I have one too (part one)…

There’s that old saying, “Opinions are like a$$holes, everybody has one.”

With the start of auto racing in North America about to begin this weekend (I don’t count the wreck-filled, attrition-riddled joke of an event they called this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona) with NASCAR’s made-for-television race, the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway and the NHRA’s Winternationals at the Pomona (CA) Fairplex, it’s time to say a few words about the challenges both series face in the coming year. Indy cars (remember them?) which has its own set of problems, start racing next month.

First, the NHRA.

In the past twelve months, the NHRA has done the most thorough management housecleaning in its history, affecting everything from its marketing and competition departments to its communications department. While I’ll not go into a critique of each position that has a new face, I have to point out the most critical change — the hiring of veteran journalist Terry Blount to run the NHRA’s communications department.

I’ve known Blount for quite a long time and not only is he likable and knowledgeable, he’s passionate for auto racing. I’d not known him to be a huge fan of drag racing, but more an Indy car and stock car guy.  Nevertheless, his experience in telling the story and his relationships in the media world should help in rebuilding a media and communications department that has essentially been worthless and non-existent since the departure of the late Denny Darnell from that role nearly two decades ago. Darnell was very good at his job and his representation of the sport of professional drag racing helped to shape and mold the sport’s perception in the eyes of the mainstream sports media for a long time.

Blount has a difficult job ahead of him. He will be held responsible for reestablishing what was once the most popular form of auto racing in North America (yes, it was – how many pop songs does Indy car or stock car racing have written about it?) back into the psyche of not only older race fans but the millennial population that worships the speed of technology but not the speed derived from horsepower. Most popular form of racing you ask? How about “She’s Real Fine My 409” or “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” or “Dead Man’s Curve” or “Little Deuce Coupe” or the countless other surf and hot rod song from the ’60s that glorified fast cars and drag racing. Car songs have traditionally been written about hot rods, an so in effect, drag racing.

Unfortunately, drag racing of the NHRA brand has become a mere shadow of its former self. The grandstands are filled mostly with grandparents who remember those fantastic battles between the Snake and the Mongoose and when nitro fueled race cars traveled down the quarter mile at hard-to-fathom speed. They’re the same fans that if you asked them who the best Pro Stock racer of all time was, they’d (without hesitation) tell you it was Bob Glidden, even though nearly all, if not all, of his records have since been eclipsed.

The sport’s most popular driver is near the end of his career. John Force, the eighth wonder of the world, who continues to strap himself into a 10,000 horsepower Fuel Coupe and hurl himself into the unknown even though he’s nearly killed himself several times doing so, is still the driver most fans come to see and want to meet. He, along with other veterans of the sport like Ron Capps and Tony Schumacher are but a handful of recognizable drivers remaining in the sport that are easily recognizable to most of the NHRA’s fans but to no one else.

I would bet that if you placed the 2015 NHRA class champions in a lineup and asked five avid motorsports fans from all types of motorsports in America to pick them out they’d might recognize one. That’s the problem. The reason for this is that for too long the NHRA believed that the cars were the stars of the show, despite the wild antics of John Force and others who would give amped-up post race interviews so edgy that you’d think they were drinking the nitromethane fuel from the fuel tank. I know. I’ve tried drinking nitromethane mixed with alcohol for a segment back in my television days. Other than giving me flatulence, I suffered no ill effects. Many may disagree with that and I certainly don’t recommend it to others.

The NHRA professional classes are filled with the most  diverse cast of drivers in all of motorsports. And it has (potential mainstream sports) stars,  from Erica Enders in Pro Stock – who is far more personable, more fan-friendly and certainly more successful than her NASCAR counterpart Danica Patrick – to Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, one of the most articulate, entertaining and congenial drivers to have ever won this or any championship in the history of motorsports. And by the way NASCAR fans, he is African American.

As is many of the NHRA’s fans.

Far more must be done to make the drivers more recognizable and acknowledged as the skilled and courageous sportsmen they are, reaching beyond limits with every pass down the dragstrip.

Speaking of fans, the NHRA has the most ethnically diverse fans in all of motorsport, although the series has yet to take full advantage of it.  I’m not about to tell them how, but eventually they will figure it out.

