Typically this time of year, things are quiet on the NASCAR news front as the sport and the country slowly begin emerging from the summer doldrums. As the long hot August summer afternoons give way to the earlier sunsets of September, leaves changing color and occasional morning chills punctuated by noisy flocks of Canadian geese headed south, silly season news and speculation helps fill the void for folks who do what I do for a living. That wasn’t the case last week, as a string of unexpected stories broke. Like Roseanne Rosannadanna used to say, “It’s always something.”
In last week’s column, I predicted that one day the largely unloved racetrack at Fontana would be leveled by the California Air National Guard on bombing runs by the middle of the century. As it turns out, the track will have its date with the wrecking ball a lot sooner than that. This week, the facility filed a petition to be allowed to tear down most of the existing track and replace it with a half-miler. The proposed design is a hybrid, with two long straights running parallel to each other like Martinsville but joined by two high-banked corners similar to Bristol. It’s not known if the track will be concrete like Thunder Valley or paved as most other tracks are, but the move from a cookie cutter patterned after Michigan to a genuine short track is a hugely positive one.
Fontana was born under a bad sign in the bad old days. Brian France and NASCAR wanted to establish a presence in L.A., the second largest city in the entire U.S. of. The false glamour and hype of Hollywood was hugely alluring to Brian France to the point he at one time was trying to buy the NFL franchise located in L.A. Never mind that Los Angeles was unique among large U.S. cities in that the locals never really supported the NFL franchises in or around the city. Nor in fact had the locals supported the NASCAR races at Ontario or Riverside. It’s said because of the usually near perfect weather “out there,” Los Angelenos have too many entertainment options to waste three or four hours at a sporting event. It has to be true. Everyone from the Eagles (Don Henley and crew, not Philadelphia’s NFL franchise), Randy Newman, Bob Seger and Albert Hammond sang about life in L.A.
The fact one of the race dates for Fontana was sacked from one of the longtime NASCAR fan’s high holy places, Darlington, added to the negative perceptions of the new track. But our one-time friend Brian had decided he was going to go cruise those Hollywood Nights with Bob Seger trying to hook up with then-uber-babe Cheryl Tiegs. In fact, Bob Seger once recounted a photo of Tiegs on the cover of Time magazine helped inspire the song. (You can come home, Bob. All is forgiven. But about that new hair style … )
That in turn led to one of the great unmitigated and inexplicable catastrophes in NASCAR’s off-track history. Anyone else recall (doubtlessly with much grinding of teeth and disdainful snorts), NASCAR’s Night In Hollywood – A Golden Celebration? April 28th, 1998, said event took place. Right from jump street, things didn’t go well. NASCAR types were stunned by the poor turnout to watch genuine NASCAR stars walk the red carpet into the Wiltern Auditorium. They were reduced to paying some bored hookers in the area to line the velvet ropes and act excited. Things went downhill from there. The Master of the Unholy Ceremonies was Robert Goulet. And when has any event with Goulet as MC not been a disaster? “Big wrecks. What the heck, that’s why NASCAR is the champ,” Goulet warbled while staring out at his audience, clearly clueless as to who any of them were. And it got better.
Penn and Teller did a card trick using cards so large and heavy they had to use a forklift to shuffle them while using the Lord’s name in vain at how poorly their tricks was being received by the bumpkins who were clearly scanning the auditorium for the nearest exits. That’s a no-no in a sport that hails from the buckle of the Bible Belt. If there were four hours of my life I could get back to do something else, I’d have sat out that mess. Afterward, no less an authority than Richard Petty was asked if he’d had an “out of body” experience seeing the level his once humble sport had risen to. “No, I had an out of place experience,” the King grimaced.
But the unexpected announcement about the reconfiguration at Fontana at least serves as an indicator things have gotten bad enough that NASCAR is finally willing to listen to its thinning herd of longtime fans. Those fans have been asking, nay, demanding, more short tracks be added to the schedule to replace the processional parades on the cookie-cutters. Previously, NASCAR had responded rather cynically to those requests. Oh, you rubes want more short tracks? We’ll give you more short tracks. And they did so without having to spend a single greenback or move a cubic yard of earth. Suddenly they declared Phoenix and New Hampshire were short tracks. Shut up and race.
Never mind since time immemorial the definition of a short track had been a track of a mile or less in diameter. NASCAR just changed the definition to racetracks roundabout a mile or less. I was shocked they didn’t have the audacity to declare Dover a short track as well. Perhaps the new definition for a short track was heading towards any track where fans in the cheap seats are less than a half mile from the nearest restroom.
But let’s let bygones be bygones. I am genuinely thrilled by the plans to add a legitimate short track to the schedule to replace the former “palace of speed” with its misting stations and vast shopping areas under the grandstands so beloved that Ms. Gillian Zucker once infamously said that those vast swathes of open seats during a race were caused by fans who chose to take a break from the action to engage in some commerce beneath the grandstands. Because that’s what race fans do after purchasing obscenely expensive tickets to a race, right?
And I do hope that the powers that be will be able to pull these plans off. California is one of the most regulated states in the country. Before digging with his buddies in the backyard sandbox, a toddler has to file excavation plans and an environmental impact statement in triplicate.
