Monday, May 22, 2017

COMMENTARY: All-Star Race Missed The Mark

NASCAR made a number of changes in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race, hoping to ratchet-up competition and build suspense. The sanctioning body utilized the multi-segment format that has energized Cup racing this season, adding a single set of softer “Option Tires” to each crew chief’s arsenal in an effort to increase passing.

None of it worked.

The annual Monster Energy Open provided cause for optimism, with plenty of passing and side-by-side competition. Once the sun set and the track cooled, however, Charlotte Motor Speedway became a one-lane race track, with the dreaded “aero push” providing the race leader with a substantial – and apparently insurmountable – advantage.

Time after time, second-place drivers ran down the leader from 12-15 car lengths back, only to encounter dirty air and stall out within sight of the lead.  

"You can't pass anywhere," said Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney, who earned his All-Star spot with a spellbinding drive in the earlier Monster Energy Open. "It's not great track conditions, to be honest with you."

Kyle Larson led wire-to-wire in the opening two segments and clearly had the fastest car. But he was unable to overcome a balky final pit stop that left him fourth at the start of the final, 10-lap sprint, fighting mightily to wrest the runner-up position away from Jimmie Johnson on the final lap, a country mile behind winner Kyle Busch.   

Good night for Kyle, bad night for fans.
"I think we had the car to be the winner," said Larson afterward. "(But) you've got to be perfect to win a Cup race. I knew being the leader off pit road was going to be the big thing. When I could tell that the rear changer wasn't around nearly as fast as the front, I knew we were in trouble."

While failing to spark the kind of side-by-side racing many had hoped for, Goodyear’s new “Option Tire” at least offered hope for the future. None of the 10 surviving teams utilized the tires in the final, 10-lap stage, deciding that the 3-5/10ths of a second per lap speed advantage they offered was not enough to overcome a back-of-the-pack starting spot.

"There's no doubt that mile-and-a-half racing puts on a certain type of show," admitted Johnson after the race. "I think Charlotte Motor Speedway works as hard as they possibly can put on a great show. They're open minded to any and every idea… (but) we all run the same speed. The rule book is so thick and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can't pass running the same speed. The damn rule book is too thick. There's too much going on.”

 “Mile-and-a-half racing is mile-and-a-half racing,” he said. “When all the cars are qualifying as tight as they do (and) we can't pass as easily, we have to logically look at it and say, 'Hey, we're all going the same speed, no wonder we can't pass.’”

"I have an opinion, but I don't have the answer."

Not a good enough option.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Goodyear predicted a 3-5/10ths of a second speed advantage for its new “Option Tire.” Saturday night, however, they were good for only about half that.
"There was a fair amount speed difference in practice,” confirmed Adam Stevens, crew chief for race winner Kyle Busch. "(But) as it cooled off, the discrepancy got smaller and smaller.”
"I don't think Goodyear hit the tire very well," said Brad Keselowski. "They missed pretty big. The tire was supposed to be much faster."
An even-softer “Option Tire” for next year’s race could help turn the tide, trimming lap times to the point where the leader’s aero advantage can finally be overcome. Expect Goodyear and NASCAR to conduct extensive testing before next year’s race, to ensure a better result.

While they’re at it, perhaps they should consider moving the All-Star event back to the heat of the day, eschewing a prime-time TV audience in favor of compelling racing on a hot, greasy race track.

Or perhaps it’s finally time to heed the cries of those who lobby for a traveling All-Star Race, taking the event “on the road” to venues that can provide a better, more exciting race than the competitively challenged CMS oval.

Sadly, none of those changes can be made in time for this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600; a race that was dominated a year ago by Martin Truex, Jr., who used a perfect race car and the aerodynamic edge all leaders enjoy to lead 392 of the race’s 400 laps.

With a month of wildly competitive point-counting events in the rearview window, the last thing NASCAR needs at this point is another “No Doze 600.”

Based on what we say Saturday night, however, that may be what we’re in for.











