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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Felix Sabates Clears the Air Regarding Caustic Comments

In yesterday’s Voice of Vito column, I detailed the blow up that occurred last Friday when car owner and longtime NASCAR personality made some unsavory comments regarding the state of Michigan, while questioning the need for two dates at the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Michigan.

“I mean, there’s nobody left in Detroit other than the police and the unemployed,” Sabates told the Charlotte Observer. “I’d cut Michigan off the schedule altogether. Michigan – I’m talking about the state – is never coming back to what it used to be, so why go there and throw good money after bad money?”

Hours after making those comments, Sabates issued an apology, chalking it up to a poor attempt at humor. The apology tour continued Monday morning, when appearing on Grand Rapids’ 107.3 WBBL-FM sports radio talk show Bakita and Grey this week, putting his comments into context, regarding why Michigan – and some other tracks such as California – could stand to lose a date or two.

“Unless we have profitable race teams, you are going to have less teams showing up to put on a show. We need to make some permanent solutions. We are racing too many races, our people are never home. We grew too fast and there are way too many races. If you get your purses cut by 10% like they did on (last) Friday, you should cut 10% of the races.”

10% may not sound like much to a team that has a slew of sponsors for an entire season, but for those who are struggling to just qualify or even start-and-park, it will make operations that much more difficult to support. The fans might not be coming in droves as they once were, but that doesn’t mean that tires or travel expenses get a 10% discount as well.

“This country is in a very shaky economic condition today. Race fans cannot afford to pay what they used to pay to go to a racetrack. If you don’t have a job, you can’t afford to pay for a ticket.”

And if you can’t afford to tow your car to the track, you can’t compete.

“Look at how many teams were in NASCAR five years ago versus where they are today. You got five or six teams that can win a race on a given weekend. The rest of the guys are there just so those guys can pass them.”

So how about those other teams that as of late have been little more than field-filler fodder for a few select organizations to run roughshod over?

“NASCAR does a good job with trying to help the car owners with rules. Every year they come up with better rules that help us spend less money. The problem is two or three team owners have so much money to spend, that no matter what rules NASCAR comes up with, they get around those rules. You have teams in other sports that become dynasties, because the owners have more money than they know what to do with – and that’s happening with NASCAR.”

Many are familiar with Sabates from his involvement with his race teams, but may be unfamiliar with how he got there. He was born into a lifestyle of privilege in his native homeland of Cuba, his family owning a collection of successful businesses.

That was until Fidel Castro (with the help of Che Guevara – perhaps you have seen his image on Johnny Depp’s necklace or on the t-shirt of a local youth who hates his father) and his communist revolutionaries took power, seizing privately held businesses and wealth, taking from his family everything that they had worked so hard to earn. He and his family fled to the United States, where he worked his way from washing pots and pans to selling cars to making his own fortune, distributing Atari and Nintendo systems and games, the Teddy Ruxpin talking teddy bear, all the while helping to support the smaller mom-and-pop operations that carried these and some other less popular products.

I hardly feel that Felix Sabates is one to exploit the troubles experienced by others, given his own history of personal challenge. I, too, experienced the struggles of an economy in decline a few years ago, being jobless – for seven long months – but I’ve never been forced to leave my country or had my home taken from me by the government.

At worst, his bombastic comments regarding the plight of Detroit was perhaps a bit over the top, but if you look at the statistics, not exactly inaccurate. It was a bit of a splash of cold water in the face of the sport as well, for what needs to be addressed to ensure the survivability and relevance of NASCAR as a whole. It will be some time before Michigan and the Detroit area are able to regain the luster that has been lost in recent years, though the struggles that Motown has suffered in recent years are now being felt by the rest of the country at large.

That is not to say that Michigan – both the state and the economies of the Detroit area cannot rebound – far from it. Even as the days are dark and overcast here in the dead of winter, there are rays of sunshine that poke through the clouds now and then.

Ford announced last week they had posted a $2.7 billion profit and have quietly been reviving the funding of their racing programs. Chrysler executives, who said that this time a year ago they were “clinically depressed,” have returned to work with renewed enthusiasm and optimism for the future of the Pentastar brand, already seeing the progress that has been made in recent months during their corporate restructuring.

This, coupled with the recent backlash towards Toyota over their six million sticky throttles and Honda’s barbecue power window switches, there is much ground to be gained and glimmers of hope are beginning to break through the black cloud that has been covering Michigan, as we all endure another six weeks of winter.

With that, I hope to see you at Michigan International Speedway this June and August, and for many more years to come, because there will be two races here for the foreseeable future, as there always should be. As long as American auto manufacturers are involved in NASCAR, if Detroit builds it, they will come.

The Italian Stallion is no One Trick Pony – check out Vito’s take on Detroit Iron at his Examiner.com American Musclecar page.

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