Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What's going on with Mike Skinner?

Something doesn't make sense about the story that Mike Skinner is out at Randy Moss Motorsports, to be replaced with Travis Kvapil.

I know multiple sources are saying that the above scenario is what is playing out, but consider: Front Row Motorsports is planning on Travis Kvapil again running the #34 FRM Ford full time next year. Considering the budgets involved (a low-moderate-budget Cup team, and a Truck team), does it make sense that Kvapil would be flying around the country to run both series? Is Kvapil going to fund the helicopter rides out of pocket? Can the deals be that lucrative to make financial sense?

I'm just wondering aloud here, folks. It just doesn't add up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Notes from the Flagstand - 12/11/10

Here's hoping Aric Almirola's stint in the JR Motorsports #88 lasts longer than Kelly Bires'...speaking of Aric A. Almirola, I know the American Automobile Assn., currently has a deal with Penske Racing, but wouldn't that be the perfect sponsor for a guy whose initials are "AAA?" Best wishes to "Triple A" and his bride on this, their wedding day!

Will 2011 be the year Dale Earnhardt, Jr., finally breaks out and starts winning again? His father, the great Dale Earnhardt, won a championship when he was 30, but didn't really dominate until his mid-to-late 30s. Junior is now 36, so maybe this is his time.

Scott Speed, as promised, sued Red Bull Racing for $6.5 million. He argues, in essence, that while there was a performance clause, RBR didn't give him equipment that was up to the task. It is odd, at least, that RBR signed an extension shortly before fax-firing the 27-year-old driver. The courts will decide.

And happy birthday to Eric McClure, who turns 32 today!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Scott Speed to sue Red Bull

Scott Speed announced via Twitter today that his lawyer is filing a suit today against Red Bull Racing. The reason was not given, but it's fair to assume it is a breach of contract action.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Now that's racin'!

The 43rd Annual Snowball Derby, the "Daytona 500 of short track racing," ran Sunday, and it was almost certainly the most exciting race of the year. 18-year-old Johanna Long, for whom this race is a "home game," won in overtime, easily pulling away from the field on the final restart when things fell her way after multiple wrecks in front, and leaving her with fresh tires, a good car and a clear track ahead. She did a masterful job avoiding getting caught up in the carnage that occurred right in front of her multiple times.

This should help her in her quest for sponsorship for her family-run Panhandle Motorsports #20 Camping World Truck series entry, or perhaps even bigger things sooner than she may have expected. She and her family would do well, of course, to proceed carefully, as some drivers move up too quickly, and are unable to adjust to the tougher competition. She has proven, though, that she has the raw talent, and is quickly gaining the experience, to succeed against a highly competitive field.

Despite a mere eight cars left on the lead lap at the end of the race, and only another eleven one or two laps down, the Snowball Derby showed short track racing at its best. It lasted over three hours, but was packed with non-stop action. Many times, cars that were a lap down were able to race back on to the lead lap, rather than rely on the "lucky dog" rule. There was lots of passing, and it was clear that all 37 drivers were there for one reason, and one reason only: to win.

While season championships are important to keep long-term fan interest piqued, what the Snowball Derby reminds us is how exciting racing is when there is no one on the track engaging in "points racing," and the only goal is winning. Yes, there were wrecks; yes, there were some bruised egos and tempers flaring...and yes, this is the kind of race that race fans love.

Some commentators and many fans have argued for years that there should be more short tracks on the NASCAR national series' schedules, and certainly the excitement of this race helps make the case that it would be a boon to the popularity of NASCAR racing. But I think this also shows that if winning is paramount, you get action on the track that is unrivaled by any championship run. If NASCAR changes the points system to make wins much more valuable than they currently are, we could see this kind of racing every week.

