Thursday, July 27, 2006

Credibility And Performance

Credibility and performance can be unrelated subjects, but are not always so. In fact, credibility and performance are often intertwined, as performance in a given field often enhances credibility.

Credibility with the MSM has been a problem since the latter 1950s as the New York Times began increasing its influence by decreasing the factual basis of its international coverage, to where today the MSM has degenerated into little better than a purveyor of distortion. MSM and pop culture have intertwined over that time period to where Rolling Stone magazine has been covering political stories since its inception. And it's easy to say that the magazine has not covered politics with much credibility, especially given their recent smear against scholar Michael Ledeen on Iran.

Credibility and performance are often intertwined in professional sports as well, and this look at the dichotomy between performance and marketing gives an insight into the credibility a sporting or other major endeavor can gain or lose by its strategy of marketing. That marketing can help - or harm - credibility is something that can be, and has been, forgotten over the years, and can give the truth to a Michael Nesmith lyric from the mid-1990s - "because you're only, only selling ads."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pocono Summer 500 Miscellenia

The Summer 500 at Pocono - aka The Pennsylvania 500 - got off to a decent start with Denny Hamlin's second straight Pocono pole, but that and other on-track stuff has been overlooked of late due to a plethora of Silly Season stories, the latest of which is the soap opera that is Robert Yates Racing. The story goes that David Gilliland, the surprise BGN winner at Kentucky earlier this year, has been offered one of two Yates Fords for 2007. The other half of this story concerns Yates development driver Stephen Leicht, supposedly slated to get the other Yates Ford for 2007.

Some will object that pairing two rookies as teammates without a veteran to guide them is a recipe for disaster. As it is, it might be. But the regular comment that a rookie needs a veteran driver to guide him is a cliche that dies hard despite some evidence to the contrary, such as the failure of Kenny Irwin under the wing of Dale Jarrett when both drove for Yates in 1998-9. There is also the comparative washout of Jamie McMurray at Ganassi/SABCO under the wing of Sterling Marlin.

The whole veteran-bringing-rookie-along approach always sounds like a good idea but it often doesn't work because the veteran sees the rookie as a rival, not a partner. So if Yates teams up two rookies, he may have as good a shot at turning his program around as he would pairing a rookie with a veteran.


There is also the question that the sport ought to be asking - why is it not requiring young drivers to spend periods encompassing several years in the minors - BGN, Trucks - before bringing them to the Winston Cup level. With recent talk about a shortage of capable driving talent and rumors of drivers such as Ward Burton, Bill Elliott, and Mark Martin either coming out of retirement or coming back after lengthy periods away from the sport, the sport needs to reexamine how it develops young drivers.

What could be wrong with requiring young drivers to run fulltime in BGN and/or Trucks for five or six years, before ever making a start in a Winston Cup car?


Is Tony Stewart's Lindsey Lohan act already tiresome? "He's a jerk," said Carl Edwards after the Summer 500 - a very rare expression of opprobrium by one driver toward another, and one certainly appropriate here. Stewart for his part said one thing after the race, then said another on Monday. First he criticized Bowyer and made the preposterous assertion that "If the Three car were still here" the sport would not have problems with the young guns. Come Monday, though, Stewart belatedly admitted what was too obvious to deny - he was responsible for the wreck on the frontstretch.

Fans shouldn't boo Stewart, though - they should sit on their hands and say nothing.


Denny Hamlin's Pocono sweep has made him early favorite for the Brickyard. The Brickyard, though, has enough difference that Hamlin's Pocono setup may not work quite as well. Certainly over the years Pocono winners haven't automatically been Brickyard favorites, as to date only Jeff Gordon in 1998 and Bill Elliott in 2002 won Pocono and then won the Brickyard.

Pocono's Winston Cup season has thus ended this year, but 2007 will be here before you know it, and there is plenty of racing before then to see.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Post-New Hampshire - Gas Pains, Points Hits, And "The Punisher"

New Hampshire's Lenox 300 proved several things by the end of its 300 laps - and one of the things it proved is that adding eight more laps via green-white-checkered finish can change a lot. One thing it didn't change, though, was "The Punisher," the chassis Kyle Busch drove to victory. "That's a mean machine right there," crew chief Alan Gustafson boasted. "That car won two races and gotten six top fives. We're looking forward to bringing that one back for The Chase." Gustafson "told me last night to come up here because we were going to win the race," Rick Hendrick said. Hendrick was obviously glad he did, having witnessed his sixth NHIS win as a team owner.

Kyle Busch, though, had to overcome some less-than-stellar restarts and also gas pains. "I was wondering if we had enough fuel to get to the end if there was overtime," Kyle Busch said. "Alan told me it was fine, but I didn't know what to think."

