Monday, April 30, 2007

NASCAR, Stop Playing Favorites

The recent controversy over Tony Stewart's questions about the integrity of NASCAR's yellows has garnered continuing examination, but amid this recent examination, missed is what may be the real point of at least some of this controversy.

At at Alabama 500 we saw some more questionable timing of a late yellow as well as continued proof of the absurdity of freezing the field. When David Reutimann blew up in the trioval, the yellow did not fly until after Jeff Gordon had retaken the lead, even though Reutimann had erupted halfway through the trioval, well before Gordon and the other leaders had even reached the stripe. This of course was followed by a green-white-checker finish that got aborted as soon as the field hit the backstretch after Johnny Sauter punched the second-turn wall. What followed was graphic evidence that a key argument against racing to the yellow - to prevent crashes - is nothing but safety-overkilling hot air, as Tony Stewart got blasted into the inside wall even with the yellow flying.

This controversy is but a small part of larger continuing controversies over how NASCAR officiates races. Amid the controversies lies what should be a key point of criticism - the fact that far too often officiating calls go to the "favorites."

It isn't a new controversy; it has been ongoing. I remember John Andretti pitting too early under a yellow at New Hampshire in 2001 but beating the pace car to the pit exit stripe, yet NASCAR ruled he was put a lap down. When does a penalty like that ever hit a "favorite" like Jeff Gordon or Dale Junior? Talladega's yellow-line rule only seems to apply to "field fillers" like Mike Skinner, who got flagged in 2001 in Bobby Hamilton's win, but let Dale Junior pass on the apron entering Three and NASCAR contrives a lame excuse that he'd "completed the pass" when he went below the line, never mind that the rule means clearing a car by going below the line and Earnhardt was nowhere close to such before he went below the line.

These are but two of a myriad number of examples observors can find that show that NASCAR officiating too often benefits the big drivers and teams.

The point of controversy like this is that most people want NASCAR to stop playing favorites. There have to be situations where the big names like Gordon and Junior and Jimmie Johnson are the ones who get penalized and the "smaller" names who wind up the beneficiary. We see the opposite too often. People will regain a lot of confidence in the sanctioning body when they can see that the superstars get hit in the gut with penalties, too.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

NASCAR's Credibility Increasingly Questioned

Tony Stewart's open questioning of the integrity of NASCAR yellows for debris isn't exactly shocking. It is merely a public blast from within a sport increasingly distrustful of the integrity of the sanctioning body. NASCAR's credibility has come under more and more fire in this decade, for the very good reason that the sanctioning body's rule over the sport has produced less and less while saddling the sport's members and fans with more and more absurdity.

Suspicions about debris yellows isn't new, and it certainly is true that the Car Of Tomorrow has needed late yellows to get good finishes in the races in which it has run. The sanctioning body's credibility, though, goes beyond debris yellows. The recent developments in Kentucky Speedway's lawsuit against NASCAR highlight the credibility problems involved here. By publically questioning the relationship between NASCAR and Int'l Speedway Corporation, Kentucky Speedway makes a point about the absurdly arbitrary method by which race dates are awarded. That point was clear by the simple fact that Kentucky was built and is in a strong racing demographic, yet NASCAR ignored it for Winston Cup while pushing speedways and Winston Cup dates in markets that don't want racing.

There is also the reality that the varied rule changes made over recent years all have the common thread of the sanctioning body taking more and more control of the racing away from the track and into the officiating tower. Of course some of them get dressed up in safety garb, but it's all bunk; pit speed limits are not about safety, they're about presenting opportunities to bust some driver - giving officials an excuse to exercise authority. The Car Of Tomorrow isn't about safety or improved racing, it's about the sanctioning body dictating how racecars are built - notice how in the COT little mention is made of the safety improvements made to tracks, and in improving racing notice how low-cost bolt-on alternatives that actually do improve the racing are never considered - even though the most successful such bolt-on aero package raced at Daytona and Talladega 2000-1 in Winston Cup cars and presently races those tracks for BGN cars. Some areas of racecar engineering that are considered "cheating" probably aren't even about true competitive integrity; they're an excuse for officials to ride herd over race teams.

