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If you were a NASCAR crew chief on the hot seat, chances are this summer was brought to you by the color pink — as in pink slip. The roster of head wrenches this week underwent a major shift, with two additional replacements bringing the total up to four since June 5: Greg Erwin (No. 16), Pat Tryson (No. 56), Brian Pattie (No. 42) and Mike Shiplett (No. 43) have now been shown the door. That’s over 10 percent of NASCAR’s fully-funded programs, pulling the equivalent of firing their head coach mid-year with roughly two months of “regular season” races still to go.
It’s the earliest we’ve seen such turnover in several years, ever since sponsorship combined with a change in philosophy put the in-season pressure on the pit box, not the driver. (For those newer fans out there, turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and wheelmen’s jobs were about as safe as Rupert Murdoch’s these days; Mike Chase, in fact, once got fired from his ride just one race into the season). And while all of these crew chiefs were winless on the year, none found their drivers completely outside Chase contention. Truex, at 21st, was the lowest in points among the four programs that pulled the plug.
So why do it now? Why make a change while others having terrible seasons — like David Reutimann (24th in points), Jeff Burton (25th) and Jamie McMurray (29th), keep their crews and chemistry intact? Simple: NASCAR’s “wild card” playoff system has changed the game both on and off the track, providing extra incentive for teams willing to take a chance.
Let’s take Juan Pablo Montoya as an example. At 17th in points, he’s 59 behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin — and a Chase spot — with seven races left in the regular season, meaning there’s no margin for error if sneaking inside the top 10 is a possibility. In the past, teams would rely on the experience of Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie, hoping they can pull a rabbit out of their hat, catch fire and sneak into the playoffs the only way they could: by scoring points, not wins. Any changes, if they were going to be made, wouldn’t happen until the Chase field was set in early September, in preparation for the next season’s run.
Greg Erwin and Greg Biffle by ASP, Inc.
But now, with NASCAR granting two playoff “wild card” spots to drivers with the most wins that are ranked 11th-20th, both Montoya and owner Chip Ganassi smell opportunity. Last season, Montoya was the top-performing car at Indy — the circuit’s next stop — and he enters Watkins Glen in August as the defending champ. Win those two races, and it’s virtually irrelevant how he does in the other five — the No. 42 has earned itself a postseason bid via wins. That means if Ganassi feels a jolt is needed, why not try to catch lightning in a bottle? If Pattie’s replacement, Jim Pohlman, proves the answer there’s still a chance for the organization to contend for the championship now, not next year. Pattie, considering the No. 42 had led only 99 laps on the year, may only have been able to guide Montoya to a top-5 finish in the aforementioned events. Pohlman’s fresh approach could be the energy needed to push the team over the top.
Of course, there’s a chance Pohlman proves to be the wrong move for Montoya, turning the last 17 races into a disastrous ending while turning an already mediocre year into a failure. With 17 races being a more-than-ample trial period, there’s a justified sample size to give Pohlman the axe for 2012 should things go south. By comparison, would the 10 races after Montoya missed the Chase under the old system (and philosophy of doing things) be enough to make the same decision? Possibly not.
This type of theory applies to Biffle, Allmendinger and even Truex. For Biffle, he’s the defending champ at the upcoming Pocono race and has the equipment to make it to Victory Lane — just ask 2011 winners and teammates at Roush, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth. As for Allmendinger, while winless in NASCAR, he had a fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen last August. The possibility exists for a new crew chief with fresh ideas to take a chance and improve on that promising run. Even Truex, now a month into working with Chad Johnston, is close enough to the top 20 that a win changes his postseason prospects. And already, his team has three top-10 finishes in six starts with Johnston at the helm.
For crew chiefs, this means the job is more tenuous than ever. Erwin, for example, saw a four-year relationship severed after just four months of struggle. But if there’s a silver lining to what’s been a difficult season for the sport, it’s how the buildup to the postseason for over half the field has turned the focus back to where it should be: winning races instead of settling for a “good points day.”
1. Carl Edwards Edwards has been first or second in the point standings after 17 of the 19 races this year. It may be tight at the top, but as others come and go, Carl remains.
2. Kyle Busch Kyle claims the flat tire that ended his day in Loudon was due to excessive brake heat, but it looked more like it was due to excessive contact with Hendrick Motorsports cars.
