To a troubling extent, the outcome of Sunday’s race and several drivers’ chances at a championship were decided not by events during the 500-mile race, but by what happened on Friday afternoon and early on Saturday morning. It rained. Yep, that’s going to happen time to time, and, since all NASCAR events take place on outdoor facilities, the track is going to get wet, schedules are going to have to be rearranged and delays are going to occur. (Anyone else recall then crew chief Ray Evernham’s classic remark during a rain delay at Daytona many years ago? When asked how rain “changes” the racecars, Evernham replied “It gets them wet.”)
But Texas presents a special challenge as racetracks go. Hours after it starts raining, the sun has come back out, the Air-Titans have done their thing, and fans in the grandstands are whistling Dear Prudence waiting for the festivities to begin, water continues seeping up through the track in what they call “weepers” without a tinge of irony. As the story was related to me years ago, the land where TMS was built was once owned by eccentric billionaire and occasional presidential candidate (is history repeating itself?) H. Ross Perot. A survey of the property was done and indicated that due to a unstable water table beneath the surface, the property wasn’t suitable for the development of the industrial park Perot had envisioned. Thus Perot sold O. Bruton Smith a pig in a poke when he unloaded land that probably should have been set aside as “green space” or some other tax dodge.
Water seeping up through the track has bedeviled TMS since the joint opened. Back in 1998, I stood a few feet from Bill France Jr. and Bruton Smith in the garage area at Bristol as they discussed the water seepage problems at the Texas track and a chance the race might have to be postponed because of the issue. As I recall the chat, France indicated to Smith he better fix the (grotesque expletive deleted) track or future races at Texas wouldn’t be postponed they’d be deleted from the schedule. I don’t recall Mr. Smith being amenable to that idea.
I get asked occasionally why my picture has never appeared atop my column at Frontstretch or any of the other websites I’ve worked for. By not sharing my ugly mug with the world, I can occasionally wander in somewhere where my presence might not be appreciated simply by turning my credential around.
That 1998 race at TMS was, in fact, a disaster and remedial action has been ongoing ever since. Oddly enough, track GM Eddie Gossage’s “Shut Up and Race” campaign didn’t solve the issue. In fact, many drivers argue that the inaugural TMS race was marred by a huge wreck in the first corner of the first lap by a wet track surface. Perhaps if Texas had worked as hard as remedying the seepage issue as they did in getting a second date. (Anyone seen Frances Ferko around lately? He’s the fellow that sued NASCAR on TMS’s behalf to get the second date.)
That ultimately led to one of the ultimate travesties in modern day NASCAR, taking the race date from historic Rockingham to give Texas its fall date. Yep, this should have been the Rockingham race weekend and I’m still a tad bitter about the change, which leads me to point out that officially the Rock lost its date because it wasn’t selling out. Thus it’s curious there were huge blocs of empty seats at Texas this weekend but I suppose those fans could have been standing in packed lines waiting to buy $11 hot dogs. Who knew that “No Limits” is a concession stand pricing policy?)
But I’ve wandered a bit off the trail here. Back to the issue at hand. Cup practices scheduled for Saturday morning had to be canceled due to seepage issues with the track. The NXS race had to be delayed for the same, but eventually they got the event in. (Though it overran its network time slot, leading to a terse order to race winner Brad Keselowski to head for Victory Lane as “efficiently” as possible so NBC’s east coast affiliates could toss it to the local news. Certainly I’m the only one cynical enough to have been waiting for Keselowski to reply, “Don’t I need to blow the rear tires off this thing to bend up our doctored quarterpanels first?” Though I do seem to recall Sunday’s race winner Jimmie Johnson being told to “burn it down,” which is, after all a lot more subtle than saying to back it into the wall.) There was still enough time at a track with lights (and a curse upon them) to get in some Cup practice. It was reported that the Cup crew chiefs, by and large, nixed the idea because they felt any data gathered under the lights wouldn’t correlate to a race run during the day. Or maybe they didn’t want to give up their place in line to buy $11 hot dogs, I’m not sure.
Whatever their reasoning was, I’m sure some of those box-top execs were second guessing themselves Sunday. Perhaps had practice been held they might have learned there was a potential tire issue (which also manifested itself in the truck and NXS races) that might lead to problems during the big hootenanny on Sunday in as little as 10 laps. A tire failure during practice draws crew chiefs and tire specialists from other teams the way a fresh raccoon roadkill draws flies as they look at the failed tire trying to figure out what happened. Two tire failures during a practice session leads to a muted gelatinous whoompf sound as crew chiefs’ heads explode. Given even a single failure, tire pressures and setups would likely have been altered prior to the race to the benefit of some unfortunates.
Let me hasten to remind you of NASCAR’s mantra. “There are no bad Goodyear tires. There are just bad teams that do bad things to good Goodyear tires.” That’s why breathless pit reporters will always tell you that a driver got “four new Goodyear tires” (as if they had the option of going with another brand… “Dale Earnhardt Jr. just got four bias-ply Sears Winter-handler snow tires with natty whitewalls!”) But when tire issue crop up they’re just tire failures, no brand mentioned. I don’t know if the pit reporters still get paid for using the words Goodyear and Sunoco any longer, but NBC must feel its ominous the Goodyear dirigible is no longer providing aerial shots, they come from a helicopter paid for by some hot dog company. Hey, at $11 a shot, the processed pig part market is very lucrative. Oddly enough I get mine at the local Sunoco for $1 a shot.