Big Bill France and Billy France wielded iron hands, but they had enough sense to know when to back off. Brian France so far hasn't shown any such sense. The sanctioning body's credibility is a legitimate issue as much as the credibility of CART was a serious issue in the 1980s and 1990s.

The question one should ask is this - what harm could come to the sport by the sanctioning body letting go some of the control over the racing it presently wields?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

King Of The Superspeedways

In the sport's Dead Lane Era, it is the oasis. With almost no other racing anywhere worthy of the adulation the sport has earned over the decades, Talladega is almost the one track that rescues the sport from permanent decline in popularity. It is the biggest superspeedway in the US and the most competititve in the world.

Talladega has averaged over 40 official lead changes per race in this decade, and broke that barrier eight times in that span. Now it prepares for its fifteenth Winston Cup race and eighth Busch Grand National race of this decade, and should serve as most competitive racing venue for both classes this season.

Chevrolet has all but monopolized restrictor plate racing, so barring a huge upset a Chevy will win this Alabama 500. Hendrick Motorsports has dominated the season so far, but curiously they didn't look that good at Daytona. RCR, Joe Gibbs, and Robert Ginn were the strongest cars at Daytona, and Tony Stewart will likely be fighting harder than normal for the win, since he hasn't won this year and is clearly torked off by that fact.

Of course one shouldn't count out the Hendrick cars after they won three of four plate races in 2006 and have won five of this season's first eight races.

David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd have been MIA pretty much everywhere this year, but Robert Yates has dominated Talladega qualifying the last few years, so the pole is a good bet for the Yates Fords. That the pole is not relevent to anything of course shows in Gilliland's poles that have gone nowhere. The Roush Fords are basically the only Ford team and thus have by far the best shot at a Ford win.

Penske Racing was the only Dodge organization with any muscle at Daytona and have been the strongest Dodge effort at Talladega lately, but Kurt Busch has a teammate in Ryan Newman who can no longer be counted on to run strong but instead will find new and creative ways to blow good runs, such as at Phoenix last week.

Ray Evernham's Dodges have been awful almost everywhere but Daytona was a rare strong finish and one can expect Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler to do something here.

Given the nature of Talladega, one can write a scouting report on why any driver who makes the field can win the race. This is why Talladega makes the sport so much better.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

NASCAR Troubles Get Ranted

"Peter DeLorenzo has long been the most outspoken national critic of NASCAR." So notes Janice Putman in the introduction to Autoextremist's April 18 rant on NASCAR's decline in popularity. This of course is a bit of an understatement, as DeLorenzo's attacks on NASCAR have often been vicious and periodically grossly unfair; even when he makes valid points, as he does in his April 18 Rant, he cannot pass up some cheapshots and offering some solutions that are either wrong and/or do not address the sport's problems.

DeLorenzo notes the massive drop in TV ratings from the start of 2004 - interestingly, the launching point of the Chase For The Championship, implemented ostensibly to boost ratings - onward across the country. "That the wheels are coming off the NASCAR money train shouldn't be a surprise to anyone." Indeed, as the decline in ratings and attendence have shown, NASCAR is not as hot as it once was, and the more it tries to market itself the worse it gets.

DeLorenzo runs off a laundry list of reasons for the sport's decline - "Sky-high ticket prices, empty seats, market oversaturation, too many sponsors creating a paralyzing amount of message clutter, the abandonment of traditional dates and racetracks, cookie-cutter cars that bear no resemblence to recognizable production car versions, too many races, etc."

The problem in this list is that some of the reasons are wrong. "Cookie-cutter cars that bear no resemblence to recognizable production car versions?" What is he talking about? Because the racecar versions of the Monte Carlo have an airdam, side skirts, etc. they do not resemble their production breathren? This is the revisionist history that permeates a lot of discussion, the notion that "stock cars used to really be stock cars." The fact of the matter is stock cars stopped being stock as soon as the sanctioning body was founded, and when superspeedways were built - by far the biggest single reason for the sport's growth - stock cars could no longer have any serious stock quality. They had to evolve into racecars.

