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 (Editor-In-Chief; Mondays/Bowles-Eye View & Wednesdays/Did You Notice?)
Mike Neff (Wednesdays/Power Rankings & Full Throttle, Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Bryan Davis Keith (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans & Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
Amy Henderson (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
Petty Enterprises will reportedly merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports by the end of the year, effectively ending their run in NASCAR. Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers are dropping to a 12-race schedule in 2009. What does losing these teams mean to the sport – or is it an inevitable part of its continued evolution?
Amy: I think it’s really, really sad to see the last of the sport’s heritage go away.
Mike: Having the Wood Brothers go back to a part-time schedule is more of a throwback to the old days. They didn’t used to run full schedules. On the other hand, losing Petty is enormous. I realize they have sucked in the last decade, but they are an institution and losing them is big.
Bryan: It’s bad from a historical perspective – really bad. It’s also really bad to see teams having to merge-merge-merge to stay alive… the day of the independent is truly dead.
Amy: But I also think it is a natural progression… look at the teams that have had their heyday and then gone away. Kiekhafer, Junior Johnson…
Tom: The thing that really scares me is that Petty had an investor come in, and that still wasn’t enough to save it.
Amy: Tom, I don’t think that investor cared about racing at all; they were looking for a quick buck and didn’t find it.
Tom: From a statistical standpoint, it’s surprising Petty’s been able to make it this long based on all the failures they’ve had. But Richard Petty is still one of the top-five recognizable racing names out there, period.
Mike: They made it this long on their name and having Richard around. When they brought in the investors, I think that took some of the mystique away and hurt them in chasing sponsors.
Amy: In all honesty, the sport passed Petty Enterprises by a decade or more ago… that’s not a knock on them by any means, but it did somehow happen.
Bryan: Well, it’s not like they didn’t make mistakes themselves. Putting Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 43 was among the worst moves of the last five years.
Mike: Their late move towards Charlotte certainly hurt them, too. But the investors coming in and trying to tell racing people how to run the racing side of things – and from where I was sitting, that’s what it looked like happened – did not bode well for them. Ironically, the same thing seems to be happening up the road at GEM.
Tom: You know, there wasn’t as much sympathy for the Pettys as I thought I’d see in New York last week. It’s not like this was a top-15 team that suddenly got the rug pulled out from under them.
Amy: No, it wasn’t.
Tom: But here’s the problem – it’s all about perception. Fans already agitated with the sport perceive this as a death blow to tradition – even if it is somewhat of a natural evolution for a team that just didn’t get it done.
Amy: It is and it isn’t, Tom… many great teams have risen and fallen in NASCAR. Petty and the Woods are just the last ones standing from the old days.
Bryan: It’s just like any other sport that has to deal with big money trying to take over. Big money has to realize its job is to sign checks and enjoy the sport, not run it.
Tom: Well, the investors didn’t do their job either. Boston Ventures was supposed to sell sponsorship and help shore up the financial foundation of the company. And they either didn’t do it or – worse – didn’t feel like throwing that much cash at what they felt was a sinking ship.
Mike: No, they didn’t, Tom. They were supposed to come in and run the business side, and it seems as though they didn’t do that at all.
Tom: Here’s the key to this whole thing, Mike, another thing that scares me – if Boston Ventures keeps its stake in the Richard Petty Driving Experience. That means they still feel like something from the Pettys is profitable – just not the product on the racetrack. What does that tell other potential investors looking to get into the sport?
Mike: It seems to me it should tell investors they need to be ready to spend some money if they’re going to try and make some money. The adage has always been to make a small fortune in racing, you have to start with a big one. And the funny thing to me is, if the teams were able to make money, they wouldn’t have been looking for investors.
Amy: Well realistically, in this economy, how many large investors are looking to get in?
Bryan: There are none, and that’s where the sport has to evolve more than simply finding new investors. Stock car racing doesn’t have to cost teams $25 million a year to be a profitable, entertaining product.
Tom: Right, Bryan; $25 million is a whole lot different than $2.5. And with the lack of coverage given to a backmarker team, they’re not finding things worthwhile to come in and run 25th their first season building a program. It’s too much money.
Mike: Yes, it is. So you’re going to end up with four teams running up front and 20 teams running at the back starting and parking to take home a check.
