Monday, August 06, 2018

COMMENTARY: France's Arrest Leaves NASCAR At A Crossroads

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested for aggravated DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance Sunday evening in The Hamptons.

Police say France’s 2017 Lexus was stopped after he ran a stop sign in Sag Harbor, NY at approximately 7:30 PM ET. He failed a field sobriety test, and police also found five oxycodone pills in his possession. He was arrested and booked for aggravated DUI and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree. France spent the night in jail and was released on his own recognizance this morning, after arraignment in Sag Harbor Village Justice Court. 

NASCAR issued a written statement on Monday afternoon, saying, “We are aware of an incident that occurred last night and are in the process of gathering information. We take this as a serious matter and will issue a statement after we have all of the facts.”

Later in the day, France issued a statement of his own, saying, “I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night. Effective immediately, I will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from my position to focus on my personal affairs.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Jim France – uncle of Brian France -- has assumed the role of interim chairman and CEO.

There are at least two major problems with what went down Sunday night.

First, NASCAR’s CEO was in the wrong New York hamlet at the time. Sag Harbor, NY is approximately 350 miles from Watkins Glen, where NASCAR’s Monster Energy and Xfinity Series had convened for a pair of important, late-season races. As Chairman and CEO, France should have been there, overseeing a family business that is much in need of his attention.

Second – and most obviously – NASCAR’s CEO made the ill-advised choice to drink a substantial quantity of alcohol, then climb behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. New York State law defines “aggravated DUI” as cases where the accused’s Blood Alcohol Content is at least .18, meaning that France’s BAC was more than twice the legal limit of .08.

In layman’s terms, that is blind, stinking drunk; a sad state of affairs for a man who just days earlier had proclaimed himself "locked and loaded" when it came to guiding the sport. “Locked and loaded” quickly degenerated into “locked up and loaded,” and it remains to be seen whether France can overcome this personal and professional setback.

This is not France’s first alcohol-related brush with the law.

In December of 2006, a woman phoned police and reported a vehicle driving erratically on US Rte. 1 in France’s hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla. She said the male driver had driven over curbs, struck a parked car and then scraped a tree outside the guard house of what was later determined to be France’s condominium. Roughly 20 minutes after the call was received, police contacted and interviewed France, but were unable to charge him with DUI, since he was already inside his residence and not behind the wheel.

France admitted to officers that he had been drinking that evening, but emerged with nothing more serious than a temporary blow to his public image.

France’s tenure as CEO of NASCAR has its ups and down, to be sure. His advocacy of the ill-fated Car of Tomorrow was a major setback for the sport. He is frequently criticized for being an absentee owner, spending far too much time on his yachts and not enough in the NASCAR garage. There have been frequent instances of odd behavior, highlighted by last year’s nationally televised Championship Awards Ceremony when France walked past champion Martin Truex, Jr. and handed him the traditional champion’s ring on the fly before stalking offstage.

While France deserves criticism for some of his decisions at the helm of the sport – and certainly for his actions last weekend -- he also deserves kudos for spearheading a number of positive changes in the sport. NASCAR is far safer today than on his father’s and grandfather’s watch, with no deaths at the national series level since 2001, and very few serious injuries. He has been a staunch advocate for diversity, smashing glass ceilings and transforming NASCAR’s image as a male-only, Confederate flag waving sport. He was instrumental in the creation of the sport’s current television packages, jettisoning a hodgepodge collection of networks in favor of a unified television package that splits the season equally between just two broadcast partners.

That’s credit where credit is due.

Now, however, critical decisions must be made about whether France can continue to effectively lead the sport. His arrest has taken the luster off what should have been a high-octane week for NASCAR. With second-generation driver Chase Elliott claiming a wildly popular first Monster Energy Series win at Watkins Glen and Ford set to introduce its new MENCS Mustang on Thursday, the sport was on a high competitive roll. Now, however, NASCAR find itself eyebrow-deep in damage control, attempting to extinguish France’s personal dumpster fire.

The third-generation NASCAR boss faces fines of $1,000 to $2,500 on the aggravated DUI charge, along with a possible one-year jail term and the loss of his driver’s license for 12 months. On the possession charge, he faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail or three years’ probation, with a fine of up to $1,000. Legal entanglements notwithstanding, France now faces questions about his possible addiction to oxycodone.

