Jack Roush hasn’t stopped by here at Eyesore Acres in awhile to chat over a few brews. To be honest, that has happened since precisely never. But my guess is the Cat in Hat is a pretty frustrated fellow right now, and his dogs are wearing flak jackets to protect against injuries when he gets home from the track. First off, none of his teams have managed to win a race this year. Secondly, NASCAR’s rules (implemented after he got all five drivers in the Chase the first season of that farce because “one team dominating wasn’t good for the sport”) forced him to cut back to four teams this season. Thus, Roush was forced to release Jamie McMurray, a driver he truly believed in, to follow not only the letter but the intent of the new law. McMurray promptly went out and won this year’s Daytona 500 with a lightly-regarded team, tasting the revenge of success against his old program along the way. And, of course, there’s the fact that despite the GM domination for the last few seasons, NASCAR isn’t stepping in to level the playing field the way it always seemed to do back when the Fords were winning races in bunches.
GM as a car selling entity may be still getting up off the canvas, bruised and bloody, reeling, clinging to the ropes between swinging some haymakers as of late, but there’s no doubt they’re the top dog in NASCAR. Ford teams have long complained of some animosity with the NASCAR rule makers, and their complaint has some merit. It seems since Ford’s 1966 NASCAR boycott after the 427 SOHC issue the Blue Oval has had enemies at 1801 West Speedway Boulevard in Daytona Beach. In 1971, when Junior Johnson proposed bringing Chevy back into the NASCAR fold after a decade-long absence, NASCAR pretty much gave that old fox the keys to the henhouse to get his Monte Carlos competitive. When Bill Elliott was dominating at the big tracks in 1985, NASCAR raised the roofs on the Fords and let the GM teams lower theirs despite the fact Elliott and his family-owned Ford were the only Thunderbirds running worth a damn.
When the next generation Thunderbird – a bold styling experiment for street cars back when this was still stock car racing – began winning races, NASCAR gave in to GM’s demands that they be allowed to run “funny cars” – rear-wheel drive racecars that loosely resembled the front wheel drive sh*t-boxes GM couldn’t give away in that era. It was a line of cars so unarguably awful, they paved the way for GM’s eventual once unthinkable collapse. Like many other people, as someone who once laid my hard-earned cash down on a GM product built in the ’80s, I’d never consider owning another one unless they gave me the keys for free, offered free towing for warranty repairs and sent a couple high-priced call girls with a van full of Corona to my residence nightly for a month. How bad was my experience? Let’s just say nobody should have to sacrifice their favorite denim jacket beating out a carb fire on a three-month-old car like I did with my 1984 L69 Z28. I recall that night vividly because it’s one of the few evenings that garbage scow wasn’t parked on the dealer’s lot awaiting another transmission replacement.
Ford has bought on some of their own trouble in not retaining talented drivers. Mark Martin and Jeff Burton both enjoyed their career-defining success in Fords, but now win races in Chevys. Jeff Gordon was a Ford development driver they envisioned as a future champion… until he violated his contractual agreements to leave Ford for Hendrick Motorsports. Had Ford pursued the matter hard in court, young Mr. Gordon would likely have spent a couple seasons on the sidelines and you’d never have heard of him again. Ditto Kasey Kahne, who had to buy his way out of his contract with Ford to go racing for Ray Evernham’s fledgling Dodge outfit in 2004.
That’s why it had to smart last week when Kahne announced he was once again leaving Ford to go drive for Rick Hendrick’s all-conquering team, an outfit that’s won nine of the last 15 Cup championships, including the last four in a row.
While you can’t blame Kahne for wanting to drive for the sport’s dominant team, or Hendrick for wanting to employ another of the sport’s most marketable drivers with a lot of years left in his career, you have to wonder if the move is good for the sport. Don’t take me to task for being against the free-trade system. I understand how this all works. In my younger years, I ran a tire store that competed against two others on the same block. I flat out hated those guys. I wanted to win every sale from them. I got paid well to see to it my parking lot and waiting room were always full and theirs were empty. Eventually, the organization I worked for was the last man standing, and I didn’t cry any tears for them and I didn’t care if our success was to the detriment of consumers. If they developed good employees who could sell or bust tires quickly, I’d make a pitch to hire them, and those guys I targeted often came to work for Tom and I as it became more apparent we were the big dogs on the block. All is fair in love, war and tire sales, but you wouldn’t have wanted to watch that battle on TV, much less buy a ticket to watch us do our stuff even if at one point I believe we were the best tire shop in America.
