The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Testing 1,2,3 by Matt McLaughlin -- Monday November 24, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Testing 1,2,3

Matt McLaughlin · Monday November 24, 2008


My, how times have changed. Earlier this year, NASCAR seemed poised to propose allowing teams almost unlimited testing dates for next season. Then, the economy hit the skids, and a week and a half ago a new policy was announced instead that will ban all Cup teams from testing at all — at least, on tracks that hold NASCAR-sanctioned races. Effective January 1st, 2009, the really stunning part of this announcement was that the traditional preseason tests in preparation for the Daytona 500 are also included on the list. It wasn’t that many years ago that NASCAR was trying to market those weeks as a “Must See” fan event, with driver meet and greets intended to eliminate the T. Wayne Roberts charity event at Charlotte where fans lined up to get a look at the new season’s cars in their race livery and gather a few autographs.

As one of NASCAR’s harshest critics (or at least one of its harshest critics in the media), I have to give credit where credit is due. In this instance, I think the powers that be made a decision with the best of intentions. There’s no doubting that all of us, from the fans right on up to the top team owners, are living in tough economic times right now. I’m not smart enough to know if the U.S. economy is in recession or on the brink of depression, but I know from the stock market to the supermarket the average American is frightened right now, possessing a rather gloomy view of the future ahead. I know the Big Three automakers are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; and in a worst case scenario, if all three were to fail, one in ten Americans would be added to the rolls of the unemployed. A lot of big name race teams are at risk of going out of business — especially with sponsorship money so hard to find right now and so many teams looking for backing. It doesn’t help that the spending on the Cup level side of the garage area has gone insane, because reality is finally intruding its ugly little head into matters.

On the face of it all, you’d think eliminating testing will save teams millions of dollars a year and help them get by with limited or reduced spending — and that’s a good thing. But as I reflect further on the testing ban, I have my concerns. First and foremost, I am aware it’s going to put an awful lot of hard working men and women who work for Cup teams out of a job. Last Monday was a termed “Black Monday” in Mooresville, as a lot of hard working employees of even the top teams learned that despite their best efforts, the end of the 2008 season also meant the end of their employment. I am mindful that these are real men and women who have been receiving decent paychecks and using them to raise families, pay mortgages, and make car payments. Now, through no fault of their own they are suddenly out of work, and with the current unemployment rate and almost all teams cutting back, they have limited opportunities to find employment at the Cup level or even working for a Nationwide or Truck Series team.

Most of these smart, skilled, and hard working folks shown the door were people who chased their dreams relentlessly to make it to the top level of this sport. You or I might not know their names, but we see their accomplishments in an era where small block engines akin (except in the case of Toyotas) to what we drove on the streets in the ’70s can routinely rev to 9,500 RPM and hurtle boxy stock cars to speeds over 200 MPH. Maybe some of them will find work as mechanics at local repair shops and dealerships, but only at greatly diminished rates of pay. And at least those fortunate ones will have jobs…

NASCAR’s ban doesn’t mean testing will go away completely; instead, teams like Red Bull’s No. 84 will be “practicing” at places like New Smyrna Speedway in Florida rather than Daytona pictured above.

Of course, things have gotten out of hand when the big teams have “testing teams” never intended to field entries in the Cup series, but solely to develop and experiment with new cars and ideas for the real Cup teams. Testing is hideously expensive, and it’s time even guys like Roush and Hendrick sober up and realize spending at the Cup level has gotten totally out of hand. But that doesn’t change my concern for a fellow who worked hard and did a good job suddenly having to walk into his home he has a 30-year mortgage on after parking his heavily financed pickup truck to tell his pregnant wife he is unexpectedly unemployed and not sure what to do next. I’ve been there. Despite doing my best, I lost a once good-paying job when the internet bubble burst, and it sucked. I feel nothing but empathy for the newly unemployed. And as a side note here, I want to remind those of you reading this that sudden and unexpected unemployment isn’t solely a NASCAR issue. It’s an issue hitting folks in our neighborhoods hard as well. Among those suddenly “unemployed” are our brave soldiers returning from a war fought on two fronts, many with dehabilitating injuries that have changed their lives forever. If you are fortunate enough to still have a job, you need to consider tightening your belt another notch to give to charities that support our wounded GIs, as well as those that will give the less fortunate a decent Thanksgiving dinner or a few toys for children who might not otherwise have gifts this Christmas.

