Tuesday, April 02, 2019

COMMENTARY: In Defense Of Darrell Waltrip

This is a tough time to be Darrell Waltrip.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer turned NASCAR On FOX analyst has been a target for naysayers and detractors throughout his storied career. But recently, the hatred has ramped-up to a level that far exceeds the limits of good taste.

Last week, unconfirmed reports surfaced that the 72-year old Waltrip is contemplating retirement at season’s end, closing out a career that has encompassed nearly half a century and has enriched our sport in ways too numerous to count.

From the day he first landed in the NASCAR garage in 1972, the Owensboro, KY native has been a rabble-rouser. He has consistently spoken his mind, straight from the heart and without a filter, calling things like he sees them with little regard for political correctness or social decorum. Virtually upon arrival, he called out the biggest stars of the day – Petty, Pearson and Allison – earning the nickname “Jaws” after getting under tough-guy Cale Yarborough’s skin just one time too many. He employed psychological warfare in an era when most competitors could not spell psychological warfare, and aroused the passions of NASCAR Nation like no one ever had before, and few (if any) have done since.

He pushed buttons – intentionally at times – and pushed this sport’s fan base to levels of passion it had never before experienced. He’s still doing that today, in his own unique and unapologetic style.

Nobody has heard more boos in his lifetime than Waltrip, and no one has embraced the heel’s role more willingly, or with more passion. Rather than cower from the catcalls, he once famously challenged his detractors to meet him in the Kmart parking lot after the race for a good old-fashioned punch out.

Who else can combine a sponsor plug with an invitation to fight?

Only DW.

Waltrip has been polarizing from Day One, and God bless him for that. In an era when people spend most of their time looking for reasons to be offended, Waltrip continues to bulldoze his way forward, stepping on toes when necessary and telling us exactly what he thinks, 100% of the time.

Based on his track record – on 40-plus years of being consistently and unfailingly himself -- what exactly do the haters expect from Waltrip today?

Do they really want a politically correct, Pollyanna Waltrip? A man devoid of opinions, who says wonderful things about everyone and never toes the line of controversy?

If that’s what you want, you’ve got the wrong guy, my friends.

Darrell is what Darrell is. He’s opinionated, outspoken and sometimes annoying; saying things that make you think (really THINK) about what’s going on in the sport of NASCAR. He compliments when compliments are due, and criticizes with equal passion. And if you don’t like it, you can take a page out of Rusty Wallace’s playbook and “go choke on that $200,000.”

Unfortunately, just as they did at the end of his competitive career, the haters and naysayers refuse to allow Waltrip to leave with the grace, dignity and respect he deserves. Social media is filled with hateful, “throw the bum out” commentary, authored by people who were still in diapers when Waltrip was laying waste to his on-track competition and raising the bar of expectation for what a NASCAR champion should be.

Many drivers walk away from the sport when their time behind the wheel is done. Waltrip never walked away, choosing instead to continue to contribute as a television analyst. His perspective is one-of-a-kind, combining the behind-the-wheel savvy of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with a “been there, done that” long view of the sport that no one else can offer.

Somewhere along the line, it became cool to be cruel.

Social media has made a cottage industry out of hurtfulness, insults and disrespect, to the point where now, even a respected institution like the Associated Press confuses character assassination with insightful commentary.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and Waltrip deserves better.

As a NASCAR Hall of Famer with three premier series championships and Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 trophies among his 84 premier series wins, Waltrip has earned the right to choose his own exit strategy. He has earned the right to say goodbye at the time of his choosing and on his terms; without being hounded out the door by a pack of rabid wolves, hungry for their Hot Take Headline and their self-serving pound of flesh.

People who criticize Waltrip's "shtick" don't understand.  DW is not playing a character on television, he is being himself. That "Boogity Boogity Boogity" enthusiasm at the start of every race is neither contrived nor created. It is Darrell, being Darrell. 

You don’t have to like Darrell Waltrip. You don’t even have to agree with Darrell Waltrip. It’s OK if he gets under your skin from time to time. As a matter of fact, it’s part of his job. 

The philosopher Aristotle once said, "There is only one way to avoid criticism; do nothing, say nothing and be nothing." After spending every Sunday afternoon in our living rooms for the last 20-odd years -- delivering an unapologetic mix of opinion, commentary and analysis... doing, saying and being -- Mother Teresa would rub you the wrong way, every once in a while.

