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Holding a Pretty Wheel: ‘Shine, Bruton, & All That Hype – 5 Observations So Far

I got the flu this week, and let me tell you, this particular version was nasty. One particular effect was the complete and utter inability to focus on anything for more than 10 seconds, which made writing a racing column… challenging, to say the least. I had a lot of good random thoughts, but nothing that would make a column, except – for some good random thoughts on the first three weeks of the season that is 2009. So here are five of them, from me to you.

1. The more things change…

The story that caught my eye the most and got the biggest laugh was that of Carl Dean Combs, a former driver and crew chief who was arrested earlier this week for an illegal moonshine still on his property. The authorities took care of the still by blowing it up, and took Combs into custody and charged him with manufacturing non-tax paid liquor as well as possessing the ingredients and equipment for the manufacture of non-tax-paid liquor.

What got me was not so much the crime in and of itself, but that this was the very crime that stock car racing was, in essence, built on, as bootleggers and rumrunners looked for a venue to settle once and for all the question of whose souped-up ‘shine transport was the fastest. It brought back shades of Junior Johnson, the great driver, owner and crew chief who did time in Federal prison for his family’s moonshine operation. Ironically, Combs’ time as a NASCAR crew chief came for none other than… Junior Johnson. Johnson now adds his name to a brand of legal “moonshine,” but it seems that Combs was making his the old-fashioned way. And they say history is dead in NASCAR….

2. Nope, not yet

I was hoping that a couple of weeks later, I would rethink my position on the 51st Daytona 500, but sadly I haven’t. I want to make this race what it is supposed to be – the Great American Race, the one we wait all winter for, the one we compare at least the first half of the season’s races to. But I can’t. The magic just wasn’t there. It wasn’t the rain, though that was a part of it. It just wasn’t the type of great race that fans look for after a long, cold winter. There weren’t a lot of lead changes, nor rivalries, save for the one between Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and that was over before it began.

But I have come to the conclusion that the racing wasn’t even the biggest part of the problem. The real problem was the hype. We got a pre-race show that lasted for what seemed like hours, and this after commercials and coverage of every on-track event all week. Even the cartoon rodent told us how excited we should be. The problem is, no race can live up to that kind of promotion. The race itself seemed like an afterthought, after the network had used up every other storyline for the week. Maybe it’s time to make us a little hungry for the racing – don’t show every practice session, don’t have an hour-long pre-race show that tells us everything from what setups the crew chiefs use to what the drivers had for lunch yesterday. Make the racing the story again.

3. Location, location, location

It’s all about location but not in the way that the NASCAR higher-ups think. It’s not about location in the country, but about the location that provides the best racing. That is why so many fans and journalists lament the twice-a-year snoozefest that is Auto Club Speedway. It isn’t because it’s in California, though many west coast fans seem to be under the misguided impression that old-time fans won’t be satisfied until every race is east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line. If someone built tracks like Richmond, Rockingham and Darlington and put them in California, I know I would support giving them a race date. Heck, they should have kept Riverside and put it in the Chase! But instead, International Speedway Corporation went the cheap route and bought a track that was never meant to host stock cars, and ISC’s kissin’ cousin, NASCAR, panders to a market instead of to the larger national fanbase. Personally, I would fly to the west coast to see a race at a gritty little fast ¾-miler, bringing revenue to the local economy as well as supporting the track. But I would not pay to travel to a race that is far more likely than not to disappoint. I’m guessing others might feel the same. NASCAR and ISC are only hurting themselves here.

4. Ruining his rep

Bruton Smith has gotten a bad rap, but he largely doesn’t deserve it. Yes, what happened at North Wilkesboro was deplorable, but even there, Smith was, to a certain extent, backed into a corner by NASCAR, by their reluctance to add Texas to the schedule at the possible expense of one of their ISC tracks. NASCAR and ISC also made sure that Smith was the bad guy when Rockingham Speedway closed. On the surface, it looks as though Smith bought the Rock and took the date to Texas. And he did – because Rockingham was sold to Smith under the explicit instructions that he shut it down and not try to host a sanctioned race there. And Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks run rings around ISC’s venues as far as fan friendliness is concerned. SMI tracks allow fans to bring coolers and backpacks in, after a security check. How long is ISC going to use the September 11 attacks as an excuse to force fans into forking out for the food and beverages they can no longer bring with them? SMI consistently adds and upgrades amenities to accommodate fans, knowing that in the end, happy fans mean a better bottom line.

Take Las Vegas. The racing at Vegas wasn’t living up to expectations, so Smith practically razed the place and rebuilt it with variable banking – and the racing has improved drastically. Then, when Jeff Gordon suffered a vicious hit on a concrete retaining wall last year, Smith was making calls the next week to have SAFER barriers installed. The next driver to hit that wall will hit the forgiving barrier instead of the concrete. Smith added the Neon Garage so that fans can see their heroes at work close up. All in all, Smith provides a better race day experience for his fans-because it is about those fans.

5. What happens in Vegas…

What happened in Vegas was a decent race. It is rare that you will see a great race on a 1.5-mile racetrack with the new car, but Vegas was decent – far better than the previous week’s race. While it is true that there could have been more passing for the lead, and the finish was hardly worth writing home about (though I truly wonder what might have happened if NASCAR had thrown the red flag when Paul Menard wrecked and Jimmie Johnson hadn’t spun in day-old oil dry that should never have been there), there were moments. I was glad that FOX showed the battle to the checkers between Vickers and Jamie McMurray, where McMurray forced Vickers to the apron, doing all he could to hold him off while Vickers never gave up, holding his line and taking the position at the line. Had this been for the win, it would have made the highlight reels for years to come. The networks need to show us more of the hard racing throughout the field, because that would improve fans’ perception of the races tenfold. But that’s another story. And Vegas was the best race so far this year.

There you have it, just a few observations from a passionate observer. I love this sport, and I want so badly for it to become what it could have been. But looking around, it could also be worse. Here’s to better days, and to getting rid of this flu bug while we’re at it.

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