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(Photo: Christian Koelle)

Beside the Rising Tide: The Finish You Didn’t See and Other Non-Observations

The Best Finish to a Stock Car Race You Never Saw

There were plenty of last lap dramatics in Saturday’s truck series race at Martinsville. But if you were watching the race at home you never saw any of it … not live anyway. 

With two laps left to run and a three truck battle at the front of the field, FOX Sports lost its TV feed. This has happened a few times already this season with both FOX and NBCSN during NASCAR races, but in the other instances the interruptions were corrected in less than a minute — save for one that did stretch on around five minutes by my count. As best I can recall, none of those other outages caused fans to miss the end of a race. Face it, if you’ve invested a couple hours of your time watching a race, even if the finish is abysmal, and this one wasn’t, you want to at least see who won. 

In some instances the outages were localized to certain TV markets or regions, but based on what I’ve been able to learn, this one affected every FS1 viewer in the country. I have touched base with at least 18 fans and friends in states ranging from Washington State to Maine, Georgia to Montana and from San Diego to Westhampton out on Long Island. I haven’t been able to contact anyone I know well in Canada who was watching the race, so I’m not sure if they got to share our pain. 

There was about a 15-minute red flag period during the race caused by a nine-vehicle collision on lap 124 that left the racing surface drenched in fluids. (Almost 40% of the race was run under the caution, with the yellow flag flying 10 times.) Still, Saturday’s race duration is listed at one hour and 50 minutes, about two and a half minutes shorter than this spring’s Martinsville truck race, so it’s hard to say it was unprecedented in length. 

Championship contender Ross Chastain had been leading the race up until a lap 189 caution flag. On the restart, Todd Gilliland grabbed the lead. Chastain felt that Gilliland had roughed him up enough that if he got back to his rival’s rear bumper, he’d show no hesitation in returning the favor. And that’s when the TV screen froze up and showed a network logo. What we were apparently all missing was a furious battle between Chastain in second and Harrison Burton, Gilliland’s (for now) KBM Motorsports teammate. Chastain got the better end of that duel and wound up second while Burton finished 18th. Their incident allowed Gilliland to drive on to his first win in the Truck Series. In the brief few seconds the broadcast returned, he seemed pretty excited by the win, but then viewers were told, “See ya. We’re switching to college football now.” Yeah, college football. Not even an NFL game. That’s going to leave a bruise. If nothing else it surely is a vivid reminder to racing fans what low esteem we are held in and what low respect these nice TV executive types regard us with. As best I could count, there were five or six college football games going on on various channels at the moment FS1 yanked the plug on us. Some of them involved higher rated teams than others and doubtless some of those games were intriguing, but others were outright awful. But there was only one major race being televised at that moment. 

Besides annoying (enraging in some instances) racing fans, I very much presume that Gilliland’s sponsor (I rarely mention sponsors but in this case it was Mobil 1) and co-sponsors had to be a bit miffed too. 

Such is the nature of NASCAR racing today. Sponsors still spend huge amounts of money sponsoring race teams. They don’t do it for the free tickets to the races, a chance to do a meet and greet with the drivers or have their driver sign autographs for their employees in the lunchroom. They do it to move product. While the cost of sponsoring teams in NASCAR’s top touring divisions is decidedly down from the peak prices of the glory days, it’s still a whole bunch of loot. Let me assure you if found a laundry bag stuffed with the amount of money Mobil One paid KBM to sponsor Gilliland in small denomination bills left accidentally at your front door this week, you’d be having the best party in town this coming weekend and likely dancing your way to work Monday.  

The way it’s supposed to work is when the team wins, the sponsor’s car, brightly festooned with its logos, rolls into victory lane. Their boy, trained like an organ grinder’s monkey, leaps out of the car and praises their products with a moonie-like fervor, enunciating and speaking clearly as they’ve been trained to do. NBC finds these post-race comments so engrossing they interview the winning driver twice, once out on the track and then again in victory lane. Most weeks the winner will then trot over to the presenting network’s post-race program to basically repeat what he’s already said in the two previous interviews. But Saturday FS1 didn’t even stick around long enough for Gilliland to thank the boys at the shop or Jesus. They had to move along to a college football game. 

Mobil 1 has been around auto racing for a very long time. They know how the game is played or at least how they expect it to be played. Their crisp logos and signage on the race cars they sponsor will be shown on TV for X amount of minutes and seconds clearly and in focus, a figure that will be tabulated for them by the nice folks at Joyce Julius and Associates that hyper-analyze each and every nano-second of each race broadcast to a degree that would probably send most of us diving off the side of the Brooklyn bridge before we finished the task. While you’ll get some Joyce minutes even if your driver doesn’t have a particularly good race, when you win, you hit the jackpot. 