Tom: And that’s because the teams doing well will keep driving up the cost in order to outdo each other. What we need is a detente amongst the Big Four. I thought it was going to happen, but all of a sudden Jeff Gordon popped up on Thursday and said Hendrick was going to test at Rockingham. And I thought, “Man, here we go …”
Mike: There is no way you’re going to limit the money people spend. So unfortunately, it is going to be the way the sport is going to go.
Amy: It’s not ending anytime soon… the drivers are saying they’re going to have to take pay cuts for their teams to stay competitive.
Tom: I do want to say one thing about the Woods: love the limited schedule idea. But why 1.5-milers? Really? That’s where all the small teams get beat with horsepower, handling and aerodynamics.
Mike: That is where they felt like they were most competitive.
Amy: It’s the only thing that might save them in the long run.
Tom: Why wouldn’t you just run the short tracks, though? I know they have smaller purses, but… Bill Elliott‘s not a great short-track guy and even he was top five at Bristol in August before he wrecked.
Bryan: The Woods’ limited schedule idea is a decent idea in theory, but Cup part-time efforts have not proven competitive at all sans road courses and plate races in recent years.
Mike: But the Woods are supposedly going to get help from Roush, and Roush is best on cookie cutters.
Tom: The Woods have always supposedly gotten “help” from Roush, though… don’t see it doing all that much for them.
The Sprint Cup season officially ended with Friday night’s banquet in New York City, with a cutback schedule of events from previous years. Should NASCAR consider moving the banquet to a different city, or should they keep up the tradition?
Mike: I’d like to see them move it, but they aren’t going to. The banquet is all about putting the sport in front of the advertising suits, and they are predominantly in New York.
Tom: For years, I’ve been a steadfast believer in keeping the banquet there… but now, I’m not so sure. It would be amazing to have it in Charlotte in coordination with Hall of Fame ceremonies starting in 2010.
Amy: I have mixed feelings on this one… I hate to see another tradition disappear, but at the same time why not bring it to a city that actually cares?
Bryan: Right, Amy. What, exactly, does New York City have to do with NASCAR? It’s like how the ACC insists on hosting its conference title game in Florida… why? Culminate your season where your fans and influence are.
Mike: The people in Daytona think that they get a lot of exposure with the people who decide where to spend advertising dollars in New York.
Tom: Yeah, but the exposure is waning, Mike. The problem I have with the banquet now is it seems like even the city doesn’t want it there. Heck, it was Mayor Bloomberg himself who nixed the Times Square Victory Lap. The bottom line is NASCAR just can’t plop itself down in New York City for five days and have no one care – it’s bad publicity. There needs to be a prolonged, consistent marketing effort to entice fans to come out, to teach them the sport… and that doesn’t happen.
Mike: I think it speaks volumes that NASCAR had to foot the bill for Victory Lap security. If New York City wanted them, they’d pay for it.
Amy: Well if they do move it, it should be in Charlotte, NOT Vegas. And by the way, I have to say having Cale Yarborough present the ring was the best banquet moment in years!
Mike: Oh hell, yeah! That was awesome. And I would absolutely love to see Hendrick put him in a car at Daytona.
Tom: Guys, what I hate about the banquet is it’s become too corporate. People are still worried about what they’re going to say when it’s simply a celebration of the whole season. Speeches on teleprompters and such… I feel like every year, it just gets stiffer.
Amy: I agree, Tom, but it’s been that way for years now.
Tom: They need a good comedian, someone nationally known to host and spice things up. Can you imagine Dave Chappelle hosting the NASCAR banquet? Now that would be funny for about 10,000 reasons.
Mike: There are still some good moments.
Amy: Denny Hamlin‘s line about being JGR’s senior driver cracked me up.
Mike: I loved Hendrick’s crack about Kyle Busch acting 18 at times. Surprised he didn’t get fined by Brian for that one.
Amy: Brian probably agreed with him.
Tom: You know, it’s too bad they don’t televise the NMPA luncheon on Thursday. I thought that’s where one of the best speeches of the week came, from Chad Knaus when he accepted the crew chief award. Had a real heartfelt speech where he said some incredibly nice things about Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick.
Amy: I loved Johnson’s story about being bummed out because Cale wasn’t at Hardee’s when he was eight. Anyways… if New York is going to continue to be this apathetic, move the banquet to Charlotte, where racing is wanted and needed.
