The Frontstretch: 2007: The Worst NASCAR Season Ever by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday September 26, 2007

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2007: The Worst NASCAR Season Ever

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 26, 2007

 

I may be in the minority here (my heritage notwithstanding), but for many reasons, to me this season has been one of the worst in recent memory for NASCAR.

Perhaps ever.

To look back on it that way is quite disappointing – especially since 2007 started out with so much promise. There was the addition of a new manufacturer in Toyota, a new face in the form of a former Formula One superstar, and the network that started the ball of unencumbered growth rolling in the mid 1980's was about to take over NASCAR coverage again. And, if all that wasn’t enough, for the first time since 1981, a new breed of car was about to hit the track.

Then the season actually started.

In all fairness, things began to suck big time before the green flag ever fell on Speedweeks in Daytona Beach. A week after New Year’s, on the 7th of January, Bobby Hamilton Sr.'s courageous 9-month battle with head and neck cancer drew to a tragic close. On January 16th, Benny Parsons passed away in a Charlotte hospital from complications resulting from lung cancer. Losing one of the Truck Series’ fiercest competitors – followed up by one of the most beloved figures in the sport's history just one week later – put a damper on festivities as the season began, to say the least.

But the show went on.

And just as it went on, many competitors went home. After qualifying for the Daytona 500, Roush Racing crew chief Robbie Reiser was sent home, as were all of the Evernham crew chiefs, for creative use of duct tape inside the racecar. To this day, no one really knows for sure who put what in Michael Waltrip's fuel cell. Following the Gatorade 150 qualifiers, Jeff Gordon's car was found to have a suspension "failure" that lowered the back of his car significantly. He was sent to the back of the field, but no further penalties were handed out.

And thus began the year of the make-up-the-rules-as-we-go-along knock against NASCAR. Accusations flew that the sport was devolving into little more than professional wrestling with helmets instead of masks, SAFER barriers replacing turnbuckles, and sponsor mentions replacing personality. This was further fueled by the last lap antics in the Super Bowl of Racing, the Daytona 500. As Mark Martin was headed towards a very nice consolation prize for never having won a Championship in NASCAR's premier series, a wreck of Mad Max proportions was occurring behind him. With cars upside down, on fire, spinning, crashing, and careering into one another, NASCAR, for the first time since the Fall of 2003, did not freeze the field under yellow.

The result was, ironically, a controversial win for a car festooned in Caution Flag Yellow and Race Has Stopped Red.

Speaking of yellow flags, we saw a lot of those early on this year, too. The very next week at California, the term "Phantom Caution" and "NASCAR Yellow" were thrust into our vocabulary. Statisticians dug up numbers that clearly suggested that racing must have gotten a lot more dangerous since 2001, because all of a sudden there was a threefold increase in cautions per race. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to ever actually "see" what or who the caution was for. Things got so bad Tony Stewart actually mouthed off about the subject in April, claiming NASCAR was throwing the caution flag too often and never giving a reason why.

You will note that, amazingly, since then, we've had a lot of green flag racing in 2007, and not nearly as many cautions as we once had.

But most importantly, it’s the development of the Car of Tomorrow and how it’s come along which has made both old and new seasons turn into more of a waste. The CoT was touted as being the machine that would save NASCAR from the pitfalls of ever-rising costs and technology run amok: gone would be the contorted cock-eyed, twisted bodies of today, taking aerodynamics out of the equation and putting control back in the driver's hands. At least, that was the goal. I’m not so sure it happened every time; Kyle Busch won the first CoT race back in Bristol, and his first comments about the machine that he had just made history in were simply, “it sucks.”

Also, when NASCAR developed the CoT, they forgot one key component: aesthetics. The goal was to create a car that looked and acted like a truck: the last time car builders embraced that idea, the results were such abominations as the AMC Eagle, Dodge Rampage, and Subaru BRAT. And don’t even get me started on El Caminos.

