There's a fan who's been writing incessantly about a holiday wish list for NASCAR. During the Christmas season, I thought it was a good idea to bring it up briefly, but with a twist: three wishes where I could go back in time to keep major changes from happening. Let's go through them:
Fall 2003: I storm into a meeting filled with scheduling officials, cross off California on the Labor Day weekend schedule and write back in Darlington before it's too late. "Trust me, guys," I say to CEO Brian France. "The collateral damage will be too great. And who would want to do that anyway?"
November 2003: I intercept the newly-minted Chase format before it gets to the press, put a giant X through it and start rewriting from scratch. My only change to the old system: 50 more points for winning a race, along with a new program from then-sponsor Nextel that gives a $5 million bonus to anyone who can win three of the following five races in one year: Daytona 500, Southern 500 (Darlington), Coke 600 (Charlotte), Brickyard 400, Bristol night race; $1 million bonus if you can win two.
Fall 2005: This one might surprise some people. With resistance to a Staten Island track mounting, I do everything possible -- hire the world's best PR firm, appear on Bloomberg TV, invite officials out to a race, and most importantly change the attitude to kissing butt, 24/7 -- whatever it takes to make sure this ¾-mile proposal doesn't fall through in the Big Apple. Let's not forget the grand design of this facility, a mini-Richmond in the No. 1 media market that would have given us two short track dates back on the schedule long ago. Could you imagine the interest from Fortune 500 companies if that happened, even during the economic downturn? That ugly misstep hurt the sport's long-term growth more than anyone gives it credit for.
What are some things you'd go back and change in the long timeline of NASCAR's history? Play Santa Genie and let us know for next week: firstname.lastname@example.org or NASCARBowles on Twitter are the ways to do it. For now, it's time to send out my gift to you: as many mailbag responses as humanly possible before you get tired of reading. Let's go!
Will Danica Patrick sign with an IZOD IndyCar Series team in 2012 or will she race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2012?-- Chris Fiegler, Latham, NY
Talk about starting with a heavy hitter; I bet this guy's Christmas list starts with a 58" flat screen and a BMW. Well, Chris, it's not a matter of whether Danica will "sign" with anyone in IndyCar, as her deal runs through 2012 with Andretti Autosport. She'd have to clear some hurdles and hire some lawyers to opt out a year early.
Will she try? For me, it depends on two things: her level of improvement in NASCAR and the level of national interest in IndyCar. Readers that follow me are well aware how critical I am of Patrick's performance, one top-20 finish in over a dozen Nationwide starts bad enough to fire 95 percent of most rookies in any type of top-tier ride. But she did improve markedly this fall, and with Mark Martin as a driver coach/mentor you never know for 2011. If she comes out of nowhere, pops in six or seven top-10s in her dozen or so NASCAR appearances as a sophomore it's a sign a full-time transition to stock cars could be in order.
But it's also hard to ignore the momentum over in the IndyCar ranks, where it's not just a second-place finish at Homestead that has Danica's open-wheel world buzzing. The AP has reported 14 new sponsors signed in the last 12 months in that series, financial futures on the rise when stock cars are entering treacherous times. New chassis and engine rules have attracted interest from not only Chevy but several other manufacturers, making the 2012 Indy 500 make-or-break in terms of whether such innovation catches on with a national fan base. If Danica has another successful season in IndyCar, even ekes out a win on an oval, it's hard to see racing's fashionable blend of athletics and marketing leaving before a possible tidal wave transition of open-wheel support. My guess is she'll wind up "indecisive," running a part-time Cup schedule at best for '12, and by then I think we'll have an answer as to which type of racing is more viable economically over the long-term. Trust me on this one: Danica will be where the money is, if the results allow it, and right now both indicators show me it's 50/50 IndyCar could pull the shocking upset and retain her.
It looks like you learned one of the great secrets in NASCAR. There is really no more fierce and race-educated fan base in NASCAR than Robby's. Bar none, I dare you to compare anyone else's. Dale Jr. has more fans, but they are quite often caught up in the celebrity of Junior and don't have near the depth of knowledge that RG fans have.