3. Jimmie Johnson Speaking of, Johnson survived numerous dogfights — and another error by his pit crew — to make his weekly late-race charge to a top-5 finish. Dude’s a machine.
4. Kurt Busch Has led at least three laps in every race since the Coca-Cola 600 for a total of 390 by averaging a 7.5-place finish in that time. He’s whittled his points deficit to 10.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth had his first forgettable weekend in over two months, but he’s holding steady at sixth in the point standings, 26 markers out of first.
6. Kevin Harvick “The Closer” needs to get back to his closing ways or he’ll be known as “The Fader.” Not that it’s become that bad, but Harvick needs to put the last two weeks behind him.
7. Jeff Gordon A cut tire on the last lap dropped him from a top-5 finish to 11th in New Hampshire. Bad deal. He deserved better. Forget about it and move on to the Congo, Jeff.
8. Denny Hamlin Claims he had the stuff to run down both Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman in the final laps in Loudon but had to weigh the risk vs. reward of running out of fuel. Such is life on the Cup circuit.
9. Ryan Newman A win under the new points format is huge — especially for a guy like Newman, who is on the Chase bubble and was winless until last weekend. Wonder what the intake manifold on his Cup car looked like …
Photo by ASP, Inc.
10. Tony Stewart On the topic of wins, Stewart (also on the Chase bubble) needs one in the worst way. The good news is that the Brickyard is up next and a runner-up showing in Loudon is fresh on his mind.
11. Joey Logano A string of top-15 runs may be too little too late if Logano can’t pick up a victory.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior is going the wrong way fast. Never has there been a better time for an off weekend.
13. Kasey Kahne From 19th to 15th in the standings in the last three weeks. Is there a spoiler in our midst?
14. David Ragan Ragan joins Stewart as the wild card qualifier for the Chase as they run now. Needs to change his lack-luster Indy ways, though.
15. Brad Keselowski Is 25 points out of 20th in the standings and, with his Kansas win, a Chase spot. My thinking is he gets there.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, David Reutimann
A typical fuel-mileage race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit finds a surprise winner in Victory Lane — a driver and team running mid-pack that have nothing to lose by rolling the proverbial dice and stretching a tank of gas to the max.
Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 was not your typical fuel mileage race.
Ryan Newman passed Clint Bowyer on a lap 260 restart and managed to milk 41 laps worth of fuel around New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s 1.058-mile layout to grab his first win of the 2011 season.
Newman and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Tony Stewart, flexed their muscles early and often in Loudon, N.H. Both were top-3 cars throughout the event’s three practice sessions. They followed that by sweeping the front row in qualifying, with Newman edging Stewart for the pole.
Newman then led a race-high 119 laps — including the final 72 — while conserving just enough fuel to hold off a hard-charging Stewart in the closing laps.
“One of the best cars here that we saw was the 14 (Stewart),” Newman said. “There were a couple other cars at different times, but the 14 was mired back in traffic. He had to run the wheels off of it to get up to where he had some track position so he could try to run us down.
“Fortunately it stayed green. I was more worried about a yellow coming out with five (laps) to go. Do we have enough fuel for a green-white-checkered (finish)? Usually those things that come and squash us didn’t happen today.”
Stewart settled for second, while Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top 5.
The 1-2 finish was especially gratifying for Stewart, who co-owns the team that employs Newman and his No. 39 operation, as well as Stewart’s own No. 14 Chevy.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
“It’s no secret we’ve been struggling this year,” Stewart said. “But it really shows me the depth of the people we got in our organization.
“Our guys at our shop just keep plugging away, they keep working, they keep their chins up. That’s probably what I’m most proud of. It’s easy when things are going right. But when times are tough and you have a day like today, you see how your organization battles. That, to me, shows the character of what Stewart-Haas Racing is about, what our people are like.”
Newman’s win could pay big dividends for his playoff hopes. He had been teetering on the Chase bubble for weeks, but the New Hampshire victory falls just one week after a strong fourth-place showing at Kentucky. He now finds himself eighth in the championship standings and with insurance via the win that, were he to fall out of the top 10, could qualify his team based on the two wild card entries awarded to race-winners.
Stewart’s standing is a bit more precipitous. Normally a driver who comes alive in the hot summer months, Stewart is winless in 2011. Still, he is tied with Hamlin for 10th in the standings, although Hamlin’s win at Michigan serves as the tiebreaker. But with one of Stewart’s favorite tracks on tap — the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway — it could be the start of an SHR surge.