Handsome machines, they are not. Just like the CoT.

Moreover, the car seemingly has had just about the opposite effect on budgets and reigning in technology to date. A team may not need a fleet of ten race cars at $200,000, a pop or invest a lot of time in the wind tunnel - but they now are forced to acquire a $3 million piece of equipment known as a seven-post shaker rig, and a crew of engineers to work it, interpret the data, and apply it in a useful form. Roush Racing driver Greg Biffle, following this past Sunday's race at Dover, said the car was set up exclusively from notes gathered on their machine - he offered virtually no input to the car as a result.

In a way, that’s good, because you can't work on these things anymore, either. Tony Eury, Jr., Chad Knaus, and Steve Letarte found that out the hard way. The body is off limits; suspension is limited so much so that on flat tracks, the left front wheel is carried in the air through the turns. And just last month, NASCAR began exploratory testing on spec engines at Martinsville, making IROC-looking race cars a possible reality sooner rather than later.

For the better part of this year, we were treated to a drama that would make “Dallas” look like an episode of “Teletubbies”. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sparred with his wicked stepmother over the rights to a number. Instead, Junior got a second 8 from Robert Yates, a bunch of new merchandise to sell, and he might actually see a decent cut of it this time around. At least it reached its zenith during the summer; while Numbergate dominated the headlines, NASCAR degenerated into NAPCAR, with little interest or excitement to be had short of the Kevin Harvick and JPM handholding/slap fight in Upstate New York.

Then there's The Chase for The Championship, perhaps the most reviled component of our sport since the restrictor plate was introduced. One Saturday in early September, Jeff Gordon had a 349-point lead over Tony Stewart. Seven days later, he trailed teammate Jimmie Johnson by 20 points. Apparently, running well and winning all year long doesn't mean quite what it used to. Following Carl Edwards' 25-point fine for his quarterpanels being too low (at a track where downforce is king and only by raising them would anything positive result), Jeff Gordon now leads Tony Stewart's armpits by two heading into Kansas…instead of by two full races.

There’s so, so much more. I could go on and rail about ESPN's coverage being a shadow of its former self. There is plenty of room here in this forum left to question how they were able to cover racing better 15 years ago with only a handful of cameras and a distinct lack of cheesy animation to explain something so complicated as "drafting," or air blowing around. What I won't do is ramble on how NASCAR and the networks are going far out of their way to draw parallels to other traditional stick-and-ball sports, in a desperate attempt to lure anyone and everyone from the 18-45 age demographic. But while the new fans have been harder and harder to come by each year, ABC’s new pit road feature will likely split the teams in groups of 11.

You might think I'm wrong, and say if it's so awful; why don't I just change the channel and watch baseball or football? Good question, folks; it's because I live in Michigan. I'm saddled with the Detroit Lions, the worst team in the history of sports; and the Tigers are now officially out of playoff contention. So, now I can likely do both.

But in the meantime, looks like you're stuck with me for the next eight weeks. Like it or not, looks like we’re stuck with the worst NASCAR season ever, too.

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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Sally B
09/26/2007 04:43 AM
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Those of us in Michigan can only look forward to the NBA season. The other thing that makes the ‘chase’ an even bigger insult was voiced by Denny hamlin after he plowed into Kyle Petty. Because he felt he was racing for ‘bigger and better things’, he apparently felt that Kyle should have pulled his car to the infield to stay out of his(and the other 11 chasers)way. It seems to me that Kyle actually has more to lose. With a season finish outside the ‘top 35’, getting and keeping sponsors will be extremely difficult. He’s fighting for the life of his livlihood, while Denny is just racing for a bigger paycheck. Being guaranteed a top 12 finish isn’t a bad way to end the season. Kyle doesn’thave that luxury.

tucsondon
09/26/2007 05:20 AM
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Well said!

