Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sorry Tony, But It IS Your Job

Tony Stewart doesn’t like NASCAR’s co-called “phantom cautions.”

His comments on last night’s edition of Tony Stewart Live made that crystal clear. It’s an interesting topic of conversation, to say the least, but I’ll leave the debate over NASCAR’s alleged fabrication of debris cautions for another day. I’ll even ignore his remarks comparing NASCAR to professional wrestling as events that are “for the most part, staged.”

My thoughts today are on Stewart’s contention that he was within his rights not to attend Saturday night’s post-race press conference at Phoenix International Raceway, simply because his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t require it.

For the record, I like Tony Stewart. I think he’s a good guy, and one of the most talented racers ever to turn a wheel, in NASCAR or anywhere else. I think he’s honest to a fault, heartfelt in his opinions, and one of the few drivers willing to ruffle a few feathers by saying what he thinks. I enjoy talking to the guy, and probably cut him as much “slack” as any member of the media, simply because I know he’s not the self-centered megalomaniac he sometimes comes off as being.

This time around, though, he’s wrong. And I’ll tell you why.

In the hours leading up to each race, Stewart attends a weekly driver’s meeting. His attendance is mandatory; not because it says so in his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, but because NASCAR requires it.

Prior to the start, Stewart takes part in driver introductions, not because his JGR contract requires it, but because NASCAR does.

When he climbs into his Home Depot Chevrolet, he does so wearing a HANS device; a piece of apparatus he openly despises. He does so, not because his contract requires it, but because it’s mandated by NASCAR.

And if he is unfortunate enough to crash during the race, he climbs into a waiting ambulance and is transported to the Infield Care Center for a checkup; not because it is required in his contract, but because he is required to do so by NASCAR.

Stewart does all these things without question or complaint, knowing them to be part and parcel of his job as a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver. He doesn’t do them 95% of the time, he does them every single week, because he knows he has to.

Why, then, is appearing before the media so different?

Truth be told, it’s not.

As distasteful as it may be to answer an endless stream of silly questions immediately after the latest in a series of galling, “close-but-no-cigar” performances on the racetrack, it’s part of Tony’s job. Stewart and his fellow drivers are free to pull up a seat in the Media Center and spit out tired clich├ęs about their hard-working team and supportive sponsors if they like, or even to decline comment on any question they don’t feel like answering. They are not, however, allowed to ditch the press conference entirely.

It’s as simple as that.

Denny Hamlin also had a frustrating night Saturday, dominating much of the race before a pit road speeding violation dropped him to the back of the pack and doomed him to a third-place finish. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, J.J. Yeley and Martin Truex, Jr. all saw their races ruined by the evening’s final caution. All were bitterly disappointed, but all honored their commitment by speaking to the media about it afterward.

I understand Tony’s frustration with “phantom cautions.” I spend a minimum of 20 hours each week talking with race fans around the country, and it’s a concern of theirs, as well. Maybe it’s time we had this debate, allowing NASCAR to make its case, while receiving feedback from a considerable number of disgruntled fans and competitors.

But let’s not lose track of the fact that the yellow flag that cost Stewart his lead Saturday night was no “phantom.” It flew when Dave Blaney pounded the wall in Turn Four and sat broadside in the power lane. Even then, Stewart was able to pass Jeff Gordon on the ensuing restart, only to be overtaken a few laps later by Gordon.

Did NASCAR screw Tony Stewart out of a win Saturday? Absolutely not. But even if they did, it’s not too much to ask that he fulfill his duties and talk about it afterward.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Kentucky Lawsuit Shifts Gears Again

With every passing month, the rhetoric emanating from Kentucky Speedway gets more bizarre, and more dangerous.

Earlier this week, officials of the Kentucky track backed away from their previous demand that the courts award them a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race. At face value, that seems like a good thing for NASCAR and its fans. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that the threat from the Bluegrass State has grown more ominous than ever.

Before I continue, a brief disclaimer. I am an employee of the Motor Racing Network; a subsidiary of International Speedway Corporation. ISC is a party in the Kentucky Speedway lawsuit, so I could be considered a biased observer. A hostile witness, as it were. I have never spoken to anyone at ISC about the Kentucky Speedway lawsuit -- and the thoughts that follow are strictly my own -- but if you choose to categorize those thoughts as the paid musings of a corporate mouthpiece, that is your right.

With that said, it is my opinion that the owners of Kentucky Speedway comprise the biggest threat to our sport since a group of investors announced plans to form the ill-fated TRAC series in 2001.

In their initial filing, Kentucky Speedway alleged that NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation conspired to keep Nextel Cup events at ISC tracks, while denying them to independent operators like Kentucky Speedway. They alleged that Kentucky was being wrongfully excluded from the Nextel Cup schedule, and demanded that the track be awarded a date on NASCAR’s premier series. In addition, the suit asked that NASCAR be ordered to put its schedule up for bid each season, awarding race dates to the tracks that offer the largest purse.

NASCAR’s contention from the start has been that track owner Jerry Carroll was told – before a single shovelful of dirt was turned – that a track in Kentucky would never, ever, host a NASCAR Nextel Cup event. That warning, however, appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Carroll and company built themselves a showplace racetrack; an immaculate, 1.5-mile tri-oval with amenities equal to any speedway on the NASCAR schedule. They booked NASCAR’s Busch and Craftsman Truck Series’, attracting sellout crowds of over 65,000 fans. Giddy with that success, they began lobbying NASCAR for a Nextel Cup event, despite repeated statements from the sanctioning body that the Midwest market was already being adequately served by others, and that they were not interested in taking a race from another track to satisfy Kentucky’s demands for Nextel Cup racing.

In time, Carroll and his cohorts finally got the message. Realizing that Kentucky Speedway would never land a Nextel Cup race through conventional means, they elected to take their case to the courts, filing a lawsuit demanding inclusion on the Nextel Cup schedule.

