Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Notes From Champions Week In NYC

Dodge confirmed today that it will race the Dodge Charger in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2008 and beyond. Dodge Brand Director Mike Accavitti made the announcement today, calling the Charger the cornerstone of Dodge’s NASCAR heritage. He said that Dodge’s 2,500 dealers have expressed "overwhelming support" for the Charger brand to continue in NASCAR. Dodge’s 2008 lineup will feature 12 drivers with five teams.

Petty/GEM Merger Off: Kyle Petty said yesterday that he and his father have decided not to merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, at least for now. The two teams had discussed a partnership that would have allowed Petty Enterprises to maintain its identity.

Petty also announced that he and his wife, Pattie, are determined to build a second camp for seriously ill children in the Midwest; most likely in the Kansas City area. Petty called the project a question of, “not if we build, (but) when we build.”

The Pettys have run the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C., since 2004. They were scheduled to meet with civic and corporate leaders last Tuesday night to talk about the “long-term sustainability” of the project. Petty said that if the details can be worked out, the camp could open in 2009 or 2010

Musgrave Out, Marks In At Germain: Germain Racing owner Bob Germain has confirmed what Sirius Speedway first told you back on November 2nd; that the team will not renew its NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series contract with Ted Musgrave.

ARCA driver Justin Marks will replace Musgrave, bringing sponsorship from Croc Shoes to the team. Marks ran four truck races for Germain Racing this season, finishing eighth in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Musgrave has not announced his plans for 2008, but he is expected to replace Jack Sprague at the wheel of the #60 Wyler Racing Toyota.

NASCAR In No Hurry On Fike: NASCAR says it will move slowly in evaluating the status of suspended driver Aaron Fike.

Fike was recently sentenced to two years' probation after a plea agreement reduced a pair of felony charges resulting from his arrest last summer for possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. As part of his plea agreement, Fike has promised to speak and pass out anti-drug literature at schools and speedways.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston says the sanctioning body will procede slowly with Fike, saying he has "got some work to do” before any possibility of reinstatement. Poston said Fike needs to complete the legal process, undergo evaluation by NASCAR’s substance abuse experts, and follow the prescribed program they set for him.

There is currently no timetable for reinstatement, but Fike has said he'll do whatever it takes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Penske Points Swap Legal, But Wrong

Roger Penske said this week that he may take advantage of a NASCAR rule allowing him to swap owners’ points between Kurt Busch’s #2 team and the new, #77 Dodge he will field for rookie Sam Hornish, Jr., next season. That move will guarantee Hornish a spot in the Top-35 to begin the 2008 season, and assure that he will qualify for the first five races of the year. Busch will also be a guaranteed starter for the first five races, based on his status as a past Nextel Cup Series champion.

Penske’s point swap is absolutely legal and aboveboard. However, it clearly goes against the spirit of the rule, and exposes a loophole in NASCAR’s regulations that needs to be closed.

NASCAR’s Top-35 rule – flawed as it may be – was devised for a very simple reason; to reward top teams for their loyalty to the series by ensuring that they are in the starting field every week. Unfortunately, NASCAR’s “point-swap” loophole allows a team owner like Penske to circumvent the intent of the rule. Instead of rewarding Busch’s team for its 2007 performance, NASCAR will reward a team that did not even exist this season.

After some savvy front-office finagling, Hornish – who has attempted to qualify for only seven races this season (succeeding just once) – will receive a guaranteed starting spot for the season-opening Daytona 500, while drivers like Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip – each of whom attempted all 36 races in 2007 – will not. In effect, NASCAR will issue a free pass to a team that has no equity in the series, while penalizing teams that have invested a full season of blood, sweat and tears.

That cannot be what NASCAR had in mind.

Fortunately, the loophole is a simple one to close. NASCAR needs to make its car owner points non-transferable, and award them to a specific team, rather than the owner of that team. No more backdoor maneuvering, no more buying points from part-time teams (a gamble that blew up in Morgan-McClure’s face earlier this season), and no more smoke and mirrors.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ward Replaced For Homestead Finale

Ward Burton is out of the State Water Heaters Chevrolet this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway, replaced by former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Todd Bodine.

Morgan-McClure Motorsports President Tim Morgan made that announcement today, saying that both Burton and the team have agreed to the change, in an effort to evaluate the performance of the team. "Ward has worked hard for us this year, he is a good driver and a friend," said Morgan. "Todd has been helpful to us in the past and has agreed to step in and help us benchmark our efforts as we get ready for the 2008 season."