Steve M.
09/26/2007 06:13 AM
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Sally…from one Michigander to another…Your comments were the perfect ending to what was a pretty good overview of the season thus far. Vito, at least we still have our Spartans to root for when all else (NASCAR)fails.

Ron P
09/26/2007 06:15 AM
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Here, Here!
Very well said.
RJP

Pauline
09/26/2007 06:16 AM
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I may be wrong but I thought NASCAR stood for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The stock car portion is gone, doing anything to the body of the car is gone, along with many other elements and now they are talking about everyone having the same engines, come on!!

Bill Best
09/26/2007 06:47 AM
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Hey, Man. Why the knock on El Caminos?

J R
09/26/2007 06:51 AM
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If you want “stock” cars watch either the British or European touring car series.

Rob
09/26/2007 07:02 AM
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One thing you can add to this story. The COT was suppose to help the little guy get back in the sport and also make them a competitve right from the get go. Well it’s proof that the big teams like Hendicks is dominating, a guy willing to push the gray area (or Cheat) more than any other team. Look at all the times he was caught this year hes dominating and was caught cheating at Sonoma (WHY) cause thats what he does. So NO there will be no little guy getting into Nascar and have sucess. Look at Petty If he doesn’t get help he will never survive in this sport. Oh and one more thing Dale JR. Hub bub! The media stormed over “WHERE IS HE GONNA GO WHO IS HE GOING TO RACE FOR” who cares!!! he’s just another guy changing teams. Mark martin made a bigger jump and there was not much about that. All I have to say is if JR’s name wasn’t “Dale” people would care… Proof… “Kerry” he’s more like his dale in looks and sound like Dale Sr. but his name isn’t dale so people don’t care!!!! Have fun Nascar Nuts!!!! I’m watching football!!

Ed
09/26/2007 07:03 AM
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You go guy! Good article. From my point of view only 2008 could be worse…and it probably will be. It will most likely be the first time in over 40 years that I will rarely follow NASCAR.

Ken in Va.
09/26/2007 07:53 AM
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With the Irocization of the cars with the COT and the shaker used to set the car up, the cars are the same except for the engine and decals. Wouldn’t it be great if a team sold their ride on a weekly basis to the highest bidder? They could install a Toyota engine and decals and race one week and the next week, they could install a Chevrolet engine and decals, etc. There are a lot of drivers that have similar talents that could be rented on a weekly basis the same way.

If the team could get in the top 35, they could charge a premium for a limited sponsorship.

Wayne
09/26/2007 07:58 AM
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You forgot to mention how NASCAR is so determined to bring minorities into the sport they are going to drive the grass roots fans out. I have no problem with anyone racing in the series. Just quit shoving the issue down our throats. If NASCAR keeps this stuff up I will eventually stop renewing my PSL’s and camping spot at TMS.
By the way, why are they giving Tony a pass for his behavior on pit road last weekend?

sean robinson
09/26/2007 08:13 AM
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Good points, I would add the top 35 rule into the worst season. To help our NASCAR equate this to stick and ball sports, it is the DH.

Mark Rubley
09/26/2007 08:39 AM
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Now All we $erioulsy Care About is Revenue – NA$CAR…. get used to it. I’m glad I finally gradulated from their target market group. Now I can get on with my true passion – building ships in bottles. Trust me, when NA$CAR gets done with their permiere sport, my hobby will be a heck of a lot more interesting to watch. remember….last man out, turn off the lights and bring the flag – mrubley

Travis Rassat
09/26/2007 08:45 AM
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Great article!

If I may add one thing, let’s not forget the exciting sponsorship pissing matches – Nextel/Sprint/NASCAR vs. AT&T/Cingular and Sunoco vs. Shell.

