Monday, July 27, 2020

COMMENTARY: On The Passing Of Bob Bahre

Getty Images/Portland Press Herald
One of the true giants of New England Motorsports was lost Friday, when New Hampshire Motor Speedway founder Bob Bahre passed away at the age of 93.

The Connecticut native began his racing career as a midget car owner in the 1950s and early ‘60s, before purchasing Maine’s Oxford Plains Speedway in 1964. He turned that facility into a showplace of northeast motorsports, hosting a series of big-money “Getty Open” Late Model events that brought full-fendered racers to the forefront of Northeast motorsports.

His monthly Getty Opens pitted wildly divergent classes of automobiles against each other, with NASCAR’s “by the book” Late Model Sportsman drivers traveling north to compete against the short-track based NASCAR North Late Models, Oxford “Saturday Night” Series drivers and a dizzying assortment of fiberglass-bodied Open Comp machines.

The on-track battles were second only to the off-track bickering over rules, with each camp lobbying ferociously for an advantage while complaining bitterly about the perceived advantage held by others. NASCAR stalwart “Terrible Tommy” Ellis summed-up the emotion of the series in the early 1980s, describing the Open Comp contingent as “Kamikaze cars,” saying “NASCAR should be embarrassed to have us racing against them.”

His Getty Open concept was not popular with his fellow track owners, many of whom believed that his lofty purses unnecessarily raised the financial bar.

"Damnit, Bob, why are you paying so much," asked one northeast promoter early in the process. "They'll race for half of that!" 

Bahre was unswayed, however, paying teams what he felt they deserved, rather than what they would accept.

In 1974, using the successful Getty Open format, he posted an unprecedented $25,000 purse for his inaugural “Oxford 200,” luring top drivers and teams from throughout the northeast. Massachusetts youngster Joey Kourafas copped the $4,500 winner's purse that day for car owner Bob Curtiss, and New England Late Model racing would never be the same again.

The following year, he added 50 laps to the event; adding a live pit stop to the game plan and creating the legendary “Oxford 250.”

Bahre ran OPS until 1987, when local politicians stiff-armed his dream of building a superspeedway on the site. Angered by their refusal, Bahre sold the track to entrepreneur Michael Liberty and turned his attention to the Bryar Motorsports Park in Loudon, NH, a somewhat disheveled road course complex that had seen its better days.

In a matter of weeks, Bahre had purchased the property. Eschewing the traditional engineering-based approach, he hired a single surveyor to lay out the facility and plant a few stakes, before dispatching brother Dick Bahre to bulldoze the one-mile semi-banked oval now known as New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Like their counterparts in Maine, local officials threw up a few roadblocks along the way. But this time, Bahre was not to be denied. When neighbors threatened legal action over noise and traffic, Bahre called a meeting and began by ejecting the attorneys from the room. In less than a hour, a common-sense solution was reached that satisfied all parties and allowed construction of the speedway to continue.

When the local Fire Department worried that their ladder truck would not reach the upper levels of the track’s high-rise grandstand, Bahre is reported to have barked, “How much do the damned things cost?” Moments later, the Chief of the Department walked away with a check for a shiny new ladder truck, and NHIS was born.

Bahre built NHIS with no guarantee of a NASCAR race of any kind. It was a colossal gamble, since without NASCAR's headline Cup Series, the facility would almost certainly prove unable to turn a profit.

But in 1990, after just nine months of construction, Bahre brought he NASCAR Busch Series – now Xfinity Series – to the White Mountains, with a capacity crowd of 90,000 fans turning out to witness a race won (ironically) by Ellis. 

Three years later, Bahre strong-armed longtime friend Bill France, Jr. into attending a race at the Loudon oval.
One look at the packed NHIS grandstands was all it took, and in June of 1993, Rusty Wallace won the inaugural "Slick 50 300" NASCAR Cup Series race in New Hampshire.

“Bob had a love affair with auto racing,” said Maine native Ricky Craven, whose victory in the 1991 Oxford 250 was instrumental in jump-starting his NASCAR National Series career. “He was a remarkable man who had the ambition, vision and commitment to make anything happen that he set his mind to. He was remarkably pragmatic. He could figure anything out and put things in perspective as well as anybody I know.”

