Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rhetoric Heating Up In NASCAR vs. AT&T Cell Phone Feud

AT&T filed a motion this week, asking that its logo be allowed to appear on Jeff Burton's #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Burton is currently sponsored by Cingular Wireless, which was recently acquired by AT&T as part of its recent merger with BellSouth. AT&T intends to eliminate the Cingular brand, replacing with AT&T. NASCAR has repeatedly denied requests to change the signage on Burton’s car, saying that “rebranding” is prohibited under the sanctioning body’s contract with NEXTEL; major sponsor of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

John Burbank, Vice President of Marketing for AT&T, released a statement Monday, saying, "We must bring this issue to resolution. The season is well under way, and so are our re-branding efforts. This filing is a logical next step in the process, and one we must pursue so that we can move forward with our paint scheme -- something our agreement with NASCAR allows us to do."

NASCAR fired back today, saying the sanctioning body’s decision to grandfather Cingular into the sport “was tied directly to the Cingular Wireless brand, and not the Cingular company.”

Attorneys for NASCAR say the sanctioning body communicated verbally with Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing South (sponsored by ALLTEL) and other race teams as early as 2003 – while the NEXTEL contract was still being hammered out – informing them that there would be language in that contract limiting their ability to maneuver within the sport. NASCAR says they told the teams that their sponsors would be grandfathered into the sport, but would not be allowed to change their level of involvement, change teams, or change their names.

In addition, documents field with the court this week show that NASCAR President Mike Helton sent a letter to Cingular President/CEO Stan Sigman prior to SpeedWeeks 2007 at Daytona, explaining why Cingular would not be allowed to rebrand. Helton attached a letter sent by NASCAR’s George Pyne to Richard Childress on April 4, 2005 (more than a year before the Cingular-ATT merger was announced) in which Pyne wrote, "should Cingular be acquired by a third party, the Cingular brand is continually welcome as a team sponsor. However, should the company's name change, we will not allow any paint scheme or branding on the car promoting this new name.”

Attorneys for ATT claim in their most recent court filings that NASCAR failed to inform Cingular/ATT that rebranding would not be allowed. Based on the documents on file, however, it appears that Cingular signed two, one-year sponsorship contracts with RCR -- for the 2006 and 2007 seasons -- after NASCAR informed Childress a name change would not be permitted.

NASCAR had no legal obligation to communicate directly with ATT/Cingular in this matter, since Cingular/ATT has no official relationship with the sanctioning body. NASCAR’s relationship (and thus its obligation) is to Richard Childress Racing, and they seem to have fulfilled that obligation by informing RCR – on at least two occasions – that the rebranding of the Cingular sponsorship would not be permitted.

In the end, “who said what to whom” (and on what date) may prove to be moot points. Ultimately, this dispute will be decided by the specific language of NEXTEL’s contract with NASCAR. AT&T says there is nothing preventing Cingular from changing its name in the event of a merger or buy-out. NASCAR says the language is specific, and precludes Cingular from changing its name.

It is on that point – and that point alone – that the courts will most likely decide.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Despite Delay, Siegel Expects Earnhardt To Sign New Contract WIth DEI

Despite recent surgery for Kelley Earnhardt Elledge that put negotiations on hold temporarily, Dale Earnhardt Inc. President of Global Operations Max Siegel said he expects to sign Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to a new contract by May.

Earnhardt Elledge, who has been handling her brother’s end of the negotiations, underwent surgery Friday to remove tumors from her pancreas. She is expected to remain hospitalized for four or five days, but Siegel said there us no reason why a new deal can't be completed by May, before DEI loses its right to negotiate exclusively with its star driver.

"You can't really rush the process," he said. "We're all headed in the right direction, and as soon as it makes sense for us to sit back down, we will. None of us want to do anything that is going to interfere with Kelley’s recovery, or frame of mind."

Earnhardt said earlier this year that he wants majority ownership as part of any new contract with DEI.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Notes From Thunder Valley

NASCAR’s new Car Of Tomorrow completed its maiden voyage with flying colors Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. There was plenty of passing – most all to the inside, like always at Bristol -- frequent bump-and-run moves, a multi-car pileup or two to add spice to the soup, and a few frayed tempers along the way. In fact, had it not been for those much-discussed rear spoilers and front splitters, Sunday’s “Food City 500” looked alot like every other race we’ve seen at Thunder Valley in recent years.

It was certainly not the cataclysmic event many had predicted. Front splitters did not shatter into clouds of shrapnel at every incidence of minor contact. Spinning cars were not tossed airborne by the inverted force of the new rear wings. The cars seemed quite driveable -- with a number of drivers coming from deep in the pack to record Top-10 finishes – and were clearly responsive to chassis adjustments.

Aside from a three-wide sprint to the checkered flag (something that is wholly impossible at Bristol), it’s hard to imagine how the bosses in Daytona Beach could be any happier with the COT’s debut.

Biffle Too Low: Roush-Fenway Racing is in line for a possible penalty, after Greg Biffle's #16 Ford failed a post-race inspection at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton said the car was too low following its fifth-place finish, but would not speculate on possible penalties. The car has been taken to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, N.C., for examination, but will be returned to the team in time for them to take it to Martinsville Speedway this weekend as a backup. Kyle Busch’s winning Chevrolet was also taken to the Charlotte R&D Center, and will reportedly be scanned once again to determine what changes took place in the chassis as a result of 500 hard miles at Thunder Valley.