Kyle Busch entered New Hampshire with the points lead but blew a tire on lap 61 a limped to a 36th-place finish. That handed the points lead back to Carl Edwards, whose 13th-place run finds him seven points ahead of Johnson in the race to the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slide continued on Sunday. A top-10 car for much of the afternoon, Earnhardt’s No. 88 was the victim of a pit road violation. Having to make up lost ground, he drove to a 15th-place finish but fell to ninth in the standings, with only a seven-point cushion over Stewart, after being a fixture in the top 5 for the first half of the season.
From the Spotter’s Stand
The first race of the Chase set the tone for what would be the most exciting championship shootout in the format’s seven-year history.
Clint Bowyer made the most of his opportunity as the last man in the Chase, leading 177 laps on his way to ending an 88-race winless drought by conserving fuel and holding off a charging Denny Hamlin. On the other side of the fuel gauge gamble, Smoke turned to fumes when Tony Stewart (100 laps led) ran out of gas and sputtered to a disappointing 24th-place finish.
Bowyer’s car was later found to be out of tolerance when NASCAR took his Chevy to its R&D Center. His RCR team claimed the car was damaged when it was pushed by a wrecker when the fuel cell ran dry while doing victory burnouts. NASCAR didn’t buy it and, while the win was allowed to stand, docked his team a title-crippling 150 points.
Earlier in the year, Kasey Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports Ford was the car to beat until the engine grenaded after leading 110 laps. Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch took control from there, leading a combined 135 laps. However, in the end Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch played bumper cars in a shootout that got physical. The 48 got the last bump ’n’ run in, and won for the second straight week with its third checkers at Loudon.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Track position is the order of the day at New Hampshire. Cars generally have one to one-and-a-half lanes to play with, making passing — especially lap-down machines — difficult at best. Rubber buildup is widespread in the turns, and that determines where the driver can and can't run. If he can't run the line he wants because of the rubber buildup on the track, it makes it frustrating. Usually two or three teams hit it right, and if it doesn’t rain and it doesn’t come down to fuel, one of them is going to win it.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: A beefed up Martinsville, NHMS favors Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Pretty Solid Pick: When Kurt Busch isn’t highly irritated with his crew chief, spotter, over-the-wall gang, owner or another driver, he’s good here. Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann will roll the dice when the weather turns wet. Runs on Seven Cylinders: The RCR duds may change things, but Paul Menard has been really bad in Loudon. Insider Tip: Don’t put any stock in Jeff Burton’s four wins here.
Classic Moments at New Hampshire
It looks as if two of NASCAR’s bright young talents are going to decide the 2002 New England 300. However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is dumped by Todd Bodine with 12 laps to go, and Matt Kenseth suffers a flat right rear tire with 10 laps remaining, clearing the way for the old guard.
Ward Burton, who won the Daytona 500 five months prior, records his final Cup victory in a race plagued by tire issues and spins in Turns 3 and 4 on the newly redone racing surface.
“There’s just something about the actual racing surface that needs some help,” Burton says. His brother, Jeff, agrees, saying, “I hate it to say it, but the racetrack was better the way it was before.”
Second-place finisher Jeff Green, driving Richard Childress’ No. 30 AOL Chevy, records his best career Cup finish.
NASCAR’s running of the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway last weekend should have been the culmination of all things grand — one that left an indelible image on the core of race fans everywhere. Suffice to say, the result was not exactly a 2001 event at Talladega or the 1994 Brickyard 400. Instead, it was what one could have reliably expected: just another 1.5-mile race along the lines of Las Vegas, Kansas and —excuse me while I cough a little bit — Chicagoland.
While it was certainly refreshing to see the grandstands full (once people actually got in) at the Kentucky race, coupled with the announcement that the Nationwide Race at Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly O’Reilly Raceway Park, which begat Indianapolis Raceway Park) is being moved to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, part of NASCAR’s popularity problems are becoming readily apparent:
The tracks hosting NASCAR races are terrible.
