The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Safe Or Stale?, NASCAR's Challenge And A Hefty Price To Pay by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 16, 2013

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Did You Notice? … The rabble-rousing excitement surrounding NASCAR’s 2014 schedule? No? I didn’t either. A weak round of minor changes, despite a growing chorus of voices calling for more was all that was handed out this Tuesday. We still have 36 dates, at the same tracks, along with a ten-race playoff that proves increasingly unpopular with the fan base. The one adjustment that raised eyebrows did so in the wrong direction; Darlington, successful for years on Mother’s Day Weekend (but ten times more successful on the Labor Day one) has been moved to April to accommodate one of two “new” night races at Kansas. That switch, which arguably makes the weather situation worse at the South Carolina racetrack, could dent attendance and interest in one of the sport’s legendary speedways.

Moving Darlington’s Mother’s Day Weekend race to April was one of very few major changes to the 2014 schedule.

The other “minor” swaps, involving Texas and Martinsville are really nothing to write home about. Instead, we’re supposed to “champion” the stability of this piece of paper, amidst lagging attendance and revenues while championing the newfound availability of NASCAR’s rain-delay savior… the Air Titan!

“Our goal is to develop this so that it’s feasible for a short track to be able to purchase one of these,” explained O’Donnell, while announcing the technology – absent during last month’s Chase race at Chicagoland – would be provided to all tracks in 2014. “[We want to give them the Air Titan and] use that for their tracks as well. It’s really a game-changer not only for the national series, but all throughout racing.”

At least they’re giving tracks, some of which NASCAR owns through its International Speedway Corporation, the opportunity to use this breakthrough equipment without breaking the bank. But why is that the biggest piece of news we’re seeing? With all sorts of “ground zero” ideas to inject fresh energy into the sport, from new Cup tracks (Iowa?), to a road course in the Chase, to midweek special events… why did we get the “same old, same old?” One could argue 2015, the first year of a new TV package was a better time to experiment. But when change feels necessary, the last thing you want to do with a patient approaching serious condition is wait.

“It’s certainly something we look at,” said O’Donnell when asked that very question, “But it’s not as easy as just flipping the switch and moving [a date]. There’s a lot of things that come into play with weather, TV calendars, travel.”

While that answer is fair, it’s also standard fare for every season. Would two TV networks, in the final year of their deals where they’re supposedly losing money be that opposed to trying something new? Especially when it comes to the season’s second half, it seems easier than NASCAR’s making it sound to shake things up in “lame duck” circumstances. That’s especially true when two entities, ISC and SMI own 31 of the race dates. Are so many stockholders, high up in those companies worried about the financial risk of shifting? What about the financial risk if they don’t? With so many tracks turning red, not black with their budget that’s the simple – and realistic excuse – to buck tradition and make a date change. The track isn’t changing, nor the quality of racing… it’s just the date. Season ticket holders should roll with that.

In the end, that’s not what NASCAR believes; the “status quo” is the safe play by comparison. My fear is that in doing so, they’re confusing “safe” with “stale.”

Did You Notice? … The black eye of “Spingate” has ended with 40 people losing their jobs? Those pink slips got printed Monday, rumors and speculation turned awkward reality as Michael Waltrip Racing announced a pending cutback from three cars to two. As a result, their 265-person workforce will be trimmed, by 15 percent come November while driver Martin Truex, Jr. and crew chief Chad Johnston have been told to look for “other opportunities.”

For some, this move means poetic justice, cheaters proven guilty stripped of not just their dignity but the finances needed to effectively compete. Make no mistake, that’s exactly what happened here; MWR is lucky at all to be fielding any teams for 2014. Co-owners Rob Kauffman and Michael Waltrip, schooled in the art of PR, tried to make it sound all warm and fuzzy this week. “A third, part-time Research and Development car is the way to go,” they tried to say as if this whole bloodbath of money and reputations was a natural step on the road to success. Try selling that story to Lindsay Lohan; I’m sure she’ll tell you rehab and public shame was all part of her “master plan” to capture Hollywood’s attention.

Sure, one claim from those co-owners rings true; with the right people, combined with the right engineering and sponsorship a smaller setup still has potential. After all, the last two champions, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski drove for two-car teams at the time they held the trophy. The big difference? Both men did so, prevailing against the odds without recovering from the stigma of modern-day fraud and humiliation. Clint Bowyer may be a comedian, plus one top-level talent behind the wheel but I promise you he’s no miracle worker. And Brian Vickers? He’s a walking miracle himself, facing health issues that, fair or not, have simply completing a full season in the No. 55 Toyota next year a basic goal in itself. Title dreams, once a longshot for this organization have died on the vine, at least for the short-term.