Thanks for your further input into the situation, but I do not see Robby going to the IRL. One simple reason: money. Remember, he owns his own sponsor now. The eyeballs that watch NASCAR on Sunday dwarf the viewership for IndyCar. Gordon can get far and away more bang for his sponsorship buck in NASCAR than in the IRL, even if it's part-time. Robby will run the Indy 500, I think, for at least the next three years, but that is the biggest draw of the open-wheel season and broadcast on ABC. The only other race I could see Robby running in the IRL is the Long Beach Grand Prix because it's one of his favorites. Street races are very suitable to throwing SPEED Energy parties to help promote the brand, similar to what they did at Talladega. Other than that, what does Robby have to prove in the IRL?
One last thing in regards to SPEED Energy. It isn't a fair comparison to make between SPEED Energy and Wave or Shark Energy. Wave and Shark put all their eggs in the NASCAR basket and as you correctly noted, did not even have distributors or franchises set up. They were marketing a product that was unavailable, and from what I have heard, not desirable either. Robby is marketing SPEED through not just his NASCAR team but his and other off-road programs as well as potentially a monster truck. His drink will be marketed to many different groups, and he already has several large grocery store chains lined up to begin selling it in January.
Say what you will, but Robby is a heck of a businessman. I give him a good shot at making this deal work. He may not be in NASCAR as a driver very much longer, but as a sponsor and owner I think he will be around for awhile. His model is very similar to how Red Bull came to be. Robby came across "Speed Unlimited" in Argentina and started SPEED Energy based on that drink along with several investors. Will SPEED be the next Red Bull? No, however, it is a successful business model that I think has a chance at being successful. Don't knock it until you know it... know what I mean?-- Lance Sells, Chattanooga, Tenn.
All right Lance, your energy drink story is duly noted and entered into the public record. Just goes to show whenever you have a friendship involving a billionaire, it's hard to count said person out. But note the IndyCar momentum I mentioned above, making it easier for the sport's "other" Gordon to be competitive over the long-term. Don't discount a driver's desire to be successful on-track as well as off, after going winless for seven years on the NASCAR side, with no end to that drought in sight. Even if SPEED hits the jackpot, it won't match the money of AFLAC, UPS and the AMP Energy Drink that funds the driver whose fans you like to hate (Side note: Doesn't it seem everyone is for or against Dale Jr.?). Those financials mean a decision's at play, and what would you rather do: take the money and run top-5 in a series you know you can be competitive in, or scrape up the funding to run 30th on ovals, have a chance to win twice and all but start-and-park half the races? To me, that decision is clear, making open-wheel a more attractive option regardless of whether Gordon takes the bait.
By the way, while SPEED's a good drink -- tried and approved -- it's a real shame Wave Energy Drink hasn't caught on. Of all the ones I've tried in and around my time in the NASCAR garage, nothing compares.
Can't NASCAR just admit the Chase was an ill-conceived idea and go back to letting the entire season count instead of just the last 10 races? As a life-long NASCAR fan, I'm tired of everything to do with The Chase -- so much hype and little to no excitement.-- Craig, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Same drumbeat, different day. I keep getting questions every week, despite repeated explanations as to why NASCAR won't drop the Chase. Number one: Brian France. The idea came from him, a self-induced proposal that'll make or break his career as the sport's CEO and one where he refuses to budge. Here's a reminder of the NASCAR quote heard 'round the world at Homestead:
Media Question: A lot of fans that communicate with us say they are just as disenchanted with the Chase in general, they want to go back to the other points system.
France: You met somebody that's telling you that?
Media Member: Yeah.
The physical reaction and vocal intonation, which plenty of people were in the room for can be described as how people respond when told Brett Favre or Mark Martin are retiring for the 5,005th time. Translation: Yeah, sure you heard that but don't tell me you actually believe it, do you? After that Q-and-A, I'm more convinced than ever this system will not completely disintegrate as long as France remains at the helm. And since it's a family-owned business...
The other theory -- never proven -- is there's a clause in the TV contract that causes ESPN to opt out of the $560 million, eight-year deal signed in 2007 if the Chase is ever taken away. I don't care what anyone says, you're not going to get a straight answer there unless someone publishes the entire scope of the contract, page-by-page a la a Deadspin.com expose. Yet considering worries the network could bolt long before the end of 2014 anyway, the last thing you want to do is piss off executives with a major, landmark shift they may not understand and will open the door to wiggle room on a deal that's already cost them multimillion dollar losses. What do you do when you've got a prisoner trying desperately to escape? Shut the door, hire a good bodyguard and remind them of the fine print. You better believe that's what NASCAR's doing now.