And too many races? If anything the sport has too few races. The anger over some of the sport's markets would not be there to any extent if the sport had simply stayed at North Wilkesboro and Darlington - it was the way Texas and other tracks got onto the schedule, at the expense of North Wilkesboro and Darlington, that drives anger, not the fact of these new tracks themselves. What drives anger over now-abandoned projects in NYC and Washington State is that such tracks were aimed at replacing existing tracks instead of simply being added onto the schedule.

Certainly the reality of demographics argues against tracks in NYC and the Seattle area regardless of that, and one cannot deny that it is the "redneck" demographic that makes the sport - "Are we moonshiners, country music, banjos, and Route 66? Or are we merlot and Rodeo Drive?" as Humpy Wheeler has frequently asked. The fact is that merlot and Rodeo Drive do not account for any serious percentage of a sport's demographic, and the sport needs to stop trying to cater to merlot and Rodeo Drive.

Incredibly, DeLorenzo misses the most salient failing accounting for the sport's decline in popularity, and it it summed up in this question -

Where Are The Lead Changes?

It is telling that Talladega almost alone in the sport has not seen significant losses in attendence or TV ratings - with a per-race average of 40 lead changes from 2000 onward, it is all too easy to see why, and it is all too relevent to ask - why can't these other tracks also break the 40-lead-change barrier?

The sport's Dead-Lane Era of uncompetitive racing and a closed-loop of winning teams has done more than anything to alienate fans. Only ten teams have won races from 2003 onward, and one of them - Cal Wells - disbanded after 2006 while another - Morton-Bowers Racing - was bought out by billionaire Robert Ginn. On top of this several other teams in the sport - Ray Evernham, Robert Yates, and Petty Enterprises - are almost certain to be either bought out or take on big-money partners just to keep racing.

The sport's rules packages have for the most part done nothing to alter any of this, and frequently have made it worse. The Car Of Tomorrow is the most graphic such example; the roof spoiler package was abandoned after 2001 (though it returned for BGN in 2004); high downforce has given way to the 5&5 rule; and the hard-tire package of 2001-2 - which helped see 26 winners among 14 teams - was abandoned.

Whether coming from the view of Peter DeLorenzo or someone else, the fact remains that the sport needs to drop the "yes-man" coverage so depressingly common and start acting toward real solutions for the sport's real problems.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

NASCAR: Buyers Beware, Indeed

The title should say it all - Buyers Beware. That some outside the Race-Stream Media get it only makes it more frustrating that those in the sanctioning body seem not to get it, and based on some of John Darby's quotes, there seems widespread denial in the sanctioning body about the sport's costs and the absurdity of its economic system.

Morton-Bowers really got the investor trend started, and it's paid off in very substantial performance gains for the organization. John W. Henry's investment in Roush Racing has helped them keep pace, and word is that Robert Kraft is being wooed by Robert Yates, this as Ray Evernham and Richard Petty have both talked to the Montreal Canadiens ownership.

But do we really want a sport that requires billionaires to keep teams going? And with all the talk of inter-team cooperation and alliances, where is the talk of inter-team revenue sharing? Where is the lobby for some kind of hard spending cap?

Buyers need to be beware, but it is NASCAR in far greater need of awareness.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bruton Boasts While Burton Wins

Bruton Smith was at it again, boasting about his tracks and lobbying for a second date at Las Vegas. His verbiage sounded a lot more hollow, however, when one noticed that at the Texas 500 about half of the backstretch grandstands were closed off from spectators, replaced with mammoth sponsor signage. Even Bruton Smith isn't immune to the realities of a sport's erosion of popularity, which doesn't bode well for his case for a second Vegas date.

