Frontstretch Special Report · Bryan Davis Keith · Wednesday March 11, 2009
At Fontana just a few short weeks ago, millions of NASCAR fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. After offseason talk there wouldn’t be enough teams to fill the field in each of its top three divisions, the Cup, Nationwide, and Truck Series divisions all had enough cars to fill an entry list for the second race of the season.
But beneath the surface, all was not as healthy as it seemed. While Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Carl Edwards were there to win the race per usual, the reasons some cars and drivers showed up were far different than what you’d want to believe as a race fan. These teams – nestled within the middle and back of NASCAR’s starting fields — were there not to compete, but to turn a healthy profit, all while padding the sport’s bottom line in the process.
For these organizations – which have comprised up to 20 percent of the Truck Series field in some races – their version of competition is to slowly take a qualifying lap around the race track, making the starting lineup in the back of the pack – only to pull the car off the speedway in the first few laps of the race, what’s known in racing circles as the dreaded “start and park.” In doing so, they bring an undamaged car in the garage area, make off with tens of thousands of dollars in purse money, and ensure the sport collects its most important lifeline of all … cold, hard cash.
“The deal NASCAR has with television, if there’s 42 cars [at the track] they’ll go out and tell somebody pull out your backup car, find a driver,” an anonymous Nationwide Series pit crew member told Frontstretch. According to the team, who is being kept anonymous to allow them to keep their place in NASCAR, the sanctioning body loses television money if they show up to the race track without 43 cars capable of making the starting lineup.
“They won’t lose that bonus money for having a full field,” the pit crew member continued. “They don’t care if they have to put decals on their pace car and get it out there for a lap.”
That panic attack – combined with the weakness implied by having a less than full field – supposedly forced NASCAR to do whatever it could simply to bring teams to the race track these first few weeks of 2009. At Atlanta, an anonymous Truck Series driver also told Frontstretch that NASCAR had contacted them personally about running a Fontana start and park – a choice they decided not to make after the series figured out they’d have enough trucks without them making an unscheduled trip to California.
“NASCAR came to me and said they wanted more cars, they wanted to park,” said the owner/driver. “[So] we were going to go out there [Fontana] and do a start and park…for NASCAR.”
How has the quality of racing deteriorated to this point, where there are teams out there looking to simply crack the starting lineup – and then go home without competing? The history of start and parks is a long one, with businessmen looking to make a quick buck at various times throughout the 60-year history of the sport. But in particular, it’s some tough economic times this decade which have forced some of the sport’s seediest operations to come popping out of the woodwork … threatening the very existence of the sport as we know it.
Recent Start and Park History
The 2004 NASCAR season opened very much like 2009, with national economic concerns leaving many teams without sponsorship and NASCAR’s top three national touring series wondering whether or not the fields would be full. After seeing only 45 cars attempt the Daytona 500, NASCAR returned to Rockingham, and while the fields remained full, both the Cup and Busch Series ranks played host to a number of dilapidated efforts that showed up to the track with intentions of being cut a check — not cutting a fast lap.
That weekend at the Rock saw two of the most notable examples of start-and-parking in recent NASCAR history. In the Busch Series race, Jeff Fuller qualified a No. 88 Chevrolet only to run a handful of laps and park, marking what would be a full season campaign for Fuller without completing a single race. And over in the Cup Series, 59-year-old Joe Ruttman was black-flagged on the first lap in a Phoenix Racing-prepared No. 09 for not having a pit crew. That’s right, folks; the team was so bold as to announce its intentions not to compete, it didn’t have a full-time staff bother to show up at the race track.
Looking back, these two teams that took to the Rock on a cold weekend in February could be considered the antecedents to the recent “start and park” epidemic that hit the Nationwide and Truck Series ranks last season, and that has now spilled over to the Cup Series. Starting and parking has always been around — but these 2004 teams were different. These were not examples of cars struggling to survive, but of owners exploiting a business opportunity at the expense of a sport’s integrity. Five years later, their efforts are now threatening to become both a black eye on the sport’s reputation, as well as a potential hazard to the teams currently braving the current economic turmoil in pursuit of the checkered flag. Who are they? Why are they here? And what threat do they pose to NASCAR’s future? Read on to find out the many faces turning a sport based on competition into a business based on dollars and cents.
The Positive Faces of Start and Park
For just about every start and park team that has taken to the track over the last several seasons, there is a different rationale or justification for not contesting the races they attempt. And to be fair, before we get to the devastating consequences there’s a few of them that do force critics of the start and park brigade to take a second look.