Kyle Busch certainly had enough, and didn;t have to worry about gas pains. Bobby Labonte gagged on the final restart due to apparant fuel pick-up problems, while Jeremy Mayfield, Reed Sorenson, and Elliott Sadler all ran out of gas late in the race - in Sorenson's case it came just as the field completed Lap 300 out of third place, while Sadler ran out on the green-white-checker restart. "All they had to do was run one more lap and we wouldn't have had a green-white-checker finish," Sadler stewed afterward. We just can't catch the right breaks or the right cautions."

That Sadler was anywhere near the top five was a minor miracle given his disappointing season and also given how badly he ran for a sizable portion of the race. "My guys executed a good plan," Sadler said. "When we got in clean air my car was a lot better."

Kyle Busch rocketed to fourth in points; a few years back being 334 points out of the lead would mean no realistic chance at a title. Not anymore, though it also means that the onus now becomes just staying in the top ten.

Even that, though, has become an issue for drivers like Tony Stewart, suddenly eleven points out of the top ten and 58 out of the 400-point Chase cutoff, this despite having more wins than six of the top ten in points, and tied in wins with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon for good measure.

Tony's mouth roared after the Modified Tour 100 and it was even louder after wreckin while leading in the New England 300. "There are guys who are really good at give-and-take. Ryan Newman just takes. He's really good at taking, not at giving. He's not going to make the Chase so he's not worried about the guys who are trying to make it there themselves.

"I like Ryan, he's a great guy and a good friend, but he needs to learn a bit more on the give-and-take side of things."

Newman for his part was in no mood for blame-acceptance. "Tony didn't live up to what he preaches, move over and let a faster car go," Newman said. "He sure didn't live up to what he preaches. We went three wide and he didn't give any getting in the corner. Eight tires are better than four, I guess he forgot that."

Newman was more upset at Michael Waltrip, who was all over the track and hit everything but the pacecar, even - or I should say especially - under the final yellow. "We didn't get wrecked hard enough to get out and throw a helmet at him like usually happens here," Newman quipped.

Given how NHIS has kicked off the Chase format, it's fitting that it also helped set up who would be in that Chase.

Ah, p-p-p-playoffs?!?!? Don't talk about....playoffs?? You kidding me? Playoffs?

Nope, we aren't kidding you, Jim Mora. And NHIS proved a turning point preparing for NASCAR's playoffs.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ron Yuhas Nearly Steals NHIS Modified 100

The Whelen Modified Series races twice a year at NHIS, and their combination of restricted engines (they run the plates like the Winston Cup and BGN cars), high downforce (between wedge-shaped bodies and large spoilers), ample tire, and a powerful draft has consistently proven by far the most raceable package for tracks like New Hampshire. For July 2006 the Mod Tour's 100-miler had extra spice from Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, Winston Cup interlopers looking for extra track time for the NHIS weekend.

NHIS Mod Tour events are usually intense push-drafting brawls that combine Daytona/Talladega-style drafting, side-drafting, and push-drafting with Pocono-style crossover passing in the corners; with the draft as strong as it is and ample grip on the racetrack, there isn't much impediment to passing.

But the 2006 Mod Tour New England 100 was ferocious even by Mod Tour standards at NHIS, from Jimmy Blewitt's wreck on the 17th lap that brought out the red flag onward. The fight up front began with Donny Lia, Ted Christopher, Reggie Ruggerio, Todd Szegedy, and Doug Coby, but as the race went on Mike Stefanik, damaged in the Blewitt melee early on, clawed into contention, and after Carl Edwards wrecked out it was left to Tony Stewart to serve as spoiler from the outside, but Stewart proved little match for the Tour regulars as John Blewitt III came into the fray.

Tony Stewart got one shot for the win after Robbie Summers' wreck set up a six-lap shootout. Stewart's bid got derailed when he got hit by Jerry Marquis, lost it on the backstretch, got off the ground, yet got it back and finished ninth - a ride largely unnoticed amid an increasingly savage push-drafting brawl for the win that got derailed when Steve Whitt blew up and the yellow flew on the last lap - which led to further controversy when Stafford grad James Civali was initially declared winner and went to victory lane, only to see the decision reversed and John Blewitt III awarded the win.

And hardly noticed by many was the sparkling effort of Ron Yuhas. A native of Groton, CT, Yuhas drove Richard Marquadt's #6 Chevrolet and started 28th. As the race wore on he drafted into the top ten, and surged into the top five, but in the mad scramble for the win he was squeezed out and ultimately clotheslined to 15th, disappointing after a potential victory bid.

"We had a good run there," Yuhas said. "It kind of got washed up. We didn't pit and that got us track position. We kept working our way up and the car was good, but we got washed up in the corner."

The racing "saw a lot of give-and-take, but in the last 25 laps they began driving in too hard. The groove moved up two or three lengths from when we started, and we were real loose off, we had to ease it in and let the car roll off the corner. We actually like that high groove a lot better. The cloud cover didn't change the racetrack."

