It’s been an interesting week both inside and outside the insular little media niche focused on NASCAR racing. A tempest in a teapot unexpectedly broke out over the lowly lug nut. We learned that Daytona Speedweeks is a thing of the past, at least in the plural sense of “weeks.” We’re four danged weeks into a new Cup season and already Silly Season has become a topic of discussion. Something bizarre happened at the end of the Phoenix ARCA race, but nobody seems able to explain what happened and what should be done about it. And there are a few folks talking about a tiny little virus and whether it’s a harbinger of the end of the human race.
NASCAR officials said last year they intended to release the 2021 Cup schedule by early April of this year, though they began walking that statement back yesterday. Last week we got a quick preview. Typically the Busch Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying have been held on the weekend that falls between the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500. That won’t be the case in 2021. Firstly, because there ain’t no open weekend between the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 next year.
Next year’s Clash will be held on Tuesday, February 7th, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. In addition, the Clash will become a night race. Oh, and rather than being held on the high-banked oval track, next year’s Clash will be run on the 3.81-mile road course the sports car racers use for the 24 Hours of Daytona. I gotta admit I did some head-scratching reading that press release. A lot of Cup fans have developed a real affection for the occasional road racing event as opposed to an endless series of races on 1.5-2.0 mile cookie-cutter tracks. But there’s one slight complication to racing Cup cars on the Daytona road course after sundown: Most of the track’s infield isn’t illuminated. That’s not an issue for the sports car racers because their cars have headlights, tail lights, brake lights, and presumably a handy illuminated vanity mirror in the visor. The Cup cars, on the other hand, have decals somewhat loosely patterned after their street counterparts’ headlights. I mean that’s why they call them stock cars, right?
In another interesting development, the cars running next year’s Clash will not be the much-ballyhooed Generation-7 cars NASCAR will trot out for the first time in the 2021 Daytona 500. The Clash will serve as the Fat Lady’s Aria for the current and much-maligned Generation-6 cars. In this year’s Clash, most of the 18 cars entered wound up trashed, with one wrecked car pushing another wrecked car across the line for the win. I guess NASCAR supposes the teams can get rid of the obsolete model cars at the Clash. Like for instance when they enter the infield portion of the road course and find it’s completely dark.
Daytona qualifying will take place that Wednesday. The twin duels will run as usual on Thursday and the trucks on Friday. Saturday will host a twin bill of ARCA and NXS series events. The 2021 Daytona 500 will run Sunday, February 14th. Yep, that’s six days if I’m counting correctly, so no more “Speedweeks.” I guess six days is close enough to a week that “Speedweek” could be used. Hopefully they don’t try trotting out that “Happy Daytona Day” nonsense again. Yep, it’s going to be tight a few days during that week, but it ought to be doable, depending on Mother Nature. You’ll recall it rained a good deal at Daytona this year, even postponing the majority of the Daytona 500 to Monday. With less time slots to move postponed races, even a moderate amount of precipitation will cause substantial havoc next year. So what can be done a year in advance to change variables none of us have any control over? Whistle through your teeth and spit, then hope we all will get by.
The cars competing in the 2021 Clash will still have five lug nuts per wheel the way God and Big Bill France intended, rather than one central lug nut as will be featured on the Gen-7 car.
I’ll admit it. The hullaballoo over the single lug nut wheels caught me quite off-guard. Yes, it’s been five lug nuts for a long time. One team did try to use four lugs and studs per wheel once in an attempt to make pit stops quicker. It didn’t say anywhere in the rulebook there had to be five lug nuts. NASCAR told those fellows how danged clever they were, then told them not to show up at the next race unless they had five lug nuts per wheel.
I have more than a passing familiarity with the sound of air guns going full chat, removing and installing lug nuts and the resultant chuffing of a big air compressor firing to keep up. For several years, I managed a chain tire store. When I was at the counter, I could hear two or three air guns triggered at a time with that peculiar (and annoying) whine you could hear from two blocks away if the door to the shop was open. That whine, annoying though it might have been, was a happy sound. Lots of whining (from the air guns, not the staff or customers) meant lots of tires being installed. That meant a healthy paycheck that Friday. Silence in the shop or only an occasional blast of an Ingersoll-Rand? Either it was a slow day, or it was time for me to run into the woods behind the shop and tell the teenage mutant tire mounters it was time to stop “doping some smoke” and get back to work before some purple-faced angry customers started ripping me a new one again.