I am also concerned the testing ban is going to have unintended consequences on and off the race track. This season has been dominated by three super teams that are still sitting flush with solid sponsorships, proven race-winning teams, and large budgets. As such, I fear the testing ban could allow the Big Three (Gibbs, Roush and Hendrick) to exploit their financial strength to further distance themselves from the “best of the rest” or perhaps, given the current economic climate, “the best of what’s left.” Roush and Hendrick have previously considered and proposed building test tracks for their organizations, and can still afford to do so. Zoning considerations might keep them from developing such test tracks at their current locations, but there’s nothing stopping them from building them somewhere out in the wilderness of Wyoming —especially considering they can afford to truck test cars and fly test personnel out there. If the Big Three don’t control their spending, this could be a classic example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Even lacking private test tracks, the big organizations have a decided advantage over the smaller teams with their seven post-shaker rigs, computer simulations, and wind tunnel time that aren’t limited under the testing ban. The big multi-car teams also already have the advantage of sharing notes between several teams. I’d hate to see this sport dominated by three teams and their satellite organizations, even while storied teams like Petty Engineering and the Wood Brothers fall by the wayside — leaving unemployed workers in their wake and traditional fans like me heartsick. But it’s a distinct possibility.

I also have concerns for the next crop of rookie drivers. Unlike the old days, when freshmen earned their stripes running for lesser funded teams and even had a couple of years to get up to speed once they signed on with a big organization, nowadays, rookies are expected to run competitively from the get-go. And to be able to run with the Big Dogs, rookies have traditionally been able to do more testing to get themselves acclimated to the new cars and tracks where they will be competing. The testing ban is going to hamper that effort, and if I was Joey Logano right now, I’d be sweating bullets. The same goes for the new teams of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who have to enter next year’s Daytona 500 with limited track time. Teams and drivers need time to get acclimated to each other, and the less opportunity they have to spend together before the season starts paying points makes it a steeper mountain to climb if they experience early trouble.

I also have concerns on how the testing ban is going to affect the quality of racing we as fans see next year. None of the Big Three teams, much less the smaller outfits, seem to have their arms completely around the Car of Sorrow quite yet. Instead, everybody is still trying to sort out what these cars need to run competitively side-by-side and nose to tail. A ban on testing with no points on the table limits the teams’ abilities to sort these new cars out, so we, as fans, can see good racing again after a season notably lacking in many good races. The economic meltdown has hit the sport at a vulnerable time. Were it to have happened a year ago, NASCAR might have put the new car program on hold this year as they did with the Nationwide Series. But with team owners having spent millions to convert their fleets to the Car of Horror already, there’s no turning back now. That leaves track owners having to promote less competitive and exciting races to fans facing harsh economic realities themselves — and thus unwilling to buy all those high-priced seats. Given enough testing, perhaps, the team engineers could find a way to make these new cars able to run in close quarters and side by side. But given the current economic reality and testing ban, that’s almost certainly not going to happen. And if the quality of the racing doesn’t improve, then almost certainly there will be less fans in the grandstands next year. If that trend is allowed to run its course, I can certainly envision the sport imploding into itself — at least, NASCAR racing as we’ve come to accept it — and possibly cease to exist.

The testing ban was doubtless a difficult decision, but it was still the right one given the severity of the hard times we’re all facing. Unfortunately, there are far reaching and unfortunate implications already. The ISC is going to lose money not having their traditional preseason Daytona test, and there will be a ripple effect from that which spreads to local restaurants and hotels, right down to the waiters and waitresses, hotel maids, and local gas station attendants. I hate that it has to be the case; but in this instance, it’s a matter of sharing the pain.

