Wednesday, June 28, 2006


For the first time in what seems like forever, the IROC (International Race of Champions) series took a step in the right direction this year. I haven't even caught the first two races this season, and more likely than not, even if you're a race fan, neither have you. But I will make a vague attempt to check out tommorrow's race, as it will be a long overdue road course event. Granted, they're holding it on Daytona's road course, but it's still better than nothing.

I seriously cann't understand what must be going through the heads of the people who run this series. It started out as a simple, yet great idea. Obvious, but still great. "Why don't we get all the top drivers from different kinds of racing series and put them in equal cars on different tracks, and see who comes out on top?"

Of course, over the years, the series has seen a steady decline in its standards. First it seemed like the "International" part of IROC disappeared. Then went the different tracks. It was all oval racing, which heavily favors the NASCAR drivers. Then it pretty much became an almost all-NASCAR field. Hell, the "Champions" part wound up being just a technicality too.

IROC is a failure because it doesn't deliver on its promise. The cars are slightly fancier looking stock cars like what you have in NASCAR. The tracks are all NASCAR tracks, and all the high speed high banked ovals. They couldn't even manage variety in that. That's not a fair test of skill. It's boring. I'll give that it would be too expensive to prep up different kinds of cars for different races (stock car one, indy car the next), but at least put some variety in the tracks to even things out! Maybe then some of the drivers from series that race on road courses will be more willing to participate. As it stands, two of the races are on ovals configured exactly the same (Texas and Atlanta.)

If I were in charge of IROC, I'd push for variety to test who was the best overall. I would keep Daytona, because restrictor plate racing is a valid challenge to skilled drivers, and it is exciting to watch when set up properly. I'd even keep Texas or Atlanta, because unrestricted oval racing is good too. Then, I would add a road race at a genuine road course. After that, I'd put them on a short dirt track. That way different drivers with different strengths would each get their chance to shine. If possible to add more dates, or if schedules conflict, an IROC race at Bristol would be a crazy thing to see, and a good replacement for the dirt track. Hell, even a drag racing event would be interesting.

As for drivers, they need to get a handle on the NASCAR thing. In tommorrow's race, 4 of the 12 drivers are from NASCAR Nextel Cup, another is from the Busch series (but now races in cup), yet one more is from the truck series, and a 7th driver is from the ARCA series, which might as well be NASCAR. 7 of the 12 drivers, more than half the field, are representing essentially the same style of racing. It shows in the point standings. The top 6 drivers are from that style.

There's a reason nobody from CART, and certainly nobody from Europe race in the series anymore. And the tired excuse of "scheduling conflicts" doesn't cut it. Not year after year.

So I'm hoping that someone running the series realized the problem and are working to fix it, starting with this race on the Daytona roadcourse. Whether they take any more steps to fix things will likely determine whether there is even an IROC series to compete in the coming years. I truly hope they do, because when they were doing it right, it could be damn interesting, and damn fun to watch.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Mark Martin - First in NASCAR to Retire Right?

NASCAR drivers have generally been able to hang on for years longer than those in other professional sports. The nature of motor racing can sometimes favor a wiley veteran, even if they're not as physically fit as the young guys. Still, there generally comes a point when even loads of experience can't close the gap, and the driver is faced with the looming spectre of retirement. But how do you leave it all behind? For many drivers, motor racing has been the central facet of their lives for decades. It's hard to let go of something you have been doing your whole life.

Thus, retirement has always been difficult for those in NASCAR's top sport. Until recently, options seemed limited for the elder driver, and none of them were very good.