You’d be hard pressed to find a track built in the last 15 years that comes remotely close to fostering racing the likes of which was commonplace at some of the more storied NASCAR locales — particularly ones that have lost a date or are little more than termite estates now. It took Auto Club Speedway (i.e., California) 14 seasons of competition before it hosted a race worth finishing, which has been reinforced by the dwindling attendance and its loss of a race date. Kentucky was little more than another race at Chicago, albeit with twice as many gracious and geared-up fans, some of whom waited over five hours to get in, while many others — estimated to be as many as 20,000, but more likely around 5,000 — gave up and went home. Inexcusable on the track’s part, by the way.
The decision to move the Nationwide Race form LOR/ORP/IRP to the Brickyard is even more befuddling. Part of the motivation is to help sell packaged ticket bundles that include the Nationwide and Rolex Grand Am Series (the latter on the former Formula One road course) to fill the stands at the speedway, which have become glaringly empty in the last few years. Credit the tire fiasco of 2008, the economic impact on the Midwest, the general malaise that has overcome NASCAR as a whole since 2007 and the sport’s message becoming more mixed.
For a circuit like the Nationwide Series that barely fills up the frontstretch at any one track, how is it going to look on TV when just a smattering of people are occupying seats by the flag stand at the big track? That said, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone within the sport who is not toeing the company line about the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis as a “great opportunity.”
It is great for those competitors who have never raced there, and may spur some sponsorship interest. However, for the fans and those Nationwide teams that compete and struggle to show up on a regular basis, it simply compounds an already growing problem. How are Nationwide teams to compete with their Cup counterparts at a track as one-dimensional as Indy, while a short track like the one down the road puts them on an even keel for a change?
Lucas Oil Raceway by ASP, Inc.
I was on hand at the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park in ’07 when Toyota scored its first Nationwide Series victory with series stalwart Jason Leffler and fellow Toyotian David Reutimann in hot pursuit. There was racing throughout the pack, a clear view of pit road from virtually any seat and a full grandstand, to boot. The next day, while at the Brickyard 400, no one could have been aware of what was transpiring between Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps, until Smoke let loose with one of his more memorable post-race interviews that was broadcast over the PA system.
What’s more, that race was one of the few that had a relatively full crowd, and considering the typical margin of victory at a Nationwide race, I fail to see how the move helps anyone.
What is doubly frustrating is that the tracks NASCAR should be at — or looking at visiting — are largely ignored. Since 2000, the margin of victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway — which lost a date to Kentucky — stands at 1.14 seconds, with some of the most memorable last-lap, down-to-the-stripe finishes in the sport’s history highlighting its finishes. The margin in Saturday night’s Kentucky race was .179 seconds, courtesy of a late-race, double-file restart. With the exception of the start of the race and a lap 142 restart, there wasn’t much memorable about the evening with the exception of Jamie McMurray’s smoke show in Turn 2 and the aerial view of traffic backed up for miles on I-71 (not that TNT acknowledged the significance of the shot).
The Nationwide race at Road America last month, which looked like musclecar bumper cars, drew over 50,000 on a Saturday — with half of the track not visible or even having a place to stand and watch. The NNS attendance at Daytona, a track synonymous with stock car racing? 50,000. There are clearly tracks NASCAR should be entertaining to entertain, rather than racing at a venue just because the guy who owns most of the tracks owns it.
Considering NASCAR needs to reach as many fans as possible, racing at as many new venues and in new areas of the country is necessary. Five years ago, I was of the mindset that NASCAR should predominately run in the southeastern United States, but make an effort to visit most every area of the country at tracks at least twice. That was fine. It helped build the sport and NASCAR could reap the benefits.
An attempt to build newer tracks in untraditional markets, however, has run into stiff opposition.
The planned Bristol-esque track that was long-rumored to be built on Long Island fizzled, and when a big push for a track to be built in Washington state in 2007 was broached, the speaker of the house in the state’s legislature accused Richard Petty of having a DUI, while another house member stated publicly that, “These are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law.”
Considering the precarious position the sport remains in as the economy dictates what survives and what dies, Jeff Burton’s sentiment is right on target: Going to different markets and areas of the country are key, but only if it produces a better product.
NASCAR was arguably at its best in the early- to mid-1990s, with exponential growth, interest, excitement, appropriate coverage to pique curiosity and a lack of over-saturation. Each time a new track was built, a little piece of the past died, though. That will come with any evolutionary step, but is it too much to ask for the old favorites like Atlanta and Darlington to not be substituted for calamities like the tracks in Fontana and Kentucky?
