Monday, March 25, 2013

Don't Even Think About Repaving California Track

California provided the best racing of the year -- so far
California Speedway (okay, okay, Auto World Speedway) has finally come of age.

Like a grumpy old man, it is weathered and craggy.  Rutted and grooved.  It’s bumpy even on the straights.  And it’s more abrasive than Jack Lemmon ever hoped to be. 

And although the asphalt is worn and grey, it’s still fast.  Really fast. 

So don’t dare touch a thing.  Don’t even think about it.

Nothing has changed the face of NASCAR racing in recent years more than the resurfacing and reconfiguring of some of the classic tracks in the series.  No, not even the COT or Gen-6.  Repaving Daytona and Talladega made for silky smooth surfaces and gave birth to bumper tag and the two car tango and threaten to make the tracks unraceable.   Repaving and reconfiguring Bristol was so disastrous they tried to reverse the process.   Phoenix, Kansas and even Michigan, a sister track to California, have changed drastically since they were repaved – and not for the better.

California hasn’t been repaved since it opened for business in 1997.  There is some concern the track might be getting too rough, especially for IndyCar racing, which returned to the Speedway last fall for its championship finale.  Tough.  Take the money you’d spend on resurfacing and buy some more SAFER barriers.  Especially with the track running an IndyCar race, it should be ringed inside and out with SAFER barriers.

Sunday’s event was easily the best NASCAR race of the year and the best California race in many years.  It wasn’t just the finish that made it an instant classic.  There was close racing throughout, not always at the front, but cars were often three and four wide back in the pack as drivers struggled to find a groove that worked for them.  New tires actually meant something for a change.  Guys like Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, who hadn’t been up front all race, were suddenly mixing up with the leaders thanks to new Goodyears.

None of the drivers appear to be crying out for a pave job.  In fact, just the opposite.  Nearly all consider California and Atlanta, another track in need/not in need of pave job, as their favorite places to race.  Listen to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., after the race.  Besides wanting the back straight repaved (don't do it), he indicated the track is in its prime.

"I think the corners are perfect," he said.  "I wouldn't pave anything or change anything about the turns.  This is the age of asphalt that I think tracks strive for.  This is what places like Michigan and Phoenix look forward to, you know, when they get a good 10, 15 years on their asphalt.  This is really right in the ballpark, right in everybody's wheelhouse.  I think everybody that runs in the Cup garage really likes the surface.  It's just real bumpy down the back straightaway for some reason, and it doesn't have to be, and I think they can fix that with a couple lanes of asphalt on that outside toward the wall, and like I said, the corners, man, you couldn't ask for a better racetrack."

So now that the California track is finally coming into its own, please, please, please, don’t even think about repaving it.

The Races:  Thought the Joey Logano/Denny Hamlin wreck was the result of hard racing more than anything else.  Were both drivers running harder than they may have otherwise because of who they racing?  Probably.  But Logano certainly wasn’t trying to wreck Hamlin with the finish line in sight.  And Tony Stewart’s tirade at the end was laughable.  After he wrecked the field at Talladega last year with an ill-timed block attempt and then admitted it with a shrug, he no longer has any credibility in this area…The F1 race provided more than a little intrigue, along with some comic relief.  Sebastian Vettel won when he ignored team orders to hold his position and passed Mark Webber.  Webber was leading and backed off when the team told him to slow in order to save his engine, tires and gas.  “I didn't ignore it on purpose, but I messed up in that situation and obviously took the lead which, I can see now he's upset, but yeah, I want to be honest at least and stick to the truth and apologize,"  Vettel said.  "I know that it doesn't really help his feelings right now, but I think other than that, obviously a very good race for the team. To sum it up, apologies to Mark, obviously now the result is there. But all I can say is that I didn't do it deliberately.”  Wow, just think how many drivers Vettel can pass when he’s actually trying.  Vettel’s win was his 27th, tying him with Jackie Stewart for sixth all-time in F1.The comic relief was provided by Lewis Hamilton, who pulled into the McLaren pit box, forgetting for a moment he now drives for Mercedes…James Hinchcliffe scored a popular victory in the first IndyCar race of the year in St. Petersburg, Fla., making a nice pass for the lead when Helio Castroneves slid wide on a restart in the first turn.  But hopefully this is not the most exciting race of the year.

Monday, March 18, 2013

NASCAR's Most Powerful

Two of NASCAR's most powerful: Mike Helton and Rick
Hendrick.  Other guy is not on the list.
Sports Illustrated Magazine recently released its list of the 50 most powerful sports figures.  Brian France was 40th, behind the commissioner of every other major sport and several college conferences, half a dozen team owners, shoe company heads, several agents, multiple sponsors and the head of EA Sports – but ahead (by one position) of the two women who run sports marketing for Coca-Cola.  He was also well behind the only other racing related name on the list, Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, who was 22nd.

