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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Looking at NASCAR's 2009 prospects

by Gordon Kirby
Matt Kenseth's victory in Sunday's Daytona 500 was very fulfilling for Kenseth and Jack Roush's Roush Fenway Ford team. It was the first Daytona 500 win for both 2003 NASCAR champion Kenseth and Roush's team, but the race was very frustrating for most fans who were robbed of a proper race to the finish by rain and NASCAR's decision to call the race after 152 of the scheduled 200 laps. The race was a messy affair, a typical crash-filled restrictor plate battle with most of the top contenders eliminated or delayed in a series of multi-car shunts.

Meanwhile, NASCAR faces plenty of challenges this year, starting with next weekend's race at the California Speedway where ticket sales have been terrible in recent years. Three major sponsors--Texaco, AAA and AT&T--pulled out of NASCAR at the end of last year and five teams have either merged or closed. Petty Enterprises, NASCAR's longest-standing team, was bought last winter by Gillett Evernham and renamed Richard Petty Motorsports. Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates merged their NASCAR team with Dale Earnhardt Inc, reducing two, three-car teams to a single, four-car team. "Bringing two companies together is a difficult task," Ganassi remarked. "It was a painful thing for a lot of people on all sides of it."

Yates Racing, another longtime NASCAR team, merged with Hall of Fame Racing which was started by retired Dallas Cowboy quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. And Bill Davis sold his team's assets while his remaining team entry was bought by Roger Penske to guarantee Sam Hornish's car one of the 35 owners slots in the 2009 Cup field. It was also interesting that only three of the forty-three starters in Sunday's 500 were without major sponsorship although almost all of the thirteen non-qualifiers lacked any serious sponsors.

As much as the teams are facing tough times so too is NASCAR, particularly from the perspective of the publicly-traded International Speedway Corporation (ISC) owners of thirteen NASCAR tracks, and also New York Stock Exchange-listed rival, Bruton Smith's SMI, which owns seven tracks across the country. ISC also owns American Service, the primary caterer and food and beverage concessionaire at all thirteen ISC tracks. ISC also owns MRN radio which broadcasts NASCAR races live on 490 radio stations across the United States, Canada, Mexico and South America. And in partnership with SMI, ISC owns a company called Motorsports Authentics an apparel and souvenir manufacturer. ISC also owns and operates the Daytona 500 Experience, an interactive attraction located outside the main gates at Daytona.

Across the road from the Speedway, ISC is building in a partnership with Baltimore-based developers the Cordish Company an eight-story headquarters designed to house the administrative offices of ISC, NASCAR and the Grand-Am sports car series. The new administration building will include a retail and entertainment center with a 65,000-square-foot multi-screen cinema. Called Daytona Live! The administration offices will be occupied later this year and the entertainment part is planned to open next year.

ISC employs 1,000 people after cutting 100 jobs in the past year. ISC president Lesa France Kennedy, daughter of Bill France Jr. and granddaughter of NASCAR founder Bill Sr., said layoffs would be the last option considered this year.

"There are many areas in the company under evaluation," France Kennedy said. "We'll look at those before making any personnel changes."

While NASCAR has increased the costs of a hard card by twenty percent this year, most ISC and SMI tracks are cutting ticket prices and offering new package deals at rates not seen in years. For this year's Daytona 500 some backstretch grandstand seats were cut from $99 to $55, the lowest since 1995. Other price reductions have been made at ISC tracks across the country to as low as $35-$40 for some grandstand seats. Daytona will not open its backstretch grandstands for July's 400-mile night race and the track's president Robin Braig reported that 'hospitality and display' sales at Daytona were off 20% this year.

For reference, two-day grandstand seats for both the 500 and Saturday's 300-mile Nationwide race at Daytona last weekend cost between $150-$240. A four-day ticket, including Friday night's truck race and Thursday's pair of 150-mile qualifying races, would have set you back $680. If you wanted to rent a motorhome camping spot it went for $1,440. A mere camping lot, inside turns three and four, cost $770. And a one-day infield parking sticker cost $50.

There also were plenty of hotel rooms available in Daytona last week. A mid-week evening drive down the coast highway showed vacancy signs on almost every hotel and motel on both sides of the road. This trend has been going on for a number of years but was seriously accelerated this year. And too, at Billy's Tap Room in Ormond Beach, where raceweek business has been declining steadily since 2004, it was quiet on Thursday evening after the qualifying races. Mind you, Daytona's Chamber of Commerce reports that hotel bookings are up for this year's 'bike week.

