Every sport has a certain time where there’s so much news it practically grows on trees. It’s a journalist’s favorite time of year; one where working overtime is a joy and not a curse, in the midst of sudden scoops and a cell phone that never stops ringing. The winds of change, good or bad, bring debate and discussion that keep the sport as lively off the track as it can be entertaining on it.
That’s how the Fall weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway usually is for NASCAR. With race shops just a stone’s throw away, the hometown race proves the perfect place to finalize plans, announce new teams, and generate overall buzz for next year. At the halfway point in the Chase, it’s the calm before the championship storm, a “timeout” so to speak where everyone has the chance to breathe long enough to focus on 2010 — especially now, when the chilly air gets us all thinking of the warmth and beauty of Daytona just around the corner. Add in Wednesday’s landmark announcement of the first five Hall of Fame nominees, and this particular week began the way these weeks often should, a bonus boost with a chance to carry some serious momentum through Saturday night.
So I’m sure you can guess my reaction when the most popular press conference of the weekend was about … mayonnaise. Yep, that’s right; Hellmann’s revealed a special one-race scheme in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports’ No. 88, the perfect pretense for my media faithful to pack the auditorium and ambush Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for anything but his love for the white stuff on Honey Baked Ham. People stampeded down the steps the moment his sponsor commitments wrapped up, excitedly looking for news on everything from his possible future with Danica to a future crew chief on the No. 88.
But those were answers Junior didn’t know, giving answers both vexing and vague in the defining feature of a weekend that had plenty of condiments but no sandwich upon which to smear them. The RPM cars showed up to Charlotte as Dodge Chargers … and there was still no word as to when or if a merger with Yates would ever be complete (it’s gotten to the point where instead of an actual answer, your sources will just shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, or mouth the word “cra-zy!”) Richard Childress may have had some cute stories about Dale Earnhardt Saturday, but there was no sponsor announcement, no definitive word on the future of his No. 07. Ditto for the No. 1 car at Earnhardt Ganassi, which has gone almost four months with an opening, but is no closer to making a concrete driver and sponsor pairing than the Cubs are to being sold. During a time when drivers, owners, and sponsors are busy dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s, the weekend reminded me of a bunch of people walking around with their shoes untied … with no clue when or if they’ll ever get around to tying them before they trip and fall.
Yes, there were some wonderful moments with Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, and all sorts of Hall of Fame hoopla, but we can only focus on the past so much before turning our attention towards the future. And looking ahead to the final five weeks of the season, that dearth of major Silly Season stories is probably the biggest story hanging over the garage right now: more than Jimmie Johnson’s historic title run failing to captivate the fan base, the struggles with the Car of Tomorrow, or even consistent start times for 2010. Yes, putting the races on at the same time every week is the first step to getting fans to turn back in. But if they don’t like what’s on the television, they’re not going to watch it whether it’s at 1:00 PM or 1:00 AM local time.
That means the next step is to generate the type of word-of-mouth excitement that gets fans to take a second look, either with the on-track racing or off-track developments that could shake things up for next season. And with the, well, current predictability of Johnson taking his fourth straight title, the off-track stuff becomes incredibly important to keep fan’s interest up (especially because Johnson has limited support, as we documented a few weeks ago). Danica is the best example of a long-term news item right now because it’s the only one that I can find; for whether or not you agree with her stock car dreams, it’s hard to find someone not the slightest bit curious as to whether she can get the job done.
But beyond the IRL queen, those stories are few and far between these days in a Silly Season that’s quickly shaping up as one of survival. Blame it on the economy, multi-car dominance, lack of interest, whatever you want, but Charlotte’s silence showed me there’s no new money and new personalities entering the sport to challenge the status quo for 2010. The list of rookies, usually three or four strong by mid-October, is at zero. The list of new teams entering the sport with full-time sponsorship is at zero (unless you count Furniture Row Racing, bringing their No. 78 back to full-time competition after a year of running a part-time effort). Heck, even the list of new sponsors for established teams are ones you can count on one hand: GoDaddy.com, Kleenex, and Lance Snacks (all of which are moving up from the Nationwide Series level).
The reason for nothing new falling into place, I’m often told, is because the economy and manufacturer struggles have delayed decisions later than usual. This January could end up being like the last, some say, where a handful of small teams quickly come together with hopes of making the Daytona 500. Yet of all those new teams that debuted in ‘09, none of them other than Richard Childress’ No. 33 have been able to make it a whole season without starting-and-parking – not exactly the type of refreshing new competition fans want to see challenge the main establishment. And of course, RCR’s one-year experiment with a fourth car may be only that, likely joining the RPM-Yates duo and Earnhardt Ganassi as teams that have had to pull back their car count either this year or next.
That leaves a dwindling ownership country club at the top with Hendrick currently in a class by himself, creating a challenge to catch up that won’t be so easy without testing and proper engineering support approaching the level of the 550 employees within that organization. Brad Keselowski, leaving for Penske Racing next year, made it clear he thinks his new team needs “100 more people” to be competitive with HMS – and that’s for an organization that already employs close to 300.
On second thought, no wonder why the onslaught of new ownership has stalled. It’s hard enough for anyone to pay 20 employees these days, not 15 times that amount. How can you sell new blood on the sport when its key to success comes with a price tag of nearly $100 million? That’s not buzz … it’s buzzkill.
I asked Hendrick Saturday night whether he thought NASCAR might try and level the playing field if his team finished the season 1-2-3 in points.
“I don’t know what else they could do,” he said. “The motors are all so close, the bodies are the same, the chassis are the same. NASCAR is doing a great job of policing it.”
“[For us,] it’s leadership and people working together [that make the difference]. I don’t know how we could make it any fairer.”
Actually, there was someone who could think of a way. Hendrick didn’t realize his driver named the difference just a good two minutes earlier.
“So much of it is done in engineering [these days],” said Johnson as to why HMS built this year’s edge. “It’s the group of people making those decisions. Without the testing, we’ve had to rely more on our simulation programs and the tools and stuff that we have to measure and build these race cars, and it boils down to those guys.”
Engineers … Simulation programs … chassis tools the small teams can’t and will never have the money to buy, what the manufacturers even struggle with these days in the eyes of cutting costs are now the difference between 1st and 35th. And even with the big programs in tough financial straits, the personnel on Hendrick’s roster are less likely than ever to move in the offseason, with no new teams or contract offers to lead them elsewhere – which will make it more difficult to challenge their chemistry. Oh, and did I mention no changes to the Car of Tomorrow for next season, either?
Once again, that leads to an awkward keyword for Silly Season right now: status quo. And in this age of ADD, where this generation can’t spend more than two minutes without checking their Blackberry, tweeting their friends, and plugging in a new iPhone app, the status quo doesn’t hold their attention so much as a good shakeup.
Perhaps it was appropriate that this weekend’s race at Charlotte was the chilliest in recent memory, with attendance numbers down 34 percent from a year ago. As I walked out of the media center late Saturday night, temperatures were hovering at close to freezing and not a sound could be heard – just the quiet hum of haulers pulling out towards home at the awkward hour of 3 AM.
I’d never seen the track so ice cold, in more ways than one. And I hope that I never do again.
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