A couple of other notes on this race: Chase Elliott, the 15-year-old son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, ran a strong race, but most notably showed maturity far beyond his youth, in how he dealt with the disappointment of a destroyed race car after he was bumped in a turn by Landon Cassill late in the race. Landon Cassill, in turn, also showed a lot of maturity and class in not blaming Johanna Long for bumping him when racing for the lead with less than five laps to go. He still managed a fourth-place finish. David Stremme finished 13th, while David Ragan was involved in a wreck that ended his day prematurely, causing him to finish a disappointing 27th. Incidentally...Johanna Long is not the first woman to win the Derby; Tammy Jo Kirk won it in 1994. Neither is she the youngest: Steve Wallace won it at age 17 in 2004.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday Notes from the Flagstand - 12/4/10

Why is the Snowball Derby not on SPEED? Could we not survive with a couple less episodes of "Two Guys Garage" or "My Classic Car?" Notables running the Derby this year include David Stremme, Johanna Long, David Ragan and Landon Cassill.

If Richard Petty Motorsports is going to retain its name during the ownership change, are we now going to refer to "Old RPM" and "New RPM?"

Is it just me, or did anyone else sense an awkward silence when Narain Karthikeyan was presented his Most Popular Driver award for the Camping World Truck Series? Narain seems a nice-enough guy, but something is awry when a part-time driver from another continent wins the popularity contest. Who will win next year, Nelson Piquet, Jr.? How about 50% fan vote, 50% survey, NASCAR?

With the Silver State Winternationals running at the same time, in the same city, as the NASCAR banquets, it's too bad NASCAR couldn't have had an event where some drivers visited with the kids. To be fair, the switch from Primm, Nev., to Las Vegas for the quarter midget event happened at the last minute...regardless, it'd be nice if NASCAR took a proactive approach to promoting and supporting the next generation of racers.

Wondering if next year will be a level playing field at last in the Nationwide series, or if Joe Gibbs' cars will continue to dominate...if the latter, NASCAR is going to have to step in and make horsepower adjustments, and sooner rather than later.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to make NASCAR a truly national sport

It's silly season, so everyone is out with their ideas of how to "fix" NASCAR. It may or may not be "broken," but that is not going to stop those of us with crazy ideas from offering them.

There is certainly some evidence that the popularity of NASCAR, specifically Sprint Cup, is suffering when compared to other sports. That could be for a lot of reasons, and others have variously proposed changing the Chase to the Sprint Cup, implementing an elimination-style system, getting rid of the Chase, giving more points for wins, moving to an entirely different point system and dropping the top-35 rule for qualifying.

But these are all essentially tweaks, and don't address one fundamental weakness the sport has compared with other sports.

What is it that drives team loyalty in stick-and-ball sports more than anything else? I argue that it is regional affinity. Generally speaking, you root for the team that is in your town. Sure, there are exceptions, and people move around, often taking their team loyalty with them, but generally, this is major factor.

We don't have that in NASCAR. Yes, there are drivers that come from pretty much every part of the country, but once they enter the top series, they resettle near their team's shop.

With few exceptions, those shops are all in North Carolina.

That means that if you're in North Carolina, you'll see plenty of driver appearances, events, etc., and if you don't, you'll see very few.

It also means that media view the sport as a traveling road show, based in North Carolina. Which is pretty much true. The coverage, then, will take a back seat to local sports teams. This affects the sport's popularity and fan intensity. Yes, the races themselves are in different parts of the country, but who roots for a venue, rather than a team? Also, there are only one or two races at each venue each year. Teams, however, are racing every week.

I think you can see where this is going. What I am proposing...and I am under no misconception that this is not a radical a decentralization of race teams. Over the course of a decade, NASCAR should implement a program associating particular teams with particular regions of the country. Each team's main shops would be required to be located somewhere within its assigned region. Teams could perhaps request a region...I'm not sure how the mechanics of that would work.

I think this would bring several benefits. Firstly, it would drive more localized coverage of the sport, and the local team. Secondly, it would naturally lead to more driver availability, appearances and events in all parts of the country.