This isn’t to say that NASCAR’s oldest tracks haven’t had issues of their own. I once sat in traffic reminiscent of Kentucky’s going to Michigan International Speedway in the ’90s. When Charlotte Motor Speedway brought the term “levigation” into our vocabulary, it did so by destroying the finest 1.5-mile track that motorsports had ever known. And regardless of how brightly Bruton Smith paints the walls yellow, it is not the same track it once was.
We’ve all watched as chunks of the track at Martinsville and Daytona started flying around, while North Wilkesboro never really looked much different when it hosted its final race in 1996 than its first 40 years earlier. The difference is each of these places provides something special, having been witness to some of the greatest moments in the sport’s history. If they are going to be replaced by new locations, is it too much to ask that they produce something tangible — beyond ROI for ISC and SMI — in return?
New tracks are needed in NASCAR, no question. The problem is, the ones that are awarded new dates continually resemble the same ones that no one cares about in the first place. That points to a downward trend — and at the absolute wrong time for a sport that has some distinct challenges that lay ahead.
1. Kyle Busch Busch’s third win of the season — an impressive routing of the field at Kentucky — catapults him to the points lead. By the way, we used the picture to the right for obvious reasons.
2. Carl Edwards Edwards has four top-5 finishes in the last six races. The other two? A pair of 37th-place runs that are looking more and more like mere hiccups in the long 2011 season. We would’ve used a pic of Carl and his wife, but the only ones we could find were of him with his mother.
3. Kevin Harvick A 16th at Kentucky was Harvick’s worst showing since a 20th at Texas in early April. He leads the series — along with Busch — with three wins and is a threat on any given weekend.
4. Kurt Busch Kurt continues to run at a high level, leading 41 laps at Kentucky and posting his 10th top 10 of the season. Exploiting the picture theme here, we could’ve used one of Kurt and his main squeeze, but the two girls look so much alike, we didn’t know which one was the old and which was the new.
5. Matt Kenseth Running under the radar, Kenseth could be the most dangerous snake in the grass of the bunch. Two wins, 10 top 10s, a pole thrown in for good measure ... he's going to make Crown Royal very, very sorry.
6. Jimmie Johnson And then there’s Mr. Five Time, fresh off a bounce-back third-place run in Kentucky and unable to lay low like Kenseth. But still every bit as dangerous.
7. Jeff Gordon Rebounded from early-race handling issues to post a solid 10th-place run to advance to seventh in the point standings.
8. Denny Hamlin It’s still not clear whether the No. 11 team has straightened out all the issues that plagued it early in the season, so he’s ranked eighth by default.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior is going in the wrong direction, with four straight forgettable finishes. And by the way, his throwback Mountain Dew paint scheme is the most bad-ass on the circuit. This is not up for debate.
10. Tony Stewart Everyone claims Stewart likes to race on the hot and slick tracks of the summer. So why has he failed to finish better than seventh since it really got hot?
11. Brad Keselowski Knocking on the door of the top 20 in the standings and a possible wild card slot, BK has some work to do, but my thought is he stands the best shot of Chasing once he gets there.
12. Ryan Newman Sometimes Newman shows up out of nowhere and finishes fourth. Kind of like at Kentucky.
13. Joey Logano Is certainly trending upward, but needs a win if he hopes to make the Chase. Rain in Loudon, anyone?
14. Clint Bowyer Missed the setup so bad at Kentucky it’s not clear whether they even brought it with them.
15. David Ragan Ragan enjoys an eighth-place run after the big win at Daytona. Can this bunch keep delivering?
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, David Reutimann
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
Saturday was a date that over 10 years in the making for Kentucky Speedway. Following years of litigation, lawsuits and a buyout, the track finally landed a cherished NASCAR Sprint Cup race under the guidance of parent-company Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Unfortunately, the event will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
In what may be the most atrocious debut of a major-league sporting venue in North America, a sellout crowd in the neighborhood of 107,000 waited for hours to gain access to the speedway, only to see 400 miles of lackluster racing. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team unloaded on Thursday with the fastest car and held serve throughout the weekend, leading 125 of 267 laps en route to a dominant win in the Quaker State 400.
But the race itself was secondary — an afterthought to the thousands who waited for hours in 20 miles of gridlock traffic on the lone interstate leading into the facility. Many did not make it to the grounds by the drop of the green flag, and many more — a figure thought to be in the 5,000-person range — were turned away from the track by state police who had to begin setting up the exit route once the race passed its half way mark.
