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September 17, 2006
Trucks and such
By Jon Baum
LOUDON, N.H. – When the TV broadcast decides to "crank it up," viewers at home with good sound systems get at least a vague idea of how loud NASCAR cars and trucks really are.
But those who have been to the races know the TV portrayal is nothing compared to the real deal.
Standing near the end of pit road during Saturday's Craftsman Truck Series race here at New Hampshire International Speedway – the pit exit, incidentally, is one of the best places to be at any relatively short track, as the view (and sounds) of the cars/trucks coming off the front straight and into Turn 1 is wild – one can't escape the auditory assault NASCAR wages on its fans.
The trucks actually, somewhat surprisingly, aren't quite as loud as their Cup counterparts, but the noise easily is more than enough to drown out any given rock band (well, except for The Who).
What's more striking than the noise the trucks make when they drive by is the noise they make when they wreck – something else also only somewhat appreciable by watching on television.
Over the roar of the engines could be heard a gasp from the crowd and onlookers on pit road as Boston Reid spun coming through Turn 1. His truck slammed into the wall between Turns 1 and 2, and even with the SAFER barrier – which muffles both impact and noise – a loud, resounding thud sounded across the track.
The safety crew and tow truck got there very quickly, almost immediately after the caution was thrown.
But not all of Saturday's cautions were brought out by wrecks. In fact, after Saturday's race, which featured a Craftsman Trucks track-record 12 cautions, there is no doubt what my least favorite NASCAR-related words are: "Caution for debris."
(Replacing what Sterling Marlin once yelled at me when I asked him if he had time for a couple of questions. Actually, to this day, I'm not really sure exactly what he said in an ultra-thick and at that moment agitated Tennessee drawl, so it probably didn't qualify, anyway.)
The frequent yellows prevented some from settling in as much as they would have liked, curbing the momentum of drivers like Skinner and third-place finisher Kyle Busch, whose trucks were better on longer runs.
There also were a whole slew of cautions in the Busch East race earlier in the day, which ended up being shortened due to time constraints (read: this race is lasting too long and we need to get these guys off the track so the trucks can get going).
Might Saturday's yellow-fests cause Cup teams to think about adjusting their cars to better perform on shorter runs when they make their first pit stops?
That might not be necessary, as Busch doesn't expect Sunday's Cup race to mirror the Saturday shows, partly because he believes Cup drivers are more likely to allow for some give and take, and also because drivers likely will give plenty of room to those in the Chase.
Busch actually displayed some of that give and take with Skinner, who got himself too deep into a corner and would have wrecked himself and/or Busch had the younger driver, who has a reputation for being a bit reckless, not backed off.
Skinner, in fact, thanked Busch after the race for not wrecking him.
Skinner described Busch's decision to back off as being "a very veteran move." He admitted to being a Busch fan, saying that while the 21-year-old is aggressive and will tear up some equipment, he also will win a lot of races.
"If I had a race car, I'd want him driving my race car," Skinner said.
But it wasn't all give and take, as series veterans Ted Musgrave and Rick Crawford mixed it up on track, with Musgrave retaliating against Crawford after the former was bounced into the wall by the latter. (Reigning series champ Musgrave was parked for his actions.)
But according to Skinner, the Craftsman Truck Series is "about entertainment." "We just appreciate Rick and Ted for bringing us some."
It's all just part of racing the trucks, apparently, as hard-nosed, side-by-side racing is the norm, says Benson.
"Nobody complains," he said.
Teammates often, but not always, will cut each other some slack on the race track, but what about drivers from different teams who drive for the same manufacturer?
Apparently, having the same badge on the front of the car doesn't mean all that much.
"It's more person than manufacturer. If I didn't like Toyota, I would have wrecked [Skinner]," said Busch, referring to the non-incident in which he backed off to avoid getting into Skinner. "I like Mike, so I let him live."
As for the other side of the coin? Busch, a Chevy driver, points to his relationship with Ron Hornaday Jr., driver of the No. 33 Chevy truck.
"Him and I don't get along so well on the race track," Busch said, leading Skinner to shush the younger driver in an apparent effort to (jokingly) stop Busch from stirring up some controversy.
Skinner also at one point took over the postrace press conference and himself asked Busch a question about tires.
