The Frontstretch: California's Weekend Joke Puts NASCAR Passion To The Test -- Did Yours Take A Hit, Too? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday February 25, 2008

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California's Weekend Joke Puts NASCAR Passion To The Test -- Did Yours Take A Hit, Too?

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday February 25, 2008

 

Sunday night marked just the second official weekend of the NASCAR season. In a perfect world, I would have spent it smiling in Ontario, California, celebrating the sport's continued momentum off the heels of a Daytona 500 that exceeded expectations.

Instead, my night became so incredibly frustrating, so mentally frying I was virtually jumping through hoops in order to keep a redeye plane ride out of town.

As I stepped onto the flight that would take me away from the joke that was the attempt at a NASCAR race Sunday, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to leave an event I was supposed to cover before it actually finished up the next day. I'm never one to shy away from working overtime; you're talking to a guy who started out his career working a game six hours after I'd been taken to the hospital for food poisoning. But after the ineptitude and poor decision-making skills of the NASCAR brass left me at the mercy of a track and a sport that was rudderless in direction; frankly, after being jerked around I didn't have the stomach to stick around to see what happened. In one sense, no writer needed to; the real story had already been told, with the surprise ending that Cup teams, television crews, and millions of NASCAR fans were being played for fools. After nearly fifteen hours at Auto Club Speedway, multiple stoppages in the action, two dangerous crashes, and a track surface that looked like a creek was running through the middle of it, those clues still weren't enough for the sanctioning body to give up and officially call the event until the following day.

Once I boarded the plane, I finally heard the unthinkable but inevitable news; the sport had finally postponed the race, angering everyone who had mistakenly hung around for hours thinking NASCAR would follow through and dry the track to go racing. But as I tried to grasp the sheer ineptitude of the rain delay from hell I just witnessed, an unintended but natural consequence began to occur - and suddenly, I was having difficulty coming to grips with emotions I'd never thought I'd achieve in this business. In two plus years of being at the track full-time, I'd never wanted to leave a race early; after all, this job wasn't an obligation but a fulfillment of a dream. I've always felt my strength in writing and covering this sport in all the various forms I do it comes from a longtime passion of being a fan first; there's no better way to supplement your income by making money covering what you've always loved. And to me personally, looking back at NASCAR's California debacle, that's what disappoints me most of all; they did everything possible to burn the passion of one of its most hardcore fans into the ground, to the point where I was breathing a sigh of relief that I was about to be 3,000 miles away - not the weird feeling I'm missing something important I have whenever I'm not at the track most weekends.

All the yelling, pointing, and sawing by officials at Auto Club Speedway proved fruitless Sunday; after all, Mother Nature has yet to be defeated by human hands.

Perhaps my biggest gripe over everything that just transpired is that there's no reason for our sport to be west of the Mississippi five days after our Super Bowl. None. Nada. Zilch. I had mentioned in a Thursday Sports Illustrated column that a schedule change should be in the work for 2009 and beyond, because the sheer logistics of teams traveling to California the week after Daytona just didn't make any sense. With virtually everyone - teams, the media, NASCAR themselves - based in the Charlotte area, the hardships involved in sending everyone back to home base, then 3,000 miles away within 96 hours of the year's biggest race just didn't make much sense. After all, would the Super Bowl-winning NFL team ever be asked to fly from the big event to say, London four days later to play a regular season game? Certainly not; and while I enjoy NASCAR's differences, but this is one area in which we should develop the same philosophy as our stick-and-ball counterparts — give teams time to breathe after our Super Bowl.

The consequences when we don’t do that can be devastating. In the end, there's no doubt the California schedule - followed by another West Coast race at Las Vegas - is what forced NASCAR's hand into a rain delay that would never end Sunday. A Monday race forced many of these organizations - many of whom have just one hauler - to not leave the track until Monday night, leaving a sleepless drive for days for truck drivers who would have to drive 3,000 miles back to Charlotte, then a second 3,000 miles to get to Las Vegas. All by Friday morning. It was a logistical nightmare, one the sport was intending to avoid in any way possible; I get that.