"Bob taught me a lot." -- Ricky Craven
“Bob taught me a lot over the years,” he said. “One night, I finished Top-5 in one of his Oxford Opens and walked up to the tower to get paid. I had won at Unity Raceway the night before, and Bob asked me how many people were in the grandstands.

“I replied, `About 10,000,’ and Bob just went off.

“`BULLSHIT!’” he yelled. `You have never seen 10,000 people at Unity. Ever! Don’t try to BS people.’

“That was a big life lesson for me.

“Bob always dealt with me frankly. There was very little left to interpretation. Even though it was uncomfortable at times, I loved it. It was exactly what I needed. He was the first person I called anytime I needed advice.

“Even in recent years, Bob would call me every other week. He always ended our conversations by saying, ‘Keep in touch. I like you. I don’t know why I like you, but I like you.’ My life has been better for knowing him and for being his friend.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France commented on Bahre’s passing last week, saying, “Bob’s passion and belief in NASCAR helped bring our sport to millions of New England fans over the last three decades. As founder of what is now New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bahre’s bold vision helped set a tone for the sport’s national growth. Throughout his career, he was a trusted and valued voice in the industry and will be greatly missed. My family and all of NASCAR extends its deepest condolences to Sandy, Gary and the entire Bahre family.”

Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said, “What I’ll remember most about Bob Bahre will be his character, understated yet charming. Every time I saw him, he had on khakis and a white shirt. I always enjoyed our genuine conversations. He was very generous to people in the motorsports industry and to the New England communities where he did business. He went about things in a quiet, dignified manner and often times that simple approach is the most impactful. It’s truly an honor to have known Bob. He lived a meaningful life. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. "

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

An Open Letter From Angie Skinner

My friend and former Sirius XM Speedway co-host Angie Skinner found herself swept-up in a controversy not of her own making yesterday, when her stepson, Dustin Skinner, posted some shocking, racially insensitive comments on social media. Sadly, much of the online backlash was directed at Angie and Mike, who in no way deserved the hateful, vitriolic comments that came their way. 

Angie reached out to me today -- as a friend -- to share her heartache and disappointment. After reading her words, I asked if I might share them with you here. Not because Mike and Angie need defending, but because messages of understanding and tolerance are badly needed these days.

For the record, I have known Mike and Angie for a long, long time. They are wonderful, giving, selfless people, without a single racist bone in their bodies. I have no idea what brought Dustin to the dark place he currently inhabits, but I can tell you for sure that it wasn't Mike and Angie. 

We all hope and pray that our children will be successful and make us proud, but there are no guarantees.

I would ask that you read Angie's words with an open heart...

Every morning, I have an amazing God-sent friend that texts me a spiritual writing, she NEVER misses a day.  At 5 AM this morning  I prayed for the right words for today, after reading the horrific words from someone I love.

Do not speak in the hearing of fools; they will despise the wisdom of your words.-- Proverbs 23:9

Many of you really don’t know me -  you don’t know how I grew up, or why I never had children of my own.  You don’t know the ways I have been mistreated by friends; men and women of all races.  You don’t know my battles with depression, my heartbreaks, my failures… You really don’t know me.

Many assume that my husband and I raised children together. We did not.  Many assume we own a race team. We do not. Many of you have posted despicable comments against us for something we did not do, nor support.

My good friend and broadcast mentor Dave Moody taught me one thing when I joined his show years ago; Remember everything you say is permanent. NO ONE forgets, so always make sure what you say or post is accurate and true. Check your sources and do your research.

My true friends and family DO know me and my husband.

You don’t know why I chose to NOT be a serious news reporter after I grew up dreaming of reporting the news every night. You don’t know why I went in the direction of sports and entertainment.  And I won’t share with you those stories.  Yet. 

I will say that  I just love to make people laugh. It’s that simple. I love to make people laugh and smile and forget about their troubles. This is how I use my social media channels; I really do try to just make you all laugh, and myself. 

And you know what? There are many of you out there that even complain about my laugh. That hurts, because it’s my laugh and it’s genuine. But that is your right I guess, to tell me I’m obnoxious and loud and what a piece of crap I am.

It’s my right to ignore your comments and still LAUGH, just as it’s me and my husband’s right to handle our personal grievances against someone and family matters personally and not on social media.