D.J. Unhappy As Rough Start Continues: Dale Jarrett qualified for the Food City 500 without benefit of a Past Champion's Provisional for the first time this season, but that’s where his good luck ended. Early in Sunday’s race, Jarrett’s UPS Toyota got turned around on the front bumper of Matt Kenseth’s Ford, sending Jarrett spinning into the Turn One wall, then into the path of both Robby Gordon and David Gilliland.

Jarrett emerged from his battered Camry and glared at Kenseth with arms spread wide and palms up; the universal sign for “WTF was that?” He was credited with 42nd place at the end of the day, and unofficially dropped out of the Top-35 in owner’s points heading for Martinsville this weekend.

Another “What If” For Stewart: Tony Stewart had the dominant car of the day, only to have engine problems drop him many laps down at the finish. After starting fourth, the two-time Nextel Cup champion needed just seven circuits to take the lead from polsitter Jeff Gordon, and was the class of the field until pitting under caution on lap 291, complaining of no fuel pressure.

Repairs were made, but after leading 257 of the first 291 laps, Stewart spent the rest of the day saving the car for Martinsville, en route to a 35th place finish.

Roush-Fenway Must Downsize: NASCAR has informed Roush Fenway Racing that it will have to decrease the number of Nextel Cup teams under its ownership umbrella from five to four, by the start of the 2010 season. Initially, NASCAR said Roush-Fenway could wait until the end of a driver and sponsor contract cycle to downsize, but uncertainties over possible contract extensions prompted the sanctioning body to implement a hard date of February, 2004 at Daytona.

Team President Geoff Smith confirmed this weekend that Ameriquest Mortgage – major sponsor of Greg Biffle's #16 -- has asked the team to sell off the final two years of its contract, after financial difficulties led to the announcement of a second round of employee layoffs recently. Smith said, “It's very clear that they want to reduce their contract exposure. We’ve got this lame duck environment going on, which is not helpful to anybody.”

Smith said he does not anticipate problems finding a sponsor to replace Ameriquest in 2008 and 2009, and after that, he said Roush-Fenway hopes to sell one of its teams to meet NASCAR’s ownership cap. "There's no mistaking what we have to do," Smith said. "Regardless of what goes on within our programs, we have to go to four cars in 2010. We've got three more years to sell one of our teams off, and hopefully, we can retain some business with that sale."

Respect At The Front: For the second time in the last three weeks, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton epitomized NASCAR Nextel Cup racing at its best Sunday.

Both men conserved their cars for when it mattered most, then lit the afterburners in the final 50 laps en route to the front. Busch took the lead from Denny Hamlin when Hamlin slowed to avoid the limping-to-pit-road car of Jimmie Johnson, then held off a clearly faster Burton on a final, green-white-checkered restart to claim his fourth career Nextel Cup Series win.

Burton had at least three chances to inflict the now-customary “bump and run” on Busch in the final two laps, but never did, coming up about four feet short at the checkered flag. “Kyle has always raced me clean, and I tried to return that,” said Burton, who came out on the long end of an almost identical finish two weeks ago in the Las Vegas Busch race. Busch, meanwhile, ackowledged Burton’s last-lap largesse, saying, “Jeff could have dumped me in turns three and four, but I had some brownie points to use up from our Vegas finish. It was a great battle.”

Just when it seems like every driver graduated from the “I Did What I Had To Do To Win” school of situational ethics, Burton and Busch reminded us again of how it used to be done, before championship points became more valued that respect.

Funeral Information For Eric Medlen

Funeral services for Eric Medlen will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Connection Pointe Christian Church, 1800 N. Green Street in Brownsburg, Indiana. There will be a viewing from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday at the same church.

Medlen succumbed to complications from a closed head injury Friday, four days after his Funny Car crashed during a testing run at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway. He is survived by his father, John; his mother, “Mimi”; his stepmother, Martha; and a sister, Eryn Gonzales.

Flowers can be arranged through Queen Anne's Lace in Brownsburg, at (317) 858-8170.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Ache Is Back

Eric Medlen died today, and I’m wondering what it is about this damned sport that appeals to me.

Eric died as the result of a horrific testing crash at Gainesville Raceway Monday. He suffered a severe, closed head injury when his Funny Car slammed into a guardwall, and was airlifted to the University of Florida Medical Center. Some of the finest doctors in the country did everything in their power to save him, even removing the front portion of his skull to relieve pressure and improve blood flow to his injured brain.

They did everything they could to coax a miracle out of Eric’s battered body. But sadly, it wasn’t enough. He never regained consciousness.

"Eric suffered from severe traumatic brain injury with diffuse axonal injury, or DAI," said Dr. Joseph Layon, Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF. "Survival rates associated with DAI are low. Despite receiving the most aggressive treatment, Eric continued to have uncontrollable intra-cranial pressure. His body lost the ability to manage its salt and water levels, and he began displaying the complicating factors associated with DAI.”

Faced with the inevitable, Eric's family honored his previously stated wishes and removed him from life support, ending a life – and a career – that was remarkable in every way.

Eric Medlen excelled in everything he ever did. He was a High School rodeo champion, and trained under two-time PRCA World Champion Jerold Camarillo. A professional calf-roping career was easily within his grasp, but instead, he took a mechanic's job alongside his father at John Force Racing. Within a year, Medlen was working as a supercharger technician and clutch specialist on Force’s personal Ford Mustang Funny Car, helping to tune the 14-time World Champion to 50 tour victories and six championships in seven seasons.

When Tony Pedregon left JFR to form his own team at the end of 2003, Force stunned the drag racing world by naming Medlen to replace him. There was no shortage of second-guessing at the time, as railbirds wondered how the greatest Funny Car driver of all time could hand the keys to an untested rookie. Eric immediately proved them wrong, of course, winning a national event at Brainerd in his rookie season, and adding five more victories in 2005 and 2006.

