Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's all about the Money - Why Open Wheel Drivers Failed in NASCAR this year

By Lewis Franck

There's a saying “when someone says 'it's not about the money.' It really is all about the money.”

Just one year ago traditional NASCAR fans were upset because it appeared that an invasion of mostly foreign “open wheel” i.e. IndyCar drivers were going to take over their sacred stock car sport.

Team owners, seeking new markets, thought that if they would bring in the open wheel drivers they could bring in new sponsors. It did not work out that way.

One year later only Juan Pablo Montoya, the ex-IndyCar and ex-Formula One driver, and Sam Hornish Jr. were in the picture for a full-time ride. The reason – they both drive for the owners of their former IndyCar teams. Montoya drives for Chip Ganassi and Hornish, Jr. for Roger Penske, both are the most successful owners in IndyCar history.

At the Daytona 500 this February there were more previous Indy 500 winners than those who would run at the Brickyard in May. Montoya and Dario Franchitti were driving for Ganassi. Hornish for Penske, and Jacques Villeneuve for Bill Davis Racing. Other open wheelers Patrick Carpentier for Gillett Evernham Racing (GEM), and A.J. Allmendinger for Team Red Bull Racing.

Perhaps Mario Andretti who in the 1960s and 1970s successfully raced in and won in everything from dirt track sprint cars, to his World Championship for Lotus, is best to explain why they came over.

"From where I'm sitting, it is probably because of the money [in NASCAR]," said Andretti, who won the 1967 Daytona 500 two years before his Indy 500 win.

"Every individual would give you a different reason. I think the strongest one might be financial. It's not the only motivating factor but it is a strong one. And right now, the best chance to earn some money is NASCAR," he said one year ago.

Since “the split” in 1994 which divided (the now-defunct )CART from the Indy Racing League fans and, more importantly, big money sponsors deserted Indy-type – now called Open Wheel – series for the more stable NASCAR top-level Cup Series.

CART's problem was that top stars would go to Formula One, and in an effort to keep American drivers at Indy the IRL was formed; only its' stars, like Tony Stewart, ended up in NASCAR, because that's where the higher paying jobs were.

It turns out that the lack of money – due to the sudden decline in the US economy – hit the hardest of most of the teams with the open wheel “invaders”.

Also, lack of proper experience, that is running in the junior series for two years or more was another reason that these drivers had a difficult time making the transition to the heavy 3,400 pound cars.

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup Champion who drove for Roger Penske, explained to Francklyspeaking, “these drivers undeniably have a tremendous amount of talent. Because it takes many years to really understand these heavy NASCAR cars, being thrown right into one of these cars and expected to be competitive right off the bat is unrealistic.”

Kevin Harvick, the Daytona 500 winner in 2007, agreed (in a previous interview), “It just takes time to establish that foundation," he said. "A lot of people from the outside looking in say, 'Well, I race Formula One. There's no reason I shouldn't be able to race the Sprint Cup Series.' If you can get over the ego part of it, racing the Truck Series or the Nationwide Series, you'd be better off, I think."

Wallace added, “also, the downturn in the economy has killed these drivers' long turn prospects of succeeding in a stock car. With money so tight now and sponsors expecting immediate performance, it makes it especially difficult for these guys. I honestly think that if a sponsor would spend 2-3 solid years with these open wheel drivers, and understand that the first couple years would be investment years, then I think that victory and success in NASCAR would be more of a realistic long term goal.

Dario, Sam, Juan Pablo- these guys are all damn good.”

What is also interesting, and crucial, is that NASCAR's Big Four, Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Joe Gibbs Racing Motorsports, and Roush Racing chose to stick with NASCAR-trained drivers and they were the only teams to fill the 12 places in the ten-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. If you did not race for a fully-funded team you had virtually no chance of succeeding.

Jacques Villeneuve's attempt wasn't much of an attempt because he bought a ride at the struggling Bill Davis Racing, failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and was not heard from, in NASCAR's Sprint Cup since then.

A disappointed Davis lamented "We've built a bunch of cars for him, have gone testing and spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel. But it gets to this point -- they thought they had a sponsor for the whole year; we had the cars decaled and uniforms made and like you've read 100 times before -- the check never came.”

