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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)
But all that aside, it was all about beating the heat. Dozens of fans (of the human variety) crowded around a handful of fans (of the mechanical variety) which were spritzing cool water over passersby. The King Taco stand also had a built-in water mister for those who got close enough (read: within food ordering distance).
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)
Actually, The (creepy) King's appearance wasn't only due to the car sponsorship, as Burger King, described in a track press release as "the second largest fast food hamburger company in the world," has signed on as a sponsorship partner with the track itself for this race weekend. They are promoting a "King of the Infield" program, where fans can be randomly selected by The (creepy) King to spend race day in the Burger King VIP terrace. Presumably with The (creepy) King himself.
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.
September 2, 2006
By Bob Margolis
FONTANA, Calif. – Driver/team owner Robby Gordon finally talked to the media Friday at California Speedway about his now dead-in-the-water deal to buy Robert Yates Racing.
Gordon didn't hide the fact that there had been an ongoing attempt by his organization to purchase half of Robert Yates Racing, but he also described it as a very difficult two months of negotiations.
It now appears that the on, then off, then on again deal now is officially off for good.
Gordon didn't really go into great detail on why the deal fell through, which unfortunately left more questions unanswered than answered. He would only say that he's disappointed that it didn't happen.
"The morning we were supposed to do the deal, I got a call from my lawyer who said that the deal was off," said Gordon, who admitted that although he was disappointed with how it all turned out, he and his team would now move forward.
Gordon then proceeded to give the small group of writers and reporters present a purposely-vague indication that his team would be switching to Ford power next season. Gordon said he had enjoyed his relationship with Chevrolet, but he added "If you run a Chevrolet you're running a good car, but you're not going to be one of the top three teams [for that manufacturer]."
That's a reference to the Hendrick, Childress and Gibbs teams, which all run Chevys.
Gordon indicated that any decision to switch manufacturers would be based on who would offer the best technical support. He suggested that Ford was willing to step up to the plate and deliver the kind of help that Gordon's struggling single-car team would need to move up to the next level.
Gordon also praised the kind of engine building partnership that Jack Roush and Robert Yates have established and referred to it as "the right kind of partnership to have."
So maybe Gordon isn't buying Robert Yates Racing, but it sure sounds like he'll be buying Roush/Yates engines. Which also makes it sound like he'll be driving a Fusion next season as well.
Gordon also unveiled his plans to run the Dakar Rally next January, driving a specially built Hummer which he said was undergoing testing at GM's Mesa, Ariz., test center this weekend.
He also said he has a solid deal to run the 2007 Indy 500, but that there still were some minor issues to be resolved.
Finally, Gordon called me out during his press briefing when I happened to mention his kicking the Ford logo on his race car nearly 10 years ago during an CART open wheel race he was leading until his engine gave out.
"I've seen the video and I actually kicked the Valvoline logo and not the Ford logo," Gordon said. "Anyway, I knew at the time that I was leaving open wheel and that the Felix Sabates deal [in NASCAR] was going to be the best for me."
OK, Robby. I'll find the video and we'll see what really transpired.
September 1, 2006
By Bob Margolis
IRWINDALE, Calif. – I sometimes wonder how life would be if we didn't have those strange, surreal moments thrown into it.
A lot more boring, I would guess.
On Thursday night, I experienced one of those surreal moments at Irwindale Speedway, of all places.
When I first heard that driver Kasey Kahne – in an event set up to benefit his charitable foundation – and several of his fellow NASCAR drivers (Greg Biffle, Robby Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Casey Mears among them) would be involved in a drifting exhibition with professional drift racers, I thought it might have been a joke.
Drifting and NASCAR?
That's like putting on an X Games exhibition before a crowd expecting to see a bass fishing tournament.
Mixing oil with water doesn't even come close.
Nevertheless, I had to check out this bizarre recipe for entertainment.
Irwindale Speedway, located east of Los Angeles, about halfway between downtown and California Speedway in Fontana, is a beautiful, state-of-the-art short track that makes you wish that more like it existed across the country. Perhaps if there were more, short track racing in America would be a lot healthier than its current state.
Drifting is a big sport with the 16 to 30-year-old crowd, especially on the West Coast. The gist of drifting is the ability to drive down the road, or in this case, a race track, sideways. But instead of compensating for the slide, you overcompensate and slide the other way.
It's loud, and if you love the smell of burning tire smoke, then this is the place to be.
Drifting traces its origins to Japan about a decade ago and is the latest evolution in the growing sports compact segment of American auto racing.
