NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: NASCAR Trying to Find Balance Between New World & Old School

There is more than a passing similarity between the Car of Tomorrow and the NASCAR of today. The key to having a fast racecar that can contend for the win is also what it’s going to take to help steer into the skid of the last few years and get the sport headed back in the right direction:

Balance.

It is no secret that NASCAR has struggled a bit of late with how the sport is being perceived, in large part because of how it is being presented: From painfully long pre-race shows with rock concerts to dreadfully late start times to the notion that every event needs to be contested “under the lights!” for maximum impact. But while the need to continually market NASCAR to a greater audience and attract new throngs of fans is necessary, what has been lacking is the balance between what made it the hottest sport in the country during the 1990s and early part of the new millennium, and what led to the current backlash that has been felt and amplified during the economic downturn of the past three years.

Finding the balance between the “New World” and “Old School” has been NASCAR’s predicament the last half decade or so, and the battle between then and now has taken on a clarity the past few weeks as never before.

Take, for instance, the incident at Gateway International Raceway three weeks ago between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. By now we have all beaten this horse so dead, Nationwide might as well make for Elmer’s Glue as the main series sponsor. It ignited the passions of real longtime race fans in a way that I haven’t seen in quite some time, over a Busch – err – Nationwide race, no less. A renewed feud, a father nearly overcome with emotion wanting to even the score, and a ton of torn up racecars.

The Sportscenter moment that NASCAR loves to see, and which served as the catalyst for many a cuss word heard ‘round the racing world, was also a watershed moment, as a line in the sand was drawn – presumably – where Have at It Boys! and irresponsible recklessness was crossed.

This past weekend at Pocono, in one harrowing incident down the backstretch, old and new collided again, and in a most unpleasant and violent manner. While Kurt Busch was sent spinning from an errant bump draft off the nose of Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler checked up and was tagged from behind by teammate AJ Allmendinger. Sadler’s No. 19 U.S. Air Force Ford was sent sliding across the grass and into a 90-degree earthen embankment, lined only with thin guardrails, resulting in what has been confirmed by NASCAR officials to be the hardest hit ever recorded since black box crash data recording equipment was installed in cars.

While the force of the impact ripped both the engine and transmission from the car, Sadler was able to extract himself, left with merely belt burns and a thigh bruise from the steering column. In a lesser car, we would likely be referring to Sadler in a posthumous manner; and that isn’t to be melodramatic or conjure up Internet hyperbole — that’s a fact.

What is irrefutable is that many tracks still lag behind in the safety and construction of their venues. Kentucky Speedway – now rumored to be receiving a Cup date from Atlanta next year – was forced to take action when Jeff Fuller literally taco-ed his car against a concrete wall that was sitting at precisely the wrong angle back in 2006. Kasey Kahne was nearly ejected from Pocono, Cale Yarborough-style, back in June during a last-lap backstretch fracas, while officials vowed to introduce safety improvements – next year.

The claim was that there simply wasn’t enough time to put anything up in time for last weekend’s race.

Huh?

For as much as has been made of the unemployment rate of this country, coupled with the fact that in the 1940s, we built an entire city dedicated to producing a minuscule amount of a metal to complete the most destructive device known to man, I don’t think lining a track with a chain link fence and some arrestor cables should be too daunting of a task. It’s Pennsylvania, people… Steel Country!

The inner portion of the track, with its 90-degree angles and dirt berms, is another story. Didn’t Daytona’s backstretch teach us this was a bad idea 30 years ago? The knee-jerk response has been to pave over the grass and install SAFER barriers on the inside of the backstretch. A fine idea – until it was revealed that EPA regulations dictate that a lake would need to be dug in the infield to offset it. While it isn’t exactly Sherman Ramsey’s minnow pond determining the ovoid shape of Darlington Raceway, it has devolved into a circular argument of new world thinking and preserving the lives of racecar drivers.

Before any of the talk of Sadler sailing off face-first into a wall of packed dirt, another member of the NASCAR community was nearly lost – again – while attempting to land his aircraft at an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Jack Roush took his second tumble in eight years in another experimental plane, begging the tongue-in-cheek question; what exactly are these experiments supposed to prove, anyway?

Roush is one of the few old-school car owners remaining in racing. He bleeds Blue Oval blue, has a genuine dislike for Toyota, and is about as hands-on an owner as there has ever been in the sport. Until just recently, Roush personally set the timing in his cars’ engines on race morning. I remember the story he fondly recalls of telling NASCAR legend Leonard Wood about a new tuning trick he developed with a carburetor to maximize both power and fuel mileage. Upon showing him this new trick, Wood quietly confided to Roush, “Yeah, I figured that one out about 10 years ago.”

On a personal note, I am thankful to see Roush escape the wreckage of the plane that crashed in Wisconsin. I recall a time back in the early ’90s when I received a Roush Racing catalog in the mail over Christmas, and found something in there that I liked. My dad said he would buy it for me as a late Christmas present. This was well before the days of the Internet or online shopping, so a call was made to the phone number on the catalog for Roush’s operation in Livonia, Mich.

The voice on the other end sounded oddly familiar.

“Yes, this is Jack Roush. We have kind of a skeleton crew here being the holidays, so I’m working the phones today, too.”

That is the kind of balance that NASCAR once enjoyed and embodied. Let’s hope we can continue to work to get back to that point, and not regress to what got us here over the course of the last decade. Racing facilities – particularly ones that host two Sprint Cup races – need to improve their venues and prevent injury to drivers. If that means lobbying the government to do something about it to satisfy an agency, I think the millions of dollars generated by these races should be able to produce a positive effect. NASCAR needs to address the recklessness ahead of time; the boys can have at it without launching cars skyward or left blocking the track in front of the field.

And please, Jack Roush, leave the plane experimentation to Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. We’d kind of like to keep you around for a while.

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