Yuhas, 29, raced at Waterford Speedbowl for several years and is taking his Mod Tour season "one setp at a time. We started at Thompson and ran Stafford, we're just taking it one race at a time to see where we end up. We have to concentrate on Waterford next week, and we might be back here in September, we might not, we don't know yet."

One should hope Ron Yuhas can get a full Mod Tour season in and return to NHIS and elsewhere, because his calmness in traffic all day was striking and a good sign for a strong racing career. It certainly was a highlight of NHIS's July Winston Cup weekend.

Friday, July 14, 2006

NASCAR's Modified Series

New Hampshire International Speedway kicked off its July 2006 weekend with Busch East's 125-miler, a race won by Mike Olsen on a last-lap shootout over Sean Caisse. Winston Cup cars qualified and - you were expecting someone else? - Ryan Newman won the pole. The Busch Series races at NHIS late Saturday afternoon and there isn't much reason to believe a non-Buschwacker will pull a David Gilliland here.

The real highlight of NHIS race weekends, however, comes when the Whelen Modified Series races. A series that has been there since NHIS's opening in 1990, the Modifieds have consistently put on excellent races where the battle for the lead is usually a true battle, combining the crossover passing of old-fashioned Pocono racing with the draft and push-drafting of Talladega - the Talladega resemblence is semi-deliberate because the Mods run restrictor plates when they tackle mile tracks.

The Mods and the excellent races they put on at NHIS make a telling point about racecars and racetrack layouts. NHIS has long been criticized for its flat banking, with virtually no one noticing the differences in the racecars that race there. By the handling and horsepower standards of the Modifieds, NHIS is a slowish racetrack; the cars are for that size and layout underpowered, overgripped, and kick up a gigantic drafting effect. Contrast this with the Winston Cup/BGN cars and even the Craftsman Trucks, which possess too much horsepower and too little tire, not to mention too little downforce of which the wedge-shaped bodies of the Mods possess plenty, to put on consistently good racing almost everywhere they race; for the fendered classes dirty air is the enemy of speed, while in the Mods dirty air is speed's ally.

It all makes nonsense of the "they should bank the track up more, put in progressive banking" rote that is often repeated in the fandom of racing and even occassionally in the Race-Stream Media. They'll cite NHIS's Winston Cup restrictor plate experiment as a failure, never mind that race only had one of the four requirements - the others being tires, downforce, and generation of a workable draft.


Given the high quality of the Modifieds at NHIS, it remains a concern about the overall health of the Modified Tour, the oldest series in NASCAR. Modifieds have a solid fan following and the state of the tour has long concerned such fans - one of the most indelible memories of the late Tom Baldwin Sr. was his campaign against NASCAR involvement in the Tour, Baldwin stating to myself at Thompson Speedway and to anyone else who asked anywhere, that NASCAR was ultimately why the Tour was struggling.

This take on the State Of The Tour is worth a look, as I think a lot would agree that the Tour deserves a lot better than it presently has.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Juan Montoya To Winston Cup

No doubt this one came out of left field.

Chip Ganassi has tabbed Juan Montoya to drive his #42 Dodge in Winston Cup in 2007, a driver move that potentially changes some of the dynamic of NASCAR. Montoya, who's spent the last several years in F1, is no stranger to American racing, having won in CART and in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in Ganassi Indycars; his near-photo finish battle with Michael Andretti in the 2000 Michigan 500 remains one of the great races in American superspeedway history.

The choice of Montoya for NASCAR, though, has considerable implications, notably in the sport's international marketing, which NASCAR brass has taken a mild obession with the last few years. It also has a less-than-desirable implication for the sport's American angle, as a greater focus on international marketing is coming at the expense of the sport's American core - best shown in BGN's Mexican race and its potential Montreal race next year, coming despite suitable and less expensive American raceways that are available for NASCAR dates. And one can speculate about Montoya and his past ties with Toyota.

It's easy to see NASCAR using Montoya as a big international promotional tool, and his familiarity with American racing is a plus for him, but the sport has not been on enough of the right track the last number of years and part of the problem has been a growing concern for international markets instead of the American core; this is the track that helped ruin American open-wheel racing and is why F1 has no American audience, despite the presence of American driver Scott Speed, and is also a reason why soccer can never become popular in the US.

For Montoya himself, the challenge is potentially more than he can chew because of the lack of NASCAR success for CART veterans over the years - only John Andretti and Robby Gordon among CART veterans ever succeeded in Winston Cup, and Casey Mears only recently broke through in BGN, winning at Chicagoland (and putting a deliberately ironic period to Chip Ganassi's announcement). Montoya is going to be the small fish in a big pond, with a team that can win races but hasn't at the Winston Cup level since October 2002, so he's definately got his work cut out for him.