Michael
09/26/2007 08:52 AM
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You may have noticed that all of this began about the time Brian France took over. In his headlong rush to obliterate everything his father and grandfather built over the years , and build a legacy for himself , he has brought us to this mess . I worry about how bad this season is , but i’m more woried about the residual effects in years to come . He doesn’t seem interested in getting input from the experts on these changes . The Cup crew chiefs and engineers should have had much more input on the design of the COT . The owners could have explained to him the danger of losing teams permanatly by implementing the ridiculous top 35 rule. And why would he think he would get top tv production by bringing back a network that he threw out of the sport and even barred them from the race track property ?

Steve Cos
09/26/2007 09:03 AM
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Great article. As a huge NASCAR fan its gotten so bad the last race I’ve watched was Watkins Glen. Now I “watch” the race on fox trax on my pc and watch the names move around and the comments. When I watch the highlights later I see I missed nothing. How sad.

WEZ
09/26/2007 09:10 AM
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Since the subject of living in Michigan was broached we must not miss this opportunity to pile on the Wolverines for rolling over and baring their throats to the Appalachian Americans a few weeks back. I vote that Vito be elected Minister of NASCAR Affairs with full authority to take whatever measures he and his forum disciples deem fit to resurrect the sport to it’s former greatness.

SCOTT
09/26/2007 11:06 AM
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ROB,

Just for info. Kerry’s name is Dale. It is Kerry Dale Earnhardt. I also have to agree this has been a horrible year for Nascar. The Chase for the Championship is another of Brian Frances great ideas. (yeh, right). I think he has been one of the worst mistakes Nascar has ever made.
Mark
09/26/2007 11:46 AM
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Just when you think NASCAR can’t possibly look any more ridiculous , along comes the news that the new official beer is Coors . Oh , except at Daytona where we make a fortune off of the Bud Shootout . AT&T gets sued because NASCAR has to protect the exclusivity of Nextel , but Coors is just going to have to live with two beer brands being involved at Daytona. You couldn’t make up a story as strange as this one.

J. Furjanic
09/26/2007 12:16 PM
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Well said, Vito. All you missed was the locked in top 35 teams.

All this since Brian France took over. I wonder if he falls unser NA$CAR’s drug testing/penalty policy.

Thank God the Steelers are 3-0 so far this year so I have something worth watching !

Bill
09/26/2007 12:39 PM
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Great column, Vito.

I got my tickets for the Lowe’s race the other day and noticed two things.

First, the snazzy tickets with the race cars on ‘em are gone. Now, they’re just generic Ticketmaster tickets. I guess if fans want a souvenir of the race, they can buy an event pin. Second, I paid $69.00 (plus the “convenience fee”) for seats in the Diamond Tower in turn 2.

My kids made me a spiffy collage of race pictures and souvenir tickets for Christmas years ago. It hangs in my office. In it is a ticket for the Fall race at Lowe’s in 2000, with the Kelloggs, Kodak and Valvoline cars of Terry Labonte, Bobby Hamiltom and Mark Martin on it. The price seven years ago for virtually the same tickets? $88.00. Bobby Labonte won that race back in 2000.

http://www.racing-reference.info/race?id=2000-29&series=W

Also in my collage is the 1998 ticket for the same race, with the 50th Anniversary logo and a cluster of cars led by Bobby LaBonte, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. That year, Humpy Wheeler wanted $84.00 for my turn-2 seat. Mark Martin brought it home first in 1998, ahead of the Burton brothers, Bobby Hamilton and Jeff Gordon.

http://www.racing-reference.info/race?id=1998-28&series=W

The good news is Humpy and Bruton Smith have seen the empty seats and are responding with lower prices.

The bad news is that what they (and that bunch out of Daytona Beach) are selling just isn’t worth as much anymore.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
09/26/2007 01:58 PM
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I actually was going to bring up the AT&T/NEXTEL thing, but I’m so sick of hearing about it, I didn’t want to breathe life back into it by acknowledging it.

