The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... Toyota's Engine Woes, Five Reasons To Fail Fontana, And Reeling Roush by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday February 24, 2010

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Did You Notice? … That Michael Waltrip Racing-supported cars have suffered five of Sprint Cup’s seven engine failures this year? OK, so maybe the start-and-park efforts of Prism Motorsports shouldn’t be counted, but that’s still an alarming rate to be losing motors (their failure rate for 2010 is nearly 50 percent).

It would be one thing if MWR were making all their engines in-house, like Joe Gibbs Racing. But these are motors sent directly from TRD, making you scratch your head and wonder why they’re failing on those three cars when Team Red Bull hasn’t had a single problem yet. What’s even stranger is that these failures are happening to specific cars within the MWR fleet. David Reutimann hasn’t had a mechanical failure in nearly two years, but cars driven by Waltrip, Marcos Ambrose, and Martin Truex, Jr. have totaled up seven in the last 34 races by themselves. The team claims there’s no such thing as a hierarchy, that everybody gets the same level of technical and engine support. But those numbers make you wonder if certain cars – especially the No. 47 – are starting the year on some sort of experimental R&D.

While he’s yet to be wrecked out of any 2010 races, Marcos Ambrose has 2 DNFs to start off the year, putting his chances at the Chase in jeopardy already.

Ambrose has suffered the most through the mess, his Chase chances already on life support due to failures outside his control. And considering the mess Toyota is in off the track – CEO Akio Toyoda was in a Congressional hearing Tuesday about the manufacturers’ acceleration problems – you wonder where racing engines lie on their list of priorities. Not exactly the smooth transition Waltrip expected from driver to owner, huh?

Did You Notice? … Jeff Gluck’s column this week claiming Auto Club Speedway should still have two dates? Since this is the hot topic of the week (and I couldn’t disagree more), I thought a great way to throw my opinion on the table would be in the form of a good-natured rebuttal. So, in order of Jeff’s five points, here’s why Auto Club keeping two dates would be an absolute travesty:

#1) Jeff: This isn’t about attendance.
Me: Yes … yes, it is.

Attendance may not be the criteria through which fans judge race dates, but to NASCAR the “ka-ching” of those turnstiles mean more than anything else. In the end, it’s all about cold, hard cash and ISC isn’t going to stick around at a place where not enough tickets are sold – especially with their profit margins on life support.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the seven lowest-attended races from last year (all ISC tracks, by the way). Keep in mind these estimates include fans that camped in the infield:

Martinsville (Spring) – 63,000
Martinsville (Fall) – 64,000
Fontana (Fall) – 70,000
Chicagoland – 70,000
Homestead – 70,000
Darlington – 72,000
Fontana (Spring) – 78,000

Which of these will lose the Kansas 2011 sweepstakes? Well let’s take Darlington, Chicagoland, and Homestead out of the equation right away, as they’re one-date wonders that aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

That leaves just Martinsville and Fontana left on the list. But while Martinsville had fewer people, the difference between the two is seating capacity. Martinsville’s is 65,000, while California’s is 92,000. That means while demand for Martinsville tickets remains high – even with infield campers, around 90 percent of tickets were sold for both races – California sold just 50-60 percent of their seats.

That’s important, because low demand forces Gillian Zucker to keep prices down, trimming the profit margins despite the track’s sponsorship from Auto Club. And while Zucker is pulling strings and spending money to get all these B- celebrities to the Speedway, the only thing Martinsville’s spending money on are those pink little hot dogs that give you a smile and a heart attack all in one. I might be guessing here, but I don’t think they’re quite as expensive as Styx …

Look, I still think Michigan could be in the running for these low attendance numbers due to how the state is falling apart. But barring a surprise, Martinsville and California will finish on the bottom of the attendance list once again; and for the stockholders that will ultimately have a say, those numbers are what’s going to drive their decision-making. It’s just basic business sense.

#2) NASCAR in California is a long-term process.
Me: That answer is so 2002.

I agree that NASCAR wasn’t going to catch fire the second it stepped foot in southern California. But to say it’s a long-term process is ignoring the fact we’ve been in this market since 1997. It’s not like the sport just pulled up last year and said, “Hey, California! Here were are!”

So after fourteen years, you’d think some type of NASCAR fan base would begin to take root. It hasn’t. Let’s take a look at attendance the last seven years at California:

Despite an ongoing commitment to racing in California, empty grandstands are becoming more prevalent at Auto Club Speedway.