As a sign of the trying economic times Jeff Gordon will leave his private jet at home on some trips this year and take commercial flights, something he hasn't done in ten years. Gordon reports his airplane costs between $3,000-$4,000 per hour to operate, but he'll continue to use it regularly this year, particularly when he's traveling with his wife and daughter.

"For Ingrid and the baby and myself to fly together, we're going to fly private," Gordon said. "I have a plane and I'm not going to not use it at all. When I'm flying by myself and I'm more flexible on time I'm going to fly commercial whenever it makes sense and I'm going to fly private when it makes sense. After the races with my family, I'm still going to fly private."

Gordon says NASCAR's test ban saved Hendrick's team $100,000 in off-season travel and running expenses. Gordon also said he and Hendrick's team will do whatever is required to reduce costs.

"If we have to cut costs then I want to know how I can cut costs along with the next guy and the next guy, from the top to the bottom of the team," Gordon commented. "We know what our budget is. We know what the trends have been. We have a pretty good projection of what our income is, but in this kind of economy those aren't all guaranteed.

"I think everybody should be paid fairly and paid fairly within the economy. I've always said a driver should get paid on a percentage basis of the income to the car based on the sponsorship dollars as well as their earnings on the racetrack. We've all gotten pretty spoiled the last several years and for good reason the whole sport has grown. I've been successful and my salary has been incredible. It's something I never dreamed it would ever be.

"That doesn't mean I couldn't live with less," Gordon added. "I could and I'd do whatever it takes. It's tough when you get adjusted to a certain lifestyle and income. It's definitely not easy to do, but it doesn't mean it can't be done."

Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was more emphatic about the terms of employment he would accept in today's changed world.

"I told Rick (Hendrick) he could pay me whatever he wants to pay me," Dale Jr. said. "I don't have a problem. Rick can pay me whatever the hell he wants to pay me. I will drive a race car for nothing."

Dale Jr. admits he has yet to achieve what he believes is possible.

"I feel I haven't really done the things that I thought I would be doing," Earnhardt remarked. "I haven't competed like I felt like I should be competing. I felt like I was on an upward swing ever since I started in the Cup series in 2000 all the way to 2004. I made some choices and I let some other people make some choices and I started to go in the wrong direction performance-wise. That has been the biggest hurdle to try to get over, the biggest thing to try to reverse.

"I feel like I take a big role in this sport," Junior added. "I am glad to be part of this sport. I am glad to represent the sport, either on my good days or my bad days. I love being part of it and whatever I got to shoulder, that I feel is fair. I've been through enough crap to not want to be here anymore. But I love driving race cars and I am going to drive them as long as I want to drive them. I hope that is a long, long time."

After ten years with Joe Gibbs Racing, two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has started his own team this year, of course. Stewart pointed out that he's still trying to find the funding required to run teammate Ryan Newman's car in all of this year's Cup races.

"It's hurt everybody, obviously," Stewart remarked. "We still have thirteen races to sell on Ryan's car. Haas Automation stepped up and is going to sponsor some of those races, but not all of them. So it's no different for us than for anybody else. It's hurt everybody this year."

Stewart says that so far, at least, he's not having trouble with his dual role as an owner/driver. Stewart got his feet wet as a team owner eight years ago when he started his own USAC midget team.

"I've been an owner since 2001 and I've loved every part of it," Stewart said. "There was never a part of the process where I thought this might take away from being a driver. I think the majority of that is I know that on Friday, Saturday and Sunday that's all I am--a driver. I'm sticking to my guns on that. That's what I do on Friday, Saturday and Suday. I drive the race car.

"Darian (Grubb) is my boss. Darian and Bobby (Hutchens) and Tony Gibson are my bosses on the weekend. Those are the people I work for. And then Monday morning we go back and work as a team together and figure out what we need to do better."

Stewart also discussed the infamous Car of Tomorrow, now thoroughly ensconced in the fabric of NASCAR.

"We all started driving this car two years ago and it has proven that the technology and the engineers are more important now than ever," Stewart observed. "It's either right or wrong. These cars are really, really sensitive. We had more flexibility with the old cars of being able to get them closer to where they needed to be. But with this car, it's either right or wrong. You can make it better as the day goes on, but if it's not right, you're probably not going to get it there."

Gordon talked about his travails in coming to grips with the CoT.