It looks a bit silly at first, especially the attempts made by the NASCAR drivers. But when the actual drifting professionals take the wheel, you realize that they are pretty good and have an awful lot of car control.
There was a young man who enthusiastically filled the role as the public address announcer and kept the packed house (which I imagine showed up for the NASCAR guys) well-informed as to what was going on during the event.
But to be honest, there were times when he would say something with such verve that it drew a huge crowd reaction and I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what just happened.
I did finally figure out that when two drifters racing in tandem cross paths during a run, it was something really big (although I just kept waiting for them to hit one another).
About halfway through the night it finally struck me as to why this sport has become so popular.
It allows the crowd to experience the movie "The Fast and the Furious" – with its incredible car chases and fast action – in real life.
It also is a lot like watching a video game like "Vice City" with Japanese sports compacts fishtailing their way down city streets and narrow alleys.
All in all, it was a pretty entertaining evening, but I couldn't help thinking that I would much rather have been watching some late model racing action on the speedway's oval track instead.
I don't know, the whole experience put stuff like tractor pulls and lawn mower racing in a whole new light for me.
August 25, 2006
By Bob Margolis
MONTREAL – While the rest of my peers in the NASCAR media pool are in the hills of Tennessee this weekend, I've traveled in the other direction – to Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Why am I in Montreal?
Even though I attend nearly 30 NASCAR events every season, I try to fit other racing series into my busy schedule. This weekend, it’s the Champ Car World Series that's racing in Montreal, on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which also hosts Formula One each season.
After racing there the past four years, however, this weekend marks the final race in Montreal for the U.S.-based Champ Car open wheel series.
Next summer, NASCAR's Busch Series will be racing here instead. It hasn't yet been made official, but the weekend of July 20-22, which just happens to be the open Cup weekend on the recently announced 2007 schedule, will be the date for the inaugural Busch race in Montreal.
That's another reason why I'm here, to gauge reaction among the local race fans to NASCAR coming to their town. NASCAR likes to tout that they have a huge fan base north of the border. I'm going to do my best to find out if that's true.
Flying into Montreal, you immediately notice that it is a large, sprawling metropolis located on an island between two rivers, the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. (Getty)
The downtown airport, named for the former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, is a large and modern facility that has a large customs processing area. They work you through customs very quickly. Much quicker than when I visit Mexico for the Busch race there.
Unfortunately, after I arrived in Montreal I discovered that after many, many years of handling my baggage without a hitch, US Airways decided they would completely destroy it and damage much of its contents in the process.
Welcome to Canada, monsieur!
Driving into downtown Montreal is pretty easy. There is a very good highway system. You'll need to brush up on your French, though. All the highway signs are in French, which is the co-official language of this bilingual country.
Here in Quebec, French is the language.
I was warned that the drivers in the city are pretty, well, let's just say independent-minded. Driving around here is a lot like driving with a street full of New York City cab drivers – or a track full of NASCAR drivers. Everyone seems to be going for the same piece of real estate at the same time. And everyone is impatient. As soon as your traffic light changes to green, someone in the queue behind you already is hammering their horn.
The city is an interesting mix of old European styling and ultra-modern high-rises. It reminds me a lot of Chicago.
I'm looking forward to my first day at the track, which is located on an island – Ile Notre-Dame, which is a man-made island in the St. Lawrence River. It was built from the earth displaced during the building of the city's subway system and other sources.
The island was part of Expo '67, which was a huge World's Fair (the most successful ever staged).
It's normally a quiet park, except twice a year when there are auto races staged there.
In order to get there, you can drive – which is highly discouraged since the facility has limited space for vehicles – or you can take the transportation of choice, the Metro (Montreal's subway system).
Friday morning I'll get to experience it alongside the regular commuter crowd. Can't wait!
Jusqua ma prochaine entree …
August 17, 2006
By Bob Margolis
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With this being my last weekend away from a race track until Thanksgiving, I decided it would be a perfect time to take my family for a short vacation.
It had to be somewhere close to home in Pennsylvania, allowing me to spend some quality time with my two youngest daughters while their older sister stayed at home and prepared to head back to college next week.
There were several easily reachable destinations, but for various reasons, we chose the Charlotte area.
Of course, now you're thinking "You're around stock car racing every weekend; couldn't you find a different place to spend your free time?"
I suppose so, but with family and friends living in the Charlotte area, it was a good choice – and it also provided the chance to make a quick business visit to the NASCAR R&D center in Concord.
