Monday, January 29, 2018

COMMENTARY: When It Comes To Marketing, Busch and Blaney Both Have Points

NASCAR rolled out its annual Preseason Media Tour in Charlotte, North Caroline last week, and it took Kyle Busch approximately 20 minutes to ignite the season’s first controversy.

Last Tuesday, Busch lambasted NASCAR for its marketing strategies, saying the sanctioning body is giving too much attention to young, unproven drivers, at the expense of established veterans like himself.

"It is bothersome,” said Busch of what he called a “stupid” marketing campaign. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else. All (NASCAR is) doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on.

“I wouldn’t say (it’s) all that fair... but I don’t know. I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”
Busch’s comments drew an immediate response from both the sanctioning body and his fellow drivers. Kurt Busch quickly jumped to his younger brother’s defense, saying young drivers are getting “a free pass” to stardom. Speaking on The Domenick Nati Show, Busch said, “…there is ‘zero’ in the win column for a guy like Chase Elliott, zero for Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones (and) all those guys.

Busch: Dont ignore established stars
“Larson’s out there; he’s young and he’s winning. They need to push him. I see him as a future champion. I think what Kyle (Busch) is saying is these guys have been given a free pass, so to speak, to become a superstar and we haven’t seen the success on track translate to what’s being shown to the world.”

NASCAR’s younger drivers were less supportive, with 24-year old Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney placing the blame directly back on Busch.

“If some drivers were more willing to do these things, they’d get asked more to do it,” he said “The reason why I get asked to do a lot is because I say ‘yes’ a lot; because I think it’s good for the sport and myself. I can tell you personally, (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so they don’t ask him.
“That made me upset, how he bashed that part of it. But, to each his own. If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it.”
Rookie contender Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., was more direct, calling Busch’s remarks “stupid. I love Kyle to death, but, dude, come on. He was in the same spot we are. He had some of the same treatment we went through.
Blaney: There's always more you can do
Like Blaney, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver accused veteran drivers like Busch of giving the cold-shoulder to appearances and promotions, saying “when certain drivers get to a certain level – and if I ever get to this level, you can pinch me and bring me back down – they stop doing stuff.”
In an exclusive interview with Sirius XM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer Steve Phelps defended the sport’s current marketing efforts.

“It’s about our drivers, our crew chiefs and our crews and everyone that makes this sport go,” Phelps 
said. “Hall of Fame drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano… are such an important part of everything that we do. And they should be. 

"But we are also need to expose these young drivers, so our fans understand who they are. 
They’re authentic, they want to win on the race track and they’re fantastic drivers.

“It’s a mix of veterans and young guys.”

Phelps admitted, however, that drivers like Busch may have gotten the short end of the stick at the start of their careers, due to an abundance of older, more established stars at that time.

Wallace: "Dude, come on..."
The Busch brothers, Blaney and Wallace all have valid points. With established stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth all withdrawing from the sport in recent years, NASCAR has understandably begun to look for its next batch of superstars. Drivers like Larson, Blaney and Chase Elliott are clearly ready to fill that void, whether or not they have yet visited Victory Lane.

While popular, NASCAR’s new stars do not yet command the massive fan base enjoyed by frequent winners and former series champions like Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, to name just a few. Kyle Busch is correct when he says that the sanctioning body cannot afford to ignore its established stars, in favor of the Young Bucks.

Blaney and Wallace are absolutely right, however, when they accuse some older drivers of doing less than they should to help promote the sport.

While running (and winning) multiple NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events each season, Kyle Busch seldom makes the customary Monday media appearances asked of those event winners. Instead, the former MENCS champion routinely passed those duties off to his NXS and NCWTS crew chiefs.

Veteran drivers may have more demands on their time than younger competitors, but it is hypocritical for Busch to complain about not being adequately promoted, while routinely declining promotional opportunities

Blaney has quickly established himself as a fan favorite, largely through hard work and extra effort. His “Glass Case of Emotion” podcast on has developed a large following. He has made guest appearances appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” lent his voice to “Cars 3” and will soon be featured on an episode of NBC’s “Taken.” He takes time to interact with fans, as evidenced by his impromptu Texas Motor Speedway “pizza party,” where he purchased and handed out pizza to fans attending a recent MENCS test session.