And nobody shushed Skinner.
Despite the victory, Benson still trails first-place Todd Bodine by 124 points with seven races remaining. Benson, who battled Bodine for several laps in mostly clean, side-by-side fashion on Saturday, admits that catching Bodine will be tough if Bodine keeps running as well as he has all season.
But Benson, who has won four of the last nine races, isn't giving up.
"We're going down swinging," he said.
There are far more fans jammed in the pits during a Cup race than can be seen for the truck show, but there are still plenty enough that many only narrowly escape being run over by pit crews wheeling their tool boxes back to the garage. It never ceases to amaze that fans, crew members, officials and media members in the pits and garage aren't hurt by equipment or cars more often.
Speaking of questionable garage and pit behavior, people still can be seen smoking cigarettes on pit road during the race. Winston's influence lives on, apparently …
There was a somewhat acceptable but not great crowd at Loudon on a pleasant Saturday afternoon for the truck race. But the Cup races here always sell out, with 101,000 fans filling this facility.
"Lots of great fans in the Northeast," Benson said.
Local fans seem to love this track – or at least they attend by default – but many still believe the "Magic Mile" certainly doesn't deserve a Chase date and possibly shouldn’t even have two Cup races.
No, it's not the most dynamic track on the circuit, but the racing has improved greatly in the past couple of years since the surface was widened and repaved. And again, fans do flock to it.
Critics also point out that Loudon isn't in a major market, though the track isn't all that much further from Boston than Chicagoland is from Chicago, than California Speedway is from Los Angeles, and than Talladega is from Birmingham. It also is roughly the same distance from Boston that Michigan International Speedway is from Detroit.
Benson even implied that he identifies with these fans and this track, alluding to the similarity of him being from the Midwest (Michigan) and fans at Loudon being from "nearby" in the Northeast.
Is it just that traditionalists who probably aren't huge fans of the Chase, anyway, don't like the idea of important races being played out in front of relatively non-traditional fan bases, or is it that they just don't like the racing they see at this track?
Possibly a little of both.
Maybe Loudon deserves a Chase race, maybe it doesn't.
But the Chase certainly doesn't need another 1½-miler, nor does it need a track that can't sell all of its seats – and neither of those limitations apply to NHIS.
September 16, 2006
The truck starts here
By Bob Margolis
Upon first meeting him, A.J. Allmendinger doesn't come across as the serious type. But when behind the wheel of a race car, he is all business.
Allmendinger also is a shrewd player of the motorsports game who knows that race car drivers nowadays have to be thinking about competing in NASCAR.
Allmendinger already has become a sensation in Champ Cars, having first been pretty much abandoned early in the 2006 season by RuSport, the team that brought him into the series. He then was picked up by Forsythe Racing and promptly won three consecutive races, starting with his first career Champ Car victory.
With just one race left in the season, Allmendinger sits second in Champ Car points. One can only imagine how different things would be if he had switched teams earlier in the year.
Of course, all that is happening in front of crowds of maybe 30,000 or 40,000 on race day with maybe another 150,000 or so households watching on television.
Allmendinger made the wise choice and sought out the greener pastures of NASCAR, where the competition is much stronger and the financial payout astronomically higher. And after watching Champ Car teammate (and former series champion) Paul Tracy switch gears and run a few races in NASCAR, Allmendinger knew he was up to the task.
Several persistent phone calls later to his connections at Red Bull (he's one of more than a dozen drivers worldwide endorsed by the popular energy drink) and the Colorado native found himself testing a Toyota Tundra for Bill Davis Racing at Richmond International Raceway.
That led to his competition debut in the truck here at New Hampshire International Speedway this weekend.
A qualifying wreck on race day, which forced his team to switch to a backup truck for the race, did nothing more than bruise his ego and kick him several rungs up the learning ladder. BDR teammate Mike Skinner came by afterward to tell him not to sweat it, that those things are going to happen. NASCAR director of competition Robin Pemberton also stopped by and offered words of encouragement.
Allmendinger then went out and finished 13th in Saturday's race – quite a statement in itself considering he started from the rear of the field and kept himself out of trouble in a race that featured a record number of cautions (12).
After the race, Allmendinger was brimming with compliments for the entire Bill Davis Racing crew.
