Monday, February 25, 2013

Brad Keselowski On NASCAR's Business Model

Lost amid the nightmare of Kyle Larson's crash and the spectacle of Danica-mania was that Brad Keselowski spoke for an expansive analysis of NASCAR where he took to task the sanctioning body's business model. For this he was taken to task by Brian France in a dinner meeting. Such efforts by NASCAR at stifling criticism have become more and more of an issue and further damage the credibility of Brian France as the sanctioning body's leader. So it is worth taking a look at what Keselowski said and the merits of his analysis.


Keselowski notes there are four separate entities in the sport - the tracks, the sanctioning body, sponsors, and teams, and they may work at cross-purposes; the fans are also part of the sport.   He also notes the role of television and how Bill France Jr. was undisputed leader of NASCAR.   Today, in contrast, NASCAR is run by Brian France but power is not unified as Lesa France Kennedy is also involved.   The issue of Brian France's ability to run the sanctioning has long been controversial and he does nothing but prove it year after year.

The four partners in the sport aren't united.   "We're fighting the tracks," Keselowski notes.   Indeed, it is a change from a generation or so back when tracks and teams worked together far more - that there were far more independent tracks as well as teams back then certainly played a role; today's over-centralization of tracks and teams has long been a problem for the sport.


Keselowski discusses the competition.   He praises the Generation Six car as "a big step forward.   It's part of the solution."  Here he warrants being taken to task, for the Gen-6 car was a flop at Daytona and is part of the problem.   It is a top-heavy sedan design with a stump of a rear deck and underside changes that took away downforce.   It is not a car designed to allow passing.  

The issue remains that NASCAR has a rules myopia that constantly gets in the way.   The right design for the racecars remains the 1970s "Generation Two", mid-1980s "Generation Three", and 1990s "Generation Four" design concept - the long snout, lean, raked roofline aerocoupe design.    In the 2000s NASCAR added a roof blade for Daytona and Talladega and that package was spectacularly effective; it needs to be returned, and used for all the tracks.   Over and over NASCAR has sought to cut downforce from the cars (from the 1998 "5 and 5 Rule" onward) and the concept has never worked - NASCAR needs to give it up and allow use of a 6-inch rear spoiler with 1-inch wicker on top, made of clear material like local Late Models and Pro Stocks so drivers can see through out the leader's windshield.   Underside changes made in 2013 to reduce downforce need to be reversed, because cutting downforce has never worked.

When handling is more important than the draft - and this applies not just to the biggest tracks, it applies to "cookie cutter" intermediates because they have a history where the draft has been effective - then passing always is stifled.   NASCAR's rules myopia has to end and the racing needs to be where the draft matters more than handling.

Keselowski notes the sport can't produce last-lap lead changes every week - true enough.   But even so he is selling short the sport's competitive ability.   In 2011 Daytona and Talladega averaged 80 lead changes per Cup race, and in the last five Daytona Nationwide Series races the track has averaged some 35 lead changes per race, while Talladega's lone annual Nationwide race has averaged some 40 lead changes per race in the last five seasons.   There is no reason more tracks cannot produce that intensity of competition on a frequent basis.  


Keselowski is on his strongest ground when noting the sport has to "move away from team sponsors" because the present model is fratricidal to everyone involved.   Indeed, for all the nearly $3 billion NASCAR is getting from FOX Television's new deal with the series, the sport has shown serious money issues to where "start and park" teams have become an issue - a result of lack of money in the sport.  

Team spending has been out of control for many years now - decades, realistically.   There is no reason why the sanctioning body cannot have some program of spending controls for its participants.   Getting the sport more affordable so teams can win more on race purse money than on sponsorships is hardly a negative for the sport; this is where team spending needs to be addressed.   No team should have to spend $10 million a year to win races.


Where Keselowski should be taken to task is when he discusses the schedule, criticizing that it has too many races with too many tracks (he wisely avoids naming names) holding two dates apiece.   Saying the sport needs a Cup race at Iowa Speedway and also Toronto and Vancouver is stretching it, since Iowa, though a good racing market, is not that good a racetrack; Toronto and Vancouver do not appear to be particularly strong racing demographics, either.   And Keselowski seems to ignore the tracks that have lost dates in recent years - Atlanta and Fontana.