At the conclusion of Sunday’s Gatornationals, Medlen stood fifth in NHRA Powerade points, 94 behind teammate Robert Hight, and seemed poised for a run at the World Championship. Less than 24 hours later, those title hopes ended – along with his life – in a split-second explosion of carbon fiber and steel.

As word circulated of his passing Friday, a familiar feeling returned. The ache deep in the gut, the feeling of emotional emptiness, the lump in the throat that comes when one of our friends – one of our heroes – dies in a racecar. We felt it with Adam Petty on that dark day in May of 2000, and again later that year with Tony Roper. Dale Earnhardt was taken just four months later, and we began to wonder just how much grief one group of people should be expected to bear. We soldiered on – because that’s what we do – and had almost convinced ourselves that racing was okay again when Darrell Russell hurtled to his death at Gateway.

And now, Eric is gone. This is not getting any easier.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older myself, facing my own mortality as I edge closer to the half-century mark. More likely, it’s because these fallen warriors aren’t just names in the newspaper or faces on TV anymore. They’re friends.

I've spent a lot of time today recalling my last conversation with Eric; a conversation we shared with you on Sirius Speedway. We celebrated his win at Richmond that day, and teased him about his infamous “pool massage” with John Force. I hounded him mercilessly about how much he seemed to enjoy it, and the deeper I plunged the needle, the harder he laughed. Eventually, none of us could catch our breath for laughing.

We did a lot of laughing when Eric was around. He had that affect on people.

I’ll miss Eric the racer, and I’m sad we’ll never know how good he could have been. I ache for his father, John -- who doubled as his crewchief -- and for John Force, who called Eric “the son I never had." But mostly, I’ll miss Eric Medlen the person. He was 33-going-on-12-years old; delightfully goofy and blissfully immature, everywhere but behind the wheel of a racecar. He was a 10-million watt bulb of pure personality that made everyone smile, just by being in the neighborhood.

Now, Eric is gone, and it makes no more sense than it did with Adam, Tony, Dale or Darrell. The ache is back, and I’ve got seven days to figure out why I should ever want to go back to a racetrack again.

Photos courtesy

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Send Your Best To Eric Medlen

Medical personnel at the University of Florida Medical Center continue to monitor the progress of injured NHRA Funny Car driver Eric Medlen, and team sponsor Castrol SYNTEC has announced a special e-mail address to which fans and friends can send messages of encouragement.

Castrol SYNTEC will collect and print messages left at for forwarding to Eric and his family. Medlen remains in critical condition after undergoing a delicate craniotomy procedure on Tuesday. He will remain in a drug-induced coma designed to promote healing for at least the next two weeks.

Lori Anne Gola, assistant sponsorship manager for Castrol, said, "There are so many people who care about Eric, and we wanted to find a tangible way to show him all of that love and support. We thought that, through this e-mail address, we could capture the prayers, kind thoughts and well wishes of all those who empathize with Eric and his family."

Castrol will also provide posters featuring Medlen at NHRA national events, encouraging fans to print personal messages for him, with the posters being presented to the Medlen family.

Please take a moment to send Eric and his family an e-mail of encouragement. It is certainly needed.

Monday, March 19, 2007

UPDATE: Medlen Undergoes Craniotomy, Remains Critical

Injured NHRA Funny Car driver Eric Medlen survived a delicate, three-hour craniotomy procedure to relieve pressure and hemorrhaging yesterday evening, but remains in critical condition at the University of Florida Medical Center, and will be kept in a drug-induced coma for the next two weeks.

A craniotomy involves removal of a section of the patient's skull, allowing swelling to occur without causing brain damage. John Medlen, Eric's father and crewchief, said of the procedure, “We consider ourselves fortunate that Eric is in one of the top hospitals in the world for this type of injury and is getting absolutely the best treatment possible. We want to thank Eric's friends, fans, sponsors, and the entire NHRA drag racing community for their support in this very difficult time for our family. We would ask that they continue to remember Eric in their prayers. He's a fighter, but he has a long battle ahead of him.”

John Medlen also repeated an earlier request that fans refrain from speculation, especially on the Internet, where erroneous information has been a source of considerable anguish for the family.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Another Dip Into The Listener E-Mail File

This week, listener Jason Poppy writes, "NASCAR has a huge problem with the separation of the sanctioning body and the teams. The almighty dollar that NASCAR wants for these sponsors to have exclusivity is costing the teams that put fans in the stands. I have gone from a rabid fan to not watching races from flag to flag, and not even caring if I make it to the track or not unless they are free tickets.

Greed is going to be the death of NASCAR, not the rise. SPRINT, SUNOCO and whoever else NASCAR is going to allow exclusive rights to need to be exclusive to NASCAR, and not the teams that show up to race. NASCAR...needs to tell the sponsors, `Hey we will give you rights to naming and usage, but these teams are separate individual entities.' NASCAR is bullying guys that just want to race and compete for a championship in what was the last sport for the common man. It is now becoming an elite sport that is controlled by and will ultimately followed by the rich and selfish that don't care about the little man.

I thought the idea was to fill the stands not just pockets. If your fan base grows, the pockets will follow. I feel that they are losing just as many fans as they are gaining and the quality of fan is diminishing. They are fair weather fans, not the rabid fans as I USED to be. That is not what the sport needs in my opinion."

Jason, your letter represents the views of a vocal group of fans that I hear from daily, and I am glad to be able to offer you my viewpoint.