Mike: They should move it – but they won’t. It would be nice to have it at the Hall of Fame every year, but they won’t move it because it will already have people going there – and the banquet isn’t about the fans.
Amy: In all honesty, it shouldn’t be about the fans.
Tom: I still believe in New York City… but I think NASCAR needs to change its approach. It has a New York City office on Park Avenue… why doesn’t it use its clout to get the city more involved? I remember the years where they had different cars on display all over the city, the temp workers they hired knew nothing about the sport. How are you going to get people excited about NASCAR if that’s how you run your business? They need to rally the few fans in that area around the product in order to get other people involved.
Mike: I’m no marketing guru, but it would seem to me that they should be advertising it like crazy. But since people can’t go to the banquet, does it really benefit anyone to advertise it that much?
Amy: It seemed like the media stuff was really down from last year, too… last year, they had Jimmie on every TV show imaginable. This year, not so much.
Bryan: Personally, I wish they’d just stop televising the banquet. It is about as anti-climatic a finale to the season as there can be and is completely unrepresentative of the sport.
Tom: But Bryan, the banquet can be a real opportunity for people’s personalities to shine through. It’s just that it doesn’t happen anymore…
Bryan: If they could show their personalities on the damned racetrack, we wouldn’t need a banquet for them to get it out.
Mike: I’d like to see them institute a policy where every time anyone at the banquet mentions a sponsor, they have to pay a fine…
With Detroit’s Big Three looking at government bailouts to keep going, how should this effect their ongoing involvement with NASCAR and the teams that have counted on their support for years?
Bryan: As much as I hate pulling money out of the sport, I definitely think the manufacturers need to scale back their involvement in motorsports for the time being.
Amy: I have conflicting feelings on this one, actually. On the one hand, “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” does still apply… I do see many, many fans driving the vehicle or make their driver does – and NASCAR needs the different manufacturers in it. But, as a taxpayer… I don’t know how much I want to fund NASCAR teams.
Mike: Well, in the grand scheme of things, companies still have to advertise. So spending that money on racing is not a bad idea. Most of the money they give teams as support are soft dollars, anyway.
Tom: I think if there’s no bailout, you might see one or multiple manufacturers pull out. But if the bailout happens, I still think you’ll see them involved.
Bryan: There are places where manufacturer money can be trimmed, though. Like driver salaries and endorsement deals, for example.
Mike: I don’t understand the whole bailout scenario, anyway. But that’s a whole other story.
Bryan: Mike, you ask a blue-collar worker and they’ll say that if they did that bad in their job, they’d have been fired without hesitation. And let’s face it, the Big Three have done a piss-poor job both in shaping their employment structures and in keeping up in the auto industry.
Mike: True, although the blue-collar workers – or more accurately, their unions – are a big reason this mess is where it is.
Amy: I think these companies can’t throw the kind of money they have at racing and still hope to get money from taxpayers. For one thing, they need to stop making big honking SUVs for soccer moms to show off in front of McMansions and make cars that are environmentally responsible and fuel efficient.
Tom: Well regardless of the politics, in NASCAR’s world a pullout by the Big Three would be much worse than anybody might anticipate. Think about how many fans are disillusioned by Toyota to begin with. Can you imagine if they were the only manufacturer option? I can’t even fathom… whether it’s fair or not, you’d see a large section of the fanbase throw up their hands and go away.
Amy: Unfortunately, Tom, that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Bryan: I really am torn here, because as much as I don’t want to see the sport lose manufacturer support, politically I can’t stand to see the government print money it doesn’t have to bail out big companies and not oversee that money.
Tom: I think for every one of us individually, the bailout is a tough issue outside of NASCAR. But I don’t blame the France family for lobbying for the bailout to happen. They know it’s needed in a big way for the sport. Let’s take the Wood Brothers, who we just talked about. Without Ford’s support, would they be around in 2009? The answer’s probably no. If the Big Three leave, there’s possibly another handful of teams that go down the tubes.
The Car of Tomorrow for the Nationwide Series has been put in a holding pattern due to economic difficulties. With no signs of a recovery anytime soon, should it be put on permanent hold beyond 2010?
Bryan: YES. YES. YES.