Still, to sit there, basking in the glory of MWR’s self-destruction would ignore the catastrophic damage they caused. Five weeks after a regrettable spin, the number of people becoming innocent victims simply continues to keep spinning out of control. There are 40 people, sitting at home right now unsure come December how they’re going to earn a paycheck for not just themselves, but their families. Jobs aren’t growing on trees inside this fledgling NASCAR economy; some of these people will be out of the sport, forever unless they take a major demotion, pay cut, or both. A few others won’t even get that chance, despite a resume that lists trips to Victory Lane. That’s reality.

There’s also a driver/crew chief combo, Truex and Johnston sent packing as a consequence of their own success. All they did was run well enough, throughout the course of a 26-race regular season to sit on the precipice of making the Chase. Both men, respected throughout the garage, would have been fine to miss it based on merit. Their season, by and large was successful; they still had a shot at one, maybe two more race wins. No, it’s the people around them, who without their knowledge let thirst for greed and multi-million playoff bonuses overrule the principles of fair play.

What are the duo’s options now? At best, Furniture Row Racing, a lateral move to a single-car outfit whose connection with Richard Childress Racing may weaken in 2014. After all, the multi-car organization has a new alliance, with Germain Racing, is rumored to add JTG-Daugherty and will be preoccupied with their owner’s grandson / superstar heir apparent, Austin Dillon. And if Truex turns down FRR? There’s not enough room at the inn, for any of the remaining multi-car operations unless sponsor NAPA can be persuaded to sign on the dotted line.

Let’s all hold out hope that potential partnership happens, somewhere. For NAPA, through a team’s betrayal has made us all innocent victims along with them. One of the sport’s most loyal backers, since 2001 the company’s potential to turn its back completely sends a multi-million dollar mess of a message. Words need not be spoken; their actions reveal NASCAR’s loss of integrity, from a business standpoint that will be splashed on the internet for every Fortune 500 company looking to one day invest. A difficult sell just got one step tougher; instead of shilling out positives, weary marketers must now spend the first half-hour of their pitch explaining why their sport is “not fixed.”

So yes, the news of Michael Waltrip Racing’s partial demise should be met with the same type of sadness as Brian Vickers’ leave of absence from the sport. There are no winners here, in this sorry sack of a situation.

Only victims and villains.

(P.S. – Many thanks to fellow staffer S.D. Grady for the inspiration. Her column, a good pairing to this take on things can be found here.)

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

- Yes, I know the justice system needs to take its course. But here we are, one week after a domestic violence accusation and Travis Kvapil is still employed by BK Racing. Are there really that few qualified drivers left sitting in the garage area? Or are co-owners Wayne Press and Ron Devine really that cheap? After all, it’s the same duo Landon Cassill claimed owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars after parting ways with the organization back in January.

Let’s assume Kvapil winds up innocent. That still doesn’t excuse an average finish of 30.4, no top-10 results and just seven lead-lap finishes this season. Eight DNFs are mostly not of his making – mechanical gremlins have plagued the BK Toyotas this year – but it still seems like the No. 93 team has taken a step back. So why take the risk, hoping for no black eye in this situation when you’ve got a guy you might end up releasing anyway? Swan Racing, with no controversy facing them is at least taking the right approach, running everyone from Cole Whitt to Parker Kligerman as they look to build up their program. BK should have snagged a young driver, put him in the seat, auditioned him to potentially replace Kvapil and then waited for the marital drama (and potential abuse) to be fully flushed out.

- Mother Nature dealt a cruel hand to nine of the 13 Chase teams this week. A test at Texas Motor Speedway got washed out, with rain for the first two days meaning Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing will come back next week instead. That, to me gives Richard Childress Racing and Kevin Harvick a teeny little extra edge. There was a reason teams chose the weekend between Charlotte and Talladega to fly out there; the race was on Saturday night, giving them more rest time and there’s only so much prep you can do for ‘Dega. A Monday after a plate race, coming back a second week when you’re 24 hours removed from a possible decimating wreck is far from ideal. It’s the end of the season, stamina is low and it’s an extra hurdle Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon just didn’t need.

(Next week: a look at the five drivers, with one win in 2012 who remain shut out in 2013. Pressing news pressed us right out of room on that one.)

