NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Decisions, Decisions

For Dover’s storied reputation, Sunday’s running of the FedEx 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks was anything but typical. The “Monster Mile” is infamous for beating up on drivers and being wicked brutal on equipment. While cars still lost engines and suffered from all manner of mechanical woes (both accident-based and not), the Dover event looked more mild than wild. Maybe it’s simply because the cars are getting better, the drivers are getting more patient, and NASCAR’s revised points system/structure is forcing teams to think before they act.

Apart from a few isolated incidents – recall Jeff Burton’s cooked motor with ten laps to go at Darlington – the 2011 season has enjoyed its share of lengthy, late-race, green-flag runs. To go eighty or ninety laps without a caution before seeing the checkered flag is unusual, especially given the broad level of competition and personal animosity we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons. As such, success has been coming from off-the-track as crew chiefs, engineers, and car owners have made decisions that ultimately change the outcome of a particular event. Even when a late-race caution occurs, it’s been quick (and sometimes radical) decisions that spell the difference between winning and everything else. Think Regan Smith and his Furniture Row team at Darlington, or Matt Kenseth and company this past Sunday at Dover, and we see how stock car racing is becoming more guessing than gassing, and more predicting than passing.

Caution flags are a pretty fluid thing. If there’s trouble on the track, you’ll see one. If there’s a driver stinking up the show, you’ll likely see one (for “debris”) then, too. If there’s a question about tire wear, a “competition” yellow will fly, although there’s advance notice about such a caution. Simply put: chasing a yellow flag can be a tricky deal, especially if a race team is banking on a late-race slower-pace to make adjustments that will put them in a better position to win (or score a much-needed top-ten, or an even-more-needed top-five).

Given the events of last Sunday in Delaware, number one on my “driver-most-likely-to-score-their-first-Sprint-Cup-win” list (I once tried having this moniker printed onto a coffee mug, but it turned out I needed to a coffee bucket) is Marcos Ambrose. I’ve been watching Ambrose over the past few seasons, and his performances are getting better with age. A future in Sprint Cup racing looked uncertain before he penned a deal to drive for Richard Petty Motorsports, but now it appears as though the stars over Concord are beginning to align. Sure, Ambrose has shown his stuff on road courses…. but the Tasmanian Devil has been turning better laps on ovals of all sizes and scoring better finishes as of late. His third-place finish at Dover on Sunday capped a solid performance where the #9 DeWalt Ford flirted with the lead against some guys named Johnson, Edwards, and Martin and showed signs of true grit and victory lane potential. Two top-fives and three top-tens in the first eleven races this year is more evidence that Ambrose, “King” Richard, and the #9 Ford are ready smoke the tires, wave the flag, and smile for the cameras.

Change is inevitable; especially in this place we call “NASCAR Nation”, where drivers, sponsors, teams, and facilities can suddenly not be what they seem. Think about recognized and respected racetracks (North Wilkesboro, Rockingham) that have faded in recent years from the Sprint Cup schedule. NASCAR A.D. (as in “After Dale”) is a vastly different landscape than what it was during NASCAR B.C. (as in “Before the Crash”). Granted, the economy has tanked, recovered, tanked, and recovered (?) since 2001, as is evident from the shrinking numbers of substantial corporate sponsors, television viewers (although Dover did show a pretty decent increase – about six percent – over last year’s ratings), and fans in the stands, but such an ebb-and-flow is both natural and expected. Nothing remains the same for very long.
Back what seems like a lifetime ago, during a lecture I gave at James Madison University in the spring of 2006, I proposed the possibility of the following: the idea that a driver of African-American descent, behind the wheel of a Toyota Camry, might win the 2007 edition of the “Great American Race”. Bill Lester was moving from trucks into cars, and Toyota was looking to enter big-time NASCAR competition. Much of my statement was intended as attention-grabbing hyperbole, since there are countless variables involved in actually winning a NASCAR event. The uncertainties of motorsports success are almost impossible to comprehend – everything from changing weather conditions and a race team’s psychological and physical health, to more tangible factors like well-executed pit stops, tire wear, and engine durability. The old adage of “it’s one of them racin’ deals” holds true when you consider that a part worth two dollars (or less) can fail and put a front-running car behind the wall. To say that a black driver could take a Toyota to the winner’s circle at Daytona in 2007 was an exaggeration, but no more so than saying that a 20-year old, second-event, Sprint Cup driver could accomplish the same thing with an underfunded/part-time race team in 2011. Ideas that seem far-fetched have just as much chance of becoming “fact” as they do of remaining “fiction”.