During the glory days of Monday Night Football, people disliked Howard Cosell; criticizing his shtick and bemoaning his sometimes self-possessed commentary. They lambasted Dandy Don Meredith for being unpolished and “too country;” eventually running both men out of the broadcast booth in the mid-80s.

Monday Night Football has never been the same since.  

Without Waltrip, NASCAR would long ago have been overrun by those who consider insightful Victory Lane commentary to be “thanking the boys back at the shop,” along with God, Gatorade and Goodyear. Without Waltrip, there would be no Kevin Harvick, no Brad Keselowski and no Kyle Busch; all of whom have built on his “call it like you see it” foundation to become outspoken, opinionated and insightful spokesmen for our sport.

Waltrip blazed trails and opened doors for those who came behind him – both on and off the race track – and for that, he deserves our thanks and our respect.

If DW is truly retiring at season’s end, he deserves to be embraced and applauded for his lifelong efforts to improve and add color to our sport.

The recent spate of “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry” character assassination says more about the assassins than it does about Waltrip.

Monday, April 01, 2019

COMMENTARY: Texas Provides Much-Needed Lift For Hendrick Motorports

Johnson won the pole on Friday...

Hendrick Motorsports silenced the critics last weekend – at least temporarily -- placing two cars in the Top-6 in Sunday’s O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson finished fifth Sunday, with teammate William Byron close behind in sixth, with Chase Elliott 13th and Alex Bowman 18th.

HMS also qualified three of its Chevrolet Camaros in the Top-5 – the team’s best performance since sweeping the front rows in qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500 – on a weekend that seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson called “a step in the right direction.”

Just one week after a demoralizing 24th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson led the Hendrick charge in the Lone Star State. He and his Kevin Meendering-led team were fastest in Friday’s lone practice session, then topped the speed charts in all three rounds of qualifying en route to Johnson’s first pole since July 17, 2016 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Teammate William Byron qualified second, with Elliott third and Bowman 24th.

Johnson led 60 laps Sunday – more than he led in the entire 2018 season – while Elliott and Byron paced the field for 35 and 15 laps, respectively. That’s encouraging for an organization that finished ninth, 11th, 16th and 19th (leading just 21 laps) in the circuit’s last 1.5-mile outing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, just three weeks earlier.

...and finished fifth Sunday in Texas.
“I am so proud of everybody on this Ally team,” said Johnson after the race. “We’ve had a lot of pressure on us, and everyone has stepped up and gotten it done.

“We were very aggressive coming here, changing a lot of stuff around in our mile-and-a-half program. I'm really proud of everybody for keeping the faith and working hard. I was just trying to get a consistent weekend. It is one thing to have one-lap pace. We needed that and we did that on Friday. Then Saturday went really well. So in the back of my mind, I was thinking, `We just need to have a rock-solid day. If we do that, then I could confirm to myself and to everyone else that we are moving in the right direction.’”

Sunday was not without its challenges for the HMS fleet.  Byron overcame a pit-road miscue en route to his sixth-place, while Elliott looked like a contender early before experiencing challenges of his own in the later going.

But in the end, Sunday provided a high-water mark for an organization that was badly in need of some good news.

All parties acknowledge that there is still plenty of work to do before HMS returns to its customary position at the top of the MENCS standings. Johnson has not been to Victory Lane since the AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover on June 4, 2017; a span of 65 races. Elliott still lacks the consistency to challenge for checkered flags on a weekly basis, while Byron and Bowman continue to learn the race craft necessary to become frontrunners at NASCAR’s highest level.

But for now, all four drivers have a week to revel in their “consistent weekend,” while the men and women back at the shop attempt to build on it for the future.

“We needed this,” said a beaming Byron post-race. “It’s been a long road for sure, the last year and a half. We’ve been working harder and harder and the guys have been putting in a lot of work. (There is) still work to be done, but we’re definitely heading it there in the right direction.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Johnson. “This is what we’ve been looking for.”

Monday, March 25, 2019

COMMENTARY: Johnson's Martinsville Performance A Cause For Concern

For Jimmie Johnson, Martinsville Speedway has traditionally been the Land of Milk and Honey.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver leads all active drivers with nine career victories at the historic Virginia half-mile, and has been a dominant force there for as long as most fans can remember.

Sunday, however, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was a non-factor from start to finish, lapped three times under green-flag conditions before claiming a troubling, 24th-place finish.

Johnson and his Kevin Meendering-led team gave cause for optimism earlier in the weekend, pacing an early practice round. But that fast lap came during a mock qualifying run – when most teams were already in race mode – skewing the speed charts in favor of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson qualified only 12th-best Saturday, and when the green flag flew in Sunday’s STP 500, he and the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet began a slow and steady fade to the back of the pack.