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Robin1
10/16/2013 06:30 AM
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Travis Kvapil being able to race last weekend was a slap in the face (literally) to abused women everywhere. At the very least they should have suspended him until the court case played out. Just another example of the “good ol’ boy system of justice”.

Russ
10/16/2013 06:35 AM
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While 40 job losses are unfortunate, it pales compared to the hundreds of thousands in the workplace the last few years.
As to MWR, it actually got off pretty lightly. And unless Kvapil has some ownership in BK Racing his retention is inexcusable. Not many companies will want to be associated with him next year.

Bill B
10/16/2013 07:08 AM
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Well at least someone has called MWR on the positive spin their press release tried sell us. Losing a team as a result of making a huge mistake is a NEGATIVE. No two ways about it.

I’m not a fan of Krapil but this new mentality in the U.S. that you are guilty until proven innocent is really sad. And it’s not just in sports, it seems to be the norm now. The presumption of innocent until proven guilty is what used to set us apart from the “evil empires”.

RickP
10/16/2013 07:54 AM
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I’m with you Bill. I’d be very afraid if Thomas, Robin and Russ were on a jury where all it takes is allegations for a conviction.

MWR got what they deserved except that the wrong driver ended up getting punished.

JP
10/16/2013 08:09 AM
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Well, at least we have this booming economy and Obamacare to help everyone out.

Seriously, MWR should state his guilt, then become another satellite Hendrick team. Oh, and hire a good-looking set of boobs to drive one of his cars. That will help bring in extra money.

Carl D.
10/16/2013 08:23 AM
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I also agree with Bill B. Kvapil should be presumed innocent until the facts are known. Why are people so quick to judge, especially when they don’t know all the details?

I for one hope NAPA will fund Truex driving for another major team, though that looks less likely as each day passes. What NAPA, or any other potential sponsor needs to see is what a great story it will be when Truex finds new success down the road. He’s a great driver, and if he ever makes the chase again, it will be the comeback of the decade. Truex is paying for MWR’s sins, but his redemption will be so sweet when it comes.

Carl D.
10/16/2013 08:30 AM
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P.S… Tom, I saw you on “Crowd Goes Wild” the other day. Nice job. Those panelists were another story. They obviously know less about Nascar than my cat does. Still, you handled them with class and it was nice to put a face with your name.

jerseygirl
10/16/2013 09:47 AM
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Well, the 2014 schedule sure has nothing for NASCAR to really crow about, but they will anyway. Steve O’Donnell is PR city, but useless. As you said, pretty much same old same old, except that Darlington got screwed big time so that Kansas – yuck – could get a better date. Must be nice to be a wholly owned ISC track and get all the perks. We’ve been going to Darlington for years before the Labor Day switch and continued for the Mother’s day change – I have to say that weather plays a big factor for me in deciding what races I buy tickets to attend. I’m not that interested in throwing my money away. Martinsville, IMO, also got screwed on this deal with that late March date – I’ve sat through cold & drizzly weather there – it is not that much fun. Two tracks that are unique and as usual NASCAR would rather play nice with another 1.5 mile oval. Big whoop.

I would also like to see the Chase go away! Someone buy Brian a football team so he will go away, too.

I am sorry for the people who lost their jobs at MWR – not their fault at all that their “leadership”, if you can call it that, decided that cheating was the way to go. I don’t feel bad at all for Waltrip & Kaufmann however – they are responsible and it has become silly watching them do the dance. Oh yeah of course Ty Norris still has HIS job.

Bill
10/16/2013 10:14 AM
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Yes the wrong driver came out on the short end of the stick, but come Feb. DW will spin the story and say how great MWR is and Fox will give them plenty of coverage.

JER
10/16/2013 10:52 AM
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Bill B – I couldn’t agree more with your comments. What has happened to our country or more precise, “American Mentality”. Just because someone is accused, suspected, arrested or charged with a crime, does not make the person automatically guilty of the crime. Your can tell from other comments, that no one is “afforded the due process” anymore. The mentality now, is “Someone said he did it, so he must have did it” end of story. How sad!

Glen H.
10/16/2013 11:00 AM
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With MWR dropping down to two teams, I wonder how many races will have a short field next year. There were several races this year that had 43 entries and next year – barring a miracle – there’ll only be 42 full time teams.

I hope that Truex finds a ride for 2014, he deserves better than what happened to him.

