The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: So What Happened While I Was Gone? by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday August 4, 2011

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MPM2Nite: So What Happened While I Was Gone?

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday August 4, 2011


There’s nothing like a week down the Jersey Shore to refresh an aging soul. Yeah, it was quite hot here in the Northeast while I was away, but generally along the shoreline it was pretty comfortable and if it got a bit hot there were always cans of liquid air conditioning at hand. The sand, the sea, the breezes and girls in their summer clothes. I had to come home, but I know I’ll be back next year and every year after that until I am too old and decrepit to carry a rolled up rice mat and a six pack cooler to the waterline.

It wasn’t that many years ago (OK, it was a few) the annual trek east to the Shore involved a complete disconnect from NASCAR and related news. Nowadays, everybody (except me) has some sort of portable digital device that retrieves information from the web with the alacrity of a Golden Retriever puppy sent after a tennis ball. Thus I was able to keep up with what was going on though whether that’s a blessing or a curse I don’t know.

Here’s a couple things that piqued my interest:

Uneasy Lays the Head That Wears the Crown: Being a crew chief in the Cup garage is a pretty sweet gig. A lot of the crew chiefs with the bigger, more successful teams now have multi-million dollar Prevost and Newell motor coaches just like the drivers and team owners. But in the current “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” climate in the garage area, those crew chiefs better not let their teams go into a slump. See, the pay is good but the retirement benefits are lacking.

As a sultry July gives way to a steamy August the portion of the season Mike Joy once coined “Silly Season” kicks into high gear. Drivers, crew chiefs and crew members begin their annual game of high stakes musical chairs looking for the right opportunity for next year.

When I was in college, a friend who was in the Marines ROTC once told me during an amphibious assault against the enemy, the life expectancy of the average first lieutenant was under a minute. It’s the same with crew chiefs. If a team isn’t living up to expectations, someone has to get thrown under the bus. Usually it won’t be the driver because the sponsor often has marketing tie-ins with him. It’s usually impractical to fire the entire pit crew and try to replace them in a week. So that leaves the guy atop the pit box making the calls, often a fall guy for a plethora of other problems with the team, but usually the fall guy anyway.

Crew chiefs are not exempt from the silly season carousel, just ask Brian Pattie who left the No. 42 team a few weeks ago.

Initially, I was stunned about Todd Berrier. Berrier has been around a long time and I don’t think his qualifications as crew chief are open to dispute. But then I looked at the big picture. Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team are 25th in the points. Their chances of making the Chase are gone and Burton used to be a perennial title contender. They have a big name, high dollar sponsor and things just aren’t going to plan. It’s time to start building a new alliance for the rest this season to get ready for the next one.

In the same week, Brian Pattie of the No. 42 team and Mike Shiplett of the No. 43 team bit the dust. Shiplett will be replaced in turn by Greg Erwin who was recently released as Greg Biffle’s crew chief.

Meanwhile, Kenny Francis of the No. 4 Red Bull team got some better news. He’ll be making the switch to the No. 5 Rick Hendrick car along with his driver Kasey Kahne. With the future of the Red Bull team still in the air, that had to be welcome relief on the job security front, but it’s got to leave Lance McGrew scratching his head wondering what “key role” at HMS he’s been promised for next year.

Editor’s Note: McGrew will be working on development of NASCAR’s new 2013 car, part of an R & D role within Hendrick Motorsports.

Under nearly every shade tree in the rural south there’s some determined young mechanic wrenching on his buddy’s race car with dreams of eventually becoming a NASCAR crew chief. But this recent rash of firings is one of those instances where you need to be careful what you wish for…

Does Watching NASCAR Racing Cause More Accidents?: Frankly, I was flabbergasted at the very premise of the headline I saw over at Jayski while on vacation… and more than a little annoyed. In the midst of this economic crisis, the government and universities living on governmental largesse never seem to lack funding to study the most ridiculous things. Perhaps “The Military Uses For the Frisbee” study was the most infamous case.

West Virginia was chosen for the site of the study because the researchers claim that more people in the oddly-shaped state identify themselves as NASCAR fans per capita than any other state. (I didn’t know that. Chalk one up for the researchers.) These noble truth-seeking scientists go on to claim that because there are no tracks that sanction any of NASCAR’s top three touring divisions within the (relatively small) state, all of these NASCAR fans are glued to the TV every Sunday. (I hate the term “glued to the TV.” My sister’s idiot cat Bootsy once knocked over the rubber glue on the arts and crafts table at the house then took a nap in her favorite spot, atop the ever warm TV in a five-child household. As far as I know, Bootsy is the only creature ever to have been glued to a TV, and she didn’t like the extrication process much if I recall it.)

I haven’t been able to get a copy of the formal study yet, but I’m not sure how the researchers determined which proportion of the self-proscribed NASCAR fans actually tune into each race. That’s the odd thing about NASCAR fans nationwide. Though they profess to be hardcore fans of the sport, less than one in ten of them watch each week’s race.

Secondly, the average NASCAR fan who attends races will travel 600 miles to attend an event. That leaves folks all over the great state of West Virginia easily within travel range to a dozen NASCAR tracks if they choose to (and can afford to) attend. So maybe some of these “aggressive” drivers actually were at the races, not watching them on TV (after gluing the cat to the TV for safekeeping, of course.) I’ve met plenty of folks from West Virginia at races and have seen license plates from the state on cars at tracks across the country.