Monday, May 15, 2017

COMMENTARY: Almirola's Crash Reminds That Stock Car Racing Will Never Be Safe

In an era of HANS devices, containment seats, impact-absorbing form and computer-generated chassis technology, it is tempting to believe that people don’t get hurt in race cars anymore.

But Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, Aric Almirola reminded us once again that stock car racing remains a dangerous game.

Almirola, driver of the #43 Smithfield Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, was involved in a multi-car accident on Lap 199 of Saturday night's race, when a broken brake rotor on Joey Logano's car triggered a violent, fiery crash that demolished his car, along with those of Almirola and Danica Patrick. Almirola plowed into Logano's car as it skidded along the outside wall, hard enough to send the rear of Almirola's Ford high into the air.
The RPM driver slid to a stop against the SAFER barrier at the exit of Turn Two, and immediately dropped the window net. He failed to exit the vehicle, however, and safety workers were forced to remove his car’s roof to extricate him safely.

While conscious and alert, Almirola was placed in a cervical collar and removed on a backboard, grimacing in pain. He was transported by ambulance to the speedway’s Infield Care Center, before being airlifted to University of Kansas Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a fractured T5 vertebra.
He was held overnight for further observation, before returning to his home in North Carolina the following day.
“I’m saying a lot of prayers for Aric right now,” said a visibly shaken Logano afterward. “A lot of us took a hard hit. Something broke on my car. I don't know what it was. I tried to back it off, but you're going 215 (mph) and it's hard to check up. The car just took a big step sideways into the corner and I hooked Danica.
“You can see the right front (tire) popped,” he said. “I just hope everyone is OK. I hope Aric is all right. That's the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It's unfortunate for everyone.”

Patrick was animated and angry after bailing out of her flaming Ford on the track apron, and confronted Logano on their way to the ambulance.

"I told him, `I'm not sure if it was you, but I'm pretty sure it was you,'" she said. "He said it was a failure of some sort, which didn't make me feel better in that moment. I hope Aric is OK. He's definitely feeling the worst of everybody.''

Winner Martin Truex, Jr. also spoke of Almirola in Victory Lane, saying, "He and his wife (are) great people. Just such a nice family and such a nice guy. I was really scared when I saw that and worried for him, obviously. I hope he's doing good."

Runner-up Brad Keselowski spoke for many after the race, saying, "It's a dangerous sport. It always has been and it always will be.

“Sometimes, we take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away. Then you see one where someone doesn't, and it puts things back into perspective about just how dangerous it can be."

It has been a long time since NASCAR fans watched in stunned silence as the roof of a race car is peeled back to enable the extrication of its injured driver.

It’s been a long time since we averted our eyes from the action on the track to look skyward as a Life Flight helicopter lifts off from the infield, saying a silent prayer for the injured driver on board.

It’s been a long time since we were reminded that the laws of physics still apply in motorsports; that despite all the carbon fiber and impact absorbing foam, race car drivers remain fragile human beings, susceptible to bruises, burns, broken bones… and worse.

Aric Almirola will be sidelined for a time, giving his broken back sufficient to heal. Someone else will strap into his #43 Smithfield Ford this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, attempting to earn the team a spot in the sport’s annual All Star Race. NASCAR will examine the remains of his battered, beaten race car, hoping to learn how to prevent the type of injury he suffered Saturday from ever happening again.

And in a few days, we will once again begin the process of deceiving ourselves into believing that stock car racing is no longer a violent game.


Until next time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Overdue Thoughts On The Passing Of Tom Curley

Tom Curley passed away Friday, and I haven’t had much to say about it, until today.