Robin1
10/16/2013 11:13 AM
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To all the people who say Kvapil is innocent until proven guilty, as far as I am concerned if his wife was slapped, hit, or pushed by him or felt threatened enough by him to call 911 to begin with, then he is guilty. And you can be rest assured that this wasn’t the first incident. It may be the first time she has reported it. And I might add, that women who are abused are very reluctant to press charges due to being afraid and that is why the state has to end up prosecuting the aggressor.

JD in NC
10/16/2013 11:29 AM
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One thing NASCAR failed to consider in the stupid date switch between Darlington and Kansas is that Kansas is in tornado alley and May is the peak of the severe weather season in that part of the country.

Dane
10/16/2013 12:08 PM
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Steve O’Donnell is full of it. The only honest thing he said in the press release is that “NASCAR is happy with the current length and makeup of the schedule”. He’s been “hinting” at new venues and changes to the schedule for years. Newsflash – it’s not going to happen in 2014. As long as ISC and SMI have a stranglehold on the schedule and NASCAR keeps charging these outrageous sanctioning fees it’ll never happen. Once the independent tracks like Dover or Pocono start to struggle, ISC or SMI will swoop in and “save” their company, and also move their race dates to tracks like Vegas and Kentucky. Just what we need, more tracks that provide boring racing. As a fan since 88, I decided to sit out the Chase after the whole spingate and 13 driver Chase nonsense. I still check the results and feel like I haven’t missed anything. I was hoping that some tweeks to the schedule for next year would rejuvenate my interest, but I think I’ll be sitting things out next year as well and just check the results. With the schedule change Darlington is now beginning it’s slow death. Martinsville will eventually cut back to one race because of “attendance”. If NASCAR actually cared about improving their product, they’d have a schedule of 30 races max, with half on 1.5-2.5 milers, and half on short tracks and road courses. They aren’t dumb – they know short tracks and road courses provide the best races. In the end, money talks – It’s too bad they will no longer be getting any of mine.

babydufus
10/16/2013 12:19 PM
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regarding schedules changes i find it hard to believe that nasacre leadership would want to throw away darlington with out a reason. whatever it is is probably money related. i’m afraid you might be right though about the “stale.”

the whole MWR thing is just sad but a fitting statement on the how the very bones of nascar’s inner working and culture are rotting from the inside. does anyone think that either of the bill france’s would have reacted the same way?
i’m going to have to agree with Bill B on the Kvapil issue. he may or may not turn out quilty in the end but i’ll hold ANY judgment until ive seen ALL the facts or “the justice system” takes is due course.

Glen H has a good point about full fields or at the very least the actual quality of the field. i suppose they can always throw morgan shepherd a few bucks to show up at a race so there’s 43 cars.

Bill B
10/16/2013 12:25 PM
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Robin1,
Never heard the phrase “due process” have you? Or maybe you just don’t think it’s important or belive in it.
Hey, if it turns out he’s guilty you can lock him out and throw away the key for all I care but I do believe there is supposed to be a trial and judgement by a jury of his peers. Of course, they are traditional American values which are evaporating before our eyes every day.
Just be careful what you wish for. The fall from a free state to a police state may not be as far as you think it is.

Carl D.
10/16/2013 01:02 PM
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True story…

My son came home from work late one evening and his wife, who had stopped taking her bi-polar meds, flew into a rage. She began destroying things in the home and then came at him with a kitchen knife. He was able to subdue her, and afterwards she called 911. Although he did not hit her and left no marks on her body, he was taken to jail and charged with domestic assault. The next day, when he went before the judge for his bail hearing, a victim’s advocate was there trying to talk his wife into not pressing charges. My son had no prior arrests for any violent crimes or domestic disturbances. He ultimately pled no contest to the charges in order to take advantage of a first-time offenders program that would keep him out of jail. And his wife will be the first one to tell you none of this would have happened if she hadn’t gone off her meds and instigated the confrontation.

Men can be the victims of domestic abuse too.

Carl D.
10/16/2013 01:06 PM
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Correction… the victim’s advocate was there trying to talk my son’s wife into not dropping the charges.

Upstate24fan
10/16/2013 01:12 PM
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MWR is very lucky to still be fielding 2 full time teams in 2014. I feel bad for the Truex, Johnson and the employees that will lose their jobs, but this is the price MWR paid.

As for the schedule, I’m optimistic there will be big changes in 2015. Hopefully, a major shake up of Chase tracks (+ a road course), Darlington back on Labor Day and maybe a new track (Road America or Iowa).