At one point, Allmendinger was a lap down to the race leaders. He admitted that the biggest part of his first NASCAR experience was learning to never give up.
"In a Champ Car, during a race, your car is either good or it's not," Allmendinger said. "And you're kind of stuck with it. In the truck, even when it was bad for the previous 10 laps, you can still come in and make changes and it's a whole different feel."
Still committed to racing a full season next year with Forsythe Racing, the Champ Car schedule has enough open weekends to potentially allow Allmendinger to run a number of NASCAR races, either in a truck or in the Busch Series.
Allmendinger's first outing was watched very carefully by Team Red Bull Toyota officials Marty Gaunt and Elton Sawyer. The team makes its Cup debut next season with Brian Vickers as one of its drivers.
Already there is wild speculation that Allmendinger could join Vickers at Red Bull next season.
That's highly unlikely – at least for next year. But once he has a dozen or so NASCAR races under his belt, how about in 2008? Who knows …
September 15, 2006
Searching for excitement
By Bob Margolis
LOUDON, N.H. – Kevin Harvick isn't sure what momentum is, but he knows that his team has got it.
"Right now things are just going really well and when you have momentum on your side, it is something you can't buy," said Harvick, who won the pole for Sunday's Chase opener here at New Hampshire. "You can't necessarily figure out how you got it, where you got it. It is just one of those things."
Harvick, hot off his double-up win last weekend at Richmond (Busch and Cup), admitted he really doesn't care much about qualifying and that maybe he should. Nevertheless, he said, he'll take the pole and the advantages it offers, like getting the first stall on pit road.
Starting alongside the Richard Childress Racing driver is Jeff Gordon, who still hasn't won a pole this year.
"It was a bit of a letdown to not get the pole because I haven't gotten a pole this year, but in all honesty, anywhere up front is good," Gordon said. "That front row is a great starting place. It is a huge improvement for us from the last time we were here.
Gordon's last pole was at Infineon Raceway in June '05.
Kasey Kahne qualifying back in 33rd perhaps was Friday's only surprise.
"We thought we needed to loosen up the car a little bit and we were too loose," Kahne said. "I couldn’t go any faster. We’ll take a bad starting spot on Sunday and see if we can make it better by the end."
Not a very promising start for a team that had to race its way into the Chase.
Did someone say the Chase has started?
Here we are in New Hampshire and everything's pretty much like every other race weekend.
Well, there is one exception.
The drivers and teams not in the Chase don't want to talk about it.
In fact, they just don't want to talk about anything.
Meanwhile, for the special group of 10, it's become all Chase, all the time. If this is how it's going to be for the next 10 weeks, yikes!
I asked Denny Hamlin what was more difficult, answering all the questions about the pressures of the Chase or actually getting behind the wheel and racing.
Ever the diplomat, Hamlin replied that he'd rather be answering questions about being in the Chase than be 20th and not involved.
But to be honest, some of the drivers were being asked some pretty silly questions.
Just to give you an idea of the vibe here in Loudon, the big news was that Kenseth had hit TV host Kelly Ripa with 17 pies, putting Kenseth into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Keeping with the pie theme, Kevin Harvick, who had been the victim of a pie to the face from Denny Hamlin – also during the "Live with Regis & Kelly" show – got a bit of payback by throwing a pie full of whipped cream and his sponsor's product, Reese's pieces, into Hamlin's face during the post-qualifying ceremonies.
Like I said, it's been pretty laid back for the start of the Chase.
Champ Car standout A.J. Allmendinger is attempting to make his first NASCAR start in the Craftsman Truck Series.
The 25-year-old Allmendinger, whose talents in an open wheel car are among the best in that genre, found adapting to the heavier trucks to be an enjoyable task.
"We just kept working on the truck to make it better with each practice session," he said. "After a while, I could move my lines around and drive the truck and not let it drive me."
However, he did notice a huge difference between his regular ride and his Toyota Tundra.
"I just wish they went into the turns like my Champ Car," Allmendinger said. "My Champ Car really plants itself to the track going into the corners. The truck likes to roll around a whole lot when you go into the corner."
Allmendinger says he's ready for the rough-and-tough rubbin' action of the truck, too.