Meanwhile, Jeff Burton made history. He won the very first Texas 500 in 1997, and ten years later he became not only the first Winston Cup driver to win more than once at Texas, he became the winner of the first Texas Winston Cup race where the lead changed hands on the final lap. Worth noting is that in the ten years of Texas racing, Pocono saw two races where the lead changed on the final lap, Atlanta saw it twice, and Talladega saw it four times.

That it took Winston Cup this long to see racing anywhere close to what the IRL had put on with such frequency at Texas shows how wrong-headed NASCAR's rulesmakers have been over the years. They continue to look at downforce as the enemy when it is a major part of the solution. They ignore the need for the draft to kick in - not that this particular race saw any kind of drafting effect, just that the IRL proved long ago how much passing is helped by the draft. They continue to ignore the issue that to get good racing the cars need grip - so much grip as to stick anywhere and thus eliminate impediment to passing.

This Texas 500 may not be a ringing endorsement of any rules package other than reconfirmation of what NASCAR needs to learn but still hasn't, but it is interesting that the finish was so much more exciting than what we saw in the two Car Of Tomorrow races - worth mentioning because of recent scuttlebutt that the first serious design change to the COT may be in the pipeline. Of course if a major design change is coming, it is sure to be followed by another after that, and more after that, and one can easily see a scenario where the COT evolves back to what this Texas 500 raced.

Chevrolet continued to monopolize the series right now, leaving non-Chevy fans looking for scraps. Dodge fans can take heart from Juan Montoya's productive top ten, but should also cringe at the continued lack of competitive depth in the Dodge program and take note of the continued chaos that is the entire program's leadership, chaos that has wiped out the inter-team cooperation and thus the very depth the program needs. Of course Montoya's run saw another Swervin' move, this one against Tony Stewart, himself not exactly a repository of sane racing.

The ultimate irony of this Texas 500 is that everything has come full circle - the Texas 500 saw a first-lap melee, controversial driving, difficulty in passing, and Jeff Burton's win.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sadr's Madhi Uprising Going Nowhere

At least Sadr himself admits such. Too bad Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama or whoever else is whining about the Iraq situation aren't so forthcoming.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

John Darby Keeps Talking Out His Butt

The Virginia 500 at Martinsville hardly qualified as a great race, and a big reason was the continuation of the Car Of Tomorrow as the drivers continued to avoid hard racing both because of increased push from the gapped front-end design and to avoid grinding off the front splitter. What kept the race close was the usual allotment of crashes, notably Juan Montoya's bully act that is getting tiresome.

NASCAR's John Darby has been point man in the spin campaign defending the COT and in such capacity is talking out his butt much of the time. He isn't the only one doing so - witness Robin Pemberton's absurd "A" grade to the COT after Bristol - but right now Darby is the more egregious here. His comments on the rash of fires from the use of foam padding in these cars is often mind-boggling and his general takes on the COT have been silly when not outright preposterous - his repeated comments about "stopping the practice of teams building 20 cars for 20 different tracks" totally ignored reality.

Incredibly, Jimmy Spencer has gone along with this nonsense (to his credit he has questioned the use of a wing instead of spoiler), criticizing drivers for "being soft" and talking about how they have to drive their cars now, never mind that they're not able to race anyone with this car.

The COT gets a respite until Phoenix, so for one week at least the sport gets back the flush-airdam/spoilered cars it has run for so long.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sidney Lumet's Cinematic Brilliance

Recently came this look back at the motion picture 12 Angry Men examining the deceptive nature of its political outlook. 12 Angry Men is one of the iconic films of Hollywood more because of its leftism - albiet rather subtle leftism - than because of its cinematic quality. It's also been a staple of high school required reading - yours truly had the fortune of reading Henry Fonda's character in 10th grade English class way back a quarter-century ago.

