Monday, August 26, 2013

Kahne Too Nice To Finish First?

Side-by-side but no bump-and-run for Kasey Kahne
Leo Durocher supposedly said it first.  “Nice guys finish last.”

Durocher, known as Leo the Lip, was a tough as nails baseball player and manager who retired in 1973 and died in 1991.  His Hall-of-Fame career still ranks in the all-time top 10 in games won as a manager – and in games ejected from by umpires.

More recently, the band Green Day put it slightly differently in a song, but the meaning is the same.

"Nice guys finish last.
You're running out of gas.
Your sympathy will get you left behind.”

Which leads to the question, is Kasey Kahne getting left behind?  Is he too nice to finish first? 

It happened again Saturday night in Bristol.  Kahne won the spring race at Bristol and clearly had the fastest car at the end of Saturday’s race.  But he couldn’t find a way past Matt Kenseth, who had drilled Kahne a couple of weeks earlier at Watkins Glen.  Kahne nudged Kenseth several times in the final laps, but it seemed more like an “excuse me” bump rather than the “move over, I’m coming through” bump Bristol has been famous for.  It was his fourth second place finish this year, three of them to Kenseth.

In the press room afterwards, third place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya, who has been known to put the bumper to a driver or two, admitted he dropped back at the end, expecting fireworks between Kahne and Kenseth – and disappointment when nothing happened.

“I was hoping they were going to wreck on the white flag to be honest,” Montoya said.  That’s what I call joking on the square.  He said it for a laugh, but he meant it.

Kenseth, however, didn’t seem surprised Kahne hadn't wrecked him, despite the Watkins Glen incident.

"Kasey's as good as they get and he's a clean driver," Kenseth said.  "Kasey has got a great reputation.  He's a really hard racer, really talented, and he's also a really fair racer as well."

For his part, Kahne was obviously dejected after the race, blaming himself for not finding a way to past Kenseth.  But he wasn’t apologizing for not employing the bump-and-run.

"I just didn't get it done. I had the better car.

At the end of the day I just don’t wreck people,” Kahne said, in stark contrast to Tony Stewart, who famously said he’d wreck his mom to win a championship.  “I’ve always really raced that way.”

Greatness has been predicted for Kahne since his first season in NASCAR in 2004.  He won six races in 2006, but was shutout the following year and hasn’t won more than two races in any season since.  He has two wins so far this year, is eighth in points and seems locked in for the Chase.  But the question remains.  Is Kahne too nice to win a championship?

Let’s hope not.  I have more respect for Kahne than ever and NASCAR needs a champion like him.  I just hope he isn’t goaded into wrecking someone to get that championship. 



Monday, August 12, 2013

Sprint Cars: The Ultimate Test

Even late in his career, A. J. Foyt continued to drive on dirt
What is it about sprint cars?  You can understand Tony Stewart loves to race.  But why a sprint car?  Many of NASCARs regulars drive in other races during the season, typically late model sportsman events.  But not Stewart, you’ll usually find him in a sprint car.  At least until he broke his leg in one last week, ending any chance at the Chase and possibly his season.

Stewart is a throwback.  His acknowledged hero is A. J. Foyt.  Many of the drivers from Foyt’s era considered sprint cars the ultimate test.  Small, lightweight, with engines now producing 700-900 horsepower, they have some of the highest power-to-weight ratios in racing.  Especially on a dirt track, where no two laps are the same and there is a constant maze of lapped traffic, there is no greater challenge.  Nor more dangerous.

Up until the mid-60s, success in a sprint car was the final step before reaching the big time.  Of course the “big time” back then was champ car racing, a bigger version of the sprint car that raced in the Indianapolis 500.  Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, and many of the top drivers from the 1950s and ‘60s came up through the sprint car ranks.

Rutherford is a good example.  He was running sprint cars, mostly on dirt, when Smokey Yunick spotted him and offered him a ride in a special stock car he was building for Chevrolet to run at Daytona in 1963.  Rutherford had never driven on an asphalt track of more than a half mile at the time.  But he went to Daytona and set a new closed course speed record in qualifying and won his first NASCAR race, one of the Daytona 500 qualifying events. 

That success earned him an invite to Indianapolis and he won his first champ car race later that season.  But like most drivers of the day, he continued to drive sprint cars and that nearly ended his career.  After winning the 1965 USAC sprint car championship, Rutherford seemed on the verge of joining the elite in Indy cars when he headed for an April sprint car race at Eldora Speedway, the track now owned by Stewart.  He was the first driver to top 100 mph and held the track record when he was involved in a terrible crash, breaking both arms and suffering a serious head injury that knocked him out of that year’s Indy 500.  While he returned to racing in 1967, his rapid rise slowed and it it wasn’t until 1974 that he won the first of his three 500s.

