Thomas Bowles · Wednesday October 16, 2013
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.
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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