1) The long downward spiral. This seemed to be the sad, but favored way to go out for many of the best drivers in the sport. Generally, the driver starts to win less. Then suddenly, the wins stop. Sure, bad streaks happen, so they keep going. They've had slumps before, right? Well, this one doesn't end. As time progresses, the team goes from fighting for the win every week, to fighting for top 10's, then top 20's, then fighting to even make the race. It seems the more successful the driver, the more likely they were to face this fate. Richard Petty won his last race in 1984, but soldiered on until 1992. That same year would be the last that 3 time champion Darrell Waltrip would win. He actually won 3 times that year, and then nothing. THe most painful part about watching this happen is these drivers tend to show glimmers of their past greatness. Maybe they snag a pole, or an unexpected top 5, and suddenly everyone's thinking turnaround. But it doesn't seem to pan out. Part of this seems because many older drivers seem to make mistake number 2:

2) The driver to owner-driver to owner transition. This seemed to be the ideal in NASCAR for a long time. Richard Petty pulled it off in a way. Richard Childress certainly found much more success as an owner. It seemed like the perfect way to go out of the sport. You're a hot shot driver and you see retirement looming. So you use your fame, fortune, and experience to build a new team that will carry on your legacy. You plan to race your way into retirement, and find a suitable replacement. From then on, it's an easy way to stay involved in the sport. Unfortunately, the owner driver trap has burned many drivers. Petty and Waltrip have already been mentioned. While Waltrip's career didn't end as an owner driver, it was certainly hurt by what happened as a result. Geoffrey Bodine fell into the trap. Ricky Rudd did okay with it, then wisely bailed. My man Bill Elliott looked like he was going to be one of those downward spiral drivers until he sold his team to Ray Evernham and posted an unexpected late career comeback. It just doesn't seem to work. Drivers get caught up, distracted, or stuck with sub par equipment when they try to go out this way. But still, it's an understandable gambit. Even though it's struggling, the Petty team is still around. Childress found huge success when he teamed up with Dale Earnhardt and let him do the driving. Too bad the trap ruined so many careers.

3) The sudden departure. Ricky Rudd pulled this one. One day he was at the track, the next day he said, "Oh yeah, that was my last race." Harry Gant did this while still relatively competative. These decide to "go out on top." This leaves fans dissatisfied, and often leaves an open ended questions as to whether they will return.

4) The Farewell tour. Usually coming 1 year too late, the big farewell tour gives fans a chance to say goodbye, and the media a chance to say "OMG THIS IS THE LAST TIME RUSTY WALLACE WILL RACE HERE!" I don't really recall anyone actually winning on their farewell tour, so its success seems limited.

5) The Bill Elliott Way. For a time after 2003 it looked like Elliott had found the proper way to leave the sport with dignity. While still victorious, he decided he would cut back to a limited schedule in the next year. It seemed perfect. He could stay with the team he helped build, and race at just his favorite tracks only caring about the win, rather than points. It even seems possible. He posted some pretty good finishes the next year. Terry Labonte soon followed in his footsteps, and suddenly the "partial schedule" seemed like the solution to the retirement problem. Except the problem is, the partial schedule has just turned into a slightly less painful version of the downward spiral. Because of how competetive NASCAR is, you need a top notch team with top notch equipment to win. A partial team, even one affiliated with a top team, will necessarily have less dedicated members, a crappy pit crew, and lesser equipment. It is by design a second tier team in the organization. Sponsorship troubles have plagues Elliott's attempt to do what he wants. It remains to be seen if he can have any success with his new style of roulette, racing for many different teams to help development, but it seems doubtful.

Note: I think this could work if teams took a page from the Buschwhackers in the Busch Series. Some cup drivers will race a partial schedule in the Busch series, but the team will be there for the whole season, usually with a rookie filling in for the rest of the races. It works incredibly well. Rookie drivers get experience, experienced drivers get to have fun. The team stays cohesive and can be competative. The team is more appealing to sponsors, who would love to have their name associated with a popular driver, compared to just some rookie. Special sponsors can also be run and deals seem easier to cut. For the life of me I cannot figure out why we didn't see the number 91 car in every race. The formula is proven to be workable.