I am not a politician. I never signed up to be outspoken on social injustices.  I admire those that do in good manner, but it’s just not me and for sure is not my husband; who literally still doesn’t truly understand social media. He was told he needed an account and he followed the suggestion. 

When I was notified of the horrendous comments Mike’s son made about Bubba Wallace, I cried. I prayed. I asked God for guidance on how to handle such a situation.

I didn’t even know they were made.  To be honest, Mike and I have not really followed NASCAR media as of late. We are in a stage in our lives where we are transitioning to other adventures. That doesn’t mean we don’t watch races or read tweets or posts from drivers we follow, it’s just not our priority at this stage of our lives. We are diving into new ventures, and with so much hate lately in our world, we rarely even watch the news anymore. 

Our PR manager found the comments, called me immediately and addressed the comments. I asked her to deal with it because I was just so upset that anymore – let alone a family member -- would express anger in that sentiment.  I didn’t even share the info with Mike. I just wanted him to not deal with another family ordeal, of which we have experienced many.

When we were alone and the race was near ending, I told him about the comments made by his son.  He was extremely hurt, humiliated and upset.  He dealt with the issue man to man by calling his son and discussing his anger. 

My husband is a good man who can look into the mirror every morning PROUD of who he is. He is genuine and he is guided by his heart. He loves his friends, his family and his country.

Your judgements against someone you have never met? Well -- just that. You have never met him.  You only saw him on a racetrack and hear him on radio sometimes.

Many made comments in rage, suggesting and demanding what he should do as a father without even knowing how he did handle the situation, minutes after he was told about the post.

You did it behind a keyboard with anger and hate.  You didn’t check your facts and you chastised me and Mike, not realizing the hurt we were dealing with. The same that has happened to many of color, gender, ethnicity. You did exactly what the world needs to STOP doing. 

If we are going to change this world, we need to not promote so much hate and anger. We all need to be kind to one another, help one another, heal with one another, learn from one another.  How we act…. How we love…. How we treat others… How we pray for those fighting such anger…. Love heals and changes – not demands and threats. 

This is how I deal with the many social injustices in this world.  I’m not radical, I’m peaceful. 

When I watched the amazing start of the Talladega race, with the drivers and racers supporting Bubba Wallace, I cried happy tears. It showed the real change being made in love and support.  It was genuine and so beautiful.  I was proud of the sport and even more proud of the people.  To end my night in such chaos really made me think.  Really made me realize that maybe social media isn’t for me in my life right now.  Really made me realize my actions in person mean more than what I type behind a keyboard.  (I know, I’m typing now, but it’s the only way to express my true feelings and hopefully shine a more positive light onto such a dark situation).

We pray Dustin changes his views. He already broke down, apologized and realized how horrific and hurtful his comments were. He asked what to do and we suggested apologizing and learning from the outburst.  Again, we pray that his views change.

But it’s up to him to handle.

Mike will not stop loving his son because the public demands him to.  Mike will promote his positives and hope he continues to grow and love; reminding him of his good qualities and using love and positivity to change his attitude one day at a time.

My husband is a man of great integrity and he will not be demanded by those who have never met him, or via social media channels to give up on his son.  He will fight to fix it -- personally – and not on social media.

He will use love to conquer it. He will do what he can to heal the heart.  He will use love and positive words and any means possible to change the mind of someone who is full of anger and rage.  That is all he can do – and I ask that you understand how we handle our situation. 

Please stop the ranting, hate, blaming and finger pointing.  It’s not going to change our world – it’s just going to fuel the fire.

We pray something positive can come from such a horrific venting of social injustice. 

Though I have never birthed a child of my own – I see the pain and hurt my husband goes through when a child of his acts out in such a manner.  It’s between our family. We all have issues with our families, and if you are so lucky to have the perfect family, God Bless You. Please pray for ours.

I leave you with a message I heard from a sweet, sweet little girl.  Her name is Willow. She is bi-racial.  Her innocent soul has no understanding why she would be looked at different or negative. She is a child with a genuine and young heart. 

Her lesson?  It doesn’t matter what color skin we have.