Even though Brian might be the guy heading the family that owns NASCAR and has a controlling interest in International Speedway Corporation (ISC), he’s not the most powerful person in NASCAR’s day-to-day operation.  Here’s my list of the most powerful people in NASCAR:

Mike Helton:  One of the last things Bill France, Jr., did – and one of the smartest things he ever did – was to name Helton president in 2000.  Through all of the sports troubles in recent years, Helton remains one of the most respected people in the garage area – if not the most respected person.  He understands both the competition and marketing sides of the sport.  You’ve got to wonder how NASCAR would be different if he was given complete freedom to run it.

The Frances:  Helton doesn’t have that freedom because the France family still owns the sport.  Brian is Chairman and CEO but at times seems detached.  Recent run-ins with Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin indicate as much.  At other times he seems more interested in bringing a NFL team to Los Angeles than he does with running NASCAR.  He’s also been busy with a high-profile divorce case and then trying to keep settlement records sealed.  Many think Brian’s sister, Lisa Kennedy France, CEO and vice chairman of ISC and vice chairman of NASCAR, is the real power (brains?) in the family.  Forbes named her the most powerful women in all of sports in 2009.  Jim France, the son of Bill France and brother of Bill Jr., is vice chairman and executive vice president of NASCAR and ISC chairman of the board, although he does not appear to be active in the day-to-day operations. 

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations.  Perhaps the most powerful person in NASCAR most people don’t know.  The first rule of crisis management is when it hits the fan, trot out your top guy to talk to the press.  But in the hours following the Nationwide crash at Daytona, it wasn’t Helton or a France out front, it was O’Donnell.  He didn’t (couldn’t?) say anything, but he was the guy in the chair. A NASCAR employee since 1996, O’Donnell has been rising through the ranks and may be in line to move into Helton’s role.

Robin Pemberton.  Next to Helton, who he reports to, no one is more visible publicly than Robin Pemberton.  He’s the vice president of competition and is the liaison between NASCAR and competitors in all three national series.  He also heads up the three arms of the NASCAR Research and Development Center – safety, competition and cost management.  Pemberton is racer, having worked as a crew chief for the likes of Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Kyle Petty.

Bruton Smith:  Controls Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns Charlotte, Bristol, Atlanta, Sonoma, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Texas tracks, Smith has long had a tenuous relationship with NASCAR’s leaders.  While the 85-year-old Smith has turned much of the day-to-day operation over to his kids, he remains very active.  Perhaps too active.  It was his suggestion last year to have commercial yellow flags or “time outs” to spice up the action.  Ironically, Smith also has been in news recently, saying he’d be interested in owning the NFL Charlotte Panthers football team.  He also owns Sonic Automotive, one of the largest auto dealership groups in the country and, like France, he has a net worth well north of $1 billion.

The owners:  When you talk about the most powerful car owners, there’s Rick Hendrick and all the rest.  Another big car dealer with more than 100 franchises, Hendrick has direct lines to both GM headquarters in Detroit and NASCAR’s HQ in Daytona Beach.  Jack Roush, as the lead Ford team, still probably ranks second, although his power has slipped in recent years.  And Joe Gibbs is third by default, as Toyota’s lead team, although he has never sought to be a NASCAR powerhouse.  After all these years Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are still seen as interlopers from open wheel racing and as long as they attend the IndyCar race on Sunday instead of a NASCAR race, they will remain that way.

The drivers:  Drivers are in a tough place.  Speak out (or just state the obvious) and your wallet could end up lighter.  As a result, drivers don’t have a lot of say – or power.  Jeff Burton used to be called the mayor of the garage, but his power has waned along with his performance on the track.  That leaves Jeff Gordon on top, followed by Tony Stewart, who gets a boost in his joint role as a team owner.  Both have spoken out at times, then retreated into their shells when NASCAR brings the heat.  The mantel is there for anyone who steps forward and I’m really hoping Brad Keselowski does.  NASCAR called him in and warned him after his comments to USA Today about the challenges the sport is facing, but he was dead-on.  While he doesn’t yet rank with Gordon or Stewart and probably half a dozen other drivers, he is the future of NASCAR and as such, may become the most powerful of them all.