As recent history has shown, the Sprint Cup career of Bill Lester never got up to its proper speed. At a time when NASCAR was advocating minority involvement in stock car racing, and developing programs intended to do the same, those of us who watched Lester make the transition from the truck series to cars thought that maybe the time had come to see an African-American driver finally find a regular (to be read as “solidly-sponsored”) seat behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup machine. Three others had tried to do this, but socio-economic conditions kept opportunities and successes to a minimum. The legacy of the late Wendell Scott is the stuff of NASCAR folklore, and the efforts of a driver like Willy T. Ribbs were scuttled by an apparent lack of timing in 1978 (he missed scheduled practice runs at Charlotte Motor Speedway that were arranged by Humpy Wheeler). Not showing up for a chance to prove yourself usually means never getting the chance to prove yourself. All was not lost, however, as the Charlotte ride intended for Ribbs wound up going to a local driver named Earnhardt.

Not that America, nor NASCAR, has been sufficiently ready over the decades to embrace a driver of color. When Wendell Scott earned his first-and-only Grand National win at Jacksonville in December of 1963, the “official” declaration of a winner was delayed because of a need to check scoring data. By the time a review of the race’s scoring was completed, the grandstands were empty and Scott was deemed “okay” to receive his check and trophy. It wasn’t that the finishing order that day was in doubt; it was that NASCAR feared what the repercussions might be if the black winning driver touched and/or kissed the white trophy girl/race queen in public. To avoid crowd unrest, Wendell Scott’s victory lane celebration was all but eliminated.
And it’s not that all drivers, car owners, and race fans believed that Wendell Scott didn’t deserve the chance to compete in NASCAR. Go to the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Mooresville, and you’ll see (at least it used to be there) one of the famous #28 Holman-Moody Fords driven by Fred Lorenzen. The Galaxy on display is a restoration done by Kim Haynes in Gastonia, but before Haynes could bring the “Competition Proven” Ford back to life, he had to revert it from its configuration as a Wendell Scott race car. How I heard it was that Holman-Moody provided the car to Scott, who campaigned it in many events. When the car’s race days were over, it remained as Scott ran it. When Haynes wanted to restore the car to its initial, more-recognized, Holman-Moody appearance, he had to begin with a car that Wendell Scott had raced – a stock car originally built for (and successfully driven by) Illinois-native Lorenzen during the mid-1960s.

When Wendell Scott took the checkered flag at Jacksonville, he was driving a 1962 Chevrolet shod with brand new Firestone tires. Those brand new Firestone tires had been supplied to Scott by DeWayne “Tiny” Lund, the journeyman driver from Iowa who won the 1963 Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers. Lund knew Scott was a capable and talented driver, and he also knew that Scott was most often running on nothing, without any secure financial backing. On the day of the Jacksonville event in 1963, Lund went over to Scott and told him to stop by the Firestone truck; Wendell’s car needed good tires and Tiny was going to buy him a set. The new tires carried Scott to victory, which – ideally – was going to begin a new era for NASCAR racing as a professional sport, at a time when America was marching slowly forward toward what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wendell Scott’s win at Jacksonville in late 1963 was looking like NASCAR’s own “Jackie Robinson”-type of transformative moment.