Now 12 Angry Men may be revered for its ideological hue placed on the murder trial of an 18-year-old boy - whose racial makeup is left unstated but which is presumably either black or latino, hence the film's outlook - and the titular jury's deliberation on a hot New York day, but it's still a superior presentation, featuring one of the best ensemble casts of its time or any other. Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb are the primary combatants, but they are backed by a dazzling supporting cast that includes Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, John Fiedler, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Robert Webber, Ed Begley, and Martin Balsam. It's ironic that quite a few of these performers had notable guest roles in The Fugitive with David Janssen, Barry Morse, and Bill Raisch - another iconic statement about the folly of the death penalty when the innocent are the target, and another filmed presentation whose superior quality overcomes ideological objection to its view of the world.

12 Angry Men was one of many films directed by Sidney Lumet, and it's no accident that it is one of his three best films. It has in common with the other two that they have strong and disagreeable ideological viewpoints as well as brilliant execution in script and by the cast, production, and director.

Fail-Safe is the second of Lumet's best films. Based on Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's 1962 novel, it was produced by Columbia Pictures at the same time they were backing Stanley Kubrick's epic black comedy Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick used his influence to get his film released first, and as a result Fail-Safe got lost in the shuffle.

This is too bad, because in some ways Lumet's film is the better of the two. While nothing tops Peter Sellers' spectacular triple role of the titular Strangelove, RAF officer Lionel Mandrake, and the US President (it's always fascinating hearing British actors like Sellers, Barry Morse, and Jane Seymour speaking in American accents, as the best of them often speak the accent better than some American actors - heck, Seymour and Morse made a superb career out of it), Fail-Safe crackles with superb performances from Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver, Edward Binns, Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, and a short but brilliant dramatic turn by comedian Dom Deluise. As in 12 Angry Men Lumet uses claustrophobia to excellent effect, trapping the audience in the bowels of Strategic Air Command HQ, the Pentagon, the cockpit of a supersonic nuclear bomber, and the President's underground nuclear command chamber. By no means is the film a realistic portrayal of such facilities in reallife - the "Hot Line" in the film is a bulky telephone with headphones for use by translators, where in reallife the Hot Line was a teletype communicator - but they succeed in terms of dramatic pull nonetheless.

The story revolves around a bomber squadron led by Colonel Jack Grady (Binns). A failure of a fault indicator at SAC HQ leads to routine replacement of the part in question; when the bulky part is replaced, the SAC computer system reboots, but in so doing it activates the strategic attack code box aboard Jack Grady's warplane, and by a fatal confluence the Russians begin jamming the squadron's radios so they can't contact home; forced to proceed on the assumption that nuclear war has broken out, Grady's squadron proceeds toward its target - Moscow. It is from here that the story revs up as SAC and the President work to stop the bombers, but are frustrated by the skill and working orders of the squadron pilots as well as the power of their planes.

The story's ideological flaw stems from its portrayal of General Warren Black (O'Herlihy) and political scientist Walter Groteschele (Matthau). Groteschele has some audacious ideas about nuclear warfare, some of which come out in a dinner discussion with a local writer named Foster (Dana Elcar of MacGyver fame) where Foster loudly objects to Groteschele's notion that a nuclear war does not necessarily have to escalate to the point of the complete annihilation of the world. The notion that use of nuclear weapons would ipso facto escalate to armageddon has always been the bumper-sticker boilerplate of liberalism's view of such devices - never mind that at the end there is indeed an exchange of nuclear blows, which does not escalate. The audience is supposed to side with Foster and later Warren Black in disputes with Groteschele, especially when Groteschele argues that Soviet Russia will surrender to the US as the squadron penetrates Soviet airspace, an idea too absurd to be believed by any serious individual and which as a result hurts the story's dramatic pull. Yet even here irony creeps in, for Groteschele's argument winds up being partially vindicated as the Russians prove even more afraid of war than the US.

Warren Black is supposed to have the decisive line when he tells Groteschele, "You remember (Nazi tyranny) so well that you're no different from what you want to kill." Never mind that Groteschele's larger point - that Soviet Russia was the enemy of the West that had launched Cold War upon the West - was accurate; never mind also that the Russians escalated a comparatively simple attack code snafu into outright crisis by refusing to let the US contact their planes - and also lie about it to the President.

