Monday, October 28, 2013

Keselowski Needs His Head Examined

When NASCAR finally announced last week that it will require concussion baseline testing for all drivers prior to the start of the 2014 season, it met with a great deal of support from drivers.    

By making the tests mandatory, NASCAR joins virtually every other professional sport, college and high school programs and even many little leagues.  IndyCar and sports car racing have long required the testing.

“If you care about your well-being and your health and quality of life, it’s a smart move to embrace,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  It was Earnhardt who brought the question of concussion testing to the forefront in NASCAR last year after he ran several races with concussion-like symptoms that he kept to himself.  Only after getting his bell rung a second time did he bring it to the attention of a doctor, who sidelined Earnhardt for two races, eliminating any chance he might have had in the Chase.

But not everyone agrees with Earnhardt.  One voice in particular has stood out against the testing and it’s a loud one, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

"Doctors don't understand our sport," Keselowski said.  "They never have and they never will. Doctors aren't risk takers. We are. That's what makes our sport what it is and when you get doctors involved, you water down our sport. I'm trying to be open-minded to the possibility that they can help us, but past experience says no."

Keselowski has been criticized in the past by some of peers for being a little too outspoken at times.  I’ve defended him in those instances, but not this time.  Keselowski needs to have his head examined.

In some ways Keselowski does have a point.  The science of baseline testing is far from fool proof.  NFL players have talked openly of gaming the tests, dumbing down their response times and other factors to make it easier to pass during a game.  And the tests are open to interpretation by the administrator. 

It remains to be seen how NASCAR will handle the at-track testing if needed during a race or practice session.  To do it right, there should be one person responsible for the testing that remains consistent from track to track throughout the season.   But unlike IndyCar and Formula One, NASCAR does not have a dedicated safety team.  Each track is responsible for supplying the safety crew.  Let’s hope they make an exception for concussion testing.   

Keselowski also tweeted “my health = my responsibility.”  What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the doctors are worried about more than just his health.  They’re also worried about the safety of the other 42 drivers sharing a track at 200 mph with someone suffering from a concussion that may impair their judgment. 

Earnhardt, who gave Keselowski his first big break in NASCAR, just shakes his head when told of his friend’s reaction.   

“I don’t understand any concerns like that. Going through what I went through I don’t understand that.  I think that you have to know how the test is taken and how the test is scored and how you are evaluated in the retest. It’s not two plus two equals four and ‘oh well you chose three you are out.’  There is no right or wrong answers…when I was concussed, my grade was dramatically lower, not just a few points.  It’s not a guess for a doctor when they see an individual that is concussed on the test results.  There is no gray area.”

Dale's right.  Come on Brad, take the test.  It's a no brainer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chevrolet Playing Hardball

A new No. 3 should join Chevrolet ranks in 2014
Forget hot dogs, baseball or apple pie.

Chevrolet is playing hardball.

We saw it at Charlotte, with Chevys qualifying in eight of the top 10 spots.  Four of the top six were the Hendrick cars.  Only a fluke caution kept Jimmie Johnson and the bowtie brigade out of Victory Circle.

At Talladega, Chevys were running 1-2-3 down the backstretch on the last lap and finished one-two.  No fluke this time.  With just four races left in the Chase, Chevrolet is showing its muscle.  Johnson took the driver’s championship lead and Chevrolet extended its margin as manufacturer’s champion.  Chevy has won the NASCAR manufacturers championship 36 times and now seems well on its way to 37.  Even if Matt Kenseth recovers to win the driver championship, it is unlikely Toyota will be able to catch Chevy.

Chevrolet already has its sights set on next year.   Stewart-Haas doesn’t add a fourth team, no matter how deep the pockets of Gene Haas, without an okay from the General.  And Germain Racing doesn’t make the move from Ford to Chevy and Earnhardt Childress Racing engines without the same nod.  JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 appears headed from Toyota to ECR.  And now it appears Jeff Burton will join Tommy Baldwin Racing, making it a two-car Chevy entry.  Meanwhile, there appears to be no teams ready to move to Ford and Toyota.  And of course Michael Waltrip Racing is down to two cars.

It goes beyond NASCAR.  Despite winning a driver’s championship for Scott Dixon, Ganassi Racing will be flying the Chevrolet colors next year in IndyCar, trading in the Honda engines it used this year.  And don't be surprised if Ganassi is running a Chevy a in the new road racing series, dropping BMW.