36 races is not too many a year.  Also, the trend toward cutting race distances needs to be resisted and reversed.   500 miles at Pocono, Michigan, etc. is a better test of racecar and racer than 400 miles - Pocono in particular proved this point in the nearly 20 seasons it ran 500s while the Brickyard ran 400s - only in 1994 did the Brickyard 400 produce better racing; the better quality of racing in Pocono's 500s was especially shown in 2010's unusually physical 500 milers.


Keselowski also discusses diversity within the sport.   The problem is the same as with any area involving "diversity" - it can't be forced, it has to evolve naturally, and if it evolves in a way that isn't "diverse," then so be it.  

He also notes, "It's everyone's responsibility to carry the sport whether they're a champion or not."   This is true to some extent, but it also contains its own warning about how drivers etc. are to handle how others conduct themselves.   Indeed, Brian France can use that quote in stifling Keselowski et al's opinions, and this is the last thing the sport needs.   Honesty has long been in short supply in this spin-obsessed sport and there has never been a case where lack of honesty was helpful.   While everyone involved has a responsibility in carrying the sport, it must never come at the expense of honesty.   If something is wrong, NASCAR should not suppress speaking out about it.

That makes Brian France's dinner meeting with Keselowski all the more reprehensible.   An honest examination of the sport's issues is the way to solve those issues; going after someone for pointing this out just makes the problem worse. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Another Forgettable 500

The immediate story entering Sunday's Daytona 500 was concern over injured spectators from Saturday's last-lap Kyle Larson tumble in the Daytona 300, and NASCAR felt confident in its rebuilt fencing on Daytona's trioval coming in; news that injured spectators were all in stable condition and being discharged was certainly encouraging. It proved fitting that the 500 raced under heavy overcast, between fear over the Kyle Larson melee in the Daytona 300 and also concern over NASCAR's new Generation Six racecar, a racecar that had done nothing to live up to its heavily-promoted promise of better racing.

The Daytona 500, alas, lived down to the low expectations of this new racecar. With handling plaguing the racecars from January testing onward, the 500 was a huge competitive drop from the rip-roaring ferocity of the Daytona 300. It nonetheless saw some spots of good racing, notably a late Brad Keselowski-Jimmie Johnson battle for the lead won by Johnson. In the end, though, the racing never went anywhere and the finish was yet another forgettable anticlimax. The lead changed 28 times among 14 drivers, dismal compared to Saturday's 34 lead changes among 20 drivers.

NASCAR and its rules myopia once again was the loser of Speedweeks.   There were plenty of other losers as well -


RCR ENTERPRISES - after Kevin Harvick dominated earlier in the week he was eliminated early and the other two RCR Chevys got knocked out late.

GANASSI RACING - they went nowhere pretty much all week.

JOE GIBBS RACING - the strongest cars all week, the Coach's Nationwide fleet failed in the 300 and then blew up in the 500; only Denny Hamlin salvaged anything. Matt Kenseth's engine failure was the biggest surprise, and it legitimized recent complaints about Toyota's engines by Kyle Busch.

JEFF GORDON - He started on the front row and led handily, then at the end disappeared and finished poorly. Before the Daytona 300 he defended NASCAR's new package and its lack of passing because of how strategy somehow became a critical factor in the racing - not only was this wholly hypocritical (and made Gordon look foolish as Jack Roush accurately analyzed the Generation Six package compared to the Nationwide cars and their "two-on-two" tandem drafting) after he derided this same package as "too conservative" at Talladega in May 2012, the result in this 500 was his worst finish in awhile.


There were also winners aside from Johnson in this 500 -

STEWART-HAAS RACING - While Tony crashed out his other two cars finished in the top eight of the 500 and he himself won the 300, bringing him into Daytona's seven-timers club.

DARK HORSES - Lost amid Danica-mania and Jimmie Johnson were stunningly productive efforts from Regan Smith (robbed of a Daytona win Saturday), Michael McDowell, and J.J. Yeley, whose career has never recovered from being fired from Joe Gibbs Racing.

ARIC ALMIROLA - 13th isn't much to feel good about but it's the best effort for Almirola in Richard Petty's #43.