"When you've been in the sport as long as I have, it's harder to adapt to changes," Gordon commented. "The longer you're in it, the harder it is to adapt to changes. So some of it is me adapting my driving. I can't change how I drive, but I can make some small adjustments.

"The bump stops are a thing that drives drivers, crew chiefs and engineers up the wall and they're somewhat unpredictable, so we battled with that. I like to drive into the corner deep so that when I get on the brakes the transition getting onto the bump stops is just too abrupt and too fast. That's probably one of the biggest things I've had to deal with.

"But we really made improvement toward the end of the year that I don't think really got noticed because of the championship battle that was going on. While we weren't top three, I felt like we were fourth or fifth best out there in the Chase and that's not too shabby, especially with where we started. The new car is a whole different animal. The biggest challenge is just figuring that out."

Gordon believes the new car is at its best at Daytona and Talladega.

"I just think this car was designed and built for Daytona and Talladega. Sometimes we really don't care for it a lot at some of the other tracks, but it makes up for it in my opinion at Daytona."

Gordon complimented Goodyear on the tire it brought to Daytona.

"I think you've got to give Goodyear a little bit of credit for doing a little bit different design that makes the tire wear and gives guys confidence because it has good grip at the beginning of the run. It makes everybody really get after it, especially if there's ten laps to go."

Gordon also talked about Goodyear's plans to test a larger tire this year with a view to introducing bigger tires next season.

"I'm just hoping that will give them the opportunity to have a softer tire that can be abused a little bit more as it wears out," Gordon said. "We've been just riding around on rock-hard tires. What they're trying to do is prevent the tire from having a failure and that's certainly understandable, but that's not really a tire that's optimal for us from a team standpoint or racing in general."

Of course, Goodyear's tires continue to fail on a regular basis. Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman were furious after badly damaging their cars in an accident during the final pre-500 practice session when Newman's right rear tire blew. Goodyear says the problem stems from the weight of the cars and the fact that the current car runs on its bump stops rather than the springs.

But the fact remains that no other modern racing tire program anywhere in the world of professional motor sport suffers so many continuing failures. I'm told by many engineers that the problem stems from poor quality control so that the dimensions of the tires are terribly inconsistent. Many of the tires are not actually perfectly round thereby creating massive spike loadings which further exacerbate the problem of running on the bump stops. As Tony Stewart says, Goodyear should be deeply embarrassed with their ongoing problems.

Meanwhile, before last weekend's season-opener, defending champion Jimmie Johnson assessed his hopes for winning what would be a record-setting fourth Sprint Cup title in a row.

"If you look at the odds it's certainly stacked up against us winning," Johnson observed. "It's never been done before. But from my perspective and my heart I truthfully think we've got a great shot at a fourth championship. When we get to California and Vegas I think that more of the ban on testing will show up there. If it is the great equalizer it will be obvious, or if it doesn't separate us more, I think it will be obvious then.

"The big teams all have this technology--the shops with seven-post rigs and simulation and wind tunnels. It's going to be interesting to see in his first quarter how much of an advantage that stuff is. I think with no testing nobody has an idea (what's going to happen).

"I look back at who was strong at the end of last year and kind of rank things from there. So I expect a bunch of those Roush cars to be very fast. There are some other teams as well, but I think Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards, those guys were really strong at the end of last year, so I think out of the gate at California and Vegas we're going to be dealing with the Roush cars.

"Every team meeting we've had and everything we've talked about is winning races and winning a championship. It's not winning the 41st race, or winning the fourth championship. It's just the simple mindset for us that we want to win and be as good as we can be. No one is really satisfied. We still have the hunger to go out and do our jobs and be the best in our sport.

"I do feel that we have a very good chance of winning a fourth championship. We have the tools. If we can be organized and composed come September, like we've done the last three years, I think we really have a chance. If you show up at the Chase trying to catch up, you've got your hands full. The last three years we've been ready for the Chase. We've been ready to go out and race for wins. We've had to win a lot of races to beat these guys and win the championship. Our goal is to be organized come September and hope things go our way.

"If we don't win this championship we'll certainly be disappointed," Johnson added. "I would love to be history and not part of history by being tied with Cale. If that does happen I don't even know what the hell it would mean. It would just be off the charts."

And for those of you who want to learn more about the new Charlotte-based American F1 team which will be operated by Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson please read my blog today at Motor Sport's website (www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk)

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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