Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tuesday NASCAR Notes

I'm no journalist. I barely qualify as a blogger. But I do like me of some of dat dar racin'. And I also liked David Poole. Often David - as several journalists - compiled several quick takes into a notes column. With the news today of DP's passing away due to a heart attack, a notes section kind of seemed the appropriate structure.

David Poole:
I learned of David's death through one of my fellow Petty brethren. I immediately went to thatsracin.com to see if the story was true. Then the texts and e-mails to fellow fans and friends followed. I've read Poole's articles and commentary for years on the Charlotte Observer's website (the racing section later re-branded as thatsracin.com) and his blog entries more recently. I've e-mailed him a handful of times with a question, an observation, an atta-boy for something with which I agreed, or a polite dissent for something he wrote where I had a different viewpoint. He always took the time to courteously and promptly reply to me.

I've also read two of his books - Race with Destiny (written about the 1992 Cup season) and Tim Richmond. Both were fantastic and among the better books I've read about NASCAR in 30+ years of following it. From the time this blog was started, links to the books have been included here. If you haven't read them yet, I highly recommend them both.

God speed DP. You'll truly be missed.

The Gipper wins one on his own:
I admit banktruck and I snickered at Jack Roush's hiring of David Ragan a couple of years ago to replace Mark Martin. The kid hadn't won a thing, yet Jack turned over the reins to the always competitive #6 to him. This was also about the same time Regan Smith was hired to drive the 01 DEI Chevy. We couldn't keep the two apart and couldn't remember how each name was spelled. Who was Ragan? Regan? Reagan? So we finally just nicknamed them Gipper6 and Gipper01. We were right as rain in 2007. Gipper6 didn't have a clue it seemed. Our heads snapped around in 2008 as he showed incredible growth in just 1 season. He didn't win anything, but his growth curve from as steep as the power band on an unrestricted Cup engine.

In Saturday's Talladega prelim race, he showed incredible skill and poise as he snatched his first victory in a major NASCAR series away from Ryan Newman. Dale Jr. told his crew to leave him alone and not to talk him out of whatever strategy he had in mind to juke Newman out of the win. Instead, Joonyur got shuffled out himself and Gipper6 was there to slip up the middle and bang against Newman for a fantastic win. He no longer needed someone to win one for the Gipper. David Ragan took care of business himself. Combined with a strong run on Sunday, he is beginning to show he has staying power and that we're not that smart after all (as if we believe we really were).

One of the worst-kept secrets about General Motors' on-going efforts to pull itself out of the quicksand quagmire dragging it down is out. Pontiac is no more (or Pony-ack as The King often pronounced it). I never owned one, but they were piloted in racing by some great ones.
  • Pontiacs were the beast of the beach in the early 1960s at Daytona. Fireball Roberts piloted Smokey Yunick's Pontiacs to some big wins back then.
  • Richard Petty won his 200th race in a beautiful, Mike Curb owned Grand Prix in the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
  • David Pearson debuted STP as a NASCAR sponsor at Texas World Speedway in 1971 driving a Pontiac GTO.
  • I saw Rusty Wallace win his first race at Bristol in 1986. He drove Raymond Beadle's Blue Max / Alugard anti-freeze Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2.
  • Benny Parsons logged the first official qualifying lap over 200 MPH at Talladega in May 1982 driving Harry Ranier's (now Yates Racing) #28 Pontiac LeMans.
  • Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart won their first championships for Joe Gibbs Racing driving Pontiacs.
So while old things must change to make new things possible, its a disappointment to know another American brand's racing history is now officially complete.



The Big Un

This topic is one reason among many that I really wish David Poole were still with us. The champagne on Bucky Keselowski's uni hadn't had time to dry and the Claritin car hadn't been removed from the track before Poole was blistering NASCAR, Talladega, etc. about what we believed to be unacceptable racing conditions.

I disagree with him and wish I still had the chance to respectfully tell him so.

Carl Edwards' wreck was wild - among the most spectacular I've seen, and I feel extremely bad for the fans who were injured. But I feel more things went right than went wrong.
  • The yellow line rule is fine and should stay. If I were to modify anything about it, it would be to allow passing below it only on the last lap and probably at only a certain point on the track - coming out of 4 maybe? I realize that's a soft solution because the last thing the drivers likely need is another phantom pass point that they have to spot at 200 MPH.
  • Bucky didn't wreck Carl. He had a fender beside him, Carl didn't know it, he blocked the 09, and took himself out. Nothing intentional from either - just racing.
  • As much as I hate the COT, it was in the process of doing its job. The 99 did lift - a lot! - however, it was settling back down likely without flipping when Ryan Newman ran out of room to go. He drilled the underside of Cuzzin's car, and that's when things got really interesting. Had Ryan been able to make an evasive move elsewhere, the 99 would have been just as disappointed but would have ended the race without all the carnage.
  • I've read commentaries suggesting this wreck was one of the worst of all time. I'll debate in favor of suggesting it was one of the most spectacular of all time - but not one of the worst. I was in the stands in 1987 at Dega, and I saw the fence just barely do its job. The fencing was GONE. By the grace of God, some of the cross strands held enough to flip Bobby Allison's Buick back onto the track.
  • Furthermore, Carl had the ability to easily get out the car and jog with resignation but humor to the finish line. Can't recall if he did a sponsor plug, but he should have done a shout-out to HANS device, his full face helmet, Butler seats, his 5 point harness, his roll bar padding, etc. - things Bobby Allison did NOT have when he could easily have perished himself in addition to possibly taking out dozens of fans.
  • I'm not ready to drop the banks, and I don't think NASCAR is willing to kill someone before making a change. I understand Cuzzin's post-race rant; however, his comment after the race was hardly reason for writers and bloggers everywhere to carry his torch echoing the same thing - especially when given the benefit of many hours after the race to think through it all.
I think modifications are likely in order. And NASCAR and ISC better work as partners vs. as incestuous lovers. Admittedly, it doesn't help when John Darby - a NASCAR official - says "we" don't believe the track needs to be fixed. John, the track is owned by ISC - not NASCAR. I realize we all know the 2 companies are almost one and the same. But you at least publicly need to keep some semblance of separation - especially on days like you had Sunday. Avoiding first person references for the track owner as a representive of the sanctioning body would be wise.