Francklyspeaking enlisted the help of Ford Aerodynamicist, Bernie Marcus, who used to be an engineer at the ATS, Onyx and March Formula One teams. Later he worked with Bobby Rahal in his 1992 CART championship. There's probably no better expert, who has seen it all.

Montoya, hired by Ganassi after he was released from Team McLaren, seemed to be a win-win situation for NASCAR eager to exploit the Latin American marketplace. He's had relative success with wins on road circuits and, a second place in the Brickyard 400 in 2007 and the fall race at Talladega in 2008. Late this year Ganassi was forced to merge with Dale Earnhardt Inc. because he couldn't obtain sponsorship for the three cars he started with this year.

Marcus said “Juan has the talent to succeed in NASCAR, but Ganassi was such bad team this season, that he rarely had a good enough car to demonstrate his talent. Hopefully the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing merger will improve the teams technical staff and program, so that he gets the results he is certainly capable of.”

Hoping lightning would strike twice Ganassi hired Indy 500 and IRL champ, Dario Franchitti. Franchitti was injured (broken right foot) at Talladega in the Spring in the Nationwide race in an accident caused by an inexperienced driver. By July the Scotsman, married to actress, Ashley Judd, was finished because Ganassi couldn't find enough sponsorship to finish the year. That day 71 employees were terminated. He had only 10 Cup races with a best finish of 22nd.

Marcus explained “Dario struggled the most of all the Open Wheel Guys, and a lot of that is down to the Ganassi team being so bad, but he wasn't even close to Montoya anywhere and the biggest letdown was his inability to qualify the car at Sonoma, (one of two NASCAR Cup road races) where he should have been really good. But perhaps his luck, that had given him excellent drives without merit in the past, from DTM to CART to IRL, finally ran out. He clearly had no business being in NASCAR and took a seat away from a potentially young rookie.”

The parent company of GEM racing, which owned the Montreal Canadians in the NHL ,thought Carpentier, a competent IndyCar driver would help bring Canadian fans to NASCAR. Like in Franchitti's case the sponsors never showed. He was replaced by an American. He said “I’m the one getting the boot. It’s part of racing. I’m not pissed off. I kind of expected it. I still hope they find it (sponsorship).”

Marcus commented “Patrick did a very solid job for being in a tier 2 team, in which both the established drivers with a lot more NASCAR experience struggled mightily this year. In fact he out qualified them most of the time and had some decent race runs. It's a pity he got fired after the Talladega qualifying fiasco, for which he clearly can't be blamed. My feeling is they used him as a convenient scape goat. I believe that Patrick deserves to get another chance in a top team and he will get results. Talent wise he is the best of all the Open Wheel guys in my opinion.

AJ Allmendinger, who was a winner in the defunct Champ Car series, joined Team Red Bull in their first struggling year with Toyota in 2007. He, too, jumped over to NASCAR seeing that his team Forsythe Racing was going under. After two years he was let go in favor of Scott Speed. “AJ is a talented driver and we really enjoyed working with him,” said RBRT Vice President and General Manager Jay Frye. “He’s come a long way in just two years and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Allmendinger, who had one Cup victory in an non-points race, said “Cup racing it’s not easy. What happened to Dario and Villeneuve is going to make people wonder.You have to remember, Sam’s (Hornish Jr.) is only in his first year.”

Marcus thought he was under-rated “AJ struggled at first, but once he sat out those few races when (veteran) Mike Skinner drove his car, he came back and did a very good job, which he continued after he transferred to Gillett/Evernham.

He added “Red Bull, as a team, did the best job of any team where an Open Wheel Driver competed.

For 2009 former F-One driver, Scott Speed will be full-time at Team Red Bull. Marcus explained “Speed did a decent job after he replaced AJ for the last few races. He has shown that he has the ability to qualify the car well up the grid, but needs to improve his racecraft, which may or may not come with time. He wasn't too stellar in the ARCA series (a midwest based series using older NASCAR Cup cars), which he should have won hands down.

Over at Penske Racing, Hornish struggled with a non-performing Dodge, as did his teammate and former Champ, Kurt Busch, and Daytona 500, winner Ryan Newman. The American and Penske are committed for the near future. He said ““I would say it’s a struggle but I remember when I first started racing I ran a dirt oval and won I think the third race out and then I won five of the next six.”