Montoya is a superb racer with charm and will represent himself and his team well, so as far as that goes there's nothing to be concerned with. The sport, though, may want to puase if it hopes to extend Montoya's marketability beyond what's really for the sport's best interest.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Indycar Merger Stalled - A Lesson In Indycar History

The Indy Racing League and ChampCar - a series formed from the financial ruins of what had been Championship Auto Racing Teams - have been at loggerheads for numerous years but recently have been talking about a merger of the two series, with the hope that such a merger will help begin a process to improve the popularity and strength of Indycar-style racing in the US. In early July 2006 news broke that Tony George, founder and leader of the IRL, and Kevin Kalkhoven of ChampCar, had reached some agreement to share power over Indycar racing in the US.

However, an agreement has been stalled, and the reason may have been that Kalkhoven set up Tony George to force a merger that would effectively benefit only ChampCar. (Note: may need to register to see link) Such a scenario, though, is in keeping with the general approach of the series first formed as CART in 1979.

Self-serving hardball was a trademark of CART from its formation as a sanctioning body run by and for its richest car owners led by Roger Penske. The formation of CART became possible with the death of Anton "Tony" Hulman, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in late 1977, and the deaths of several high-ranking USAC officials in a plane crash in 1978. CART effectively took over Indycar racing, and when team owners Paul Newman, Carl Haas, and Jim Trueman entered CART following the demise of CanAm Challenge Cup road racing in the early 1980s, it infused CART with money and racetracks it needed to secure itself in American racing.

But the seeds of CART's eventual demise were sewn in running battles with "have-not" teams led by Andy Kenopensky, who almost single-handedly pushed CART to a corner in 1989 in a series of rancourous team owner meetings in which drivers were brought in to argue for a new rules package conceived by CART's Board Of Directors, only to be hounded out of the meeting by angry have-not team owners.

Then in 1993 came the so-called Honda Rule, requiring incoming engine manufacturers to supply multiple cars from the very beginning of a factory effort, a rule widely considered intended at deterring Honda from entering CART and pushed by its richest team owners for their benefit and not that of the sport. When CART asked Dianne Simon as a result of the controversy to study charges of conflict of interest within CART, she came back with a report that summarized that CART was run in the manner of a whites-only country club.

Tony George, who'd assumed control of IMS in the early 1990s, battled with CART over the direction of the sport, but for him the final straw may have been Roger Penske's Mercedes "stock block" engine of 1994. This was a rebadged Ilmor Engineering project "disguised" as a stock block to acquire lesser turbo boost restriction imposed for the Indy 500 every year; the idea behind turbo boost limits was to allow true stock block engines such as Buick to be able to run with the vastly more expensive race engines of Penske and the other big-buck teams of CART. Penske Racing's Mercedes "stock block" was a rather obvious flaunting of the rules with all-too-obvious contempt for the rulebook, and after Penske easily won the 1994 500 Tony George went to work, and in 1995 formed the template for breaking Indianapolis away from CART.

The new IRL was vilified in racing circles and CART scheduled a 500-mile race at Michigan International Speedway on the same day as the 500, billing it as the US 500, "The real stars, the real cars, the real race." This contempt by CART seeded its eventual defeat by IRL, as the US 500 disintegrated in a massive melee coming to the green flag; drivers involved were allowed to haul out backup cars as if nothing had happened, a concession inconceivable in any other racing series and one that struck at the integrity of the competition. Jimmy Vasser, one of the wrecked cars, drove his backup car to the win.

But from there IRL began growing and CART began suffering. IRL emphasized retro-tech racecars and strove to get American short track drivers into Indycar racing; it began to succeed as drivers Billy Boat and Tony Stewart began to achieve success in IRL. IRL raced at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 in a race marred by a costly scoring breakdown that led to the spectacle of race winner Arie Luyendyk assaulted in victory lane by A.J. Foyt. Foyt and driver Billy Boat got revenge in 1998 in an exciting battle with newcomer Greg Ray in a race that saw 21 lead changes in 300 miles.

Early in the 2000 decade IRL reached a new spurt of growth as new speedways in Kentucky, Kansas, and Chicago opened and fans witnessed breathtakingly comeptitive open-wheel racing where the battle for the lead was usually a nonstop affair and hair-close finishes were becoming the norm. Ohio racer Sam Hornish made a dramatic impact in Kentucky in 2000 and this parlayed into a ride with Panther Racing, which had evolved into one of IRL's powerhouses. Hornish lifted IRL to a new level with a hard-fought 2001 championship highlighted by a spectacular three-abreast victory at Texas at the end of the season, then followed it up with a harder-fought title in a season-long battle with Penske Racing, coming over to IRL after the collapse of their program in CART.

Penske's withdrawal from the sanctioning body he'd helped form combined with escalating financial woes to doom CART, and the assets were purchased by Kevin Kalkhoven, who implemented a different business plan to keep the series afloat. IRL, meanwhile, hit a serious roadblock when Toyota and Honda entered the series in 2003; costs escalated and car counts dropped dramatically, and after 2005 Chevrolet and Toyota left, leaving the series stymied and trying to regain lost ground in racing.