Realizing the genuine hardship that some people will suffer — from highly compensated engineers to barely getting by cabbies — it is the responsibility of those with enough financial resources to easily weather this storm to act responsibly. Right now, there’s a Cold War going on between the Big Three: Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, and Joe Gibbs. Each one has pledged lip service to the testing ban, but all are keeping a wary eye on the other organizations. At the first sign one of them is trying to circumvent the testing rules to gain an advantage, the other two will respond in kind, and it will spiral out of control from there — just as it has under other testing limitations NASCAR has tried to impose on the teams. So, it’s time for the Big Three to realize they have reaped a lot of wealth from this sport, and they need to act in its long-term best interests. I’d suggest a private summit, perhaps at the upcoming NYC Banquet, where the Big Three team owners — and maybe Richard Childress and Roger Penske — sit down together behind closed doors and discuss these issues in private. For example, Rick Hendrick could tell Jack Roush, yes, my teams and I are going to live to the letter and intent of this new policy. And if you feel someone in my employ is violating the spirit of these rules, call me personally and we’ll talk things out.

There’s thousands of things that could go wrong here — but only one reason they must not. The future of the sport is on the line, as are the livelihoods of people who either directly or indirectly draw their paychecks at least in part from the sport of NASCAR racing. From millionaire drivers to waitresses who work extra shifts when the NASCAR circus is in town, there’s a lot of folks depending on this ban working out long-term.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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M.B. Voelker
11/24/2008 08:32 AM

“it is the responsibility of those with enough financial resources to easily weather this storm to act responsibly.”

True, but for a business owner to act “responsibly” mean that he takes care of the business and does whatever is necessary to ensure that it remains successful.

If testing at Rockingham or buying and revamping North Wilkesboro for a test track is the use of money that will return the best performance results for the investment than doing that IS acting responsibly.

In addition to keeping the company healthy that responsible use of company money to benefit the company will also put money into the pockets of the test team personnel, the independent track owners, the people hired to repave North Wilkesboro, the local restaurants/gas stations/etc. and so on.

Everyone all suffering together may sound noble, but its better for those who have the money to use it productively because wise investment creates prosperity — enabling them to hire more people — while simply sitting on money creates stagnation.

In fact, this would be a good time for Nascar to re-think the 4-car limit and permit the team owners who have the money to expand so as to field as many fully-sponsored, competitive cars as they can finance instead of forcing a healthy business (Roush), to contract while preventing other healthy businesses (Gibbs, Hendrick, Childress), from growing and hiring more people.

What happened to Nascar
11/24/2008 09:47 AM

LOL – Car of Sorrow! I love it! This ‘sport’ is bleeding itself to death! Wicked! I stick to watching racing that doesn’t have puppets as drivers!

Death to Nascrap!

11/24/2008 11:25 AM

The VERY LAST thing the sport needs is to let the teams grow to whatever size they want . That would be the end of NASCAR . Period .
I have to go along with some other folks i’ve read about who say there should be a total ban on testing . The only testing thats allowed is at the track on the day before the race . Prior to each race , TRUE rookies would get some additional track time . Thats it ! And it would be surprisingly easy to enforce . Cup transporters are hard to miss going down the road . Unmarked transporters are also pretty hard to miss . There are only a handfull of tracks that the teams would want to test at , the local fans would certainly be aware if a Cup team was there . Word travels fast , the offending team gets found out quick . Tire tests will have to be addressed . They would be an unfair advantage for the invited teams .
The biggest question would be what to do about teams that already own their test tracks , the tunnel that Chip owns in PA. for instance . Would a ban on testing apply to his private test facility . And should the ban apply to a teams private facility . If it doesn’t , whats to prevent teams from buying or building their own . But who is going to tell Chip he can’t use his own test tunnel .
Could get pretty confusing .

11/24/2008 12:26 PM

NA$CAR holds the key to the survival of smaller teams. Teams that they seem to view as expendable. Turn loose of some money. It’s as simple as that. They need to talk with the companies who have paid NA$CAR for the right to be the Official Whatever, of NA$CAR. Give them a list of Cars, tell them “pick one” The car gets a sponsor, & they can still be the Official Whatever of NA$CAR. NA$CAR has made it’s Billions from the car owners. It’s time to stop treating them like Kleenex. Using them, then throwing them away.