Addiction is a problem that takes far more than a “focus on personal affairs” to rectify. And even if he does not suffer from the disease of addiction, France’s apparent inability to make sound decisions concerning his consumption of alcohol bring both his judgement and stability into serious doubt.

For now, at least, NASCAR is in good hands. Jim France is a highly respected member of NASCAR’s Board of Directors and a driving force behind many of the sport’s most successful recent initiatives. He commands a level of respect in the NASCAR garage that far surpasses that of his embattled nephew.

Brian France’s arrest – to say nothing of published reports of his “don’t you know who I am” posturing to officers at the scene – has damaged his reputation and negatively affected his ability to lead the sport. He does not hold an ownership stake in NASCAR. The sanctioning body is owned by Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy – Brian’s sister – and it is they who will ultimately decide whether Sunday night’s arrest is just another pothole in the road, or his personal Waterloo.

COMMENTARY: Bowman Gray Has Some Fixing To Do

North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium has always been a breed apart.

The Winston-Salem quarter-mile oval is known for intense, no-quarters racing, with pushing, shoving and occasional fisticuffs a regular part of the program. Track management has traditionally reacted to those outbreaks with a wink and a nudge, knowing full well that their particular brand of “extracurricular activity” plays a major role in filling the track’s 17,000 seats on a weekly basis.
Saturday night, however, the track known as “The Madhouse” finally went a step too far.
During the evening’s Stadium Stock feature, drivers Andy Spears and Blake Walker tangled, causing Walker to spin. All in all, it was a fairly nondescript incident; a regular part of the weekly landscape at virtually any short track across the country.
During the ensuing caution period, Walker drove his car into the back of Spears and turned him around in retaliation. Again, nothing remarkable for fans raised on a weekly diet of drama and conflict at Bowman Gray Stadium.
What happened next, however, went far beyond the pale.
As Walker was assisted from his car by track safety workers and several off-duty Winston-Salem police officers -- who routinely provide security at the speedway -- Spears slammed into it once again, causing the unmanned machine to strike Walker. He then spun his car in repeated circles around Walker’s damaged racer, placing Walker, the officers and safety workers directly in his path.
Officer C.K. Robertson then drew his gun and pointed it at Spears, who immediately stopped his car before being removed from the vehicle and escorted back to the pit area.
A statement from the Winston-Salem Police Department said Robertson perceived Spears’ actions as a direct threat to himself and others, saying he "drew his service weapon in an attempt to stop the deadly threat.”
Both the Winston-Salem Police and Bowman Gray Stadium say they are investigating the situation, with charges and sanctions against Spears possible. Officer Robertson is not under investigation. 
It is time for Bowman Gray Stadium to draw a line in the sand and rein-in the “Madhouse” mentality, before it finally goes too far. Conflict, drama and fisticuffs have characterized the speedway’s weekly racing program for decades, and while fines and suspensions are not unprecedented, competitors know that their weekly dustups will generally be overlooked by track management, all in the interest of selling tickets.
Saturday night, however, was a horse of a different color.
A little caution-flag rubbing is one thing. Officer-involved shootings are another.
Bowman Gray Stadium was hoisted on its own petard Saturday night, nearly paying in blood for decades of lackadaisical enforcement and the tacit approval of conduct that should have little (or nothing) to do with auto racing.
The fact that a racer can engage in conduct severe enough for a police officer to draw his weapon, then only be “escorted back to the pits” says everything that needs to be known about the atmosphere at Bowman Gray Stadium. The inmates are running the asylum, and one of them nearly paid for it with his life.
Whether Andy Spears is charged with a criminal offense or not, Bowman Gray Stadium has a responsibility to act. The track, its competitors, its fans and the sport of stock car racing deserve better than to be mischaracterized as some sort of loose-cannon, redneck mob by the actions of an unruly few.
What happened Saturday night was a black eye for our sport, and Bowman Gray has some fixing to do.

COMMENTARY: Elliott's Win Is A Win For All Parties

Eight times a bridesmaid, finally a bride.

After 99 tries, Chase Elliott is finally a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner. And for Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports team, Chevrolet and the sport itself, the victory could not have come at a better time.

The 22-year old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott finally put it all together Sunday, starting third and running up front throughout the day. He won a stage for the third consecutive week – the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to do so this season -- led a whopping 52 laps and took Chevrolet back to Victory Lane for the first time since Austin Dillon’s upset decision in the season-opening Daytona 500. Perhaps more important, he proved that he could withstand the pressure of holding a late-race lead, something he has failed to do a handful of times in the last three seasons en route to a frustrating eight runner-up finishes.