NASCAR is far from the only major league sport to operate this way. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all have "Official Products," and teams are precluded from signing conflicting sponsorship deals. Look around, do you see your local NFL team playing with sponsor patches on their uniforms? No. Do you see an AT&T logo at the 50-yard line? Absolutely not. That's not because the teams couldn't make those kind of deals if they wanted to. It's because the league doesn't allow it.

Companies like Nextel are not going to sign 10-year, $70 million major sponsorships without receiving something in return. Part of what they receive under the current agreement is product exclusivity. You are correct when you say that Motorola produces phones for Nextel. However, they also produce phones for Nextel's competitors, meaning that when you buy a Motorola phone, you are not necessarily purchasing a Nextel product. Robby's Motorola deal was made through Verizon, a direct competitor of Nextel. Under those circumstances, put yourself in Nextel's shoes. If you had signed a binding contract limiting the ways in which your competitors could participate in the sport, would you simply "turn your head" and let your competition into the garage? I sincerely doubt it.

You're right when you say that NASCAR is a business. It is no longer a group of moonshine runners, testing their cars in the dirt on Sunday afternoon. The sport has evolved well beyond that. The "little man" has not bee able to run at the front of the NASCAR pack for roughly 40 years now. I'm surprised you haven't noticed that fact, considering that today, you can watch every Nextel Cup, Busch and Truck Series race on nationwide television. You can listen on both terrestrial and satellite radio, and find NASCAR-related programming all over the TV and radio dials, seven days a week. You can also attend NASCAR races all across the country -- from coast to coast -- if you so choose. None of these statements were true even a decade ago, and all are a direct result of NASCAR's businesslike approach to growing the sport.

I continue to marvel at people who categorize today's NASCAR fans as "not the rabid fans I used to be." I talk to hundreds of fans every week; both on Sirius Speedway and in person at racetracks around the country. I hate to burst your bubble, but they ARE real racefans; equal (and in many ways superior) to "oldtimers" like you and I. They love the sport as much as you and I ever have, they support their drivers as loyally as you and I ever have, and unlike some "veteran fans," they resist the urge to jump ship every time they disagree with something the sanctioning body does. In fact, they pay their hard-earned money to support the sport they love, unlike others who don't care if they make it to the track or not, "unless they are free tickets."

The quality of fans is not diminishing, in my view. In fact, it may be improving.

Today's fan seems to understand that nothing stays the same forever, and that change inevitably occurs, both for better and for worse. They see that NASCAR racing is bigger, stronger and more popular than we ever could have imagined in the "Good Old Days," and accept that resisting change, simply for the sake of resistance, is suicidal.

Like the dinosaurs, we either evolve or die.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hey Mark, Skip A Couple And Decide Later!

Astute listener Duane in North Carolina did the math, figuring out that Mark Martin has been averaging 165 points per race so far this season en route to the NASCAR Nextel Cup points lead.

The fourteenth-place driver is averaging 110 points per race, meaning that after six races, he should have approximately 660 points. Meanwhile, if Martin accumulates more 165 points this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway – his average for the season – he would have 660 championship points, allowing him to skip Bristol and Martinsville, and still be in the hunt for a Top-12 point standing.

Sorry, Mark, but those questions may not be going away anytime soon, after all.

History Made In Las Vegas

On yesterday's show, I mentioned that none of the drivers who started in the Top-10 Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway finished there; the first time in recent memory that such a thing had happened.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have remembered, since the last time it happened was in 1965; a total of 1,421 races ago.

On July 4, 1965 at Daytona, all of the Top-10 starters failed to finish in the Top-10. In fact, none of then even managed to finish the race. Polesitter Marvin Panch finished 12th after leading 39 laps, while A.J. Foyt came from the 11th starting position to win. Only 14 cars were running at the finish.

Ah, the good old days.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Commentary: Stop The Hate

What makes fans hate certain drivers? Does familiarity breed contempt – as the old saying goes -- or is ignorance more to blame?

I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, and it truly baffles me.

Today’s broadcast and print media give fans more access to NASCAR drivers than ever before. That’s the good news, and the bad news. We get to see Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and the Busch Brothers up-close and personal, just seconds after some of the most emotional moments in sports.

“Hey Mark Martin, you just lost the Daytona 500! Whattaya think about that?”

Sometimes, they don’t react the way we would like them to. They get angry, snappish, foul-mouthed and vindictive, prompting some fans to label them “crybabies” and admonish them to “shut up and drive.” One week later, when they bite their tongues in the face of disappointment, they are criticized for being “NASCAR clones;” afraid to say anything that might offend sponsors, or be seen as politically incorrect.

It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met. Easy, but illogical. You may think you know Michael Waltrip from what you’ve seen on Inside NASCAR Nextel Cup, but you don’t. There’s also more to Tony Stewart than the videotape SportsCenter ran of that garage area temper tantrum in 2002.

I know most of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series drivers to one degree or another, and I can honestly say that I don’t hate any of them. Not even close. Most of the men who drive Nextel Cup stock cars are the genuine article; sincere in their dealings with the fans, fair and cooperative with the media, sportsmen both on and off the racetrack. A couple of them have public personae that don’t exactly mesh with reality, but all in all, they’re a good group of guys. And yet, an astonishing number of fans across the country willingly use the word “hate” when describing at least one of them.

I am amazed by the passion with which some of these self-described “fans” hate. There are legions of seemingly-sane individuals who will go to their graves arguing that Jeff Gordon’s five championships are illegitimate, due to “Hendrick favoritism.” There are others who believe NASCAR exists only to screw poor Mark Martin. There are fans who pray daily for Sterling Marlin’s demise because “he killed Dale Earnhardt,” and others who believe Dale, Jr., wins only because Brian France orders it to be so.