That’s the quick fix. The long term solution is Franchising. Anyone who has been an owner for 10 years, is awarded one, no money needed. Additional cars, would be at full price.Current owners would buy in on a sliding scale, depending on time as an owner. Owners could only franchise cars that attempted a full schedule last season. The Wood Bros. would be franchised at no cost. Petty would have to buy the second one.Furniture Row could buy one at a 30% discount, etc, etc.

The France family, has grown tremendously fat from the sport/business. It’s time for them to give something back.

I’m sure they would love to step up. Was that a pig that just flew by my window?

Second thought, they could just sell it. That should work too.

Bill B
11/24/2008 12:41 PM

I’d go to Europe. Not too many people from the neighborhood are going to pay attention to NASCAR testing over there. BTW, doesn’t Childress have a Europe connection already?

Bill B
11/24/2008 12:55 PM

BTW, M. B. Voelker has a good point and I will take it a step further. Tilting the rules for struggling teams is the equivalent of a bail-out. If there is one rule that defines capitalism it’s that those who make a profit and have a viable business plan survive and those who do not perish. The Wood Brother and Petty have been struggling for 15 years, it has nothing to do with the current economic conditions. All the current crisis has done is make it harder for them to fool themselves into thinking they still are a healthy company. What’s their excuse for the last 10 years?
Oh yeah, is the name of the company actually “The Wood Brothers” or “The Legendary Wood Brothers” because I see it with “The Legendary” as a prefix than not.

11/24/2008 01:06 PM

My question is: How can ANYONE take the word of a pardoned felon car owner(a pardon he bought with hard cash left over from what he stole) to tell the truth about testing or cheating in any form…and I beggingly ask Mr. Voelker to please send me some of whatever he is smoking…..

Annie Mack
11/24/2008 01:15 PM

Ordinarily I would agree with Matt, but the insanity has to stop somehwere. Nobody is giving us, the fan, a break so I have a real hard time feeling sorry for the millionaire car owners who will “suffer” due to the economy. Not one team owner has stepped up to the plate to tell Brian France he is at fault for the explosion in costs, so they have all participated in squeezing out the little guy. If we are going to tout capitalism as truly American, then we need to stop bailing out everyone. And I do mean everyone. For every business, bank, or Nascar team that fails, there will be someone to step up and take their place. I’m getting sick of hearing that this and that is “too big to fail”. Screw ‘em. We’d all live just fine without Nascar.

M.B. Voelker
11/24/2008 01:40 PM

“And it would be surprisingly easy to enforce . Cup transporters are hard to miss going down the road .”

Except for that minor, inconsequential little issue of property rights and the fact that NO business can tell its independent contractors how to run their business.

Once the team steps out of Nascar’s territory Nascar has no legal authority over them. What Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs, etc. do on their own time when away from Nascar sanctioned tracks is 100% their own business.

Would you accept your boss telling you that if you want to work for him you are not allowed to spend over $50/week on groceries or live in a house with more than 3 bedrooms? Do you think your boss has the right to say how many kids you can have or that your spouse can’t hold a job that pays more than 10% above minimum wage?

Why do you think Nascar should be able to make equally intrusive rules for people who aren’t even employees?

Thanks, Bill B. Its amazing how many outright communists crawl out of the walls where Nascar rules are concerned.

11/24/2008 02:55 PM

M B , you are as far out of touch as its possible to be . And i’m not certain JohnBoy , but i think its Ms . Voelker . Property rights would obviously have nothing to do with fans spotting transporters . The point is that if there were a total ban on testing , then the local fans would actually be the enforcers . What cup team could go to a test anywhere and not be noticed ? And how long do you suppose it would take for the test session to be spread all over the internet , thus enabling NASCAR to know who broke the testing ban .
I’m not so sure that the smaller teams need a bailout . All they’ve really needed all along were rules that didn’t favor the super teams . And you might want to permanently attach the word legendary to the the Woods name . You’d be hard pressed to name any team in the entire history of NASCAR that has contributed or accomplished more . Look them up some time . You’ll be amazed at what they’ve done .
Actually a number of teams have Europeon connections . I suspect shipping costs to get the cars and equipment there , along with the airline bills for the team might keep the Euro tests on the back burner for a while . But you never know , someone might decide its worth it .