As someone who makes his living with words – both written and spoken – I found myself uncharacteristically speechless at the passing of a man who did so much to shape both my life and my career.
It wasn’t like we didn’t see it coming. Tom had been in failing health for years, as the crippling effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease slowly extinguished the competitive fire that had burned so bright for so long. Last fall, we made plans to have dinner together the night before the annual Milk Bowl at his pride-and-joy race track, Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl. But Tom was under the weather than evening, and was forced to cancel.
“We’ll catch up next time,” he promised. But I think we both knew that might not be true.
Tom was singularly the most complicated man I have ever known. His childhood was filled with turmoil and upheaval, and as an adult, he was more comfortable with conflict than most. He was a feisty Irishman, a “my way or the highway” kind of guy who could be your biggest supporter and greatest tormentor, all in the same day.
And when it came to promoting stock car races, he was the greatest of all time.
Curley had an uncanny ability to see 10 years down the road, properly positioning his tracks and series for what was to come. I only saw him get conned once, when the Detroit automakers convinced him (and NASCAR) that V8 engines were on their way out, and that V6 power would be the wave of the future.
He was among the first to rail against the skyrocketing cost of competition, and absolutely the first to do something about it. He took control of the engines, implementing a low cost crate-engine program, despite violent opposition from the engine builders who had lined their pockets for decades at his racer’s expense. He mandated spec shock absorbers, then ensured compliance by periodically requiring competitors to unbolt their shocks after qualifying and swap them with a fellow racer. He implemented track tires that were often harder than ideal, ensuring that deep-pocketed racers could not simply spend their way to Victory Lane.
Curley implemented a “ladder system” at his local tracks, allowing entry-level drivers to test their skill and resolve in a dirt-cheap, four cylinder race car, without mortgaging their home to do so. Those who experienced success graduated to the second tier – the Flying Tigers class at Thunder Road – where they spent a little more money and went a little bit faster. The ACT Late Models were the headline class; the “thunder and lightning” division where the top drivers showcased their skills.
Over the years, lots of drivers climbed Curley’s ladder, all the way to the top. Nick Sweet, Mike “Beetle” Bailey, Jason Corliss and a number of others became Late Model winners -- even graduating to the traveling American Canadian Tour – after beginning their careers in Curley’s Street Stock class. Sweet won the ACT Tour championship in 2016, and few moments made Tom happier, or more proud.
Curley’s pit meetings were the stuff of legend. He had definite opinions on the way drivers should conduct themselves on the race track, and he had no qualms about expressing those opinions, often at top volume.
Hundreds of times over the last three decades, I heard him preach his motorsports gospel.  
"If a guy has the balls to run the high groove, get alongside you and pinch you down in the turn, you owe him the lane,” he said. “Either concede the position, or be a jackass and wreck both of you. He earned that spot, give it to him!”
Tom was also a stickler for “taking what the day gives you.”

