NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mirror Driving: Banquet on the Move? Petty Movin’ On Up? & Teams Moving… to the Auction Block?

Welcome to Mirror Driving. Every week, your favorite columnists sit down and give their opinion about the latest NASCAR news and rumors. Love us or hate us, make a comment below and tell us how you feel about what we’ve said!

This Week’s Participants:
Tom Bowles (Frontstretch Managing Editor & Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
Tony Lumbis (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Vito Pugliese (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito & Fridays/That’s History)

Editor’s Note: Mirror Driving is on a special biweekly offseason schedule. Look for the next edition to appear on Wednesday, December 19th.

The week-long banquet celebration just concluded its 27th year in New York City amidst rumors it could be moved elsewhere. With no racetrack in the immediate vicinity, does the banquet belong in the Big Apple?

Amy: Well, it is tradition; but no, not anymore.
Tony: I think it’s still needed. It is the only presence in NYC, and that’s fine. Even more importantly, it’s in the backyard of many sponsors’ headquarters, and gives the sport a chance to hold things such as the Motorsports Marketing Forum.
Tom: I think if you move this thing away from New York City, the chances of building a track there will completely disappear. It’s the only thing that has consistently forced Manhattanites to pay attention – it’s just NASCAR never gets enough of them to. But there’s the hope that with the right advertising and marketing plan, this banquet could really generate a whole bunch of new fans.
Tony: A track can’t exist in the NYC vicinity. Maybe the Meadowlands, but this is their only chance to get that city involved. They just need to change the focus of it. They’re not going to attract many New Yorkers, so focus on the corporate and entertainment factor.
Vito: I guess it all depends on what the goal is. Originally, it was there to help gain exposure to NASCAR in America’s largest market, where most of the potential marketing dollars were. But NASCAR is mainstream now, and to be honest, the banquet and surrounding festivities have become a bit trite and long in the tooth – maybe moving to somewhere like Las Vegas isn’t such a bad idea.
Amy: But why make the drivers and teams travel yet another week? Keep it at home. It should move to Charlotte – the Victory Lap could end at the new Hall of Fame one day, with the new champion adding a plaque to the wall or something.
Tom: Well the thing is, how many Fortune 500 companies have their center of operations in Las Vegas? Or Charlotte?
Amy: How many of the title sponsors have theirs in New York City, though? The championship sponsor is located in North Carolina, actually.
Tony: But there is plenty of untapped business in New York City. That’s why many teams – like GEM – are starting a presence there.
Vito: It is kind of hard to miss 10 stock cars idling down the street, even in New York.
Tom: They’re idling down the street though, Vito, and that’s the other problem. You can’t expose people to the beauty of NASCAR by having cars they don’t know about interrupt their traffic patterns at five mph. Now, what about a go-kart race mixing the NASCAR stars with famous celebrities? That might get people talking.
Vito: Maybe they can do some donuts.
Tom: What about a “This is NASCAR” experience where you have driving simulators around Manhattan – not just the cars – and you hire people who actually know who drives the car that’s in their display?
Tony: People love driving, that definitely is something to play off of.
Tom: Here’s a true story. I went to one of these random Manhattan stops a few years ago, before I became a writer on the beat – and it was Matt Kenseth‘s car that was being featured. Just for kicks, I asked the two people running the display whose car it was, and they said “I don’t know.” Are you kidding me?
Amy: New York, as a whole, doesn’t care… Charlotte does and always has.
Tom: But the banquet is an opportunity to expand the message to new markets… not shore up old ones. Charlotte has about 5,000 things every year it can hang its hat on. The Media Tour, The All-Star Race, the future Hall of Fame…
Tony: You can’t beat the glitz and glamour of NYC; it makes the banquet special. Here’s the way I look at it: what is the point of the banquet? To impress fans, or honor the drivers? I think it’s the latter. I think this honor deserves something a little special, like a week in NYC, a place where some of these drivers never have been.
Amy: I agree with Tony – but that’s why Charlotte is the perfect town. Let them sleep in their own beds.