But it's also a nightmare that was completely unnecessary. Not too long ago, it was the quaint countryside of Rockingham, NC that hosted the second race on the Sprint Cup schedule, providing an easy trip for the NASCAR faithful, who - weary from a two-week trek down to Daytona Beach - would need to only drive a handful of hours from Charlotte to set up shop for the second race of the season. It's true the one-mile track wasn't always the warmest place to be; and with stands that could fill in the 60,000 range at best, it fell far short of the 100,000+ open seats California attempts to sell every year.

But with empty seats the norm, not the exception out West, this comparison isn't just about capacity; it's about competition, and Rockingham had some of the best the Cup Series had to offer.

Just consider the final race that was held at the track; in a side-by-duel to the line, Matt Kenseth beat Kasey Kahne by a nose - literally - to secure one of the closest wins in the track's history back in 2004. But even that wasn't enough to save its final date; and in 2005, we began this current ridiculousness, a California February date that left us setup for a nightmare that we're lucky hadn't happened before now. At least for the first three years, there was an off weekend for the Cup Series between California and Las Vegas, enough for everyone to catch their breath and move forward. But this offseason, that off weekend was mysteriously eliminated, a "West Coast" swing even more tightly established.

What perfect timing.

With this scenario shooting NASCAR right in the foot, their panic led to the unfathomable no-no of the sport starting the race under green when the track was obviously wet after three straight days of rain - the last of which didn't move out until two hours before the race was supposed to initially begin. As the cars hit the track another four hours later, even the most casual observer could see in camera shots that the "weeper" grooves located around the track were dripping out water like it was their job; but despite the protests of several drivers and the shock of many intimately involved in the sport, the green flag dropped anyways. What followed was like a poor man's daredevil act; within 25 laps, five good cars were wiped out, the victim of hitting the wrong piece of race track at 200 miles an hour while several others came perilously close to doing the same. Racing is dangerous, but never this inherently unsafe; can you imagine the backlash if Sam Hornish, Jr.'s car - which caught fire in a four-car wreck involving Casey Mears on lap 21 - had resulted in anyone getting significantly hurt? Judging by the damning liquid evidence that caused such a hard-knocks wreck, the sport would be lucky to avoid a lawsuit.

But despite all this, the sport clung stubbornly to its false hopes that their logistical nightmares could be averted. Their unwillingness to face the facts of Mother Nature ended with a marathon, five-hour rain drying the track process in which the race wasn't officially called until 2:00 AM EST. That type of long-term waiting - resulting in a decision that effectively put that time to waste - does nothing but irritate all those who are supposed to be the sport's biggest supporters. It sabotages the free time of the dedicated fans, who put their lives on hold all day Sunday for updates and delay coverage which would ultimately prove futile. It insults the teams, media members, and TV crews, who spend their hard-earned time and money revolving their lives around the sport only to not receive the dignity of a timely, proper decision. And that doesn't even mention the unnecessary roughness it puts the drivers through…we won’t even go there.

Well, you'd like to think after all this madness that NASCAR will finally give up on two dates in California. But let's not be fooled twice in 48 hours; with the rumors circulating about Atlanta's possible reduction in dates, fans will be lucky if the Speedway isn't a part of the Chase in 2009. However, maybe — just maybe — this unfathomable ending will be enough for NASCAR to put the pieces together and make the second race of the season at, say, Atlanta. Or perhaps move California and Las Vegas apart from each other.

And as for me? The Speedway was already my least favorite track on the circuit; now, it’s the sole track for which I have difficulty ever finding myself supporting. After 115-degree heat in September and 110 Degrees of incompetence in the Spring, I wound up more than comfortable watching Carl Edwards lead the Auto Club single file parade from my couch; and when it comes to races at the track in Ontario, I hope the couch is where I stay each race weekend from now on.

For me, that’s the biggest shock. I never thought NASCAR would frustrate me to the point where my passion for it took a hit; but right now, I'm in need of some recovery time.

Let's hope the healing comes quick and easy for all of us.

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Kurt Smith
02/26/2008 07:27 AM
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Very well said boss.