It also was an opportunity to take my family for a behind-the-scenes visit to Hendrick Motorsports.
Our tour guide was Jesse Essex, who is Hendrick's manager of media relations, but most people in the racing business see him as the official spokesperson for the organization.
Essex was able to take us on our own guided tour of places where the public doesn't get to go and allowed my daughters and myself to see the hundreds of people who work behind the scenes to put the 5, 48 and 24 cars in contention for the Chase.
It also allowed me to interact with several of the skilled craftsmen who build hundreds of engines every year.
Then there were the chassis, fabrication and paint shops.
Everyone I talked to in each of those areas did their job with a sense of pride and a real feeling that they were directly responsible for the success Gordon, Busch and Johnson enjoyed.
Now I understand why a driver always takes time to thank the people working back at the shop. It's clear how important a role they play in a team's on-track success.
Nearly every part on each race car is built in these facilities. You can't just order these parts from some warehouse.
Here there are huge milling machines that make the internal engine parts.
Across the parking lot, the chassis facility is responsible for designing and building those trick suspension pieces that have been a big part of Johnson and Busch's success this season, and an equally large part of why Gordon has struggled.
Throughout the race shops also are constant visual reminders of the family and friends lost in the October 2004 plane crash outside of Martinsville – as if the memories of their shortened lives would ever be forgotten by this group.
With the individual drivers receiving so many accolades, it becomes easy to forget that NASCAR racing is a team sport – that is until one gets the chance to visit the members of the team who don't come to the track every weekend. Their numbers far outweigh the comparatively small crew seen on race weekend.
When NASCAR's Hall of Fame opens in uptown Charlotte in a few years, this and other race shops will become more of a destination for race fans around the world.
It's a pretty remarkable campus, the Hendrick Motorsports facility. There are more just like it all around the area. Certainly a must-see for any racing fan.
August 14, 2006
Big moves in different directions
By Bob Margolis
In all sports, there is so much written and said about momentum.
When it's good, it's like hopping on board a freight train driven by an almost magical force that propels an individual or team toward a goal, a championship, or just taking control of the current situation.
But when it's bad, it's a nightmarish quagmire of constant self-doubt over every thought, every move and every decision made.
Kevin Harvick is on the freight train right now.
Fueling that freight train is a "this is our race to lose" kind of self-confidence that takes a good race car driver and his team to the next level and turns them both into champions.
A good deal of credit for Harvick's ride goes to team owner Richard Childress, whose critical decision earlier this year to "do whatever it takes" to return his organization to prominence gave his troops the necessary tools to win races and championships.
"We think about being in the Chase every week," Harvick said. "That's a topic of conversation before we even get in the race car, before we even get to the track."
Harvick's gutsy win Sunday at Watkins Glen was long overdue. He knew that the timing was right, and if he was going to go head-to-head with the best road racer in NASCAR – his best friend, Tony Stewart – he had no choice but to emerge the victor.
Otherwise, his freight train of momentum would be derailed.
Harvick celebrates. (Getty)
Harvick's first career road course win showed the rest of the Nextel Cup garage that his Busch Series dominance is for real and that the same talented group of people who put him 443 points ahead of a very capable Carl Edwards in the Busch standings are about to also do wonders for Harvick in his Cup car.
Then there is Kasey Kahne.
Just six weeks ago, the young driver and his crew chief Kenny Francis were being hailed as favorites for the title. The accolades followed a dominating performance at Michigan that resulted in Kahne's fourth victory this season.
Sure, they stunk up the joint at Talladega and Darlington, but they rebounded with a win in the Coca-Cola 600, two seventh-place finishes (Dover and Pocono) and the Michigan win.
Then, for some unknown reason, Lady Luck decided to turn her back on Kahne and Co.
A string of three races with finishes no better than 23rd (Chicagoland) was followed by a top-10 at Loudon. But three more disastrous outings, including late race wrecks at Indy and the Glen, have the No. 9 Dodge in 11th place – on the outside of the top 10 looking in – with only five races left before the Chase begins.
"We've been battling," Kahne said. "We've been trying hard, but we haven't had the best of breaks in probably the last two months. We still have plenty of time to get in it."
It's coming down to fourth and goal with just a few seconds left for these two teams.
With momentum on his side, Kevin Harvick is about to run a quarterback sneak into the end zone.
With the wrong kind of momentum, Kasey Kahne is about to fumble the ball on the one-yard line.