IRL, though, did something neither CART nor ChampCar have been able to do - it made open wheel championship racing compelling again. The machinations of Kalkhoven in merger talks with Tony George are another example of the hardball that George refused to put up with in the 1990s, and if there is any unification of Indycar racing it needs to be for the good of the sport, not the good of Kevin Kalkhoven.

Mayfield On Thin Ice At Evernham?

Jeremy Mayfield recently vented about his season with Ray Evernham Motorsports in a tone reminiscent of his public rebuke of Penske Racing at Kansas in 2001 when the Penske organization brought an uncompetitive short track car for Mayfield to drive. In that 2001 weekend Mayfield popped off about the whole situation, and by the next race he was gone from the Penske organization.

Now, in his fifth season with Evernham, Mayfield may be on thin ice, mired outside the top thirty in points and unable to get anything started. Mayfield's comments about the Evernham fleet's Firecracker 400 weekend were restarting what was pretty obvious, but the deeper cut came from Mayfield's criticism of the attention Evernham pays to the organization.

Now given the success of Kasey Kahne and also the surprising rebound of Scott Riggs, it would be unfair to suggest Evernham hasn't paid attention to things within his fleet. And Mayfield's sour grapes come after four years of struggle in which he's never elevated his driving nor shown any special cooperative chemistry with his teammates of the kind that would improve all the Evernham cars. The best contrast is with the Petty Dodges that get Evernham engines and work with the Evernham organization - here Bobby Labonte's driving style and personality mesh with Kyle Petty's to where the feedback necessary to improve the cars is strong; in his four years with Evernham I've never seen any particular benefit in information exchange coming from Mayfield to the organization.

It certainly is not that Mayfield can't win races, since he's done so five times from his breakthrough at the 1998 Pocono 500 onward - he's won twice at Pocono and once apiece at Fontana, Richmond, and Michigan. Though he's won races, that hasn't elevated his overall racing; he is perhaps the best example of a fundamental weakness in the Chase For The Championship playoff format - he made the Chase in 2004 and 2005 and immediately disappeared both times; under previous point packages he would have easily fallen out of the top ten in points both times.

And his criticism of Evernham's attention to the organization isn't entirely unfounded - his effort invested in Erin Crocker has gone nowhere and one is hard-pressed to ever see Erin Crocker amounting to anything in racing as her driving is consistently timid, her judgement frequently questionable (her involvement in numerous wrecks constitutes the best proof of that), and her potential not enough to inspire much confidence - her record in ARCA where she has yet to win despite usually having better racecars than ARCA regulars does not suggest any real upside to Crocker as a racer.


So the question becomes - if Mayfield winds up gone from Evernham, where will he go? An easy bet is one of the Toyota startups, as established GM, Ford, and Dodge teams don't show any openings now or forseeable for 2007.

Whatever happens, it will be another chapter in a career that has been rather curious in recent NASCAR history.

Stafford Speedway - Woody Pitkat's Double Whammy

Stafford Speedway's 2006 season may be truncated somewhat due to May-June rainouts, but it remains on the gas and following an Independence Day extravaganza highlighted by John Blewitt's win in the Whelen Modified Tour feature the "regular season" for Stafford's divisions picked up for July 7th's fireworks.

And there turned out to be some fireworks. Limited Late Models, D.A.R.E. Stocks, and SK Lights helped sate the appetites of racefans, but the big dogs remain Late Models and SK Modifieds. For Late Models the fireworks began on the second lap for the closest one can get to a massive wreck with no one touching anything - the result of Scott Foster Jr's spin in Turn Three with traffic four-wide splitting him.

Foster Jr's night, though, went from bad to worse following the subsequent restart as Wayne Coury Jr., battling for third, cut into Ryan Posacco and the result was a five-car stackup that began with Ed Ricard's spin and impact with Tony Lafo while Foster got hit by Jerry Del Re behind them.

From there Tom Fearn took the lead as Woody Pitkat, driving the Kretchman #48 Ford, clawed to second. Pitkat, with three wins under his belt this season entering July 7's feature, has been a strong fit for a car that has had several drivers over the years and seen success on a consistent basis, notably in the 2004 season and Mike Quintiliano's epic showdown with Ryan Posacco for the Late Model title.

The decisive showdown in July 7's feature came in the second ten laps of the 30-lap feature. Pitkat rooted Fearn out of the groove in Four and grabbed the lead near halfway; Fearn crossed back underneath and the two crinkled sheetmetal past halfway for two laps before Scott Cook kicked Fearn sideways and Pitkat got in the clear.