2003 (One Date) – 120,000
2004 (Spring) – 120,000
2004 (Fall) – 90,000
2005 (Spring) – 90,000
2005 (Fall) – 100,000
2006 (Spring) – 80,000
2006 (Fall) – 102,000
2007 (Spring) – 87,000
2007 (Fall) – 85,000
2008 (Spring) – 70,000
2008 (Fall) – 70,000
2009 (Spring) – 78,000
2009 (Fall) – 70,000
2010 (Spring) – 72,000

That doesn’t look like a long-term success story to me – more like a long-term exodus to the mecca of USC football, the newest Hollywood bar, and virtually anything else other than cars going around in circles. I’m not saying L.A. is an easy market to crack – the NFL doesn’t even have a team there – but they’ve also made it painfully clear NASCAR’s just not high on their list.

And let’s get one thing straight: if NASCAR drivers want to reel in new fans, why the heck aren’t they scouring the streets in L.A., holding public events that’ll help engage interest in the sport? The answer is they’re not doing community-based initiatives. Instead, they’re hopping on national programs like Loveline and The Ellen DeGeneres Show that they can be a part of any old time. Most of the driver appearances I saw this year were limited to the Fontana area only, a completely separate community from L.A. (We’ll get to that in a minute). So if NASCAR’s long-term goal has been to break through in Hollywood, it’s gonna be hard if all you’re doing is showing up to party or make a 15-minute cameo appearance.

“What should they do?” you might be asking. Well, what about doing a charity go kart race somewhere in downtown L.A.? Or working with the Lakers to pop up at the Staples Center during one of their games? You’ve got to go where the people are – not play celebrity for four days and then get out.

#3) Sponsors want to be near L.A.
Me: Let’s not go Sarah Palin here. Sponsors can’t see L.A. from their hotel … because they’re 50 miles away from it.

Sure, sponsors want to be near the country’s second-largest city. But is Fontana really all that close? Answer: no. I’ve done the drive from Fontana to L.A. many times to hang out with friends on race weekend. With no traffic whatsoever, it’s a 45-minute drive – but that’s pulling my best NASCAR impression of 80-85 miles an hour. Typically, you’ll hit at least one traffic jam on the way, leaving “sponsors” 60 to 90 minutes outside the No. 2 market they crave. Don’t believe me? Go poll a random group of 50 out-of-towners and ask them what airport they fly into on race weekend. I’d guarantee you about 75-80 percent will say Ontario, NOT downtown LAX … because it’s just too far away.

I think that’s a big part of the problem, that the sport built this track in an area where it’s not smack in the middle of the city itself. Nowadays, with the attention span of the general public, sponsors need to be wined and dined outside the race track, and the outskirts of Fontana make it feel more like a Richmond – not the second-largest city it’s supposed to be a part of.

Also, keep in mind this argument is all about cutting from two dates to one. It’s not like the sport’s leaving L.A. altogether; if Kansas takes away a date, you’ve still got the October night race smack in the middle of the Chase. And wouldn’t a full-bore, one-time effort selling NASCAR’s playoffs be more effective? One race in the L.A. market would still be “special” in its own way.

#4) The racing stinks, but …
Me: The racing stinks. No conjunction needed.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on board NASCAR 2010, a ship that’s been rapidly sinking the last few years. If Brian France is to follow through with this new “listen to the fans” mentality, there must NEVER be a but next to the words “the racing stinks.” If it stinks, and ISC isn’t going to put money into the track to fix it, well then … one of the dates must go, and the sport needs to go out and spice up the one that’s left (we’ll get to that).

There’s a method of thinking from Jeff’s point here that really bothers me:
After the race, I received several tweets from fans vowing never to return to Auto Club Speedway. The racing just didn’t thrill them and they were disappointed with the experience.

However, I know some of those people are hardcore, devoted NASCAR fans. They’ll continue to watch every week on TV and likely attend races in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Sonoma.

So in that respect, it may be better to view Fontana as a “Racing 101” track: It’s an introduction for new NASCAR fans to see what the sport is about, even if they may not return there.