If we all cut our finger…. Our blood is the same.  It’s red.  We all have a heart, we all have two lungs…. We are all the same. We should all be treated equal… we should all be treated the same way. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

COMMENTARY: The Time Was Right For NASCAR's Confederate Flag Ban

NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate Flag at its race events and venues yesterday, saying its presence “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”

That decision comes during a tumultuous period for both our sport and our country, with the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, MN police officer reopening the ongoing debate over equal rights, racism and discrimination against people of color.

Controversy surrounding the Confederate flag is not new to our sport.

In the 1950s and `60s, NASCAR openly embraced the flag, using it in print advertisements for races like the Southern 500 and Dixie 500. A character known as “Johnny Reb,” dressed in a Confederate uniform and waving the Stars and Bars, appeared regularly in Victory Lane ceremonies of that era, creating a perception of our sport that we have struggled mightily to shake.

Five years ago, the issue moved to the front burner when nine black churchgoers were murdered in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof, an admitted white supremacist who had published photos of himself posing with the Confederate Nazi flags. Then-NASCAR CEO Brian France said at that time, “We want to go as far as we can to eliminate the presence of that flag. I personally find it an offensive symbol, so there is no daylight how we feel about it and our sensitivity to others who feel the same way.”

"Johnny Reb" was once a part
The sanctioning body and its member speedways offered to exchange Confederate flags for American flags, but there were relatively few takers and the symbol remained a common sight at race events.

Until yesterday, NASCAR lacked the willpower to put verbs in its sentences.

That has changed now, and our sport is sure to change as a result.

Let’s be clear about one thing. NASCAR has no interest in telling you what to think, or what to believe. You can proudly display the Confederate Flag at home, if you choose to do so. You can celebrate whatever that flag means to you -- Southern Heritage, racism, white supremacy, whatever – in your own backyard, but you can no longer do so in NASCAR’s yard.

A much-needed line has finally been drawn, and it will be enforced.

I have a major disconnect with those claiming some God-given right to fly the stars and bars at NASCAR races. Regardless of the long-contested history and "real meaning" of that particular symbol, I fail to understand why anyone would willingly – and in some cases, gleefully -- choose to do something that makes others feel threatened and unwelcome.

It’s like walking into a Jewish Synagogue waving the swastika. Whether you have the right to do it or not, it’s  the wrong thing to do.

No matter what it may once have meant, the Confederate flag was long ago appropriated by a group of people whose hate-based goals were simply to intimidate, discriminate and demean. You don’t need to fly the Confederate Flag to enjoy a NASCAR race, any more than you need to burn a cross or hang a mannequin in effigy. And effective immediately, you will no longer be able to do any of those things on track property.

The past few days have been difficult for a lot of us. I have personally had to accept the fact that a number of people I know, respect and consider friends are, in fact, unapologetic racists. I have seen statements made in the last 24 hours that truly and sincerely boggle my mind, from people I consider friends. Wholly and completely at odds with my belief that all men are indeed created equal, those statements both sadden and disappoint me. I look at those people differently than I did just a few days ago, and my circle is smaller as a result.

NASCAR will almost certainly lose some fans in the aftermath of yesterday’s decision. But sometimes, you have to pull some weeds to let the grass grow. The time has come to decide -- once and for all -- who we stand with and what we stand for.

Racism has become so ingrained in our society that today, being anti-racist is often mistaken for being anti-American. It’s time for that to change.

And change it will.

NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate Flag will not be the final word on the topic. There has already been some degree of backlash within the racing community. Jason Beam, whose company -- Beam Designs -- paints custom helmets for a number of NASCAR drivers, tweeted “ignorance wins again” in response to yesterday’s announcement, while Truck Series driver Ray Ciccarelli has vowed to sell his team at season’s end to protest  the move. 

NASCAR offered no details on how they will police their newly announced ban, and at least in the short term, that effort may prove uncomfortable. But make no mistake about it, NASCAR and its member speedways have both the right and the ability to remove patrons who refuse to follow the rules. People who conduct themselves badly have routinely been removed from the premises in seasons past, and this will be no different.

There is never a wrong time to do the right thing, and NASCAR’s decision to remove the Confederate Flag from its venues is both correct and long overdue.

Monday, June 08, 2020

COMMENTARY: On Race... And Racing

Phelps: "The time is now to listen."
Just before the start of yesterday’s “Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500” at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR took the unprecedented step of stopping its race cars on the front straightaway during the final pre-race parade lap, for sanctioning body president Steve Phelps to deliver an address expressing NASCAR’s support for improved race relations and an end to the social unrest that currently threatens to tear this nation apart.