It's been an impressive couple of months for Chevrolet.  The Division's latest advertising theme is Find New Roads.  Maybe they should consider switching to Find New Teams.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

NASCAR Announces (Yawn) 2014 Schedule

Lady in black gets a new date for 2014
NASCAR released its 2014 schedule this week and the big news is – there is no news.

There had been all sorts of rumors and wishful thinking about next year’s schedule after its release was delayed well past the normal timing.  There was talk of adding a third road race to the schedule and adding a road race to the Chase.  Maybe shake the Chase races up for a little more variety.  Change the finale from Homestead to Phoenix.   Some even thought NASCAR was considering moving the Darlington race back to its traditional Labor Day weekend spot of bygone years.

The delay was the result of NASCAR and its past and future television partners trying to work out a deal where Fox and NBC would take over the broadcasts next year, rather than in 2015 as the new contracts stipulate.  That worked out about as well as the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling.  When the talks failed, so did any hope of making meaningful schedule changes.

As a result (drum roll here) the big change is that Darlington and Kansas will pretty much swap weekends.  Darlington will move its race to early April while Kansas will take over the Saturday night before Mother’s Day on the schedule.   Both tracks are owned by International Speedway Corporation (which is controlled by NASCAR), so it was an in-house decision.  

Yup, that’s right.  NASCAR’s original superspeedway, a favorite of fans and drivers, had to give up its date yet again, this time for the Kansas track drivers just two weeks ago called treacherous. Once again the series turned its back on tradition and its core fans for a few more butts in Kansas seats. 

For many years NASCAR didn’t race on Mother’s Day.  But with the series looking to expand to new markets, Darlington lost its Labor Day weekend race to California.  It eventually lost its second race altogether and was offered a spring race on Mother’s Day weekend.  Take it or leave it.  

The track took on the challenge and focused on making it a mother friendly event.  Many of the NASCAR moms and wives made the relatively easy trip from Charlotte to Darlington for the race.  The strategy worked, with four straight sell-outs.  Now all that hard work is out the window.

April.  In Darlington.  At night.   Burrrr.  Good luck.

Kansas can’t be expected to entice many of racing’s moms and wives out from Charlotte who don’t already make the trek.  Not that it really matters.  The success Kansas has enjoyed the past couple of years has everything to do with the building behind Turn Two.  The Casino.

As for future schedule changes, wait 'til next year.

“As you look ahead to 2015, there will be some more opportunities on the horizon,” said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. 

“I know fans have talked about a road course in the Chase.  We'd never rule that out. Under our current schedule, that's very challenging for us to do.  If you asked both of those road courses, I think they have a pretty successful thing going on right now.  We're very happy with where those dates fall as well.  It's certainly something we look at, but it's not as easy as just flipping the switch and moving one.  There's a lot of things that come into play with weather, TV calendars, travel.  So it's something that we're taking a bigger look at every year.  I think that we're more open than we've ever been to looking at those things.”

The big news from NASCAR’s POV is that the hyped Air Titan track drying machine will be at every race next year.  And why is that news?  Because the Titan wasn’t available at several tracks this year. 

Great/  With any luck, maybe it will rain in Kansas on Mother’s Day.    

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

No Rush From Rush

Hunt and Lauda story could have been better 
Finally went to see Rush, the Formula One racing movie from director Ron Howard.

Maybe I wanted to like it too much, because I was disappointed.   My wife, on the other hand, liked it very much.  She’s not a big race fan and enjoyed the back story.

As a racing fan since the mid-60s, I was familiar with the racing side of the James Hunt-Niki Lauda story depicted in Rush.  The movie focuses on the 1976 season when Hunt and Lauda battled for the world championship and then Lauda battled to return following a fiery accident.

It wasn’t easy being a F1 fan back then, before Speed Channel and the internet made information instantly available.  If you were lucky there was a sentence or two in the Monday newspaper about the race and some agate type with the order of finish.  If a driver had died in the race, which happened all too often, it might be mentioned on the nightly sports cast. 

But for more information you had to wait at least a week for National Speed Sport News or AutoWeek and Competition Press, to be delivered in the mail.  And once a month Road & Track would bring you a more detailed account of each F1 event.  But never with the back room story provided in Rush.

Those who traveled the F1 circuit in the mid-‘70s say the animosity between Hunt and Lauda is overplayed in the film, that they had a great deal of respect for each other, and were actually much closer than the film depicts.   But then friction makes for a better movie.  I get that.