Marcus added “Hornish is difficult to judge, since the Penske NASCAR team has been uncompetitive all year, except Daytona, where they pulled off a 1-2 finish and Hornish was top 15 also. It's hard to understand that Penske is so competitive in Indy Car and Sports Cars, but so uncompetitive in NASCAR. Hornish has the talent to succeed in NASCAR, he has shown flashes of brilliance, but unless Penske gives him better technical support, he will not be able to showcase his talent.”

At present only Montoya and Hornish have firm contracts, again, because of the two-way loyalty between them and their car owners, Ganassi and Penske, respectively. It's unlikely that there will be any new Open Wheel drivers, (barring Danica Patrick if she wants to switch) jumping over to stock cars unless they bring sponsors, because it is, after all, all about the money.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Guest Blogger Mike Harris - more on Mike Hollander



Mike Harris




First, before anything else that needs to be said, Mike Hollander was my friend.

He was a lot of things to a lot of people, but, to me, he was the personification of intelligence and decency, wrapped up in a pleasant personality.

And he had his own parking spot.

Mike was fond of telling people that his father always seemed to be able to find a parking spot, no matter how big or crowded an event. He would drive into the overflowing parking lot, head for the front and - viola - there would be an open space.

According to Mike, when his father died, the parking spot passed on to him.

And I came to believe him after I saw it myself. We were in San Diego in the early 80s, covering an IMSA sports car race at the Del Mar horse track. I offered to give Mike a ride to the track and, when we got there, the attendant at the media lot said there were no more spaces. Mike leaned over and asked if he would let us ``try to find one.'' The guy shrugged and said, `Sure. But you won't find any.''

Needless to say, I drove to the front of the lot and somebody was pulling out of a prime spot as we approached. Mike just grinned and said, ``See.''

I never doubted him again.

Other people have written about his pioneering in the use of computers at the racetrack and his abilities as a writer and public relations person, so I won't bother to get into all of that. I just want people to know that Michael Hollander was a very special person and he will be missed.

Mike Harris, AP
(Mike Harris is an award-winning writer for Associated Press)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Two Racing Media Insiders Pass Away

Two very special individuals in the world of auto racing are no longer with us. You may not have known Michael Hollander or Ron Meade. Media centers are a little less human due to their loss.

Ron Meade, who I first met at Daytona, was the kind of guy who was knowledgeable in just about any form of motor racing. In Meade’s last years he worked in Public Relations at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. If you ever wanted to discuss the events of the day, or bounce an idea off of someone in the business “Uncle Ron” was there.


Michael Hollander

Hollander was a personal friend. I say the following with great affection, he may have been the first “computer geek” in the media centers of professional racing. When I first met him he was lugging a box full of electronics, it was almost 30 years ago. Laptops had not been invented. I believe he had a Radio Shack Model TRS-80. There were no disk drives for it. He loaded programs with a cassette recorder. For a monitor he had a portable black & white television.

Amusement turned to amazement when he obtained live results of races in far flung venues. Back then it was published on Compuserve which was eventually taken over by rival AOL. There were no “internet service providers” available at the time. His Racing Information Service developed a cadre of hard working unpaid or underpaid reporters who transcribed press releases and uploaded live race results. Graphics? Forget about it. It was all text, but, the world became a very small place thanks to Hollander and his reporters.

At first race tracks, like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, scoffed at Hollander because it was an unknown media, and circulation numbers were unreliable. Credentials? Almost impossible, but Hollander soldiered on letting the slings and arrows of lack of professional recognition bounce off him like Teflon, long before Al Gore “invented the World Wide Web.” He didn’t have the status of the name reporters but he deserved it

You know how popular online chats are these days? Old hat to Mike. He was always beaming to me after a huge coup. Dale and Teresa Earnhardt came to his home, and because his office was not quite adequately set up, Dale did a live question and answer sitting on the Hollander family water bed unfortunately I’m not aware of any photos of that event.

Today the tangible forms of media are withering away in favor of immediate online news. It's not hype to say that Hollander was a pioneer in his field.

That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of his other accomplishments in public relations in the automotive field or work with professional media groups.

Moreover all of that wouldn’t do justice to this warm husband and father. He was a great friend to many the first to volunteer assistance whether it be professional, or to demystify the latest gadget or get you connected to the ‘net.

