NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: NASCAR Notes While Adrift in the Doldrums of June

Editor’s Note: For this week, Matt put together a few random notes on some of the major NASCAR storylines heading into this weekend. Let’s get right to it:

Wow, no wonder TNT was able to outbid ABC and FOX for this stretch of the Cup schedule. Last week’s Michigan race was perhaps the most tepid and unpalatable event since Jeff Burton led flag-to-flag at NHIS during the restrictor-plate experiment that failed. And it seems unlikely that things are going to get much better with upcoming races at Sonoma, New Hampshire and Joliet. The sport is stuck in the annual early summer doldrums, races which seem to have been inadvertently designed to get fans to flick off their TV and turn to more pleasurable activities outside. Of course, any one of these upcoming events could turn out to be a classic; but, given past history, the odds are against that happening.

Thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fans of Carlos Pardo who died in a horrific wreck during a NASCAR Mexico event last weekend. Pardo was leading the race when the second-place driver got into the left quarterpanel of Pardo’s car, sending it spinning savagely into the outside pit wall. The wall was guarded by only a set of water bottles and when Pardo’s Ford hit it, the damage was so extensive that it seemed a bomb had gone off inside the car. The impact was so severe, the car’s roof panel was actually launched several stories into the air. Pardo was removed from the twisted wreckage of his car and rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead 45 minutes later. In a cruelly ironic twist, under NASCAR Mexico rules, when a caution flies the running order is reset to that of the last green-flag lap. Since the race was never restarted, Pardo was awarded the win posthumously.

Pardo had won 10 races in 74 starts prior to this weekend and was the series champion back in 2004.

Auto racing is an inherently dangerous enterprise, and some deaths just can’t be prevented. But in watching the video of the wreck, I was concerned by the odd shape of that pit wall which bent almost to the shape of a C at the pit entrance. The wall didn’t appear to be well constructed, and when it broke, it actually made the wreck that much less survivable. There was also no evidence of SAFER barriers placed anywhere at the track – and if that’s the case, they need to be added to all tracks right now. I’m not suggesting the series adopt the CoT (I don’t want Mexico to declare war on the U.S.), but I’ve been told that the foam between the roll cage and the sheetmetal – a key safety feature of the new car – can be easily adapted to the “old cars.” Considering the benefits, it probably should be on all chassis after this tragedy as an additional safety measure. You can’t save ’em all, NASCAR… but you can’t lose any more from a lack of trying.

With the long feared cutbacks in the Big Three’s financial commitment to NASCAR racing finally coming to fruition, most teams, drivers and the sanctioning body are just bracing themselves to see how bad the fallout will be. Off the record, most folks will admit they fear it’s going to get really ugly, and the future of the Truck Series seems increasingly uncertain.

Last week, it stopped raining long enough that his handlers were able to loosen the rope that holds Brian France’s mouth shut without fear he’d drown himself looking up at a cloudburst. Mr. France then opined that the current economic challenges in Detroit might just lead to other foreign car manufacturers to explore the waters of NASCAR racing. There was a lot of conjecture that Honda might be interested in joining the party, though I sure hope they don’t plan to race Ridgelines in the Truck Series – those things are uglier than an overturned outhouse.

In order to be considered for entry into NASCAR, a car manufacturer would need to have at least one plant producing cars in the U.S. Among the names France dropped were Nissan, BMW, Mercedes Benz (yeah, right) and Hyundai. Hyundai? Please tell me they’re kidding. My guess is the first time a Hyundai “Accident” wins a Cup race, the already rapid exodus of fans towards the exits will become such a stampede that women and children will be trampled to death. The demographical data that NASCAR provides on its own fans indicates that BMW and Mercedes ownership is out of reach for a large majority of them – so that wouldn’t seem a valid marketing strategy for the German automakers, either. And even with all the success Toyota has enjoyed at all levels of NASCAR racing lately, their sales are down 45% in a year-to-year comparison over last year (worse than Ford or GM). I’m not sure anyone is looking at NASCAR competition as a reliable form of marketing right now.

One of (my myriad) of self-appointed critics, a gentleman named Kevin from SoCal took me to task this weekend for expressing a feeling of nostalgia for the 24 Hours of LeMans while holding less affectionate feelings for the upcoming Sonoma road-course race. Maybe he was being facetious, but his argument seemed to be, “Is road-course racing good or bad?”