Here are a couple of my suggestions.
  • Front row seats at Dega are a joke. They are overpriced, and the view is terrible - the backstretch view is obstructed and the cars are too fast up front to see much of anything. ISC could remove several rows and install them elsewhere.
  • I think moving the S/F line from its current unique position to a mirrored location coming out of turn 4 might minimize the craziness that may happen in the tri-oval. Photo-finishes would still be the norm - just at a different and likely safer portion of the frontstretch.
  • Run smaller blocks without car plates. I'm not a motor guy, but it seems this would have merit. Slower speeds but with ability for separation. I've heard the biggest barrier to this being a solution is the cost of maintaining the separate engine type. But aren't the teams already spending a king's ransom for plate engines? If so, what's the difference?
Any more thoughts?


Friday, April 24, 2009

Talladega Memories - 1987 Winston 500

My first race at Talladega was perhaps my most memorable. Not so much because of what happened in the middle stages, but because of the beginning, the finish, and the lasting impact on the sport from this race. The 1987 Winston 500.

A friend of mine and I sat on the frontstretch two sections to the right of the starter stand. I watched my first Daytona 500 in 1980 from atop a motor home in the infield as a teenager. But this was my first time to watch a superspeedway race from the grandstands, and what a sight it was.

The home state crowd was all jacked up over both Bobby Allison and his rookie son Davey being entered. Davey ran a white-hood Ford at Daytona back in February, but now his Harry Ranier -owned Ford had the Havoline Star emblazoned on the hood and full sponsorship on the quarters.

Bill Elliott put his Coors Ford on the pole yet again on a superspeedway. He qualified it at 212 MPH - a mark so far out there it'll never be matched because of events that unfolded early in the race.

The race had only been underway about 20 laps or so when we heard the unmistakable “boom” sound of an exploding tire in the tri-oval. In an instant, fencing was being shredded right before our eyes. Fortunately, we were a section or two away and didn’t get any of the shrapnel up in our area. But for a moment, we didn’t know what was going on or who was involved.

Immediately, multiple cannon shots were heard as everyone else piled into the wreck and also blew tires. Only when the red No. 22 Miller Buick came to a rest did we realize it was Bobby. I vaguely remember a bit of hush although it was probably just the remaining cars having raced out of sight. There was certainly a murmur everywhere as everyone started trying to figure out what they had just seen and wondering who in the stands might be hurt. And I remember the absolute roar once we all realized Bobby was OK. Amazingly, no one was killed or even seriously injured in the stands. Although the fencing was obliterated - it clearly did its job in keeping Bobby's car on the track and not up with us.

The race was delayed 2 or 3 hours as track crews replaced the fencing. Because darkness was closing in, NASCAR shortened the race by 10 laps.

As the race went on, the crowd went absolutely nuts as Davey was clearly in a position to win. and pulled away once he passed Ironhead. However, as a Petty fan, I was keeping my eye on another car – the No. 21 Wood Brothers Citgo Ford driven by Kyle Petty.

In the waning laps, Davey was clearly in control and raced on to his first career win before the home state crowd. Kyle pressed hard and passed a ton of cars late to nip Dale Earnhardt and end up third – the best finish of his career I ever got to see in person until seeing him match it at the 2007 Coke 600 in Charlotte.

Several things jump off the page at me when I think about this race.
  • Davey's Cup career lasted 6-1/2 years - from 1987 through 1993. He was killed in a helicopter crash as the pilot at the very track where he got his first Cup win.
  • The master of Talladega and 4th place finisher in this race, Dale Earnhardt, also is no longer with us. Pretty interesting to see the "man in black" running the blue and yellow Wrangler colors back then.
  • The Wood Brothers were still a force to be reckoned with on super speedways, and Kyle Petty was beginnng to come into his own as a pretty good Cup driver. Unfortunately, a broken leg at Talladega in 1991 and the death of his son in 2000 seem to take the edge of Kyle's skills and passion. He is no longer an active driver.
  • Perhaps the biggest legacy from this race is the restrictor plate used only at Daytona and Talladega. The plates were originally introduced in the early 1970s when longer wheelbase cars running thin bias-ply tires began flirting with 200 MPH regularly. By the mid 70s, the plates were gone, and drafting and sling-shot moves were in full force. An unrestricted engine allowed Ernie Elliott to build an incredible engine for brother Bill to lay down an untouchable 212. However, the plates were re-introduced following Bobby's wreck in the interest of safety, and we still have them to this day - along with several other innovations and aerodynamic modifications to minimize the risk of cars flipping and especially getting up in the catch fence.

Charlotte Bound!

Whoo-hoo! Just got the go-ahead from Mama Boss at the house to once again head to Charlotte for the 300/600 race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Will be 4th time in 5 years. Got a pretty good tradition going on now.