They wasted little time shaking things up. In May of last year, they attempted to subpoena vast quantities of sensitive financial and business records from NASCAR, ISC and virtually every track that hosts a NASCAR race; including Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dover Motorsports, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway, the Milwaukee Mile and New Hampshire International Speedway. They requested access to sanctioning agreements, ticket sales information and advertising revenue -- drawing a firestorm of protest from those uninvolved speedways -- before promptly withdrawing the motion less than a month later.

Now, they have changed course yet again, apparently dropping their demand for a Nextel Cup race, and abandoning the idiotic premise that the Nextel Cup schedule should be sold at auction. Instead, Carroll and Company are now demanding that the France family be ordered to sell either ISC or NASCAR. Further, they are demanding that ISC be ordered to sell eight of its 12 Nextel Cup tracks, and that NASCAR be required to develop “objective factors” to award Nextel Cup race dates. In short, Jerry Carroll and his partners want the sport of NASCAR stock car racing to be completely dismantled, so that they might play a role in whatever comes next.

It is selfish, shortsighted and foolhardy in the extreme.

In an attempt to further their case, Kentucky Speedway has made a number of other allegations that it says prove NASCAR and ISC conspired to keep a majority of NASCAR Nextel Cup races under ISC control. Among the allegations are…

…that NASCAR awarded a Nextel Cup date to Las Vegas Motor Speedway only because it expected the owners of LVMS to sell the facility to ISC. Instead, the track was sold to its current owners, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

…that NASCAR and ISC tried to convince the owners of Kentucky Speedway to sell the track to ISC at an “artificially low price.”

…that Kentucky Speedway offered New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre $360 million in cash for his track, but was rebuffed after NASCAR made veiled threats to pull NHIS’ two race dates.

…that NASCAR and ISC similarly pressured the owners of Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway not to sell their tracks to Kentucky Speedway.

NHIS owner Bob Bahre declined to comment on the ongoing litigation earlier today. But in February of 2003, Bahre told reporters that Jerry Carroll had visited him shortly after NASCAR announced its 2004 Nextel Cup schedule, inquiring about the possibility of acquiring one (or both) of New Hampshire’s race dates. Bahre said he declined Carroll’s offer, and when asked if there was any price that would convince him to sell a Cup date to Kentucky Speedway, Bahre said, "No, none."

That same month, NASCAR Vice-President Jim Hunter described Kentucky's chances of landing a Cup race as "slim and none," saying their best bet to join NASCAR’s major league would be to secure an exhibition event like the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge (then known as The Winston).

I have covered Bob Bahre and his speedways for the better part of 30 years. Throughout that time, he has been unfailingly steadfast and loyal to both NASCAR and the France family. Bahre would have no part in a scheme to “backdoor” a race to Kentucky Speedway. In fact, he would have thrown Jerry Carroll out by the nape of his neck, precluding NASCAR from having to play the role of threatening thug.

Kentucky Speedway’s lawsuit has been transparent from the start. They ignored NASCAR’s advice and built a track where none was needed. Too late to realize the error of their ways, they attempted to badger, bribe and berate their way into the dance. Failing once again, they have now taken their misguided case to the court of last resort, holding NASCAR and its fans hostage in an attempt to cash-in for themselves.

Let’s hope a judge sees this suit for what it is.

Monday, April 23, 2007

In Light Of This Weekend's Events...

Thanks Patty!

Red Army Off Base On Gordon Tribute

Jeff Gordon crossed one more track off his personal hit list Saturday night, winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway after a stirring, late battle with Tony Stewart. As he completed his cool-down lap, a Hendrick Motorsports crewman appeared at the pit wall with a large Dale Earnhardt, Sr., flag, unfurling it so Gordon could tour the one-mile tri-oval in tribute to NASCAR’s fallen seven-time champion; whose career mark of 76 Nextel wins Gordon had just tied.

It was a classy gesture from a classy driver and team. Apparently, however, some misguided Earnhardt fans saw it as an insult. Within minutes of Gordon’s tribute, internet message boards lit up with howls of indignity from the Earnhardt Army, as writer after writer questioned the motives of the Dupont Chevrolet team.

“Who does he think he is,” wrote one irate online fan. “How dare he compare himself to `Big E?’”

Another compared the two drivers with the words, “76 real wins vs. 76 CHEATER wins.”


The fusilade continued for nearly 30 minutes, until Dale Earnhardt, Jr. unwittingly called off the assault with his own post-race comments. Earnhardt – who climbed from his Budweiser Chevrolet and went straight to Victory Lane Saturday night – thanked Gordon for the gesture, saying, “He's a class act, and I'm happy for him. I saw him with the flag on the big screen. That's cool. They must have had that thing around for a lot of races."

Almost instantly, the tenor of the online conversation changed, as the Earnhardt Army’s lunatic fringe grudgingly holstered its weapons and returned to DEFCON One.

Gordon admitted after the race that he had feared just such a knee-jerk reaction, saying, "When they approached me about it at first, I said `no.’ I didn't want people to take it the wrong way. Some people might think we were saying I was as good as him. Holding that #3 flag (was) by no means saying we're as good as him. We wanted to honor him. We wanted to show tribute and honor.

“We've been holding on to that flag for a long time."

Asked about the possibility of passing Earnhardt next week at Talladega, Gordon cracked a wry smile and said, "I might just carry that flag around for the whole race. (Then) they might not throw things at me."

Don’t bet on it, Jeff.

Stewart Angry, Explanation To Follow: Despite a tremendous, late-race battle with Gordon Saturday night, Tony Stewart climbed out of his Home Depot Chevrolet an angry man. The two-time Nextel Cup Series champion refused the customary post-race radio and television interviews, and almost certainly earned himself a fine from NASCAR later this week by declining to appear for the mandatory press conference involving the race’s top three finishers.

Why was Stewart angry? Good question.

Perhaps he was upset about failing to win, after dominating large portions of Saturday night’s race. If so, it’s understandable, though the same could be said for Denny Hamlin and others; all of whom made themselves available for post-race commentary.

Maybe he was upset over the rubbing that occurred between himself and Gordon down the stretch. It’s doubtful, though, since Smoke has emerged from similar late-lap jousts with an ear-to-ear grin and comments about how much fun it is to race on the ragged edge with a driver you respect.