Sponsors are getting harder and harder to find. Going by the amount of unsponsored or self-sponsored trucks that compete, sponsorship must be particularly hard to obtain in the Truck Series. If the new reality is TV networks covering NASCAR racing aren’t even going to show the final laps, much less interview the winner in victory lane, where’s the upside to sponsoring a vehicle? 

Of course the most notorious SNAFU in sports broadcasting was the so called “Heidi Game” disaster of Nov. 17, 1968. That day, NBC presented an NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets, at least in the eastern half of the United States. It had been a back and forth game for most of the contest. The Jets seemed to have the edge until a fumbled kickoff return, after which the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute of play in a game with huge potential playoff implications. At nine years old, I was living in Huntington, NY out of Lawn-Guy-Land that day. Joe Namath had Jets fans in a frenzy. My parents were hosting a party that afternoon and evening, just some neighbors, relatives and friends to see the big game. When NBC switched over to the classic children’s film Heidi  precisely at 7 p.m. ET as scheduled with the game still going, I heard men from the neighborhood, and even some of my uncles use curse words I had never heard before — ones that would have landed me in big trouble if I repeated them. At the same time, two of my younger sisters were in tears. They were frightened by the commotion and yelling and really wanted to see Heidi. I did not see the film that night and for possibly superstitious reasons have chosen never to see it since. I keep imagining Mr. Pavinen, his face purple with rage, spraying bits of half masticated potato chips in all directions shaking a fist at the TV as if he meant to break it, hollering “Oh, you stupid TV, gul-dangeed idiot, mother-humpers!!!!!” Or words to that effect. 

We’ll see what sort of backlash results from FOX’s call on Saturday afternoon. It probably won’t be as long term as the Heidi Game, but as a race fan I have to chime in my two bits worth. It doesn’t cost any more money to broadcast a race well then it does to do so poorly. You’ve got all the trained personnel and equipment on site anyway. Do it well or be prepared for further ratings declines. 

The Ultimate Butt Dial?

One person who surely wishes he’d been busy doing interviews immediately after the race is winner Gilliland. Instead he used the down time after the checkers flew to curse out his boss, Kyle Busch, and to urge him to stay in his motor coach rather than come celebrate in victory lane. I’d never heard of the brand of motor coach Gilliland seemed to indicate or at least infer Busch owned. Busch is quite a wealthy young man, so I’m sure Fuh-King makes a very high quality coach every bit as nice as a Prevost or Newell. 

It seems only fair in a way. Kyle Busch sets and has some pretty high standards. He’s made caustic comments about Gilliland and teammate Burton’s inability to win in the same equipment he uses to routinely dominate truck races, wheeling from flag to flag … which is why he makes the big bucks racing in the Cup series and Burton and Gilliland are in racing’s equivalent of a AAA league.  

Let Me Guess … You’re Upset?

Gilliland sounded almost like a cloistered nun compared to Matt Crafton’s post-race comments about computer/electrical issues that thwarted his efforts and dropped him eight laps off the pace in the first stage of that truck race. If the transcript I was sent after the race is correct, Crafton dropped three F-bombs in a single sentence before graduating to the “mother of all curse words” to describe the failed ECU that caused his issues. Even while hanging out with bikers in dive bars in Folcroft as a younger man, rarely did I hear that level of obscenity used in discourse. 

While his language can be debated, Crafton’s point can’t be ignored. NASCAR is moving toward new rules and race vehicles going forward. Which rules will be adapted in which series remains to be seen, but right now many of the entries in Truck Series races are running so called “crate engines” built and provided by IImor, perhaps still better known for their involvement in IndyCar. Along with the greasy mechanical parts, Ilmor also provides the ECU (electronic control unit) to make the engine operate. Yep, we used to call them “computers” rather than ECUs. I’m 99 percent sure the car you drove to work today (or would have if you worked … or had a car) has one under the hood. The fact you may not have known that is a testament to how well-developed and reliable most engine electronics have become. That wasn’t always the case. In the early to mid-1980s, the electronic controls in American cars were so unreliable that the Big 3 basically handed our domestic market over to Honda and Toyota. 

Under the rules,the teams aren’t supposed to mess with the engines. They are built to that “spec”, which in a perfect world would mean they were all equal and cost far less than the in-house engine programs with their constant tweaking and tuning to find that elusive one more horsepower that might win the day accelerating out of the final corner at Darlington toward the checkers. The “spec” engines are also supposed to be more reliable. When they fail you really can’t blame the team that installed them, in this case ThorSport. 