Both these wonderful people made my life covering auto racing a pleasure and they, certainly, are missed.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Top Formula One Engineer signed by Michael Waltrip Racing


Whitmarsh, Hallam and Ron Dennis
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Another big name in Formula One, even bigger than Juan Pablo Montoya, is jumping ship and will be coming to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series in 2009. While Steve Hallam is a name virtually unknown, in the United States, he’s considered the one of the leading engineers in that world-wide circuit and he’ll be joining Michael Waltrip Racing according to a highly-placed source at MWR who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Hallam, currently head of McLaren Mercedes Race Operations, engineered World Champions such as Brazil’s Ayrton Senna, Britain’s’ Nigel Mansell, and Mika Hakkinen of Finland. He leaves a huge operation with an annual racing budget, reportedly, in excess of $400 million the largest budget in the series for the two-car team.

Martin Whitmarsh, CEO of the UK-based McLaren, told reporters "Steve had been with us since 1990 and remains a hugely respected member of our team," Whitmarsh added, "I understand his desire to spread his wings, and I wish him well, but he will nonetheless be hugely missed." McLaren is one of the top team in Formula One.

Some ex-Formula One types have done well in NASCAR like Britain’s, Nick Hayes, who is the engine research and research director at Richard Childress Racing after being an engine designer for Cosworth for over a decade. Some of his expertise can be credited with helping Kevin Harvick win the 2007 Daytona 500.
Ken Howes, vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports, began his career in 1968 as a Formula One mechanic before being hired by HMS in 1985, and was Ken Schrader’s crew chief in 1992.

On the other hand Red Bull Racing tried a Formula One approach, in Sprint Cup in 2007, without much success. They hired NASCAR-regular Jay Frye in January as general manager and turned the team around.

Other teams have engineers who came from to NASCAR with a stop at IndyCar. The transition to the COT has made teams more desperate to gain an aerodynamic advantage on a car with fewer “gray areas.”

Hallam’s exact position is not defined as yet, according to the same source. Eric Warren will continue as vice president and technical director. An official announcement is expected by the end of the week.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

On the air on NPR

It's been awhile since the last update. Will be gearing up for more. Watch this URL in the next month.

I'm on a National Public Radio program concerning Long Beach and the end of the "Split".
Here's the link to the Boston University website for the radio show
"Only a Game"

http://tinyurl.com/5j737l

Go to the headline "Racing Together Again"
and click the ">" just below it.

The topic is the unification of the two open wheel auto racing
series based in Indianapolis. It runs about seven minutes.

See you in Indy?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Back to the future

Haven’t had a whole lot of time to add to the blog because – trumpets please – I’ve returned to work with the ESPN group, and in particular ESPN.com as a motorsports contributor.

Tuesdays are for my column on the humorous side of NASCAR.

If you missed it here’s a link to my take on the Tony Stewart signed, sweaty, towel auction.

http://sports.espn.go.com/rpm/notebook?page=notebookRundown20080225

Look on the left side of the page, below the podcast link.

I’ll be conducting an online chat, during most Sprint Cup races, on ESPN’s racecast. Just point your browser to www.espn.com and go to the NASCAR page. That will take you to the chat.

See you soon.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Observations from the bunker – a/k/a the Daytona International Speedway’s Infield Media Center.

Daytona Beach, FL

It’s ironic to travel 1,000 miles to cover NASCAR’s biggest event sitting in a room, without windows, and almost 200 of my closest friends. Even if you’ve been covering the event for 30 years the amount of activity is bewildering. It’s like being in Las Vegas without the one-arm bandits, bells ringing and free booze.

There are banks of televisions blaring with the racing cable channels coverage of the final days of practice. They are our only link to the outside world although the garage area is only steps away. If you a solo reporter there is constant anxiety about leaving one’s seat to go to the garage in case of missing an interview in the deadline room or nearby theater.

One of the fringe benefits is being in contact with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, and wheezing writers suffering from a classic case of the “Daytona Crud” although symptoms vary from person-to-person, and I’ll spare the readers from turgid details, just let’s say some of us have a bad case of the flu. I feel a little bit like the hero in the movie of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, instead of worrying about falling asleep, and being replaced by a pod person, I’m trying to hold my breath to avoid inhaling any nasty germs.

There is an endless supply of Coca-Cola, the new sponsor of the Speedway, so we can load up on caffeine and keep typing. Manufacturers reps are grinding their fingers to the bone transcribing the dozens of interviews. My workspace is piling up with these transcriptions and grid positions. A true case of information overload.