"Yeah, I've been warned about getting hit a lot," Allmendinger said. "That's OK, as long as they don't spin me around."
Allmendinger was the eighth fastest of 37 trucks in practice and the fastest rookie on the track Friday.
Earlier in the day, three-time Craftsman Truck Series champion Jack Sprague was asked about Allmendinger joining the series.
Sprague's reply: "I have no idea who he is. I guess it's just another guy named A.J."
Sprague added," And he's another guy with a last name we can make fun of."
A few quick observations:
- With his mustache and slicked-back hair, Sprague looks eerily like the character "D-Day" from the movie "Animal House."
- This is the first time since Dover in June that the Craftsman Truck series has run a companion event with the Cup series. NASCAR has been very successful at reinforcing the CTS identity by being able to stage stand-alone truck events successfully.
- There really are liquor stores at the rest areas on the highways here in New Hampshire.
- Nearly every building, fence and wall on the road leading to NHIS was plastered with a Coors beer poster featuring driver David Stremme. I'm wondering, are they trying to get rid of them?
September 5, 2006
By Bob Margolis
INDIANAPOLIS – I love drag racing.
Although I enjoy all different forms of motorsport, I've always had a special place in my heart for watching two cars race side-by-side down the quarter-mile.
I can still remember attending my first drag race as a young child, and the sounds, sights and smells of that first race left a deep impression.
Sometimes I find it hard to explain my love of drag racing, although anyone who has attended a professional drag race will find it quite easy to understand the attraction.
It's loud, it's fast, it shakes the ground, and it may be the most emotion-driven of all motorsports.
Monday's final rounds of eliminations in the NHRA's biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals here in Indianapolis, were jam-packed with emotion.
There were huge upsets from the start, as favorite after favorite was knocked out either because they left the starting line too early (called a red light start) or because they just were outrun by an underdog.
After four days of qualifying races, for a team to just get into the final 16-car (or bike) field was a task in itself. So to lose in the first round of eliminations is heartbreaking.
When the smoke settled, there were long faces on some of the sport's biggest names and their crew members, including Top Fuel points leader Doug Kalitta, defending Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi and 13-time Funny Car champion John Force. All lost their first-round matchups.
There also was plenty of drama, as young Eric Medlen's Funny Car exploded an engine, causing his dragster to catch fire. He was unhurt, but he lost his race and his car suffered damage.
Then there was veteran Pro Stock racer Ron Krisher's accident. It was very scary.
As Krisher approached the finish line at nearly 200 mph, his car swerved and then barrel-rolled twice before hitting one of the retaining walls on the race track. The car then caught fire.
Krisher was unconscious when safety workers got to him and put out the fire. He soon regained consciousness and emerged from his twisted and charred Chevrolet Cobalt under his own power – a testament to the NHRA safety rules.
The NHRA has a specialized group of safety professionals that travel the circuit called the Safety Safari. It is their job to make sure that track surface is ready for racing and that there are medical and mechanical professionals prepared to rescue a driver in need.
It still makes me crazy every time I think about NASCAR being the only professional racing organization that does not have its own Safety Safari.
The grandstands were packed all day long Monday with race fans from across America and around the world. All of them came to experience what can be categorized as the world's biggest and most prestigious drag race.
A five-day event like this easily draws a crowd of more than 150,000 people.
Each and every fan who buys a ticket gets access to the pits – and not just from a special viewing area. Fans get to stand right next to the cars and crew members as they work in the pit area.
In addition to the on-track activities, there were also several special events held during the five-day event, with many focusing on drag racing's heritage.
I truly believe that drag racing does more to preserve its heritage and honor its past stars than any other form of racing. At many of its national events, cars from the past – most of them still able to race down the quarter-mile – are brought out for the fans to see, and in many cases hear.
Older dragsters from the 1960s, when speeds over 200 mph were considered impossible (Monday race winner Tony Schumacher recorded a speed of over 337 mph during one run), are brought to the track and their nitromethane-powered engines are started up so that fans can better understand where the sport has come from and how far it has traveled.
NASCAR on occasion may bring one or two older cars out for display purposes, but drag racing actually has an organized group calling themselves "The Goodguys" that tours across the country and competitively races these 40-year old cars, much to the delight of fans both young and old.
That's another reason why I love drag racing.