It seems those powers that be had hoped that the regulators wouldn’t have to get too involved. After all, they’re just replacing one racetrack with a somewhat smaller racetrack. But all indications are that this plan might very well be headed for public debate, oversight committees, environmental impact studies, traffic analysis, etc., etc. The best-laid plans of mice and men are often torn asunder by those et ceteras or a planning commission that plans on pondering the merits of an idea for decades, or at least until they are handed a large manila envelope stuffed with large-denomination bills. Ask Bruton Smith how things went in northern California went when his plans to redo the parking lot at Sonoma ran afoul of the habitat of some endangered salamanders. No, I’m not making this crap up. I’m not that deviant. Here’s the thing about endangered salamanders: Unless some kind soul knitted them tiny little asbestos suits, thousands of salamanders are probably meeting their demise as a result of the California/Oregon wildfires on in the backrooms of looted liquor stores set afire by arsonists. Once we get California to the point a 10-year-old boy can walk to the corner store for an ice cream without getting shot, we’ll save the salamanders. Or at least form a committee to decide how best to save the little rascals.
Also this week, Darrell Wallace Jr. (sorry, but I still have issues referring to the young man as Bubba) announced that he will not be returning to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021. Earlier this year, there were rumors that Wallace had been offered an ownership stake in the team to extend his contract. Those rumors were followed by more rumors that he in fact already had partial ownership of the organization. Despite the name of the team, I’m unsure of who is actually calling the shots at RPM. I’m told if you look at one end of the scale as being a figurehead and the other end as what the F1 teams would call the team principal actually calling the shots, Petty is closer to the former than the latter. The money man tasked with keeping the team afloat is Andrew Murstein of the Medallion Financial Corporation, which manages over a billion dollars worth of assets. Ironically enough, Murstein’s ancestors made their fortune in the taxi industry.
The Petty clan has known only one form of making a living in four generations, and that’s NASCAR stock car racing. That business has been their primary income source since the ’50s. While Rick Hendrick makes most of his money on his chain of automotive dealerships and races on the side, the Pettys are strictly racers. As such, being in the racing business they have to require that the business produces income to pay the bills, not net losses to serve as tax deductions.
While they still have 268 wins under the Petty Engineering team name, Richard Petty accounts for 198 of those wins. (The King won his last two Cup races driving for Mike Curb after a falling out with his brother in 1983-84 over an oversized engine.) Since Petty retired at the end of the 1992 season, Petty Enterprises has scored just three wins, two with the late Bobby Hamilton and one with the late John Andretti. Under the RPM banner (starting in 2009), the team has managed just five more wins; two with Kasey Kahne, two with Marcos Ambrose and one with Aric Almirola. Yet despite 268 wins and nine titles (two by patriarch Lee Petty and seven by Richard) from 1949 to 2008, total team earnings were just under $80 million. (That’s purse money that doesn’t include sponsorship dollars, etc.) The RPM team has been around since 2009. With those five wins and a best points finish of 10th (Kahne in 2009), the RPM team earned over $82 million. Yes, racing is a business, but it’s a strange one.
Richard Petty has been called a bit parsimonious, and it may be over the years the team started falling further and further behind the frontrunners. Recall earlier this year Wallace fell out of two races with a burned out front-hub assembly. Other teams routinely replaced those hubs after every race. RPM did not.
Wallace has never won for the team, but he did finish second in the 2018 Daytona 500.
As of late, Wallace has been running a little better. (He finished ninth place in the Cup races at Indy and Michigan and fifth at Daytona.) I guess the young man is trying to define the next chapter of his career. Are the cars he drives too slow and unreliable, or is he at fault for his limited success? Rumors have it Wallace might end up at Chip Ganassi Racing, ironically enough at the wheel of the No. 42 car Kyle Larson vacated. Other rumors state Ganassi did tender an offer, but a deadline had come and gone to sign the deal so it was withdrawn.
Another rumor has Wallace at the wheel of the No. 48 car as Jimmie Johnson’s replacement. I’d be cautious about exploring that option. The No. 48 team has won seven titles and 83 races, all with the same driver. If Wallace doesn’t start winning races right from Jump Street in the No. 48, people will assume the problem is the driver not the team or cars. (Despite Johnson’s three years-plus winless drought.) Whichever way their pleasure turns, I wish both men well moving forward.
Speaking of Johnson, it was announced this week he’d partner with Chip Ganassi (small world, ain’t it?) to run the road course races in IndyCar in 2021 and 2022. My guess is by next May there will be a full-court press to get Johnson to add the Indy 500 to his schedule. My hope is he is smart enough to turn down any such notion.
Yes, I get it. Everyone involved with the sport at any level is facing unprecedented challenges this year. That includes NBC, which is tasked with presenting the second half of this season and the playoffs. They are dealing with having some folks working at the track and others at remote locations. But so far, the product they are producing is simply substandard. I normally let my fellow staffer Phil handle the TV analysis, but Saturday night NBC repeatedly made the same mistake over and over that I was grinding my teeth. They repeatedly, perhaps as many as a dozen times, repeated the same misinformation. This is Chase Elliott’s worst track. He doesn’t have a chance. Look it up. In 2018, Elliott finished second and fourth at Richmond. I for one was not shocked to see Elliott finish fifth Saturday night. The way NBC was prattling on and on about how awful he was at Richmond, some of you were likely to have been expecting a massive chasm to tear the track asunder and swallow the No. 9 car whole.
As for the playoff-centric coverage that ignored those drivers not in the top 16 in points, well that’s part and parcel of this time of the year as annoying as it may be. I guess I’m just still happy to have live races on TV again after a couple months of televised video games to complain too much.
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