When their driver falls on hard times, they bombard the racetrack with trash and empty beer cans, then hurry home to flood the internet message boards with paranoid conspiracy theories. They remember decades-old incidents like they were yesterday, assigning blame instantly and hating forever the men unlucky enough to be judged guilty . They wear distasteful t-shirts that encourage their fellow racefans to “F—K (Insert Driver Here),” or question that driver’s sexual orientation.

It’s juvenile, boorish, senseless…and incredibly heartfelt.

It’s baffling, if you ask me.

These fans – a small majority, admittedly -- take a sporting event designed as entertainment, and make it larger than life. They allow it to consume a percentage of their lives that no mere hobby should ever be allowed to consume.

And worst of all, they try to get the rest of us to play along.

Personally, I’m not playing.

In America, you have the right to hate someone because they drive a certain racecar, if you so choose. You also have the right to express that hate, within legal limits. It seems to me, though, that there are far better uses for that energy. Rather than hating someone you’ve never met for something they did on a racetrack 1,500 miles away, channel that energy into something positive. Make a contribution to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, the American Red Cross or the American Cancer Society in your favorite driver’s name. Mow your elderly neighbor’s lawn, or take the neighborhood kids to your local short track.

Hating accomplishes nothing. It ruins your enjoyment of the sport, and mine.

We can do better than that.

Notes From Sin City

Mark Martin said yesterday that he was wrong to question his ability a year ago, adding that the problem was not his driving, but with the cars he drove.

“I thought I was getting too old to do this stuff,” said Martin, who finished fifth Sunday. “But now, I have found out that my car wasn't as sharp as it needed to be. It wasn't me.”

Martin sidestepped when asked if Roush Racing had failed to provide him with a championship-caliber car in 2006, saying, “I'm not going to go there. But my car is a Chevy, and it is better than my car was last year. You know what I'm saying. I have figured out in these first three races that my ability has not diminished as much as I thought.”

The Nextel Cup point leader continued to leave himself a bit of wiggle room when asked about plans to sit-out the race at Bristol Motor Speedway in two weeks. On ESPN’s NASCAR Now, Martin once again said that he is not interested in running a full schedule this season. He would not rule out a full schedule, however, saying only that he “has no plans to.”

Asked Sunday is a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway this Sunday could change his plans, Martin said, “I suppose (it) might.”

France On Expansion: NASCAR Chairman Brian France said he expects to have a new track built in Seattle, Denver or New York City within the next few years. France said yesterday, “I don't expect all three to get a facility built, but I do expect something positive to happen,” adding that Denver appears to have momentum at present.

France also said that while he would like to see second Nextel Cup dates at Kansas, Homestead-Miami and Las Vegas Motor Speedways, those dates may depend on Speedway Motorsports Inc. transfering a race from one of its other tracks; something SMI Chairman Bruton Smith has repeatedly said he is unwilling to do.

Bristol Repaving: Bristol Motor Speedway will be repaved following the March 25th Food City 500, returning the track to asphalt for the first time since the spring of 1992. As part of the project, the Bristol racing surface will be widened by four feet, with the turns converted to graduated banking from their current 36-degree makeup.

Recent modifications at Las Vegas and Lowes Motor Speedways have been met with mixed reviews, at best, prompting track BMS President Jeff Byrd to say he is, “scared to death,” of tearing up the Bristol concrete. However, he said he trusts his engineers to design a workable, competitive layout, and welcomes the input of former driver Rusty Wallace, who was instrumental in the design and construction of the new Iowa Speedway.

I do not share Byrd’s misgivings about tearing up Bristol’s concrete. Clearly, something needs to be done about the current surface, which is deteriorating at an alarming rate. There are concerns that asphalt laid over that crumbling concrete will not stand up to the pummeling of 43 speeding Nextel Cup racecars, making a simple re-skinning impossible. It may be sacrilegious for me to say so, but in my opinion, Bristol Motor Speedway is wildly overrated as a racing venue. The racing is single-file and plagued with caution flags, with virtually all the passing done to the inside. The bump-and-run has become a cottage industry at Thunder Valley, and the track’s current string of 50 consecutive Nextel Cup sellouts proves once and for all that NASCAR fans love nothing more than a good, multi-car crash.

Variable-degree banking cannot be accomplished with concrete, only with asphalt. So tear-up the cement, lay down the variable-degree asphalt banking, and prepare for the best racing we’ve seen at Bristol since 1992. If it takes a year or two to recapture Bristol’s once formidable outside groove, who will notice the difference?

In my view, BMS has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Waltrip Sits While Hyder Works: Michael Waltrip spent his day yesterday as an announcer for DirecTV, after failing to qualify for his second consecutive NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race. Teammate David Reutimann also failed to qualify in Las Vegas, while Dale Jarrett used his third consecutive Past Champion’s Provisional to make the race, finishing four laps down in 33rd.

Waltrip said his most recent DNQ will almost certainly result in a shakeup at Michael Waltrip Racing. “We have to do a better job,” he said. “We are going to have to move some people around, and do some different things to try to make ourselves better.”

Waltrip admitted that NAPA is frustrated by his start to the season, saying, “We've had a lot for them to accept. Daytona was huge, and then the next two, we missed. Everybody is concerned. They didn't know it was going to be this rough.”

While hinting at an impending personnel shakeup, Waltip confirmed that suspended crewchief David Hyder has returned to work at MWR, while the team continues to investigate what happened in Daytona.