But for all the potential of the Partial schedule, it seems that Mark Martin will finally go out the way a racer should: as a competative winner with a planned retirement. Although he actually has his busiest year to date, Mark Martin is 5th in points for his final year in cup, and will probably make the chase and be a contender. Beyond all the speculation of a possible "championship retirement" (which would be too awesome for words) its his 2007 season that will be the real interesting one. On top of his cup schedule, Martin has raced 7 of the 10 truck series races this season. He's won three. He's 13th in points, which is absolutely insane when you consider that 23 other drivers have had 3 races worth of points to rack up on him. And 29 drivers have raced more than him. The next driver in the points who has only competed in 7 races is Scott Lagasse Jr. back in 31st, 1103 points behind the leader. Martin is only 436 behind. Of course, spectacular finishes will do that for a guy. But there is almost no doubt that were it not for those missed races, Martin would be leading the points right now.

Martin's always had his fun in the lower series. He is simply the greatest Busch Series racer ever to live. It's no surprise that he has found success with his team down in the Truck series. But the point is this: Martin will end 2006 a championship contender in the top series. Then he steps down to a lower series, and he will be an even more serious championship contender. From there, he can do what he wants. He'll go out like many come up, through the next lowest series. This gives him the chance to go out a winner, and be remembered as such by every last fan. Mark Martin finally found the right way to retire.

Infineon Point

Charlotte is Charlotte. It is not "Lowe's Motor Speedway." One of the great things about NASCAR is that despite its obvious inclusiveness to corporate sponsors, it has managed to avoid many of the trappings of other sports. An annoying trend in the sports world is the constant renaming of old historic sites and stadiums with names that resonate with fans and the local community into giant billboards for some company that usually has nothing to do with the sport at hand. People don't mind billboards at the tracks. They understand the need for cars to have sponsors. And hell, the Coca-Cola 600 is now as traditional a name for a race as the World 600 ever was. But when you take a place and rename it after the highest bidder, it cheapens the memory of it for anyone who's ever been there.

I grew up relatively close to Sears Point raceway. My father raced there. I saw multiple races there. I even met my hero there. Our family trips to Sears Point are some of my fondest and earliest memories. I remember how we actually spent one Halloween there, and a bunch of the race crews involved in whatever racing series my dad was participating in got together for all the kids who had come along and did a trick or treat thing for us all in the pits. (Nothing better than the smell of burning rubber, race car fuel, and sugar to a 6 year old.) The place holds a special significance for me, and I'm sure countless others who enjoyed it.

Naturally, I was annoyed to learn it was renamed "Infineon Raceway" a couple years back. It's like some company comes along and tries to associate itself with something it has absolutely nothing to do with. Maybe I'm somewhat a traditionalist, but I still crack a smile whenever the announcers during a race screw up and call it by its old name.

Or maybe I'm just wrong. I mean, I suppose I would prefer a name change if it meant saving the track from a fate worse than Riverside. But Sears Point is a relatively minor track. How would people feel if the big name tracks were renamed? How would people feel if Indianapolis Motor Speedway became Starbucks Motor Speedway? Or if Daytona Superspeedway became Disney Superspeedway? I don't think people would stand for that. But I also know it'll probably be tried sooner or later.

As Sterling Marlin might be apt to say, "That's jus' bisness."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Rooting for the Underdog

I was pulling for Jamie McMurray towards the end of today's race, because I'm a sucker for the underdog when it comes to NASCAR.

Now, every fan has their favorite, driver, and probably a couple more that they like pretty well. That same fan also probably has a least favorite driver. This usually involves an irrational hatred of one of the really successful guys at the top right now (See: Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson,) or it's the guy who spun out your favorite driver on the backstretch in that one race back in the day they totally could have won otherwise. (See: Mike Skinner v Bill Elliott, Pepsi 400.)

But most racing sports are much different to watch than other sports. (This goes for anything from track, to speed skating, to Formula 1.) In any given race, there are multiple competitors who can win, and it's entirely possible at the end of the day there may be nobody you'd be rooting for or against left with a shot to win. Still, with a NASCAR race, if you've been sitting there for a couple hours watching the thing, there's not much point switching off the TV, especially if the action is good. So people come up with other systems:

For my parents, if all else fails, it was "Always root for the Ford." On rare occasions when my sister would be watching, she'd just pick the car she thought was prettier. A friend of mine elects to go for the sponsor he prefers. Others go for the proven winner on a hot streak.

