of a drug-induced coma – from the Xfinity Series schedule, in favor of a trip back across town to the refurbished Lucas Oil Raceway Park. It's time to run a Wednesday night Cup race at Gateway Motorsports Park, just for the hell of it. It’s time for the Truck Series to return to its roots, running the bulk of its events on tracks of one mile or less.

The excitement generated at the Charlotte ROVAL and Martinsville in recent weeks is difficult to ignore.

And it’s time for more.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Survive And Advance" Takes SHR To A New Level

SHR started up front...
Stewart-Haas Racing took teamwork to a new level Sunday, dominating the 500 from start to finish.

SHR drivers Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola swept the top four spots in qualifying Saturday, and only an ill-timed, late-race caution prevented them from finishing in the exact same order in Sunday’s race.

The Ford teammates implemented their organizational marching orders to perfection, slipping into single-file formation at the drop of the green flag and working together in a similar fashion on restarts to claim the top four finishing positions in the each of the race’s first two stages. Steadfastly refusing to budge off the advantageous inside line and resisting the urge to race each other for position, Busch, Bowyer, Harvick and Almirola were able to pull away from their less-organized competition, dominating the way few ever have in NASCAR’s notoriously tumultuous restrictor plate era.

Not since Hendrick Motorsports posted a 1-2-3 finish in the 1997 Daytona 500 with drivers Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven has an organization so dominated a race on one of NASCAR’s largest tracks.

...and finished up front at Talladega.
Stewart Haas was poised to sweep the first four finishing positions Sunday, holding a comfortable lead over the remainder of the field until Alex Bowman walloped the Turn 4 wall and brought out the caution flag with just three laps remaining, sending the race into overtime. Already pushing the envelope on fuel (as was virtually the entire pack), SHR’s master plan suddenly turned sour. All those laps at the front of the field left the Stewart Haas contingent shorter on fuel than the competition. Harvick was forced to pit road by fluctuating fuel pressure under caution, only to have Busch sputter dry while leading on the final lap. That handed the win to Almirola, with Bowyer finishing second; both of them virtually on fumes.  

“I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing,” said a disappointed Harvick afterward. “(My car) sputtered on fuel pressure and dropped down in the red. (We) did the right thing coming in and pitting and not taking a chance. Sometimes it doesn’t all go as planned.”

SHR’s competition director Greg Zipadelli told reporters that he preached cooperation in the days leading up to the race, after disappointing results the previous week at Dover.

Almirola advances to the Round of 8.
“Last week, we didn’t do a great job of executing as a group,” admitted Zipadelli. “We could have had the same result. (This week), everybody said, ‘We need to help each other, work together and show everybody that we are teammates.’ I felt like our cars were strong enough that if we did that, we would have a very strong day.

“Honestly, we pay these guys every week to be selfish, take care of themselves, run as hard as they can, finish as high as they can (and) win as many races as they can,” he added. “But everybody gave and took today. We came in here with (Almirola and Bowyer) needing stage points and everybody executed perfectly. At the end of the race, (it was) ‘Let’s do everything we can to help each other.’

“Everybody knew the circumstances.”

Almirola’s second career MENCS victory locked him into the playoff Round of Eight with one race still remaining this weekend at Kansas Speedway. Harvick is virtually assured of advancing as well, hovering 63 points above the cutoff line. Kurt Busch is 30 points to the good, with Bowyer now 21 above the cutoff.

“We’re good to the next round points-wise,” said Harvick afterward. “That was really our goal coming into today; to try to do everything we could to put ourselves in a position to go to Kansas and just race. That’s great for the team, to give the guys a mental break in this part of the season (and) just go to Kansas and be able to race the car and not have to worry about points.

“We did a great job today and wound up in a good position for Kansas. It’s all about survive and advance at this point.”

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR's Glorious Lunatic

Barney Visser is an American success story.
Fresh out of High School in the late 1960s, the Colorado native volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, spending 21 months as a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. After being discharged, he briefly attended the University of Northern Colorado before losing his GI scholarship and going into business manufacturing pillows in the 1970s.
His “Pillow Kingdom” expanded to eight stores by 1977, giving birth to a “Big Sur Waterbeds” brand that expanded into an 85-store franchise by the mid-1980s. Waterbeds soon led to conventional mattresses and furniture, and Visser’s Furniture Row and Denver Mattress companies now operate more than 330 stores in 31 states.
Visser took a similarly nonconformist approach to motorsports, racing at Colorado National Speedway before forming a NASCAR team with local modified driver Jerry Robertson in 2005.

A self-funded, single-car team owner based far from NASCAR’s North Carolina epicenter, Visser was given little chance of success when he arrived on the scene. With Robertson at the wheel, Visser struggled to gain traction at the sport’s highest level, making just 11 combined starts in what are now the NASCAR Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup Series, with a best finish of 22nd.