Well Kevin, there’s simply no comparison between last week’s race at LeMans and this week’s NASCAR race at Sonoma. The cars at LeMans are specifically constructed to compete on road courses from the lugnuts on up. In comparison, heavy, wide and under-tired Cup cars are crutched into some sort of acceptable handling on road courses. And then, there’s the experience factor. The drivers at LeMans are selected because they are among the best road-course racers in the world. While NASCAR has many truly talented road-course racers – the Gordons, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart come readily to mind – the back half of the field looks like confused golden retriever pups hitting a newly-waxed linoleum floor wide open. Add in a little rain like that one year in Montreal, and what you have is a farce of epic proportions. There’s also only one generally accepted passing zone for stock cars at Sonoma compared to many at LeMans. And, of course, one key factor at LeMans is the epic 24-hour length of the race. Sonoma only seems to drag on that long….

Now, there’s nothing wrong with road racing when it’s staged with cars built for that purpose, driven by pilots skilled in that discipline of racing. It’s even possible to have good racing in full-fendered coupes and sedans. In my mind, the greatest such racing was in the golden years of the Trans Am series that stretched from 1967 to 1970. Mustangs, Cougars, Camaros, Cudas and Challengers waged war with full factory support in a series that ran heads up with NASCAR for popularity in most areas of the country outside of the Southeast. The racing was wide open, full contact and unbridled with legends like Donahue, Follmer, Posey and Jones at the wheel driving for fellow legends like Carroll Shelby, Roger Penske and Bud Moore. In their efforts to dominate in the series, American carmakers produced such automotive legends as the Boss 302 Mustangs, the Camaro Z-28 and the Challenger TA/AAR Cuda twins. A look at the prices those cars demand at auctions like Barrett-Jackson speaks to the enduring affection for the good old days of Trans Am racing. (Oddly enough, Pontiac Trans Ams were never much of a factor in the Trans Am series back in the day – though Pontiac paid a fee to the SCCA for every Trans Am they ever built.)

So, what happened to end the Golden Age of Trans Am racing? Funny you should ask. The Detroit automakers began leaving the sport, just as they seem to be about to do in NASCAR right now. To fill the fields, the SCCA allowed foreign cars to run in the series, just as NASCAR is doing right now. The “street stock” appearance was one of the chief charms of the Trans Am series in the day. New rules were adopted that had the cars looking less and less like their street counterparts, just like NASCAR has done with the Car of Tomorrow. You know when someone who preceded you is nice enough to post signposts on the Highway to Hell for you, a wise man starts looking for an alternative route.

Uh-oh. If the rumors I’m hearing today are true, NASCAR’s drug case against Jeremy Mayfield just took a hit below the waterline.

I’m not sure who or what a “Bubba the Love Sponge” is – I’m from up north and I don’t even have a cell phone, much less satellite radio – and I have no idea how the tests were conducted, but the information I was provided today indicates Mr. Sponge took it upon himself to take Adderall and Claritin D (the same two medications Mayfield admits taking prior to his drug test). Mr. Sponge then submitted a urine drug test which supposedly revealed a false positive for methamphetamine.

My guess is someone called “Bubba the Love Sponge” is not a trained medical expert – I’m not going to have him look at my chest X-ray, and I surely wouldn’t allow him to take my temperature with a rectal thermometer – but whether he took the test seriously or as a joke, the results shed new light on the controversy.

If it can be proven that the two medications resulted in a false positive, NASCAR needs to immediately reinstate Mayfield, offer an apology, and reach a financial settlement for the monetary damages and loss of reputation that the driver suffered.

Of course, recently NASCAR seems to be saying that Mayfield is at fault for not telling Dr. Black he was beginning treatment with Adderall. Sorry, no sale. Adult Attention Deficit Disorder is a potentially embarrassing diagnosis for a fellow which could have adverse effects on others’ willingness to enter into business relationships with him. As long as the treatment isn’t going to affect his ability to compete safely, when a licensed doctor diagnosed Mayfield with this little understood disease and started a pharmaceutically correct regimen of FDA-approved drugs, that was between Mayfield and his doctor… no one else. There are reasons for the laws concerning doctor/patient confidentiality.

And if this mix of drugs is debatable… what’s next? “Hey, Dr. Black, I’m crapping through the eye of a needle right now. Is it OK to take some Kaopectate before the race?” “Hey, Dr. Black, I just hit 50 and I’m having a little trouble getting lead in the pencil. My wife is getting frustrated. Is Viagra OK the night before a race?”

What I really want to see is Brian France taking a random drug test. The cocaine rumors have been rampant since his Hollywood days, and I’d like to see them proven or disproved by analysis of a hair sample by an independent lab under tight security.

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