"If you’re having a shitty day, take your 15th place finish, bring your car home intact and come back next week,” he’d say. “Don't screw with the guy who’s having a good day. Let him have his day, just like he’ll let you have yours when it’s your turn.”
Tom was also a big fan of props, often bringing toy race cars to the track as part of an animated demonstration of what did (and did not) qualify as acceptable on-track behavior. More than once, he demolished the cars with a hammer for effect, captivating his audience and delivering his message loud and clear.
Once, at a time when ACT’s core group of officials oversaw three weekly race tracks and a traveling tour each week, Tom would elect to repeat the previous night’s pit meeting; something the traveling officials corps jokingly referred to as “a rerun.”
“Tom,” I said on one particular late-night drive back to Vermont, “you need new material. I’ve seen the same damned driver’s meeting, four nights in a row.”
On the rare occasion where a pre-race sermon failed to have its desired effect, Curley took a more hands-on approach. He was known to red-flag a race that produced multiple crashes in the opening laps, stopping the cars on the front stretch, marching down through the grandstands, pulling the drivers out of their cars and reading them the riot act in front of the entire house. Invariably, he received a standing ovation on his way back to the official’s tower, before enjoying a caution-free event, the rest of the way.
One on especially egregious night at Thunder Road, the Flying Tiger class compounded a lengthy rain delay by throwing off three caution flags in the opening two laps. Tom parked `em on the frontstretch and stormed trackside, delivering a patented, arm-waving T-Bone tirade for the ages, punctuated by a crack of his umbrella across the race leader’s windshield.
He re-entered the tower wearing an impish grin, prompting me to ask simply, “What happened?”
“Goddamnit,” he replied, holding his demolished umbrella. “This was my Norwich Alumni umbrella. I really liked this one…”
Curley was an innovator, once adding a pink flag to the standard mix of green, white, yellow and checkered.
“This is the Pig Flag,” he announced to an incredulous group of drivers. “If you want to be a jerk and hog both lanes, we will show you this flag. Do it again and we’ll show it to you again. Do it a third time and you’ll be parked for the night, because you’re a lousy racer.”
The “Pig Flag” is still in use at Tom’s race tracks, and no one has ever gotten it more than twice.
There were no names in Tom’s pit area, just car numbers. He was as likely to penalize the point leader as any backmarker, and one year, he gave the most popular driver in the history of Thunder Road, Dave Dion, the heave-ho after his crew ran onto the race track to confront a driver who had triggered a wreck that turned their car upside down.
“I need to behave myself,” said one driver known for his temper. “If Tom will throw Dave Dion out, he’ll sure as shit send me packing.”
Curley also had a knack for painting the “big picture,” convincing a group of tough, take-no-quarter racers to look out for each other on the race track, while also doing what’s right for the fans. Every Opening Day at Thunder Road, Tom would deliver a variation on the same speech.
“Ken and I don’t own this place,” he’d say. “We just pay the mortgage. Those people up there (pointing to the grandstands) own this place. Without them, we’re all out of business. They spend their hard-earned money to come and watch you race, and you owe them a good, respectable, competitive show.”
During the height of the GM National Stock Car Series in Canada, Tom and I traveled to Toronto every few weeks, where I would voice-over the TV broadcasts that aired north of the border on TSN. It was an eight hour drive each way, just to do a 90-minute voiceover, turn around and drive home again. 
We made nearly a dozen of those trips, creating a slew of unplanned adventures and new “Tom Curley Stories.”
One night, TC and I were heading back to Vermont after a midweek voiceover, driving a Chevy Lumina Pace Car that had been provided by GM of Canada. The car was pretty trick, with some extra horsepower-producing doohickeys under the hood, a multicolored graphics package and side exhaust pipes that ran the length of the vehicle.
As anyone who knew Tom will attest, he loved wringing every last drop speed out of whatever he was driving, and this Pace Car was no exception. Unfortunately, after a few months of high-speed T-Bone abuse, the car had begun to show clear signs of fatigue. Halfway home, the passenger-side exhaust pipe came loose from its bracket and began dragging across the asphalt in a shower of sparks. Pulling over the examine the situation, we quickly determined that some “guerilla engineering” was required, if we were to make it home before dawn.
Tom and I removed our leather belts, knotted them together and wrapped them around the dislodged exhaust, running the other end through the open passenger-side window for me to hold. That may have been the longest ride of my life.
A few weeks later -- during another top-speed Toronto return – we drove up on a State Police roadblock at the entrance to what was then called “The Indian Reservation” in upstate New York. The trooper in charge informed us that the resident Akwesasne Tribe was up in arms over the latest in a decades-long series of tax disputes with the State of New York, and had constructed a large bonfire in the middle of the highway to express their displeasure.
“I wouldn’t go in there,” he warned. “If you get in trouble, we can’t come in after you.”
“Are you saying we can’t keep going,” asked Tom, knowing that doubling back would add at least an hour to our already too-late arrival time at home.
“No, but if you do, you’re on your own.”
Tom gunned the throttle and drove on, saying, “I guess we won’t have to worry about speeding tickets for the next few miles.” Not far down the road, we did indeed encounter a roaring bonfire in the center of the two-lane highway, with a few dozen locals huddled around for warmth. Tom matted the accelerator and blasted past – two wheels on the asphalt and two on the shoulder – showering the Native American “protestors” with gravel as they dove for cover in an adjoining ditch.
Tom was infamous for running past "E" on the gas gauge before stopping to fill up. I don’t know if he saw it as a test of manhood, or an opportunity to thumb his nose at the universe and its conventions. Either way, his penchant for “running on fumes” often resulted in him being stranded by the side of the road -- at all hours of the day and night -- out of gas.