Morgan said State Water Heaters will return to the team next season, and that he is searching for additional sponsorship. No decision has been made on a full-time driver for the 2008 NASCAR season.

Records Possible For Johnson, Biffle: Only two drivers have ever won more than four consecutive NASCAR Nextel Cup Series races. Jimmie Johnson has a chance to be the third.

Richard Petty actually accomplished the feat twice, winning five straight in 1971 at Malta and Islip (NY), Trenton (NJ), Nashville and Atlanta; and an incredible 10 in a row as part of a 1967 season that saw him win 27 of 48 races overall. In 1971, Bobby Allison claimed five-straight checkered flags at Charlotte, Dover, Michigan, Riverside and Texas World Speedways.

Greg Biffle has a chance to extend a hot streak of his own this weekend by winning his fourth consecutive Nextel Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Biffle has won the season-ending Ford 400 in each of the last three seasons, and said he is confident that a fourth checkered flag could be just around the corner. "The car has been really fast everywhere we've taken it, and I'm positive that we can at least challenge for (the win)," he said. He will drive the same car Sunday that won at Kansas Speedway earlier this season. Biffle said a fourth Homestead win would equal his personal high of four consecutive Late Model wins set early in his career at Tri-Cities Speedway.

Tempers Flare: It’s been a long, hard 2007 season, and the mental strain is beginning to show in certain NASCAR Nextel Cup Series garage stalls.

After Sunday’s race, Martin Truex, Jr., was extremely critical of the call made by crewchief Kevin “Bono” Manion to remain on the track during the race’s final caution. Truex inherited the lead when all the other frontrunners elected to pit for tires and fuel, but faded back to seventh in the final laps.

Truex said he was “a sitting duck” in the final laps, and called the decision to remain on the track “unfortunate,” prompting an angry reaction from Manion. “It is my decision,” he said. “I wanted to stay out, (because) I thought that was our best chance. We make calls on the pit box to win races. We don’t make calls to run seventh. We don’t make pit decisions to run us out of gas. No matter what…we decide on the pit box, we get ridiculed and criticized by the driver. It is tough to swallow.”

Friday, November 09, 2007

Best Buy To GEM, Sadler

Best Buy, Inc., confirmed today what Sirius Speedway first told you more than a week ago, that the nation’s leading electronics retailer will sponsor Elliott Sadler's No. 19 Gillett Evernham Motorsports Dodge Avenger in 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races next season, beginning with the 50th Anniversary Daytona 500.

Best Buy is expected to share sponsorship of the car with Valvoline and Stanley Tools.

Gillett Evernham Motorsports co-owner (and Sirius Speedway regular) Ray Evernham called the deal, "a natural fit," and Sadler said, "I’ve always been a ‘gadget guy.’ My house, car, boat and even my motor home are all tricked out with stereos, speakers, gaming systems, GPS, flat screens, DVD players, you name it. The employees at the Mooresville Best Buy store already know me by name, but they’ll be seeing even more of me now.”

Since 2000, Gillett Evernham Motorsports has posted 13 wins, 24 poles, 67 top-five and 130 top-10 finishes in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition. Sadler has recorded three career Sprint Cup wins, 55 top-10 finishes and seven poles.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Lady In Black Gets A New Coat

Paving crews began laying down the new asphalt at NASCAR’s first paved superspeedway last week, the initial step in a total resurfacing at the legendary Darlington Raceway. The $10-million project includes new asphalt around the entire 1.366-mile oval, concrete pit stalls and a new infield access tunnel beneath turn three. Construction will be completed in time for the Dodge Challenger 500 weekend on May 8 – 10, 2008.

Here's What To Expect At NHIS

Since the announcement last week that New Hampshire International Speedway had been sold to Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., many observers have begun scrambling to come up with scenarios that will allow the Loudon oval to keep both of its NASCAR Nextel Cup Series races.

NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France has already extended the track a brief, one-year reprieve, saying there will be no changes to the 2008 Nextel Cup schedule, since sanctioning fees have already been paid and the schedule made public. But NASCAR's stay of execution will be a brief one, and in 2009, the newly renamed New Hampshire Motor Speedway will host just one Nextel Cup race.

Here's why.

Yesterday’s Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway coincided with the opening weekend of deer-hunting season in the Lone Star State; a day when an estimated one million Texans cancel the rest of their lives and head for the woods. That scheduling conflict adversely impacts ticket sales at TMS, and track president Eddie Gossage is understandably interested in negotiating an earlier slot for his speedway in the Chase For The Nextel Cup. The recent sale of NHIS offers a perfect opportunity for him to do exactly that.