The weekend’s races:  Thought the Cup race at Bristol was pretty good, the Nationwide race even better.  In an attempt to step up its game, Fox tried a few new things in its coverage, some of which worked, some of which didn’t.  Michael Waltrip wandering around driver introductions conducting interviews – not so much.  The grandstands were only two-thirds full on Sunday, however…The transitional year to a united sports car racing series could be a long one.  I’d been looking forward to Sebring, but not much drama or excitement there…The F1 race from Australia delivered with a good blend of racing and strategy.  It had the most passes for the lead in the race since 1971 and for any F1 race since 2010, although the passes were the result of pit stops.  Red Bull was outsmarted and outrun by Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus, which bodes well for the season.  Of course things started the same way last year… 



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

RIP Speed

Fox announced the passing of Speed last week.
In some ways I feel like I’m losing a friend, one who has been slipping away the past few years.  In many respects, Speed was a like a friend, providing many hours of enjoyment and entertainment.  I’ll mourn its passing when it becomes Fox Sports 1 on August 17.
I was an early adaptor to Speedvision when it was launched in the mid-'90s, paying the cable provider an added fee for the “premium” sports channel.  I wondered how a station devoted to racing could be successful, but it quickly become the fastest growing cable station of the day, with the highest per household male viewing audience of any cable network.  I was one of them.  When the TV was turned on Thursday-Sunday, chances are it was on Speedvision.  I stayed with the station when Fox bought it and changed the name to the Speed Channel and as it eventually became Speed.  Along the way it began showing NASCAR races and practice and seemingly endless talk shows devoted to stock car racing.  I even watched the NASCAR banquet.
Still, it was more than just NASCAR.  I watched a surprisingly large amount of the 24 hours races at Daytona and LeMans and virtually all of at least one 12-Hour Sebring event.  I watched endless hours of Barrett-Jackson and other car auctions.  And then there was Formula One.  Bernie and his band of bank robbers may have forsaken America, but Speed didn’t.  Before there was a DVR, there was early Sunday morning viewing parties for the F1 broadcast on Speed.  Ah, the good old days.
Now I’m afraid those days may be gone for good.  Fox has been building an impressive portfolio of sports properties including NFL and MLB, college football and basketball and soccer.  FS1 also will be able to tap into the 22 regional Fox networks for content.
The handwriting has been on the wall for some time now regarding Speed’s demise.  First the channel allowed the NBC sports channel to obtain IndyCar coverage without putting up much of a fight and then Formula One moved there too.  Thats when the rumors started about Fox wanting to challenge ESPN/ABC and compete with the sports networks being started by NBC and CBS.  Fox needed an outlet and Speed was it.  Speed is currently available in 80 million of the 100 million homes with cable or satellite connections and FS1 will bump that up slightly to 90 million for the August launch.  Fox, which charged cable and satellite operators an estimated 25-30 cents per household for Speed, is hoping to get more than a $1 for FS1. ESPN gets about $5, the highest rate in the industry.
Buried in the announcement was the fact Fox will shift at least some of its Sprint Cup coverage to FS1 beginning in 2015, which can't be good news for the sport's sagging TV ratings.  The Daytona 500 will remain on the flagship Fox network as part of the contract with NASCAR running through 2022, but it appears all of the other races are fair game.
Fox says there will be an emphasis on live programing and there’s every indication the Ultimate Fighting Championships and international soccer will play significant roles on the new network.    Live soccer matches from Europe and elsewhere are slated to eat up big junks of midday action, timeslots often filled in the past on Speed by NASCAR practice sessions of all sorts and an array of NASCAR talking head shows.
So what happens to all the automotive/racing oriented programing I watched for seemingly endless hours?  Fox says much of the programming will remain, although it’s vague on just where everything will fit.  Race Hub already is being bumped from its 6 p.m. time slot to a yet unnamed midday slot by Fox Football Daily.  That show will be preceded by Rush Hour, a sports talk show hosted by Regis Philbin.  Yup, that Regis Philbin.  A nightly sports news show will hold down the 9 p.m. time slot.
No word on the fate of Dave Despain and WindTunnel.  At its peak, WindTunnel was on for an hour at least four nights a week.  It was a place where race fans could gather and discuss the happenings of the previous weekend and take a look at the coming weekend.  But it’s been scaled back in recent years to where now it’s on for just 30 minutes on Sunday night a 9 p.m.  Despain has been seen on some of the NASCAR shows as a late and is a nice addition.  Let's hope there's a role for him.
There’s been a lot of talk in the past week about the need for a 24-hour NASCAR network to replace Speed.  No thanks.  There needs to be at least a semblance of credibility for me to watch a news show and after the events of the past couple weeks – the attempted censorship of the YouTube footage from the Nationwide wreck at Daytona and then Denny Hamlin’s fine for stating the obvious – I don’t’ think I could handle watching a NASCAR controlled network.
No, there will never be another Speed.  I’m happy just to have known it. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Touchy NASCAR Spanks Hamlin

Denny Downer says he won't pay fine
Guess the folks at NASCAR didn’t read my column earlier this week.  Or maybe they misread it.

So let me say it again.  It’s too early to panic about the lack of “racing” produced by the new Gen-6 cars after two races.