Elliott offered a glimpse of what was to come early in Sunday’s race, unexpectedly overpowering leader Kyle Busch on a restart to take the lead. The reaction from the Watkins Glen grandstands was unprecedented since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. retired from the sport at the end of the 2017 campaign, but it was nothing compared to the raucous ovation he received in Victory Lane some two hours later.

Truex dogged Elliott to the finish
“Relief is definitely one way I’d describe it,” said Elliott in a champagne-drenched Victory Lane. “I’ve left races (feeling) pretty down over the last couple years. One thing that ran through my head is `You don’t run second eight times by luck. You have to realize you’re in this position for a reason.’”

Elliott’s scintillating late-race duel with defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. ended only when Truex sputtered out of fuel within sight of the checkered flag, allowing Elliott to sprint away to his first career MENCS victory. While Elliott didn’t get to celebrate with NASCAR’s customary post-race smoke show – his car ran out of gas on the cool down lap and was pushed to Victory Lane by teammate Jimmie Johnson – it did little to mute a celebration that was felt at virtually every level of the sport

At least for one day, it proved that NASCAR’s Holy Trinity of Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are beatable, every once in a while. It also provided further proof that NASCAR’s “Young Guns” are more than mere hype and hyperbole. Just weeks after sophomore driver Erik Jones won on the hallowed ground of Daytona, and just a week after Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez and William Byron all recorded career-best finishes at Pocono, it appears that NASCAR’s Kiddie Corps is beginning to feel its oats.

That is good news for the sanctioning body, which generated clouds of promotional hype for its “new stars” at the start of the season, only to have grizzled veterans Harvick, Busch and Truex win three-quarters of the races.

Everyone knew Elliott would win eventually. It was a matter of “when,” not “if.” But after inheriting Jeff Gordon’s seat at the pinnacle of Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, expectations were astronomically high. There have been a handful of near-misses in the last three seasons; a blown late restart while leading at Michigan, an infuriating dump-job at the hands of Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, and a late-race loss at Dover last season when Elliott was chased down and passed by Kyle Busch, virtually within sight of the checkered flag.

After 99 weeks of frustration and second-guessing, some had begun to wonder if Elliott would ever live up to his lofty expectations. But today, those questions seem a million miles away.

"You can win these things a lot of different ways,” said the soft-spoken Elliott Sunday, with his beaming father just a few feet away. “But to actually go out there, run in the top two or three all day long and race the guy that's won the past two road races for a victory at the end is very satisfying.
“This is really cool and something I’ll never forget,” in Victory Lane. “To see the fans’ reaction and people fired up… that’s pretty cool to see. I’m certainly glad we were on the front end today.”

Sound the siren at the Dawsonville Pool Hall, Chase Elliott is finally a MENCS winner.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

COMMENTARY: Stewart's Proposal Is Worth The Risk

Tony Stewart says his Eldora Speedway dirt track is ready, willing and able to host the NASCAR Xfinity Series, with the possibility of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series somewhere further down the road.

The Rossburg, Ohio oval hosts NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series tomorrow night, in the sixth annual renewal of the Eldora Dirt Derby, and the sport’s collective attention will be firmly focused on the Trucks; arguably for the only time all season. NASCAR Trucks on the Eldora dirt has become a “can’t miss” affair over the last six seasons, with race fans braving a short night of sleep in order to witness a unique, one-of-a-kind event that happens just once each season.

Stewart thinks he can work the same kind of major on the Xfinity and Monster Energy Tours.

"Maybe one of these days, we'll get an Xfinity or Cup race here," said Stewart on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint Tuesday. "We've proven we can run the vehicles here. And the Truck drivers that have never been here before can get around really well.

“If a Truck can get around here, a Cup or Xfinity car can do it too. Who knows? I never thought we would ever have a Camping World Truck Series (race), so maybe the dream will start to get Xfinity and Cup here, too."

Stewart encouraged fans to get behind the idea, saying, “"Start to think about putting pressure on NASCAR. I think we need to get an Xfinity race here. And if it were successful, maybe we could get a Cup race at Eldora.

“I think that's something everyone wants to see. So, I think we need to pressure NASCAR to get an Xfinity race here, as well."