Loose lug nuts are often a problem during a race with the current five-lug set-up. During pit stops, tenths and even hundredths of a second can mean several positions on the track. But loose lug nuts leading to an emergency pit stop to cinch them back up have cost more than a few drivers a race win. Complicating things that much more is that if several lug nuts are left loose, the wheels can wobble, chewing up the threads on the lug stud. Not only does that keep the mounter from being able to tighten the lug on that stud, it gives him a false sense that it is, in fact, already tight. The same thing can happen in a tire shop like the one I ran. Trust me, there’s little more embarrassing in life than having to explain to a customer why the two front tires and wheels on her Mercedes wagon fell off the car as a mechanic backed it out of the shop. Yeah, it was snowing and we were packed, but the real issue was a mounter decided that he simply couldn’t go another five minutes without a cigarette and that someone else would tighten those wheels. A loose wheel was an automatic dismissal offense at that chain. A mounter could have walked into my office smoking a joint and ground it out on my forehead, but if we were short on crew members I’d have just shrugged. Loose lugs? See you, Bud.
A central-wheel retention device like will be used on the Gen-7 cars next year is nothing new. Even back in the late ’50s and ’60s, Ferraris, Jaguars, Cobras and a few years of Corvettes offered what were usually called “knockoff” wheels as an option. That option was born at the racetrack, where knockoffs allowed the pit crew to change tires more quickly. Typically, the mechanic would strike one of the hub wings with a lead hammer to loosen or tighten it (the hammers had lead faces because lead is a softer metal less likely to mar the hub’s surfaces). The kids in the ’60s were smarter. They didn’t put tools in their mouths to see what lead tasted like.
When done correctly, the so called “single lug” system works fine. They’ve been using them on Formula 1 and American open-wheel race cars for years. There is a risk, however. Currently, if a NASCAR tire mounter gets sloppy and misses a couple lug nuts, having three installed correctly will usually keep the wheel and tire attached to the car well enough that car can return to the pits to address the issue.
Now if you have a single lug (or retention device) per wheel and it doesn’t get tightened properly, bad things are going to happen. Imagine a nightmarish scenario where a car is exiting the pits and a right side tire falls off. Another car exiting the pits WFO hits that errant tire and sends it flying. Tires bounce frighteningly high and rebound in unexpected directions. At both Michigan and Charlotte, the fans that were killed in the grandstands during IRL races were struck by tire/wheel assemblies that flew over the catchfence into the grandstands.
After those twin tragedies in the grandstands, the IRL came up with a tether system to keep a tire/wheel assembly attached to the car even in the course of a heavy wreck or failure of the central lug. Simply put, if NASCAR doesn’t have a similar device on the new cars yet, it needs to have one well before the first Gen-7 car turns a wheel in anger on any track.
This year’s Silly Season could be an epic one. The star atop the 2021 Christmas tree is of course the seat in the No. 48 car Jimmie Johnson won’t be driving anymore as he heads into retirement. A chance to drive for a team that scored seven championships and 83 wins over the years would be coveted by most drivers, irrespective of their current or former allegiances. Two names I’ve heard being thrown around as potential drivers of the No. 48 are Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski, both of whose contracts are up this year with their current teams.
One driver who decided to take his name out of the speculation early is Ryan Blaney. Last week Blaney signed a multi-year extension to stay on with Roger Penske’s team. All three of Penske’s Cup outfits have been running competitively as of late, with Blaney leading the points before a disastrous run at Phoenix this weekend. A lot of drivers might have been tempted to at least put out some feelers to see what they were worth to another owner, but Blaney must have decided that a bird in hand is worth more than two, or even 48, in the bush.