Furjanic – Your Steelers might be 3-0, but you still have to watch the Pirates. ; )

-Vito

Kevin in SoCal
09/26/2007 01:59 PM
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You long time NASCAR people have short memories. Before the top 35 rule was announced, it was still there, just under a different name. The fastest 36 (or was it 38?) cars were locked in, and there were 8 (or 6?) provisionals based on owners points for those who werent fast enough. The only difference is now there are 47 high profile drivers in the sport. Back then there were 40 big names and 4 or 5 field fillers.
Also, back in 2003, many many fans and media members complained about how Matt Kenseth was running away with the title and was points racing instead of winning. Now, with the Chase that tightens up the field and prevents such runaways, I hear even more complaints. With Jeff Gordon having a 300+ point lead at this point, a lot of people would have switched off their TV’s and conceded Jeff the championship. This Chase system at least makes it anyone’s guess as to who will win the Championship and makes the drivers go out and race for it, instead of sitting in the top 10 every week.
I’ll throw in my complaints, though. NASCAR should have kept the Chase seeding from last year, with each driver separated by 5 points based on the points after Richmond, and THEN added 10 points per win to that total.

Mike
09/26/2007 02:11 PM
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I don’t like the chase, but it’s better than how it was, which caused me to leave for a few years. But there needs to be a “champ” for who wins the most races in the season. When I hear “good points day” I turn it off.

Also, I think the COT looks great. Hell of a lot better than the old car.

The best nascar racing is the truck series. That’s what the cup series used to be.

If it wasn’t for my stepson getting me Sirius, I wouldn’t even be here now.

After 30 yrs as a fan….sad.

Connie
09/26/2007 03:57 PM
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I still think Nascar should run 2 races during the Chase. A race for the teams not in the chase and a race for the chase runners. Split the amount of laps to run between the 2 races. What other sport has the playoff games include non-play off team?
Most of the drivers in the chase seem to think everyone should just pull over for them because they are in the chase. I will use Denny’s phrase we are running for a bigger picture and even though I don’t like it – it is true. They made the chase THEY are our best 12 drivers. A race between the chase drivers would be quite a interesting race – 12 drivers, less laps and everyone wants to lead the most laps and get the win. It is sad to see some of the chase drivers taken out by drivers who are a lap down (somethimes) fighting to stay in the top 35. Plus the chase drivers will just punt the guys out of their way and maybe end up taking out another chase driver. Lets see real hard racing for the chase.

Denis
09/26/2007 03:59 PM
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They are trying to bring “new” fans in that know nothing about racing, and making them watch ESPN on ABC won’t help them learn. Who told Rusty that he would make a good TV guy. Send him back the the Indy cars, at least I didn’t have to listen to him. I agree, the “drafting” cartoon they use is over used. Another thing, making Jr the face of NASCAR may bring people to the race, until he drops out, then they leave. We need race fans not “Jr” fans.Thats my two cents.

P.S. Jr’s over rated.

Brian France Sucks
09/26/2007 04:03 PM
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Great article Vito, couldn’t agree more. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO RACING WHEN A GUY MORE CONCERNED W/ PROFIT MARGINS THAN QUALITY RACING IS STEERING THE SHIP. BRIAN FRANCE IS THE PRESIDENTIAL EQUIVALENT OF DUHBYA. NA$CAR going to a crate motor program = boring. the hard work of guys like Doug Yates will be for naught. In what has to be the most IRONIC AND HYPOCRITICAL COMMENT OF THE WEEK: CHAD KNAUSS WHINING THAT THE 99 NEEDS TO BE FINED FOR CHEATING AT DOVER. THE POT IS OFFICIALLY CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK, HA, HA. HOW MANY TIMES HAS KNAUSS BEEN BUSTED, SUSPENDED, AND/OR FINED? WHAT A JOKE.