If your only exposure to drag racing is watching it on television, then you're not getting it.
It's difference between watching a cooking show on TV and actually cooking and eating the food yourself.
Once you've attended and experienced a professional drag race, I can guarantee you without any doubt that you will be so blown away by what you see, you'll be telling your friends and most likely finding yourself watching it on television thereafter.
The big on-track winners Monday were Schumacher (Top Fuel), who won his fifth U.S. Nationals title; Robert Hight (Funny Car), who won his first; Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), who won his fourth; and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Bike), who won his first.
Everyone else simply got to experience the nitromethane-induced tears and ground-shaking 330 mph racing.
It simply was awesome.
September 3, 2006
Looking for fans
By Jerry Bonkowski
FONTANA, Calif. – I have to admit, I want California Speedway to succeed.
NASCAR needs a strong presence in the Southern California market, and while some of the aesthetics that surround the speedway leave a lot to be desired – numerous industrial smoke stacks, a waste disposal compound and decrepit railroad tracks – local and San Bernardino County officials are serious about turning the place into the garden spot of stock car racing.
After interviewing track president Gillian Zucker earlier in the week, I decided to wander around her pride and joy: the new $10 million Fan Zone.
For the most part, I like the Fan Zone. It's not only expansive – roughly three football fields long, hugging behind the front stretch grandstands – it also has a cross-section of attractions that should hold the attention of most fans.
There are musical acts, strolling mariachis, the obligatory driver souvenir stands, booths touting giveaways, and the multimillion dollar centerpiece, Wolfgang Puck's Apex restaurant, offering chi-chi but reasonably-priced fare.
At times, though, I wonder if Zucker may have tried to do too much – the changes are somewhat of a shock to the system – but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that the "more is better" approach will indeed woo fans of all types from throughout Southern California, as well as neighboring Arizona, Nevada and beyond.
But as much as I've gone on the record about how I hope Zucker's vision for the speedway will be a big hit, it lacked one major thing Friday and Saturday, the key to its future success: fans.
Granted, I went through the Fan Zone Friday evening when most fans had already departed rather than watch the NASCAR Grand National Auto Zone West Series race, which wound up being a wreck-fest. But that's a story for another day.
I returned to the track and the new fan experience Saturday morning and, once again, I noticed the relative absence of people. From the time I drove into the parking lot – which was only about 15 percent full in late morning – to finding a parking spot that left me only steps from entering the Fan Zone, I kept looking for more people than were out there.
Don't get me wrong, the Fan Zone was not a ghost town by any stretch, but at a track that boasts a capacity of 92,000 fans that grows to 120,000 to 125,000 when including suites and infield, there was a woeful dearth of eager, ready-to-spend, cash-toting consumers.
Saturday's temperatures – which hovered around 100 degrees – may have kept some fans from venturing into the zone. But there are plenty of water and shade oases where fans can quench their thirst and find respite from the beating rays of the sun.
When the Cup Series had its two practice sessions at the height of the heat and midday sun Saturday afternoon, the number of fans in the stands was woeful, as well. Again, I'll give the track the benefit of the doubt that those same stands will be packed when the Cup race kicks off at 5:05 p.m. PT Sunday.
But there's another bad sign that doesn't exactly bode well for Sunday. I kept going back and forth on where I wanted to stay this weekend. I typically stay in Fullerton, which is about 45 minutes away in good traffic, even longer on race day. But this trip, I decided to stay somewhere closer.
Less than a week before race day, I thought I'd have a snowball's chance in the desert to find a close-by hotel. Well, how does less than four miles from the track sound?
It wasn't a fluke, either. There are plenty of vacant hotel rooms around the track, ranging from Riverside all the way to West Covina and beyond. Parking lots are half-full at night. Restaurants where you typically would wait 45 to 90 minutes for a table seat you within 10 minutes of walking in the door.
I've been coming to California Speedway for six or seven years and have never seen the surrounding area so barren. One good thing, though: At least the Burger King from the commercials made it. He actually caused more of a stir in the media center than Governor Arnold likely will Sunday.
Not a good sign.
I'll give Zucker – who readily admits Sunday's race will not be a sellout – the benefit of the doubt that the speedway will indeed have, as she put it, an "excellent turnout."