Or maybe his oft-stated loathing for NASCAR’s new Car Of Tomorrow once again reached a boiling point, prompting him to honor the age-old adage that states, “If you can’t say something good, say nothing at all.”

Tune into Tony Stewart Live, Tuesday night at 8 pm ET on Sirius NASCAR Radio 128 to find out.

Waltrip Says Daytona-Gate Closer To Resolution: Michael Waltrip met with NASCAR officials at Texas Motor Speedway 10 days ago, and says he now knows more about the mystery substance found in his car’s intake manifold at Daytona International Speedway in February. Waltrip said that information will allow him to proceed with an internal investigation into the controversy.

Waltrip has had little to say on the topic since the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series broke camp and left Daytona Beach nearly to months ago. He and General Manager Ty Norris claim to have conducted an exhaustive internal investigation into the matter, but insist they have been unable to learn anything about how the substance got into Waltrip’s NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, or who put it there. Meanwhile, crewchief David Hyder and Director of Competition Bobby Kennedy remain on indefinite suspension from NASCAR, with my sources saying those suspensions will remain in effect until MWR comes forth with both an explanation, and a culprit.

Following the meeting, Waltrip said he is "looking forward to bringing that whole scenario to a close," prompting widespread speculation in the Nextel Cup garage about who will ultimately take the fall for one of the most blatant instances of cheating in recent NASCAR history.

Another meeting with NASCAR will reportedly take place this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where Waltrip will attempt to break a string of seven consecutive DNQs dating back to California Speedway on February 25th.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

NASCAR WIll Honor Victims Of Virginia Tech Massacre; MWR Names New Crewchief

NASCAR has received permission from Virginia Tech to display the school’s logo on its racecars for the next three weeks; a tribute to the victims of the recent shootings there.

The Virginia Tech logo will be displayed on the “B-post” – the area just to the right of the driver’s side window net – on cars Nextel Cup and Busch Series cars at Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond, and on Craftsman Truck entries at Kansas Speedway April 28th.

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said, “We wanted to make a simple, but strong gesture of remembrance. We are grateful the university gave us clearance to display their logo.”

MWR Personnel Shuffle Begins: Michael Waltrip Racing announced today that Buddy Sisco will take over as crewchief on the #55 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota this weekend, replacing Scott Eggleston. Derrick Finley has been named Lead Team Engineer on Waltrip's #55 car. There is no word on Eggleston’s status with the team.

Sisco had served as car chief on David Reutimann’s Domino's Pizza Toyota. He began the season as crewchief for Jeremy Mayfield at Bill Davis Racing, before jumping to the Waltrip camp.

MWR Vice President and General Manager Ty Norris said today that the team has also made personnel changes in its fabrication and engineering departments, in an effort address the shortcomings that have plagued the team so far this season.

"I feel we have made positive moves within our organization to help improve preparation in the shop, which will show on the race track," Norris said. "We have reassigned several key individuals and resources within the engineering department and have strengthened our test team. This is the most competitive season NASCAR has ever seen. We believe these changes were necessary to compete at this level and will make us a better race team."

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Mr. Excitement" Out Of Bounds With Elledge Comments

Jimmy Spencer turned the simmering Dale Earnhardt, Jr., contract story to “full boil” yesterday, criticizing Earnhardt’s sister and chief negotiator, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge.

Speaking on SPEED’s NASCAR RaceDay yesterday, Spencer said of Earnhardt Elledge, “I’m shocked she kept her middle name. You’re married. Why keep Earnhardt? I think her ego is so big. I think she’s backing Teresa and Max in corners. She’s not a good negotiator. If she was working for anybody else, they’d probably fire her. But she’s working for Dale Jr…” Spencer also said that if Dale Earnhardt was still around, he’d be kicking Junior’s butt for even thinking about leaving DEI.

My guess is that if `Big E’ was alive today, the only butt he’d be looking to kick is Jimmy Spencer’s.

Spencer’s criticism was borderline sexist. More important, it was totally devoid of facts.

Late last week, Earnhardt Elledge set a 45-day deadline for completion of negotiations, saying, "I don't know if we'll get there. There are a whole lot of dynamics that play into it all. At this point, we don't have a lot of time, so we're trying to work really hard to make something of it.”

Her comments served two purposes. First, they put pressure on DEI to come to the table with its best offer; sooner than later. Second, they ensured that she and her brother will have ample time to examine their options, should the DEI deal fall through. That’s not “backing Teresa and Max in corners,” Jimmy. It’s being a shrewd businesswoman.

It is not Kelley Earnhardt Elledge’s job to negotiate a new contract with DEI. Her job is to negotiate the best deal possible for her brother, wherever that might be. It has become clear in recent weeks that DEI has not kept pace with the changing technological face of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing. The fact that Junior’s Budweiser Chevrolets are routinely taken to the JR Motorsports Busch Series shop to use a chassis pulldown machine – something DEI inexplicably does not own -- attests to that fact. If Teresa Earnhardt has not invested in the equipment and technology necessary to keep up with Hendrick, Childress, Roush and Gibbs, the Earnhardts have every right to look elsewhere for a championship-caliber ride.

As Spencer launched into his anti-Elledge rant Sunday, host John Roberts looked as if he wished he could climb under the table and hide. A brief, lukewarm apology later in the show did little to mitigate the damage.

Spencer’s outspoken bad-boy act has served him well over the years, and most weeks, he provides a refreshing alternative to the politically correct sponsorspeak that passes for analysis in this sport. This time, however, “Mr. Excitement” was far out of bounds. He took a purely business situation and made it personal, for no apparent reason.

Kelley Earnhardt Elledge deserves better than that.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Thoughts On My Weekend With ESPN

I took advantage of a rare off-weekend to watch some racing on TV this weekend.

The results surprised me.

For months, many heralded the return of ESPN to the NASCAR broadcast landscape, envisioning a return to the high standards of journalism and production that made Bob Jenkins and company the industry leader a decade ago. What I saw this weekend was a decidedly mixed bag.