Stewart wants Xfinity/Cup racing at Eldora
The idea is an interesting one for a sport desperately in need of new ideas, new events and a new way of doing things. There’s not much new in NASCAR Land these days, unless you count the weekly 8x10 sheet of rules adjustments; something that fans long ago announced their distaste for. In recent years, NASCAR’s idea of “shuffling the deck” has been to run the same old races in the same old places, with only minor changes in date.

Unfortunately, a trip to Great Aunt Enid’s house is as painful in August as it is in May. Same plastic-laminated sofa, same slobbery kiss on the cheek, same stultifyingly dull stories about wayward second-cousins you’ve never met, and never will.

It’s time to ditch Great Aunt Enid, head for the amusement park and strap into that new, gravity defying roller coaster.

Xfinity and Cup Series racing at Eldora – or any other short track, for that matter – could be just what the doctor ordered for a sport fighting to maintain the attention of its fan base. It’s different, it’s unique and it’s never been done before; something that absolutely cannot be said for any other event on the 2018 NASCAR calendar, with the exception of September’s debut of the new Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Much like its Truck Series counterpart, an NXS or MENCS race at Eldora would spotlight driver skill over technology, offering a much-needed break from the incessant aerodynamic, Optical Scanning Station and body-tolerance talk that dominates the sport today.

A .015-inch difference in the flare of a fender means virtually nothing at Eldora, and a trip to the wind tunnel is no more valuable than a trip the local Dairy Queen. Snuggle your right-rear tire up against the cushion, mash the gas and turn right to go left.

May the best man win.

There are at least three potential drawbacks standing in the way of NXS or MENCS racing at Eldora Speedway.

The first is a simple matter of financing. With a current seating capacity of just 20-25,000, Stewart will find it virtually impossible to turn a profit on a NASCAR premier series event. Even with the addition of substantial temporary seating, NASCAR will have the dramatically slash its sanction fee to make an Xfinity or Cup Series race work financially. Teams will likely also have to race for a reduced purse

Even if Stewart finds a way to double his track’s capacity, the Rossburg half-mile will struggle to accommodate a Cup-sized crowd.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“Sold out” NASCAR races are few and far between these days; a far cry from the time when tickets to the Bristol Night Race were fought over in Divorce Court and awarded to family members in wills. Having a date on the NASCAR calendar where demand dramatically outstrips supply and the term “get your tickets early” once again applies can only be good for the public’s perception of the sport.

If there are more race fans than seats for them to fill, so much the better.

Of additional concern is the impact of an NXS or MENCS race on the current Truck Series date. The Eldora Dirt Derby is unquestionably the most anticipated race on the NCWTS schedule. The Cup Series has premier events like the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600, while the Xfinity Tour takes center stage during its annual Dash 4 Cash Series.

The Truck troops have Eldora, and only Eldora.  

Expanding the track’s NASCAR schedule should only occur if it does not diminish the standing of the existing Truck Series event.

And finally, there is the question of where an Eldora Cup race would come from. With 36 point-counting events and two exhibitions already on the schedule, NASCAR currently has the second-longest season of any professional sport, trailing only golf. Adding a 39th race is virtually unthinkable, meaning that in order for Eldora to secure a spot on the MENCS calendar, some other track will have to relinquish theirs.

It’s difficult to imagine International Speedway Corporation, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dover Motorsports, Hulman & Co. (owners of Indianapolis Motor Speedway) or Pocono Raceway’s Mattioli Family handing over a multi-million dollar MENCS race date to Eldora, out of the goodness of their hearts. In order for Eldora to secure a spot on the Cup Series schedule, NASCAR will almost certainly have to take a race from another track, against its will.

That is something the sanctioning body has been unwilling to do in the past.

There is little question that NASCAR needs a serious dose of new, different and exciting. Racing at Eldora would be all three.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spoke for many today when he tweeted, “Hey @TonyStewart, this @XfinityRacing owner would love to have a race @EldoraSpeedway on the schedule. What say you @NASCAR? Let’s do this already!"

The Earnhardt Seal of Approval will almost certainly solidify the opinion of NASCAR fans, who have increasingly become fed up with the same old, same old,
Is the idea of NXS or MENCS racing at Eldora risky? You bet.
There is always a risk in trying something new. Maybe that new gravity defying roller coaster will have us all hurling up our lunch by the end of the day.
But hey, at least we tried.