Many public relations reps whisper a little tidbit in your ear, either exchanging the latest “inside gossip” or a pitch to do an interview with their client.

Next door they’ve brought in some of the winner’s of the previous 50 races here, but, in the deadline room, manufacturers were trading comments with us.

The question is, how do you write something interesting without mentioning Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? No, he’s not doing anything wrong, to the contrary, since they unloaded his AMP/Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, he’s become the favorite to win the 50th running of the Great American Race. The problem is that everyone is writing about him, and, against conventional wisdom this writer just wants to write about something different.

Hey, anyone a Fellini fan? His movie, 8 ½, is about a seasoned director who has hit the wall, run out of ideas, that’s what’s going on today in my mind.

As a bonus for getting to the end of today's ramblings here's a link to an hysterical video spoof of wrestling, starring Juan Pablo Montoya.

Enjoy.

http://tinyurl.com/25hla4



Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads winners and losers in Gatorade Twin 150s

Daytona Beach, FL

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Even though he had to start from the back due to an engine replacement, he quickly moved to the front taking the lead for the first time on lap 18 in a swooping move. He seemed to be able to drive anywhere on the 2.5 mile high-banked Daytona International Speedway. With two wins in one week he’s certainly back as a contender and perhaps the leading contender to repeat his 2004 win.

Loser: Kurt Busch - This former Sprint Cup champion had an electrical problem in the Miller Lite Dodge which dropped him out of the race on lap nine. Although he’s locked in he will have missed an excellent opportunity to practice for Sunday’s race.

Winner: Car of Tomorrow - The much maligned new car, which proved to be a handful on Thursday, actually made for better racing, at least from the press box and television. Earnhardt admitted it’s a hard car to drive but “honestly, it has to look great on TV. It’s harder to drive, but aren’t we supposed to work harder. It sure is a handful in the car and it sure reminds me of old-style race cars.”

Winner: Brian Vickers With a deft save to keep his Red Bull Toyota Camry off the wall in turn two early in the race. He held together coming back to earn a starting position for the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

Winner: Joe Nemechek - Although he was Kenny Wallace’s teammate (and trying to race into the big event) he chose not to race Brian Vickers for position because he was already locked in. Pretty decent of this guy not to force the issue for just one spot on the grid.

Loser: Sterling Marlin. Winner here in ’94 and ’95, the 50 year-old, co-incidentally the same age as the race, failed to qualify.

Loser: French Canadian drivers - Jacques Villeneuve & Patrick Carpentier - Villeneuve, a World Champion in Formula One, and an Indy 500 winner, found the high banks of Daytona very unfriendly. He got loose, in turn four, when running near John Andretti then went low and then up into an unlucky Jamie McMurray and Dario Franchitti. Jacques had to race his way into the race. Now, he will have to go home, and worse, he still needs substantial sponsorship to continue. He had been running as high as 11th shortly before the accident.

Countryman, Patrick Carpenter, fought an evil-handling car which put his Dodge in the wall to end his shot at a debut in the Daytona 500.

Losers: Bill Elliott and the Wood Brothers. The former Cup Champion and NASCAR pioneers didn’t make the race on speed or the Duels. This is only the third time in the 50-year history of the Great American race that won’t have a Wood Brothers car (1960 & 1962 they didn’t make it.) They’ve won here four times, the last coming in 1976. Elliott, driving for a different team a the time, won the race in 1985 and 1987.

Winner – Dale Jarrett will start his 20th Daytona 500 thanks to fine teamwork of the Michael Waltrip Team. “Michael gave me a lot of good pushes,” said DJ, winner here in 1993, 1996, and 2000, but “we were good enough to make it even without it.”

Winner – John Andretti - a decision to take four tires on the final caution put the veteran in the field and it was a little sweet revenge on the BAM team which let him go in a last-minute preseason decision to put Ken Schrader in the car, but Schrader did not make the race making him a loser. It ended a 23-year streak of 500s for Schrader.

Winners: Denny Hamlin and the FedEx Toyota – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin gave Toyota its’ first Cup race win, although it was not a points race.