What really disappointed me about Rush was the racing.  It was surprisingly s-l-o-w.  At times the cars and the racing seemed in slow motion – even when it wasn’t.  Replica cars built on junior formula racers were used in many of the racing scenes and it shows; they look boxy and bulky.  The occasional use of computer generated graphics was easy to spot, and often downright hokey. 

The first few minutes of the movie, the start of the race where Lauda crashed, were terrific.  The racing – and especially the sound, was great.   Then the movie downshifted into flashback/backfill mode.  It got quieter, even the race scenes.  I finally asked my wife if something had happened to the sound.  And that’s the way it was until the end of the movie, during the final racing scenes for the championship, which were as exciting and well-done as the opening minutes.

The two best racing films of all-time, Le Mans and Grand Prix, remain alone atop the category.  The race scenes, especially in Le Mans, never seemed slow, not even in slow motion.  They remain unmatched. 

Fortunately, Rush is much better than Days of Thunder.  And it’s a hundred times better than Driven, Sylvester Stallone’s IndyCar fiasco that may forever go down in history as the worst racing movie ever.   Of perhaps the worst movie, period.

But if you’re standing in line at one of those mega-theater movie complexes this weekend with only enough entertainment dollars in your wallet to see one movie this month, go see Gravity.  You won’t be disappointed.   

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Racing's Top Woman Driver? Think Again

Simona de Silvestro
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

For several years now, the answer has been Danica Patrick.  But that may be changing.

Simona de Silvestro recorded her second straight top five finish and first podium in the opening race of the IndyCar doubleheader this past weekend in Houston.  What’s even more impressive, she manhandled her car around the roughest track on the IndyCar circuit, in sweltering 90-degree heat, on her way to the second place finish.   

“We've been waiting for this for a long time,” Silvestro said afterwards.  "It seemed like a pretty good car the whole weekend.  I qualified up there, and then the race went actually pretty good."

Patrick, in contrast, triggered a first lap, first turn accident at Kansas and finished last, probably her low point of the year, perhaps her professional career.

“All I can say is that I didn't try and do anything,” a somewhat mystified Patrick said.  “I just found myself sideways in the middle of the corner and that was it."

To be fair, it hasn’t been a bad year for Patrick.  She probably exceeded any expectations for the year when she won the pole and finished sixth in the Daytona 500.  She’s been impressive in several other races, especially Martinsville, and has four top-15 finishes.  And Patrick is still the only woman to win an IndyCar race.

Although the Swiss-born Silvestro isn’t unattractive, she isn’t in Patrick’s league when it comes to swimsuit issue looks or media savvy.   But she is quickly gaining on Patrick where it really counts, on the racetrack, and is clearly the best of the four women drivers competing on the IndyCar circuit.  And her courage in the aftermath of two fiery accidents has already made her a fan favorite for other reasons.

Silvestro has been racing in the U.S. since 2006 and broke into the big-time in 2008 when she won the Formula Atlantic race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.  She followed it up the next year with four wins in the series, making the jump to IndyCar in 2010 and earning Rookie of the Year honors in the Indianapolis 500.  She’s probably still best known for a fiery accident in the next race at Texas in which safety teams were slow to respond and she finally ended up hauling herself out of the was burning car.  She was impressive at the start of the 2011 season, with 4th and 11th place finishes to open the year.   She was fast at Indy until a suspension failure threw her car into the fencing and she once again suffered burns to both her hands.  She courageously qualified a backup car, but suffered problems again in the race.  Last year was a season to forget, as the team struggled with an underpowered Lotus all season.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Penske Wins; Fans Lose

Just two of Ryan Newman's paint schemes this year...
The most surprising news from last week’s announcement that Miller Lite has re-upped with Penske Racing for four more years – through 2017 – wasn’t the renewal.  After all, not many sponsors have an opportunity to see their driver slurping their product from a monster mug after winning a championship.

It’s not even that Miller, which had been one of the few full-season sponsors remaining in NASCAR, will be cutting back to only 24 races next year.

No, the real surprise is that the cutback was apparently Roger Penske’s idea.

"We looked at going into markets twice, in fact, it was my idea,” Penske bragged.  “Let us have those markets we go into a second time and give us a chance to bring in another world-class company. We have a number of people very interested in getting on with Brad."

Miller insists it will spend the same amount of money next year in NASCAR by increasing its at-track activation – things like the fan midway.  Maybe run a few more commercials.  Great. 