I’m sure it wasn’t as bad for Joe Fan watching on TV like myself, but I just wanted to add a quick detail: the race coverage started at 3:30 PM on the East coast, fouling up the schedules of anyone who had to work the next day. I understand that…but then the next day the race was held at 1:00 PM EST…when everyone, especially West coasters, was at work! All because of the logistical nightmare you have described.

This is one thing NASCAR does need to change, but I’ll bet my six-pack of Corona that that’s when Brian will put up his hand and say that the sport has had all the change it can stand. Fontana is his baby and will survive low attendance and boring races like Rockingham and Darlington absolutely never could.

There doesn’t seem to be as much outrage as there should be about this, and it may be because fans simply expect this kind of ineptitude from NASCAR anymore. Without the participants even going on strike and killing the championship battle, NASCAR is at the point where baseball was in 1995, entirely because of hideous management. Playing country music before races ain’t gonna fix it.

Douglas
02/26/2008 07:46 AM
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Well stated! Well written!

A great summation of the mess we call NA$CAR!!

Oh, and I get a kick out of their statement: “Well, we asked the drivers”!!

Gee, has NA$CAR ever asked the drivers their input before assessing penalties?

M.B. Voelker
02/26/2008 10:01 AM
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You know, if you don’t enjoy covering Nascar anymore there ARE other sports. Or, for a complete break, you could try covering politics, crime, or even do book reviews (that would never take you out in the weather at all).

To quote one of your racing reporter peers, “If you’re not having fun, stay home and don’t bother those of us who are.”

SimRacer
02/26/2008 10:47 AM
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Nice piece. I certainly agree with letting the teams breathe, and race, closer to home after the 500. In fact, I think we used to, at a joint called Rockingham. :-)

Steve Cloyd
02/26/2008 10:54 AM
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My passion for this sport all but evaporated when they took the last date from a real race track (Rockingham) and moved it to snooze-ville (California). This after they screwed Darlington. Couple that with the Top 35 rule, the joke of a car they’re running, the idiotic chase, and what’s the point any longer? I only watch the short tracks and road races any more as the rest are dreadful, boring affairs meant for insomniacs.

Here’s hoping the merger gets people to pay attention to the IRL now. Their races have been more interesting for a long time now. They’ve just been lacking in race teams.

mmack
02/26/2008 11:50 AM
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Tom,

The last time I saw a sanctioning body acting so imcompetently in trying to get a race started after a rain delay, it was CART at Milwaukee in 2000 and Road America in 2001. I was in attendance at both events and NASCAR’s decisions about this weekend’s race at California made CART look intelligent.

Too bad after those and many other poor decisions in running the business, CART is gone.

A point to ponder for Mr. France, perhaps?

joe mama
02/26/2008 01:00 PM
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Be careful what you wish for their answer may just be to put that off weekend back between California and Vegas. I don’t think any fan liked having an off week two weeks after the season had just begun. While I can’t argue with the distance factor, and I agree that NASCAR could have done a better job with decision making at California, the time of year there isn’t a track except Phoenix and Vegas where you can expect good weather.

Kevin in SoCal
02/26/2008 01:14 PM
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You guys sure like to hog your NASCAR dont you? Forget everyone else, we only want NASCAR in the south for a few thousand people to watch. You should remember what you learned in Kindergarten, to share your toys so everyone can enjoy them.
But if I made the schedule, I would put Kentucky second, California as the night time Mother’s Day race, and move Darlington back to Labor Day so I dont have to listen to the cheese and whine from you guys anymore!! Or even better, make a rotating schedule where some years the second date for race tracks gets moved around to other tracks.
The reason why Rockingham and North Wilkesboro dont have dates any more is because the places are small and falling apart. But I do hope Rockingham gets refurbished enough to host a Truck/Nationwide weekend soon, like next year.

Devo
02/26/2008 01:22 PM
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Let’s go back to Rockingham. Smaller track to dry, earlier starting time, closer to home, and more action. But alas, $$$ talk and there must be more in California. That will all change when nobody cares any more.

dh
02/26/2008 01:41 PM
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It’s interesting to see everyone continue to bash the California race as if we don’t have other races on the circuit (Michigan, Texas, Charlotte…etc, basically any track larger than 1 mile and shorter than 2.5 miles) that create the same type of racing. It’s hard to keep really fast cars and really slow cars in the same general space. On a .5MI track, cars are everywhere, on a restrictor plate race, they’re all bunched up, even races from back in the day reflect exactly what we see today. How many times have I watched JJ DOMINATE at Charlotte, rarely is there a complaint about it being a snoozer?