Johnson was lapped by leader Brad Keselowski in the race’s second stage, and lost two more circuits in the final round. He regained one of those lost circuits by taking a wave around in the late going, but no amount of pit-road gerrymandering could overcome a shockingly ill-handling race car. Johnson spent the final 200 laps being passed by cars he has never raced before, and an average 2019 finish of 16.8 is cause for genuine concern.

His 24th-place finish extended a Martinsville slump that has seen him finish outside the Top-10 in eight of his last 10 starts. By comparison, the California native had just three finishes worse than 10th in 25 previous Martinsville races. He has not claimed a Martinsville Speedway grandfather clock since the fall of 2016, and has not finished better than 12th at the Virginia short track since then.

Johnson’s struggles have not been confined to Martinsville, either.

For Johnson, the drought continues.
He has not won a MENCS race since the AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover on June 4, 12017; a span of 65 consecutive races. Some of that drought rightfully lies at the feet of a new Chevrolet Camaro that has not rolled out as competitively as expected, and Hendrick Motorsports has also struggled to overcome the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as well as the departure of veteran Kasey Kahne at the end of the 2017 campaign.

Chase Elliott’s runner-up showing Sunday was Hendrick’s first Top-5 finish since Kansas last October; a span of 10 races. And while HMS is clearly struggling to regain its championship form, Team Jimmie has lagged behind both its Hendrick and Chevrolet brethren.

Alex Bowman spent considerable time in the Top-10 Sunday, before settling for 14th at the drop of the checkered flag. Chevy pilots Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch and Ty Dillon all ran in the Top-10 as well, before finishing 11th, 12th and 13th respectively. Johnson left the Old Dominion 15th in the championship standings, and his performance at a track he has traditionally dominated will do little to calm a justifiably jittery fan base.

Just three weeks ago, Johnson spoke optimistically after an eighth-place finish at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, saying, “We showed that if we have a mistake-free race, we can run in the Top-5 and Top-10. (With) how last year went, that’s a step in the right direction.

“Clearly, we’re putting a lot of time and work and effort to get better,” he said. “So, it’s nice to have those better runs. But it’s not where we want to be. It’s not where I want to be, or Mr. Hendrick or Kevin or this whole team. We’re trying to celebrate the small victories, but at the same time, if you look at the speed that the No. 18 had on the field and his ability to pass, we want that. And we’re not going to stop until we get that.”

Johnson also spoke candidly about the recent evolution of the sport and how things have changed since he first joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2001.

“I showed-up at Hendrick with cars and set-ups that just did everything you wanted them to,” he recalled. “Rules packages have changed quite a bit since then and we’ve lost our advantage. When I look at our problems in the last couple of years… aero is a big piece of it. Times change. We’ve got to re-think things and re-build things.

“We’ve put a lot of effort in and it’s just frustrating to not get the results as quick as we want, but we’ll head (to Martinsville) optimistic once again, with a lot of new stuff on the cars and see if it works.”

These are trying times for fans of the seven-time NASCAR champion, with no assurance that things will get better soon, or ever. At age 43, Johnson faces inevitable questions about whether his skill set has begun to diminish, and while he is unquestionably in the best physical condition of his career, there is more to racing than aerobic fitness and a low body fat percentage.

Father Time is undefeated, and Johnson fans can only hope that all those Martinsville grandfather clocks are not preparing to chime the stroke of midnight.

Monday, March 18, 2019

COMMENTARY: Plenty Of Blame To Go Around After Auto Club Speedway Qualifying Debacle

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tripped over its own shoelaces again Friday, with a qualifying fiasco straight out of the Keystone Kops.

In a misguided attempt to avoid going onto the racetrack first and allowing other cars to draft off their back bumper, all 12 final-round competitors sat idling on pit road, until it was too late. All 12 competitors failed to begin their decisive Round Three time-trial effort until after the qualifying clock ran out and the red and black flags had signaled an end to the session.

It was a baffling, inexplicable turn of events; one that left the ACS grandstands howling in anger.

And it was no mistake.

Every crew chief on every pit box knew how long it would take to get from the exit of pit road to the start/finish line, in time to begin a qualifying lap. Despite that knowledge, all 12 crew chiefs held their drivers until not enough time remained; stubbornly refusing to be the dreaded “first man out.”