From there Pitkat, celebrating his 27th birthday, was home free for his fourth Late Model win of the year. Unnoticed amid Pitkat's win, though, was a solid rally by Scott Foster Jr. to eighth and a business-like top five by defending division champ Ryan Posacco.

Pitkat's win on his birthday was a solid double whammy, but the real double whammy was yet to come, as Pitkat was slotted in the SK Modified feature, driving one of two Dave Rowe cars, with Jeff Malave as a teammate. Pitkat started in the middle of the first five rows and worked to fourth early on. Chris Jones, driving Frank Ruocco's backup car this week, had the lead ahead of Curt Brainerd. Pitkat closed up on Brainerd by Lap Six and finally took second at Lap 11, a pass that allowed Jones to open up a one-second lead.

As in the Late Model feature the action picked up approaching halfway as Pitkat caught Jones and grabbed the lead at Lap 18, but he soon had a new adversary to concern himself with as Bo Gunning, driving Bob Parker's dark-yellow #84, assumed third by Lap 21. This became a serious issue when the yellow flew for the first time at Lap 29, wiping out a five-length lead for Pitkat. The yellow came for Jimmy Blewitt, spinning after contact with Kenny Horton, a former Late Modeler.

On the restart Gunning pushed to second and made the move with ten to go; Gunning cleared in One but Pitkat crossed underneath and the two banged wheels for two laps before Gunning slammed the door with eight to go. Pitkat swerved past Gunning with seven to go but a backmarker spin drew the yellow and wiped out the pass, but not the intensity as Gunning nailed Pitkat's left rear and lifted momentarily off the ground.

Kenny Horton's wreck wiped out the next restart. With Gunning the leader due to reverting to the last completed lap he had the bottom of the two-abreast restart. Gunning and Pitkat went at it hard; Pitkat fired into a momentary lead in Three but Gunning stormed a bumper bar ahead in Four and they fought side-by-side for two laps. Gunning cleared but with two to go Pitkat opened a hole in Three and the two leaned hard.......

....too hard as Gunning tried to pinch off Pitkat and Pitkat hooked him at the stripe; Gunning spun to a stop in the infield grass. For all practical purposes the race was over, but the win by Pitkat over Chris Jones and Jeff Baral was marred by a nasty five-car melee on the backstretch - with no injuries - and hardly noticed at all was a solid top five by Chris Osella, a driver who has struggled in SKs for several years.

Gunning finished 13th and his conversation with a NASCAR official in the garage was animated for certain.

"I feel bad about that spin," Pitkat said. "Gunning has had a lot of bad luck, he runs up front every week and he's an awesome driver, having been here for so long. For us, we've had a lot of bad luck the past several weeks. The biggest thing was to get our car to turn, and this may be the biggest win because winning both the Late Model and the SK on the same night is hard. I figured Todd Owen would be the first to do it, so this is big."

Indeed it was, a double whammy that helps make Stafford Speedway's season exciting regardless of impediments thrown in the track's way.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

How Big Is Too Big?

NASCAR's Brian France pontificated to the Race-Stream Media before the Firecracker 400 weekend, expounding on mainstream media coverage of the sport, the COT, and other subjects. Brian France seemed to take particular issue with mainstream news coverage of the sport, blaming it for opposition to ISC track proposals in Kitsap, WA and New York City.

"This is the most under-covered sport in the country," France stated, a curious assertion given that one can hardly escape NASCAR coverage nowadays. It is certainly true that some newspapers have started cutting coverage, but France's assertion that resistance to covering NASCAR is responsible for opposition to proposed New York and Seattle tracks really doesn't wash; it constitutes denial that there are good reasons not to build new speedways in the Seattle and New York City areas.

France repeats the cliche that there are 75 million NASCAR fans in the US. I'm at a loss to figure out where this statistic came from because for a full quarter of the US population to be NASCAR fans is implausible on its face. I've never seen even the NFL, the clear king of pro sports in the US, make a claim this sweeping. The size of the sport is certainly vast, but overstating the size of the sport does no one any good.

Brian France states that NASCAR will "work as closely as we can with the motorsports media" and also look into emerging media such as the Internet, and working "to have more information, more rich content available" and "we're going to do some clever hard-working things to tell out story better and get this sport the proper coverage."

This is the promoter in Brain France speaking. The sport doesn't need more coverage, it needs to step back and ponder whether it has gotten too big for its own good. It has to ask - what good will new tracks in Seattle and New York City do when NASCAR is still largely ignored in San Francisco (despite 18 seasons at Sears Point), Chicago, and the other big markets that tracks have sprung up near?

Moreover, what more can NASCAR provide in terms of information and "rich content" that will make the sport better? How much more do we really need to know about drivers, crew chiefs, etc.? And how will that make a case for Seattle and New York tracks?