Amy: That’s a no-brainer, considering the testing ban. I can’t imagine NASCAR coming up with a test schedule for it that would benefit the actual Nationwide teams.
Mike: No. I’m not sure how to phase it in, but the car needs to be in place in the Nationwide Series. It is a safer car, and there is no excuse to have drivers in a less safe car.
Tom: Really, Mike? I think this is the type of thing you put on hold for now… possibly scrap entirely while you gauge the future of the series.
Bryan: There are ways to incorporate safety features without going to a completely different car, too.
Tom: I’d love to see the Nationwide cars use the whole “pony” vehicle idea instead… although that would cost money, too. You need to differentiate the series from Sprint Cup somehow – and you also need to get it back to more of the mix of kids coming up the ranks combined with series veterans that it was a decade ago.
Bryan: Tom’s been reading my work.
Amy: If they aren’t allowed to test the new car anyways, how can they be ready to race it?
Tom: Exactly, Amy… they’d have to make exceptions in order to get the teams prepared. And that would cost them $$$.
Bryan: And the kind of $$$ it would take to learn those lessons in implementing another CoT program is not something that Nationwide teams can handle.
Mike: It’s a new car. You can test it until you are blue in the face, it still won’t be as fast as it can be when the teams are forced to race it. If they’re going to implement it, implement it and get on with it. Every Cup driver who has run it in Nationwide says it is better than what they run in Cup. Every one of them.
Tom: But you can’t introduce a new car into a series that has no money.
Bryan: Right. That still doesn’t change the fact that it would cost a lot of smaller teams a ton of money to turn over, and in this climate, that’s the equivalent to the death bell for a lot of them. All the CoT implementation has done in Cup is make the rich richer, and that’s the very last thing the Nationwide Series needs.
Mike: Hey, here’s an idea. How about NASCAR comes off of a couple billion of the dollars they are sitting on and provides the initial chassis to all of the teams — so that there isn’t an expenditure to implement them. Provide every team with four chassis, and let that be the beginning of their fleet.
Bryan: Not a bad idea. Shame it’ll never happen.
Amy: Great idea, but NASCAR ain’t going to spend a dime to help the small teams. And I truly don’t think Cup-owned teams with Cup drivers should get that kind of handout. If Jack Roush wants to run a NNS car for Carl Edwards, he can pay for it his own self.
Tom: I will say this, though. For prospective owners looking to enter the series — which is what the NNS needs – you do need to make a concrete decision on what you’re doing at some point. Because if I’m an owner, I’m not going to pay for a startup team when I know I’m going to need to change the cars over within a year. I’m either going to wait for the CoT to come out or wait for it to be shelved forever.
Mike: I agree, Tom. It’s hurting the series from getting any more teams. If anything, I would love to see the number of Cup drivers limited, too, but we know that isn’t going to happen. And when the series is looking at less than full fields, I don’t know that now is the time to be limiting the number of those who can participate.
Bryan: Well, it’s just as damaging to the sport to have the 5-6 Cup guys running the race be the only guys with a shot at winning. It’s boring and predictable.
Mike: When Junior won the title, there were the same five or six guys who could win – they just weren’t Cup guys.
Bryan: Having 5-6 regulars in NNS competition that had a chance to win every Saturday alongside the Cup guys would be an improvement over what we have now.
Tom: It’s just a shame… the series used to be so damn good.
Mike: I never heard anyone bitching when Mark Martin and Harry Gant used to come in and win every time.
Amy: Mark wasn’t trying to steal championships. Winning races here and there is different – that was OK.
Mike: No, Mark just came in and won eight out of the 10 races he ran every year. So, if we make Carl and Clint Bowyer sit out two or three races, then will it be OK? Just as long as they can’t win the title?
Amy: But Martin wasn’t taking sponsors of the hoods of the real teams, and he wasn’t trying to buy the championship out from under them, either. Let Clint and Carl run 10 races… even if they win eight of them, it won’t hurt the teams that want to be there.
Bryan: They should be allowed to run two or three races, not just sit out two or three. Anyways, the CoT in the Cup Series has proven to be expensive, and furthered the gap between the haves and have-nots. Doing that to the Nationwide teams would be the final nail in the coffin. Take the current chassis, stick a block of foam in the car, and move the seats over a few inches. That’s it.