For the fans that found a parking space on the property — the track reportedly had parking for 33,000 vehicles — the “fun” was only beginning. Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter were flooded with complaints, ranging from a lack of porta potties in the grassy parking areas where fans tailgated, to a “no coolers” policy, to price gouging for bottled water once inside and an inability to accept credit cards.
Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger issued a statement during the race, addressing the situation.
“Kentucky Speedway regrets the traffic conditions surrounding the Quaker State 400. We’re committed to working with NASCAR, state and local officials and traffic experts to assure that this never happens again. The details of these improvements will be announced over time as they are formulated.
“We also recognize the traffic problems resulted in some fans not being able to attend the Quaker State 400. We are gathering information on this and will announce a policy for these affected fans within seven days.”
On Monday, the release was amended, replacing the word “regret” with “apologize.”
The facility, under the ownership of SMI’s Bruton Smith, was expanded by 41,000 seats to 107,000 when he announced he would move one of his existing Sprint Cup dates from a struggling Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 10, 2010.
NASCAR principles all but disappeared after the event. CEO Brian France released a statement on Sunday, saying, “While NASCAR was thrilled by the incredible response to our inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Kentucky, we also are extremely disappointed by the traffic problems and inconveniences endured by fans who wanted to be part of our races at Kentucky Speedway.
“NASCAR will be in close communications with Kentucky Speedway and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. to see that they work to resolve the issues. This situation cannot happen again.”
As for the race, it witnessed zero lead changes that did not involve pit stops under either green- or yellow-flag conditions. Busch held off a hard-charging David Reutimann after a lap 260 restart, when a caution was thrown for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s blown tire. Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was Busch’s third of the season and catapulted him to first in the Sprint Cup championship standings.
North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the racetracks that was on the very first schedule for the fledgling sanctioning body known as NASCAR in 1949. There were eight tracks on the schedule then, but only two — Wilkesboro and Martinsville — are still in existence. Unfortunately, that number has shrunk to one since the temporary closing of North Wilkesboro became permanent on June 30. Speedway Associates, the track’s ownership group, announced it was unable to arrange further financial backing to run the track and abandoned the property less than a year after reopening its gates to racing after 14 years of silence.
The effort to restore North Wilkesboro has been a labor of love from so many people from not only Wilkes County, but all over the country — and even outside of the United States. People traveled from as far as British Columbia, Canada, to participate in races at the rejuvenated speedway last year. There was no question that the place was in no shape to host a race when the keys were handed over to Speedway Associates. While the racing surface was ready to go after a dousing of weed killer, there was a lot more work necessary to make the remainder of the facility race-ready.
After many gallons of paint, plumbing, metal work, carpentry and general blood, sweat and tears, the track held its first race on Labor Day weekend in 2010. The first driver to return to the unique Victory Lane on top of Wilkesboro’s Media Center was Mack Little, who won the Limited Late Model race. Chase Elliott then won the PASS race to take the first major touring series win at the track since 1996.
That first weekend’s events brought memories flooding back to the racing die-hards who traveled to Wilkesboro, despite the fact that many upgrades were still needed to return the historic facility to its former glory. Looking around the track and seeing faded and chipped Winston, First Union and Holly Farms signs instantly brought back visions of everyone from Lee Petty to Jeff Gordon circling the aged pavement.
As more renovations were completed over the next few months, the place looked fresher and more modern, while still possessing the historic feel similar to the air around Martinsville or Indianapolis. The crowds were bigger for every race and the track seemed to be building momentum but, unfortunately, there was an undercurrent behind the scenes that would eventually cause all of the effort to come to a screeching halt, while breaking the hearts of everyone involved in its resurrection.
After “THE RACE” for the PASS cars took place in April, funds started to run thin. As the June race date for the UARA Series drew closer, the insurance premium on the track was coming due and there wasn’t enough money to make the payment. The powers-that-be at Speedway Associates were forced to make the decision to close the track until more funding could be obtained. The reality began to set in that unless corporate partners stepped forward to assist in the revitalization effort, the resources just weren’t available to bring the track back.
When the idea of revitalizing the track was originally floated by the principals of Speedway Associates, it was promised some local corporate involvement in the process of restoring the complex to viability — but when the rubber hit the track the donations never arrived. While volunteer labor got the track back to a serviceable level, there was a greater need that only materials — or cold hard cash — could fix.