Winner: The very strong run of Reed Sorenson - the under the radar, but senior, driver at Target Chip Ganassi Racing resulting in a second-place behind Earnhardt, Jr.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Last year's Dayona 500 Winner, Kevin Harvick, reacts to Busch/Stewart probation

Daytona Beach,
A funny thing happened on the way to the 50th running of the Daytona 500. Last year’s winner, Kevin Harvick, has all but disappeared off the radar scope for now. We had a chance to discuss other things with him at an announcement that Cale Gale would drive the No.33 Rheem Chevrolet, part-time for Kevin Harvick, Inc. in the Nationwide series.

What’s coming off the keyboards in the windowless media center, steps from the Sprint Car garage, is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Hendrick motor woes, and has NASCAR’s probation of Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, served its’ purpose?

Again flashback to Brian France’s statement that NASCAR’s theme this year is back to the basics. It kind of gets under Harvick’s skin.

For those of you with a short memory Harvick was parked, banned, from a Cup race in Martinsville in 2002, for an incident in a truck race while he was on probation. At the time he was the first driver banned from a Cup event. Last year, Robbie Gordon, was forced to sit out the a race at Pocono for failing to follow NASCAR’s orders in a then Busch (now Nationwide) race in Montreal.

“I know that five years ago, I was the guy that was the whipping post,” Harvick said. “It’s different to come in and see the rules all of a sudden change. And as long as they’re consistent, I don’t have a problem with it.

“I think it should have been this way for a long time, and unfortunately, it cost me thousands of dollars to be true to myself, and when I was mad to be mad. I’m not smart enough to figure out what I said and trying to make the politically correct answer, so I’ve always just said whatever I want.

Luckily, it’s come full circle. Now they need those personalities and they need those people to be who they are. It’s a little bit funny.”

Despite the new policy nothing’s going to change Harvick who has been called “happy Harvick.”

“You’ve got the same old person,” Harvick said. “I hadn’t changed when there was penalties, and I’m not going to change when there are no penalties. “

The burning question remains where has NASCAR drawn the line on out-of-the car conduct.

Last week Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told me (okay and others on media day, but I’m in TV mode for a second) that no officials had spoken to him explaining the new looser rules enforcement policy.

Harvick agrees, “nobody spoke to me, I don’t really care what they have to say I’m going to say what I want if it’s not the right thing I’ll suffer the consequences, be wrong, or be right or reprimanded however it ends up. It just one of those things where I think you should be who you are anyway.”

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rings all around a NASCAR Championship


Above:Max Papis with Ken Howes,Hendrick Motor Sports vice president of competition.

Daytona Beach,FL
This is an amazing little story, about Championship rings, for a quiet day at DIS.

Before heading out to the NASCAR Media tour at Lowe’s I was talking with Max Papis, the Italian-born driver, who is another former open wheeler attempting to make the transition to NASCAR. In addition to his driving skills ranging from Formula One to a Le Mans challenging Corvette, he’s married to Tatiana Fittipaldi, the daughter of two-time Formula One champ and Indy 500 winner, Emerson Fittipaldi.

Papis, who can be emotional at times, was excited to tell me that he had been given a championship ring by Hendrick Motorsports for his contribution in testing the COT on road courses.

That made me very curious. It turns out that everyone, that’s 550 people (actually more) got a ring honoring Jimmie Johnson’s Sprint Cup (then called Nextel) title in 2007 in the Lowe’s Chevrolet.

Ken Howes, Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition, explained, “typically every full- time employee here gets a championship ring. That’s something Rick steps ups and does, then add on anyone who has contributed to the that effort. Max is one of them. He did a lot of work testing especially on the road course many laps at VIR (Virginia International Raceway) and Kentucky.” Howes added that David Green, who did yeoman-like work on the COT on ovals, was also given one of those priceless rings.

Papis said “it is an honor to be able to be part of the HMS family and give my contribution testing on the COT.I have been extremely impressed by the attention to details and by the great atmosphere that is in the team.

Before Christmas I went by the shop, sat down with Ken Howes, and while in converstion he passed me an envelope. I opened it and inside was a letter from Mr Hendrick. It said that thanks to the effort I put in in 2007 he was going to gift me with a Championship ring.”

He said tears welled up in his eyes.

Papis is scheduled to drive the #09 car for Phoenix Racing in the Sprint Cup series this year on the road courses and the #64 car for Rusty Wallace, Inc. on three road course races in the Nationwide Series.

As they say in Italian “saluti” to two class acts.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Rick Hendrick crack up the media

Daytona Beach, Fl

Late Saturday night, in the media center at Daytona International Speedway, felt more like a comedy club than a post-race interview.