Monday, July 16, 2018

COMMENTARY: Another Dominant Win For NASCAR's "Big Three"

In NASCAR these days, the rich just seem to get richer.
Martin Truex, Jr. won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in dominant fashion Saturday night, winning all three stages and leading 174 laps en route to his fourth victory of the 2018 campaign. By the numbers, the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion is having a better 2018 season than he had a year ago. And yet, the Mayetta, NJ native is only third-best on the win list, behind five-time winners Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
Between them, Busch, Harvick and Truex have rode roughshod over the competition this season, gathering up 14 checkered flags in 19 starts. That’s a degree of dominance unprecedented since the heyday of Petty, Pearson and Yarborough in the 1970s, when less than a half-dozen teams won with any real regularity.
Lately, it has gotten to the point where organizations like Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing -- championship-caliber teams in any other campaign -- are resorting to desperate measures just to keep pace with NASCAR’s new, holy triumvirate.
Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Stewart Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch were the only drivers to cramp Truex’s style Saturday night, and they did so only by implementing contrarian race strategies; taking two-tires and remaining on-track for as long as possible in hope of catching a fluke caution flag and trapping Truex a lap down.
Truex: Four wins and counting.
Hope, they say, is a lousy business plan. But for anyone not named Busch, Harvick or Truex, hope is about all that’s left these days.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine any of NASCAR’s “Big Three” failing to advance to the championship finale at Homestead. For as dominant as they have been in the win column, Busch, Harvick and Truex hold comfortable margins in playoff points, as well. Behind Busch (30), Harvick (27) and Truex (25), the next-best driver in the playoff points category is Clint Bowyer, with 10. No other driver has more than seven playoff points, meaning that the “Big Three” can have one bad race in every three-race playoff round, and still advance.
Busch, Harvick and Truex have been particularly dominant on the sport’s bread-and-butter, 1.5-mile ovals this season, winning every single start at those intermediate venues. With fully half of the MENCS playoffs contested on 1.5-mile tracks -- including the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway on Nov. 19 – it’s tough to imagine anyone else crashing their championship party.
Granted, there’s still a long way to go. Seven weeks remain before the start of the MENCS playoffs; ample time for someone to catch fire and insert themselves into the championship discussion. Bowyer, Logano, Erik Jones have all visited Victory Lane at least once this season, and while Austin Dillon has plummeted in the standings since his season-opening Daytona 500 win, his ticket is punched for the playoffs.
There are at least a dozen others – Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney at the head of the list – who could crack Victory Lane before the playoffs begin. And with the memory of the 2011 season still fresh in our minds – when a winless Tony Stewart staggered haplessly into the playoffs, then reeled off five wins in the final 10 races en route to the championship – hope springs eternal.
But someone needs to start showing signs of life, almost immediately, if they hope to unseat Busch, Harvick and Truex from the championship table.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

COMMENTARY: Problems... And Solutions

It doesn’t take a microscope to see that NASCAR has some challenges to deal with these days.

In-person attendance is down across the board, with television ratings for the first half of the 2018 season plummeting 23% from last year; from 3.31 million viewers in 2017 to 2.54 million this season. Neither of these situations happened overnight. They are the result of a series of changes – both societal and within the sport – that have dramatically changed the face of the game.

The sport faces major problems that unfortunately will not be solved by minor corrections in course. And while it’s easy to identify those problems, solutions are tougher to come by.

NASCAR has made a number of rule changes in recent seasons, often bowing to pressure from drivers and team owners, at the expense of fans.

When asked for feedback on this year’s Monster Energy All-Star rules package, the sport’s marquee drivers were almost unanimously negative, saying it made the cars too slow and too easy to drive. Interestingly, drivers who routinely race in the middle and back of the pack had an entirely different take, hailing the new rules package for tightening competition, increasing passing and improving the racing.

NASCAR chose to listen to the frontrunners, waving off further use of the package in 2018, despite speaking glowingly of it just a few weeks earlier and promising to roll it out at least once more before season’s end.

In recent months, we have heard drivers – and in some cases, team owners– utter words to the effect of, “I don’t care about what’s best for the sport, I care about what’s best for me.” That is a dangerous precedent to set, in an era when driver feedback seems to guide the sport’s decision-making process more than ever before.

During his tenure, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. would happily listen to everyone with an opinion. He would then do what he thought was best for the sport and its fans.