Sorry Jeff, but that just doesn’t make any sense. It’s good for the sport for fans to attend their first race at Fontana, then go back and tell their friends how much they hated it? I’ll tell you this much, if I was bored at a NASCAR track and people said the competition was better at a place like, say, Sonoma, I wouldn’t believe them. I’d just think to myself “This sport’s not all it’s cracked up to be” and go spend my money somewhere else.

NASCAR has enough fans turning off the television these days. We need to turn the tide of public perception; and half-filled stands of napping fans, some of them racing rookies whose attachment lasted all of five minutes, isn’t the way to get it done.

#5) Once is not enough.
Me: Once is special. And shouldn’t a race in L.A. be special?

Jeff closes with the argument one date at the speedway renders a NASCAR visit virtually meaningless. See this line below:

But taking a race away from California completely defeats the purpose of being there at all. If NASCAR is committed to growing the sport on the West Coast and in the L.A. area, it needs to keep coming twice per year and get new fans exposed to its stars – the drivers.

Hmm. Under that philosophy, shouldn’t we cut races at Infineon, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Kansas, Darlington, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and Homestead? After all, these tracks have just one date (many in major markets), but I guess that’s not enough to expose fans to their favorite drivers.

People are so concerned about the backlash a cutback creates they forget about what’s happened at places like Darlington. Attendance there has skyrocketed since NASCAR cut their dates in half, with the Mother’s Day weekend selling out four years in a row. I expect a similar phenomenon over in Atlanta, where the Labor Day Weekend race far outpaced the Spring in attendance last season (rumor has it in 2011 we’ll be spending Atlanta’s Spring weekend in Kentucky instead).

The same thing can happen in Fontana, even if we don’t fix the track. Here’s what we do: keep the date in October, make it a night race on Columbus Day weekend, and shorten the distance to 300 miles. As we’ve seen the last two years, every once in a while this 2-mile oval shows some signs of life. How about a Sunday night shootout under the lights, where just 150 laps could make or break the difference in the midst of a playoff battle? Pair it with some of ABC’s primetime shows, helicopter in some better celebrities, and you’re putting your best foot forward in this market. Oh, and maybe you do a Chase go kart race in L.A. while you’re at it, similar to the Times Square deal up in New York City.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the bottom line is leaving one race in L.A. won’t be the end of the world. I’d prefer the second date go somewhere where the racing’s light years better (cough … Iowa … cough), but Kansas has shown its fair share of potential in recent years. At this point, pretty much any track would be a viable alternative for an experiment that everyone left behind long ago – except the sport’s officials themselves.

Did You Notice? … This column’s already long enough, so I’ll close with a few quick hits before breaking loose:

- It’s amazing to hear inside the garage how no one’s taking the first few races all that seriously due to NASCAR’s transition to a new spoiler. It’s like teams are looking at this regular season as if it’s split in two; and since the wing is here for only five to six races, most feel you can’t really separate contenders from pretenders until the new handling configurations come into play mid-April.

- Roush Fenway Racing was shut out of the top 5 for the second straight race at Fontana. Considering that had happened only once before, and we’ve been racing there for 14 years … that’s not a good sign they’re ready to dig out of their slump just yet.

- It’s still early, but among the drivers yet to lead a lap this season: Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Along those lines, is it just me or does Stewart-Haas look like it hasn’t quite recovered from stumbling through last year’s Chase?

Contact Tom Bowles

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Mike In NH
02/24/2010 08:24 AM
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Not to pile on too much, I’ll just say that Jeff Gluck’s perspectives on racing are, shall we say… unique? Based on articles and tweets I’ve seen from him. I suppose it’s good to have an opposing viewpoint out there to weigh your opinions against, but it seems Jeff always winds up being the different one.

I’m not a happy man that my racer Marcos Ambrose is getting hosed by the TRD/MWR shops again. Especially when his team is trying to sell more sponsorship to be able to complete the season.

wcfan
02/24/2010 08:25 AM
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#1 Its hard to say its not about attendance when you close Rockingham and take a race from Darlington and cite low attendance as the reason. #2 These numbers say alot, And if you look at history you will see that SoCal does not support nascar racing (touring divisions) as a whole. Ontario Raceway closed late 70’s early 80’s lack of fan support, Riverside Raceway closed late 80’s lack of fan support. #3 LAX is not downtown it is on the coast. The NHRA does not seem to have sponser attendence problems at Pomona and this is not “downtown” #4 Build a good 3/4 or mile track with a 150,000 seats and watch the fans come out for good short track racing. Irwindale always seems to have a great crowd at the Showdown. #5 There are to many 1 1/2 tracks right now so I do not see an extra race at Kansas and Kentucky being much of an improvement over ACS and Atlanta

VaBlueGrass
02/24/2010 08:46 AM
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Remember when NASCAR switched to the Original COT and Roush struggled mightily – to Jack’s own admission they were behind and hadn’t prepared.