Saturday’s ESPN2 “NASCAR Countdown” pre-race show never aired, pre-empted for the second time this season by women's tennis. The race was promoted heavily on the entire family of ESPN networks; ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic and ESPN360. But when Venus Williams ran long, NASCAR got the boot. The pre-race coverage could easily have been pushed to ESPN, where viewers were being subjected to a taped billiards match. Instead, it was summarily cut. GRADE: F

ESPN2 switched to Texas Motor Speedway just as the Busch Series field rolled off pit road. With Dr. Jerry Punch on vacation, veteran Marty Reid filled the host’s role, and filled it well. He meshed seamlessly with analyst Andy Petree and first-time commentator Dale Jarrett, setting the table professionally and allowing his co-workers the time and space to do what they do best. As he has previously on ESPN’s broadcasts of IndyCar and NHRA Drag Racing, Reid checked his ego at the door, steered the broadcast in a competent and efficient manner, and raised the term “team player” to new levels.

Petree has quickly proved himself to be one of the best-informed analysts in the business. He does his homework, talks to the men and women behind the scenes and brings that insight directly to the viewers. Jarrett had an admirable first outing, equaling anything Rusty Wallace has mustered in more than a season of work. His comments were concise (are you listening, Rusty?) and devoid of the ego and self-aggrandizement that so many former drivers insist on subjecting us to each weekend. Pit reporters Allen Bestwick, Dave Burns, Mike Massaro and Vince Welch completed the broadcast, covering the action quickly and professionally. GRADE: B+

Sunday morning, ESPN rolled out its “NASCAR Now” magazine show, hosted by Ryan Burr, who in limited outings this season has dramatically out-performed stiff-as-a-board pretty boy Erik Kuselias. Burr did his best, as did analysts Stacy Compton and Boris Said. Unfortunately, they were hobbled by bad writing, lousy producing, and ESPN’s insistence on manufacturing drama where none exists.

Brad Daugherty – a smart guy who the show’s producers seem unable to find a steady role for – was trotted out to announce that failing to qualify for races is a bad thing. “If you miss the race,” said Daugherty, “you lose momentum. It’s a real morale deficit if you do not get to participate on the weekend."

Say what? Since when does that pass for news?

Unfortunately, the real low points were still to come. Later in the hour, “NASCAR Now” made much ado about Mark Martin’s return to competition, as if his return to the US Army Chevrolet this weekend was somehow unexpected. Burr asked Compton with great earnestness, "What does it do to the field to have Mark Martin back?"

To his credit, Compton stifled a giggle before responding, “Not a lot."

Later, “NASCAR Now” aired a feature on the Jeff Gordon/Jimmy Johnson "controversy" at Martinsville, apparently not realizing that the story was two weeks old, and not much of a story in the first place. Burr tossed Compton another knuckleball, asking, “Is there any fallout from this?"

Compton once again did the best he could, saying, “No, I don't think so. They’re still friends." Said, meanwhile, had heard enough, sitting alongside and laughing. Burr completed the inanity trifecta following a report on the infamous “Texas Bump,” asking the panel, “doesn’t every track have its quirks,” before wondering aloud whether the entire issue had been overblown.

Summarized Compton, “I think so.” (Note to ESPN’s producers. When your own studio analysts struggle to keep a straight face, it may be time for the host to stop asking stupid questions.)

“NASCAR Now” followed with a feature likely left over from the previous day’s scuttled Busch Series pre-race show, hyping the Grand Opening of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s new JR Motorsports Busch shop. It might have fit-in 24 hours earlier, but Sunday morning, it had me wondering, “What does this have to do with today’s race?” GRADE: D-

All in all, ESPN’s race weekend left me with the distinct impression that there’s a lot of work left to do. It also made me miss Larry Nuber.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Waltrip Says Alcohol Not A Factor In Saturday Morning Crash

The woman who discovered Michael Waltrip's overturned car initially thought that no one had survived the crash, until she saw Waltrip climbing through the window.

The 18-year-old University of North Carolina-Charlotte student said she came upon the accident scene at about 2 a.m. Saturday, and rushed to check on the occupants after observing the overturned Toyota Land Cruiser in a ditch. When her shouts went unanswered, she called 911 for help.

"After I got off the phone, I was walking around the car again and somebody stuck their foot out the back driver-side window," she said. "That's when Michael Waltrip got out. He wiggled out the back window. I knew immediately it was him. He just got out the back driver-side window and stood up."

The witness – who has requested anonymity for fear of backlash from Waltrip’s fans -- said she asked Waltrip how long he'd been in the car, and he told her “about 10 minutes.

"He was bleeding from his forehead, and had some cuts on his fingers and arms," she said. "I told him 'You are really lucky you are alive. I didn't think anybody was alive in there.' We talked for a minute or two, and I told him 911 was on the way, and he just turned around and started walking home. I didn't know what to say or what to do. He had a T-shirt and sweat pants and socks on, and he just turned around and started walking home in his socks."

North Carolina State Trooper B.L. Buchanan said that after doing an initial assessment of the accident scene, he went to Waltrip's home at approximately 3 a.m., but was unable to locate Waltrip. Buchanan’s shift ended at 5 a.m., but he eventually contacted Waltrip at 8 p.m. Saturday when he returned to duty, charging the Nextel Cup veteran with reckless driving and failing to report an accident. Both charges are misdemeanors.

Waltrip declined requests to appear on Sirius Speedway yesterday, but team spokesperson Brooke Hondros said Waltrip was showering in his pool house when police arrived, and did not hear them at the door. Waltrip has said that he fell asleep at the wheel, and told the Charlotte Observer yesterday that alcohol was not a factor in the crash.

"I didn't go home to avoid anything," he said. "I went there trying to figure out what to do. I feel stupid. I feel like an idiot, because this one is all me."