Among the revelations of the past week was Kurt Busch‘s admission Penske is building a team purely for testing purposes. Does that give other Nextel Cup teams a decided disadvantage, and can they stop this from becoming the wave of the future?

Vito: Hah, Hendrick has one already. It’s called car No. 25. For Roush, it’s car No. 26.
Tony: Great minds think alike, Vito! I was just going to say that.
Amy: So Junior is the R&D driver now for Hendrick?
Vito: No, Casey Mears still is.
Tony: So many teams realize that they need to do something innovative to beat Hendrick, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. I don’t blame them for trying.
Amy: I don’t think this gives other teams a disadvantage – at least not right away. It would give Hendrick an advantage, maybe Roush Fenway. But it would allow a team like Penske to catch up.
Vito: Penske only has been a two-car team for the most part… developing a dedicated test team really isn’t that much of a stretch.
Tom: To me, it’s just a sign of how important it is nowadays to stay on top of technological advances – and also, how interchangeable drivers are becoming. I mean, think about it – someone could win a race next year with knowledge they never played a part in, because they were off on some sponsor benefit while some other driver did all the real work. To me, that’s the sign of a problem – and truly does suggest this is becoming like Formula 1, where technology rules the day.
Tony: Exactly, Tom. This is heading the route of an F1 driver – and just like in F1, some drivers get their big chances through testing. NASCAR is getting so hard to get into that you probably will have a slew of drivers wanting that testing label.
Tom: It’s just weird how much off-track testing is becoming the wave by which races are decided – especially with the Car of Tomorrow. Like I had a few people say to me last week in New York – if you get to the track and you’re off with the CoT, you’re screwed. There’s just no way you can turn around and get that thing fixed.
Amy: It’s always been that way – the teams that could afford to test more were the top teams. But that’s still a good point – which makes me wonder if NASCAR should allow it? If they could police it?
Tom: I really don’t know if there’s a way to… the thing is, they restrict certain parameters with testing to begin with. But you can’t really ban people from putting test tracks on their property. Again, I think the bottom line in all this is you wouldn’t need a test team if drivers made the difference – not technology. And technology is starting to rule the sport,

It’s official; George Gillett and Petty Enterprises will NOT merge operations. Critical mistake, or gutsy move by Petty to keep hope alive his team will once again be a powerhouse all its own?

Amy: It’s the right move for Petty to preserve their historical identity.
Vito: I don’t blame them. It wasn’t like GEM was setting the world on fire or anything – and Petty just pirated away another Hendrick luminary in Jeff Meendering. Level Cross to Mooresville is one thing; axing Petty Enterprises and the King’s silhouette is quite another.
Tony: I agree with Vito. They’re getting everything they can with GEM engines already.
Tom: I just think Gillett wants to control everything he touches. Not only that, but I honestly don’t think Petty is in that bad a shape, either. Bobby Labonte didn’t go anywhere, and he finished 18th in points rather quietly this season. Honestly, should Meendering and Labonte click, they’re not all that far off from making the Chase. It’s not as bad a situation as Yates was when they sold out to Roush.
Tony: Yates was just sad this year, they needed the merger as their last resort. But Meendering’s now paired up with Robbie Loomis – two former Hendrick employees who could make a difference.
Amy: If Meendering can bring some of those setups with him and Petty and Labonte can make it work… the results could be surprising.
Vito: They do need engineering help in a bad way, though, that is the one area where merging might be a good idea. They need to form some sort of alliance with another top-tier Dodge team. Maybe Penske?
Tom: Well Vito, they do have that alliance in part with GEM now. But I think Mendeering – Gordon’s longtime car chief – will really help from an engineering standpoint. Just look at how quickly MWR got better when they found out some info from Gibbs people.
Vito: Well, the move alone will probably accomplish what merging with GEM would hope to do, which is simply draw from the talent pool that is Charlotte and Mooresville, N.C. They’ve still got aways to go – will they be contending for titles anytime soon? No. Their goal at best would be to win a race or two, and get close to the top 12 in points.
Tom: Well, the No. 45 car suffers year in, year out at Petty because Kyle Petty can’t figure out where to focus his time. If there was a driver in there who was 100% focused on the future of the team – which there will be in a few years – you’d see both those cars running in the top 25 in points.
Tony: Exactly. They have one full-time team right now, and that isn’t helping.
Vito: Kyle has long had other interests besides racing; driving his son’s car still has to weigh heavy on him as well. When he does get out of the car, he’ll be God’s gift to race broadcasting.