Do you think he learned his lesson and is putting all his eggs in the new spoiler basket? If so… will it be too late?

Stephen HOOD
02/24/2010 11:00 AM
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Instead of moving the race, why not change the racing format at some of the poorer performing intermediate tracks? It seems to me that these tracks could provide exciting racing if there was a different format. Instead of a 250 lap race, why not a series of 50-75 lap sprints with the full field followed by a 30 lap shootout with the top 25 cars. I think the racing could be good if NASCAR would think differently about racing at these intermediate tracks.

Kevin in SoCal
02/24/2010 12:20 PM
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The racetrack had to be built out in the boonies of Fontana for a few reasons. One, the land is way too valuable the closer you get to Los Angeles and the coast. Two, only fans want a racetrack in their backyard, regular people hate it. The NHRA dragstrip in Pomona has gone thru several changes and rules lately because of the noise from the pro guys. Back in 2000, the city council voted to limit the number of events at the track, because the residents complained about the noise. That left us amatuers out in the cold with no where to go, but the pros stayed. It was a lose-lose for everyone. Thankfully Fontana stepped up and built us a drag strip, and that’s one of the reasons why I defend them. Remember the complaints around the Charlotte area when Bruton Smith was going to put in the drag strip there? Same thing. There is no land left to put in a racetrack near the people. The only land left is out in the boonies. Over the last 30 years, we have gone from ten quarter-mile drag strips in SoCal, to two, Fontana and Famoso. And the police wonder why there is so much street racing.
I wasnt watching back in the 80’s when Riverside closed, but I went there several times to the drag strip as a kid with my father and his friends. From what I remember Riverside closed for the reasons I said above: The land was too valuable for other things and local resident complaints about the noise and traffic. Right now, there is a mall on the location.
I’m fully in favor of Fontana going back to one date a year, as long as it remains with one date. 400 miles (I prefer 500) in October during the Chase would be perfect. I would much rather lose Fontana than Martinsville, that is for damn sure.

Fordfan
02/24/2010 01:49 PM
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Regarding Fontana. Yes, Kevin has it right that the reasons for the track not being in Los Angeles is price of land and neighborhood noise complaints. The way I see it is that the track is not moving and trying to convince fans, especially local fans, that it is a Los Angeles track is laughable. The whole promotional tact of promoting it as the stars and Hollywood is a giant waste or time and money.

The main reasons for declining attendance is that the track is too big and flat. This is not just a Fontana thing. Look at all the other tracks that people say are boring, e.g. Michigan, Kansas, Pocono,etc. Common sense would indicate a larger space equals more spread out racing— by the way smaller tracks means closer racing, not necessarily good racing. I’m not sure it makes economic sense for ISC to reconfigure the track(more banking and/or a smaller size). The most reasonable answer at this point is make the races 400 miles for more intense racing. It would also help if the local community came on board to give the track a hometown flavor. Right now the whole experience is too cold and sterile. Plus if Dale Jr. could win, o.k. maybe just finish or be competitive, his fans would come back. A little levity at the end!

Ken
02/24/2010 02:46 PM
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I think 72,000 fans at the race is a gross exageration. If the truth were known, I doubt that there were 50,000 people there. Why go to a place where there are not enough fans to support the sport and cause the teams to have far greater expenses because it is so far from their home base? I guess MASCAR is to country for the California crowd. You can take NASCAR out of the country but you can’t take the country out of NASCAR.

goat
02/24/2010 03:17 PM
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One race is enough for Fontana. There needs to be a race at Iowa Speedway, and there needs to be one less at Pocono. That date should be moved to the Pacific Northwest, the only region of the country that has no NASCAR races in the top three series, despite producing multiple Cup drivers (Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Mike Bliss).

MïK
02/24/2010 04:53 PM
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#1…#1! The ONLY reason attendance is a talking point is because the Media (YOU!) keep talking about it.

#2 see what I mean? You’re more about butts in the seat than butts standing up.