Letting ideology trump common sense continues as throughout the varied negotiations with the Russians - first between the President and the Red Chairman via the Hot Line, later between SAC General Frank Bogan (Overton) and his Soviet counterpart via an identical communication system - an absurd moral equivalence permeates things - "You have the same equipment we do, what did it tell you?" the President pointedly asks at one point; "We have computers, like yours," the Red Chairman states later; "We got a taste of the future, do we learn from it or go on the way we have?" the President angrilly asks at the end.

The absurdity of the confluence of events in the film is why the US Air Force asked for the disclaimer at the film's end, and the disclaimer was correct in being added.

Yet for all that the film is outstanding storytelling, from Lumet's claustrophobic direction through the excellence of the entire cast - when a Technical Sergeant (Deluise) must reveal to the Russians how to detonate nuclear-tipped air to air missiles, the performance is made so well that it leaves the audience shaken watching the man limp back to his desk at SAC HQ, head bowed in shame. The film works so well that even the preposterous ending - SPOILER WARNING - the President vows to the Russians that if Moscow is destroyed he will sacrifice New York City to appease the Russians, and carries out this promise by ordering Warren Black to launch two 20-megaton bombs onto the Big Apple using the Empire State Building for Ground Zero - works.


The other of Lumet's three best films is Network. A rambling attack both on the power of television and also of large corporations, the film revolves around the fictional UBS TV network and its star newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who passed away after completing work on the film Raid On Entebbe and received a posthumous Oscar for Network). Beale is fired and goes on-air to announce that he will kill himself. He requests permission to issue an on-air apology, but is becoming insane. UBS is owned by a company called CCA, and its hatchet man is Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall, who seemingly can never fail with any role he gets), who despises UBS' news division chief Max Schumacher (William Holden) and the annual deficits his division runs. At a stockholders' meeting Hackett stabs Schumacher in the back by announcing a network reorganization that takes away his power; Max retaliates by letting Howard Beale go on-air and make a vulgar rambling commentary about life.

Schumacher is fired by network cheif Edward George Ruddy (William Smith, perhaps better known from the 1977 Clint Eastwood film The Gauntlet) but rehired when ratings for UBS' newscasts explode whenever Howard Beale is on. Max sees Beale becoming more and more insane and is livid because Frank Hackett and programming chief Diana Christenson (Faye Dunawaye in one of the few roles of her career that actually accomplishes something) want to exploit him for the network's ratings.

Hackett fires Schumacher once and for all just before Beale sneaks onto the news set and delivers his most insane speech yet, urging the audience to start yelling "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" He thus gets his own talk-show-style series that brings in enormous ratings, but his downfall begins when he reveals that a Saudi front company has purchased CCA and demands viewers lobby the government to stop the deal. To the horror of everyone except Christenson, Beale's speech leads to an avalanche of telegrams to Washington DC demanding the deal be stopped, even though the Saudi front company literally controls the network.

CCA chief Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) then gives a growling pep talk to Howard Beale explaining the reality that dollars control things, so Beale does a spectacular about-face and devotes his speeches to pessimistic takes on life and the powerlessness of people. UBS thus begins to collapse, and the only way out is for Christenson to hire out a gang of terrorists who've been a pet project of hers - this leads to the film's funniest scene when the terrorists fight bitterly over royalties from their proposed TV deal, with one of their own calling them out about acting like those despised capitalists - to gun down Beale on his TV show.

The rambling nature of the film's message stems in part from the fact that the script is a black-humor satire by noted playwright Paddy Chayevsky. This rambling nature makes it difficult for the audience to really catch what the message is - are we supposed to hate TV for being TV, or for letting corporations control things? That corporations do not wield the clout the film implies comes through every day by the often reprehensible treatment they get from government, the MSM, and so forth - when was the last time a film or TV show ever stood up for corporations and against their critics? Even so, Lumet steers a brilliant story forward into a crackling good film.

This really conveys how good a director Sidney Lumet was. Almost regardless of how absurd the story's point of view can be, Lumet tells it and makes the audience enjoy it.