1966 was a terrible year for sprint car racing.  In June, Jud Larson was killed along with Red Riegel in a race at Reading, Penn.  In November two more of the best drivers on dirt, Don Branson and Dick Atkins, were killed in a crash at Los Angeles’ famous Ascot Park.  But despite the deaths, two weeks later the drivers were back on a dirt track for the annual Turkey Night Grand Prix, Parnelli Jones beating a field including many of America’s top racers.

Bobby Unser, who’s success on dirt was born on Pike’s Peak and carried over to sprint cars, tried to explain to me awhile back how drivers are able to keep going following such tragic events.  Unser went on to win the Reading race after Larson and Riegel were killed.

“Jud Larson was one of my heroes,” Unser said.  “He was magic on dirt.  Everybody wonders how you keep racing when you just lost two guys 10 feet from you.  Well it’s not hard.  It’s the way I lived.  We’re race drivers.  It’s what I did.  Did I like to see Jud Larson get killed?  Lordy mercy no.  Did it bother me?  Yeah, but it didn’t show.  And somebody’s gonna win that race.  I needed the money and I’m there to race.  I’m a race driver.  We all lived that way.”

A couple of things changed the importance of sprint cars.  First, champ cars moved from front-engine to rear-engine machines.  Car owners started looking for drivers experienced in rear-engine race cars, which in many cases were road racers.  Success in a front-engine sprint car was no longer a guarantee of success in a rear-engine Indy car.  Steve Kinser is a perfect example.  Probably the greatest sprint car driver of all time with 20 series championships and hundreds of feature win, Kinser failed in attempts at both Indy and NASCAR.

The tire wars also exploded about the same time, Goodyear and Firestone spending huge dollars to sign drivers to their brand and the companies took a dim view of drivers risking their lives in sprint cars.  Dirt track racing, at least at the top levels of USAC and NASCAR, faded away.

Of course not all of the top drivers abandoned sprint cars, most notably Foyt.  In fact, when his rear-engine car failed to show up in time for a 1965 race at Milwaukee, he unloaded the dirt track car he had won a race in the night before, qualified on the pole and then led before having to stop for fuel, the rest of the field being able to finish without stopping.

Of course Foyt was – and is – a unique case.  Much like Stewart.  And he was one of the first to leap to Stewart's defense. 

"He ain't no prima donna and life is short, and we don't know how we are going to die or what's going to happen," Foyt told the Associated Press following Stewart’s crash.  "I just hate to see anybody badmouth Tony for anything he's doing, and if they are, they are just jealous. People saying he's putting his businesses at risk?

"Tony is a true racer," Foyt said. "That's one thing I respect about him. A lot of them people go to NASCAR and become a kingpin in one type of car. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, they all were sprint car and midget cars drivers first, like Tony, and Tony still is a sprint car driver and it's a shame he got hurt. But I don't see where someone can condemn him for it."

Rutherford, Foyt, Unser and their contemporaries went sprint car racing partly because they loved racing, but partly because they needed the money.  Ironically, Stewart and his contemporaries can’t go sprint car racing because there’s too much money at stake. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

What NASCAR Should Do With All That Money

Ford has been using NASCAR to promote EcoBoost engines 
The final pieces of the NASCAR television contract puzzle have been put in place with Fox adding three Sprint Cup races and the first half of the Nationwide series beginning in 2015.  Fox also extended its recently signed new contract by two years, meaning the Fox and NBC deals will run concurrent through the 2024 season. 

The Fox deal is now worth an estimated $3.8 billion compared to the $4.4 billion NBC is spending, the peacock network ponying up a little extra for the right to televise the Chase races.  That works out to about $820 million dollars a year, $25 million a race weekend, or about double what NASCAR is currently collecting.  It is the culmination of a series of brilliant moves by Brian France to secure the financial future of NASCAR and its key partners (the tracks and team owners) for the next 10 years.  And secure it in a very, very, comfortable way.

The financial bonanza presents an interesting dilemma for NASCAR and friends.  What to do with all that money. 

There are a couple of choices.  They can simply take the money and put it in their pockets.  Hey, they earned, right?

But here’s a novel idea.  Invest it in the sport.  Take some of that money and make NASCAR relevant again – before it becomes completely irrelevant.  Before it becomes nothing more than a made-for-TV sideshow.  I’m not talking cutting a race or two here; or adding a road course or dirt track race there.  Or putting in wider seats and video boards, although cheaper tickets would be a nice touch. 

