Monday, April 21, 2014

“I Want To Thank…” How They Do That

Edwards good at "thank you" and taking off his sunglasses
Ever wonder how the winning driver gets out of a car after 500 grueling miles on the race track and almost immediately begins to thank a list of sponsors – and in the exact order of importance to the team?  In this day of multiple primary sponsors during the course of a season, it’s even more challenging.

Fortunately, he has help.

Not everyone does it this way, but perched behind the television interviewer and carefully hidden from the television cameras you'll sometimes find the driver’s PR person, manager or helmet holder, who has a list of sponsors for the driver to see and read so he doesn’t forget anyone.   The more experienced you are and the more stable your sponsor is, for instance Jimmie Johnson and Lowe’s, the less likely the list will be needed. 

Watch the driver’s eyes, that’s typically giveaway.  The lists are often handwritten (don’t want to jinx anything with a pre-printed list) and might include a special mention for the day (the fans who sat out in the rain all day, etc.)

Eddie Sachs, an IndyCar driver from the 1950s and ‘60s, is often credited with being one of the first to realize the importance of public relations and thanking sponsors.  He’d grab the microphone with both hands before the interviewer knew what happened and launch into his list of thank yous and stories until he was ready to give it back.  He also was one of the first to feature his sponsor on his helmet, painting a red circle on top of his white helmet in deference to the American Red Ball Moving company.

These days Carl Edwards is the best at working in the sponsor’s name, even if it is a little corny at times.  And Edwards does a good job of removing his sunglasses for interviews, although sometimes he makes too big a deal of it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Year Makes Big Difference For Harvick

Harvick the early Chase favorite
What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months ago, Kevin Harvick’s place in the Chase would be tenuous at best, his 22nd place in the point standings off-setting a series-leading two victories.  But no longer.  His win at Darlington all but assures his place in the finals.

Ignore the four straight finishes of 35th or worse.  His total domination of the Darlington 500 on Saturday night – winning the pole position, leading 238 of 374 laps and running away with the green-white-checked finish on what is arguably the toughest track on the circuit – firmly establishes him as the early favorite for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.  He said his team never doubted themselves, despite the string of poor finishes.  And suddenly the team finds itself in a class by itself.

“Everybody wanted to finish the deal on weekends where we felt like we could do exactly what we did here today and did at Phoenix, but sometimes it just doesn't go your way,” Harvick said.  “You have to be able to put that behind you whether you win or lose.

“I'm just proud of all my guys, Rodney (Childers) for keeping them all together and being a part of it, and seeing it not implode from within is pretty awesome.”

Harvick’s convincing win at Darlington was even more impressive considering he had never won at Darlington.

“It's the last crown jewel race I guess you could say that I wanted.  I told them before the year even started, if we're only going to win once this year, let's win at Darlington because this is just the place that you want to race, and I love racing here.  I think it's like going to Bristol for me.  But all in all, it's a great place to race and means a lot to our sport.”

Which makes the stories about Darlington’s possible demise all the more confusing.  At least one news report coming out of Darlington said the race is again in danger of being dropped from the NASCAR schedule.  First it lost its traditional Labor Day date.  Then it lost its new date to Kansas (Kansas!?!).  And now there’s talk there may not be room for Darlington next year?

That’s even harder to believe than Harvick being the Chase favorite.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Indy To Add Another Day of Practice After Qualifying

2013 Pole Sitter Ed Carpenter hopes to be in the hunt again
Looks like the change in qualifying procedures for this year's Indianapolis 500 will result in an additional day of practice between the end of qualifying and the race. 

There’s normally been only a couple of hours of practice after the close of qualifying – on Carb Day.  But changes to the qualifying procedure this year pushed the Fast Nine Shootout for the pole from Saturday until Sunday afternoon. 

In the past, teams safely qualified on Saturday would spend Sunday working on their race setup.  More than a few were wondering aloud if perhaps their time on Sunday might still be better spent working on race setup, rather than making an all-out pole run, especially given the newly updated cars.   To head that off, IndyCar is putting word out to the teams in Long Beach that another day of practice to work on race setup will be available for all qualifiers, most likely on Monday, May 19.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Logano Comes Of Age

Joey Logano has come of age.