It’s never made sense to me, but Sunday evening we all went through the “Spring Forward” ritual setting our clocks ahead an hour. On a brighter note, you’ll be pleased to know after three late afternoon races on the Western Swing, next week’s Cup race at Atlanta starts at a slightly more civilized 2:00 p.m. ET. In fact, the next seven races (Atlanta, Homestead, Texas, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover) all start at or around 2:00 p.m. ET. Yeah, I’d still prefer races start at 1:00 p.m. like they shoulda, oughta, useta, but some consistency in start times can’t hurt fan engagement at all. And now, all we have to do is fall back an hour from 2 and call it NASCAR Savings Time.
As this is written, a growing number of sports sanctioning bodies are dealing with the unhappy idea of holding games or other sporting contests without fans allowed in the grandstands. The NBA seems to be on the point on this one, but the timing of the annual March Madness NCAA basketball tournament couldn’t be any more awkward right now (it is scheduled to run from March 17th to April 1st this year). Even the fate of this year’s Olympics is in question. And it’s not just sports. Some concerts have been canceled or postponed as well. The annual SXSW music “happening” was canceled (to the great disappointment of Frontstretch’s own Kevin Rutherford).
The Ultra Music fest was officially postponed for about a year last week. Awkwardly enough, that event was scheduled to run in Miami the same weekend NASCAR is scheduled to run at the Homestead-Miami track. My guess is fans who had been eager to attend the Music Fest aren’t going to be very happy with the notion they can’t gather to celebrate their culture and music, but it’s OK for the Good Ol’ Boys of NASCAR to come to town and paint it red. From the research I’ve done, it seems a lot of years the Ultra concerts and the annual NASCAR race draw about the same number of fans. This year will be a bit different of course, because the race at Homestead has typically been the season-ending, championship-deciding NASCAR finale, while this year it’s in mid-March.
In F1, the Grand Prix of China has already been postponed. The Grand Prix of Bahrain is still scheduled to be run and televised, but there will be no non-essential personnel (like fans) allowed, so the grandstands will be empty. Other events including the Australian Grand Prix are in limbo right now waiting to see if new quarantine and travel restrictions in Northern Italy and elsewhere will allow some of the F1 teams to be at the races. F1 officials have already said that if such travel restrictions keep teams from being able to be at the track, those races will not be run, or at least won’t be run as points-paying events.
Even for those hoping the race can go off as planned, it’s perhaps time to do some planning regarding “what if?” If the local, state or federal government were to request the race be canceled or postponed due to the virus, I cannot imagine NASCAR would ignore that request. So would the race be postponed until later this year? There’s a dearth of open weekends on the schedule except for that two-week break NBC demanded for the Olympics and Easter. Easter is April 12th, so I doubt this whole virus thing will be sorted out by then. And of course we don’t know if any more future races will also need to be postponed. Would one or more of those races need to be canceled?
Perhaps equally importantly, when will these decisions be made and how will the information be disseminated to fans? News of a postponement or cancellation of a race needs to be trumpeted to fans in time to let those planning to drive or fly to the race to cancel those plans before they leave home, not when they are halfway there. To the best of my sometimes faulty recollection, the last time government types got involved with asking NASCAR to reschedule an event was the Firecracker 400 that was to be run in July of 1998. Wildfires were closing major highways fans typically would have used to get to the track. The race was postponed until October of that year. When the announcement was made that the race was going to be postponed, my neighbor Kevin and his clan were somewhere in Georgia heading toward Daytona in his huge motorhome. They’d traveled a lot of miles from our tiny town of Guthriesville, Pa., and I don’t recall Kevin, his wife or his kids being very happy about that state of affairs. Postponing the race was the right call under those circumstances, but the delay in making the decision was inexcusable.
The call to postpone the New Hampshire Cup race the weekend after 9-11 was also made well after a lot of fans and media members (me among them) had left to drive to the track. Before I left, I called NASCAR one more time and asked them if they were absolutely certain the race was not going to be postponed. Absolutely not, I was told. With all commercial air travel still banned in the U.S., a lot of scribes drove long distances to cover that race … a race that never happened. Or didn’t happen until November anyway.