In 2009, expect SMI to request permission to move the opening round of the Chase from New Hampshire to Texas, and shuffle Texas’ early November event to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the only whitetails to be found are dancing for tips (and tips only) on the Strip.

NASCAR benefits from the move by opening its 2009 playoffs in a high-visibility, major market city, rather than the sleepy little hamlet of Loudon, NH.

Texas Motor Speedway benefits by dodging the deer hunting bullet and selling more tickets.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway benefits from the addition of a long-coveted second Nextel Cup date; and a Chase date, at that.

The only losers will be New England race fans, who will have their diet of NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing reduced to a single, meager helping in early July. That’s harsh treatment for a group that has sold out every Nextel Cup race ever held at the track, and a potential death blow for the NASCAR Busch East and Whelen Modified Tours; both of which have built their schedules around a pair of lucrative annual appearances at NHIS. Bob Bahre always considered it his duty to support local racers by including them in his Nextel Cup mega-weekends. Bruton Smith may or may not be so inclined.

As a native New Englander, I'll be more than happy to eventually be proven wrong on this one. But somehow, I don't see it happening. Race fans, enjoy your final season of twice-annual Cup racing at NHIS.

Friday, November 02, 2007

CONFIRMED: Sprague To KHI Next Season

Kevin Harvick confirmed Friday night what Sirius Speedway first reported nearly two weeks ago; that three-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague will join Kevin Harvick, Inc., in 2008 as a teammate to former champion and current title contender Ron Hornaday, Jr.

A KHI spokesman disavowed any knowledge of the deal two weeks ago, but Harvick told a national SPEED-TV audience Friday that Sprague will leave Wyler Racing at the end of the season to form a potent, two-truck operation with Hornaday under the KHI banner. A primary sponsor has been signed, and will be announced at a later date.

“Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague are what truck racing is all about,” said Harvick. “They are both hard-core racers. I know that they will both give everything they have until the checkered flag falls, and those are the kind of guys I want driving for me.”

The Sprague announcement caps a major week of news on the Craftsman Truck Series. On Tuesday, Wyler Racing announced plans to merge with South Point Racing to form Wyler-Gaughan Racing, fielding Toyota Tundras for driver Brendan Gaughan. Gaughan is also slated to run approximately six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races for the new team.

Changes are also afoot at Germain Racing, which fields Toyotas for defending series champion Todd Bodine and teammate Ted Musgrave. The team is expected to announce the signing of youngster Justin Marks to drive the #9 Toyota next season, replacing Musgrave, who sources tell Sirius Speedway will replace Sprague at the wheel of the #60 Wyler-Gaughan Racing Toyota. Musgrave is expected to take the Team ASE sponsorship along with him.

Musgrave is playing coy about his plans for next year, saying only, "it's going to be a throwback to a couple of years ago. I'm kind of getting some of the band back together (to) have fun."

David Starr's status with Circle Bar Racing is still uncertain, amid reports that the Texas native may return to Red Horse Racing next season to drive a new NASCAR Toyota Camry on the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

Joey Clanton will reportedly not return to Wood Bros/JTG Racing next season, and may jump to Roush Fenway Racing. An announcement is expected within the next two weeks. And finally, Bill Davis Racing has announced the signing of Phillip McGilton to race as a teammate to Mike Skinner and Johnny Benson in 2008. The 29-year-old McGilton has run the full ARCA schedule this season, and will make his truck debut in BRD's #22 Toyota at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.

Thanks, Bob

It’s official. Speedway Motorsports, Inc., is the new owner of New Hampshire International Speedway, after paying a reported $340 million for Bob Bahre’s one-mile White Mountain oval. The purchase will become final in the first quarter of next year, and the track will be renamed New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

No announcement was made about moving one of the track's two Nextel Cup races to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but sources close to the situation say that move will happen, perhaps as early as next season, but by 2009 for sure.

I feel sad for New England race fans today, who supported NHIS as well as any fan group in the country. The track’s two Nextel Cup dates were perennial sellouts; despite a slew of ho-hum, one-lane affairs in the beginning, and even through the dark times surrounding the tragic deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. Northeast racefans love their NASCAR racing, and it’s sad that they are destined to lose one of their coveted race dates.

Couldn’t California have taken the bullet instead?

In my mind, I understand that Las Vegas deserves a second Nextel Cup date. LVMS is conveniently located in the heart of one of the country’s top tourist meccas, its “Neon Garage” is the standard by which all NASCAR Fan Walks should be judged, and the racetrack itself is beginning to come around after a liberal reworking during the offseason. It’s probably not the most competitive venue in NASCAR, but then again, neither was New Hampshire. On that front, I guess it’s all a wash.