"David says he's innocent, and doesn't know what happened or how it got there,” Waltrip said. “We can't prove he did anything, so we couldn't fire him if we wanted to. Him helping at the shop, helping us get our stuff together, is something that we need. We need everybody we can get that's smart, and he's a real smart man."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Short Track Racing 101

Last week, I had an opportunity to revisit a lost portion of my youth, traveling to West Springfield, Massachusetts, to attend Dr. Dick Berggren’s Speedway Expo show.

During my time there, I was able to touch base with people I hadn’t talked to in decades; many of them among the most observant and innovative minds in American motorsports. Sadly, the consensus of opinion among all those terribly smart people was twofold. Short track racing is in serious trouble, and most of that trouble is self-inflicted.

Jack Arute – whose family operates the legendary Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut – hit the nail right on the head when he said, “Racers today are lazy. They buy every part on their car, instead of building it themselves, and they’re not interested in helping the promoter grow the sport. They want to show up, race and go home. They think promoting the sport is the track’s job.”

Jack was right, and they’re wrong.

When I was a kid, the highlight of my night at the races came when they threw open the pit gate after the final checkered flag and let the fans in. I stood in line to get an autograph from Bobby and Beaver Dragon, “Dynamite” Dave Dion and Jean-Paul Cabana, listening intently as they re-ran that night’s race, and looked forward to next week’s big, 200-lap midseason championship special. I stood in line every week for the same autographs -- over and over again -- and I was thrilled to do it.

Today, most of the racers are gone by the time the pit gates open. A few of the smart ones stay behind, helping to promote their sponsors, the track, and the sport as a whole, but the vast majority are far more interested in getting home, unloading the car and getting to bed than they are in spending time with the fans.

That’s a shame.

Promoters shoulder their share of the blame, as well. They start their shows a half-hour late for no apparent reason, other than their complete and total inability to get organized.

They run sloppy, inefficient programs, wasting time between events in the misguided belief that fans will use the downtime to buy one of their lousy hotdogs.

They run seven seemingly identical divisions, despite the fact that each class has only nine cars. Why? Because if they don’t, some of their racers might defect to the track up the road.

They run time-trials instead of heat races, start the fast car on the pole, and wonder why fans have stopped turning out to witness an evening of flag-to-flag victories. And at the end of the night, they blame their dwindling fan and car counts on NASCAR’s insistence on running Nextel Cup races on Saturday nights.

Horse hockey, says I.

Mr. Promoter, if you want people in your grandstands, there are ways to make it happen. Tighten up your program, start on time no matter what, and ensure that people are on their way home at a reasonable hour. Friday and Saturday night programs should be over by 11 p.m., every other night by 10. If you see people walking out before your main event begins, rest assured that they won’t be back. It’s your fault. Your show is too long.

Trim your classes down to three; an entry-level junkyard class, an affordable semi-pro division, and a “thunder and lightning” headliner. The top class should dazzle the fans with speed and skill. The middle class should be rough-and-tumble with a good car count. The junkers? They’re comic relief. If they average less than a spin every five laps, it’s time to de-tune `em a notch or two.

Mandate inexpensive crate engines for your top two divisions. Ban tire softener and high-dollar shock absorbers, and pay a competent tech man whatever it costs to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. Turn a deaf ear to those racers who want to spend the competition into submission. The cheaper it is to compete, the more people will want to, and higher car counts are a good thing.

Ditch those dull-as-dishwater time trials, and handicap your main events. A winner’s only a winner if he has to pass someone along the way; preferably someone on the lead lap. If a guy wins more than three races as year, you’re doing it wrong.

And finally, cut your ticket prices. Let Dad, Mom and two kids come to the track for the same price as two adults. Pick a night to let Scouts and Little Leaguers in free when accompanied by an adult. Offer civic and school groups a discount on blocks of tickets, and make sure your racers know how important it is for them to stay after the races and talk to the people who came out to watch them.

Do all these things for one year, and see if things don’t improve. I wish you luck.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Too Early To Worry?

With just two races complete in the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season, anxiety has already begun to set-in for a number of drivers who ranked as preseason favorites for the championship just a month ago.

Two-time series champion Tony Stewart stands 21st in points, 149 behind leader Mark Martin. Coming off a 2006 campaign that gave new meaning to the term “sophomore slump,” Carl Edwards is 26th, 165 points behind. Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all rank between 27th and 40th in Nextel Cup points, with Earnhardt a whopping 225 markers off the pace in 40th position.

Earnhardt’s situation seems especially perilous, since no driver in the history of NASCAR has come from 40th or worse after two races to win the championship. In 1996, Jeff Gordon rebounded from outside the Top-40 to finish second behind Terry Labonte, but aside from that single, “close but no cigar” finish, history offers little reason for optimism.

In 1998, Johnny Benson came from outside the Top-40 after two races to finish 20th. In 2001, Kevin Harvick stepped into Richard Childress’ Chevrolet for the second race of the season, following Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona. He ranked 40th after two races, and eventually finished ninth. More recently, Scott Riggs failed to make last year’s Daytona 500, but eventually rebounded to finish 20th.

That’s not exactly the stuff of which championship dreams are made, especially considering the awesome depth of competition on this year’s Nextel Cup Series. There are a couple of reasons for optimism, though.

Stewart and Earnhardt, in particular, have had good cars this season. Junior ran well before being swept up in someone else’s wreck at Daytona, then saw engine failure thwart an apparent Top-10 run at California Speedway. If not for that little skirmish with Kurt Busch, it’s hard to imagine Stewart finishing any worse than second in the Daytona 500, and he followed that race with a solid eighth-place finish in California.