One night, we were driving back from Toronto at 1 AM, doing 85 mph in a 45-mph zone. As usual, the "low fuel" light had been burning for at least a half hour, and as we approached one of the last gas stations we would see for a while, I said, "Tom, if you run us out of gas again in the middle of the night, you are going to push this car, while I steer."

"What do you mean," he said. "I can't push this car, I have asthma!"

"You have asthma," I replied, "but I have brains enough not to drive past another goddamn gas station at 1 o'clock in the morning!"

He chuckled under his breath, and pulled into the gas station. I think that is the only argument I ever won with Tom Curley.
Not all of my memories of Curley are happy ones. Like anyone who worked with him for any length of time, I felt his wrath on a number of occasions. He fired me twice during our 30 years together; once from my part-time post as a PR rep/college student, for failing to collect admission fees from the crowd at a Saturday night concert during New England 300 weekend at Catamount Stadium. It didn’t matter than I had never been told to do so. In Tom’s mind, I should have known.
I have always suspected that my firing had more to do with not wanting to keep me on the payroll during a long, cold, PR-starved Vermont winter; a suspicion that was bolstered when he happily hired me back the following spring.
But hey, I can’t prove a thing.
My second firing came prior to what would have been my 31st season on the public-address microphone at Thunder Road, and in truth, it was less a firing than a mutual parting of the ways. Two years earlier, I had accepted a position hosting the afternoon drive program on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR Channel. It was a great career move for me – not to mention a substantial increase in pay – but for Tom, it was a difficult decision to accept. In his mind, you were either with him or against him; all-in or all-out. After nearly three decades, the announcer who had always been waiting at the pit gate when it opened at 2 p.m. was now rolling in at 7:15, missing the first heat race of the night.
It bothered him, and to be completely honest, it bothered me, too. I felt like I was short-changing Thunder Road and its fans, something I had never wanted to do. I was caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to either give less than 100% for the first time in my life, or resign the position I had dreamed of since I was a little boy.
Tom solved the problem for both of us, sending me a polite-but-firm note the following spring, saying he had decided to “move in a different direction.” It broke my heart, but I understood his rationale.
Thunder Road was his top priority, and he needed people around him who made it their top priority, as well.
There was also a softer, gentler side to Tom that not everyone got to see.
In the mid-1990s, ACT was hired by owner Michael Liberty to operate Maine’s legendary Oxford Plains Speedway for a couple of seasons. It was a lot of work, with Thunder Road, Oxford, New York's Airborne Raceway and the traveling American Canadian Tour all under the ACT umbrella. A number of us traveled the entire circuit, racing 4-5 nights a week and sleeping little.
I personally considered Liberty to be a $100 haircut on a $5 head; an untrustworthy opportunist who used people to pad his bank account before kicking them unceremoniously to the curb. He proved me right at the end of the 1995 campaign, throwing ACT out on its collective ear and refusing to pay a substantial amount of money he allegedly owed. I was at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington, Vermont, preparing for ACT’s annual post-season Banquet of Champions, when my phone rang.
“Can you come down to Tom’s room? We need to have a meeting.”
Once assembled, we were told that Liberty had defaulted on his financial obligations, essentially leaving ACT bankrupt. The point fund would be paid – with some delay – but the series was shutting down, effective immediately. It was crushing blow for a group of people who had poured their hearts and souls into the series for many years. None of us knew where our next paycheck was coming from, but Tom demanded that we dry our tears and proceed as planned that evening.
“These people deserve their night,” he said. “They busted their butts all season long, and they deserve a celebration tonight, not a wake. We’re going to go out there and do our jobs, and only at the end will I tell everyone what has happened.”
Emceeing that banquet was one of the toughest things I have ever done; pasting a smile on my face and talking about what a great season it had been. But it was absolutely the right thing to do, and we did it because Tom wanted it that way.
T-Bone could be a tough guy to work for. There were days when I wanted to take him by the throat and shake him. But there were other times – the vast majority of the time, really – where I and dozens of others would have walked through fire for the man, if he had asked us to.
Last month, Curley and longtime partner Ken Squier sold their beloved Thunder Road to former racer Cris Michaud and local real estate developer Pat Malone, ensuring that “The Nation’s Site of Excitement” will survive and thrive for decades to come. Just days later, Thomas Michael “T-Bone” Curley was gone.
I like to think those two events were connected, in some way.
I like to think that Tom hung around just long enough to ensure that race fans in Central Vermont got what they deserved, one last time.
Have a good ride, Tom.
And Rest In Peace.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Junior Wins At Talladega!