It was a world class game of Chicken; a senseless pecker-measuring contest that ultimately produced only one backhanded winner (Austin Dillon) and millions of losers.

Fans in attendance at ACS – and likely those viewing at home — booed their lungs out in frustration. Frustration with the drivers, frustration with the teams and frustration with the sanctioning body.

That frustration was entirely justified, and all three entities deserve a share of the blame.

NASCAR probably should have seen Friday’s qualifying chicanery coming. It has loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon for the last three weeks, as teams gradually became more brazen in their attempts to manipulate and massage the system to their own benefit. A number of drivers predicted exactly what happened, before the green flag ever flew. But somehow, NASCAR was caught with its collective pants down, having failed to anticipate any sort of on-track bamboozlement.

In recent years, NASCAR seems to have adopted a “we’re all in this together“ attitude when it comes to governing the sport; abandoning the iron-fisted management style favored by founder Bill France, Sr., in favor of a sort of “governance by consensus.”

As a result, the sanctioning body frequently finds itself playing defense at times like this, reacting to the whims of the garage area, instead of being proactive. They modify rules in the aftermath of a disaster, rather than anticipating the disaster and preventing it before it occurs.

Racers are mercenaries. They often care less about what’s good for the sport than what’s good for them. They will cut their mother’s throat for a $100 trophy and 45 championship points, and have no qualms about delivering a farcical qualifying session to their fans, rather than risking a 12th-place start in Sunday’s race.

There is nothing wrong with being a mercenary. In the end, we all look out for number one, and it should come as no surprise that NASCAR drivers and teams think of themselves first and the fans later, if at all.

Professional athletes have finite careers; 10 or 15 years to cement their legacy, pay the kids’ college tuition and provide for their retirement. They are one blown ACL, one torn rotator cuff, one severe concussion away from being shuffled off to the sidelines at any moment. Little wonder, then, that their overriding attitude tends to be, “me first.”

Team owners are the same way. With a slate of multi-million dollar sponsors to appease, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep their organization at the front of the pack. They’ll spend $500,000 to save 5/1,000 of a second on pit road, then complain pitifully about the skyrocketing cost of competition.

It’s understandable, and absolutely predictable.

The Drivers Council cares about what’s best for drivers, and the Race Team Alliance cares about what’s best for teams. They may occasionally do things that are in the overall best interest of the sport, but only when those things positively impact their own bottom line.

Friday afternoon proved — once again — that NASCAR’s “let’s all pull together” attitude is not working, and never will.

What happened Friday at Auto Club Speedway was a slap in the face to NASCAR’s already dwindling fan base; a shameful, inexcusable insult to anyone who spent the money or time necessary to witness a sham of a program that never should have happened.

Now, NASCAR is once again forced to react. Preliminary indications are that they will once again modify the qualifying format, in an attempt to prevent racers from harming themselves and others. It’s the motorsports equivalent of imposing a new, later curfew on your child, after they refuse to obey the previous one.

Yet another procedural tweak, as the sanctioning body hopes against hope that its teams will do the right thing, rather than demanding it.

Monday, March 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: “Anyone Can Do It” Does A Disservice To The Sport

NASCAR’s new 2019 Rules Package is now three races old, with plenty of opinion on both sides of the aisle.

Fan reaction has – as usual – been all over the road, with some hailing the on-track results at Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceways as a positive improvement over past seasons. Others have been critical of the package, characterizing the competition as marginally better, if at all.

Fan reaction is predictably unpredictable, since no one in the grandstands (or at home in the Barcalounger) has actually driven the race cars they’re commenting on. However, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage seems equally divided, with some drivers complimenting the new package while others administer tar and feathers.

“I thought there was a lot of side-by-side,” said Logano after winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. “It was very intense. My heart rate was going as high as it has ever been, because there’s so many other things you have to think about now, because the cars are closer.

“Three-wide, four-wide, bumping, banging, very aggressive moves on the racetrack. How do people not love that? I don’t understand. It’s really good.”

Logano’s positive take is not shared by all of his garage-area brethren, however. Both Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman has been highly critical of the new rules

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver told the media that NASCAR had "taken the driver skill away from the drivers in this package.” Newman echoed those comments, effectively saying that the cars are now so easy to handle that NASCAR could pull fans from the grandstands to drive them.

In addition to being patently untrue, overhyped “anyone can do it” statements like those uttered by Busch and Newman do the sport a huge disservice.