Stuff happens, you know?

Equally important is the fact that with the newly revised “Chase For The Championship” format in place, Stewart, Earnhardt and the rest of this year’s slow starters need only to make the Top-12 after race #26 at Richmond on September 8th to put themselves right back in the title hunt, and have the gap between themselves and the point leader trimmed substantially. On that basis, Earnhardt, Stewart, Edwards and the rest of the underachievers still have a solid shot to make the Chase, or even win the championship.

So Junior fans, look on the bright side. You could be rooting for Michael Waltrip, who after two races stands a colossal 362 points out of the lead, with a grand total of minus 27.

Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ricky Craven's New Blog

Old friend Ricky Craven -- who also co-hosts "The Driver's Seat" with John Kernan from noon to 3 p.m. ET on Sirius NASCAR Radio -- is now blogging for Yahoo Sports. Ricky's always been a smart guy with a unique view of the sport, so check out what he's got to say HERE and add him to your favorites list.

Junior Johnson Speaks On Sirius Speedway This Friday!

Legendary NASCAR driver/owner Junior Johnson will talk with Sirius Speedway host Dave Moody this Friday, as part of the program's weekly series, "Sirius Speedway Legends."

From his humble roots in rural Wilkes County, North Carolina, Johnson stepped from behind a plowing mule one day to take the wheel of a stock car, beginning a career that saw him become of the greatest drivers and owners in the history of the sport. By the time he retired from driving at the age of 34, he owned 50 NASCAR Grand National victories; including the 1960 Daytona 500.

As an owner, he collected more than a hundred more victories with legendary drivers like Fred Lorenzen, Curtis Turner, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine. He won three consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup championships with Cale Yarborough in 1976, `77 and `78, and three more with Waltrip in 1981, `82 and `85. A seat in one of his cars was regarded as the ultimate assignment in NASCAR, and by the time he left the sport in 1995, his record as a car owner was second only to that of the legendary Petty Enterprises.

His amazing life -- from farm boy to moonshine runner to NASCAR champion – was immortalized in print and on the silver screen, and Johnson will sit for a rare, long-form conversation about his life and career Friday at 5 p.m. ET.

"We're thrilled that Junior has agreed to join us," said Moody. "He makes very few appearances at the track these days, and grants even fewer interviews. He has said that he considers racing a closed chapter in his life, and we are honored that he has agreed to re-open that chapter for us."

"Sirius Speedway Legends" has previously chronicled the lives and careers of many of auto racing's greatest names, including NASCAR stars Richard Petty, David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen, Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, and the legendary "Alabama Gang; Red Farmer and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison. Open Wheel legends Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and the entire Unser family -- Al, Bobby and Al, Jr., have graced the "Sirius Speedway Legends" microphones, as have drag racing greats Shirley Muldowney, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Kenny Bernstein, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and "TV Tommy" Ivo, to name just a few.

Johnson's no-holds-barred interview will air Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Sirius Speedway, heard weekdays from 3-7 ET on Sirius NASCAR Radio 128.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Roush-Fenway, Evernham Appeals Denied

The National Stock Car Racing Commission has denied the appeals filed by Roush Fenway Racing and Evernham Motorsports, while admitting that the penalties assessed were "severe by the standards of a year or more ago." Roush Fenway had appealed a 50-point penalty assessed to the No. 17 team of Matt Kenseth for aerodynamic violations found at Daytona International Speedway. Evernham Motorsports appealed the 50-point penalty assessed the No. 9 team of Kasey Kahne, also for aerodynamic violations found at Daytona.

Russell Hackett, Cathy Rice and Chairman George Silbermann ruled on the Evernham penalty, while Terry Eames, Richard Gore and Silbermann ruled on Roush Fenway's. In their rulings, they said they considered several factors, including the fact that neither team had a history of multiple rules violations. However, the commission ruled that in each case, the infractions were "premeditated and intentional, and constituted serious infractions" of the NASCAR rulebook. While the penalties were admittedly severe compared to those in the past, the commission noted that “NASCAR executives announced to contestants at a driver briefing in mid-2006 that the previous 'benchmark' penalty standards for serious violations would likely be increased going forward.”

Answering Those Listener E-Mails

From time to time, I like to dip into the Listener E-Mail Bag, to get a sampling of public opinion. Most people seem to appreciate what we do here on a daily basis (thanks very much for that), but a few always take us to task for something we've said. Or failed to say.

Here is a sample of this week's incoming mail...

“Ask the constant Buschwhacker crybabies how much they are willing to contribute to their favorite low budget Busch team? Opinions are free, but results cost money. Have a yard sale, garage sale or barbeque cookout to raise money for their favorite team, instead of the whining and crying they insist on doing. If they are not going to help financially, then all the boo-hooing in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.” -- Pam

Pam, I’m going to take your advice and do a PPC Racing Benefit Bake Sale next Saturday. Henry Benfield has promised to whip up a batch of his world famous brownies. That ought to get things moving!

“Great race in Mexico City. The best car won, hands down. Scott Pruett needs to quit whining, or get a job as a truck driver. If Dale, Jr., had been in the #42 Havoline car, 75% of the fans would be saying how great a move it was. It was bad that it was his teammate, but it was nothing more than racing.” -- Dusty from PA

I agree, Dusty. And for me to say I enjoyed a road race…well, you know how difficult that is.

