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.


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.