Waltrip is due in court in Newton, North Carolina on May 14th, and NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter said the sanctioning body will speak with him about the incident tomorrow at Texas Motor Speedway.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

John Force Speaks On Medlen's Death, Says Teams May Return In Las Vegas

Fourteen-time NHRA Funny Car World Champion John Force addressed the media yesterday for the first time since the March 23rd death of teammate Eric Medlen in a testing crash in Gainesville, Florida. Force said he hopes to return his team to action at this weekend's NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas, but that he will reserve final judgement until after a new cockpit layout can be tested later today.

“We plan on going to Vegas,” he said, “but we have some testing to do.”

Force said eyewitness accounts of the crash and an exhaustive post-crash analysis lead him to believe that a punctured tire led to the fatal incident. He said the tire was examined and reconstructed by Goodyear, and, “I’ve got a statement here from Goodyear, (that) there was a puncture in the tire. Which means the tire went flat, then came apart. I assume that we ran over something, not that the tire was defective. Part of the tire was gone, which caused the car to drop, lift, drop, lift, from one side to the other.”

Biomedical research scientist and auto racing safety consultant John Melvin addressed the injuries that took Medlen’s life, explaining that a large portion of tire separated from the wheel at speed, creating a violent, side-to-side shake that sent an estimated 20 to 30 tons of sideways force through the car, and into the driver.

“I've been involved in racing safety since 1992, and things like this have never been seen in any kind of motorsport,” Melvin said. “The only comparison they could make was a helicopter in the military when a blade came off. The tire shake and the tire failure -- losing part of the tire -- caused extreme shaking. As far as we can tell, his head was shaken side-to-side so violently that it terribly injured his brain.”

Melvin compared Medlen’s injuries to an extreme case of Shaken Baby Syndrome, stressing that his brain was damaged by rapid oscillation, rather than by contact with the wall.

“There wasn't a single-point impact involved,” he said. “It was a relatively high-frequency attack to the brain. We're going to study this to find out exactly why the injuries occurred, and what we can do to solve it.”

As a result of the crash, Force said major changes are being made to all his team’s racecars.

"We cut the roll cages off of six cars, actually seven, and widened them,” he said. “We were able to put mountings in to triple the head protection on both sides of the driver. We changed the seat belts to (a seven-point system), and (modified) the locations where we mount them. We have R3 neck restraints that not only will protect you in frontal motion and reverse motion, but side to side. The problem is, there's no room to add the amount of padding you need.

“I don't know if it's drivable with what we've done,” cautioned Force. “Maybe (we’ve done) too much. We need to create a situation of tire shake (to test it). If we can do that, I'll know if I will be able to see with what we've done. You can't just make a big opening for the head, because then you have no protection.

“My team is on its way to Vegas, they should be there by now. All of the changes…will be installed in the morning so I can get in the seat (Wednesday).”

Force said the modifications will require a change of attitude on his part, as well.

“I was a lot like (Dale) Earnhardt; old school,” he said. “Even when he was injured, you couldn't get me to put on a HANS device, because I was uncomfortable. But I just spent the last three days in Indy, walking around the parking lot wearing this stuff, because I'm going to make myself get used to it.

“I got in the car and told Coil, `I'm so miserable. I can't even move. How can I drive this car?’ Coil said, `Do you want a championship, or do you want to be safe? You have to learn how to drive this car so you're safe, and then we'll address the championship.’ I don't care if it costs me a race,” said Force. “I'm going to wear it, wear it, wear it, wear it until I make myself like it, because I have no option.”

NHRA President Graham Light said the sanctioning body has taken take the unprecedented step of allowing Force to test the new cockpit configuration today at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; a move that technically violates NHRA’s seven-day “no-test policy” for national events. Light explained his decision to allow the test, saying, “John is not testing the performance of het car. They made some significant changes that we all want to learn from. Under those very rare circumstances, we allowed John to make a 300-foot pass. There will be no data gathered. (NHRA Director of Top Fuel & Funny Car Racing) Dan Olson will be there to make sure the data recorder is not connected.

“We felt that under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. Yes, it is in violation of our testing policy. Again, it's the right thing to do.

Force spoke at length about the emotional toll taken by Medlen’s death, saying, “We're getting by one day at a time. We have a very strong religious background. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to take it one step at a time. That's the only way we can find the peace. The loss and grief seem to get worse every day, but we're doing the very best we can to deal with it. I thought it would get better when I got back to California. But being honest, it got worse. I need to get to a racetrack. I need to get out there and do what I do. That's the only way I'm going to get well.”

Medlen’s father, John, who also served as his son’s crewchief, said of the past three weeks, “I wish there was a word to describe what our emotions are. There's nothing in my vocabulary that can describe the level of grief, all the emotions that would involve a circumstance like this. I can see Eric talking to us and watching us. He would say, `Get back out there and race, guys.’ That's what he did. That's what he loved to do. He loved that racecar. He loved racing.

”However, he would also be saying, `Make sure the cars are safe, Dad.’ Once the cars are safe, he wouldn't question it. He'd get in and go. We're doing everything we can… to send the guys out there with a safer racecar, and we're going to keep right on going.

“He would be very disappointed in us if we just tucked our tail under and continued on.”

Force agreed, saying, “If I didn't go back, then I failed Eric. I always believed these cars were safe. I promised these kids they were, because I've driven them for over 30 years. I've been through every type of crash you can imagine. (But when) you put your child in there, it's hard.

”Robert is mad at me because why didn't I allow him to race in Houston when he was in the points lead. Ashley is mad because I'm debating Vegas with her. We owe it to protect the drivers, and we owe it to protect our children. So I'm weighed between being a father and an owner that says, `You take that chance.’

“I have to explain it to my wife,” said Force. “She took all my kids out of the country for a week. Hell, I didn't know if she was going to bring 'em back. When Ashley came back yesterday, she was still aggravated at me. But I don't care if she's aggravated. When I know it's right, then we'll make the decision for Vegas. But we're not going to know until we get there.”

Ashley Force, who currently stands 13th in NHRA Funny Car points, said she understands her father’s conflicted emotions.