Take the No. 0 team of JD Motorsports, for instance. A longtime fixture in Nationwide Series competition, JD’s No. 01 team attempted every race in 2008, many times not having any sort of sponsorship on its quarterpanels. Still, being a team that owner Johnny Davis has stated “is heavily invested in the Nationwide Series,” a lack of sponsorship has led the team to run a second car in a start and park effort simply to keep its full-time entry running. Development driver Danny Efland and current No. 01 driver Danny O’Quinn owe their shots at running the Nationwide Series in part to the funds accrued by the team’s No. 0 team. This is by far the most common explanation offered for starting and parking, one that has been employed by a number of teams such as Rensi Racing at the end of 2008 to help keep an unsponsored Bobby Hamilton, Jr. on the race track, as well as in 2009 by Brian Keselowski’s Nationwide Series team to offset weekly race costs.
For those organizations, the “start and park” isn’t exactly an exciting proposition for them … but at least they’re attempting to run one full-time team the distance, using the money for a second car solely to keep that organization afloat in tough economic times. It’s a philosophy even some Sprint Cup drivers can get on board with, despite the dissatisfaction of watching a field of 43 quickly become 42 or less by Lap 5.
“We’re going through a tough time right now,” says Cup veteran Elliott Sadler. “Car owners have to do whatever they have got to do.”
“I promise you, the people doing the starting and parking are not living a great life.”
In all honesty, it is difficult to find fault with the practices of JD Motorsports and Brian Keselowski’s Nationwide Series efforts. Both of these organizations have in fact committed time and resources to contesting a full Nationwide schedule, and both are without primary sponsorship to support them.
Occasionally, there are even success stories for individuals involved with these teams. That’s hard to believe for drivers who qualify for the main event, only to pull into the garage before you even get a chance to compete. But stories like Kenny Hendrick (no relation to Rick) are the reason why some of these drivers do it. For a full year, Hendrick toiled under the guise of start and park operations in 2008, most frequently for Stanton Barrett’s No. 31 team. In an interview last year, Hendrick described the role of his start and park entry as multi-faceted; he used his practice times at the track as a de facto test session to assist Barrett’s primary No. 30 entry with setups. Further, Hendrick’s car often carried the same sponsor decals as Barrett’s, giving the sponsors more on-track exposure — if only for a limited time.
But besides a way to make a living, Hendrick also saw his seat time as a way to get his name back in the garage…prior to start and parking throughout 2008, it had been four seasons since his last Nationwide stint behind the wheel. And some solid qualifying efforts were actually enough to attract some free agent interest in the offseason; right now, the driver is currently in a fully-funded ride in former Chip Ganassi equipment, driving the No. 42 Nationwide car for boxer Evander Holyfield.
…And Then, Everyone Else
Unfortunately, for every hard-earned success story within these start and park organizations, there’s about seven or eight whose only goal is simple: dollars and cents. And while that’s an envious proposition when you’re talking about starting a small business, the purity of sports competition is supposed to prohibit money from coming into play.
But for the past year or two, several organizations in NASCAR’s top-tier divisions have shown up merely to collect a check. In some instances, these team owners might have the best of intentions … but then wind up lost in the sea of purse money they use to simply pay off old debts. Take the case of Derrike Cope, Inc. A team formed in mid-2008, over the second half of the season DCI often entered two Truck Series and two Nationwide Series entries – cars that completed only one full race out of dozens of starts. The team was using start and park, they contended, to accrue funds to use down the road in order to run the distance regularly the following season — as well as to make their presence known to perspective sponsors.
However, Cope’s argument that start and park builds bank accounts for team building also rings hollow. Outside of running in Cup and Truck competition at Daytona, they have yet to be seen on the race track in 2009. What happened to the $150,000 + in winnings that the teams made last year building for the future? Apparently, it wasn’t enough to make them stick around and take a shot at running the first five races to lock into the top 30 in owner points.
But at least this team isn’t making a mockery of the starting lineup. For others, even full-time sponsorship doesn’t preclude them from running a second, sometimes a third car only to pull it back into the garage and collect some extra cash. Let’s look at the Gunbroker.com team in the Camping World Truck Series, for instance. The team already has sponsorship for their full-time No. 23 truck, but continues to run two additional vehicles on race day that have no intention of running the full distance. With money already secured for a full-time competitor, where’s the need to muddy the field of competition for the sake of making more money? Sure, Gunbroker.com may not be the most lucrative sponsor in the garage…but there are full-time teams out there with less sponsorship that are still able to compete. Specialty Racing in the Nationwide Series had fewer than a half dozen sponsored races in 2008, yet using primarily purse money were still able to run the distance for the entirety of the Nationwide Series schedule. If it can be done for 35 races at that level, a small-time sponsor can definitely fit the bill for 25 Truck contests.