One of the main selling points of NASCAR since its birth in 1949 has been – as Ken Squier so aptly stated nearly half a century ago – “Common men performing uncommon deeds.” Comments like those made by Newman and Busch turn that statement on its head. Now, we are suddenly supposed to believe that NASCAR is nothing more than “common men performing common deeds;” all due to one simple rule change.

Does anyone truly believe that the average Joe Sixpack could wheel a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car at speeds above 180 mph, inches away from a pack of 37 other automobiles?

Horse hockey. You know it, I know it… and Busch and Newman know it, too.

I cannot drive a speeding MENCS car in heavy lapped traffic, any more than I can throw a Tom Brady-esque 65-yard spiral through double coverage onto the fingertips of a sprinting wide receiver.  

No more than I can wallop a Justin Verlander fastball 400 feet into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.

No more than I can snipe a top-corner slap shot past Carey Price in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals.

None of those things are ever going to happen, no matter how insistent some of today’s top drivers may be to the contrary.

Mowing the lawn is not a spectator sport, because anyone can do it. Taking a bath is not a spectator sport, because anyone can do it. Why should anyone buy a ticket – or devote three hours of their valuable Sunday afternoon – to watch a group of people do something that they (apparently) can simply do themselves?

NASCAR drivers have traditionally been poor spokespersons for their sport. If they owned an Italian restaurant, some NASCAR wheelmen would place an ad in the local newspaper stating “WORST LASAGNA IN TOWN! LOUSY DECORE, SHODDY SERVICE AND EXHORBITANT PRICING,” then wonder why nobody shows up for dinner.

Last week’s grousing was simply the latest example.

It’s understandable, I guess. After all, racers have been raised on speed, virtually from the womb. Going fast is all they care about; to the point where many of them would rather put on a lousy race at high speed than a great race, only slower. In addition, Newman’s comments came just moments after a frustrating, 24th-place finish. A guy's bound to be a little crabby after a day like that. Busch, meanwhile, made his remarks after a pit road speeding penalty cost him a shot at Victory Lane, relegating him to third place on the podium. We all know how Kyle feels about finishing third, don't we?

Car out to lunch? Made a critical mistake that cost your team a possible win? Blame the rules. It’s much easier than facing up to your own shortcomings, or giving a brand new technical package enough time to prove itself, for better or worse.

Newman and Busch are absolutely entitled to their opinions. And eventually, NASCAR’s new rules package may indeed prove to be as flawed as they say. But when virtually every driver and crew chief on pit road says they have a lot of learning to do before the new technical specs can be fairly judged, comments like “anyone can do it” are premature at best and irresponsible at worst.

“I want to look at the facts,” said Logano in Vegas. “How many passes were there? How many lead changes were there? Was the racing close? You see the stats of how many green flag passes, how many lead changes there were… running 100 green flag laps at the end and no one knew who was going to win until we came off Turn 4. That’s a pretty good race in my opinion.”

Sunday, March 03, 2019

COMMENTARY: Busch Enters March In Midseason Form

In just the third week of the 2019 NASCAR season, Kyle Busch appears to be in midseason form. 

Busch scored at LVMS in Trucks...
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is off to a scalding start in all three NASCAR National Series. Two weeks ago he supplanted Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, Jr. as the all-time winningest driver in NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series history, claiming his  Motor Speedway. He already held the career-wins mark in the Xfinity Series, where he has collected a total of 92 checkered flags.

Busch swept the opening two events of last weekend’s tripleheader in Las Vegas, and only an early pit road speeding penalty in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 cost him a shot at a weekend sweep; relegating him to third behind Team Penske stablemates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

...and Xfinity competition.
Busch’s third-place finish Sunday in Las Vegas followed a runner-up showing in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway; for an early season average finish of 3.7. He is the only driver to record Top-10 finishes in all three starts this season, and ranks fourth in points earned, trailing only Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Numbers like that will keep a guy gainfully employed in the NASCAR garage for as long as he likes, and last Thursday, Busch announced that he had signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and longtime sponsor Mars Inc., to continue their combined assault on the NASCAR record books.

“My relationship with Joe, JD and the (Gibbs) family has grown a lot of the years,” said Busch last week. “And each year, I think it gets better and better. Being a driver with them since 2008 has meant the most to my career.

“It’s all about relationships,” he added, “and I feel like the relationship with M&M’s has continued to get better and grown over the years, as well as with Toyota. I have a lot of friendships there.

“You never say never, but I don’t know if you’d ever really see me drive anything different than a Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 M&M’s Toyota. Hopefully, it stays that way. We know it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. I am certainly looking forward to that.”