Rick Hendrick not only has the most successful organization in NASCAR today, he has the most marketable. Jimmie Johnson is the only driver ever to win four consecutive titles. Gordon has also claimed the big trophy four times. Martin is one of the most recognizable and respected drivers in our sport’s history, even if he’s never grabbed hold of the golden ring despite a dizzying amount of laps around the merry-go-round. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success driving for Hendrick, but he remains inarguably the sport’s most popular, high profile and recognizable driver even with this year’s moldy scurf he calls a beard. Watch the TV ads, folks. (Do you have any choice?) Which drivers appear the most, with only Carl Edwards and occasionally Kyle Busch (in an increasingly annoying set of Toyota ads) interrupting the constant stream of Hendrick drivers? Now add Kahne, who is a commercial darling of his own; though thankfully, since that insurance company pulled out of racing we don’t have to endure anymore of those psychotic “creepy chick” ads.
Just as he was one of the first in the modern era to realize that a multi-car team made sense on an economy of scale level, Hendrick might be on the front lines of recognizing that even when your drivers aren’t hitting on all eight, having a marketable stable of drivers is a team’s key to success. After all, despite all the thousands of flavors of ice cream now available to consumers vanilla remains the most popular consumer choice over chocolate by a 29% to 9% ratio. If nothing else, Hendrick Motorsports has offered up the casual fan more vanilla drivers than any other organization, sponsor-spewing automans seeming devoid of genuine emotion to offend Wall Street and Fortune 500 entities than any other race organization in the sport’s history. I’d dare to say that we might as well rename Rick Hendrick Racing “The Stepford Wives Racing Community.”
Look at Johnson, who at his most emotional struggles to reach the level of “bland” while he works in his plugs for a home improvement company that is the zombie wasteland of middle-aged males who have given up on Harley Davidsons, fishing, dirt bikes and ever having sex with their wives again unless they build a gazebo. When Gordon confronts a driver like Matt Kenseth (and it always seems to be Kenseth) with gentle barbs or (gasp) a push to the chest that wouldn’t get the first-grade playground monitors too upset, it’s big news. Martin is like a once jagged rock that has been eroded away by the passing stream of time to the point that he now says he no longer cares if he’s winning races or titles, he’s having so much darn fun driving for Rick. During an extended interview of unprecedented length during Saturday’s Nationwide Busch delay, even the once fiery Earnhardt Jr. sounded alarmingly Stepford as he calmly answered questions, his eyes all of a sudden the color of the stale ginger ale Kurt Vonnegut once attributed to the monkeys’ testes who had been given saltpeter to keep them abusing themselves before zoo guests. Nowadays, he’s extolling the virtues of mayonnaise and auto insurance, not bumping people out of the way for race wins even if it seems like decades since he won a race. You and me both, Junior.
Now add in Kahne, another driver bred in of the new generation so vanilla he’d make a Mennonite cringe but eventually to be thrust into the lap of luxury. What are we telling drivers coming up through the feeding frenzy that are the ladder steps to Cup racing? We’re telling them winning a race occasionally is nice, but it’s more important to be nice. Remember to keep your hair cut short, to thank your sponsors, and to avoid conflict. Because maybe, just maybe, one day Rick Hendrick will hire you and you can make millions even if you don’t succeed. In this tough economy, Hendrick still has the sponsors other teams lack and they can make you rich. Rich and unsuccessful beats poor and a champion. This isn’t Thunder Road anymore, buddy, this is Wall Street and Madison Avenue. And kid, you better get the picture down here on Tenth Avenue.
I remain convinced in the current climate of Cup racing, Dale Earnhardt the original would never have found a ride and he’d still be working at a cotton mill or driving a tow truck. Elliott would have sounded “too hick” to land a ride. Guys like Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson, Bobby Isaac and even chain-smoking David Pearson would never have gotten a second glance. Too hillbilly, too rough around the edges, not ready for prime time. So I hope ya’ll like vanilla, because that’s the sort of racing and drivers NASCAR is serving up these days. Me? I remain a fan of the grape-strawberry water ice they used to serve off the back of the Jessio’s ice cream truck while I was on vacation down the Jersey Shore when I was a kid. Too much vanilla will make you sick.
Just don’t try telling Rick Hendrick that.