Probable itinerary:
  • Friday drive from middle TN to Charlotte
  • Friday night trip to The Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor Speedway
  • Saturday tailgating and Nationwide 300 race
  • Sunday morning Indy 500 viewing featuring John Andretti in the Richard Petty Motorsports entry
  • Sunday afternoon souvenir trailer crawl while sharing the Schaefer experience
  • Sunday evening to the 50th Running of the Coca-Cola 600
  • Monday drive home...ouch
  • Tuesday back to work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Talladega Memories - 1993 DieHard 500

From time to time, I try to re-assess my top 5 all-time races that I've attended. Locked in at #1 for probably forever is the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta - the King's last race, the best championship battle in Cup history, a 1-2 run by the two guys left standing to win the championship, Jeff Gordon's first race, etc. Races 2 through 5 often vary. But in thinking about it a bit more, I realized I often failed to include the 1993 DieHard 500 in my top 5. Not sure why but just didn't. But no more. Once I started remembering all the wild things that happened in that race, its definitely in my top 5.

In 1993, the DieHard was appropriately named because the race formerly known simply as the Talladega 500 was always held in late July or early August. The heat and humidity were oppressive. It was like being in an Alabama Arm Pit. Yet the stands and the camping areas were always full.

A few days before the 500, Davey Allison lost his life in a helicopter crash at Talladega. He and Red Farmer were at the track to watch Neil Bonnett's son, David, practice some laps. Prior to this day, racing folks always had a good laugh at Red's expense about his age. No one was ever quite sure how old he was - and he never really told an exact answer. But after the crash when he survived and Davey did not, the jokes kind of just stopped from that point forward. As great as that 1992 Atlanta season-finale was, it was simply numbing to realize 10 months later 2 of the top 3 finishers in the 1992 championship were gone...the other being champion Alan Kulwicki.

Davey's loss was especially painful because he was the new generation of the Alabama Gang. Bobby had retired due to injuries. Donnie had been out of the sport a long time due to injuries and age. Neil Bonnett had been out of the seat for over 3 years due to a head injury (more about his return below). Davey was it - he was the future.

Yet as always racing went on.

The Robert Yates Racing team soldiered on. Donnie drove a pre-race lap in Davey's car, and the emotion was noticeable in the stands. For the race, Yates selected open-wheeler and off-roader ace Robby Gordon to wheel the famed 28. Robby had only 2 prior Cup starts to his resume - both more than a year prior to this start.

As was our custom for much of the early 90s, we sat about 2/3 of the way down the backstretch along a grassy bank. Once the green flag dropped, the drivers set aside their grief and raced like hell. Similarly, the fans did the same and cheered all day long. The racing, drafting, and side-by-side (and frequently 3x3) battles were incredible.

One problem with with viewing a race at Talladega is its size. There is simply too much to keep up with, and many vantage points are just so far away to see things clearly. But as a wreck unfolded way down in turn 1 - about a half-mile away from us, I clearly saw a car go up and over the wall. I just didn't know who it was at the time. A few minutes later, we heard Barney Hall and the MRN crew announce it was Jimmy Horton. Jimmy was an established ARCA driver who also got some props by being selected to drive relief for Darrell Waltrip in his Hendrick Tide Ride when he broke his leg at Daytona. We clearly had no idea how far out of the yard he had flown until we later saw TV footage.

From where we sitting and really everyone else for that matter, we could not see the terrible events unfolding with Stanley Smith. Stanley was a journeyman Cup driver who occasionally ran the Interstate Batteries sponsorship colors in the late 1980s and early 1990s before Norm Miller moved his full-time sponsorship support to the new Joe Gibbs / Dale Jarrett team in 1993. Then - and now - the replay doesn't really show how Stanley was hurt. But he apparently hit the wall hard and may have been hit in the driver's comparment by a tire from another wrecking car. By the time the paramedics reached his car, he apparently had suffered a great deal of blood loss. The great news is the medical staff worked on him, kept him alive, and he later recovered. I don't believe he ever raced again - at least not at the Cup level.

Also involved in the Big One was Ritchie Petty. I don't recall knowing Ritchie was even entered in the race that day - much less that he was involved in this wreck. Ritchie is Richard's nephew / Kyle's cousin / Maurice's son. He entered a handful of races, but his career never really developed into anything.

If Davey Allison had been the future of the Alabama Gang, Neil Bonnett was clearly part of the old guard. This was Neil's first race after suffering a head injury at Darlington about 3 years earlier. The last thing he needed was another wicked blow to his head or a twisting of his neck. Yet that's what the Dega demons had in store for him as his car was tossed around like a rag doll. With this wreck happening on the front stretch, we didn't have a good view of it. I saw the smoke rise and knew the caution had flown, but I didn't know what had happened until MRN Radio described it. It was only after I got home and saw the race highlights that I realized how lucky Neil - and the fans in the stands - truly were.

Fortunately, Neil walked away from this wild crash and even went to the CBS booth to do some late race commentary! Neil's luck turned bad yet again though as he was killed in a practice crash at Daytona in February 1994. His death effectively ended the Alabama Gang. No drivers from Alabama have made much impact on Cup racing since the Allisons and Bonnett. Journeyman such as Hut Stricklin and Mickey Gibbs had brief runs, but the performances of the two of them couldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as the original Gang.

Even with the drama of the pre-race Davey tribute, the Big One, Jimmy Horton's over-the-wall venture, Stanley Smith's near-death accident, and Neil Bonnett's aerial acrobatics, the guys still had to finish this one. And a doozy it was.

The final few laps were simply breathtaking. Looking back at this video, its hard to recall how competitive Kyle Petty was in the Mello Yello Pontiac. In the end, Ernie Irvan battled to the stripe with the Dega Master. They settled in what is now the 2nd closest winning finish in NASCAR history.

In those rare instances when I get to go to races today, we swap all these great memories of races we've attended. We've laughed in recent years in thinking we make it sound as if all the great drama unfolded in a single 500 mile afternoon. However, in this case, its just about the case.