Crafton was having a steady if unspectacular run within the top 10 late in the first stage of the race Saturday when the ECU started acting up. He would go on to finish 23rd, seven laps off the pace. That earned him just 21 points, and Crafton has his work cut out for him heading into the next Truck Series race, the penultimate event of the season, which will set the stage for the season-deciding Homestead finale. The standings after Martinsville show Crafton fifth, nine points behind Austin Hill in fourth. 

The good news for Crafton is he still has an outside shot at that title. The same can’t be said for his Thorsport teammates, Grant Enfinger and Johnny Sauter. They both had spec engine failures early in the Las Vegas truck race and were eliminated from title contention. To add a little salt to the wound, Crafton also lost his “spec” engine early in that Vegas race. Naturally, team owner Duke Thorson went ballistic. He even petitioned NASCAR to have Enfinger and Sauter allowed to run for the title since the failure was the fault of a NASCAR approved (even mandated, you could say) supplier, not his race team’s fault. Not surprisingly, NASCAR turned down the suggestion. “Who do you think you are, Jeff Gordon?” someone was heard hollering. My guess is Ilmor won’t be getting a wall calendar from Thorsport this holiday season.

We’ll likely see “spec” engines in all three of NASCAR’s touring series sooner rather than later, so this is an issue we need to debate. To their credit, Illmor admitted they were responsible for the engine failures in Vegas. They said they hadn’t anticipated it being so hot out there in Nevada. Has Ilmor not gotten the memo that Las Vegas is in the desert? 

In a perfect world of lollipops, rainbows and unicorns (and cheap discount liquors and half-price Harley Davidsons), the parts or electronic failures would even out over the course of the season among competitors. If one title contending team had an engine failure this week, it would be evened out by the team of a title rival having the same fate a couple weeks later. But then you hit a worst case scenario like having three potential title contenders from one team experience engine failure in the same race, leaving them with three of the bottom four finishing positions, as happened at Vegas. 

Parts failures by what amounts to outside vendors will have championship implications as we’re seeing even now. In addition, a driver’s career could be derailed or even ended if those “spec” part failures cost him wins and titles, despite the fact he probably wouldn’t know which end of a socket wrench to grab onto to tighten up a leaking valve cover. 

One can only anticipate long drawn out debates over how to correct such issues made even uglier and longer when lawyers start parachuting into the area to defend the interests of the aggrieved. There would be millions of dollars at stake, and large sums of money attract lawyers like an open can of tuna draws feral cats who can’t fish. 

They Don’t Make Brawls Like They Used To

Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but I was highly amused to read Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano’s post-race altercation described by some outlets as a “brawl.” USA Today even claimed there was a “fiery post-race scuffle.” I guess “tragic murderous rampage” wouldn’t fit? Guys like Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly would have laughed them silly at the two drivers’ antics. My guess was after an equivalent altercation in a kindergarten sandbox, both combatants would have gotten a mild scolding but neither of them would get a detention. The “third man in” in the brawl might have been asked to go sit in the corner and reflect on his conduct and how it made the student he knocked over feel until the end of recess. 

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Both “fighters” deserve each other – Denny for what he did to Chase, Joey for what he did to Matt. What do they say about karma?

  2. Avatar

    Even short track racing sux so bad that even Matt is mailing it in.

  3. Avatar

    Ditto on the “brawl”. Still, brawls sell more race tickets than “shove-and-runs” do, so here’s another instance of the sports media scratching Nascar’s back.

  4. Avatar

    This weeks history lesson was about football? Hope Gilly likes driving for daddy next year and running for 15th.

    • Avatar

      This week’s history lesson is what happens when a network cuts away from a sports event before time expires. It could be why the networks learned from history and now stay with an event. The Grand Poobahs in Daytona haven’t learned enough yet.

  5. Avatar

    So, Matt, you remember the Heidi game. What you didn’t mention was that the team that was leading when they stopped telecasting came back in the last minute to win. And that made it worse because the viewers didn’t see the Oakland Raiders score two touchdowns in nine seconds to win.

  6. Avatar

    Glad I didn’t watch the truck race. What a mess that sounds like. Inexcusable for a network to drop the ball like that.

    “…the parts or electronic failures would even out over the course of the season among competitors.”

    That would be true and make such failures less catastrophic if we still counted all 36 races equally toward the championship and final standings, but we don’t. A failure in October could be devastating compared to a failure in March so they won’t “even out” in reality.

    Yeah, right, that was one hell of a “fight” at the end of the cup race. LOL.

  7. Avatar

    i’m still scratching my head about the cup post-race brawl. neither driver threw a punch. the team members are the ones who got in the scuffle. i read where the guy that pulled hamlin by the back of the uniform was punished. logano just pushed hamlin’s shoulder. i think whatever the reason it will cause one of the two to lose focus, and based on pasted events it will cause hamlin to have issues at texas.

    these next 2 weeks are all about head games.