But NASCAR appears to have done just that, fining Denny Hamlin $25,000 “for action detrimental to stock car racing” on Thursday for stating what was obvious to anyone who watched the Phoenix race.  The race saw only 12 lead changes, only half of the number from a year ago, and most of those lead changes took place as a result of caution flags. 

“I hate to be Denny downer, but I just didn’t pass that many cars today,” Hamlin said after starting 40th but finishing third thanks to a dramatic last lap pass.  “We finished third and you think we just motored our way through the pack, and that’s just not the case of what happened.”

My, my.  Isn’t NASCAR getting touchy.  If that draws a $25,000 fine, maybe things are worse than we know. 

Hamlin says he won’t pay.  He shouldn’t.  He said he will appeal, but NASCAR will probably end up taking the fine out of a future paycheck.  But heck, Hamlin – who is known to like to play in Vegas – probably drops that on a bad night at the tables.

The real problem I see: by fining Hamlin for the mildest of criticisms, NASCAR is hurting its own credibility and simply drawing attention to a problem no one is really calling a problem yet.  Now when I read Jimmie Johnson singing the Gen-6 praises I’ve got to wonder; does he really feel that way or is it just Johnson kissing up to NASCAR? 

Even worse.  Now we have to listen to Darrell Waltrip talk about how great the Gen-6 car is weekend.

Monday, March 4, 2013

No Reason to Panic – Yet

So far, the Gen-6 cars are having a hard time passing
It’s not time to panic.  Not yet.  It’s not even time to be worried.  But the race at Phoenix is cause for concern.
For the second straight week the highly promoted and anticipated Gen-6 race car produced something less than an exciting race.  There were only 12 lead changes this past weekend, compared to 25 in the race a year ago.  Worse, most of those lead changes were the result of caution flags.  In fact, race winner Carl Edwards took the lead when he came in under the caution in fourth and beat Dale Earnhardt, Jr. out of the pits.  That was that.  Edwards led the final 78 laps.
After the race Denny Hamlin, whose last lap pass was the move of the race and got him into third place, didn’t have much good to say about the new cars. 
“I hate to be Denny downer, but I just didn't pass that many cars today,” Hamlin said.  “That's the realistic fact of it. You look and we started 40 something.  We finished third and you think that we just motored our way through the pack, and that's just not the case of what happened.
"Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you.  You could have placed me 20th with 30 to go, and I would have stayed there, I wouldn't have moved up. It's just one of those things where track position is everything."
Some said the spoiler was too small at Daytona, too large at Phoenix.  Others said the tires were too hard.  Fourth place Brad Keselowski said it was clean air – or lack of it.
"I think it’s probably more important than ever,” Keselowski said of the aero situation.  “I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves, and probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.  I think we can get that a little bit better and probably make them a little more difficult to drive by yourself, but a little easier to drive in traffic, we could have even better races than what we had today."
Rightfully, no one is calling for immediate changes to the Gen-6 car.  Among those asking for patience is Jimmie Johnson.  But remember, it was the No. 48 team that first got a handle on the Gen-5 Car of Tomorrow and the team seems to have a leg up on the new car as well.  He thinks more attention needs to be paid to track surfaces.
"It didn't seem a lot different than other races here to me since the reconfiguration,” Johnson said of Phoenix.  “I don't think the Gen-6 car has anything to do with it at this point.  The cars are equal, and when they're equal, you're going to have a situation like this. What we need now is the racetracks to consider the asphalt they're putting down and even reconfigure the lanes so that we have somewhere to race.
“I think next week in Vegas we have a track that has multiple lanes and we'll see some great side-by-side racing. The garage area and the teams and owners and the competition side of NASCAR have worked so hard to make these cars equal and we keep changing and jumping through hoops, new chassis, new bodies, new this, new that. The cars are equal and when they're equal you're going to have a situation like this. What we need now is the racetracks to consider the asphalt they're putting down and even reconfigure the lanes so that we have somewhere to race.
"I think we have a great product. It's going to continue to get better. One of the things that we've all recognized over the years is the faster we go, the narrower track gets, the harder it is to pass. Speeds will be up, especially when we get to the mile-and-a-halfs, so with all that being said, I think we need to leave the cars alone for a good 10, 20 years. Let the teams be. Right here on this blacktop there's a lot of work that can be done to help create better racing and keep the fans in the grandstands.”

Johnson’s right, we’ll know much more next week at Las Vegas, the 1.5-mile track similar to so many others on the NASCAR circuit.  Unfortunately, those tracks are often the ones most affected by aero conditions.  Perhaps realizing the situation, NASCAR has scheduled an extra day of pre-race practice.  It’s a shame NASCAR, the manufacturers and the teams couldn’t get it done during during the off-season.  Now fans will have will have to be patient while the Gen-6 car continues to be a work in progress. 

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 10 to 20 years.