“Big” Bill France believed in Wendell Scott and his rights; he wanted the Danville, Virginia driver to have opportunities like those enjoyed by his racing peers. “Big Bill” encouraged acts of kindness like that practiced by Tiny Lund when he bought a new set of Firestones for Wendell Scott that day in Florida. This story was told to me many years ago by Wanda Lund Early, Tiny’s widow. Tiny died in a wreck during a race at Talladega in 1975. The winner of that tragedy-marred event – Buddy Baker – fell to his knees and wept openly in the media center upon hearing the news that his good and benevolent friend had been killed earlier that day.

Such histories become more relevant as we think about the success of Bill Lester during last week’s running of the Bosch Engineering 250 at Virginia International Raceway (a track located, ironically, in Wendell Scott’s hometown). Bill Lester’s Rolex Series GT class win might not be a Sprint Cup victory, but the Grand-Am Series is not too-far-removed in competitive demands from NASCAR’s most famous division; both racing series require consistency, longevity, the ability to manage and conserve equipment, and the mental/physical endurance to withstand multiple hours behind the wheel in deep concentration. The Autohaus Motorsports Camaro Bill Lester drove might not be a Hendrick Motorsports Impala, but similar opportunities in NASCAR might be on the horizon. Winning gets a driver noticed, regardless of their skin color…. or their gender.

That’s one of the things I love most automobile racing, and NASCAR racing, in particular: there is no differentiation between a driver’s race or gender. There are no “ladies tees” in racing, no “women’s” division, nor is there something akin to the blatant segregation seen at one time in professional baseball. Ethnicity means nothing, nor does educational experience, or the region of the world in which you were raised. Talent, ambition, and courage come first, often followed by the opportunity to try your hand at a sport that requires rather unique equipment and facilities; the future of NASCAR might be seen on go-cart tracks all across the nation, but even that activity requires more focused effort than simply going to the local ballpark and signing a child up for little league. Aging means knowledge, not a barrier separating more-active, younger competitors from older, supposedly-less-capable ones. You might see such age-specific divisions in a half-marathon or a cross-country skiing race, but try telling someone like Mark Martin that he really should be competing against other drivers closer to his own age. In today’s NASCAR, you’d be hard-pressed to find very many, if any. The guy finished second at Darlington last weekend – the track that’s considered “Too Tough to Tame”. Consider the decades of success seen during the driving careers of legendary figures like Harry Gant or Hershel McGriff; there’s no “Senior’s Tour” in NASCAR. If you’re good enough to win, you’re good enough to run against the entire field. As long as your car passes official inspection, you’re good to go.

That’s another great thing about NASCAR competition: all drivers run “equally”, so to speak. When Danica Patrick lines up for a NWS race, she doesn’t get a head start, or fewer laps to drive, or a weight advantage based on her gender. When as many as four (!) women take the green flag for the 100th-annual Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend, their cars, their rules, and all expectations will be just the same for them, as they will be for the twenty-nine men racing alongside them. The drivers from South America, Europe, and the United States will be regulated by the same rules as the drivers from Australia, Japan, and China (a first at Indy). Being able to work with some of the variables in racing, and to come up with educated (or lucky) guesses can make a difference in an event’s outcome, but such is the beauty of professional motorsports. Taking chances with risky choices can result in the creation of history. A last-second decision along pit road can put a driver in the winners’ circle, as we saw at Darlington last Sunday afternoon. Such decisions affect the eventual outcomes of races, and that’s what’s made 2011 so interesting so far.
With such a precedent already in place, one can only imagine what this weekend’s Charlotte events will hold in store. Replace valuable championship points with even-more valuable cash, and the gloves-off gambling we watch on Saturday will have everyone on the edges of their seats. With the high-holy days of automobile racing fast approaching – the Memorial Day weekend traditions of the 600 at Charlotte and the 500 at Indianapolis – the all-star paint-trading on Saturday night will most certainly set the tone for the following week’s big event. The Sprint Cup All-Star Race will be – as Claudette Colbert’s character said in Preston Sturges’s 1942 screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story – “just an overture to the opera that’s coming….”

I, for one, can’t wait.

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