#3 The track is as close to LA as it can get without being sold out for condo space. There isn’t enuf Cup competition out here on the left coast as it is. Quit trying to take away more. Come back when Atlanta and Pocono has dropped back to one race (and Pocono, at least, deserves consideration for the lack of Northeast Cup racing).

#4 The racing doesn’t stink. It is a different kind of racing. Do you want ALL of cup to be 1.5 milers? California is like skating’s school figures. It isn’t exciting to watch, but it is still part of the scoring. Not every race can be Bristol, and, quoting Ryan Newman, if you come to see that, you need to go back to monster trucks, or drag racing. California’s races are chess matches…you have to watch for the nuances, the skill moves, NOT the bump and run.

#5 Both California’s races need to stay on the schedule until there is another track out here…Washington, Montana (they could probably use the highway system now), Utah. Until those crowded-together Southeast tracks get thinned a little, LEAVE CALIFORNIA ALONE!

The Mad Man
02/24/2010 05:04 PM
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My friends in California think Fontana has two dates that should be moved. That’s why they come east to see the racing at Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega, and Atlanta.

If they get one date, give them the February date. The weather out there is normally better than it is in the North, Midwest, and South. Move the Labor Day date back to Darlington. Send the Mother’s Day date to Kansas. See how many mom’s turn out for the casino, I mean racing.

No Spin
02/24/2010 05:16 PM
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THE SHOW STINKS, BAD RACE TRACK, THAT’S IT. I GAVE UP MY SEASON TICKETS AND RESERVED SEATS LONG AGO

RobSchulz
02/24/2010 08:55 PM
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Huh? How is Roush “reeling?” They put 3/4 in the Top 9 at Daytona (Ragan, out), and 3/4 (Ragan, out) in the Top 13 (2 Top 10s) at California. Biffle is 3rd in points, Kenseth is 7th, Edwards is 10th (Ragan, out).

Why isn’t “Hendrick Having Trouble?” Jeff Gordon isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, Dale Jr is Dale Jr, and Jimmie Johnson finished incredibly deep in the field at Daytona. I hope you’re not basing everything on a single luck-laden Win. If thats the case, Kenseth’s upcoming victory at Las Vegas should fix that right up. Don’t let his 43rd place Lap 6 Engine failure from 2009 fool you.. He knows the way to victory lane.

Charles
02/25/2010 08:23 AM
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Did you notice how easy Chevy Teams get to dominate without penality in Nascar!!!!!!

As far as attendance at Race Tracks what was the attendence at Sonama and Watkins Glen?

Chris
02/25/2010 09:15 AM
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It seems to me that since they are only drawing approx. 50k fans, one of the events should be moved to Irwindale. The place would sell out year after year, and you could probably fill 100,000 seats, based on the quality of racing there. But, what am I thinking, Irwindale (or Toyota speedway at Irwindale) is not owned by ISC or Bruton, it is actually back to basics racing, and it is a unique track layout that is extremely entertaining. Given those factors, it is clearly a bad idea…

Tim
02/25/2010 09:26 AM
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Lets stop sugar coating this thing and get back to the roots of racing. Admit it…the track and the racing sucks. We should take away the spring race and bring back Rockingham or Riverside.

MJR in Springfield Va
02/25/2010 09:51 AM
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Try this experiment – start now, plan a race in Rockingham, NC for…oh let’s say a year from some weekend in June of this year. Yep, that’s more than a year from now. Sell advanced tickets for $80.00 (that’s twice what I paid for a ticket the first time I went there). Then sit back and see how long it would take to sell out that track. Of course you understand that they would have to bring back the back stretch seats that were moved out.

NA$CAR management (I use that term VERY loosely) is nothing but a bunch of goof-balls. They’ve screwed up this great sport and will continue to do so until there is nothing left

Max
02/25/2010 03:42 PM
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I live in Atlanta, and I am perfectly ok with them moving Atlanta’s spring race date to Kentucky or somewhere else.

Why?

Because they did the smartest thing they could do here and that was give us a night race in warm weather!

It is perfect, the weekend is perfect and they will have great attendance.

The spring race is always a weather crapshoot, i.e. cold as hell and raining (which is what you are going to get in GA that time of year – Duh) and this is no joke, I have attended a LOT of Monday races there because of it.

So I am one race fan that has no problems with it due to the fact I also go to Bristol, Talladega, Darlington, etc.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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