Already, the methodology is suspect but let’s take a result at the findings published to date. The scientists would have us believe that a NASCAR TV broadcast causes a spike in the number of accidents related to “aggressive driving” for the next five days. Jezum Crow, Auntie Em, no crap? With your typical Cup race run on a Sunday the next five days are weekdays, what those of us outside the Ivory Tower of Academia call “the work week.” You have more cars on the road. You have congestion. You have traffic jams. You have road construction. And people with low degrees of frustration (NASCAR fan or not) start taking some stupid and unnecessary chances trying to get where they need to be. Wrecks result… and that certainly isn’t just in West Virginia. Short of confessions by West Virginian NASCAR fans who ran a red light and broadsided another car then went on to explain they were driving like they’d seen Kyle Busch do so on Sunday, I can not see how a correlation can be made.

Fortunately, after five days the demonic possession caused by a NASCAR race wears off. Obviously. Less cars on the road, less congestion, less accidents. (Except those tragic single vehicle late night types after the bars close.) Sunday, the researchers would have you believe those fans are glued to their televisions not out terrifying the gentler populace on the roads.

Let’s look at some more stats for the state of West Virginia. The roads there are ranked the fourth worst in the nation leaving three states where I must presume even the interstates are goat-paths. West Virginia has the fourth highest traffic fatality and injury rate per capita of the 50 states. There’s a strong correlation between the quality of roads and the deaths per mile driven on those roads and there’s something the State and Feds can actually do something about.

In terms of average income per capita (what the average citizen makes) West Virginia is ranked 49th in the country above only Mississippi. That would help explain why the registered vehicle population of the state is the 47th oldest in the nation. Older, more affordable cars often don’t have such life-saving niceties as air bags, antilock brakes and stability control, much less some of this new high-tech stuff like blind spot avoidance systems, self-actuated braking, and the like. You actually have to drive older cars using a combination of two or three pedals and a steering wheel. Mistakes can prove costly.

Even if the conclusions of this study turn out to be indisputable (which I highly doubt) what do you do with the results? To increase public safety, do we ban broadcasting NASCAR races in West Virginia? Do we issue special permits to watch races only to West Virginians who complete a psychological profile with results stated that their frontal lobe is well in control of their hypothalamus? Do state workers hand out cookies and sodas to drivers Monday morning to calm the savage beasts at the wheel? Do ESPN and FOX have to run those ubiquitous “Professional driver, closed course, do not attempt” warnings throughout the race? I’m sorry, but to me it sounds like the Nanny Federal government is just looking for a way to screw up another one of life’s little pleasures.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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08/04/2011 07:04 AM

The only dangerous correlation I can imagine between Nascar and aggressive driving is if you happen to be listening to a race on the radio as you are actually driving your car. The temptation to ‘put the pedal to the metal’ as if you were on the track could be a hazard.

Bill B
08/04/2011 07:57 AM

Good point Matt. I wonder how they proved is was NASCAR causing the accident and not church. They both occur on Sunday (or Saturday night). How did they determine it was specifically NASCAR that is the causation. People also get more sleep on the weekends. They probably stay up later too. They drink more alcohol on the weekends. How did they single out NASCAR?

Sharon J
08/04/2011 10:33 AM

Dumb research project. Just another way for the government to waste taxpayer money. Maybe that is one of the jobs Obama created.

old farmer
08/04/2011 11:36 AM

I vote with Sharon.

08/04/2011 12:10 PM

It could also be the university struggling to spend all the money in their budget. That which they don’t spend must be given back and it decreases what they receive the next year. It’s stupid and it should be stopped. In my opinion, the universities should have to provide project details to someone to have them approved before getting the money.

08/04/2011 01:49 PM

I vote with Sharon, too. anyone who’s ever driven on a highway in the northeast knows that boneheaded driving is not limited to NASCAR fans.

Carl D.
08/04/2011 01:58 PM

When I put Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” on in my car and crank it up, I tend to drive like Kyle Busch on the NC backroads. For some reason, listening to Sarah McLachlan doesn’t have the same effect.

Formal study complete.

08/04/2011 02:06 PM

Another one of the billion reasons why we have a 14 trillon dollar debt problem.

08/04/2011 02:08 PM


08/04/2011 10:20 PM

Matt, not to take away from your road trip but ya really need to get out here on your Harley and ride north up Highway one.

Put some Dead on the head set when you hit Carmel, Monterey etc. It will all come into focus. Especially in Big Sur.

Remember Rockingham?
08/05/2011 12:44 AM

Having traveled West by-Gawd Virginia extensively over the years, I can attest to their generally pathetic state (the roads). Its quite simple as to why so many poor roads exist in WV.

Simple: Topography.

The complications:

In 95% of the state roads must follow a drainage or ascend/descend the ridges. Which means hills and curves. Lots of hills and curves. Coal trains are numerous, as are train crossings. The Semi traffic (coal, timber, everything else) uses the same roads, sometimes overweight. Slips are commonplace along many of the winding roads, so traffic ends up in the opposite lane.

Add in the work-week, the older cars, top it all off a good dose of deer and fog, and black ice in the winter. Get the picture?

Those Country Roads are nasty.

Saying NA$CAR is responsible for accidents in WV is laughable at best. I’d pretty much guarantee that none of the academics that authored this “research” have ever driven WV’s roads.

08/05/2011 02:52 AM

You hit the nail on the head R Rockingham.

08/05/2011 08:57 AM

boneheaded driving is not limited to NASCAR fans

Or West Virgina… from a Massachusetts driver!