I’m talking about making a real investment in the future of the sport and the auto industry.

During the next 12 years, including the 10 years covered by the new NASCAR television contracts, the auto industry will go through enormous changes.  Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are set to nearly double by 2025, to 54.5 miles per gallon, from the current 29.7 mpg standard.  Greenhouse gasses will need to be cut in half.  That’s easily the greatest increase in standards since they were first established in the early 1970s.  It’s estimated the regulations will increase the cost of the average vehicle by several thousand dollars.  Supporters of the legislation say the added cost will be more than made up for in gas savings over the life of the vehicle.

Currently only the Toyota Prius and similar hybrids, meet the 2025 standards.  The V6-powered Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Impala or Malibu will have to nearly double current fuel economy levels.  V8 engines such as the one in mythical Chevy SS?  Forgetaboutit.  You may be able to find a V8 engine in something like a Corvette in 2025, but you’re gonna pay a huge premium. 

To meet the new standards, the industry will undertake a decade of development and innovation unmatched in its history.  One Toyota executive recently went a step further, saying we’ll see more changes in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the previous 100.  That’s a lot of innovation.

We’re going to see electric cars, hybrids, turbocharging, lightweight materials, improved aerodynamics, direct injection and continuously variable automatic transmissions.  More vehicles will be powered by alternate fuels, including diesel, natural gas and hydrogen.

NASCAR has an opportunity to do something it has never really done in the past, play a role in the development of these technologies.  NASCAR Cup cars have been using the same basic 358 cubic inch V8 engine regulations since the ‘70s.  It was only last year that fuel injection finally replaced carburetors, decades after it had become commonplace on production cars.  NASCAR’s main nod to the ecological movement has been the adaptation of ethanol fuel, which has since lost favor with environmentalists and the government.   

IndyCar began using V6 turbo engines last year.  Formula One currently uses normally aspirated V8s, but will move to a V6 turbo formula next year, the first time in 25 years that we’ll see turbos in F1.  Ford has already started using NASCAR as a marketing platform for its line of EcoBoost engines, which a V6 turbo, but no V8s.

So a move to V6 engines seems like a no-brainer – and an absolute must if NASCAR hopes to remain relevant.  NASCAR will point out it tried optional V6 engines 20 years ago in the Nationwide series (then Busch) but abandoned the experiment in 1995.   No options this time around.  A V6 will be a must.  And make it with direction injection.

But why stop there?  F1 allows a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), a type of hybrid system that recovers kinetic energy generated under braking, stores it at a capped level and turns it into additional power, a sort of press to pass button used in IndyCar.  Hybrid technology is expected to be the No.1 source for improving CAFE, so why not make NASCAR a showcase for hybrid development? 

Aerodynamics will play a very visible role in hitting the fuel economy marks.  NASCAR says it is already working on the Gen 7 car.  Get rid of the splitter.  Get rid of the spoiler.  Give the manufacturers back their identity.

A shift to CVT automatic transmissions would probably be even more controversial than a move to V6 engines.  But why not?  NASCAR currently used the same 4-speed manual transmission it has been using for, well, forever.  Can you even get a 4-speed manual on a production car?  Outside of Pocono, the two road courses and starts, NASCAR drivers don’t do much shifting.  Racing would be a tremendous test for the CVT and could play a big role in its development.   

Parity has always been a big issue for NASCAR and one of the arguments against innovation and technological advancement.  Somewhere along the line NASCAR decided innovation was a bad idea and that status quo was the target.  Keep everyone fat and happy.

Only how much parity do we currently have?  If the Chase were to start this coming weekend, we’d have four Hendrick Motorsports cars and two other Chevys making up half the field.  Chevy has won 10 races this year.  Ford has two.  Call that parity?

Cost, however, has always been the main issue when it comes to innovation.  The argument against new engines is that such an undertaking would be too expensive.  Well here’s the perfect opportunity to make the move without digging too deeply into anyone’s savings.

The auto companies already spend anywhere from $100 to $125 million each in NASCAR.  Most of that money comes from their advertising budgets.  They could shift some of that money from marketing to development, but additional funds would need to come from somewhere.  That’s where the television contracts come in.  Take a portion of that money and put it towards offsetting the costs associated with bringing NASCAR into the 21st Century.  

Heck, take a lot of it.  The future of the sport is at stake.  Here’s an opportunity to secure not only the financial future of the sport, but the sport itself.

Otherwise, 10 years from now, there won’t be a bidding war to televise a parade of dinosaurs.