I have to agree with those against the start and parkers. I've been an owner, granted it was at a lower level, at my local track, but as you move up the ladder, it means more to you to get in the shows. I think I'd feel pretty gypped if I went to that level, be it Nationwide or Cup, and some S&P teams showed up, put setups geared more toward qualifying since that's all they're really trying to do is run a few laps, and bump me out of the field. In fact, a friend of mine was going to try his hand at Nationwide in 2007 or 2008, took the car to a local track and tested very well, we thought, but when he thought about it, and his inexperience with time trials, he decided to pull the plug because those S&P cars were qualifying very well at the time. He realized he'd probably qualify in the back, if at all, run in the back to midpack if he was lucky, but it wasn't worth his while to try to out qualify almost 10 S&P cars. I have to wonder if there are others thinking the same thing. Sure, some get in the good rides but maybe there would be more family teams trying it, more part-timers if they thought they'd have a chance to get the car ready to race all day, then make the show if just barely.-- John in Mass. (name withheld as he may be a car owner again)
John, NASCAR was hoping to help eradicate this problem in the Nationwide Series, the cost associated with building the new car hopefully keeping start-and-park teams from jumping on board just to pull in. That didn't happen. In four 2010 events with the new chassis, an average of four S&Pers jumped in, with more expected in February as NASCAR struggles to fill the field. Those efforts pale in comparison to the Cup level, where impounding a last-place car's engine for teardown, a process that can force teams to spend more cash, hasn't stopped the onslaught. A serious eradication of NASCAR's middle class to fill the 43-car grid means eight, nine, even 10 cars pulling in early is possible at some of the West Coast and lower-attended races on the circuit.
So as efforts made to fix the problem fail, your email says it all: Why should a small, family-owned team looking to make the race and run the distance take the risk? Check out a name you might not have heard about, Stephan McCurley, as an example. The 20-year-old from Humble, Tex. tried to make three Nationwide races toward the end of last year, just missing two -- Dover and Kansas -- with a team that would have run the distance. In those two races I mentioned, a total of 14 drivers pulled in early, collecting a cool average of over $16,100 in prize money. McCurley? He got zero dollars, paid thousands in expenses and now is discouraged from qualifying for future events.
It would be one thing if these S&P teams were working toward a future goal of running every week. But how can you be successful, getting noticed by sponsors and advertisers if you pull in by lap 30 no matter how well you qualify? Plus, even if McCurley did make the field from a business perspective the incentives are all out of whack. Paul Menard, who ran seventh in the Dover race McCurley missed, made just $3,612 more than if the young driver had qualified, then pulled in on Lap 1 to run 43rd. Differences of as little as $25 per position existed in some NASCAR races, making it silly to go the extra mile when the cost of doing so would be exorbitant.
And finally, in lieu of the "out of left field" email this week here's my equivalent of Christmas charity for the season. We'll see if any readers have some old items to give:
My name is Jeff Curl and I drive a UMP Modified throughout the Midwest. I host a race party each year for my team. With the increased costs to stay competitive and a struggling economy that makes sponsorship harder to come by, I've created an alternate solution. This party acts as my major sponsor for the 2011 racing season.
I'm not looking for cash or the latest and greatest products. I was hoping to get some old inventory that is just collecting dust or in need of being removed. Items include: Die cast cars, any apparel, Used racing side panels, hoods, etc., event tickets, gift certificates, autographed items.
I'm not looking for that new '10 or '11 stuff just put on the shelf. Please just dig out the old boxes of things that are just collecting dust. The items do not have to be racing related! If you need a receipt of your donation, I can accommodate any request.
Please send items to: Curl Racing, 309 W. John, Box 162, Forrest, IL 61741
This year's party will be held on March 5, 2011 at the Walton Centre in Fairbury, IL. We would like to have all items by Feb. 14th.-- Jeff Curl, Forrest, Ill.
Happy Holidays to you, Jeff, and everyone else out there in Internet land!
Last Week's Trivia Question and Answer: Who was the last single-car team to win a Cup race? No one got it. Most people thought it was Ricky Craven at Darlington in 2003, but the right answer is Brad Keselowski, who took the No. 09 Phoenix Racing car to a stunning upset at Talladega in April 2009.
This Week's Trivia Question: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won the Most Popular Driver Award for eight straight years. But who was the last person before him to take the honor?
Tweet of the Week: "Next year I'm gonna start a yahoo fantasy racing league for all of u to join. Then we can have some real trash talkin!" - @dennyhamlin, back from Twitter hibernation and preparing for a new level of 2011 interaction with fans.