Today, NASCAR listens to everybody, reacting (it seems) to those who speak the loudest, whether they are paying customers or not. Fans have long complained about a lack of competition on NASCAR’s 1.5 mile ovals. It is a longstanding problem that has plagued the sport for years. And yet, after discovering a promising potential remedy for those complaints at the All Star Race, NASCAR waved it off under pressure from its athletes.

NASCAR these days is like a restaurant, where the chef loves his lasagna recipe and refuses to make changes, despite frequent complaints and a dwindling customer base. If things continue unchanged, the chef will be alone in his kitchen, wondering where the diners went.

Two decades ago, drivers seldom competed at NASCAR’s highest level until they reached the age of 30. Today, however, drivers make it to the Truck and Xfinity ranks while still in their teens, with many advancing to the MENCS before they’re old enough to drink champagne in Victory Lane.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and William Byron are absolutely NASCAR’s stars of the future. But with a total of one win between them – Blaney’s victory for Wood Brothers Racing in 2017 at Pocono – they are not yet the stars of today.

Promoting up-and-coming stars at the expense of established veterans was a critical miscalculation by NASCAR. It alienated the older drivers – who spend considerably more time in front of the TV and radio microphones – and placed an undue burden on burgeoning drivers who currently lack the experience to win races and contend for championships.

Greatness is not awarded, it is earned. And NASCAR fans are too smart to buy into a group of drivers who are not yet running at the front of the pack, much less contending for titles. NASCAR needs to refocus its marketing and promotional effort on winners, not up-and-comers, allowing its next generation of stars to mature organically, without being burdened with unrealistic expectations.

There is also too much emphasis on parts and pieces these days, rather than on people. NASCAR becomes more techno-centric with every passing day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its fanbase couldn’t care less about self-adjusting panhard bars, computer-based inspection processes and the latest, high-dollar carbon fiber doohicky.

Far too often in recent seasons, Monday morning water cooler talk has centered on pre-race inspection failures and post-race penalties, rather than on racing. Wednesday has supplanted Sunday as the most important day of the NASCAR week, and our sport is worse for it.

Nobody tunes-in to watch technical inspections, and nobody buys a ticket to watch the umpire. It’s high time for NASCAR to take the focus off the parts and pieces, and put it back on people. There are some amazingly talented athletes playing the game these days, and some captivating personalities, as well.

They deserve our attention.

While we’re at it, let’s stop talking about how safe stock car racing has become. Nobody wants to see the Flying Wallendas fall to their deaths from the high wire, but the knowledge that it could happen is what draws crowds and sells tickets. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze isn’t so daring when he works with a net, and right now, NASCAR spends entirely too much time talking about the net. 
And finally, it’s time for NASCAR to dramatically re-shuffle the cards and revamp its Monster Energy, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series schedules. With the exception of the Eldora Truck race, most fans cannot remember the last time a new track was added to the agenda. And after a decade or more spent circulating through the same venues – year after year after year – stagnation has begun to set in. 
The fans have spoken. They want fewer “rubber stamp” 1.5-mile ovals, and more short tracks. More road courses. More new, more exciting. Moving old races to new dates is not nearly enough to create a much-needed dose of excitement. 
In order to give the paying customers what they want, it’s time for NASCAR to interject a three or four-race series of short track events into its MENCS schedule, returning legendary venues like Hickory, Nashville or Oxford Plains to the competitive calendar for the first time in decades. First-time venues like Myrtle Beach or Berlin would further sweeten the competitive pot.
Imagine the fun of watching Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and company slug it out on a third-mile short track. Then imagine how just a handful of races like that could re-energize our sport.
Those races cannot happen without some major concessions by both NASCAR and its teams. In order to make Cup Series racing a reality at short tracks with limited seating, NASCAR must dramatically cut its sanction fee, eschewing profit – just a few times per season – in favor of excitement, drama and a dose of something new. Race teams must agree to race for a downsized purse – again, just a few times per season – choosing to do what’s best for the sport, instead of what’s best for their own bottom line.
All of these changes are needed, and all of them are doable, if the will to change is there. We have arguably already waited too long.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Jason Leffler: Not Forgotten

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the day former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Jason Leffler lost his life in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Our eulogy for "LefTurn" remains one of the most-read articles in the history of, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody

Charlie Dean Leffler’s daddy died last night, torn from the world in a crash so stunning, so horrific that it once again causes us to question our devotion to a sport that all too often breaks our hearts.