I take comfort in watching the increasingly grim nightly news that the mainstream media has gone off the alarmist deep end and gotten the story wrong before. I can only shake my head recalling that some of you reading this (and even some of my Frontstretch staff members) weren’t even around the night 12/31/99 changed to 01/01/00. You missed the whole Y2K hysteria as the new century was about to begin. Because early computer programmers hadn’t thought to use four digits for years rather than two, every computer in the world was going to be baffled, not sure if it was 1900 or 2000. And there was going to be hell to pay. Every bit of data on your computer was going to be irretrievably lost. Power plants were going to shut down en masse, plunging most of us into cold and darkness. If your power came from a nuclear power plant, it was about to go into full meltdown and make any area within 100 miles of it uninhabitable for generations. Airplanes would be falling from the sky. Traffic lights and toll booths would fail, leaving the nation’s drivers trapped in gridlock. But they wouldn’t be stranded long. Once they ran out of fuel they wouldn’t be able to find any to buy anywhere. And since your credit cards and debit cards would be useless as well, people were hoarding cash. Life as we knew it was about to cease to exist.
As the New Year rang in back in 2000, I was sitting with some friends on the back porch of a place I was renting in Broomall. All of us cracked open a fresh beer during the countdown to the New Year, waiting and watching expectantly to see what happened next. We’d been discussing all evening how it wasn’t going to be a big deal. We were too suave and sophisticated to be drawn into the mass hysteria the media had been creating (of course, if by some fluke the power had gone out right around midnight, the five of us would have been screaming like Jamie Lee Curtis in a slasher flick). As the church bells rang in the New Year, you know what happened? Absolutely nothing. Not in Broomall. Not anywhere across the U.S. Nowhere around the world. Nothing. Y2K was a complete bust. Civilization woke up the next day slightly hung over and a bit worse for the wear, but intact and functioning as well or poorly as could be expected. We all learned to write 2000 rather than 99 on the checks we filled out. Let us all pray that the predicted pandemic is as much of a bust as Y2K, nothing beyond some insignificant thing like postponing a race or forcing you to go Neanderthal and use bar soap and lukewarm tap water to wash your hands for 20 seconds rather than using hand sanitizer like a cool dude in a loose mood.
Speaking of decidedly uncool dudes, with decidedly bad attitudes, guess who’s back? This week our old pal Brian France slogged from the swamp and announced his plans to sue John Steele. Since 2014, Steele has been running a Twitter account under the name of “Drunken Brian France.” You might recall France’s first brush with the law and a DUI charge was in 2014, not the infamous 2018 event on Long Island. In the previous incident, several panicked motorists called police to say that France (or someone driving a car registered to France) had hit several cars and fled the scene driving recklessly. But France made it home to his condo before being apprehended. And in Daytona Beach, apparently if you’re wealthy enough and famous enough, the law is like a game of tag. If you reach home base, you’re safe.
Steele’s account is and always has been clearly labeled a parody. At times the posts are clever and at others they are juvenile, but I’ve never seen anything that was outright nasty or over the line on that handle. Now France is demanding damages. Basically, he’s saying Steele’s posts made him look like an ass. Et tu Brian? Sorry, Brian old Buddy, there was no need for anyone to make you look bad. Your baffling decision-making that allowed you to reverse the progress the France family business had made over the decades in about 15 years at the helm made the contemptible buffoon you are abundantly clear to any reasonable person. The missteps you made ruining stock car racing and driving away millions of once-loyal fans are likely the topic of a full honors course at Wharton Business School as an example of what not to do, right after “New Coke.”
For those Pollyannas out there determined to find the ruby in a mountain of rocks, the virus issue could actually be a boost for NASCAR’s TV ratings. One of the few stocks not to take it on the chin in the recent bloodbath on Wall Street is Netflix. I suppose if people are going to be quarantined, voluntarily or otherwise, and others are avoiding movie theaters, bars and popular gathering spots, they’ll need something to keep them entertained. That could mean renting a film on Netflix, or tuning into a NASCAR race they might otherwise have skipped.