Busch and Petty: Same, but different.
Busch’s 197 NASCAR National Series wins leave him just three behind the legendary Richard Petty on the all-time list. The mere mention of that impending achievement inspires heated – even venomous – water cooler debate across NASCAR Nation, and at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before NASCAR’s most polarizing driver equals – and then surpasses – the King’s 200-win total.

Petty downplayed the chase late last season, saying, “His 200 and my 200 -- there’s no comparison. I did my thing and he’s doing his, but they’re not the same.” 

For what it’s worth, Busch concurs, saying that his pursuit is not of Petty, but of the second and third men on the Cup win list.

“I feel as though I’m chasing Jeff Gordon (93 wins) and David Pearson (103)," said Busch recently. "I don’t know if I can get there or not, but I’d like to think I can. Nobody will ever touch 200 Cup wins, but it would certainly be nice to go out with 100.”

Comparing Petty’s 200 premier series victories to Busch’s combined Truck-Xfinity-Cup total is like comparing apples to watermelons. But the Las Vegas native is just this close to doing something that only one other person in the history of the sport has ever done.

That alone seems worth of notice and respect.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Commentary: Sam Bass Was One Of A Kind

Sam Bass passed away early Saturday morning, succumbing to the effects of a lifelong battle with diabetes.
Sam’s work was as much a part of NASCAR as the Daytona 500. He was NASCAR’s first Officially Licensed Artist, and from his talented hands sprung many of the most recognizable paint schemes in the history of the sport. From Bobby Allison’s Miller American Buick to Dale Earnhardt’s Goodwrench Chevrolet and Jeff Gordon’s Dupont “Rainbow Warrior” Chevrolet, Sam’s fingerprints have been all over this sport for decades.
He first got hooked on auto racing at Southside Speedway in Richmond, Virginia. After a childhood spent painting his Matchbox cars to mirror those driven by his NASCAR heroes, Sam presented his idol, Bobby Allison, with a one-of-a-kind painting of his car. That humble gift gave rise to an unprecedented career and a love affair with this sport that carried him to his final days.
He produced literally thousands of paint schemes, portraits, commemorative guitars, fine art pieces and magazine covers over the years, including every Charlotte Motor Speedway program cover since 1984. Equally important, he became a valued and beloved member of the NASCAR community.
It hasn’t been easy, these last few years.
Diabetes requires a regimented diet and close attention to one’s health and well-being, something Sam struggled to integrate into his 1000-mile per hour lifestyle. In 2005, Sam developed a blister on his foot during a 12-hour day of Speedweeks appearances at Daytona International Speedway.
Sam was a pack animal. He enjoyed being with people, talking, signing autographs and sharing stories. Admittedly “hard-headed,” he ignored the situation and pressed on, worrying more about honoring his commitment to fans and the speedway than about himself.
“If I had been smart, I would have cancelled the rest of my appearances, gone to bed for a couple of weeks and let that thing heal,” he said later, “But I had work to do, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. So I kept going and that blister eventually become an infection that ended up costing me four bones in my foot and eventually -- three years later -- my lower left leg.
“When people say that diabetes cost me my leg, I say, `No it didn’t. Stupidity took my leg.’”
Unfortunately, Sam’s health struggles were far from over.
In recent years, he battled sepsis, a life-threatening illness where a person’s immune system goes into overdrive in response to an infection.
Seventy percent of people diagnosed with sepsis die. Sam fought it on three different occasions and lived, displaying a level of toughness that inspired his wife, Denise, to begin calling him “Superman.” Even after the sepsis was cast aside, however, Sam’s kidneys and pancreas continued to fail. As medical bills mounted, a new financial crisis ensued.
“I got hit by the perfect storm,” he said. “When I got sick, the medical bills floored me. Then the economy tanked. Jack Roush used to have five teams and now he has two. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was a great client, but now they’re gone. Richard Petty had more cars than he has now.
“The downturn affected everybody in the sport, and that includes me.”
Sam’s struggle caused some longtime clients to look elsewhere for their graphic design needs; not knowing if he would be well enough to complete projects in time to meet required deadlines.
“I tried to keep (my illness) quiet, to protect my business and because it was not something I was proud of,” said Sam at the time. “I really only shared that information with one friend. But when they mentioned that I was struggling on social media, the whole thing just blew up.”
Almost immediately, an army of Bass’ NASCAR friends – led by Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Motor Racing Outreach President/CEO Billy Mauldin – began organizing a relief effort. In a matter of days, thousands of dollars were raised to pay Sam’s outstanding medical bills and reinstate his lapsed health insurance, enabling him to resume the dialysis treatments that extended his life.
“When I found out what all those people were doing for me – people I admire like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski -- I cried like a baby,” he said. “I designed cars and fire suits for them… worked with them for years and years. I respect them all so much.
“But never – not in a million years -- did I expect them to do what they did for me.”
The effort did not some soon enough to ward off bankruptcy, however, and in May of 2017, a court-ordered auction liquidated his vast collection of artwork, souvenirs and memorabilia.
“That was the absolute worst day of my life,” he recalled. “It was heartbreaking to watch 36 years of my life go on the auction block. It felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest, but it had to be done in order to take care of everything that needed to be taken care of.
“I was so moved by everyone’s expressions of love and support, but that was a really `down’ day.”
There have been more “down days” since then, as Sam struggled to right his economic ship, while simultaneously battling the crippling effects of kidney failure.
“My health has prevented me from traveling and doing all things I need to do,” he admitted recently. “A year or so ago, I was at 40% kidney function. Then it was 30 percent and 20 percent, until now, I’m at two percent.
“I wake up every morning sick to my stomach, but I cannot afford to lay in bed and feel sorry for myself. I’ve got deadlines to meet. I have bills to pay. I have a family to provide for, so I’m in the office every single day.
“I get fatigued very easily, but I have never stopped working. I have never stopped trying to do my best to offset all the things that have happened in the last few years.
“To be honest with you, the past eight months have been something I would rather forget,” said Bass on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio less than a month ago. “I got a serious blood infection in my leg, and they ended up having to take about an additional inch and a half of bone out of the leg that I previously had amputated. It was totally unexpected, very much unneeded and it put me down for about eight months. When you’re going through operations – and I had three of them – the doctors take you off the (transplant) list until you get healed up and regain some strength.