It’s always a good day when Junior wins at Talladega.

Sunday’s GEICO 500 was no exception, even though the “Junior” in question was not exactly the one most fans had in mind.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., carried Roush Fenway Racing back to Victory Lane Sunday for the first time since June of 2014, starting on the pole and prevailing on a green-white-checked flag finish to claim his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in 158 career starts.

Stenhouse’s upset victory puts his name at the top of a lengthy list of darkhorse victors at the 2.66-mile Alabama tri-oval, joining inaugural winner Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin, Jr. and Phil Parsons. Racing just 260 miles from his childhood home in Olive Branch, Mississippi, Stenhouse received a warm – if not quite Earnhardt-esque -- reception from the packed Talladega grandstand as he celebrated with team members, sponsors and girlfriend Danica Patrick in Victory Lane.

“This is for all the guys at the shop,” said Stenhouse. “Every race, we’re getting better and better.  We knew Talladega was a good track for us. It’s been good in the past and I’m glad we parked it for my buddy, (the late) Bryan Clauson. 

“This Fifth Third Bank Ford was so fast today. We qualified on the pole and got the win. It’s cool to have Jack Roush back in Victory Lane. This is cool. (It’s) the closest race track to my hometown and the fans were out here this weekend.”

Stenhouse’s win was the culmination of an early season competitive resurgence for Roush Fenway Racing, an organization that has had little to celebrate in recent seasons. The team contracted from three cars to two this season, allowing veteran Greg Biffle to seek his fortune elsewhere. Equally important were a series of management changes that revitalized RFR’s approach to winning races. Lifelong Roush man Robbie Reiser was reassigned from his post as General Manager; part of a long-overdue shift to newer, younger, more engineering-based minds.  

The results have been impressive, to say the least.

Stenhouse’s win was his fourth Top-10 finish in the last five weeks; following a 10th at Martinsville, a ninth at Bristol and a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at Richmond. Teammate Trevor Bayne also contended for the win Sunday, before being eliminated in a 15-car backstretch melee with less than 20 laps to go. Bayne has recorded seven Top-15 finishes in 10 starts this season, and if the post-season playoffs began today, both Roush Fenway Racing drivers would receive tickets to the dance.

There is still a bit more work to do before RFR returns to the ranks of championship favorites, but Sunday’s GEICO 500 was proof positive that progress is being made.

"There was no panic,” stressed Jack Roush Sunday, beaming from beneath his trademark fedora in a raucous Talladega Victory Lane. “I've been a racer for nearly 60 years – 30 of them in NASCAR – and I've been in holes before.

“I've climbed out of every one of them.”

While never doubting his ability to rebound, Roush admitted that Sunday’s win “comes with some relief.”

“It doesn’t get any sweeter than this,” said a happy Stenhouse Sunday. “It’s awesome to finally finish it off. I look at our first 150 (races) and I can only hope that the next 150 are going to be kind of like Joey Logano’s. He’s had 300 races. The first 150 weren’t great, the next 150 were. Hopefully this is the start of that.

“Pulling into Victory Lane and seeing Jack and Danica standing there together, it was super special. They’re the same height,” he laughed. “She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spending more time at the shop (or the) need to…spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop. She’s been so supportive and knows how hard that I’ve worked, and to have her there was really awesome.

“Every race, we’re getting better and better,” he added. “My confidence has been really high all year. We know what race tracks we need to work on. I feel confident in the guys back at the shop, Brian (Pattie) and everyone. There are not many teams that pay attention to the details like the No. 17 team does.”