When’s the last time you saw an established star do that?

“I’ve been really fortunate to get a lot of great chances from NASCAR,” said Blaney. “And I’ve always been very open to do a lot of things they want. I think it is really important to have -- not only young drivers -- but all NASCAR drivers be pushing to get new demographics of the world… into the sport. I think everybody should be a little more open to helping the sport out.
“If I have to sacrifice time, it’s just time,” he added. “It really doesn’t mean much to me, personally. I’d rather do something meaningful to the sport than just sit on my couch because then I just don’t feel like doing anything.
“There’s always more you can do. You are never maxed out on your potential to make somebody’s day.”
With an aging fan base and a dwindling market share, Blaney’s approach makes perfect sense.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR's Charter System Headed For Slippery Slope

God help us, it’s happening again.

NASCAR’s Charter System, which guarantees qualified teams a starting spot in each of 36 point-counting races each season and pays enhanced purse and point fund monies to charter-holding teams, has begun to be manipulated in much the same way its predecessor was in prior seasons.

Go FAS Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire announced recently that he has purchased an ownership stake in Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing. Circle Sport fielded cars for Jeffrey Earnhardt last season -- in concert with TMG Motorsports – before parting company during the offseason. Go FAS Racing will now use the newly-acquired Circle Sport charter on the #32 car driven by Matt DiBenedetto this season.

After acquiring the Circle Sport charter, St. Hilaire then sold a percentage of his Go FAS organization to Wood Brothers Racing, allowing them to assume control of the charter he used a year ago, for use on Paul Menard’s No. 21 Ford this season.

Let’s review…

Joe Falk owns most of Circle Sport Racing, but not all of it.

Archie St. Hilaire owns most of GoFAS Racing, and now, and a little of Circle Sport.

The Wood Brothers own most of Wood Brothers Racing, along with a little bit of Go FAS.

Confused? Join the club.

Based on the newly announced Wood Brothers/Go FAS “partnership,” it now appears that a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team owner can pay a small amount of money – theoretically as little as $1 -- for a partial ownership stake in another organization, thereby assuming control of that team’s charter.

Much like the insanely complicated glory days of NASCAR Top-35 system, when owners bought, sold and traded owner points with dizzying regularity and few (if any) guidelines, the sanctioning body’s new Charter System has now been manipulated to the point where it no longer resembles what it was expressly designed to be.

Under guidelines hammered out by NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance prior to the 2016 season, 36 teams were granted charters that guaranteed them automatic entrance into every race for the next nine years. The idea was to reward teams for longstanding, full-season support of the series by giving them a tangible asset that could be sold, should they eventually elect to exit the sport. Charter holders were allowed to lease their charter to another team just once in a five-year period, should they elect not to compete themselves.

Despite no announced changes to the Charter bylaws in the last two years, it now appears that an new option has been added; the option to transfer a charter by selling a minority ownership stake to someone else.

As a result, a team owner without a single career start in NASCAR’s top series could – theoretically, at least – acquire a charter simply by purchasing a 1% share in a charter-holding team, instantly assuring himself of a guaranteed starting spot in every race.

That is categorically NOT what the Charter System was designed to be. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of what NASCAR and the RTA had in mind.

The original wording of the Charter bylaws included no mention of “co-ownership.” Either you owned a charter, leased one, or went without.

In addition to muddying the competitive waters, the concept of “co-ownership” strips all semblance of value from NASCAR’s 36 existing charters. Why would a team owner ever again pay six figures for a charter, when he can receive the same financial and procedural benefits by purchasing a tiny percentage of another, charter-holding team?

While it is tempting to point an accusatory finger at the parties involved in last week’s machinations, it would be short-sighted to do so. Falk, St. Hilaire and the Woods simply did what racers have always done; manipulating the gray area to their own benefit, without actually stepping outside the rules.

Falk found a way to protect a charter he was unlikely to use in 2018.

St. Hilaire laid his hands – in whole or in part – on no less than two charters, paving the way for his planned expansion to a two-car organization in 2019.

The Wood Brothers secured a guaranteed starting spot in every race this season, along with the beefier purse and point-fund checks that come with being a Charter holder.