As with the 1992 Atlanta finale, the 93 DieHard 500 is clearly full of story lines and memorable events. It'll definitely remain in my top 5 from now on.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Talladega Memories - 2000 Winston 500

By 2000, I was living in Middle Tennessee and my racing padner was in High Point, NC. We still managed to catch some great races together in the 4 years or so after moving to different cities including the first race at Texas Motor Speedway and the memorable 1997 Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt rolled his car but then drove away in it to finish the race as Hendrick Motorsports cars swept the top 3 spots - Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.

The best race we may have reunited to see was the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega. I scored a 4 pack of freebies (best race ticket price of all time). I drove to Dega, and my friend and a neighbor high-tailed it over from Carolina to meet us. (I'm telling ya, the guy would crawl across a summer desert to get a free ticket!)

The race was one of only two races at Dega I've had the good fortune to watch from front stretch. The rest have been seen from the back stretch - most of them from the comforts of a lawn chair or blanket. Our seats were located as the cars barreled out of turn 4 headed for the tri-oval - right about at the start of pit road.

As the cars were making parade laps, I was already fully engaged with my scanner listening to several cars. My friend nudged me and said "who ya got?" I asked him how much and he said $20 for each of us. I asked the two of them who they had. While I don't remember their picks, I do remember neither of them picked the Intimidator.

I was never an Ironhead fan, but I knew he was the obvious choice and the best option when money was on the table. I asked both of them "Seriously? Neither of you picked Earnhardt? I can have him vs. the field?" When they said yes, I laughed and said gimme #3.

Following a late race caution, the race restarted with about 10 or 15 laps to go. With 5 to go, Earnhardt was buried back in 18th spot or so, and I resigned myself to paying off the 20 bucks. Figured it was cheap money considering the tickets were free. With 3 to go, he had moved up only a few spots. However, with two to go he made his move and simply drove and drafted his way to the front. I thought the stands were going to explode with all the energy and screaming.

As he took the lead, I remember standing there slack-jawed and shaking my head at what I was seeing. Kenny Wallace bump drafted the #3 by his own teammate, Mike Skinner, and nestled in behind Dale for 2nd - a career day for Kenny. Front Row Joe Nemechek even had a strong rally and finished 3rd.

Source: Stangbangers

As many know, this day turned out to be Earnhardt's final win. He was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 ending a sensational career.

Lost a bit amidst Earnhardt's win that day, the fantastic way he earned it, and the realization later that it was to be his last win was Andy Petree Racing's 2 cars in 2nd and 3rd with journeyman drivers. The race was like many others held over the years at Talladega where finishes were often determined more by machine than by driver (Earnhardt's winning move excepted of course). Nonetheless, it was a great day for APR.

Hard to believe its already been about 9 years since that race.
  • Kenny Wallace is now a weekend funny guy and TV host for Speed TV and runs the Nationwide Series.
  • Front Row Joe Nemecheck has now largely become Back Row Joe as he barely makes the field each week in his unsponsored, under-funded, independent team. When he does make the race, he generally starts it, parks it shortly after the start, and pockets a pretty decent payday - enough to cover expenses and go to the next week's race.
  • Andy Petree dissolved his teams a few years later. He has emerged as perhaps the best color guy in the booth while working for ESPN. NASCAR's TV coverage has been at its premium when the networks use intelligent, articulate, and humble color analysts such as Ned Jarrett, Neil Bonnett, and Andy Petree.
  • R.J. Reynolds and their Winston cigarette brand left NASCAR after the 2000 season - both as a series sponsor and as a race sponsor for Dega's Winston 500. Cell phone companies now bankroll the the NASCAR brass in Daytona.
  • Earnhardt lost his life in February 2001. While the grief has subsided and new driver loyalties have been developed (somewhat - mostly with Dale Jr.), memories are still vivid and loyalties still persist. I'm amazed at how much #3 and Ironhead gear each time I go to the track - many years after his death.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Talladega Memories - 1992 Winston 500

1992 was a watershed year for me in terms of Cup races. I went to my first Cup race in 1978, and I only got to attend 1-3 races per year over the next few years. But 1992 was a special year. It was the King's last year. I ended up going to 6 races that year - 2 Degas, 2 at Atlanta, spring in Bristol, July 4th in Daytona, and fall in Charlotte. I wanted to go to as many as possible, and to see 6 of Richard Petty's final 30+ races was pretty special.

One of those special races was the 1992 Winston 500 in May. I must confess my memories of that weekend are a bit fuzzy - yet they remain memorable. A friend of mine was a big Bill Elliott fan. He lived in Georgia, and he loved Coors beer - so Elliott was a natural for him once he started watching NASCAR.

In 1992, Elliott jumped brew brands. He left Melling Racing and joined forces with Junior Johnson and Budweiser. My friend was beside himself because he hated Bud - yet he planned to force himself to drink Bud simply out of allegiance to his favorite driver.

Our tradition in those days was to camp in the wooded area behind turn 2. In the prior 2 or 3 years, we had a handful of us camping and I figured the same would be true in 1992. My Elliott friend planned to camp with us. As a set-up, a fellow Bud-drinking friend of mine and I told him we'd cover all the beer for the weekend. As a protest against Elliott, we bought every cheap beer we could find but didn't take one single Budweiser. We took such award winning swill as Keystone, Milwaukee's Best, Old Milwaukee, PBR, Natty Light, and Schaefer.