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, after a grinding crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Witnesses said his 410 Sprint Car impacted the Turn Four wall during a qualifying heat race and flipped wildly down the front stretch of the 0.625-mile dirt oval.  Safety teams extricated the unconscious driver from his vehicle, with plans to transport him to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His condition deteriorated rapidly while awaiting arrival of a medivac helicopter, however, and responders elected to transport him by ground ambulance to nearby Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
As word of the crash began to circulate, I did what I always do in situations like this. I told myself that the reports were untrue or exaggerated; the sad result of internet hysteria and a public raised on reality TV. When it became clear that a serious crash had indeed occurred, I prayed that Leffler’s injuries were not severe, assuring myself that he would back in the cockpit in a few weeks, or months.
Just before 10 p.m., however, a phone call from a colleague brought the horrible reality home. Jason Leffler was dead, leaving us to mourn – and remember --once again.
I have so many memories of the man we called “LefTurn.” He was a weekly guest on our Sirius XM Speedway radio program for years, sharing his life – both on and off the track – with a degree of candor that was both refreshing and rare. There were plenty of good days; wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, championship-contending rides with elite owners like Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and a trio of runs in the legendary Indianapolis 500.
There were also a few bad days; crushing race-day defeats, championship shortcomings and the loss of his Nationwide and Truck Series rides. When he and Alison decided to end their marriage a few years ago, Leffler made his weekly appearance as scheduled, despite a heavy heart.
“Leff, we don’t have to do this today,” I told him. “If you want to take a pass, we can catch up next week.”
“Nah, dude,” he replied. “It’s OK. I got no secrets.”
In the months that followed, Leffler spoke constantly of his desire to be a loving and involved father to Charlie, despite the demands of his racing career. Our weekly, 4 p.m. conversations often coincided with the end of Charlie’s afternoon nap, and the unpredictability of a newly-awakened two-year old made our visits an absolute joy.
A year ago, I crossed paths with Jason and Charlie, sharing a “Boys Day Out” lunch at a local restaurant. While Jason and I talked racing, Charlie demolished a massive salad, shoveling huge forkfuls of lettuce into his mouth while simultaneously carrying on a silent flirtation with my wife.
“Charlie, you ate the whole thing,” laughed Leffler at the end of our chat. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Sorry Daddy,” replied Charlie, “I was very hungry!”
How do you tell a five-year old boy that daddy is not coming home tonight? How do you explain that his father, his best friend and his hero – all rolled into one – has been cut down by a sport that exacts such a horrible toll from its brightest lights?
The loss is unfathomable, unacceptable and unbelievable.
Today, I mourn the loss of a phenomenal talent; a man who could run an entire, 10-lap heat race at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals on three wheels, his left-front tire twitching in mid-air in an awe-inspiring display of chassis-bending bravado.
I mourn the loss of a friend whose zest for life, winning smile and goofy, faux-hawk hairdo never failed to make me smile.
I mourn the loss of a father who adored his son and deserved to see him grow up.
A quote attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway said, “There are but three true sports -- bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor-racing. The rest are merely games.”
All sports include a varying degree of risk, but auto racing is especially adept at destroying its own. Racers have a special relationship with death. They brush shoulders with it daily, acknowledging its presence with a passing nod while clinging stubbornly to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
“Last year, I did a part-time truck deal,” said Leffler to Motor Racing Network’s Winged Nation recently. “It was the least I had raced since I was 18 (and) mentally, it wasn’t good. I don’t like being home. I just like being in the race car at the race track.
“The (NASCAR) start-and-park deal is not for me,” he said. “I had a good run for over a decade, so it’s time to get back racing.”
Big-league NASCAR racing had not suffered a fatality since the great Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In that time, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, improved helmet and seat technology and car construction have made the sport safer than at any point before. But make no mistake about it, auto racing is not safe, and it never will be.

As long as men and women strap themselves into objects capable of eclipsing 200 miles per hour, as long as they test the boundaries of human endurance at places like Daytona, Lemans, Winchester and Bridgeport, horrible things can – and will -- happen. Until the laws of physics are repealed, the immovable force will always trump the unstoppable object. And when it does, racers will die.
Jason Leffler knew that. We all knew that. But it doesn’t make what happened Wednesday evening any easier to accept.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

COMMENTARY: Keselowski Calls Out NASCAR On High-Downforce Package

NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell confirmed last week that the sanctioning body will utilize its so-called ”All Star” rules package at least one more time this season, and perhaps as many as three.

Brad Keselowski is not a fan.