If not, all her hard work may have gone for naught. And that would truly be a shame.
September 2, 2006
It's a scorcher
By Jon Baum
FONTANA, Calif. – Man, it's hot.
It's like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot.
With apologies to Neil Simon (but never to Paul Simon after what he did to Art Garfunkel – you know, have a successful career), "Biloxi Blues" might be based in Mississippi, but Matthew Broderick's utterings also could have applied to late summer in Fontana.
Sure, it's a "dry heat," so humidity isn't an issue, but it's still bloody hot. Oppressively so.
Even the drivers know this, as Brian Vickers noticed during qualifying fans crowding as close to the top of the grandstand as possible so that they might steal a little bit of shaded relief from the blazing California sun.
Anyone thinking Darlington (which only hit 87 degrees Saturday) should get this date back and that Fontana's second race should be moved to later in the year can use this weekend as evidence.
It was so hot Saturday that a man could be seen spraying water on his beaming, appreciative son from some sort of pump contraption attached to the dad's hip.
It especially could be felt in the garage with the cars revved up, pulling in and out. On my way through I noticed the 00 car (owned by Michael Waltrip, driven by Bill Elliott) had a Burger King paint scheme. At least it was just a paint scheme, and not the creepy king from those commercials himself. Savor the small victories.
The heat – and unsettling sponsorships – didn't stop fans from enjoying the activities and concessions around California Speedway here on Saturday, but it did help determine what became the more popular attractions.
Sure, racing simulators and scantily-clad women – appearing in some official sponsor capacity or otherwise – drew the biggest crowds, as is the case at pretty much every track. And one sponsor's beer taste challenge, not surprisingly, also was pretty popular (though it was hard to explain the long line of people waiting, in the heat, for a hair styling from some Garnier reps. It was also hard to explain the giant picture of Garnier driver Vickers, himself stylin', overlooking the entire event. Let's ask Mr. Vickers about that in his next track preview).
The sea lions kept cool. (Y! Sports)
Then there was a local newspaper which was handing out free copies of that day's edition. They also were giving away "free squirts" from a water bottle. Despite providing some good NASCAR reading, the latter offering was a bit more appealing.
One NASCAR-related promotion combined several elements: a (somewhat) scantily-clad young woman trying to get fans to sign up for a NASCAR-related program. The reward? A bottle of water.
Fitting in nicely with the whole heat theme was a beach-like attraction, a new exhibit outside the grandstand featuring a sand castle artist doing his thing in a glorified sandbox. Right across the way was a pool, but the water was off-limits to fans (human and mechanical). No, this pool was keeping the sea lions cool.
Then there was good ol' Schwan's. Three words: Free. Ice. Cream.
It wasn't just that they were giving away mini ice cream sandwiches, but they also were holding an ice cream sandwich-eating contest. The clubhouse leader as of roughly 1 p.m. PT? Sixteen sandwiches in just five minutes (the young kid walking away with ice cream smeared all over his face, sadly, fell short).
The winner was to receive a Ken Schrader banner. And likely an inevitable brain freeze and digestive issues.
Eventually the 102-degree heat became too much, and so began the trek – which featured more fans (mechanical) spraying water on both fans (human) and some of those sponsor-sponsored scantily-clad women giving away beer – back to the welcome air-conditioned confines of the media center.
But even there it wasn't safe. Sure, we were able to cool down, but there was no sense of normalcy – not when he walked in.
He was here after all. The creepy king from the Burger King commercials. His presence made me, in a moment of exaggerated overreacting, leap backward in my chair. He was making the rounds.
When asked, his minions told me he shouldn't be referred to as "the Burger King king" or some other variant (I didn't specifically ask about the use of the word "creepy"), but rather simply as "The King."
(Maybe it was Richard Petty behind that mask?)
They were handing out masks. Now you too can be a creepy king.
His majesty. (Y! Sports)
Oh the horror.
On his way out of the media center, The (creepy) King actually pointed to his masked eyes and then me as if to say, "I'll be watching you."
I may not be able to sleep tonight.
Spending the day in Biloxi (Saturday's high was around 90, with somewhat tolerable humidity) suddenly didn't seem like such a bad idea.
Though The (creepy) King proved Saturday that he can indeed take that kind of hot.