Dan O'Keefe
09/26/2007 04:27 PM
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hate is not a strong enough word to describe the politically correct management, young arrogant punk drivers, and money driven status of todays Ja$caroc…

TD
09/26/2007 06:19 PM
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Isn’t it amazing how funny the sad truth is? Vito has hit it square on the head. I laugh at how ridiculous it all sounds and then I sigh at the realization at how truthful it all is.
The “Great Rape of The American Race Fan” will continue unfortunately until somebody loses enough money to figure it out. How families justify spending THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS (hotel, travel, tickets and those $5 hot dogs and $4 bottles of water) just to see a “live” event is beyond me.
They will probably miss the only entertainment (wrecks) and without replays at the track, they keep asking each other, “what happened?”
The COT program should be sponsored by AMTRAK (just as boring and just as dead). Plan on watching lots of “frieght train racing” next year….unable to pass, the drivers will just figure their qualifying run is the race and then get in line at the green and follow each other around until “Thank God that’s over”.
WAKE UP NASCAR! The ship is sinking and you keep looking at the horizon. The rats are jumping and there will soon come a time when the ship can’t be bailed out to salvage.

The Great American Race: where the average American cannot afford to go…….not good.

Rob
09/27/2007 01:20 AM
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Not intending to dis ABC (yeah I do!), but I heard at least three times Junior was running too close to his future car, the #5. Did ABC miss the press conference (with pictures) of the #25? Let’s let PBS do race broadcasting. About 3/4’s thru the race there could be a mandatory caution for 10 minutes to allow for pledging! Top 35 was a guarantee for sponsors. What if you’re a co-sponsor who ISN’T the main one when the car fails qualifying – only half the money doesn’t care that week.

Finally. A basis of NASCAR was the fans could buy ANY race car parts locally. What parts store sells the cams which show a shock absorber moving back & forth?

J. Furjanic
09/27/2007 06:06 AM
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Vito, I haven’t watched the Pirates since Roberto Clemente died! If I need a baseball fix, I watch the local minor league team.

Speaking of which:
With all the ‘Buschwacking’ going on, and Cup team owners in the truck series as well, how does a young driver move up to the Cup series anymore? Remember the origins of the truck series? Winter Heat – Where Ron Hornaday and others were discovered. Now, if you want a shot at big time ‘stockcar’ racing, you have to sign parental rights of your 9 year old go cart racing kid over to Roush, Ganassi, Hendrick, or Childress to get them into a ‘Driver Development Program.’ I long for the days of my local tracks being a potential feeder system for the sport!

Douglas
09/27/2007 06:19 AM
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A virtual MASTERPIECE of writing!

A BIG THANK YOU for providing such an outstanding summary of what used to be an exciting sport!

former nascar fan
09/27/2007 08:50 AM
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NASCAR SUCKS!! BRIAN FRANCE SUCKS!!! When is someone going to listen to the fans and start a new sanction in “stock car racing”? When fans have to pay over $100.00 per ticket,(and now most tracks make you buy tickets to all races they have in a year) a year in advance, a camping spot, etc. the race should not be so boring. It is sad that the most excitement comes from a wreck or a confrontation between drivers than the actual race. Vito you are the completely accurate with your statement.

Tom
09/30/2007 09:41 PM
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What’s wrong with ElCamino’s everyone should have one (on blocks in the back yard buried in tall grass next to the old refrigerator.) Just kidding the mid 80’s El’s remind me of the CoT, They are nothing like the 59 and 60 El’s, I think a big block 60 El with a four speed would be the neatest thing, in a nice metalic silver. Another name for the Cot should be “carload of trouble”. It’s hard to fix things when your ego is blocking out your vision or hearing. It was nice to see the Steelers win the Super Bowl in Detroit, and a home town son go out a winner. I’m a Steeler fan also (my mom’s family resides in western Pennsylvania, my grand father was a coal miner there.

Tom
09/30/2007 09:57 PM
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Oh yeah, one more thing, Back when Howard Cosell was doing the play by play on Monday Night Football, with Frank and Don. Some of the guys in the shop who couldn’t stand Howard would turn on the TV and listen to the game on the radio, I tried it on a race once and I thought they were describing a different race! Enjoy!

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