“But I’m up and running again now. Well, maybe not exactly running, but definitely doing better than I was eight months ago. I’ve been cleared by my doctors, and now I’m in desperate need of a kidney transplant.”

Sam remained optimistic and upbeat to the end, saying that he hoped to attend last week’s Daytona 500; though at a reduced pace than in years past.

“I love what I do,” he said. ”I am so blessed to have this job and be able to work with all the folks I have worked with over the years. I don’t have the strength and durability (to spend a month on the road), but I’m probably going to go down to Daytona for the Qualifying Races on Thursday, through the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

“I missed every single race last year, and it literally broke my heart. It’s the first time I’ve gone an entire season without attending a NASCAR race since 1968, when I was seven years old.”

Sadly, Sam never made it back to Daytona. Another infection – this time sudden and unexpected -- brought about yet another bout of sepsis.

It was a setback that not even Superman would conquer.

Now, we are left to mourn his passing and celebrate the life of a man that was truly exceptional in every way.

No matter how bad things got – physically or financially – Sam always found a way to put a positive spin on things. He insisted on accentuating the positive, always finding a reason to hope that tomorrow would be a brighter day. And by understating the gravity of his condition, I fear that many of his friends never got an opportunity to tell him how much he meant to them. They never knew how sick he really was, because he didn’t want anyone to worry.

He and I were frequent lunch companions, with our final time together coming just a couple of weeks ago. Many times, I would listen as Sam painted an unfailingly rosy picture of how well his treatments were going, how happy his doctors were with his progress, and how he knew – just knew -- that a lifesaving donor was right around the corner.

When he was finished, I put down my fork and looked him straight in the eye.

“Damnit Sam, don’t give me a press release. Tell me the truth.”

I fear that he did that with a lot of his friends; whitewashing reality to avoid worrying anyone. Maybe that’s why I truly believed – right up until the day he died – that my friend Sam would find the donor he needed, regain his lost health and get back to being the vibrant, energetic, high-speed Sam we all knew and loved.

I’m sorry that he never got that opportunity.

I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to come home from the hospital – once and for all – to his High School sweetheart and his wonderful children, of whom he was so justifiably proud.

I’m sorry that he will never return to what I jokingly called his “biggest box of crayons in the world” to create more masterpieces to Illustrate our sport.

I’m sorry that we won’t get to sit and converse over fried chicken salads at Jim n’ Nicks anymore; talking about race cars and family and his beloved KISS concerts.

I’m sorry that I’ll never again see that million-megawatt smile; the kind of smile that only comes from a man who truly and completely lives his dream every single day, and knows it.

