“I dunno, can you give me a good enough reason to race?”
The only thing I could think of when this question popped up over my headset at Loudon was, “What?” I mean, if you’re at the track and you want to know if you should race the answer would undeniably be, “Yes!” Wouldn’t it?
Unless you are a start and park team.
It had to be one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever heard as a NASCAR fan. Bobby Labonte pulled his No. 09 into the garage with a sour battery. Shortly over the team radio he inquired if they were going to fix the problem. To which his crew chief, Marc Reno replied with the above quote.
Now that just couldn’t be right, could it? The crew chief is always the one working hard both as magical mechanic and cheerleader for the downtrodden spirits of a Cup team.
I locked my scanner on hold and waited for the next transmission. There were a few short bursts from Reno basically asking Bobby to hold on while he got back to the garage. Then team owner James Finch added his literal two cents to the conversation which included, “We’ve got to be smart about this unless we’ve got a sponsor. These engines are lasting two or three weeks. We’ve got to be careful.”
It occurred to me in a way not previously appreciated that the start-and-park teams this year are not really racing, they’re living paycheck to paycheck. And when all you can think about is how to put the next meal on the table — or the next set of tires — you simply can’t take the risks that a Sprint Cup team must when they are on the hunt for a win.
Now it was very apparent that Finch and Reno are fully appreciative of this difference. Reno repeated twice, “If we go back out, we’ve got to have a really good reason or I’m in a heap of trouble.” He wasn’t talking about getting the team to the next race, but hanging onto his job in difficult times. I can completely appreciate the decisions that one makes when you’re considering your home, family and all the bills that arrive on a regular basis. Risk quickly vanishes from the discussion.
However, those who sit behind the wheels of these brightly hued chariots do not tend to balance the books at the end of the night. In the case of the No. 09, 2000 Cup champion Labonte could barely speak as those who provided his ride told him, no, the car wouldn’t be fixed today. They needed an engine and four fenders ready to go in Dover without a visit to the shop. They also need a sponsor.
Bobby, as the consummate racer that he is, needs a car that can go the distance. He’s made his desire NOT to park his machine known throughout this season, even hunting down rides from week to week because he knew who had enough cash to make a decent run, instead of limping to the garage and licking their wounds.
No racer wants to give up.
However, for those who always wished for more, the current NASCAR contracts with the networks permit such hardworking groups like Phoenix Racing the chance to Dance with the Stars. The weekly purse for filling the field allows those that hover right about the Top-35 bubble the opportunity to return next week and join such illustrious personages like Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and Richard Petty on the greatest stage in auto racing.
You know, if given a similar opportunity, I just might take the bait, too. Some things are just not meant to be passed up.
But, if I had once harnessed the Sun while driving an overpowered racecar, I doubt I would be accepting such a paltry expression of competition on behalf of my employer — at least not with any grace.
The answer to the question that opened this column remains, “What?!” Followed by resounding silence. Words cannot express the stupefying twist of anger and stunned shock that I felt. I cannot begin to imagine what Labonte might have felt.
We come to the track to see who can survive a brutally competitive race, who can return the next week and do it again, and who has the heart to never give up. Maybe teams like Phoenix Racing don’t give up, but they aren’t really giving it their all, either.
And for that, I have only one response. If you don’t have a good enough reason to race, then you don’t have a good enough reason to stand up with the stars of our sport. Next time, save your pennies and pick your race. And make NASCAR stand up to its poor policy of making sure there’s 43 cars on the track for the TV crews.
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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