This sport has serious issues of costs, an economic structure that hasn't made any sense for a long time now - I have to laugh at Brian France's boast that ABC/ESPN's exclusive coverage of BGN in 2007 will mean the series will be "treated like it's never been treated before" because there has been no effort at defeating the Buschwacking that has effectively bankrupted the division - and an increasingly closed loop of participants disturbingly similar to the structure of F1 that helped lead to the infamous 2005 USGP fiasco - a closed loop that David Gilliland's BGN win at Kentucky will do nothing to open despite Brian France's boast about that race.

This sport has to ask itself whether it's time to throttle back on growth and focus instead on improving the structure of the sport.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Ask Doctor Z About Improving Dodge's NASCAR Effort

Daimler-Chrysler honcho Doctor Dieter Zetsche appeared during the Firecracker 400 weekend, to witness his Dodge racing fleet on the high banks and also to reaffirm Dodge's commitment to NASCAR, even to stating an expansion of that commitment is in the works, which appears to take the form of alliance between Daimler's F1 program and its Winston Cup effort through Ray Evernham.

Given the struggles Dodge's Winston Cup effort has gone through, it would seem that a part of that commitment should be the One Team program that worked so well in the Craftsman Trucks when Dodge first commited to that area in the 1990s. The One Team program was the starting point for Dodge's Winston Cup effort, but got lost in the shuffle of Chip Ganassi's entry into Dodge's Winston Cup ranks, and was further pushed away by Roger Penske's high-profile switch to Dodge.

Now, with Dodge last in NASCAR manufacturer standings, a recommitment to One Team is overdue. Getting Dodge's teams together and committing to open-ended information sharing - on shocks, springs, camber, body placement on the chassis, everytthing - is necessary to get all the Dodges back on the same page and making them stronger. In the Firecracker 400 in particular Bobby Labonte and the Penske Dodges would no doubt have wanted some drafting help from the other Dodges to challenge the Chevrolets, who worked better together than the Dodges despite Hendrick Motorsports' inter-team battle that helped Tony Stewart roll up into the lead again.

One Team is a concept that worked with Dodge in the Trucks and will work in Winston Cup. So Doctor Z, how about it? Would it not be better if all three Ray Evernham Dodges, all of Petty's Dodges (a third team is needed here), and all of the Dodges of whoever else is part of the One Team were all battling to the front?

FOLLOW-UP: see also this take on Dodge's marketing angle known as "Branding."

Kansas Indy 300 - Wheat and Chaff

IRL's Kansas Indy 300 continued the season's monopoly by Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing and also continued the frustration of other teams involved in the series amid more serious indications of some merger between IRL and Champ Car, the road racing series formed from the ashes of Championship Auto Racing Teams.

Sam Hornish and Dan Wheldon controlled the top two all day and stayed nose to tail almost every lap, until Wheldon made a try of it in the final ten laps, although ultimately to no avail; their side by side battle was the highlight of the race, especially when Hornish had to slice between Wheldon and a much slower lapped car. It was Penske's first ever IRL win at Kansas Speedway, following Ryan Newman's 2003 win there in Winston Cup.

The drive of the race, though, was by Vitor Meira, driving Panther Racing's unsponsored #4. Meira came to life after Buddy Rice's wreck and exploded from eighth to third, slicing through traffic with more gusto than he's been known for in the past. Having been involved in 2005's tremendous finish at Kansas, it's clear Meira has a superb feel for this intermediate superspeeedway.

The biggest letdown came from Scott Dixon, third most of the race only to plummet down the top ten standings late in the going.


The quality of the racing in IRL continued to be a concern with this Kansas 300. Beofre the season IRL took some drag out of the rear wings; this has proven to be an error because it has clearly weakened the effectiveness of the draft, and the draft is vital to ability to pass; there can be no doubt that a much bigger fight would have developed for the win had the draft been more effective, and with Indycar racing in need of greater popularity improving the ferocity of the racing is a big part of the necessary package.

A different winning team is also needed right now with Penkse holding down all but two wins so far this season. Andretti-Green, Vision, and Panther Racing have displayed muscle, and even the grossly undersponsored A.J. Foyt team has shown the heart of Indycar racing's greatest racer in several events.

The IRL battle will resume in a few weeks as events at Nashville and Michigan await.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Stafford Speedway Gets Back In Gear

To say 2006 has been a rough year for Stafford Motor Speedway is not quite stating the obvious, but it's pretty close. Six rainouts this season had resulted in only four race programs being run entering the first weekend of July. Periodic rainouts have been fairly common to Stafford over the years but one is a little hard-pressed to remember this many rainouts in so short a span of racing at the half-miler in Connecticutt.

Rainouts have come amid the bittersweet quality that permeated the season following the passing of Jack Arute Sr. early in 2006. The Spring Sizzler was a fitting tribute to Jack Sr. and another such tribute took place on June 30 with the track's Late Model 100, a long-distance affair with sponsored ship American Sleeve Bearing, a long-time sponsor at Stafford that always gets its money's worth here.