His victory in Texas on Monday was accomplished in dominating style, leading the most laps, holding off one of the best drivers in NASCAR – teammate Brad Keselowski – while overtaking one the sport’s all-time greats, Jeff Gordon.  A late caution setting up a green-white-checkered finish might have shaken a less experienced driver, but not the 23-year-old Logano.

The transformation started last year, when he won a race and qualified for the Chase, neither of which his teammate was able to accomplish.  And now it appears Logano is here for good.  He’s the only driver to reach the final qualifying group at every track so far this season, has been competitive in every race, and currently ranks fourth in points.

Six years ago, tagged with the unfortunate “sliced bread” label (as in, best thing since…) by Mark Martin, Logano was the youngest driver to win a Nationwide race.  A year later he became the youngest driver to win a Cup race.  Yet he was the first to admit he was far from an accomplished racer.  He’d been forced into the Sprint Cup ranks when Joe Gibbs allowed Tony Stewart to jump ship before his contract was up – and before Logano was ready to move up as his replacement.  Two years later he was railroaded out of JGR by teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who complained Logano was bringing nothing to the table to help the team improve.

Hamlin and Busch were probably right, but it was handled poorly.  At first Gibbs thought he had Carl Edwards lined up to replace Logano after one season, but that deal fell through.  The next year Gibbs lured Matt Kenseth away from Roush-Fenway Racing.  After turning down a Nationwide ride at JGR, Logano landed at Penske Racing for the 2013, where he found a teammate in Keselowski that not only wanted him, but actually lobbied for him.

Logano tangled with some of the leading drivers in the sport, including Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and, most notably, Hamlin.  But he also has done a lot of growing up during the past year and after the Texas race, Kyle Busch acknowledged a difference in Logano.

“I think Joey learned a lot over the years at JGR, but never felt quite comfortable there, for whatever reason,” Busch said.  “Sure found a home at Penske.  Those guys are really good over there.  Joey has been.  Brad has been.  They've shown good speed this year.  Shows they've got good stuff and Joey is doing what he needs to be doing with it.”

Logano agreed.

“The first time I came here, I think it was in the 02 car.  I ran terrible.  I ran 38th.  I didn't have an excuse for running 38th.  I didn't know what I was doing.  You're 18 years old with less than half a season of Nationwide under your belt.  You get thrown into a tough situation.  But I didn't realize that at the time.

“Then over the years I've been able to just kind of hone in on who I am as a driver, who I am as a person.  When you're 18 years old, you got to grow up.  You're not quite done growing up at that point.  I may not be now.  I feel like I'm getting closer.

“When I was able to go to Team Penske, get that fresh start, be able to take everything you've learned there, but you're not taken as an 18-year-old kid anymore.  I came over when I was 22.  You're looked at a little bit more as a man than an 18-year-old kid that was still in high school.

“Completely different situation now.  I've been able to take advantage of that, kind of walk in the doors of Penske the first time and say, Here is who I want to be, here is what I want to do, here is how I feel like we can win races, do it together.”

Logano also has found a team that has his back.  When he tangled with Hamlin and Stewart in last year's California race, it was none other than Roger Penske who stepped forward.

''Joey is a great driver and what happened at the end there wasn't anything more than hard racing,'' Penske said at the time.  ''I stand behind him and I think he's going to go down as one of the greatest drivers to ever race.''

Logano has matured in other ways.  When asked in Texas what other teams, besides Penske Racing, where off to good a start this year, he replied:  “I'm going to say a lot of the Stewart-Haas cars are really fast.  The 14 was fast today.  The 41 won last week.  The 4 is fast week in, week out.  They're quick.  You never count out Hendrick cars.  Roush cars have shown a lot of speed here recently.  I think even the Petty cars have shown a lot of speed here recently.”

Notice who he didn’t mention?  Any of the JGR teams.  While Busch has won and Kenseth is among the point leaders, all three teams have struggled this year.  Logano didn’t call them out by name or number, but the message was clear.