“Our country is in pain and our people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,’’ said Phelps, as the field sat silent before an empty AMS grandstand. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.
"The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice," Phelps added. "We ask our drivers and all our fans to join us in this mission; to take a moment of reflection, to acknowledge that we must do better as a sport, and join us as we now pause and take a moment to listen."
His comments were followed by 30 seconds of silence, and when the cars re-fired, FOX Sports aired a video featuring current and former Cup Series drivers including Darrell Wallace, Jr.  Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. expressing their support for improved race relations and an end to discrimination.
Wallace, currently NASCAR’s only African American national series driver, wore a black T-shirt with the words "I Can’t Breathe" during pre-race ceremonies, commemorating the final words of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis, MN police officer recently triggered mass protests in all 50 states, demanding an end to police brutality against people of color.
Wallace has been the sport’s most outspoken voice in recent days, telling Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on the Dale Jr. Download” podcast of his reaction to the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in Georgia recently, Kyle Larson’s use of the N-word earlier this season and instances of discrimination and racial profiling from his own life, including the fatal shooting of his cousin by a police officer in 2003.
“I was running around the (High School) gym with all the other brothers and sisters, and all of a sudden, I hear a scream,” he recalled. “Like the worst scream that you’d want to hear. Not like a `somebody-scared-you’ scream, like something bad had just happened. And I look over and I see my mom running out the door. She had just found out my cousin had been shot and killed by a police officer. Unarmed.
“I was young. I didn’t understand it. We lost a family member. But now, seeing everything come full circle, I totally get it.”
Wallace attributed the shooting to a convenience store clerk “who happened to be white (and) felt threatened that there were more African Americans and that something bad was going to happen. So she called the cops. The police officer ordered my cousin Sean to put his hands up, and he did. The officer walked away, (my cousin) went to grab his phone to call his mom because he was scared and he was shot and killed by (another) police officer.
Bubba Wallace
“People were having a good time, not bothering anybody. But somehow, people are afraid. Why are you afraid of black people? That’s the thing I don’t understand. We’re minding our own business… having a good time and somebody’s life was taken. It happened to my family member.
“I’ve dealt with my own struggles… of getting pulled up at stoplights and having guns drawn,” he recalled. “Not pointed at me, but out of their holster ready to do something. It’s the comments that they made (afterwards) that piss me off the most.

‘Can you afford this car? This is a nice car.’

And I said, ‘Yes, sir, I can.’ What I wanted to say is, ‘Yeah, I’ll (buy) you one on Monday, I’ll (buy) your momma one on Tuesday and I’ll have the rest of your family one on Wednesday. That’s how much money I make.’

“But I didn’t. I let it go because one wrong move, because I’m black, could have had me on the pavement saying, ‘I can’t breathe.'”

Germain Racing driver Ty Dillon also spoke eloquently in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, posting a statement on Instagram that said in part, “I never want to be seen as someone who is silent on the subject of racism and social injustice.

“I don’t care if I ever win a race or a championship in my life, or lose every follower or sponsor that I have,” he said. “But when my children grow older and I take my last breath, I want to be sure that I was on the right side of what I felt is going on in history. I just wanted to stop and say, `This is where I stand.’ At the end of the day, this is what I believe in and I’ll stand up for what I believe in.’”