As a case study, look at Furniture Row Racing. They are in the Denver area, and the Denver media cover them as a local team, giving them and NASCAR more exposure than they would otherwise get.

Nationwide and Truck shops could stay clustered in North Carolina, at least for the time being.

Would it work? Well, we won't know unless we try. Would it be a burden to the teams? Yes, but I argue the potential benefits are huge, and this should at least be considered as a possible future direction of the sport.

Monday, November 29, 2010

5 pleasant surprises from 2010 in NASCAR

I recently saw a column about the biggest disappointments from the past season. Nothing wrong with looking at that, but I thought I'd like to take a positive approach, and look at some of the more pleasant surprises of the 2010 NASCAR season.

1. Regan Smith - Driving for the only team headquarted West of the Mississippi, little was probably expected from Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing. But this team is consistently overperforming expectations. This year, they proved that the loss of Jay Guy to Penske Racing at the end of the 2009 season was not an obstacle to continued progress. The mid-season replacement of Ryan Coniam with former Dale Earnhardt, Jr., crew chief Pete Rondeau is showing positive results.

While other single-car and lower-level teams were fighting for top 35 slots, the 78 team went on a tear in the last part of the season and passed bigger-budget teams like Penske's 77 (Sam Hornish, Jr.) and Red Bull's 82 (Scott Speed), to finish 28th in driver points and 29th in owner points. Look for this team to be a contender to move solidly into the second tier of race teams next year.

2. Aric Almirola - This driver has shown promise for some time, but like his former DEI teammate Regan Smith, didn't really get the support he needed in the 2008 season. He started '09 still with DEI, but sponsorship troubles left him without a ride only a handful of races into the season.

He kept showing up to tracks, looking to find a ride, and eventually landed a truck ride with Billy Ballew Motorsports, where he showed off his skills. This past year, he finished second in the points in the Camping World Truck series and made some impressive runs toward the end of the year in the Richard Petty Motorsports #9, taking over when Kasey Kahne left for Red Bull. He finished in the top five in the last Cup race at Homestead.

Next year will find him in the JR Motorsports 88 car, in which he scored one top 5 and several top 10 finishes running it part time this year.

3. Johanna Long - An 18-year-old short track racer from Florida, Johanna landed a ride in the Billy Ballew Motorsports 15 truck. In her first race, she finished 17th on the lead lap at IRP, getting the attention of many. She ran a couple more races in the 15, but sponsorship troubles led to the shuttering of that team. She was quickly back on track in a family-owned truck, and is still showing strength.

I wouldn't be surprised if she shows up in the Nationwide Series for a race or two next year.

4. Cole Whitt - How can you not like this kid? He shows up in Phoenix for the second-to-the-last race of the Nationwide season, having never driven a Nationwide car, and was fastest in happy hour. Then, he goes on to to a 15th place finish in the main event. He backed that up with a 17-place finish at Homestead the following week.

The 19-year-old from Alpine, California also drives the Red Bull No. 84 Toyota in the K&N Pro Series East.

Race team owners: sign this guy up before your competition does.

5. Elliot Sadler - Elliot has been written off by many as a guy who only has a ride because of his outgoing personality, but he showed flashes of excellence this year, winning a race in the Camping World truck series in KHI's #2 Silverado. He also ran some Nationwide races for JR Motorsports and one for KHI, getting respectable finishes in each car, including a top 3 in the 33 car.

He ran strongly in RPM's #19 cup car at times this year, sitting on the pole at Texas, and finishing in the top 10 at Michigan.

He will return to the #33 KHI Nationwide car next year to run the full season. NASCAR's expected rules for Nationwide points will probably keep him mostly out of Cup next year, but if he does well in the 33, expect to see him back in the top series in 2012.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Regan Smith gets engaged

Regan Smith, driver of the Furniture Row #78 Chevrolet, tweeted that he asked his girlfriend Megan to marry him. After some queries in response, he further clarified that she accepted. No date was announced for the marriage.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

10 companies that belong in NASCAR

The championship is decided, and it's on to another NASCAR season. The forthcoming season, even more so that this past season, is wrought with financial uncertainty. Sponsors are difficult to find, even for top teams like the 24.