As it turns out, our Awful Bill fan didn't show until Sunday morning, and the rest of our race crew didn't attend at all. So two of us were left with the task of downing all that wonderful mixture of hops, barley, CO2, and whatever other mess they put in those cans. And we did. We consumed it...
  • at the Saturday ARCA race without sunscreen or water,
  • at the camp area as we grilled steaks and dogs (including one we rescued after it fell from the grill to the dirt),
  • as we stupidly started a fire right under a tree canopy (fortunately we weren't arrested by Smokey Bear or the Alabama State Police), and
  • as we sang 'Roxanne' way way way off key.
When Sunday morning arrived, our Bud friend rolled in & kicked our tent. He was bent because we weren't in line yet to get our race-day back stretch tickets. Somehow I found a remaining amount of internal energy (beer carbs converted to sugar?) to get out of my tent and walk to the ticket booth and our planned sitting area on the grassy bank...barefooted...wearing only a pair of gym shorts...with uncombed hair or brushed teeth...dehydrated....sunburned...and dragging my lawn chair in the dirt. I felt like all the dirt on that ground was in my hair, gums, ears, pores, and lungs. Even the sunscreen trailer guy piled on - "Hey man, you better put some Banana Boat on that fair skin of yours!" Gee, thanks for the advice dude.

But once we made it back to our camp and I had some breakfast and coffee, I began to feel better. By race time, I began my slow but progressive rebound. I downed a couple of the few Schaefers that lived through the night and it was again "game on!". I was ready for those 4 most famous words in motorsports - "SHOW US YOUR TI..." No, no - the OTHER most famous ones "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

That day's race was won by Davey Allison, the progeny of the state's hero, Bobby Allison. This was my 2nd time to see Davey win this race - the other coming in the 1987 version for his first career win.

During the race, what I remember most vividly is the sight of Mr. Excitement, Jimmy Spencer, flying by us in his Travis Carter Moly Black Gold #98 Chevy. We didn't see how he got sideways, but once he did he flew by us with his nose perpendicular to the ground. Once it landed, we just knew barrel rolls were imminent. Instead, the car sat down on all 4 tires & away he drove. It was a wild ride that got a standing O from all on the backstretch.

I remember listening to Jimmy on Eli Gold's MRN NASCAR Live radio show the following Tuesday. Jimmy was a guest, and Eli asked him "what goes through your mind while something like that is happening?" Jimmy's response was classic. He said something to the effect of "I distinctly remember pumping the brake pedal and realizing it wasn't doing any good."

A couple of days after the race, my Sunday hangover returned - bad. I felt rotten, and I couldn't eat anything. I finally relented and went to the doctor. After a series of questions with dead-end answers, he asked me if I had eaten any bad foods lately. When I responded with "you mean, like several hot dogs, a few bags of Doritos and Funyuns, a couple of boxes of girl scout cookies, a 6 pack of Mello Yello, sitting 2 days in the heat without clear water, and about 2 cases of low grade beer?", his face quivered and he clicked his pen. He quickly diagnosed me with gastritis, and I heard him dictate to his recorder that I had been 'dietarily indiscrete'.

That whole weekend was a blast though. Today? Fuhgetaboutit - couldn't do it (although I gave it a reasonable try at Bristol last month). The one tradition that did begin that weekend, however, was the celebratory downing of a Schaefer to open a race weekend. For some 40 races or so I've attended since the 1992 spring Dega race, the partying offically begins ONLY after everyone around pounds 12 ounces of F.M. Schaefer's proud brew.



Monday, April 20, 2009

Talladega Memories - 1991 Winston 500

In May 1991, we camped for the 3rd year in a row (I think it was 3) at Talladega. Saturday was fine at the speedway, but we awoke on Sunday to gloomy skies. Sure enough, not long after the Winston 500 began Mother Nature unleashed an unbelievable shower worthy of a Bering Sea storm on The Deadliest Catch. It rained so much in a short period of time that I'm pretty sure the whole speedway slid down towards the highway about a foot or so.

We made it to our car - soaked but laughing. Off we headed for home to Chattanooga. But as we sat in miserable traffic followed by a solid 2-1/2 hour ride home, we committed ourselves to phoning in sick on Monday and returning to what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Monday was the complete opposite of Sunday. You couldn't buy a nicer spring day. As per usual, we returned to our usual spot in those days of the bank along the back stretch with lawn chairs and coolers in hand. (Race day tickets were $25. Some folks opted for the rickety, splintered, drunk-filled bleachers. But we always opted for lawn chairs and blankets.)

The racing was simply phenomenal. Tons of speed. Tons of passing. Tons of moves that took your breath away. Kyle Petty was fast. Earnhardt as usual was on the point. One of our homeboys, Nashville's own Bobby Hamilton was racy in Tri-Star Motorsports Country Time Lemonade Olds. His previous claim to fame in Cup was driving cars for the filming of Days of Thunder.

And then it happened. Swervin' Irvan sandwiched his way between Kyle Petty and Mark Martin, twitched, doinked Kyle, and all hell broke loose. Mark's ride looked the wildest as his car rose a bit before settling back down. But Kyle got the worst end of it. The wreck broke his leg and sidelined him for many, many weeks.

We were sitting about where the '500' is painted on the wall in the accompanying video - not too far from where Kyle's car came to rest.

Irvan, rightfully so, took a ton of grief for the wreck - not to mention the many other ones he caused over the years. But in times when he himself got hurt, he often recalled one of the first driver to come see in or call about his condition was...Kyle Petty.

In the end, all the great racing during the race didn't matter. Harry Gant conserved fuel & got some bump drafting, gas-conserving assistance from Rick Mast who was driving a 2nd Skoal car. He won a fuel mileage 500 over Darrell Waltrip who was none too happy about being snookered on Handsome Harry's stroking fuel cruise.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Conflicted about Mark Martin's comment

Its amazing how quickly the TV folks can drop their fave and jump aboard the bandwagon of the "hot new thang". But its also doubly amazing when the fave is Junebug Jr. as he faded late in the Phoenix race and the "hot new thang" is 50 year old, thrice-retired Mark Martin.