“I'm not at all aggravated at my dad,” she said. “It's not a situation that any of us have ever been in. We've lost other good friends, (but) this has hit so close to home because Eric is our family. The over-protectiveness that Dad has, I feel toward my sisters. But you have to let people decide (for themselves). Now that we've had a few weeks, we're getting through it. Personally, I did a lot of thinking. I thought, `Do I love racing enough to climb back in the car?’ I can't be scared in the car. I can't get in it thinking that something is going to happen to me. After doing a lot of thinking, I came back and said, `I still do love racing.’

“If I were to quit, then the last 24 years of my life would mean nothing,” she said. “I don't think that's the path I want to take. I want to get back in that car. I want to do it.”

John Force added, “I'd be a piece of shit if I ever quit. I'm just going to keep fighting this fight. We may never win a race again, but we will continue to do it. And John Medlen will be right in the middle of all of this, helping us grow this organization. We will not stop here. We will not let this thing just go away.”

Force stressed that his team will continue to compete on the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series, no matter what happens in today’s Las Vegas test.

“I have contracts with four teams, plus my Super Comp teams,” he said. “Those dragsters are having roll cages, padding, everything changed. There was a lot of good information that came out of this in a short period of time. As of right now, John Medlen and his team are staying intact. We will take all four teams to Vegas out of respect for Eric and his family. We want to be together. We want to stay strong. We will only run three of the teams.

“My life has changed to where it's not just about winning the championship,” he said. “Safety is my number one priority right now. If the cars are not right, then we will not enter the three cars. But we fully intend to. We're going there with the attitude that what we have done will work.

Force said that no decision has been made on the long-term status of Medlen’s former team.

“That's something that I will take up with John Medlen,” he said. “We kept the whole team onboard. Everyone has jobs. We may utilize his car as we get the data for stuff that we want to test. But the truth is, Eric Medlen was my driver. It would take a special individual, if ever, to replace him in that seat. That car may go away, (and it) may not.

“Maybe I’m just waiting for a sign, you know what I mean?”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Harkness Returns, Is Jailed On Fraud Charges

Angela Harkness is in jail today.

You may remember Ms. Harkness as the former co-owner of the Angela’s Motorsports NASCAR Busch Series team. She and her partner, Wells Fargo bank branch Vice President Gary Jones, were convicted of embezzling $1.3 million to fund the team between 2000 and 2003. Jones pled guilty to fraud, theft and embezzlement charges, and is currently serving a fairly lengthy sentence.

The Iranian-born Harkness has been on the lam since fleeing the United States in April of 2004, just before she could be sentenced for her conviction on fraud charges. The former strip club dancer was arrested in Dubai in May of 2005, but could not be brought back to serve her sentence because the United States does not have an extradition treaty with the United Arab Emirates. U.S. Marshals said Harkness contacted them recently, saying she wanted to return and serve her time. She was arrested Sunday at JFK International Airport in New York City, just as she stepped off a flight from the UAE.

Driver Mike McLaughlin, crewchief Harold Holly and team manager Clyde McLeod were left holding the bag when Harkness and Jones disappeared just prior to the 2003 season opener at Daytona International Speedway, leaving behind an estimated half million dollars in unpaid bills and bounced checks. Rick Barton, President and CEO of the team’s sponsor, WiredFlyer, claimed that Jones charged computers, airline tickets and other items to Barton’s personal credit card, and Robert Yates Racing was forced to repossess equipment sold to the team when payment was not made. Eight cars, a transporter and several other pieces of equipment were liquidated in a sale to current Busch Series team owner Jay Robinson.

Report: McGrath To NASCAR With JR Motorsports, Monster Energy Drink

The Sports Business Journal is reporting today say that JR Motorsports will announce the signing of seven-time Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath to a developmental contract.

McGrath will reportedly run a number of Late Model races for the Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-owned team with sponsorship from Monster Energy Drink, with an eye toward an eventual move to the NASCAR Busch Series. McGrath announced his retirement from Supercross racing at the end of last season, after recording seven 250cc championships and a record 72 main event wins. He was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2003.

Monster Energy Drink currently sponsors former motocross king Ricky Carmichael's budding NASCAR effort with Ginn Racing, Champ Car World Series star Paul Tracy and NHRA Funny Car veteran Kenny Bernstein. Nextel Cup driver Robby Gordon is also said to be negotiating with the energy drink brand, and he and his team wore black Monster Energy uniforms two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway. No branding has yet appeared on Gordon’s car, however.

Boosting Employee Morale At TRB

They may be working through a few problems on the racetrack, but clearly, it's good to work for Team Red Bull. Check out this article from the TRB blog, talking about a recent visitor to the team's North Carolina shop.

I know, I know, we had former Playboy Playmate of the Year Shannon Tweed on our show a couple of weeks ago. If only she hadn't brought Gene "Did I Mention The Indy Racing League Yet?" Simmons with her!

Monday, April 09, 2007

NASCAR Moves To Slow Toyota Busch, Truck Series Teams

NASCAR has mandated a different intake manifold for Toyota Busch and Craftsman Truck Series teams, in an effort to "level the playing field" with other manufacturers. The change will not affect the Nextel Cup Series.

In a technical bulletin issued this week, Busch Series Director Joe Balash said NASCAR will require Toyota teams to replace their current intake manifolds with newer models, in an effort to reduce horsepower. The sanctioning body has tested a number of vehicles on its chassis dyno in recent weeks, and sources tell Sirius Speedway that those tests revealed an advantage of approximately 10-15 horsepower for Toyota teams.

Toyota Tundras have swept all four Truck Series races this season, and claimed the next three spots behind winner Carl Edwards’ winning Busch Series Ford Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway.

Sirius Speedway In Beautiful Downtown Batesville!

Loyal listeners Jane and David Gee drove 13 hours from their home in Lucasville, OH, to take part in "Mark Martin Fan Days" and hang out with the Godfather at Mark Martin Ford-Mercury in Batesville, Arkansas, last Friday. They were gracious enough to send along a few pictures of their day...

The exterior of Mark Martin's gorgeous Ford-Mercury dealership gives a clue to what fans are in for when they step inside.