With the start of another NASCAR season, the fields head to Phoenix - and yet enduring another forgettable Daytona 500 continues to plague the sport - though fan safety issues also unexpectedly jumped in.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Scary Saturday At Daytona

The Daytona 300 ran Saturday afternoon and it was by far the most exciting race of Speedweeks, an epic battle where a race-record 20 drivers led and the lead changed 34 times - it also proved to be the most frightening. A massive fight for the lead that raged on and off all day turned into a huge crash and a violent flight into the trioval fencing by rookie Kyle Larson, already involved in several scrapes in Late Model and Modified action earlier in the week on Daytona's new backstretch bullring. Larson tumbled into the fencing, then the nose of his car inexplicably snagged the crossover gate and the engine was ripped out of the car, sending one tire flying some ten rows into the main stands. Larson's #32 tumbled to a stop, a crash reminiscent of the fatal Don McTavish melee near that same trioval in 1969's Daytona 300.

The sheer violence of the melee muted celebration of the race win by Tony Stewart, a record seventh Grand National Sportsman win at Daytona and sixth in the 300's last seven runnings. Some fourteen spectators were hospitalized; reportedly two were critical but had been upgraded to stable by 11 PM Saturday night, and Sunday morning it appeared all were stable.

The crash has brought about the inevitable discussion about spectator closeness to the racing surface as well as the safety of the sport. Some have taken the expected shots that it was a restrictor plate crash, and reviews of this crash naturally brings comparison to past melees in NASCAR history. But criticisms of restrictor plate racing in this discussion ignore as always similar crashes on local bullrings over the years - this writer witnessed at the 2001 season finale at Thompson Speedway a crash in Turn Three where several spectators were injured - as well as at the Cup level - crashes such as Brad Keselowski's melee with Carl Edwards in 2010 at Gateway and his tumble at Atlanta in 2010 were closer calls than most realize and the epidemic of injuries in the sport has almost entirely taken place on non-plate tracks - such as Sterling Marlin's near-fatal crash at Kansas in 2002, the 2000-01 epidemic of fatalities at New Hamsphire, Texas, and Charlotte, Jerry Nadeau's vicious crash at Richmond in 2003, and Bobby Hamilton's last-lap Richmond Truck race melee that wound up cutting short his season - to cite a few examples.

Cited has been Carl Edwards' bitter mocking comment about his 2009 Talladega crash where he blamed NASCAR for "putting us in this box," ignoring that his crash took place with four cars separated from the rest of the field. Such criticisms are a case of assigning blame to everything except the performance levels of the racecars. The fencing at Daytona and other tracks will be reinforced, though one has to nonetheless ask whether making the fences stronger may wind up being counterproductive - it may not necessarily be such a slam-dunk good idea.

Even though they are restricted, the speed of the cars should not be ignored, with speeds 194 and above now common and trap speeds at 200 being recorded. The idea that another 10 MPH can be taken out of the speeds shouldn't be dismissed.


It put a damper on the best race of Speedweeks, a race that bucked some trends of this Speedweeks. All week long the complaint was the high groove was the only fast groove, but in the Daytona 300 the opposite was the case. The race saw plenty of the tandem drafting missing from the Cup cars and which the Trucks on Friday night made a real effort to revive - this made possible the 34 lead changes, far more in this one race than seen for all of Speedweeks (and another indictment of the rules myopia of Brian France and the Cup cars).

The Joe Gibbs Toyotas (Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Elliott Sadler, and Brian Vickers) proved to be the strongest cars (Vickers to a far lesser extent than the others) for much of the day - so much so as to be surprisingly almost unpassable until in the race's second half Regan Smith and others finally forced past the JGR fleet. Smith wound up suffering the biggest heartbreak as he blew into the lead on the final lap and had the race won until getting blasted head-on into the trioval wall. It was the gift for Tony Stewart, who'd lost the draft earlier and was only able to gain third on the final lap before the wreck.

Also star-crossed was Michael Annett in Richard Petty's #43, who bounced up and down the field and pushed all the way to second and was still in the fight until he sideswiped Austin Dillon and a major melee erupted. Curiously it is the second straight Daytona Grand National Sportsman race he and Dillon have tangled in a major crash.