Final thought:  Did it seem a little too convenient to anyone else that Keselowski was caught speeding on pit road prior to the green-white-checker finish?  Running second, he had closed in on Logano, and then settled in a little more than a second back prior to the caution flag.  His speeding penalty certainly eliminated any questions about whether or not Brad, who with a win was already in the Chase, was racing Joey “100 percent” over the final three laps.  Probably a little early in the season for conspiracy theories, but I’ll tell you what, if someone needs to give up some places to a teammate come Richmond, speeding on pit road seems like a good way to do it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Fans Might Be Surprised by NASCAR HOF Ballot

Why the rush to put Dollar Bill in HOF?
Fan voting began Wednesday for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2015 and unless you were paying attention to an off-season announcement, you may be surprised by a couple of names on the list of 20 nominees, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte.

Previously, a driver had to be retired for at least three years before becoming eligible for the HOF.  But during the off-season the Hall said it will now immediately consider drivers who are 55 and older with 10 years of experience, and any driver with more than 30 years of experience, no matter what his age.  As a result, both Elliott, who drove in the Coke 400 at Daytona less than two years ago, and Labonte, who was in the Daytona 500 just two months ago, are both on the ballot.  

The Hall also announced it was reducing the number of nominees from 25 to 20, although the top five with the highest percentage of the 54 votes will continue to inducted each year.

It appears the rules for getting into the Hall of Fame are as flexible as the rules for getting into the Chase.

But why these changes in HOF requirements, just five years after the first class was inducted?

According to NASCAR, it’s to “…put more emphasis on the drivers.  Our sport has always been about the driver, and anything we can do to get more drivers in that discussion is where we wanted to go."

I guess that doesn’t include the likes of Buddy Baker, Fred Lorenzen, Curtis Turner, Benny Parsons, Bobby Isaac, Red Byron, Joe Weatherly and Rex White.  All those drivers are currently on the ballot and worthy of the HOF.  But at least one of those drivers probably won’t make it this year because of Elliott's presence.

I’m a big Bill Elliott fan, have been since I first saw him race at Dixie Speedway in the mid-70s.  Obviously so are a lot of other people, Elliott having been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver a remarkable 16 times.  He probably has more fans than all those other drivers combined.

And there’s the rub.  It’s no secret the HOF hasn’t come close to its projected attendance figures.  NASCAR has worked hard to attract more fans and having Elliott – and other more current driers – in the Hall is bound to help.  Next year it will be Mark Martin, another fan favorite.  The losers in the meantime, are old timers, the drivers the Hall was established to honor in the first place.

Fan voting is open online at www.nascar.com/halloffame  until May 21.  I know where my votes are going this year: Lorenzen (I’ve been pushing for him the past couple of years), Turner, Isaac, Ray Fox and Jerry Cook.  And I'm still looking for an opportunity to vote for Smokey Yunick.

Dollar Bill can wait his turn.

Monday, March 24, 2014

New Cup Engine Rumors Much Ado About Nothing

Ford's EcoBoost twin turbo V6 is one of tomorrow's engines
NASCAR has been hinting for more than a year that it is working on new engine regulations for the Sprint Cup series, perhaps going into effect as early as the 2015 season.

Officials had been saying everything was being considered for its “Engine of Tomorrow,” including a move to a V6 and even the possibility of a V6 turbo, a change already made by IndyCar, sports car racing and Formula One.

Now NASCAR is beginning to leak some of the details about the new regulations and it appears they’re focused on trimming about 100 horsepower from the current engine’s 850 to 900 hp output.  That’s it.   The stories say NASCAR is working very closely with the manufacturers on how to make the horsepower cuts, with ideas ranging from reducing the size of the existing V8 engine slightly to the to use of tapered spacers.

Who cares.

If that’s the route NASCAR decides on, it has missed an opportunity to regain some relevancy and may doom itself forever to dinosaur status. 

The current engine configuration has been in use for more than 25 years.  The series made a huge concession to reality a few years back by adding electronic fuel injection and switching to ethanol fuel. 

Welcome to the 1990s.

Meanwhile, during the next 10 years the auto industry will go through enormous changes mandated by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that are set to nearly double by 2025, to 54.5 miles per gallon, from the current 29.7 mpg standard.  That’s easily the greatest increase in standards since they were first established in the early 1970s.

Currently only the Toyota Prius and similar hybrids, meet the 2025 standards.  The V6-powered Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Impala or Malibu will have to nearly double current fuel economy levels.  V8 engines such as the one in Chevy SS will disappear.  The manufacturers say they will make extensive use of 4- and 6-cylinder engines and turbocharging to meet the standards.  You may be able to find a V8 engine in a Corvette in 2025, but you’re gonna pay a huge premium for it. 