People spent the night in 30-degree temperatures, waiting in line for more than 16 hours to get autographs from Mark and Tony Stewart.

Mark signed just about everything that moved during the day, including David Gee's diecast.

Just a small percentage of the HUNDREDS of trophies from Mark's career that are on display in his incredible museum.

Mark and the Godfather talk to the fans on "Sirius Speedway."

Dave and Tony Stewart discuss alternative ways to torment Kevin Harvick. Thanks to Mark and his incredible staff for a great day, and thanks to the Gees for the photos!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

You Can Stop Worrying About Darlington

Darlington Raceway officials announced today that the Board of Directors of International Speedway Corporation has approved more than $10 million in funding for capital improvement projects at the speedway. Total estimated spending for the projects represents the largest one-time investment in the 58-year history of Darlington, and should end any further speculation about the status of the track's lone remaining NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race date.

Scheduled projects include repaving the racing surface and aprons, and the addition of concrete pit stalls. A new infield access tunnel -- large enough to accommodate team transporters and motorcoaches -- will be constructed at the west end of the track. Other planned projects include suite renovations and the creation of additional fan parking areas.

"We are extremely pleased (with ISC's) show of support for Darlington Raceway," said track president Chris Browning today. "The repaving and tunnel projects, in particular, are the continuation of a major renovation and upgrade plan that began last year with the construction of the new Brasington Tower grandstand in Turn One. Many great things lie ahead for Darlington Raceway, and we are tremendously excited about what the future holds."

Darlington Raceway hosted the first-ever NASCAR-sanctioned race on a paved oval on Labor Day, 1950. The track was last repaved in the fall of 1995, and Ward Burton won the pole for the first race on the new surface -- with a speed of 173.797 mph -- in the spring of 1996. Burton's track record still stands, but could be in serious jeopardy once the new asphalt is laid. Officials solicited input on the repaving project from several current drivers, along with team owners, engineers and representatives from NASCAR and Goodyear.

Work will begin this summer, following the Dodge Avenger 500 weekend May 10-12. The weekend will include the USAC Silver Crown Series, NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Nextel Cup Series; with all three events running under the lights on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

They're Tearing It Up At Bristol!

They're ripping up the concrete at Bristol Motor Speedway this week, replacing the track that has been in place since 1992 with an all-new, variable degree concrete surface. An all-new racetrack awaits Nextel Cup drivers and teams when they return in August, and the speedway is making chunks of the old surface available to fans as momentos.

IRL Owner Touting NASCAR/IndyCar Doubleheaders

Longtime Indy Racing League team owner John Barnes says the league could do itself a big favor by serving as a support division to NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series.

Barnes, part owner and General Manager of Panther Racing, is pushing the idea of NASCAR/IRL combo weekends, saying the Indy Car series would benefit, even if the open wheel machines were sold as a Saturday support event.

"We would make it where we would race on Saturday to replace a Busch or ARCA race, and they would race on Sunday," said Barnes this week. "I have no problem being second fiddle to them, I just want to get in front of their fans and show them what real racing is all about."

Barnes may or may not be on the right track with his proposal. On one hand, racing the day before NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series would expose the IRL to vast numbers of motorsports fans who currently wouldn’t know an Indy Car from the Space Shuttle. NASCAR puts between 65,000 and 150,000 fannies in the seats each weekend; numbers that dwarf anything the IRL can muster.

Even IRL’s premier event – the Indianapolis 500 – draws a small fraction of the television viewership enjoyed by its Memorial Day Weekend competition, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. The Indy Racing League needs fans, any way it can get them, and an association with America’s most popular form of motorsport can’t help but be of benefit.

Barnes’ desire to show NASCAR fans “what real racing is all about" could prove to be a double-edged sword, however.The Indy Racing League offers a solid on-track product, with three-wide racing and razor-close finishes the norm. Their athletes are personable, well-spoken, and reasonably accessible; all of which could appeal to stock car fans. However, died-in-the-wool NASCAR devotees might have trouble warming up to IRL’s short starting fields. Currently, only 20 drivers appear on the 2007 IRL roster, and at least two of those – Sarah Fisher and newcomer Milka Duno – will run only a partial schedule this season.

After being raised on 43-car starting grids, NASCAR fans may not find much to like in an anemic, 18-car lineup on wide-open speedways like Indianapolis, Kansas, Texas and Watkins Glen.

Also, one wonders why track promoters would choose to book a Saturday IRL event, when the tried-and-true NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck Series are available for the asking. The Indy Racing League may be a cheaper date than the Busch Series in terms of its purse requirements, but even a low-dollar Craftsman Truck show is certain to draw at least as many fans as the average IRL event, if not more.

In the end, Barnes’ proposal may prove to be little more than a tempest in a teapot. The new President of IRL's Commercial Division, Terry Angstadt, wasted little time shooting down the plan this week, saying the Indy Racing League would never allow itself to be presented as a support race.

It’s that kind of ego that will keep the Indy Racing League no better than fourth on the list of America’s most popular forms of motorsport.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Washington Track Project Dead

International Speedway Corporation has pulled the plug on its attempt to build a new speedway in Kitsap County, Washington.

ISC announced last night that it will cease lobbying for a proposed funding bill to help finance the 1.2-mile, 80,000-seat oval about 20 miles south of Seattle, saying that additional modifications to the legislation were unacceptable to the company. ISC President Lesa France Kennedy said that while the Kitsap County project is dead, ISC remains interested in building a track in the Pacific Northwest.

As a result of its decision, ISC expects to record a non-cash, pretax charge of approximately 5.5 to 6.5 million dollars spent on legal services, consulting, interest and other site-specific costs associated with the proposed track.

This is the second Washington progress to be dropped by ISC. An earlier site in Snohomish County had to be abandoned in November of 2004.

In Defense Of Martinsville Speedway

Clay Campbell got a little hot under the collar Sunday.

His racetrack -- Martinsville Speedway – was virtually sold-out, as fans packed the grandstands to see the second outing for NASCAR’s new Car Of Tomorrow. The racing on the track was fabulous; some of the best we’ve seen at the Virginia half-mile in years. Even the showers forecast for early in the day held off, allowing the race to conclude after a single, brief rain delay.