Instead, the team chooses to make a mockery of the competition fans pay their hard-earned dollars to see. Just check out the transmissions of one of GunBroker.com’s start and park drivers, Johnny Chapman, during the race last Saturday afternoon at Atlanta. After just 11 laps, Chapman parked the car that had no pit crew in its box and was simply out on the race track to collect an $8,025 purse for finishing 35th. In fact, Chapman was in a hurry to get back to the garage…to meet someone.
Spotter: Going 10. She [unidentified person] will be ready.
Chapman: I will not run more than 10 [laps]. I want to be there.
And then, there’s the case of MSRP Motorsports. Formed at the beginning of the 2008 season, the Nationwide Series organization run by Truck Series announcer Phil Parsons and businessman Randy Humphrey maintains they’re starting and parking simply to have a presence on the track and to entice sponsorship. But after running 65 races in two years and failing to complete a single one, it’s an argument that appears to ring hollow. What company in their right mind is going spend their sponsorship dollars on a car that starts in the back, and runs briefly for just a few laps before packing up? History shows us the chances are nearly impossible; of all the start and park organizations formed since the 2004 season, not one has continued to remain a competitive entity in any of the sport’s top three series in 2009.
Perhaps the most disturbing comments come from MSRP’s drivers themselves, who – when cornered – refuse to admit they’re part of an operation whose primary focus is to leave the track with tens of thousands in profit.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know the MSRP team was a start and park team,” said current No. 91 driver Terry Cook at Atlanta, playing dumb to the odd coincidence of 65 straight part failures. “I just thought they had bad parts on the car. I thought we had a lot of problems.”
When pressed, Cook moved on to defend the fledgling organization.
“They’re not taking advantage of anything,” he said. “If we didn’t have teams doing it, we wouldn’t have full fields. Ultimately, we have got to thank those guys for having full fields to start with.”
“At the end of the day, all these teams are trying to do is make a profit. They don’t have the money to race weekly, so what they try and do is try and generate money by running awhile and then having enough money to race. It’s a business.”
Try telling that to the tens of thousands of fans who pack the stands each week – that they’re there to watch a business at work – and you’d probably not have a whole lot of people willing to come back and see it. But that’s what the back of the field is turning into within the top three series these days – and why not? The money’s great.
Parking for Profit
After entering Joe Ruttman in the Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in March of 2004 only to have Ruttman complete four of the 500 laps run, car owner James Finch wasn’t the slightest bit phased by being outrun by completely overwhelmed Cup efforts such as Kirk Shelmerdine and Morgan Shepherd. His mind was on one thing and one thing only — his share of the purse.
“I made more money per lap for running four laps at Bristol than Kurt Busch got from winning,” said Finch, who in the same interview said he would continue running the Cup circuit as long as it remained profitable.
This mentality has recently proliferated across NASCAR’s garages. Continuing to use MSRP Motorsports as an example, their efforts have reduced the Nationwide Series to all but an ATM machine. The $1 million plus in earnings that the team has accumulated hasn’t come close to being invested back into racing.
Humphrey and Parsons have taken their act to the Cup Series as well now, hidden under the newly-named banner of Prism Motorsports. Dave Blaney completed less than a third of the Cup race at Fontana before quietly exiting the track due to a mechanical problem, and followed that up this weekend by running only seven laps of practice…then completing just 83 laps on Sunday before officially retiring with mechanical failure. Joining Parsons and Co. is none other than James Finch’s No. 09. Sources close to the team revealed to Frontstretch as early as last season that the team will park its Cup car quickly whenever they run without sponsorship…like this weekend. Driver Mike Bliss ran only four laps of practice Saturday, including sitting out Happy Hour, before running just 21 laps and parking due to “overheating problems.”
Why It’s A Big Deal
The start and park issue was a hot topic both in the media center and in the garage this past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with attention turning to the issue more and more now that it has spilled over from the minor leagues to the Cup ranks. But, when questioned about it, the stars of the sport really couldn’t seem to care less.
“I don’t think it’s as big of an issue that some people are making it out to be,” said Jeff Burton in the media center Friday.
“What, do we have 47, 48 cars here today? It is what it is, and I don’t think there should be a whole lot of concern about it.”
“It’s expensive to do this sport,” added Kasey Kahne. “If guys can figure a way out to make a living, enjoy themselves, make the race, and pull over…I don’t see anything wrong with it. The only way I think they shouldn’t make the race is if someone comes and out-qualifies them.”
It’s perhaps not surprising to hear established Cup drivers blowing off the issue…having million dollar race teams at the front of the garage is a far cry from the guys in the back hauling their own cars with pickup trucks and working outside in a chain-link fence pen. But this take is also very misinformed.
Just ask Key Motorsports’ new No. 40 Nationwide team how they feel about the issue. The car, which had no owner points to start the season, has committed to running the distance with or without sponsorship in 2009. And, despite outrunning MSRP Motorsports’ No. 90 start and park car in qualifying at Fontana, they fell victim to the top 30 rule that locked that car in the field and missed the race. In short, an upstart team trying to establish themselves on the Nationwide circuit missed out because the NASCAR rulebook locked in a car that every person in the garage knew would park before lap 10 on race day.