I also can’t fall in line with those who decry the sale of NHIS as a case of big business run amok. I could share their outrage, were it not for the way Bob Bahre obtained his second race date in 1996; purchasing half of the legendary North Wilkesboro Speedway and spiriting one of its races away to the Granite State.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. What goes around comes around.

Still I can’t help feeling sorry for New England race fans today. They probably don’t deserve what’s soon to come. And while I’m at it, I guess I’m also feeling a little bit sorry for myself. Simply put, I’ll miss my twice-annual treks to NHIS.

I’ll miss touching base with dozens of lifelong friends that I somehow see just twice a year now, wandering the garage in Loudon.

I’ll miss walking the Busch East and Whelen Modified Tour garages, renewing acquaintances with people I have idolized for a decades.

I’ll miss calling the Craftsman Truck, Busch and Nextel Cup races there for MRN Radio, knowing there are at least a few hundred people in the house thinking, “I heard this guy call the Street Stock consi at Thunder Road in 1982.”

I’ll miss dealing with one of the best staffs in all of NASCAR -- people like P.R. Director Fred Neergaard, V.P. of Marketing Joe McGahan and the omnipresent Ron Meade – all of whom were not only willing to solve problems, but to anticipate them in advance and dole out help with a smile and a “thanks for coming.”

I’ll miss sprinting to my prime parking spot at the Sugar House across Route 106, a spot that allowed me to hit the leather recliner in my living room just two hours after the checkered flag.

I’ll miss the feel of NHIS; more personal than corporate.

More than anything, though, I think I’ll miss Bob Bahre. One of the last old-time, independent track owners, Bahre built NHIS out of his own pocket, with no need for investment bankers or public handouts. He and younger brother Dick laid out the “Magic Mile” themselves with wooden stakes, eschewing the high-dollar, college-educated engineering help that has cursed NASCAR with so many 1.5-mile, cookie-cutter tri-ovals in recent years.

I’ll miss Bahre’s rumpled white dress shirt, khaki slacks and yellow cardigan sweater, shuffling between souvenir trailers making sure the paying customers have everything they want, or need.

I’ll miss seeing him huddled over a plate of fried eggs and homefries in the track restaurant on race morning, touching base with Mike Helton, Jim Hunter and any other of his old cronies that happen to wander by.

I’ll miss seeing hard-luck drivers tow out of NHIS after failing to qualify, clutching the few hundred extra dollars Bahre inevitably slipped them on their way through the tunnel.

At nearly 82 years of age, “Papa Bahre” has earned the right to do what he wants with his remaining years, without the stress and strain of running a big-time NASCAR race venue. He deserves to retire to the big house on the hill with his wife, Sandy, and his antique cars, content in the knowledge that he did more for New England motorsports than anyone else, before or since.

Thanks Bob, and God Bless.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

UPDATED: Bruton's "Big Announcement" Set For Friday; NHIS Sold To SMI

Friday at 2 p.m. CT, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith will step behind a podium at Texas Motor Speedway to make what he promises will be “a big announcement.” One way or another, that announcement could change the face of NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing.

Some say Smith will announce that he is moving Lowe's Motor Speedway out of Concord, NC, making good on his promise to bulldoze the current track in protest of the city’s brief opposition to the $60 million dragstrip he planned to build there.

Others say he will announce the purchase of New Hampshire International Speedway from the Bahre family, almost certainly clearing the way for one of the track’s two Nextel Cup dates to be moved to Las Vegas.

Either way, it’s gonna be huge. Bruton Smith huge.

City and county officials are now doing everything in their power to keep Lowe’s Motor Speedway right where it is. An economic package is being discussed that could provide as much as $2.4 million in incentives for the new dragstrip, along with a generous package of tax breaks to help Smith make a reported $200 million in improvements to the existing speedway complex. The Concord City Council has already backtracked on its original zoning decision, and now says there’s nothing they would like more than a dragstrip in their backyard.

The damage, however, may already have been done. Bruton Smith is a proud man, and one not used to hearing the word “no.” Experts say that with the healthy incentive packages being offered up by neighboring municipalities, he could actually come out ahead by leveling Lowes Motor Speedway and rebuilding elsewhere.

Maybe he’ll do that. Or maybe he’ll buy NHIS.