Car owner, Rick Hendrick, who has had a personal life with as much drama as old Will Shakespeare could imagine, turned into a straight man for his newest driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who had just won the Bud Shootout. It was like a great weight had lifted off Hendrick who had suffered many personal tragedies in the past.

Fans and media alike had anticipated that the Bud Shootout would be a continuation of the back to the old days of rough and tumble driving after the Friday night fights involving Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart in night practice. Instead it was a pretty clean race.

In the media center Junior was asked if he thought there would be more leniency from NASCAR for aggressive behavior he responded “I think they’re going back to let us run over each other.” Then with a wicked look he added,“so, get ready, I’m going to walk around with my dukes up all day long. You got to watch both hands.”

Hendrick looked out at the audience, spied Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s vice president for corporate communications, and the NASCAR spokesman who addressed the Busch and Stewart altercation of Friday night and said “Jim, you want to come up here?”

Rethinking his statement Junior wanted to make something clear, changing the tone of his voice “all of it was a joke. Didn’t mean a word of it -- Jim.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Later Junior was talking about sending high fashion sunglasses to US troops in Iraq, again Mr. Hendrick said, slightly under his breath, “how about some Junior shirts?”

The best laugh came about after a serious question concerning the pressure to win at Hendrick. Junior said he didn’t feel pressured until after the checkered flag fell. He (Rick) said ‘do something different.’”

The only problem was Junior didn’t know how do a different kind of burnout. By the way it was a very good burnout. Still he was worried “I said ‘dang’” noting -- if he didn’t do something different -- Hendrick would be angry.

He really didn’t have anything to worry about, Hendrick interrupted again “ I don’t know why I said that,…it was kind of stupid wasn’t it?”

Other than the late hour it was a very amusing way to end the night, I made sure to tip the waiter on the way out.

Matinee –

Even a commercial press conference, usually one of the dullest events of the day, resulted in a laughs in the afternoon. The Gillette Young Guns program debuted their 2008 advertising campaign with a television commercial with WWE star John Cena, that promised to surpass their 2007 version.

That was the one where drivers woke up with Mohawk haircuts done surreptitiously by Ryan Newman. Newman, who had been one of shyer drivers in the garage, at least to some of the media, volunteered how last year’s was done. Body doubles (actually just the heads) of actors with similar physiques were cut and pasted the drivers.

Then a female reporter asked how difficult it was keeping their five o’clock shadows were hard to prevent. Newman looked out at the audience and blurted out in her direction “jealous?”

Hope that there are funny shows next Thursday.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Villeneuve's new manager/rainmaker Barry Green in Daytona garage

Daytona Beach
During the hour break between Saturday’s two Sprint Cup practice session is a time to get out of the bunker, a/k/a Infield Media Center, get a bite and walk over to the garage.

An old racing friend, Barry Green, was walking around unbothered by fellow media and fans, because he’s virtually unknown in the NASCAR community. The easy-going Green was Jacques Villeneuve’s car owner in the CART days when the French-Canadian won the championship and Indy 500 in 1995.

Green, a native Western Australian, sold his interest in the team to the Andretti Green Racing team in the IRL. His brother, Kim, is running the team along with Michael Andretti and Kevin Savorie. Green has been called out of retirement by Villeneuve to try to raise funds for Jacques attempt to race in this season in NASCAR. Just last week Craig Pollock, who was Villeneuve’s long-time business manager, bowed out of that arrangement due to a family situation in Europe.

Green said he’d never seen Villeneuve enjoy himself (despite the CART championship and a Formula One World driver’s title). Green admitted that he was a complete rookie in the NASCAR garage and was very impressed with the high level of car preparation. For the moment he’s got no title, but let’s just call him rainmaker. He’s been so busy he hasn’t had a chance to visit the Bill Davis Racing shop where Villeneuve’s Toyota Camry is based.

Dario Franchitti, who now drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, was a driver for Team Green and lost the CART driving championship Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999.

Villenueve was fifth fastest in morning practice.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Free speech? Well not exactly, just ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Daytona Beach,

Have the rules of conduct for Sprint Cup drivers changed, specifically, in post-race interview language?

Not according to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

“No, I don’t believe them. I don’t think anybody does,” said the driver making his Sprint Cupt debut for Hendrick Motorsports this weekend.