I don't dislike Mark. But I'm not a big fan either. Just call me ambivalent. I do believe, however, his victory was generally popular with the fans, fellow competitors, sponsors, NASCAR, and the media.

What has me conflicted a bit, however, is a comment Mark made in victory lane Saturday night. He made the comparison of his victory (his first since 2005) to Tim Richmond's comeback victory at Pocono in 1987.

I'm glad 50 year-old Martin remembers Tim and mentioned his name in victory lane. With Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader sidelined and Bill Elliott only barely around anymore, only Mark is left to remember what it was like racing in Tim's era.

Mark also knows his place at Hendrick. Even though the car is #5, the team is from the lineage of Tim's #25 team. The FOX TV guys referenced how special the #5 is to Rick Hendrick because that's the number he used from the beginning with Geoff Bodine. They've already forgotten the true 5 team (Shrub's old ride) was re-numbered to 88 when the Double Joonyurs were hired, and the 25 team was re-numbered to 5 (piloted previously by Casey Mears and now Martin). I think Mark was honestly trying to give props to Tim for setting a high mark for the 25 (then) / 5 (now) team that hasn't been matched since.

Source: Ray Lamm

I also recognize Mark's win meant a lot to him. Even when he was winning regularly in Roush's #6 Ford, he often said the victories were special because you never knew if it was his last one.

But to compare winning a race - after a four-year drought...in top physical condition...as a fan-favorite...and embraced by NASCAR - to a comeback victory by a driver...with "pneumonia like symptoms"...having AIDS as a death sentence...not being trusted by your fellow competitors...and having your character attacked by NASCAR, well I think that's a stretch for me.

In the end, I'll likely give Mark a pass. He was excited about the win, he and the team have pulled themselves off the mat to go from 35th in points to 13th, and he didn't have a lot of time in victory lane to arrange his words perfectly about Tim. The bottom line is he at least he did mention Tim's relevance, and in the end that was a pretty classy thing to do.


NHL Playoffs - Round 1

My Red Wings tripped their way into the playoffs, sparking justified fear and dread among the faithful again. We have seen this before in years after they won the Cup or went deep into the playoffs. This particular team seems to be so talented that they only play their best when challenged. Apparently late season games with hungry division rivals like the Predators, Badjackets, and Blandhawks wasn't challenge enough. Failure of team leadership or coaching? Perhaps.

But somebody flipped a switch. The Wings stormed into the first 2 games at the Joe against the Badjackets and cleaned their clocks. Columbus wanted to get physical in game 2, and the cutesy precision puck-possession Wings morphed into a hockey gorilla and gave the Badjackets a tutorial on physical play. When the poster child for precision Pavel Datsyuk finishes his checks and lays the lumber, then races to backcheck and steal the puck with an outlet pass to start the rush the other way, you are watching hockey nirvanna.

There's a long way to go, but I like what I see so far. Kris Draper is supposed to be back for game 3. The guy has wheels and goes 100 mph every shift. Excellent penalty killer and dangerous short-handed scorer. Chris Osgood has yet to silence his critics but his play is as excellent as his demeanor unassuming. Around 50% power play success against Columbus is unheard of but is usually the determining factor in the playoffs. I am enjoying an all eastern time first round between the only 2 Western Conference eastern time teams (I think). Those 10 pm starts on the left coast are rough.

Other series of interest to me. Philly / Pittsburgh started ugly and is going to continue to be. The Flyers are up to their usual tricks but the Pens manned up and responded. Excellent overtime game the other night. Speaking of ugly, how about Boston / Montreal. I didn't have this one penciled in for a war but it's shaping up to be one. Don't miss these games either. Finally, the Sharks lost game 1 at home to the Formerly Mighty Ducks who are probably better than their 8 seed indicates, especially in the playoffs. Could be the first round shocker.

Phoenix and late start times

Congrats to Mark Martin for pulling off what we all expected he could do with his talent and the best equipment in the business. This season hasn't been what either he or HMS was looking for, but it's not over yet. I expect this victory will propel them to a Martinian strong run of consistency into the Chase. Yes I wish he would retire already and spare us the platitudes and drama, but it's hard not to like the guy.

For the first time in ages, I couldn't stay up to watch the finish. My morning 15k race (yes on foot) and afternoon baby shower didn't leave enough energy to survive the late start time after half an hour of ridiculous pre-race hype including a full-length feature cartoon film of Digger's antics. I understand playing to the left coast time zone, but a midnight or later finish on the east coast? Come on.

I understand the 88 wrecked late and the 18 hosed himself speeding on the final pit stop. But the 5 was great all weekend, started on the poll, led most of the race before I fell asleep, and the best car won. Congrats to them.

RIP 8 car (and DEI?)

What a meteoric journey for the 8 car. Big Dale puts Little Dale in a cool-looking cool-sponsored car with Ralph's number on the side. The kid wins races, the kid competes for championships, the kid almost single handedly orchestrates Nascar's rise in popularity and ratings. As a testimony to Big Dale's competitive fire, the teams remain competitive for some time after his death, until the momentum gives out. DEI's success in my opinion was a testimony to the balance of racing and business, a balance borne out in the relationship of Dale and Theresa and their individual talents. Maybe it was too much to expect they could continue without him--the shoes to fill were enormous.

The 8 car is no more, losing its marquee driver and its sponsor, and after a 1 1/2 season revolving door of drivers and sponsors, it's gone. A sad ending to a fantastic sports story of tragic Shakespearean dimensions.