Dillon and Wallace also co-hosted a 30-minute Instagram Live conversation, discussing the state of race relations in the United States.
“I’ve known (Bubba) my whole career,” said an emotional Dillon. “To hear the stories about how he was treated in some of those situations -- knowing Bubba’s character and knowing him as a human being -- that blew my mind. I never thought Bubba would have gone through anything like that.
“Sometimes, it’s easy for us who don’t know -- as a white man or a white person in general -- we don’t know these stories. We don’t ask the right questions to become informed. We all need to have conversations in our communities to create change.”
Phelps’ pre-race statement Sunday was sure to produce a reaction, and it has.
"I will listen and learn..."
The social media response simultaneously illustrated the best and worst that our fan base has to offer. The vast majority of reaction was supportive of the sanctioning body, but there were other, more vitriolic responses that illustrated just how far we have to go as a nation, and as a sport.
The events of the last two weeks have been both tragic and horrifying. The slaying of George Floyd and the protests that followed have sent this country into a tailspin, forcing mangy of us to re-evaluate our personal stands on racism and discrimination.
Until recently, it has been fairly easy for many of us to remain on the sidelines, saying little or nothing about a situation that did not directly affect us.
Raised in the second-whitest state in the Union, I grew up with very little understanding of what it is like to be a person of color in the United States of America. I grew up – quite literally – with ONE black friend, and only after I moved south a decade or so ago did I come to appreciate the true depth of the divide between races in this county.
The only time I’ve ever been pulled over by the police was when a heavy right foot caused me to stray slightly (or not so slightly) above the posted speed limit. Never – not once – did the police officer in question feel the need to have his finger on the trigger of a gun, or comment on whether I should have been able to afford the car I was driving at the time.
No traffic stop has ever caused me to fear for my life. I have never lost a single minute of sleep worrying that my daughters might be shot on their way home from work one evening, simply because of the color of their skin, or because they strayed into a neighborhood where someone felt they did not belong.
Until any those things happen to me, I am wholly disqualified to preach tolerance and patience to the African American community. Until those things happen to me, I have no business criticizing Olympic athletes Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett for raising their gloved fists in protest on the medal podium at the 1972 Summer Games. I have no right to look down upon Muhammad Ali for refusing to go to Vietnam and fight for a country that treated him like a second-class citizen. And I have no place denouncing Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee on the NFL sideline.
After refusing to pay attention to those (and thousands of other) peaceable, passive protests, can we honestly be surprised when certain segments of the African American community grow frustrated and become violent?
I have come to understand that we cannot.
There are some bad cops in the world. The events of the last few weeks have provided far more evidence of that fact than any reasonable observer could possibly require. If you continue to deny the existence of racist cops, you’re simply not paying attention. There are also some bad protestors out there; people willing to turn a peaceful demonstration into an opportunity to loot, burn and line their pockets under the cover of righteous indignation.
But the vast majority of people – on both sides of the picket line – are good people; people with hearts free of hate and discrimination, determined to do things the right way. If you’re willing to look past the fiery headlines and hardline clich├ęs, you’ll see hundreds of cops taking a knee to decry the brutality within their own ranks. You’ll see protesters standing with their arms linked together, protecting a policeman separated from his unit and threatened by the angry mob. You’ll see athletes like Lebron James, Evander Kane, Bubba Wallace and Ty Dillon, speaking out against inequality despite the backlash that most certainly will follow from the darkest corners of our society.
It’s time for us to follow their leads and take a firm and righteous stand against the racists, the haters, the discriminators, murderers and looters among us. It’s time we take the spotlight away from the corrupt minority and focus on the rest us, the ones who understand that there is only one race -- the human race – and are no longer willing to tolerate people who judge each other solely by the color of their skin, or their uniform.
This is not a “one side or the other” argument. It is possible to be staunchly pro-Law Enforcement while still decrying the “Thin Blue Line” mentality that has prompted far too many good cops to turn their heads when their colleagues act badly. It is possible to support the African American communities right to protest while still bemoaning the destruction of businesses owned by people innocent of any wrongdoing.
Nobody is “all right” these days, and nobody is “all wrong.” There is room for improvement on all sides.
NASCAR’s Phelps was spot-on yesterday in his call for change, and his words needed to be heard from a sport that has spent far too much time over the years huddled – like many of us – on the sidelines of a battle that did not seem to be ours to fight. There have been a few “shut up and race” reactions from people unwilling (or too ignorant) to honestly assess the way this country continues to do business, but those reactions are like the last brittle leaves on a dying tree, about to be swept away – one by one – by the undeniable winds of change. 

The time for silent support has passed. It’s time for us to rethink old thoughts, re-examine old attitudes and begin treating each other like the one unified family we should always have been.

It’s time to stop responding to the plea of “Black Lives Matter” with the paper-thin meme of “All Lives Matter.”

Yes, all lives do matter. But when your neighbor’s house is burning down, all houses don’t require the immediate assistance of the Fire Department.

The African American community is ablaze today, and after nearly 250 years as One Nation Under God, it’s time for us to something about it, once and for all.

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.