Smith tap-danced around the question late yesterday with my Sirius NASCAR Radio colleague David Poole, rattling off a laundry list of other potential buyers; from Roush Fenway Racing, to Kentucky Speedway owner Jerry Carroll, to Ray Evernham’s new partner George Gillett. Asked again if HE had purchased the track, Smith said, “It’s unfortunate that you weren’t able to get up with me for a comment today.”

Maybe he’ll buy NHIS. Or maybe he’ll bulldoze Lowes Motor Speedway.

Maybe both.

Bruton Smith is a consummate promoter; the walking, talking reincarnation of P.T. Barnum. Everything he does is big, and plays out on the most grandiose stage imaginable. Friday’s announcement in Texas – no matter what it may be – could trump them all. Or it could be a new associate sponsor for his Las Vegas Busch race.

As Bruton would say, “stay tuned.”

UPDATE: Sirius Speedway has confirmed that Speedway Motorsports, Inc., has purchased New Hampshire International Speedway, with an announcement to come Friday in Texas.

NASCAR For Sale? Separating The Facts From The Fiction

An article posted Tuesday under the headline “Could NASCAR Be For Sale?” on the website read, “Just weeks after rumblings that there could be a change in the NASCAR leadership with current CEO Brian France stepping aside for his uncle Jim France, there seems to be speculation that NASCAR itself could be for sale. Multiple sources are saying that NASCAR’s parent company, International Speedway Corporation, is studying the sale of the world’s largest stock car auto racing sanctioning body due to financial troubles.” The story said that an investment bank – “most likely New York based Lehman Brothers” – has conducted a study, placed a value on NASCAR and prepared a prospectus for potential buyers.

The story included no byline, but Editor Greg Engle said today that the article was written by a staff intern, then “doublechecked” by him. We invited Engle to discuss the allegations on-air, but he declined, citing language in his contract with an Orlando, Florida-based TV station that prevents him from appearing on any other media outlet. In a brief telephone conversation earlier today, Engle said that he has now backed off on some of the allegations made in the article.

“I never rescind anything that I post on the site,” he said. “Once it’s up, it’s up. But I am going to write something later today clarifying some of what was said.

“There is definitely something going on,” insisted Engle. “I have two sources telling me that the sale is being discussed, and another at Lehman Brothers that confirms that a prospectus has been done. Something is going on, and it sounds to me like someone in the France family is looking to sell out.”

A close examination of the story, however, reveals it to be riddled with assumptions and inaccuracy.

At one point, the article identifies International Speedway Corporation as “parent company of NASCAR," something even the greenest cub reporter knows to be untrue. ISC and NASCAR are operated as independent entities by different members of the France family. NASCAR is privately held, while ISC is publically owned. Approximately 35% of ISC stock is owned by France family members, with the remainder trading on the open market.

“I understand that now,” said Engle when asked about the mistake.

The article also states, “financial troubles for ISC include the costs of lawsuit mitigation, combined with the loss of potential tracks in New York and Washington State.” ISC is indeed party to the ongoing Kentucky Speedway antitrust lawsuit, and has committed large sums of money to its (so-far) unsuccessful effort to build new tracks in Metropolitan New York and the Pacific Northwest. However, ISC recently sold the plot of land it purchased on Staten Island to a company planning build a 3.5-million square foot warehouse distribution center, recouping much of the capital expenditure from that project. ISC has been sued before – remember Francis Ferko – and emerged with its profit margin intact. There is no reason (other than wild conjecture) to believe that the same will not happen again.

The article states, “Combined with falling ticket sales and TV ratings…investors are getting weary.” Actually, that’s not true, either, since a drop in TV ratings results in no loss of revenue to NASCAR or ISC. NASCAR’s current television contract contains no linkage between revenue and ratings, meaning that the sanctioning body (and its tracks) get paid the same amount whether anyone is watching, or not. NASCAR’s TV partners – FOX, TNT and ESPN/ABC – are impacted by flagging ratings, since they cannot charge as much for advertising. NASCAR and ISC, however, are unaffected.

Engle is correct that lagging ticket sales are a concern for ISC, which owns a number of speedways. They do not however, affect NASCAR’s bottom line in any way. NASCAR collects its sanction fee in advance of each event, and receives the same amount of money, no matter how many fannies are in the stands on race day.

Finally, Engle fails to explain how the sale of NASCAR could possibly impact ISC’s financial bottom line. Once again, for emphasis: NASCAR is privately owned, and is separate and distinct from International Speedway Corporation. The sale of NASCAR would benefit only specific members of the France family; and not ISC stockholders

Asked to comment on Engle’s story yesterday, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston was reluctant to do so, simply calling the report, “ridiculous.”