So why was Campbell scowling, on a day when his smile should have been a mile wide? Because of an online article the day before that put his track solidly on the list of NASCAR’s endangered species. staff writer David Caraviello painted a grim picture of the picturesque half-mile oval Saturday, writing, “compared to most other racetracks…the place is a dinosaur. And we all know what happens to dinosaurs. They go extinct.”

To be fair, Caraviello did find a few things to like about Martinsville, “from the unfailingly courteous staff to the springtime South Virginia scenery to the product on the racetrack.” However, he also railed against the track’s location – “an hour from anywhere” – and its facilities – “good luck finding an asphalt parking lot” -- stating that its status as one of three short tracks remaining on the Nextel Cup schedule is the only thing keeping Martinsville alive.

"With North Wilkesboro gone, Rockingham shuttered and Darlington down to one race, Martinsville stands as the final, vulnerable outpost among NASCAR's traditional tracks," he wrote. "Wherever and a bulldozer breaks ground (on new tracks in Denver or New York), the clock begins ticking on Martinsville. Right now, it's a racetrack being saved by red tape.”

Despite the fact that similar stories have been written before (roughly twice a year for the last 10 years), Caraviello’s column struck a nerve with Campbell, prompting him to schedule a 10 a.m. Sunday press conference to address what he called, “persistent, unfounded and irresponsible stories and rumors about Martinsville’s demise.”

In that conference, Campbell said, "I have never read a story about Martinsville coming from NASCAR, and nobody has done a story talking to Mike Helton about it. It’s frustrating to have to continually dispel rumors about it. I don’t mind anyone voicing their opinion, but I would appreciate them coming to me first and talking to me about it.”

If Campbell’s goal was to tone-down the anti-Martinsville rhetoric, it didn’t work. Almost immediately, some of the same writers who consistently flog NASCAR for its alleged disregard for tradition declared "open season" on one of NASCAR's most traditional and historic racetracks.

The following day, the Winston-Salem Journal’s Joe Menzer wrote, “Caraviello and myself weren't in attendance (at the press conference). We were stuck in what was reported to be a seven-mile-long traffic jam out in front of Campbell's track. And on my way to the press box later during the race, I saw several seven-mile-long lines to dilapidated restrooms and portable toilets.”

My friend and colleague David Poole groused, "I stayed...near Greensboro, N.C., this weekend and drove 42 miles each way. It would have taken me maybe half the time it did to get to my parking spot, if guards weren’t standing, arms crossed and scowls affixed, across the logical place to enter while hundreds of cars were directed around the posterior to get to the elbow to get to where they should have been going."

Guys, you're entitled to your opinions. But this writer has nothing but good to say about Martinsville Speedway, and I think it's high time somebody defended Clay Campbell and his racetrack.

Simple math indicates that when 65,000 people arrive in the same place at the same time, they can cause a bit of a traffic tie-up. Most of us understand that fact and plan accordingly. I drove into Martinsville Speedway at 7 a.m. Sunday morning, stopping exactly once for a total of approximately 45 seconds. Caraviello and Menzer apparently chose to get a somewhat later start, as is their right. But if you want to sleep-in and arrive at the track at 10 a.m., you shouldn’t expect to find acres of open highway awaiting you.

FYI: I left the track two hours after the checkered flag, and never stopped.

During my three days at the speedway, I patronized a handful of Martinsville’s “dilapidated restrooms.” I found no marble floors, no brass-handled fixtures, and no attendant at the door handing out hot towels and mints. However, there was running water, flushing toilets, soap and paper towels. The facilities were clean, well-stocked, and representative of what I have found at other sporting venues across the country. Probably no better, but certainly no worse.

I spent time wandering through Martinsville’s overflowing campgrounds during the weekend, talking with fans about the race and the racetrack. Apparently, they had not read Caraviello or Menzer’s articles. They all seemed to be having a wonderful time, blissfully oblivious to the traffic delays, antiquated facilities and lack of Five Star amenities that spoiled the weekend for Caraviello and Menzer.

They said they felt comfortable and welcome at Martinsville, pointing out campground neighbors they have known for decades, and relating stories of great races gone by. They praised the track itself, calling its half-mile layout a throwback to NASCAR’s golden era, when 2,000 right turns were often followed by a good right-cross to the chin.

Martinsville, they said, was like a old pair of shoes; slightly worn, perhaps a bit too small, but still their favorite stop on the circuit.

I couldn’t agree more. And the hotdogs are good, too.

I ran into Clay Campbell Sunday morning, and considered stopping to reassure him that not everyone sees his track as a dinosaur. He was busy, though, greeting fans as they came through the gates, and thanking them for supporting the speedway his late grandfather first plowed out of a field in 1949.

In an era where tradition often ranks a distant second to corporate profitability and TV ratings points, Martinsville Speedway proves that some things never change.

Some things don't have to, and I thank God for that.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

BREAKING NEWS: Roush-Fenway Racing Withdraws From Martinsville

Roush-Fenway Racing has withdrawn its five-car Nextel Cup team from today's "Goody's Cool Orange 500" at Martinsville Speedway. In an impromptu, 8 a.m. news conference in the infield Media Center, Roush announced that his five cars – driven by Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan – were being withdrawn from today’s race due to a dispute with NASCAR officials over interpretation of the new, Car Of Tomorrow rulebook. Roush refused to comment specifically on the dispute, but said he had no choice but to pull the cars from today's race. He will meet with team officials and sponsors early next week to determine the future of his NASCAR operation.

As he spoke, Roush-Fenway crewmembers silently packed up their toolboxes and loaded racecars into their transporters. NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said that if Roush's five cars do not appear on the startiing grid, the race will be run with 38 starters. In his words, "It's too late for any adjustments to be made to the field, since the teams that failed to qualify on Friday have left the speedway and returned to Charlotte. It's unfortunate, but at this point, the matter is out of NASCAR's hands."