Is it that Cali isn’t in the deep south, or that it’s somewhere that people don’t feel that NASCAR belongs in? Ok, it’s not the best track in the world, and maybe they should move the dates from being so close to Vegas (which is the detractor to ticket sales..I mean, why go to Fontana when you can to Vegas one week later?).

Other than last weeks debacle of when to run a race, and when to just throw in the towel, (which could have happenend at any track) racing in Cali isn’t so bad. I think this is part of the growing pain in a sport where growth, and exposure is key. Why does NH have 2 dates, what about Pocono (BOOOOORING), I guess what I’m getting at is, there need to be a few different things that NASCAR is willing to do to make racing better, the COT isn’t the complete answer. I like what they’re doing with the Nationwide engine package, maybe that helps. I don’t know, I don’t think that California Speedway is the worst track, and I think there is a lot more than can be done (way before resulting to restrictors being put on the cars at these tracks as well) to make racing better. Otherwise, it will be a long season of follow the leader racing.

Just my opinion, go 29.

Alan
02/26/2008 01:57 PM
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Must have been nice racing in front of all those empty seats.

The only thing that will save NASCAR is a change at the top. It is clear that those in charge have NO idea what made the sport a success. They’re breaking all kinds of speed records heading down the path of CART. For the open wheel guys, it was the focus on road courses that started the collapse. For NASCAR, it is the abandonment of the grassroots fan base.

Rockingham should still be on the schedule but they’ll never admit their mistake and go back so I’ll pose another question. How many folks would have been at Kentucky or Nashville for the Monday makeup? You and I both know 75% or more of the ticketholders would be in attendance.

Of course, then all we would have seen was a good race in front of a good crowd. The bigwigs would have missed rubbing elbows with Tom Cruise and that would just be too much to ask.

McNair
02/26/2008 02:34 PM
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Okay everybody , calm down . The Hack of all Hacks Voelker has again stepped in to let us know that our opinions regarding this column are obviously wrong because they don’t agree with Voelker . Anyone want to help M B find a job that won’t require pretending to be a racing correspondent .

Kevin in SoCal
02/26/2008 04:02 PM
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Alan, I find it hard to believe that you’d see a 75% attendance at another track after a rainout. How many were at Dover and Michigan? Unlike the rest of the country, we Californians actually have to work on a Monday. After all, these wonderful Chinese products you all love to buy from Wal-Mart come in thru the harbor at Los Angeles.

Lunar Tunes
02/26/2008 06:27 PM
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Kevin in S Cal says…“Unlike the rest of the country, we Californians actually have to work on a Monday.”

uhhhhh….ok Kev, where have y’all been for all the Sunday races in the past? Oh, thats right, you were shopping under the grandstands, buying all those neat little die casts and everything else that just came off the boat in the harbor. Followed by a nice brunch at W. Pucks place.

Chris2
02/26/2008 06:30 PM
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Kevin wrote: “The reason why Rockingham and North Wilkesboro dont have dates any more is because the places are small and falling apart.”

The schedule_really could use more small tracks..that is pretty much what many of us grew up on, small tracks. Enough of all the tracks being exactly like the others. Oddly even NASCAR hasn’t wrapped their heads around the fact that Bristol continuously sells out..you’d think they would see that and make a ton of small tracks that still seat 160,000 like Bristol does. To M.B: We only complain because we care..(More than NASCAR does it seems);-)

flip
02/26/2008 06:43 PM
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Cali is great track when Dale Jr. wins there.

Kurt Smith
02/26/2008 08:35 PM
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The main reason that there is animus towards California, dh, is that the long tradition of the Southern 500 was taken away to add a race there. If it were Michigan I think the reaction would be the same.

I actually don’t think that the California races have been all that bad myself, but I still far prefer the racing at Darlington.