After the track was closed, the management group set out to try and get an infusion of capital to jumpstart the project before the end of June. The word was that there were three different sources of funding that were seriously interested in putting some money into the track, and it was only a matter of picking the best one and having lawyers work out the legal wranglings. Once that was all hammered out, the racing could continue as the track’s facelift made it into a modern facility. Whether that was truly the case or just an effort to keep the legion of volunteers encouraged, it never materialized.
As June 30 rolled around, there wasn’t any deal. The choice of funding turned out to be an empty tin cup and the people making the decisions threw in the towel. What started with so much promise, after so many fits and starts and empty promises, turned out to be the reality check that so many never again wanted to face.
There isn’t one answer when looking at what would have made North Wilkesboro’s resurrection work, but there is certainly some blame to go around for why it didn’t. The businesses in the Wilkes County area and around the country should have jumped on board to make this effort a success. The track has the potential to be a media darling in a time when NASCAR continues to turn its back on its roots. With the right companies putting their name on the walls and billboards around the track, the races would have likely been picked up by television and returned their investment many times over.
Instead, some of the larger local companies are rumored to have made promises to the management group only to back out when the heat was turned up. If the local companies did back out they should be ashamed. But even if they did not, they should be embarrassed for not getting behind the efforts when the local economy is so depressed — and has been since the last Cup cars turned laps in anger around the track.
Bruton Smith and the folks at Speedway Motorsports, Inc. are confusingly complicit in this failure. For whatever reason, SMI maintains that it wants $12 million for the facility — the price Smith paid for it some 15 years ago. The purchase price then included two Cup Series, one or two Nationwide and one Truck Series date. Most economic “experts” maintain that a Cup date is worth $4 million, while a Nationwide or Truck race is in the $1 million range. Two Cup visits and a pair of support-series dates would account for 10 of the $12 million paid for the track. Add to the fact that those dates are no longer there as well as the 14 years of deterioration without even routine maintenance being performed, and there is at least another million dollars that has been wiped out of the facility.
The basic math would make the track’s worth in the $1 million range — a far cry from the $12 million that SMI is so adamant about receiving. There is no one that is going to pay that price for a few acres of land in Wilkes County, N.C., let alone a plot of land that has a racetrack on it that would have to be razed in order to build another business on them.
The continuous demand for that exorbitant amount of money for the track is certainly keeping shrewd businessmen from putting money into the property. An infusion of $10-15 million would have the track up to the standards of today’s premier facilities. Unfortunately, no one in their right mind is going to put that amount of money into a track when the specter of an additional $12 million payout is looming.
Why the leaders at SMI will not budge off of that asking price is still a mystery. There must be some benefit to having a business property sit idle instead of receiving a fair market price for it — no one at the company is explaining its reasoning. Perhaps SMI will actually come in and try to do something with the track now that it has proven successful races can still be held there. Fans of the track can only hope.
The other large amount of blame for the track’s failure goes to the fans who complained about the track being closed in 1996 (and since), but did not support it with their attendance when racing returned. The 2010 Labor Day race drew roughly five- to seven-thousand people, despite seating for 40,000. More fans turned out to the next race weekend, but nowhere near the capacity of the track.
There is a cry from the fan base every time a race track is closed or dates are taken away from historic tracks around the country — especially in the Southeast — but those same fans fail to support said tracks when they attempt to rise again. Exhibit A is North Carolina Motor Speedway — a.k.a. Rockingham — which had just over 500 people show up for its UARA/Pro Cup double-header race earlier this season.
Five hundred people.
The folks trying to make a success out of Rockingham can’t be blamed for giving up, and the same is true at North Wilkesboro. Fourteen years of neglect didn’t hurt the racetrack as much as Smith would like you to believe, but it took a huge toll on the rest of the facility. The limited number of suites are in drastic need of upgrades and the restrooms could use some modernization, to say the least. The fans are the ones who can make those upgrades possible by showing up in droves and supporting the races that are held. But to this point, that has not happened.
The racing at North Wilkesboro was great when it was on the Cup schedule and it was just as great when it returned last year. The track is unique and history oozes from every pore of the facility from the moment a fan walks through the gate. It is a living piece of NASCAR’s history that needs to be preserved. And everyone needs to embrace the efforts to make that happen.