The Late Model ASB 100 gave new meaning to the term Late Model, as between heat races, B-mains, and features involving Late Models, SK Modifieds, and SK Lights, the program pushed toward midnight by the time it concluded. The lengthy elpased time, though, didn't dampen what was a spirited affair.

Late Models may have run 100 laps, but they combined the patience needed for long-distance racing with the short-tempered intensity of 30-lap features. Ryan Posacco, three-time defending division champion at Stafford, found this out some 15 laps into the feature when he got tagged by Brad Boissenault in Turn Three; Posacco spun into the grass heading toward the frontstretch but got back onto the track.

Posacco, however, got a break when Boissenault, returning to Stafford racing after over five years away, got sideswiped by former track champ Jim Peterson and hammered the wall off Two. "As Peterson was coming up I couldn't get off him, it was just a racing accident," Boissenault. "We don't have the sponsorship to bring the car back week after week, but we'll keep trying and we'll be back next week and try to put on a good show."

Jim Mavloganes had two cars in the field, but one of them, driven by Wayne Coury Jr., got caught up in a four-car scramble in Three on the ensuing restart. From there the race eventually saw a lengthy period of green-flag racing and Scott Foster Jr., the event's 2005 winner, clawed into contention. Ed Ricard and Tom Fearn ran one-two for awhile while Todd Owen and Mike Quintiliano, in a new ride in the #7 Chevrolet, slugged it out for third.

Foster soon got around into third and pushed Tom Fearn into the lead at Lap 27. Fearn held the lead with considerable authority even though the top four of Fearn, Foster, Mike Quintiliano, and Todd Owen were nose to tail as the race reached halfway. Past halfway Foster caught Fearn and swept into the lead, and now be began putting some daylight on the field.

But Posacco was still on the lead lap and as Foster was lapping backmarkers it allowed Posacco, by now in the top five, to close up. Foster, though, put half a straightaway on the field, but backmarkers continued to be an issue as just seven cars were left on the lead lap by Lap 73.

But Foster's day began to sour when a lapped car sideswiped him with 20 to go and cost him some distance to the closing #3 of Posacco. Tom Fearn's engine erupted in flame at Lap 83, but surprisingly no yellow as he pulled into the garage. This, though, was a harbinger - Mike Quintiliano hit the wall on the frontstretch and limped around to the pits, and two laps later everything fell apart for Foster as his transmission blew up with 13 to go.

The remainder of the race proved somewhat anticlimatic as despite several late yellows and a green-white-checker finish, Posacco waltzed away from Jim Peterson and Mark Lewis, while Tom Butler, driving Mark Kline's #13 Dodge, snuck up into fourth.

Thus did the gamut of competitive emotion get run as Ryan Posacco continues building a legend in the history of Stafford Motor Speedway.


The star of Stafford Motor Speedway, however, remains SK Modifieds. Basically detuned Tour Modifieds, SKs have been putting on exciting racing at Stafford since the early 1980s. Ted Christopher is the all-time winner in SKs but the disintegration of Mystique Motorsports has effctively cancelled Terrible Ted's 2006 Stafford season.

Thus is the SK division a more wide-open affair, and for June 30 it also served as a quintessential point about Buschwacking. There has been talk that NASCAR will change car specs in BGN toward a Pony car configuration, the idea being that the different configuration will handle so differently that drivers won't benefit from Buschwacking and will thus be dissuaded.

The SK Modified feature on June 30 should dispel such a notion. Todd Owen ran the Late Model 100 and then jumped into one of Brad Hietala's SK cars for the SK feature, a 40-lap affair. Curt Brainerd had the pole and jumped into the early lead, a lead wiped out by several early yellows. On a restart at Lap Three the boldest move in years erupted entering Turn Three as Frank Ruocco sliced up the middle between Zach Sylvester and Kurt Lenihan into second, then tried for the lead just as Chris Osella spun and Chuck Docherty flew over the left front wheel of Jeff Johnson.

Brainerd held onto the lead after this was cleaned up. Ruocco began trying the inside on Brainerd but Owens swept into second on the outside and wasn't done, clawing past Brainerd at Lap Nine. Clawing into the top five, meanwhile, was Bo Gunning, a strong competitor over the years and one who has clashed with the speedway at times. Willie Hardie, another Stafford vet, got sideways on the frontstretch at Lap 12 but rocketed to fifth as Gunning tried Brainerd repeatedly over ten laps.

Chris Osella's spin in Four set up a restart past halfway but nothing could stop Todd Owen as he stayed two lengths ahead of Frank Ruocco for the win. Owen's win came after 100 laps in the Late Model, a racecar that handles differently from the SK Modified yet still provided Owen with the realtime track knowledge that is the biggest single edge held by Buschwackers.

Thus did SK Modifieds get back in gear at Stafford and also serve as a reality-check about Buschwacking.