I like the underdogs.

I like the driver who's on the verge of losing his ride. I like the second tier team, or the third tier team that somehow wound up at the front. I like the drivers who are too young, too old, running shitty equipment, or who just lost their sponsor. I root for the driver who hasn't won in awhile, who is poised to make the comeback if only he can hold off Jeff Gordon after staying out during the last pit sequence. Maybe it all goes back to that 92 season with Kulwicki's "Underbird" or maybe variety makes racing more fun. I think Robby Gordon's a dick, but now that he's doing the owner/driver thing, I hope by some miracle he'll win on one of the road courses this year.

That's why when it came down to those last few laps in today's race, I wanted Jeff Burton to get it. And when it became obvious his car couldn't manage it, I was screaming for McMurray to hold the lead. It's cool when your guy is up front and dominating, but every single race is at least 43 sumultaneous stories playing out on one track -- and the stories we don't hear every week tend to be the most compelling.

Too bad Kenseth won.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Relief Driver

Ricky Rudd has had 23 wins in his long career, and used to be known as the driver who won at least once a year since 1983. That streak came to an end in 1999, though he would go on to win 3 more times. He's been with top teams for sure, and those wins were all the more impressive when you consider his stint as an owner driver in the mid to late 90's, right when such teams were going extinct. He spent time with Robert Yates Racing before moving over to the long-mediocre 21 Wood Brothers car. The last 3 years of his career essentially lacked the real chance he deserved to go out with a win, but he did help rebuild a team that seemed doomed before then.

So this weekend at Dover, Ricky Rudd will practice and qualify a top tier car for the first time in years, at a track he's won at four times. Though Tony Stewart will start the number 20 to get the points for the race, many say he will be out after the first caution, and Rudd will be in.

These stories are always some of my favorite when they crop up. Oddly enough, driver injuries present unique opportunities for often underestimated drivers to prove themselves. When my guy Bill Elliott was hurt pretty bad after a wreck at Talledega about a decade back, a young guy named Jerry Nadeau subbed for him, and I believe finished 6th in a race he was expected to just make laps in. That injury helped really launch his career (ironically and sadly cut short by his own injury.) Years later, I believe it was Stewart again who was unable to continue on at Sonoma, while John Andretti had just blown his engine. Andretti hopped in that 20 car and really showed what he could do when given the right equipment.

The young guy proves his skill, and the underestimated driver shows what he could do with the right equipment underneath him. Can the retired Rudd show he still has it with this one shot? I wouldn't count him out at a track he's been so successful at in the past, especially since he gets the practice time to knock the rust off. If he is even moderately successful, it could mean quite a bit not only for him, but other part time, semi-retired, and retired drivers looking for a ride. If Rudd can pull it off with the right equipment, why not try it with Terry Labonte or Bill Elliott?

If anything, it will be an interesting story to watch this weekend, and I'll be paying close attention.

The Pace Lap

An Introduction:

I love NASCAR, and have since I was a young child. I enjoy other forms of motorsports, but NASCAR will forever be my first love. I've been an avid fan since 1992. I still remember uncanny details from that season. I remember Davey Allison racing against Morgan Shepherd for the Daytona 500. I remember Bill Elliott's 4 in a row. I remember going to the race at Sears Point. I remember Richard Petty's last season. I remember that down-to the wire closer between Bill Elliott (my favorite) and the Underbird of Alan Kulwicki. I was 7 years old at the time, and I've been hooked ever since.

I'm not exactly the stereotypical NASCAR fan, and most of my friends just look at me weird whenever I bring up the subject. I can go on for hours about it though. I once did a high school research paper on the history of NASCAR, just so I could show clips of a race for my presentation in class. Since I have few people to share it with, this will be my outlet for commentary on past races, what's going on, speculation about the future, and any other motor racing related info that catches my attention.