11/24/2008 03:13 PM

And then we will only have the big 3 left.How exciting is this? Who would want to watch only the big 3 race?

Bill B
11/24/2008 03:37 PM

now really, if they can afford seven post shakers, wind tunnels, and perhaps building their own track, why would cost for shipping to Europe be any different? What numbers are you using to determine it’s cost prohibative – the “new” math?
So are you saying that because the Wood Brothers are “legendary” they have a grandfathered in seat forever, regardless of performance?

11/24/2008 04:29 PM

Well Bill B , if you have a formula you’d like to share with everyone regarding what performance is required so as to be allowed to stay in CUP , we’re all waiting . You might want to be carefull though . The first few races of the year the 48 was one of the worst performing cars on the track . And then too , several of the Gibbs cars were lagging behind . Just how would you go about determining who should be allowed to race in NASCAR ?

11/24/2008 06:32 PM

Lets be honest NA$CAR will do what ever little Bryan Wants, the four car limit is over before it started.

Bill B
11/24/2008 08:03 PM

Well I could come up with lots of formulas but I get your point; defining performance is somewhat arbitrary. I don’t know, we’ll make it simple, winning at least one race in a five year period. And this is at the organization level not at the driver level. If an owner hasn’t won at least one race in 5 years they are under-performers and need to do something drastic to their organization to turn the tide or someone else will.

11/24/2008 10:33 PM

I see you and others keep referring to “the Big Three (Gibbs, Roush and Hendrick)” in NASCAR as the power teams. Did you notice that Childress cars finished 4, 5, and 6 in the final points?

M.B. Voelker
11/25/2008 04:39 PM

Its Mrs.

Property rights have everything to do with a business owner’s right to run his own business in the way he sees fit.

Your boss can’t dictate what your spouse earns.

Your boss can’t tell you what to spend on groceries.

Your boss can’t tell you what you can and can’t do in your own home outside working hours.

And Nascar isn’t even “boss” to the team owners because both team owners and drivers are independent contractors.

Federal law sets VERY strict limits on a business’s ability to dictate rules to independent contractors. They don’t even have the limited rights that an employer has over employees.

I’m not the one here who is out of touch.

11/25/2008 07:09 PM

I had my say in the column but I’d like to interject something here.

Yes, Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs (and Childress) have the right to run thier businesses anyway they choose seeing as they are independent contractors. And yes, trying to gain an advantage on your competitors (or even put the competition out of business) is a fundamental goal of business.

But there’s short range goals and there’s long range goals for any business. Seeking short term profit at the expense of long term health is a recipe for disaster. Ask the folks at GM who now need you and I and everyone who earns a paycheck to bail them out.

At some point the Big 3 (or big 4 if you prefer) have to take a long term outlook, beyond what is good for thier businesses in 2009 and 2010.

All of them have made out pretty well at this stock car racing game. But if there desire to gain a short term advantage damages the sport, the platform on which they ply thier businesses, they may be left with the best cars, the best drivers, and the best team members but no place left to play the game.

Sometimes even as a business man you have to suck it up a little and look a decade down the road. Are the decisions you’re making short term going to damage your business down the road.

Look at a classic example of a decision made by the Ford Motor Company. The Pinto was very profitable when it first came out. It gave Ford a bite of the economy car pie they hadn’t had since the Falcon. But faced with adding a few bucks and pounds to thier product to keep the things from going up in flames in a severe accident they decided the cost of the potential litigation by survivors of customers outweighed the long term good of doing the right thing. When the Smoking Gun documents were leaked they had thier butts handed to them in court. That also started a mindset in many consumers minds that exists to this day that Ford builds shoddy, poorly engineered products that may even be dangerous, despite the fact that Ford’s current cars’ quality and safety are actually equal to or better than the Japanese competition. In retrospect I bet they wish they’d added those shields over the differential housings on the Pintos, which was a loathsome car in retrospect but no more loathesome than most econony cars of the era.

11/26/2008 05:33 AM

And then we will only have the big 3 left.How exciting is this? Who would want to watch only the big 3 race?

Uh thats you have now week after week