The same story played out this weekend at Atlanta. Two of the most prominent upstarts in the Cup garage, Tommy Baldwin Racing and Mayfield Motorsports, missed the field on Friday night in favor of Prism Motorsports’ No. 66 and Phoenix Racing’s No. 09. Atlanta marked the second consecutive DNQ for both teams, and in the case of TBR potentially cost the team a sponsor. Sources have also told Frontstretch that because of the DNQ at Atlanta, making the race at Bristol could make or break Mayfield’s year, ruining the storyline of an underdog darling of this year’s Daytona 500.
Those two should have just qualified faster, right? Wrong. Saying that ignores the fact a team that arrives at the track simply to qualify and park has a huge advantage from the second they park their hauler. They don’t have to worry about durability issues, race setups, or preparing pit equipment. They have to make their stuff last a few laps… a challenge far removed from trying not only to qualify for a race, but to actually take part in it once the green flag falls. It’s hard to put a finger on just how big an advantage this is, especially in a time when race teams find resources more and more limited. But in the case of TBR and MMI, it was big enough to keep them out of the field.
This situation that played out in Atlanta on Friday is one that has larger ramifications for the sport than Cup drivers…and a lot of race fans in general for that matter…seem to realize. What does it say about a sport whose premier level is occupied by racers that don’t race? And perhaps most importantly, what does it do to new teams’ chances of courting sponsorship? The top 35 rule already makes being a new team all but impossible…and now having shots at making fields dashed further by start and park teams that inherently hold the upper hand in trying to race into shows is perhaps best compared to being kicked in the stomach while knocked on the ground.
Where Is NASCAR?
Until this weekend at AMS, NASCAR had never addressed this underground culture of “start and park” on a public scale. But with the numbers upping themselves to nearly a quarter of the field in some races last season, officials were finally backed into a corner where they felt they needed to make a statement.
“We owe it to the garage area [to make sure] that everybody is on the up-and-up,” NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton said Friday. “When the [teams] call [they’re] out, we will continue to look at what put those cars out. What we’re going to encourage at this level here is that people participate and do what they can do to race.”
“What we want to prevent is someone legitimately trying to do a race setup and getting bumped out by somebody that may have gone above and beyond what the spirit of the rules are.”
On the surface, this is exactly what NASCAR should be saying and doing. But Pemberton’s remarks gloss over the truth behind the sanctioning body’s actions. While saying one thing, our Nationwide Series sources mentioned at the top of this piece have no shame admitting the sanctioning body is coming to them in supposed desperation to ensure their minimum 43-car requirement is filled.
When contacted by Frontstretch about the issue, NASCAR Communications Director for Competition Kerry Tharp responded by saying, “NASCAR has absolutely no knowledge of that claim [of asking other drivers to start and park to fill fields].”
“NASCAR doesn’t anticipate having to create a hard-line rule prohibiting Sprint Cup teams from starting a race and then parking their car a few laps later,” he added. “But NASCAR plans to put an increased emphasis on making sure the reason a team gives for falling out of the race is legitimate.”
How long that stance holds is open to question, however. Sources tell Frontstretch that NASCAR was livid that on Friday, the same day that Pemberton issued NASCAR’s first stance on the start and park issue, two full-time Cup teams intending to race 500 miles at Atlanta were bumped by the two start and park operations of Blaney and Bliss.
Unfortunately, the sanctioning body has absolutely no one to blame but themselves and their own greed for the situation as it has emerged. Just as the sanctioning body has trivialized the competition it relies on for its existence just to earn a TV bonus for a full field, now team owners seeking a quick buck are realizing they can do it, too. And as they succeed, it destroys the chances of a number of competitors who can legitimately call themselves racers.
Robin Pemberton and NASCAR didn’t speak up on Friday regarding the matter simply to provide a sound bite. The statement put out Friday was years in coming, and came because the time is now for NASCAR to make some very hard decisions.
Clearly, the time is now for them to decide where they are going to draw the line. Their racing, including even the Cup ranks, is having its fields diluted by teams that are not there to compete, but to carpet-bag a living out of a sport fighting hard to stay on the track. And something has to give. Because if NASCAR doesn’t put the visions of TV bonuses dancing in their heads to bed in favor of putting their foot down for competition and leveling the playing field for the actual competitors trying to carve their way into big-time stock car racing, start and parking will continue to proliferate as a business. Underdogs like Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield will continue to go home, and along with them prospective new sponsors and much needed financial support for the sport.
And the dream will be that much closer to dying out.
Doug Turnbull contributed to this article.
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