I think slowly but surely NASCAR is listening. The test at Charlotte on Monday is a really positive step, and shows they will be more pro-active about improving the racing.

Steve
10/16/2013 01:28 PM
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I have an interesting question. If the networks wanted the Chase gone, would Brian actually end it? I’m anxiously awaiting what 2015 will bring with these new networks. Will they follow along with the status quo or demand some changes. Will be interesting to see.

Mr O’Donnell’s comments on the schedule totally lost credibility when he stated that they liked the balance of tracks on the schedule. I think his scale is a little off compared to everyone else.

Fed Up
10/16/2013 02:44 PM
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I have a lot of trouble believing everyone at MWR wasn’t in on the shenanigans. You can’t make me believe that lots of scenarios weren’t addressed before final race. I can’t believe Mikey & Martin’s Sergeant Shultz demeanor.

Tom Dalfonzo
10/16/2013 10:09 PM
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No Labor Day Weekend at Darlington Raceway, no Road America, no Iowa Speedway, no Circuit of The Americas, no Eldora Speedway, no Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and no Rockingham Speedway. There are no new tracks added, tracks that would really spice up NASCAR’s premier racing series. NASCAR built our hopes up, then dashed them.

Here is MY 2014 Cup Series schedule. You will all agree that mine is better.

MY 2014 NASCAR CUP SERIES SCHEDULE

Daytona Beach Invitational – Streets of Daytona Beach, FL – Feb 9 – 12:00 PM – CBS

Duel 1 – Daytona Intl. Speedway – Feb 13 – 12:00 PM – CBS

Duel 2 – Daytona Intl. Speedway – Feb 13 – 4:00 PM – CBS

1 Daytona 500 – Daytona Intl. Speedway – Feb 16 – 12:00 PM – CBS

2 International Trucks 300 – Circuit Of The Americas – Feb 23 – 1:00PM – CBS

3 Bodog 400 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway – Mar 1 – 8:00PM – CBS

4 Armor All 500 – Phoenix International Raceway – Mar 8 – 8:00PM – CBS

5 California Pizza Kitchen 500 – Irwindale Speedway – Mar 15 – 8:00PM – CBS

6 Corona Extra 250 – Sonoma Raceway – Mar 23 – 3:00PM – CBS

7 Old Milwaukee Northern 500 – The Milwaukee Mile – Mar 30 – 12:00PM – CBS

8 Richard Petty/Dale Earnhardt 343 – Rockingham Speedway – Apr 6 – 12:00PM – CBS

9 Dodge 500 – Martinsville Speedway – Apr 13 – 12:00PM – CBS

10 Bud Light 500 – Talladega Superspeedway – Apr 20 – 12:00PM – CBS

11 Rita’s 400 – Kentucky Speedway – Apr 26 – 7:00PM – CBS

12 A&W 400 – Gateway International Raceway – May 3 – 7:00PM – CBS

13 Uno Chicago Grill 400 – Iowa Speedway – May 10 – 7:00PM – CBS

14 Johnny Rockets 400 – Nashville Superspeedway – May 17 – 7:00PM – CBS

15 World 600 – Charlotte Motor Speedway – May 25 – 5:00PM – CBS

16 Valvoline 400 – Pocono Raceway – Jun 8 – 12:00PM – CBS

17 Wendy’s 250 – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course – Jun 15 – 12:00PM – CBS

18 Samuel Adams 300 – New Hampshire Motor Speedway – Jun 22 – 12:00PM – CBS

19 Castrol 400 – Dover International Speedway – Jun 29 – 12:00PM – CBS

20 Firecracker 400 – Homestead-Miami Speedway – Jul 5 – 7:00PM – CBS

21 Red Lobster 250 – Lime Rock Park – Jul 13 – 12:00PM – CBS

22 Coors Light 500 – Pikes Peak International Raceway – Jul 20 – 2:00PM – CBS

23 NAPA 500 – Evergreen Speedway – Jul 27 – 3:00PM – CBS

24 Brickyard 400 – Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Aug 3 – 1:00PM – CBS

25 Cracker Barrel 500 – Atlanta Motor Speedway – Aug 9 – 7:00PM – CBS

26 Buffalo Wild Wings 400 – Richmond Intl. Raceway – Aug 16 – 7:00PM – CBS

27 Mack Trucks 500 – Bristol Motor Speedway – Aug 23 – 7:00PM – CBS

28 Southern 500 – Darlington Raceway – Aug 31 – 5:00PM – CBS

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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