Then he added, rhetorically, “are we supposed to walk the line, and see where we step over it, and get fined when we go too far?

Just a few weeks ago, when NASCAR officials admitted that drivers needed more leeway in on-track conduct and speech. There was the promise of a return to a more colorful NASCAR as part of that presentation. To most of us - on the media tour - that meant we were, again, to expect drivers really say what was on their minds and not worry about the consequences.

Flash back to Talladega, October 2004, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. uttered a forbidden curse word in the moment of celebrating his win there. NASCAR officials slapped him with a $10,000 fine and 25-point penalty dropping him out of first place in the points standings.

That points loss hurt much more than the dollars.

Since then he’s been a lot more circumspect in his language and has not run afoul of NASCAR officials nor language police.

At media day, going into the 50th running of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt said NASCAR’s policy was all smoke and mirrors, for now.

“I think honestly they’re playing to you guys and not talking the drivers . I think…they’re trying to appear looser when the message has not been relayed to the driver as to what’s been changed,” he said.

Then he looked some of us, straight in the eye, adding “it’s just a press release; we’re going to do this. That was a just a little card game between you, two and really has nothing to do with the drivers. I don’t feel like I’ve been holding back.

And there’s words I don’t use that I have used in the past that I shouldn’t use on National television, for me I get to be the same. I don’t feel like I’ve had to reserve myself too much."

Don't you wonder who, if anyone, is going to test that new line drawn in the sand?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ray Evernham is not ready to quit NASCAR

Ray Evernham said that rumors of his retirement from NASCAR were greatly exaggerated.

After selling part of his business to the Gillett group (GEM) Evernham, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief who started his own team full-time with Dodge in 2001, admitted that racing is not fun any longer in an interview during the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour in Concord.

“Honestly, no, I wasn’t having fun,” he said, adding “it wasn’t just because of the (team’s poor) performance. There was a lot going on, over the last few years, that took the fun out of it for me because I love racing. Some of the fun had gone away, but, there’s a lot of great people in the sport and I want to spend time with those people and maybe being away from the negative people will help a little bit.”

Remaining in NASCAR’s top series was a battle he explained “it was a constant fight to keep people, to keep sponsors, to keep relationships in a in a highly competitive world not all things don’t always go well.

Being in the constant limelight, constant media where you can not live a normal life; it wears on you,” he said referring to press coverage of his personal life. “The competition on the track is the easy part,” he said with a smile, but weary look in his eyes.

Evernham said that since it took three people to take over his previous job, he was working too hard to accomplish his goals. For now he’ll remain an “owner” but have the freedom to chose what role he’ll continue with at Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Back to the basics, but when and how?

It did not come as a shock that there were no earthshaking announcements coming out from NASCAR officials yesterday, but what was shocking is that it took so long for series’ leaders to admit they’ve dropped the ball and overlooked the fans who brought the stock car circuit to its’ preeminent position in auto racing in the United States.

While the series is not in crisis, declining attendance and lower television ratings are good indicators that it’s time to change stock car racing’s main focus.

For one moment consider that any business, because NASCAR can call itself a sport, but it is a business, must continue to grow to continue to exist. On the other hand, those at the helm lost sight of a simple business rule: It’s more expensive to get new customers than keep existing ones. And, in losing existing customers the organization also overlooked the grassroot fans.

Prime time Saturday night Cup racing is a stunning sight on television, but, it puts a crimp on attendance at the short tracks that are the spawning grounds of young talent. In Concord we were told that the local promoters need to put up a big screen of the Sprint Cup event while the locals are racing. That sounds like a mixed message if there ever was one.

Hiring big, and not-so-big, open wheel names adds a touch of glamour to the series but, contradicts the idea of a farm system. Saturday Nationwide races, with big name Cup drivers, may help the bottom line of some race tracks, yet it hinders developmental teams and upcoming drivers.

The series can not have it both ways, if it is truly going back to basics first it must take the development, short track, Nationwide and Truck series more seriously and not look for short- term fixes.

If NASCAR is truly going back to basics it will take more than lip service to make things better. Too much is at stake to continue chasing the glitter instead of the gold.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Greetings

From time-to-time an opinionated view from the trenches of motorsports.
In the coming weeks this will be a place to read independent commentary.
Thanks for reading.
Lewis Franck