Penske is banking on (and he must already have it in the bank) being able to replace Miller with a sponsor (or several sponsors) willing to spend even more money for those 12 races than he would get from the beer company.

Everybody wins, right?

Wrong.  The fans lose.

Sponsor continuity has all but disappeared in NASCAR and that’s shame.  It used to be that you couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard.  Now you can’t even tell the players with last week’s scorecard.

Is the Blue Duce your car?  Well forgetaboutit.  If they’re very lucky, maybe fans of the No. 2 car will also be able to cheer for the Grey Goose next year.

I understand that teams and sponsors have had to adjust to the realities of today’s economy and that multiple primary sponsors has become the reality for most teams.  Nobody had more paint schemes this year than Ryan Newman, with eight different primary sponsors.  And even those sponsors changed their graphics from week-to-week. 

But I don’t understand why Penske, one of the richest men in America, would want to do it on purpose for a little more money.

Humpy Wheeler, long considered one of the best promoters in NASCAR, told me a while ago that multiple primary sponsors was one of the big disconnects between the series and its fans. 

“You need a GPS to find Dale Earnhardt (Jr.),” Wheeler said.  “One week he’s in the National Guard car.  Last week he was in the AMP car and next week he’s in the Mountain Dew car.  There’s no continuity.  The NFL doesn’t let you change uniforms.  Even if it’s a nostalgia type thing, the Chicago Bears are the same color, week in and week out.”

He’s got a point. 

I wonder if dumping a sponsor can be considered conduct detrimental to the sport?


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bowyer Gets a Break; Truex Gets the Shaft

No good news for Truex
Clint Bowyer finally caught a break.  Not so Martin Truex Jr.

After being on the receiving end of fan and peer scorn since putting his car into a slide and altering the outcome of the Richmond race and Chase field, the formerly popular and well-liked Bowyer finally got some good news last week. 
Sponsor 5-Hour Energy drink is sticking with him and Michael Waltrip Racing in 2014 after putting their support under review in Richmond’s aftermath.  He also receive support from several drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jimmie Johnson.

It was a quick reversal for 5-Hour.  After initially saying “we’ll see how the year plays out," before making a decision on continuing its relationship with MWR and openly questioning the integrity of the team, the company did an about face and announced prior to Dover that they would be back season with Bowyer. 
For Truex, the driver who has suffered the most and had the least to do with the MWR shenanigans, the news wasn’t so good.  Having already lost NAPA sponsorship (rather MWR lost the sponsorship), Truex heard team co-owner and money man Rob Kauffman say he wasn’t inclined to pay for the No. 56 car out of his own pocket, as Gene Haas has said he will do for the Kurt Busch at Newman-Haas Racing. 

"I'm in a lucky position," Kauffman said at Dover. "If the team breaks even and is competitive, I'm happy. I'm lucky enough I don't have to get my living from NASCAR. But it has to be commercially viable."

Lucky for Kauffman.  Not so lucky for Truex.

With an estimated net worth of about $2 billion (yup, that's a "b") according to Forbes, Kauffman could certainly foot the bill if he wanted to.  And he should have a little spare change.  An investment banker who co-founded the Fortress Investment Group, Kauffman, 50, retired and cashed out late last year to the tune of about $150 million in order to avoid increased capital gain taxes.  He couldn’t have been too concerned; he left another $100 million in his account.
He owns a successful car restoration company in Charlotte, RK Motors, which has served as a “fill-in” sponsor this year on the cars of Bowyer and Brian Vickers.  But while the cars may have had RK Motors on their quarter panels, the money clearly came out of Kauffman’s own pocket.  The past couple of years he also has self-funded a Ferrari in the Daytona and LeMans 24-hour endurance races that he co-drove along with Waltrip and Vickers.  So the money is there, if Kauffman wants to dig.
Waltrip himself has said all the right things about wanting to keep Truex, but in the next breath says he won’t stand in his driver’s way if he wants out.   Thanks Martin, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  While Truex will certainly be paid for the next two seasons, he is in his prime and wants to race.  Furniture Row is looking for a driver and might be interested in Truex.  Who knows, perhaps with NADA sponsorship.  Let’s hope so.
And just to add a little salt to the wound, Miller Lite announced Wednesday it was extending its sponsorship of Penske Racing and Brad Keselowski for four more years, through the 2017 season.  Penske has been in NASCAR’s doghouse more than any other team this year and in my way of thinking, committed the biggest crime in the Richmond race, which has gone unpunished. 
No bad deed goes unrewarded.  Or something like that.