Everyone wins, except for the sport, which once again finds itself sinking into a baffling morass of “how did THEY get a charter” puzzlement, the likes of which we hoped to never see again.

Hopefully, NASCAR will quickly draw a new line in the sand, adding language to its Charter bylaws to eliminate this “co-ownership” malarkey, once and for all.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Remembering Dan Gurney

Gods are not immortal, after all.
Dan Gurney, one of the most versatile and talented racers in the history of US auto racing, died Sunday at age 86 of complications from pneumonia.
Gurney’s family announced his passing with a written statement, saying, "With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today. In deepest sorrow, with gratitude in our hearts for the love and joy you have given us during your time on this earth, we say 'Godspeed."
Gurney won seven times in IndyCar Series competition, five times in what is now NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series, and four times in Formula 1 races from 1962 to 1970. He also excelled in Sports Car racing, teaming with A.J. Foyt and Ford Motor Company to win the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, and claiming the inaugural running of what is now the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1962. His career resume includes 51 career victories and 47 podium finishes in 312 starts.
He is one of only three drivers to win in all four major motorsports disciplines, joining Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
The highlight of his legendary career came during a spectacular, two-week span in 1967 when he finished second in the Indianapolis 500, drove a Ford GT40 MKIV to victory at Le Mans with co-driver AJ Foyt, then won the Belgian Grand Prix in his own Gurney Eagle; becoming the only American to win an F1 race in a car of his own design.
Bobby Unser demolished the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by an incredible 17 mph in 1972 at the wheel of a Gurney Eagle, leading easily until the ignition failed. The next year, 19 of the Indy’s 33 starters drove Eagles, with Gordon Johncock claiming the win.
The Long Island native – the son of an opera singer -- is credited with creating the wicker bill; an aerodynamic device still widely used in both the motorsports and aviation industries, and the first to use a full-faced helmet. He was also the first to celebrate a race victory by spraying the celebratory champagne, rather than drinking it.
Shortly after retiring as a driver, Gurney was convinced to take part in the 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an unsanctioned, highly illegal event that covered public highways from New York to California. Co-driving a blisteringly fast Ferrari with the late writer Brock Yates, Gurney completed the 2,863-mile event in 35 hours and 54 minutes, quipping “at no time did we exceed 175 mph.”
Gurney was a co-founder of Championship Auto Racing Teams, which sanctioned open-wheel racing in the United States from 1979 to 2008.
"Dan Gurney was not only a great innovator, he was a great driver,” said Foyt of his fallen comrade. “It didn't matter if it was a road course or an oval, an Indy car or a stock car. I never use the word `legend,’ but in the case of Dan, he was a true legend of our sport. We became close friends at Le Mans in '67 and winning it brought us closer together. He was a super guy. Even though we were competitors in the Indy cars, we always respected each other highly.
"As we got older we became closer, (we called) each other on birthdays or when we were sick. Now I'm glad we got to spend the time together we did at Long Beach last year, along with Edsel Ford. We told a lot of stories and we had a lot of fun talking about the old times. It's hard to believe he's gone and I'm really going to miss him. My thoughts are with Evi and his family."
Mario Andretti eulogized Gurney on Twitter, saying, “I was first inspired by him when I was in midgets, dreaming of being like him. I was last inspired by him yesterday. Yes, I mean forever. He understood me better than anyone else, which is why he wrote the foreword for my book in 2001.”
"When we talk about legendary American drivers, owners and car constructors on an international stage, Dan Gurney is one of the all-time greats," said J. Douglas Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "His skill in all three areas helped him make an indelible mark and serve as a huge influence in this sport. Dan was a giant in the racing world in every sense. Our sincere condolences and prayers are with his wife, Evi, and the entire Gurney family. Godspeed, Dan Gurney."
Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile said, "Dan's success -- and his sheer presence -- helped elevate our facility to the world-wide stature that our founder, Bill France Sr., originally envisioned. As a driver, (he) helped establish the speedway as a pre-eminent road-racing circuit. Years later, as a champion car owner in IMSA, he helped cement the speedway's legacy in that regard. We all are fortunate to have crossed his path."
The Gurney family will hold a private funeral in the near future. They have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, Cal.