To meet the new standards, the industry will undertake a decade of development and innovation unmatched in its history.  One top Toyota executive says the auto industry will see more changes in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 100.

And NASCAR is apparently willing to watch the world pass it by.

A better answer to Engine of Tomorrow challenge is right under its nose, in the new Tudor United SportsCar Championship NASCAR controls.   Ford is currently competing in the series with a twin turbo V6 EcoBoost engine that it says takes 70 percent of its parts – including the block, cylinder heads, gaskets and valve train – from its normally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 production engine.  One of the race engines, built by Roush Yates Engines, powered a Chip Ganassi Racing entry to victory in the recent 12 Hours of Sebring.  Honda entered the series at Sebring with a race version of its V6 production engine.

And it’s not just sports car racing.  IndyCar also runs a twin-turbo 2.2-liter V6 engine configuration putting out about 650 horsepower, with engines supplied by both Chevrolet and Honda.  Although Toyota doesn’t currently have a V6 turbo production or race engine, the company says it is committed to bringing them to market in the near future.

NASCAR is certainly aware that virtually every other major racing series has moved to V6 turbo engines.  So why the not join the other series?

It’s all about money.  Of course it is.  Such a dramatic change would be an enormous engineering challenge and hugely expensive.  The manufacturers are already bankrolling the sport to tune of more than $100 million each and reluctant to add to that total 

That’s where NASCAR needs to dip into its $8.2 billion war chest of television dollars to help defray the costs for teams and manufacturers. 

The future relevancy of the NASCAR depends on it.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Roush Shows Up – In A Big Way

Edwards' Bristol win was a huge lift for Roush Fenway Racing
Last week I asked what was up with Roush Fenway Racing, wondering aloud if perhaps Jack Roush has lost some of his passion for the sport and as a result his team had lost a step.

Well I guess they showed me – and everyone else who questioned the team’s lackluster start this season.  Not only did Carl Edwards and teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., finish one-two in Roush Fords, the “B” team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose finished third and fifth driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. 

Roush seemed to acknowledge afterwards that the one-two finish is closer to what Ford is expecting from his team this year than the results of the first three races, when Roush cars lead just 10 of 779 laps.

“Ford has given us more resources,” he said.  “They've expanded their engineering involvement one more notch and given us some more.  Of course the thing that it comes down to, as it always has with people in stock car racing, is you can have talented people, but if you don't work on the right things, you won't get the results you're looking for from their effort.  We've had to think not only about the people and the programs we had going on, but whether we were missing something by not focusing on some of the other things.

Roush said his team had taken a hard look at itself during the off-season and made changes needed to compete at the highest level.

“Every winter we've got to look at the job that we've been doing technically and think about how we can do better and of course look around at our contemporaries and see how they're doing their programs, as well.  We decided we needed to add a couple more people to do some research and engineering things.  We decided to reassign and redefine the job descriptions of some of the people we had on staff.  We took an evaluation, took stock of who we had, the talent and the experience and all, and decided that we had people with the right stuff that were motivated and committed, so we stayed the course with the folks that we had even though we didn't win a championship last year.  We stayed the course, we augmented or added to the staffing level, and we were able to do some things that I wouldn't care to talk about that we weren't able to do last year based on the added resources that we've applied.”

Despite the strong Bristol finishes, however, the questions will remain for the time being about Roush Fenway Racing.  As I noted last week, Bristol is a good track for both Edwards and Stenhouse and they produced.  A key pit call kept their cars on the track when most everyone else came in for tires and gave them a lead they never relinquished.  Afterwards it seemed as if Edwards was as surprised as anyone by the outcome.    

"I can't believe we turned this around," Edwards said. "We were terrible on Saturday. We'd been struggling lately, so for us to come out here and run so well with the number of Fords out of our shop, that was big.”

The next test will be to see if they can keep it going.

The Bristol finish wasn’t the only big news for Roush and Ford over the weekend.   It was Roush Yates Ford EcoBoost engine in a car owned by Chip Ganassi that won the 12 Hours of Sebring, giving the new V6 twin turbo its first endurance race victory.