In the day’s leading up to the sale of his gallery, Sam asked if I could come to see him. Later that day, he pulled me into his office and handed me a limited-edition print of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s Goodwrench Chevrolet, signed by the Intimidator himself.

“I found this as I was going through stuff the other day,” he said. “I want you to have it, because I know you will appreciate how special it is.”

I absolutely refused to take it, knowing that it would bring hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars in the upcoming auction; dollars that he and Denise could surely use. After a lengthy debate (where he did most of the talking), he grudgingly agreed to keep the Earnhardt print, if I would accept what he called a “grab bag” of other, less valuable items in return.

He was not to be argued with any further that day, so I agreed. A few minutes later, he handed me a cardboard tube filled with prints, hugged me and thanked me for being his friend.

When I got home, I unwrapped my “grab bag” to find more than a dozen beautiful Sam Bass originals…. and the signed Earnhardt print.

That’s the kind of man Sam Bass was.

Sam was a one-of-a-kind talent who translated the color, drama and emotion of NASCAR to pen and paper, paint and pastel. He told our story with masterful eloquence, all without the benefit of a single word. He blessed us all with his vision, his talent and his friendship, and we will never forget him.

There will never be anyone like Sam Bass, ever again.

Monday, February 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: NASCAR "Changes The Culture" With New Penalty Structure

For the first time in decades of NASCAR racing, crime no longer pays.

NASCAR announced last Monday that effective immediately, winning cars that fail post-race inspection with a Level 1 or 2 infraction will be stripped of their victory and placed last in the finishing order. The offending team will forfeit all points, prize money, stage points, playoff qualification and other benefits of the win, with the second-place finisher inheriting the victory.

The announcement ended a baffling era in the sport’s history where drivers could win with illegal race cars, but forfeit only a portion of their ill-gotten gains.

“We are changing the focus and changing the culture,” said NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell. “If you're not legal, you don't win the race.”

O’Donnell said teams have known for the last six months that the sanctioning body was moving in this direction, and that every team owner was in favor.

“We are tired of being the `We’ll work with you’ guys,” said NASCAR Sr. Vice President of Competition Scott Miller. “We need for these things to not be a story. We have to stop all of this.”

Under this new system, the winner, second-place finisher and a random car will undergo a 90-minute, post-race NASCAR inspection at the track, rather than being taken to the NASCAR R&D Center as in past seasons. When found to be in violation of the rules, the offending team will be sanctioned on the spot, eliminating the need for additional mid-week penalties. NASCAR also said that crew chief and car chief suspensions will be unlikely, going forward.

Very few drivers commented publicly on NASCAR’s announcement prior to their arrival in Daytona Beach, but a handful of crew chiefs spoke in favor of the change.

Childers: "I'm in favor."
“I’m in favor of it,” said Stewart Haas Racing crew chief Rodney Childers, who was suspended by NASCAR for an illegal rear spoiler on driver Kevin Harvick’s Ford late last season. “If I know for sure that nobody else is working outside the rules, I don’t have to do it, either.”

Whether or not NASCAR is required to overturn a victory this season, the mere threat will hopefully be sufficient to change the culture of the sport. No longer will NASCAR be known as the sport where everybody cheats and nobody cares. No longer will we be forced to explain to casual and non-fans how a competitor can drive a blatantly illegal race car to Victory Lane, then keep the win. We will also no longer spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on pins and needles, waiting for the weekly round of penalty announcements that – more often than not – eclipsed the weekend’s racing as the number-one topic of water cooler conversation.

Last week’s announcement marks the end of a policy first implemented by NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. in the early 1950s. At that time, France believed that fans should leave the track knowing who won the race, no matter what might occur in the post-race tech line. In today’s internet-based world, however, information travels at the speed of light, allowing fans to learn of post-race technical violations before making it to their cars in the speedway parking lot.

NASCAR’s “no DSQ” policy was an outdated relic from a day gone by, and made NASCAR the only motorsports sanctioning body on the planet unable to inspect its cars in a timely fashion, and unwilling to invoke a competitive death penalty on those who break the rules.

“Inspection is going to be open all the time,” promised NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller last week. “We will be inspecting cars all the time, (not) just during the official inspections. When we find something wrong… if you bring illegal parts and we make you take them off, you’re going to be issued an L1 penalty right there at the race track.

“We have to stop this. We tried to do it a little softer, but it didn’t work. So we’re going to try a new approach. You can’t unload your car with illegal stuff on it – period.”