Despite their competitive struggles, Visser continued to prop up the team with millions of dollars of his own money each season. Robertson, Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer and Joe Nemechek all spent time behind the wheel in FRR’s first three seasons, without a single Top-10 finish to their credit. Youngster Regan Smith experienced similar struggles in 2009 and 2010, before the team finally broke through with an upset victory in the legendary Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 2011.
Since then, Furniture Row has added 17 more MENCS victories – all by Truex – in addition to qualifying for the postseason playoffs five times, with Kurt Busch (2013) and Truex. They reached their peak last season, with a series-high eight wins and a championship-clinching win by Truex at Homestead Miami Speedway last November. Teammate Erik Jones claimed MENCS Rookie of the Year honors, capping a season Visser compared to “climbing Mount Everest.”
Unfortunately, while the view from the top of the world’s highest peak is unquestionably spectacular, very few climbers feel the need to risk their lives by ascending it twice.

A lack of sponsorship forced Visser to park Jones’ No. 77 Camry at the end of last season, taking FRR back to its roots as a single-car entity. And when 5-hour ENERGY informed the team last month that it will not return in 2019, it left Visser with a $10 million capital deficit to overcome, and only 60 days to do it. Coupled with a Joe Gibbs Racing technological alliance that was reportedly set to triple in price next season, the financial writing was on the wall.

Visser announced yesterday that his championship-winning team will not return in 2019, saying, “The numbers just don’t add up. I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. I’ve always felt that we could be a competitive team and run for a championship, even when it seemed like a pipe dream to many racing insiders. To continue with anything less than a competitive team would not be acceptable.”

Furniture Row Racing authored NASCAR’s ultimate Cinderella story last season, overcoming insurmountable odds to become champions on the sport’s grandest stage. But without regular infusions of life-saving capital, Cinderella’s coach must ultimately change back into a pumpkin.

A sport whose business model requires a sponsor to spend far more than perceived market value (or an owner willing to invest tens of millions of his own dollars annually) is ultimately doomed to failure. The cost of climbing NASCAR’s version of Mount Everest is approximately $30 million per year, and while the U.S. and world economies have each begun to show signs of a rebound in the last 12 months, not enough corporations consider the view from the top to be worth the price of the climb.

Two decades ago, most major NASCAR teams operated with a single, full-season sponsor. Today, very few teams enjoy that luxury, forced instead to secure multiple, smaller backers to underwrite their whopping, $30 million annual price tag.

“I had a wake-up call last year,” said Visser, who missed Truex’s 2017 championship celebration while recovering from heart bypass surgery. “And while I feel great, I need to make the best decisions that will have an impact on myself and my family.”

For Truex, Visser’s decision has an all-too-familiar feel. The New Jersey native joined Furniture Row in 2014 when NAPA Auto Parts departed Michael Waltrip Racing in the aftermath of a late-season cheating scandal, leaving him without a ride. FRR was Truex’s only option to continue as a MENCS driver, and he thanked Visser this week for saving him from the scrap heap, saying Furniture Row “…took me in while my career was in a bad place.”
The timing of yesterday’s announcement could not be worse. Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn must now find new homes for 2019 and beyond – likely at Joe Gibbs Racing – while simultaneously being embroiled in the heat of a late-season playoff chase.
“Make no mistake, this is not the immediate end,” said Truex yesterday. “We still have unfinished business to attend to, and that’s to give everything we have to successfully defend our championship.”
Visser deserves nothing less, and NASCAR owes it to him to learn from his example.
Very few owners are devoted (or crazy) enough to do what Visser has done over the years, funneling their personal fortunes into the pursuit of a checkered flag. Very few allow themselves to be guided by their hearts, rather than their heads.

And with the departure of Barney Visser at season’s end, there will be one fewer still.

One less glorious lunatic to pour his heart and soul into a sport that seems to give less and less in return.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

COMMENTARY: Furniture Row’s Withdrawal Warns of Larger Issues

Barney Visser is pulling the plug on Furniture Row Racing at the end of the 2018 campaign.

That decision will leave a reigning series champion (Martin Truex, Jr.) without a ride for the first time since Blue Max Racing closed its doors just a year after winning the 1989 premier series title with driver Rusty Wallace.

No matter how you slice it, that’s bad news for NASCAR.

The 69-year old Visser first fielded entries in what is now the Monster Energy and Xfinity Series with driver Jerry Robertson in 2005 and self-funded the effort until 2016, when backing from 5-hour ENERGY and Bass Pro Shops allowed him to remove his Furniture Row and Denver Mattress brands from the quarter panels for the first time.

5-hour ENERGY and Bass Pro have backed the team this season, with 5-hour contributing a reported $10M per year to the team’s coffers. The energy shot manufacturer announced in mid-July that it will not return in 2019, however, leaving FRR very little time to secure a replacement.

Visser" "The numbers just don't add up."
“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Visser, who underwent heart bypass heart surgery on Nov. 6 of last year and missed Truex’s championship coronation at Homestead Miami Speedway. “I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that. We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour ENERGY and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but haven’t had any success.”

So what happens now? What does the demise of Furniture Row Racing mean for its employees and for the sport itself?