So would having some practice on Saturday have changed the outcome of the race? The only thing I know about crystal balls is if I had a pair I wouldn’t ride a horse bareback. When Joey Logano’s tire failed on lap 9, I wrote that one off to Karmic payback, but after that I can’t be sure. But it might just have been that Johnson and the No. 48 team played it safe until that final (and unnecessary but inevitable) caution-flag pit stop. Only with the pay window beginning to creak open did they let Johnson off the leash to run with the big dog. Here’s what I do know. Goodyear is bringing that same tire compound to the Homestead season finale in two weeks’ time, and you can bet the teams are going to be clamoring for all the practice they can get.
For any fans who might have woken up for the final 10 laps or so at Texas after a long boring afternoon of a single car dominating, there surely was a marked contrast between Kansas and Texas. It was obvious Johnson had the faster car and Keselowski was doing whatever he had to do to keep the No. 48 behind him, knowing that likely his chances at a championship depended on it. But rather than knocking Keselowski out of the way, Johnson stalked his rival, seized on a slip by the No. 2 car and made a surgically clean pass. Hopefully Logano was watching, because had he done the same at Kansas, he likely wouldn’t be in the predicament he is right now. Even if he’d waited until the final lap to use the front bumper (and I doubt he would have had to) I think the move would have been celebrated, not denounced. But if wishes and buts were candy and nuts every day would be a very merry Christmas.
Because of the tire issues Sunday, I noticed again a TV trend I find troubling. The networks are there to provide race coverage for the fans at home. Yet on more than one occasion, they seemed to be going out of their way to help out individual teams as well. When Kevin Harvick had his first tire issue, he radioed his team he thought he had a right-rear tire going down. The spotter radioed back that the right rear looked OK. NBC helpfully got a prolonged shot of the left side of the car which showed that it was, in fact, the left-rear tire that was the issue. The teams can watch the TV feeds from their pit boxes, and that sort of coverage gives them a decided advantage. But it seems that only some teams qualify for the video analysis of the issues they’re having.
Along the same lines, it was curious to note that when some drivers had a flat and were able to continue at a reduced pace towards the pits, NASCAR threw the caution flag anyway. When other drivers were all crossed up sideways, the caution never flew. Favoritism? Perhaps. Or maybe it was a matter of timing. If it had been awhile since the last caution throwing the yellow to prevent further potential tire issues might have seemed wise to them. And of course it allowed for a handy commercial time out and kept the race from overrunning its network time slot. My issue with so called “reality TV” has always been the players act differently than they might knowing they’re being watched. Hell, even lab rats do the same according to scientists. When the needs of the network and their time slots start altering the game who will be the Survivor? I mean at least be fair. To the best of my knowledge no college football game has ever concluded within its allotted time slot. Those of us waiting to see the local news afterwards can attest to that.
The Wayback Machine: As an old guy with a decreasing amount of brain neurons on speaking terms with others, sometimes I like to share stories of yore from the sport’s past before I lose them. Older fans have heard this one. To me, if you’ve ever seen a Cup race from Rockingham or a Cup race without Jeff Gordon you’re an older fan. The rest of you are a bunch of newbies though I might have to rethink that second criteria now that Gordon is retiring. Hmmm. If you ever had to use a church key to open a beer at the track….
But anyway, think some drivers and teams might be playing dirty tricks to eliminate title contenders to the benefit of their teammates? Fear there might be more of the same at Phoenix and Homestead? Let me tell you a story about the 1956 season, which is three years before my “born on date” and was originally related to me by old fans in the grandstands beside me in exchange for free beers. Carl Kiekhaefer’s team of white Chryslers dominated in 1956, just as they had in 1955 as the original super team. But there had been some bumps in the road that year as might expected in an era where most of the races were held on dirt tracks. Racing superstar Tim Flock had quit the team, citing personal differences with Kiekhaefer. And Herb Thomas was threatening to wrest that year’s title from Keikhaefer’s lead driver, Buck Baker. In fact, Thomas took the points lead at Langhorne, a notoriously difficult and dangerous circle-shaped track here in the Keystone state. Sensing a title slipping from his grasp, Kiekhaefer leased the Shelby Fairgrounds track in North Carolina and managed to get NASCAR to add it to the schedule that fall. Yes, such a thing really was possible back then… there were no TV broadcasts of the races. In fact there were damn few TVs in the rural south.
Thomas’s weekend got off to a bad start. He blew a rear differential in practice, but NASCAR decided they liked old Herb and they delayed the start of the race to give Thomas time to get his car fixed. After all, there were going to be almost 2,000 fans on hand to see the race and the fans wanted to see Thomas, a big-name driver. Thomas started shotgun on the field but was roaring his way towards the front. Baker’s teammate Speedy Thompson saw to it Thomas never made it to the lead. He hooked Thomas’s Chevy into the guard rail. The rail snapped and Thomas’s car was stuck in place. He was hit by several more drivers including Lee Petty, Tiny Lund, Billy Meyers and Ralph Moody, a virtual “who’s who” of the sport at the time. Thomas was badly injured in the wreck and suffered a severe brain injury. Not only was his race over, to a large degree so was his career. Baker went on to win that race though he swore up and down that if there’d been a hit called on Thomas he knew nothing of it beforehand. Baker also went on to win the 1956 Cup title. Thomas finished second in the points despite missing the last three races of the season. Oddly enough, Thompson wasn’t suspended for two races. But fallout from the fans over the dastardly move convinced old Carl to pack up his ball and bat and go home after 1956 despite his teams having won 52 of 108 races they entered in ’55 and ‘56. But that sort of stuff could never happen these days… right?