As for MB…he (or she) is a fan. Some out there get tired of our negativity, and maybe they have a point. Except I can tell you, it’s often hard to find positive things to say when there are glaring negatives right before our eyes. And this past week’s race just happened to be another loud one.

Kurt Smith
02/26/2008 08:36 PM
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By the way, I don’t care what anyone says…I love Pocono!

trosselle
02/26/2008 09:11 PM
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We can complain about California all we want but we can’t change the weather. It rained on the Brian France Circus for three days and no matter how hard they tried they couldn’t race. I will give NA$CAR a C+ for effort but an F for decision making. When the track is weeping you don’t go racing period.

Here is my take. The schedule needs a major reworking. Going to
California and Las Vegas after spending a week and a half in Daytona doesn’t make any sence to me. Why not make the second race at Homestead or Texas where the weather should be better then Las Vegas and California a few weeks after that.

Oh well, can’t judge NA$CAR. I was just one less fan who didn’t watch a race this weekend.

dh
02/27/2008 12:31 AM
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Kurt – I TOTALLY understand, I guess I just think that it doesn’t get a fair shot because of that, and EVERYONE continues to bash it. It’s tough to see tradition be changed so abuptly but honestly I’m just glad to see them run, but it’s just changing times, likely within 10 years time, that race will be gone from CA, only to be somewhere else…perhaps SC again. Change is hard, we all know that. Just look at that ugly car on the track!

And how can you love Pocono, especially since they don’t let them shift anymore, that was the best part, watching these guys work the gears and drive the car.

Duane
02/27/2008 02:07 AM
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Kevin in SoCal…people who attend races in the south have the experience and the sense to know that a rainout is possible. Most let their bosses know that they may call in that Monday to burn a vacation day or sick day if the forecast doesn’t look favorable. It’s hard for me to imagine with today’s weather technology that you guys out there didn’t have heads up notice of the rain and that maybe there would be some rescheduling. But then it could be that most of the fans in attendance weren’t even CA. residents and couldn’t give up flight plans or the long trips home.

The one positive note…Fontana has been successful in making Michigan and Pocono racing more competitive or at least it appears that way when you measure them to that boring oval. The track is to wide for one thing. When cars are side by side and you can still read the number and sponsors on the doors that are on the inside then the track is to wide. At least the other cookie cutters had presence of mind to make alterations to the track in an attempt to increase competition. Of course they are owned by B. Smith and he still understands racing and the fan. For ISC to do such a move would be a confirmation that they (Frances) made a mistake and we know that never happens.

If they would have just built something similar to Rockingham out there then I feel more of you guys would find the racing interesting enough to attend. I have no problem with California dates and would love to make the trip to attend if the racing was worth the effort but it isn’t with the current configuration.

Kevin in SoCal
02/27/2008 02:40 AM
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One last thing: NASCAR and ISC didnt build the track in SoCal. It was built by Roger Penske and then sold to ISC a few years ago.
I like Pocono too! In fact, I like and appreciate every track. I guess I am not critical enough for this group. I just want to see racing, I dont care where. Maybe they should flip Atlanta and California at the beginning of the schedule, instead of swapping them in the fall.

Steve Cloyd
02/27/2008 11:07 AM
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To Brian,

I could care less if you run the races in the South, North, East, or West. They could all be in freakin’ Alaska for all I care. My only requirement is that the actual track you race the boys on provides good, hard racing. I’m sick of f’ing aero push ruining racing. Fix the cars (nice job with that crap box you’ve created, not) or go to tracks where it isn’t a factor (like Rockingham, duh).

It’s that simple. I don’t give a crap about championships and I have no allegiance to one driver or the other. Put the 43 fastest cars on the track and let them beat each others fenders in until someone wins, the way god and Dale Earnhardt intended it.

Stop being the WWF while so desperately trying to be the NFL at the same time. Be what you were as little as 10 years ago for crying out loud. The racing should be the show, not the broadcasters, not the commercials, not even the drivers when they’re outside of their cars.

P.S. – many people seem to think we’re just bashing California. Nope. We’re bashing what the California track represents when it comes to NASCAR. “Grow the sport” until it’s dead.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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