Chances are there will be races next year, even the in Sprint Cup circuit, without a full field.

One problem is certainly the slow economy. But, one could argue that in a slow economy, companies need to connect with consumers more than ever. There seems to have been a hesitancy recently among many race teams to take the responsibility to go out and find sponsors, relying instead on drivers to bring along sponsors.

That's not working out especially well. Just ask Front Row Motorsports, which went through all sorts of contortions to keep its cars running in the top 35, rotating rookie Kevin Conway into whichever car was most comfortably above the cutoff.

Sponsorship of a race team is a tough sell, because it's not cost-effective purely as advertising. It is really a marketing avenue, that is almost unmatched in potential.

What I'd like to do is to examine potential sponsors for NASCAR's national series, particularly the Sprint Cup series, and ask "why aren't they in this sport?"

There are a several criteria that I think make sense to use to determine a potential NASCAR sponsor's suitability.

One, does it have sufficient revenue and profit for a top-level sponsorship to make financial sense? A full-year Sprint Cup series primary sponsorship costs in the neighborhood of $15-20 million, so you're probably looking at companies with at least $1 billion in profits, for the top series.

Secondly, are the companies' primary operations should not be highly regional. It wouldn't make sense, for instance, for a company like PG&E, which is really a single-state operation, to market to a national audience.

Finally, is NASCAR a good fit for the company? Unlike in past years, sponsors need not be automotive suppliers, but there are probably some companies which just don't fit culturally (fewer and fewer all the time, in my opinion, but they still exist).

So, here's my list. Some of these may have a small or occasional presence already, but I am suggesting they go "all in":

1. Wal-Mart - Where the heck are they? I thought they'd certainly be sponsoring the 24 car in 2011, but they apparently want to be involved in NASCAR in a broader role. They are going to be the primary licensed merchandiser in their sector. I suppose that makes sense, and that they would have a potential conflict of interest if they were on the quarter panels of one particular car is at least plausible

2. Chevron - I understand that there are some limitations on oil company sponsorships, due to the exclusivity deal NASCAR has with Sunoco (another issue for another day, perhaps). But I think they could get around it by using Chevron Delo oil or some other related product.

3. ConocoPhillips - see above.

4. Hewlett-Packard - I think they'd be a good fit, because of their fairly extensive consumer presence, and a very significant small business product line, which could be enhanced by a NASCAR marketing program. With $7.5 billion in profits, they could certainly afford it.

5. IBM - They're not quite as good a fit as H-P, since they have less of a consumer and small business presence. But, NASCAR is sometimes used for institutional presence marketing, and IBM could use racing to keep their name front-and-center, and it would seem to them to be pocket change.

6. Proctor & Gamble  - This company had a large presence for many years in NASCAR, and was one of the pioneers of non-automotive-related sponsorship. They have largely dropped out of the sport, although they do still do associate or one-race sponsorships in the lower series. In these difficult times, they are the sort of company that still prospers, and could probably get themselves a good deal with a good team.

7. Johnson & Johnson - This is another healthy company with many well-known consumer (Q-Tips, Band-Aid, Listerine, Tylenol) and prescription products which would be a very good fit with a NASCAR team. They have been in the sport in the past, but not recently, I think.

8. Kraft - not as profitable as P&G or J&J, but still a solid company with potential to leverage NASCAR exposure.

9. Microsoft - While some other tech companies might not fit well in NASCAR, Microsoft, with its gaming products, seems like it could make NASCAR work for it. It might be a way to get an edge with its struggling mobile phone platform, as well. It's still profitable enough that this would not be a huge gamble.

10. Staples - Competitor Office Depot is heavily invested in the sport. You could argue that it makes it more difficult for Staples to stand out. But Lowes' presence in NASCAR certainly didn't keep The Home Depot out.