Lets hope DEI doesn't follow the course of the 8 car, but the evidence doesn't look good. See Jay Hart's pointed column for another example of its demise.


Saving DEI is akin to saving GM. Tough medicine. Big changes. Better management. More money. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Nope.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kyle Petty: Shopping for Mikey

Kyle Petty's latest Unleashed on NASCAR.com is pretty funny. Its about his shopping for Michael Waltrip at a fully-stocked grocery store in the infield at Texas Motor Speedway.

Now while it is funny (especially quip at 1:22 mark), I'm not sure Kyle is coming all that 'unleashed'.

Gentlemen, start your buggies!


Friday, April 10, 2009

Langhorne Speedway Memories

Ryan McGee from ESPN wrote a neat article about memories from the old Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania.

The Track That Ate The Heroes

I only learned about Langhorne over the last few years. It was one of the oddest-shaped tracks ever built - an almost perfect circle vs. most other tracks built as ovals (until the Charlotte 'quad-oval' and Daytona 'tri-oval' phases began).

Langhorne's relevance for NASCAR has long been gone. I have learned, however, Lee Petty earned one of his 54 wins there.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Lonely End of The Rink

My Nashville Predators may not make the NHL playoffs. Because of a scoring drought in the middle part of the season resulting in several losses, their playoff fate is now in the hands of other teams. And that is not a comfortable feeling.

However, teams often have mini-playoffs within the regular season. The Preds won their season series with the Wings 4-2. The wins included:
  • 3 Pred wins in a row against the defending Stanley Cup champs
  • an 8-0 beat down of the Wings in Nashville
  • 2 consecutive wins at the Joe including tonight's shootout victory
So for my fellow crew chief banktruck and the goalies of the Detroit Red Wings - Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin, I give you The Tragically Hip's The Lonely End of the Rink...

Spare me the reminder that the Wings are the defending cup champs. I know it & I get it. But over the 10 year history of the Preds, its often hard to talk justifiable trash against the Wings. So I'll take it where I can get it.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ab Jenkins

The Petty/Andretti Indy 500 announcement and my reading of Brock Yates' Umbrella Mike book made me recall a treasured memento I had stored away in our fireproof strong box. In 1991, my Uncle Max sent me a picture card Ab Jenkins gave him in 1938 at Indianapolis along with a hand-written note about his memories of that month of May. Uncle Max passed away only a couple of years later, and I feel fortunate to be able to still have this memory of him.

In case you can't read the letter, here's the text of it.
April 10, 1991 - You may have forgotten that I promised to give you the card Ab gave me in Indianapolis in May 1938. Well, here it is. I worked in a Bar-B-Que stand and fed many of the racers and their associates in the weeks before the race. Three of them were the winner that year, Floyd Roberts, his car owner Lou [Moore] and his mechanic Lou Webb. Those three had to scratch for living money before that race but the owner had some top finishes, including at least one winner, in subsequent years. Floyd was not so lucky – he was killed in the 1939 race. Sorry it took so long to keep my promises. Love & best wishes to you both. Uncle Max
At the time he sent me the letter and picture, I was certainly surprised. Even at his old age, I think his memory was better than mine in my 20s at the time. His letter references a promise he made to get this card to me and apologizes for not having sent it earlier. Yet, I don't recall when he even promised to send it to me! It may have been at my cousin's wedding. Who knows.

Because I was grateful to have the picture and the note and because his memory was so sharp, I didn't bother to do any fact checking to see if he was right. Plus, the internet wasn't exactly up and running full speed back in 1991.

But in looking at the contents of his letter and doing some research, he was dead on with all his details. Ab Jenkins was indeed a world-speed setter in his day. I found a couple of articles about his Bonneville speed runs in his Mormon Meteor.
I also found a couple of on-line pictures - one of which seems to be the same car as in the 1938 photo card Uncle Max sent me.

And Leno with a restored, later-version Mormon Meteor.

As for Floyd Roberts, he won the 1938 Indy 500 and was then killed in the subsequent year's race - just as my uncle noted. Brock Yates included an account of Roberts' tragic accident in his book Umbrella Mike. Roberts had swerved to miss another spinning car. In doing so, his car flipped over the fence, landed upside down, and his neck was broken killing him instantly.

The only discrepancy I found in Uncle Max's memory of the 1938 race was his reference to Lou Webb as the mechanic. From what I can tell, Lou Moore was the car owner as well as the chief mechanic.

Nonetheless, I'm glad I remembered I had this piece of history and actually knew where I had it stored!


Book Review: Umbrella Mike

It was kind of neat with the timing with Monday's Petty/Andretti announcement about their planned Indy 500 effort because I just completed a book about old school Indy.

The book is Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the Indy 500 by Brock Yates. Yates cred is well established - executive editor of Car & Driver magazine, TV commentator for several Cup races back in the late 70s and 80s, and screenplay writer for Cannonball Run and Smokey & The Bandit. So the book definitely caught my attention based on the subject and its author.

While I feel like I can hold my own in talking NASCAR racing, I admit I know little about the history of the Indy 500. As a kid, I knew the drivers of that era - A.J., Mario, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, the Unser brothers, Rick Mears, and a handful of others. Later, I knew who drivers like Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal were. And of course today we have Scott Dixon, Danica, Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanan. But I know virtually nothing about drivers pre-1960 - buys like Billy Vuckovich, Louie Meyer, Roger Ward, Wilbur Shaw, and the like.

The story was really a neat one. Yates did a nice job introducing the drivers, owners, and mechanics of the mid 30s to early 40s. And its obvious he did his research to write the book.

