|Bruton Smith wants start-and-park eliminated|
The ever-outspoken track owner called the practice “derogatory toward our sport,” adding, “start-and-park should not be a part of what we do. It certainly isn't adding anything to our sport, and it certainly takes away (from it)."
Eddie Gossage, president of Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway, said his track paid approximately $17 million in purse money to Sprint Cup Series start-and-park teams last season; a situation he wants to see changed. A longtime critic of start-and-park drivers, Gossage ignited a firestorm of controversy in April of 2010 by accusing start-and-parkers of stealing from his speedway.
"They are going to steal a half a million dollars of our money here tomorrow,” said Gossage. “I want real racers, but they're not racing. They add nothing to the show, not one darn thing. They're stealing.”
Gossage said he wrote two-page letter to NASCAR president Mike Helton late last year, asking the sanctioning body to take immediate steps to abolish the practice. Helton, he said, has not responded, perhaps because he realizes that start-and-park teams are nothing new in the sport.
In the past, drivers who failed to complete the entire distance on race day were called “field fillers.” Nobody seemed to resent their presence, at least until March of 2004 when Jeff Gordon tangled with field filler (now Rockingham Speedway owner) Andy Hillenburg while lapping him in the early going of an event at Darlington Raceway. Hillenburg had qualified 20 mph off the pole speed that day and had no intention of completing the entire race. In the aftermath of the crash, he was roundly criticized for failing to get off the track before being lapped; a situation that led directly to the modern-day practice of running just a few circuits before retiring from the event.
Bruton Smith and Eddie Gossage are decent, honorable men whose efforts have improved our sport tremendously. Their insight is valuable, but on this specific topic, they are most certainly wrong. Start-and-parkers are not thieves. They are simply businessmen, doing what is necessary to improve both their teams and their position in the sport.
In 1984, Rick Hendrick was one race away from shutting down his fledgling NASCAR team after just eight races, before sponsorship was found to lay the groundwork for what is now the most successful operation in the history of the sport.
Car owner Junior Johnson began the 1975 season without a sponsor for driver Cale Yarborough, and questions swirled about the continued viability of his team. Holly Farms signed-on after five races were complete, however, and the Johnson/Yarborough tandem went on to become one of the sport’s most dominant operations, winning the Winston Cup championship in 1976, 1977 and 1978.
In modern-day NASCAR, no team owner starts at the top of the competitive ladder. It takes millions of dollars and years of effort to become a title contender, and Smith’s insistence on exterminating newer, weaker operations before they have a chance to grow is shortsighted, in the extreme.
For all his chest-beating lamentation about start-and-parkers, it is doubtful that Smith can recall who finished last in either of his two races at Charlotte Motor Speedway last season. It’s also doubtful that Smith – or any of the fans who bought tickets to SMI facilities in 2012 – spent any appreciable time watching the 38th through 43rd-place drivers. Their attention -- and rightly so -- was on the front of the pack, where the action is.
If eliminating start-and-park is the goal, perhaps it’s time for Smith to augment his incessant criticism with some actual solutions. Trimming the Sprint Cup field from 43 to 36 cars – as Gossage recently suggested -- will not eliminate start-and-park, since low-buck drivers will still have the option of qualifying for the shortened race day field, then pulling out early. All it will do is force already struggling teams out of business, finishing a process begun by the foundering economy and exacerbated by a plummeting sponsor pool.
Smith could have offered a specific plan for phasing out start-and-park yesterday. The SMI Chairman has made a cottage industry out of telling NASCAR how it ought to run its business, but in this instance, he elected to pass the buck, calling upon reporters to pressure NASCAR for a solution.
“I'm going to try my best -- and I hope you'll join me -- to see if NASCAR can do something about this,” said Smith to the assembled media. “It's up to NASCAR to do this, not me. But if it was up to me, I guarantee we'd figure it out.”
We’re waiting, Bruton, whenever you’re ready.