“Will everyone just get over the Montoya thing? Do we not want a little excitement when watching a race? Do we want everyone to just let the guy up front have an easy ride? I don't care who the driver is, get around any way you can (even better if done without a wreck), but go for the win! People need to realize this is about the win, not people’s feelings. Leave that at the door. And this whole teammate thing? No loyalties there, either.”-- Lisa Donohue, Ottawa Illinois

I couldn’t agree more, Lisa. While I understand Chip Ganassi’s heartburn Sunday, he knew what he was getting when he hired JPM; a guy that simply refuses to lose.

“(About Juan Pablo Montoya), can we pick one name, like we refer to every other driver?”-- Rob Roebuck

No, Rob, but we can call him by his full name, just like we did with those nice southern boys, Lee Roy Yarbrough and Joe Lee Johnson.

“After listening to yesterdays show, I will not be listening again. A caller brought up the question of "rough Driving" in reference to Montoyas' pass on Jeff Pruitt (sic), you basically stated that NASCAR has never enforced this situation. This morning I discovered that there has been several times when NASCAR has black flagged drivers, there are over 1000 articles on the subject, according to a search on the NASCAR data base. I find you demeaning, condesending (sic) and a complete and total JACKASS. P.S. -- How many races have you won?” -- Kevin Sheehan

Gee, Kevin, my ex-wife says the exact same thing! Maybe I should introduce you. What I actually said was that NASCAR is not in the habit of black-flagging drivers who make incidental contact while racing for the lead. I’m not sure what your exhaustive Google search found, but the last instance I can recall of a winner being stripped of his win for rough driving occurred more than a quarter century ago. Not exactly a trend, in my opinion.

“Replace Montoya with Stewart. Do things change? I think they do. Replace Montoya with Gilliland. Do things change? Yes once again. Now, it would be a rookie thing. It is what it is, and no one’s going to take the W out of Montoya’s win column. BTW... Great show! I appreciate your dedication to recognizing our opinions, regardless of whether they differ with yours.” -- Sean in Tennessee

Thanks, Sean, but could you possibly have a word with Kevin? He doesn’t appreciate me the way you do.

Feel free to weigh-in with your thoughts and opinions (pro or con) at

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Washington Politicos Trot Out Tired Stereotypes

Former NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champions Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip traveled to Washington State last week to lobby for state assistance in building a new track in Kitsap County. Unfortunately, their visit offered graphic evidence that some old, ugly stereotypes surrounding this sport are still alive and well.

Democratic Rep. Frank Chopp is the Speaker of the House in Washington State, and when questioned about Petty's visit, he asked reporters, “You mean the guy who got picked up for DUI? That guy?" Minutes later, Chopp began to backpedal in vintage politco fashion, saying, “I was told that, so I'm not sure. You better check to make sure it's accurate.”

Too late, Mister Speaker. Much too late.

As most NASCAR fans know, Richard Petty has never been “picked up" for driving drunk, or anything else that I know of. In fact, he is on record as refusing to take part in alcohol-related sponsorships or contingency programs, based on a promise he made to his late mother nearly a half century ago. His Petty Enterprises teams have forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years as a result, and Petty himself has long been a vocal opponent of alcohol abuse and drunken driving.

This the same Rep. Chopp who, at a press conference earlier this month, produced a Wall Street Journal article describing rowdy crowds at Talledega Superspeedway and said, “This is an example of the kind of contact I've had from (House members) about NASCAR.”

Sadly, Rep. Chopp is not alone in his bigotry. Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, was quoted calling International Speedway Corporation (and presumably, NASCAR fans in general), "… not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law."

It’s enough to make you want to load up the cousin/wife and kids, drive the pickup over to Washington, and let grandma sink a tooth into their legs while you spit tabaccy juice on their $800 silk ties.

While Chopp and Seaquist’s comments are insulting at face value, the stigma behind them is much worse. They prove beyond all doubt that there are still members of American society who see NASCAR as a group of overall-wearing, dentally challenged High School dropouts, instead of the widely diverse palate of humanity we know the sport to be. I wonder if Rep. Chopp made similarly insulting comments when the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA all lobbied for new, publicly financed arenas for their Washington franchises in recent years. I wonder if the Speaker of the House chose to turn those simple, public-policy debates into a class war, slandering the reputations of those who disagreed with him politically. Did players and owners of the Seattle Mariners, Seahawks and Sonics face such unjustified personal attacks?

My guess is that they did not.

Happily, not everyone subscribes to the Chopp/Seaquist company line. Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, who sponsored the speedway funding bill, said of his colleagues’ comments, “I've heard a lot of that. Apparently, we have a new class of people that we can discriminate against."

The good people of Kitsap County and Washington State may one day get to weigh-in on whether they want to help fund a NASCAR superspeedway. Some will choose to support the measure, and some won’t. But hopefully, they’ll be allowed to make their decision based on facts, and not a series of tired, antiquated, insulting cliches.

UPDATE: Darby Says Explanation Key To MWR Reinstatements

In a demonstration of just how seriously NASCAR takes the fuel additive discovered in Michael Waltrip's intake manifold at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month, suspended crewchiefs Robby Reiser (Roush-Fenway Racing) and Kenny Francis (Evernham Motorsports) were allowed to take part in yesterday’s key Car Of Tomorrow test at Bristol Motor Speedway, while Michael Waltrip Racing crewchief David Hyder and Vice President of Competition Bobby Kennedy were not.

Nextel Cup Series Director John Darby said yesterday that it is up to team officials to apply for Hyder and Kennedy’s reinstatement. However, he also made it clear that NASCAR is not inclined to allow them back until an explanation is given for what happened at Daytona.

"A couple of weeks is obviously nowhere near long enough," he said. "If we get through a long enough time period, and maybe get a little more help on how the whole situation came together, we'll look at it at that point."