Without giving away all of the key details of the book, a few nuggets of info I learned that made me shake my head were:
  • Unlike today's Indy or NASCAR race cars which are often built for a unique type of track, could be rendered obsolete in one season, or may be discarded after only one wreck, the Indy cars of the 30s were often run a decade or more and at different types of tracks.
  • With today's advances in safety technologies, fans, media, and competitors are all shocked at those infrequent events when a driver is killed. However, from the 20s through the 40s, about one-third of drivers competing regularly in the 500 could expect to be killed - a startling, morbid, statistical reality of the early days of auto racing.
  • The Indy 500 ran throughout the 1930s despite the Great Depression that strangled much of America. The costs of fielding an entry and the purse and promotional rewards for the winner were shockingly high relative to the struggles of many in the country. Only the U.S.'s involvement in World War II in late 1941 interrupted the 500 from 1942 through 1945.
However, the book suffers from a couple of notable flaws:
  • I think Yates must have self-edited his book. He repeats himself frequently. Also, each chapter starts with a theme but frequently jumps off on a tangent - sometimes dropping in details from an event decades ahead or behind because of one lead-in sentence.
  • The title of the book leads the reader to believe it will be about Michael "Umbrella Mike" Boyle - head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers labor union in Chicago - and his quest to win the 500. Yates introduces Boyle, talks about his Irish heritage, and notes the power he established in Chicago as a union boss. But he never really addresses the reasons for Boyle's passion for winning the 500. Nor does he answer some key questions such as how he managed to funnel his ill-gotten gains through his position to his race teams (although Yates does note that the FBI routinely investigated Boyle). In all fairness to Yates though, I'm guessing minute details about the life and happenings of a fraudulent, criminal union boss in Chicago in the same era as Al Capone aren't exactly available by the wheelbarrow load.
Boyle accomplished his goal by winning the Indy 500 three times. Wilbur Shaw drove an Italian Maserati to two of the wins in 1939 and 1940. (The story of how Boyle got the Maserati to the U.S. during the rise of fascism in Italy is a fascinating part of the book.) Today, Shaw's winning Maserati sits in the Indy 500 museum.

Despite some of the editing flaws, I do recommend the book. Its still a far better book than most books about NASCAR I've read over the last three decades.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Texas Traditions

In 1997, my bro-in-law hooked me up with freebs to the inaugural Busch and Cup races at the new Texas Motor Speedway. I was working in Terrell, Texas the week before the race. So my travel expenses to get there were covered. I stayed with my sister and bro-in-law, he got comps on the tickets, he bought my dinner, the brews were covered with the hospitality, he got me pit passes, AND he arranged for a Sunday morning pre-race ride in a motorcade of Monte Carlos on the track. I don't think I spent a nickel of my own all weekend - a rare, perfect race weekend.

The area was hit with a deluge of rain in the days leading up to race weekend, and the parking lots were like a Florida swamp. But on race days, the skies were fine and we were ready to go racing.

Ricky Craven crashed...hard...during practice for the race. He suffered a head injury that took him a long time to recover. A Bodine - Todd - was chosen to fill his seat for the weekend.

Jeff Burton won his first Cup race that weekend in Jack Roush's 99 Exide Ford. The Cat in the Hat has had more than his share of success at TMS ever since.

While we were glad to see a first time winner, most of his competition got wiped out after only a quarter lap of racing. Darrell Waltrip and Johnny Benson barreled down nose to tail into turn 1 of the 1 groove track - but they didn't make it out together. DW was turned & about half the field piled in behind him. It was as if TMS wanted its own Texas-sized version of a Talladega Big One.

Eddie Gossage and Bruton Smith worked on the track a couple of years later and fixed it for much better multi-groove racing. I think the drivers genuinely enjoy racing there now vs. their dislike of it when it first opened.

But while Gossage fixed the track, he created another beast in its place - the traditional cowboy hat and fake six-shooters in victory lane. There have been some real 'winners' over the years. Some of these drivers look about as much like a cowboy as Vanilla Ice resembled a rapper. Heck, Eddie even makes the Indy guys wear the hats! Here's a sampler.

There simply has to be a better, less humiliating way to celebrate a hard earned victory in the state of Texas.

Update 2009-04-06: Well, I guess there's not a a better, less humiliating way...


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Alan Kulwicki

December 14, 1954 - April 1, 1993

The Underbird did it his way. I was fortunate enough to see him start from the pole at Atlanta in 1991 in his first race with Hooters as his sponsor. And I was fortunate enough to be at Atlanta again in November 1992 when he led the most laps, traded the lead with Bill Elliott, finished 2nd, and won the Winston Cup championship. Many have suggested the 1992 Hooters 500 was the greatest NASCAR race of all time - the Kulwicki/Elliott/Davey Allison championship battle, Richard Petty's final race, and Jeff Gordon's first Cup race.

It was so bizarre to hear on April 1, 1993, that Alan was gone. Killed in a plane crash returning to Bristol, TN from an autograph-signing session in Knoxville the night before. The reigning Winston Cup champ - gone - less than 6 months after his triumph.

Alan in garage pre-race - Atlanta - Spring 1992

Alan and The King headed to starting positions - Charlotte - Fall 1992


Help is on the way (?)

oh wait that was John Kerry's line....

Anyway, it looks like GM will be able to stay in racing now and better yet, could Goodwrench be returning as a primary sponsor?
Just call him Mr. Goodwrench.

That's what President Obama is telling American car owners and buyers, making them an offer they can't refuse: If General Motors or Chrysler won't honor their warranties, he will.

Playing pitchman for the ailing U.S. auto industry, Obama on Monday offered guarantees on the warranty of every new vehicle sold by the Detroit automakers during their restructuring efforts. Obama said with additional incentives for new car buyers, the industry could sell an additional 100,000 new cars this year.