The 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion said Friday at Michigan International Speedway that while the engine and aerodynamic package worked well in last month’s Monster Energy All Star Race, a regular diet would “have a severe long-term negative effect.

“I think that package needs to remain solely at the All-Star Race,’’ said Keselowski said. “A lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands the cars take to drive. I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers. If you put a package like this out there… on a consistent basis, the best drivers in the world would no longer go to NASCAR. They’ll pick a different sport.

“That won’t happen overnight,” he predicted. “That will happen over time. I think that would be a tragedy to this sport because the best race car drivers want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance. There’s no doubt that you make less of a difference in that configuration.”

Keselowski said NASCAR should “make sure that the best drivers are able to showcase their talent,” adding “I think of three things that I like to see at a race; fast cars… the best race car drivers and… a great finish. I think that (ASR) package achieved one of those three and hurt the other two. In that sense, I consider it a net loss overall.’’

NASCAR’s All-Star package utilized a larger rear spoiler and front splitter, along with a restrictor plate to lower speeds, increase drag and bunch cars closer together. The race was a hit with fans, but the Team Penske driver said he fears the attraction will fade over time.

Keselowski: All-Star package was
" a net loss overall.’’
I saw the videos of people in Charlotte standing on their feet,’’ he said. “Part of that is the legacy that the sport has to have the best drivers. But I think over time, that would deteriorate. We have seen that with IndyCar. A decade ago, if you wanted to see the best racing in the world, it was in IndyCar. They ran three- and four-wide and put on great shows, but long-term it didn’t translate to the fans or better ratings than NASCAR.

“We have to tread very lightly with the next steps of this sport,” said Keselowski. “I like the idea of picking one or two races and running that package. I think that makes sense. But if we overdose on that particular format of racing, it will have -- in my opinion -- a severe, long-term negative effect.’’

Keselowski said he believes NASCAR’s current rules package rewards driver skill, while racing with a restrictor plate equates to a random lottery.

“First through fourth (place) has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent (and) skill,” he said. “From there on back, it is a random bingo ball. The top four or five generally dictate their finish and the rest do not.

Keselowski’s comments triggered a maelstrom of debate, both on social media and within the NASCAR garage. Some observers accused him of forgetting his roots, pointing out that his first career MENCS win came with team owner James Finch in 2009 at Talladega. At the time, Keselowski was a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver with only two wins to his credit, while Finch was winless in approximately 200 Cup Series starts.

Keselowski was an upset winner
at Talladega in 2009.
At the time, Keselowski expressed no misgivings about an engine and aerodynamic package that leveled the playing field and allowed dark horse teams to compete for the win. Today, however, with a top-notch position at Team Penske, the Michigan native seems less interested in spreading the wealth.

That’s human nature, and understandable to a degree. And Keselowski’s comments were supported by NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin and former series champion Bobby Labonte. Given choice between doing what is best for the drivers and doing what is best for the sport, however, the question becomes more complicated.

Single-file racing at 200 mph is appealing to drivers, who cherish speed above all else. Fans, however, don’t seem interested in watching a high-speed, single-file parade. They’ve seen their fill of it on NASCAR’s 1.5-mile ovals in recent years, and have largely opted out, preferring side-by-side racing, two and three-wide, with frequent lead changes and action throughout the pack.

The paying customers have spoken clearly about what they want.

Keselowski is correct when he says that elite drivers come to NASCAR to display their talent. But there’s another powerful reason why the top short track, Open Wheel and sports car drivers in the country come to NASCAR.

They do it because that’s where you cash those big Sunday paychecks. Paychecks that purchase lavish homes, private jets and million-dollar motorhomes.

Let’s assume – for the sake of discussion – that an elite NASCAR driver becomes unhappy with a rules package that tightens the field and produces more race winners. He expresses that unhappiness by announcing that he will defect to another form of motorsports.

Where will he go? To Indy Car, where there are only a handful of winning teams? To IMSA, where the top drivers race for a small percentage of a midfield MENCS driver’s salary? Perhaps he will choose that path. But when he does, he’ll be leaving most of this toys behind.

Keselowski’s take is understandable. If I was one of the five or 10 elite drivers in our sport, I’d also be fighting to hang onto what I have.

But in an era of flagging attendance and plummeting TV ratings, a new debate seems to be developing over what is best for NASCAR’s elite drivers, versus what is best for its fans.