Shed no tears for Martin Truex, Jr. In the last three seasons, the Mayetta, NJ native has established himself as one of NASCAR’s brightest and most competitive stars. With 17 victories and a Monster Energy Cup Series championship since joining FRR, Truex can virtually write his own ticket in the NASCAR garage. He enjoys an extremely close relationship with the powers-that-be at Toyota, and TRD USA president David Wilson said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that the manufacturer has no intention of letting him go.

TRD USA's David Wilson
“I’m not doing my job if I’m not trying to protect our assets,” said Wilson. “I assure you that I am working to that end. Martin, (crewchief) Cole (Pearn) and some other folks are included in that equation. We don’t have anything to announce today, but hopefully in the near future, we will.”

As of now, the only remaining Toyota organization in 2019 will be Joe Gibbs Racing, and multiple sources say Truex, Pearn and the Bass Pro Shops sponsorship will move to JGR’s No. 19 Toyota next season, replacing youngster Daniel Suarez. Suarez and his full-season ARRIS backing will reportedly shuffle off to Leavine Family Racing, which assumes Furniture Row’s previous position as the number two Toyota organization, behind JGR.

Team owner Bob Leavine has done yeoman work since entering the NASCAR ranks in 2011, but has never been able to attract the type of top-tier talent and sponsorship that would allow him to contend for championships. Veteran Kasey Kahne – currently 27th in the championship standings – failed to provide a anticipated adrenaline boost this season, and announced last month that he will retire at season’s end. A coveted spot at the Toyota table; complete with a JGR technological partnership, a talented young driver like Suarez and a full-season sponsorship from Arris should be just what the doctor ordered.

LFR's Bob Leavine
While declining to discuss LFR specifically, Toyota’s Wilson confirmed that the automaker is interested in replacing Furniture Row, and that qualified teams have expressed an interest in joining the lineup in 2019.

“I would certainly like to think (that could happen).” he said. “But the key isn’t just adding a team; that is relatively easy to do. What’s critical is doing it in a manner so you have all the ingredients that put you in a position to win. That’s how we won the last two manufacturers championships with arguably the fewest number of teams and drivers. It has been an intentional strategy that puts quality over quantity.

“In a best case scenario, we would take on another partner… and add another seat to the table… if we could get all the stars to align. We are working day and night with our partners at Joe Gibbs Racing – and others – to add some additional seats and quality partners to the stable.”

While LFR looks to improve its standing, the biggest losers will be the employees of Furniture Row Racing; those mostly anonymous individuals who uprooted their lives and families from NASCAR’s hub in North Carolina and transplanted them to FRR’s home in Denver, Colorado. Visser spoke of those employees in his written statement saying, “I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year. I strongly believe that all of our people have enhanced their careers by working at Furniture Row Racing.”

Racing at the pinnacle of NASCAR is no longer financially viable for Visser, whose net worth is estimated at more than $200 million. If Barney Visser can no longer afford to play in NASCAR’s sandbox, there aren’t many people out there who can. With top-flight NASCAR sponsorships now in the $28-30 million range – with an equal amount required for marketing and activation – fewer corporations than ever have the financial wherewithal to take part.

Visser’s decision to step aside is a warning shot across the bow for NASCAR; the clearest indicator yet that the cost of competition has become more than the average multi-millionaire can muster. That needs to change, and soon.

It’s easy these days – and popular – to beat the “cost control” drum. In theory, the sanctioning body, its team owners, drivers and fans all share common ground, advocating budget cuts in the hope of creating a new, more affordable NASCAR. Unfortunately, that common ground turns to quicksand when it’s time to talk specifics.

Earlier this season, NASCAR attempted to cut cost by mandating new, standardized air guns as part of the sport’s pit road protocol. Midfield and backmarker teams hailed the move, saying the guns saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development costs. The front-running teams – who had already spent their R&D money and were reaping the fruits of that labor on Sunday afternoons – were vocal in their opposition to the change. They alleged that the so-called “spec guns” were flawed, accusing them of failing in the heat of competition and jeopardizing the safety of crewman and drivers alike.

In the end, it was revealed that the guns in question had been intentionally “hopped up” by the high-dollar teams, utilizing helium gas -- rather than the recommended nitrogen -- in an effort to increase RPM and improve pit road performance.

So much for pulling together to cut expenses.

Despite periodic pushback from its teams, NASCAR must continue to examine ways to cut the cost of competition. The Ilmor-produced NT1 “spec engine” has dramatically reduced the cost of racing for many teams in the Camping World Truck Series, as has the composite body now utilized in Xfinity Series competition. “Enhanced weekends” – where the customary three days of practice, qualifying and racing are condensed into just two – have been instituted at a number of venues this season; all in an attempt to trim the bottom line.

Those initiatives need to be expanded and other projects explored, if the sport is to regain its lost footing.

When it cost $4 million to field a competitive NASCAR Grand National or Winston Cup team, the sanctioning body routinely sent a dozen or more cars home after qualifying. Today, 40-car fields are the exception, rather than the rule, and the number of full-season sponsors can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

That’s not a coincidence.

When only millionaires can afford to play, the number of players drops substantially. And when millionaires get priced out and only the billionaires remain, the roster is shortened yet again.

Barney Visser is proof of that.