The Frontstretch: Help Wanted! NASCAR's Charlotte Buzz Goes Silent by Thomas Bowles -- Monday October 19, 2009

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Help Wanted! NASCAR's Charlotte Buzz Goes Silent

Thomas Bowles · Monday October 19, 2009

 

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.

RPM showed off a Ford Fusion this weekend with their logo on it, but will the confusion over the Fusion situation pass and the merger come to fruition?

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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Bill B
10/19/2009 07:37 AM
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With no testing and no changes to the COT NASCAR has attained a state of arrested development. Hendrick is at the top of the pack and there is no way for other teams to get better (With the exception of hiring more engineers I guess. But aren’t they more expensive than testing?).

The Turnip!
10/19/2009 09:52 AM
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Well stated!

Kudos!

NA$CRAP traded “testing” for “engineering”, and engineers, good one’s, do not come cheap!

But yet again, as always, NA$CRAP insists the POS “reduces expenses”!

Yah! Right!

But what am I? Just a dumb stupid TURNIP!

How dare we have the intelligence to question NA$CRAP!

Carl D.
10/19/2009 10:02 AM
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Thanks for a very insightful article. As I posted on another Frontstretch column, this year I did not renew the reservation for my infield space at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I’ve had this space since Charlotte first started requiring fans to reserve infield spaces, probably around 1990 or 1991. However, I’ve been attending races at Charlotte since long before that. Not any more; I’m done.

The first straw was the year they kept stopping and restarting the Coke 600 due to rain, but once the Lowes car finally got the lead, they stopped the race for good, handing the win to Johnson at his sponsor’s home track. The final straw was more subtle… as the 600 approached this past May, not a single one of my friends wanted to make the trip. Not a single one of us thought the racing was worth attending.

It’s a shame that non-ISC tracks have to pay the price for the “status quo” state of Nascar, but unfortunately the product just isn’t worth what it costs anymore. It’s sad, but I have to make a statement with my wallet because that’s the only thing that will ultimately get Nascar’s attention.

Mark
10/19/2009 12:27 PM
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Hendrick being so far ahead because of their engineering ??? I hate to break it to you Tom , but there are several other teams in the sport besides your favorite . And if you want to see engineering , go to Roush . And do you really think that Gibbs is lacking the resources to compete with HMS .
No , the only difference between HMS and every other team out there is the inability of NASCAR inspectors at the R&D center to take the 48 car apart down to the bare frame , not just the usual inspection , then cut the frame rails into sections , to find the real source of their seemigly unearthly performance advantage . Remember the old days of hidden nitrous bottles in the frame rails ? Until NASCAR takes one of those cars completly apart , the 48 will just keep on winning .

midasmicah
10/19/2009 01:01 PM
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I’m numb, but no comfortably. Call it lack of racing. Call it droning clones driving the cars (emotion not accepted). Call ita car incapable of any side by side racing. Call it a lot of tracks that are not built for stock car racing. oh, I forgot. There are no stock cars anymore. Call it buyers remorse for allowing an organization to take their sport and turn into a cheap imatation of F-1. Call it having to watch and listen to networks that refuse to give race fans any real substance. Just slick sound bytes and overdone visuals complete with one trick ponies. And call it letting one racing organization (two when you count SH)dominate the field. Call it a thing called the chase designed to fix what wasn’t broken along with other knee-jerk reactions. My attention has been waning for the last few years, but now it’s gone. For the SECOND week in a row I didn’t watch a nas$car race on tv. nas$car should be worried when long time fans like me get to this point, but I don’t forsee any changes coming that will remedy this situation. In ending all I will say is Im sad.

Manny
10/19/2009 01:31 PM
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Jimmie runs away from everybody with a 7 second lead and I’m supposed to beleive all the engines are the same or close? Right. Pull my other leg.

How come Jimmie only seems to do this when the chase comes around? They are somehow getting more HP than the other drivers. But since they are in a chevy (not toyota) and are a Hendrick team, I doubt nascar will “find” anything.

And it didn’t take a brain surgeon to know that with “no testing”, the top team is only going to stay at the top.

Lou
10/19/2009 05:20 PM
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I don’t buy into they must be cheating because they are faster and winning.

I don’t care for what Nascar has done to the car and the cautions to bunch the field at the end.

Racing circle track winners are all decided by corner speed not straight line speed. Who ever is fastest in the corner will carry that speed plus the added speed they get in the straigts. It looks like horsepower but it isn’t.

I raced circle track for many years driving modifieds and sprint cars. I have seen it because I did it. Lower horsepower yet faster times. Guys would wonder what I did to the engine and I always got a chuckle out of that. It was not horsepower.

Jimmie has the ability to drive a loose car better than most and still get around the track. The guy who can drive the car that is loosest at the beginning of a run will be the fastest as fuel loads drop because the car tightens up as you lose rear weight.

If your car gets to tight you have to lift and wait on the car to get back to the throttle. So if you can start real loose you will be just right when the fuel burns down. You don’t loose anything at first and you look really fast as the fuel burns down but really the other guy is just going slower and you are maybe a tick bit faster.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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