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

The Way It Is/ Some NASCAR lessons for and from the wider world

by Gordon Kirby
There's been a lot of hand-wringing recently in some NASCAR circles about the influx of open-wheel drivers into stock car racing. Coming hard on the heels of Toyota's arrival in NASCAR, the changing landscape has upset some longtime fans who claim it's driving them away from their favorite sport. Others welcome both Toyota and the foreign, or open-wheel drivers, acknowledging that these things help broaden and diversify the market for NASCAR.

Will these historical changes be good for a sport long identified as all-American and all-white? NASCAR certainly thinks so and most people involved in the business of NASCAR agree but you have to wonder if the changing environment will attract as many or more fans than it drives away. Indeed, it's been sobering to see the decline in attendance at many Cup races in recent years, most notably at the California Speedway, but also including traditional tracks like Atlanta, Charlotte and even Talladega.

It will be interesting to see if this trend continues but I still find it difficult to imagine a majority or even significant number of hardcore NASCAR fans turning their backs on Cup racing because there is no other sport with similar all-American appeal. In this day and age all sports are populated by participants and watched by fans of many different nationalities and racial backgrounds so there's really no place else to go for the NASCAR fan who grumbles about Toyota and the foreign drivers.

Really, the larger message in all this is that NASCAR finally is joining the rest of the world. It's been pursuing major league sport status with unrestrained desire for many years and now that it's happened American stock car racing is beginning to become a little international and multi-racial, just like the rest of the world.

It's interesting too that Chip Ganassi should be at the center of this change. Ganassi himself is still viewed by many NASCAR fans as an open-wheel interloper and now that he's brought Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti into Cup racing he's taken on a role as the man leading the internationalization of NASCAR. Of course, Ganassi's partner is Felix Sabates who was born in Cuba and sold the majority share of his team to Ganassi seven years ago when Chip became the first open-wheel team owner (Roger Penske excepted) to properly read the tea leaves and realize that a diversification into NASCAR was required.

In fact, Ganassi has expanded his racing operation not only into NASCAR but also into the Grand-Am sports car series where he also runs a very international team. Ganassi's Grand-Am team has embraced both Mexican sponsors and drivers who've been mentored by veteran team leader Scott Pruett. And let's not forget that Ganassi hired an unknown Italian named Alex Zanardi to join his CART team back in 1996, then brought Montoya into CART three years later. In the interim, from 1996-'99, the team won four straight CART championships with Jimmy Vasser, Zanardi and Montoya.

Today, Ganassi's IRL drivers are Kiwi Scott Dixon and Brit Dan Wheldon and he recently hired another highly-rated young Brit, Alex Lloyd, to race both IRL and Grand-Am cars next year. The point is Chip has always had a world view, not only of racing, but life, too, and he's the natural guy to lead NASCAR in its early steps down this new pathway.

A couple of years ago Ganassi made the point to me that most people in NASCAR had no idea which open-wheel series he competed in. "Neither series has any identity with people in NASCAR," Chip remarked. "They ask me, which series are you in? They've got no idea about IRL or Champ Car, and they don't care, either."

I told him I was well aware of the situation and related a story from an IROC race at Daytona back in 1998. At the time, Chip's drivers were Vasser and Zanardi, the 1996 and '97 CART champions who were invited to race in the IROC that year. Remember that Vasser had won the much-vaunted US 500 at Michigan on the same day as the Indy 500 in 1996 on his way to the '96 CART title while Zanardi scored his famous last-lap victory over Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca in the fall of '96 before going on to win his first of two back-to-back CART championships in '97.

In the IROC garage at Daytona that year Vasser and Zanardi were amused to be approached by Jimmy Spencer who asked: "Hey, which series do you guys race in? CART or IRL?"

Ten years later, IRL and Champ Car's collective presence in the American mind has dwindled even further and some people--like Jimmy Spencer--remain blissfully provincial in their thinking. It's unlikely that any number of Chip Ganassis, Juan Montoyas or Dario Franchittis will have much effect on their word views, but for better or worse, NASCAR's move into becoming part of the rest of the world is very much with us today.

In the long run all this can only be good for NASCAR and could turn out to be a mere prelude to the France family's hopes for global licencing of NASCAR-branded series and products. If NASCAR is going to find a way to get its arms around the global market it will have to first learn to be an internationally diverse entity within the United States and for some people in and around NASCAR that will not be easy to do.

Nor will it be easy for the open-wheel newcomers to make their marks in NASCAR, witness the struggles to perform we've seen this year from A.J. Allmendinger, Sam Hornish, Jacques Villeneuve and Dario Franchitti. These fellows have spent their careers driving slightly loose or neutral-handling, rear-engined cars wth superb brakes. Now they're having to adapt to heavy, front-engined cars that understeer or push badly and only get worse as the fuel load burns off and the tires and brakes go away like they've never before experienced. As I've written a number of times, if these guys aren't able to adjust their styles and techniques to make it happen in NASCAR, open-wheel racing in America will be forever devalued and ridiculed.

Going back to the IROC race at Daytona almost ten years ago, Zanardi and Vasser had to quickly learn about drafting and racing in the draft. Driving flat-out around the high-banked superspeedway wasn't a problem at all. That part was easy. The difficulty was in learning about running a big, full-bodied car in the draft and no less a man than Dale Earnhardt was happy to give Zanardi and Vasser a few lessons during practice.

Zanardi ran in the thick of the draft for a while in the race before Earnhardt employed his sublime stock car skills to nerf the amiable Italian out of the draft and out of touch with the leaders into an also-ran finish near the back of the field. In the pitlane immediately after the race Zanardi and Vasser were trading notes on what they had learned when Earnhardt sashayed onto the scene.

"Hey Zanardi!" Earnhardt grinned. "Zanardi! What happened man? Did somebody hit you? I saw you slidin' back there. Somebody must've hit you.

"That's too bad man," Earnhardt added. "You were runnin' good! Better luck next time."

And off he went, grinning all along.

About an hour later I bumped into Zanardi again. He was, well, not livid, but upset.

"I just watched the video of the race," Zanardi explained. "Earnhardt hit me. He just drove into the back of my car where I couldn't see him. I watched him do it on the video and you saw what he said in the pits after the race. Really, that makes me a little mad. It's one thing to knock me out of the way and another to pretend he had nothing to do with it!"

A fine lesson that was for Zanardi and a perfect example of the many NASCAR tutorials laying in wait for the likes of Franchitti, Villeneuve, Hornish and Patrick Carpentier. Of course, Montoya and Allmendinger have already taken on board most of these lessons, even if they didn't enjoy the benefit of learning from the late, lamented master himself. But there are plenty of other NASCAR characters, on and off the track, who will be happy to provide some lessons for our open-wheel heroes.

And Zanardi? The amazing legless man continues to race a BMW very competitively in the World Touring Car Championship and competed in the wheelchair division in the New York City Marathon on Sunday. Zanardi is a man who never shrank from challenging himself or widening his horizons. An extremely funny and engaging man, Alex enjoys an amazingly positive attitude toward life and everyone, NASCAR fans included, can learn a lot from the guy.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page