There was inevitable over-coverage of Danica Patrick, who led briefly then faded before falling out with engine failure. Hyped because she is running Winston Cup in 2013, Patrick has garnered foolishly positive press coverage despite poor effort in the racing itself - the story of her major league racing career from 2005 onward.

For what it's worth, a bizarre coincidence also comes to mind - this is the second time a Speedweeks has been haunted by a bad crash in a year where the Baltimore Ravens won the Superbowl (even more ironic with Ray Lewis named honorary starter for the 500).

NASCAR met its worst nightmare on Saturday. Though it was very close, it nonetheless escaped it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

NASCAR's 2013 Opening Dud

The renamed Daytona Shootout was won by Kevin Harvick in rather uncompetitive fashion and it constituted the debut of NASCAR's "Generation Six" racecar as well as a tweaked rules package for the aerodynamics intended to eliminate any vestige of tandem drafting from the 2009-12 period. This goal was debuted in 2012 and while overheating issues got in the way, tandem drafting wound up winning Daytona's races anyway - but with a huge drop in competitive depth for the series with a forgettable Daytona 500 and a dismal Firecracker 400 marred by the biggest Daytona wreck in decades. The 2013 Shootout - dubbed The Sprint Unlimited - proved very limited as far as competitive racing goes.

At some point the Race Stream Media - the most pliant in pro sports - needs to start calling out NASCAR for the fundamental absurdity of these rules packages and the premise behind them. Lack of passing proved 2012's approach didn't work; 2013's Shootout proved this anew but with greater effect. Without the tandems and with less downforce, the drivers couldn't race. And chances are the difference in competitive depth will be even more pronounced when the Nationwide Series, which produced three of the six best NASCAR races of 2012 - the other three were the Diehard 500 and the two NASCAR Modified 100-lappers at New Hampshire - hits Daytona's high banks. The three plate races for the N'wide Series run the package that allows near-unlimited tandem drafting and it produced a combined 117 lead changes in those three races, including race records for Daytona.


NASCAR is curiously spinning the Generation Six car with the claim that Chevrolet might have quit the series had NASCAR not knuckled under to "brand identity, even with a denial of such from Chevy's racing boss. Regardless, NASCAR is hyping these "new" bodies quite a bit - and the story behind this machine's creation shows some surprising cooperation and outright camaraderie between NASCAR and the manufacturers - even though they're not terribly different from 2012 bodies and the reality remains that Form Follows Function, making radical differences impossible to begin with. It's another area where NASCAR and the manufacturers are being myopic. Real brand identity is reflected in the length of a brand's car, the width, and in body stylings that do not follow what the other brands have - a flatter hood, a completely different rake in the roofline, etc.

As it is, what NASCAR and the manufacturers should be doing is reverting to the long snout, lean, raked roofline aerocoupe bodies of yore, not pushing the same top-heavy sedan bodies they've been racing for over six years. As far as the overall rules package with the cars, NASCAR should bring back the roof blade, shave some bumper off to allow air to flow better (and get rid of the "beachball" aeropush discussed in these Generation Six cars), go back to a six-inch rear spoiler, and make it out of the clear plastic used on the rear spoiler of many Late Model and Pro Stock short track cars and also on the Cup cars' "sharkfin" atop the rear glass - a constant gripe in the tandem drafting period was drivers couldn't see through the spoiler out the front windshield of the lead car in a tandem; it remains puzzling why switching to clear plastic spoilers hasn't been explored.


Among the individual racers in the Shootout, apart from race winner Kevin Harvick, challenger Tony Stewart, and early dominator Matt Kenseth in his debut in Stewart's former JGR #20, the only drivers who stood out were Greg Biffle (race runner up), Joey Logano in his debut with Penske Racing, and a sixth place run for Richard Petty's #43 and Aric Almirola, who was abysmal most of 2012 but who salvaged something in a quiet but solid effort.

Curiously undercompetitive were the Hendrick Chevrolets; Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon crashed out after struggling to stay up with the leaders while Dale Junior was hardly inspiring en route to seventh and Kasey Kahne didn't impress anyone, either. It was a fitting end to a Shootout that was propelled by a new racecar and a rules package that conspired to ruin the competitive quality of the racing all because Brian France has a personal and irrational dislike of tandem drafting.