Since the close of the Busch Series season, a handful of operations have closed their doors, and several others are on life support. In the short-term, what solutions are out there to get sponsors involved and keep Busch-only teams coming to the track – before it’s too late?

Vito: Getting some help from their respective manufacturers… but the state of the U.S. auto market probably won’t allow that to happen.
Tony: Some of the rules limiting top Nextel drivers from running a full season will help. It will force sponsors to look at full-time Busch teams if they are interested in winning the championship.
Amy: I agree… no points for Cup drivers would also solve a lot.
Vito: But taking points away from drivers and teams will do little to help them out now. Sponsorship deals have long been in place; you’re not going to be able to build a program now in December for 2008. And even if you kick the drivers out… you still have all of the Cup teams. They’ll just get different drivers; the BGN-only teams aren’t going to be much further ahead of the game.
Tony: That’s true, Vito; what will help a bit though is that the Nextel Cup teams ask for a large amount of money for that series. The full-time Busch teams will ask for less. Some companies just won’t have that kind of money and favor a Busch-only team, and will stand more of a chance if Danny O’Quinn, not Carl Edwards, is competing in the Roush car full-time. Nothing against O’Quinn, but at least he’s at the level he should be.
Vito: What exposure can they give those companies, though? The cameras are never on them. They focus on the Cup guys, and those running up front… not drivers battling for 25th.
Amy: But exposure also depends on how the sponsor uses the team in other ways. Although, get rid of the Cup guys and the Busch guys would get the exposure by default.
Tony: Exactly, Amy; most of the value of a sponsorship is how creative you get around it, not always the exposure on the track.
Vito: So, what you’re saying is that you want O’Quinn exposing himself?
Tony: No, no, no! I’m saying he’s at a Nationwide/Busch level and should be the driver someone has competing in that series.
Vito: Hah, I know.
Tom: I think NASCAR can do a better job – when sponsors come to them looking to get into the sport – of funneling their interest to some of these Busch or Nationwide-only programs. But it’s a little disturbing that this whole Top 30/35 rule thing – which is Top 30 in the Busch/Nationwide Series – is doing nothing to keep these teams in business.
Tony: No, not at all; that’s got to go as it is.
Tom: I think this says something about the rule – that it’s not protecting the teams it was designed to protect – and also shows how bleak the sponsorship situation is right now. I mean, you can’t even get someone on board when you’re guaranteed to make the first five races!
Amy: Because starting a race isn’t enough when you get beat by 21 Cup guys and the purse is a pittance.
Tony: Maybe even instituting a “Chase format” – sorry, Amy – will help generate interest as it does in Nextel Cup.
Amy: Or… not.
Tony: Well, I think that for some sponsors out there, the bottom line is that they want to be in NASCAR in a big way, but they don’t have the money. This is their best shot; better than being on the C-post of a Nextel Cup Car.
Tom: That’s why NASCAR needs to get involved. Because most companies will always go with Cup guys when given the choice – the exposure alone justifies the move. The Cup guys always run up front because they have the extra practice each weekend in basically the same equipment. But for some of these companies – lots of whom have limited NASCAR knowledge going in – a gentle nudge towards up-and-coming talent would go a long way.
Vito: NASCAR first needs to decide what the Busch Series is supposed to be. Is it a feeder series, is it the minor leagues, is it a free-for-all for Cup drivers, are they going to race pony cars or sedans… also, before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s now the Nationwide Series.
Tom: I’m just going to call it Busch/Nationwide for awhile, just to go through the transition… how many times do you think we’ll make that mistake next year? 100? 1,000?
Vito: About as many times as we all said Winston Cup in 2004.

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