Monday, January 08, 2018

COMMENTARY: Money Helps, But Talent Is Still King

It’s a top water-cooler topic across NASCAR Nation these days; the ongoing battle between money and talent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Some observers – including many longtime fans of the sport – believe that the almighty dollar has supplanted driving talent in determining NASCAR’s Sunday afternoon starting grid. And while there is no denying the importance of financing, a simple examination of the MENCS roster reveals far more wheelmen than sugar babies.

MENCS champion Martin Truex, Jr. made good use of family money early in his career, campaigning family-backed entries all the way to what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. From then on, however, the New Jersey native has made his way solely on talent, winning a pair of Xfinity Series titles for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., before being promoted to the Cup ranks with DEI, Michael Waltrip Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

Runner-up Kyle Busch began modestly in the Legends Car ranks in his native Las Vegas, before advancing to NASCAR’s Southwest Tour. He brought little or no money to that series, but immediately displayed a level of talent sufficient to gain the attention of NASCAR owner Jack Roush. The same story can be told for older brother Kurt Busch, who climbed an identical ladder on his way to NASCAR stardom, there 2004 Cup Series championship and a win in last year’s Daytona 500.

Harvick brought nothing but talent
Last year’s third-place finisher, Kevin Harvick, came to national prominence by winning the 1998 NASCAR Winston West title for Spears Motorsports, an operation owned by Wayne and Connie Spears. Harvick was hired solely for his driving talent and brought no money to the dance. That talent eventually made him the heir-apparent at Richard Childress Racing when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski finished fourth in the 2017 MENCS standings, and his family’s racing story is well known. His parents, Bob and Kay Keselowski, mortgaged the family home on multiple occasions to keep their family owned race team afloat, before finally closing the doors for good in 2006. Keselowski’s big break came when Germain Racing tabbed him to replace the suspended Ted Musgrave in a 2007 Truck Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he won the pole, led 62 laps and contended for the win. That performance convinced Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put Keselowski in his No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevrolet, where he won the 2010 championship. Today, he is a perennial title contender for Team Penske. 

Hamlin: from humble roots.
Denny Hamlin came from similarly humble roots. He began racing go-karts at age seven, eventually progressing to the Mini Stock and Late Model Stock ranks at Langley (VA) Speedway. Hamlin won 35 LMS races in just two seasons, including 25 victories in 36 starts in 2003. That was more than enough to earn him a driver development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing, an opportunity on which Hamlin has clearly capitalized.

Kyle Larson was a top threat for last year’s MENCS title, eventually finishing eighth in points. “Young Money” raced his way to NASCAR through the USAC Open Wheel ranks, winning Sprint Car and Midget races at a clip that quickly got him noticed in the NASCAR garage. Like Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman before him, Larson made it to NASCAR without buying a single full-fendered seat, making his way to the top on talent, and talent alone.

Of the 16 drivers who qualified for last year’s playoffs, only three – Truex, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney – can be said to have benefitted significantly from the presence of family money. The rest got there the old fashioned way.

They earned it.

Edwards was willing to beg
For every winless rich kid floundering around in the middle of the XFINITY or Camping World Truck Series pack, there are a dozen drivers like Clint Bowyer -- who got his call to the big time while sanding Bondo in a two-bay auto body shop – and Carl Edwards, who famously handed out business cards begging team owners to give him an opportunity behind the wheel.

For every hapless newcomer with a ton of cash and no clue what to do with it, there is a Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Erik Jones or Chris Buescher, all of whom came to NASCAR with nothing but talent, then attracted top-dollar sponsorship by running consistently at the front of the pack.

There is no denying that Paul Menard’s career – including his win in the 2011 Brickyard 400 -- has been bolstered by the presence of family money and the constant guarantee of full-season sponsorship. Danica Patrick struggled through five winless Cup campaigns, assisted by the presence of high-dollar sponsorship.

Money has always played an important role in determining who wins and loses on Sunday afternoon. Richard Petty and David Pearson possessed awesome driving talent, but also benefitted from substantial sponsorship, factory backing and immense technological support. G.C. Spencer, Elmo Langley and James Hilton could also twist a pretty wheel, but never had the resources to compete with the big dogs. Some things never change.

In the end, an honest assessment of the NASCAR roster proves that driving talent remains the most important form of currency.