Unfortunately things are not rosy on the competition side of things. When you attend an NHRA event one of the first things you will notice is the lack of Fortune 500 sponsor names on the sides of the race car. In fact, you’ll see many cars without any major sponsorship at all. That’s not because there isn’t room. It’s because there isn’t room in the marketing budget for a racing series that doesn’t appeal to the target demographics most F500 (or F100) companies aim for. What makes things worse is that the majority of team owners in the professional classes are self-made businessmen who self fund their race teams (mostly out of necessity) and who are more than willing to accept whatever sponsorship they can find for far less than its worth. Some has used their sponsorships for business-to-business (B2B) relationships. But most just want to have someone’s name other than their own on the side of the car and care little about nor know much about activation of sponsorship. Those that do are easy to spot. They’re the ones with a huge hospitality presence at the race track.

Did I mention that in the NHRA hospitality guests sit right next to the race cars in the pits, able to watch everything? If you’re a NASCAR fan visiting an NHRA pit for the first time you’ll have a hard time believing this happens at every national event. Ideal for B2B relationships.

Teams also have a difficult time in establishing a worthwhile return on investment (ROI) for its sponsors, since the NHRA’s demographics lean too old and until this year the sport’s television package was, to put it kindly, garbage that often was relegated to being aired in the early morning hours. Some of this year’s broadcasts will remain in the wee hours of the morning, but that’s usually because of the geographic location of the event.

The television package for 2016 and the near future is now on FOX Sports which has shown in the past that it understands and appreciates live motorsports. Bringing production of the television product in-house to the NHRA is also a step in the right direction. However, airing live drag racing is a lot like sex. Some times it’s just not good and you wish it was and it’s often filled with awkward gaps of nothingness while you’re wishing something exciting would happen. Live drag racing has been done in the past and despite all the changes being made to speed up the show and prevent delays by mechanical meltdowns, cleaning up a nitro engine explosion is a tremendous bummer and a waste of very expensive television time. The jury is out on this and I wish the NHRA and FOX Sports nothing but the best of luck with their live broadcasts and in dealing with this inevitable issue.

For 2016, the NHRA has finally moved the last true manufacturer vs manufacturer class in the sport — Pro Stock — into the 21st century by mandating fuel injection on all entries. This is long overdue and should make this class, which has become excruciatingly boring in the past decade, much more exciting and competitive as some teams will get the new combination right and others will not. There’s nothing like a good old Ford vs Chevy vs Dodge battle to capture the attention of race fans. NASCAR tries to do this but it just doesn’t work.

And finally, one of the changes not made for 2016, but most drag racing fans are literally begging  to happen is the return of nitro class racing to the full quarter mile (1320 ft). Pro Stock remains as the only pro class that runs the traditional quarter mile and while there’s many reasons too maintain the current 1000 ft distance for the fuel cars, the NHRA needs to respond to its fans in the way that NASCAR does (now) and bring this one critical and historical element of the sport back. I know the arguments, but it can be done and would bring back many of the sport’s fans that left when the playing field was shortened.

If you’ve never been to a professional drag racing event, it’s bucket list stuff. It’s impossible to describe the other worldly feel of watching two 10,000 horsepower race cars in full song. It’s scary, exciting and sexy. Yes, sexy. Take your best girl (or guy) to an event and expect them to be talking about it for weeks afterwards and then be expecting to go again the following year. It’s just that remarkable of an experience.

Professional racing begins tomorrow (2/12). Final eliminations will be live on Sunday beginning at 5:00 PM ET on FOX Sports1.

I’ll address NASCAR tomorrow. And Indy cars (remember them?) in the near future.

Thanks for stopping by.

 

 

 

A new year…

As 2016 unfolds there will be some changes in store for this blog.

It will still focus on motorsports, but I will expand my thoughts beyond NASCAR to include other forms of racing, mostly the four wheel kind. I’ll also toss in a few thoughts about other topics, as well – especially the motorsports media and life and people in general. I don’t know everything about everything, but I know why I am here.

There have been many reasons why my postings on this blog have been so scarce in the past year – unfortunately I still I cannot discuss why. But those restrictions will soon be removed and I shall find myself back where I can say what is on my mind. I think that’s how you like it.

Thanks again for visiting Sledgehammer! I pledge to keep you engaged and entertained as we move forward.

Homestead Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Ford Ecoboost 400, the season finale for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:

  • Although each of the Gang of Four in the season finale had his own unique and appealing story, Busch’s as the “comeback kid” was not the most attractive according to the media I talked to. Most were looking to a miracle win by Jeff Gordon. Least attractive? A repeat by Kevin Harvick.
  • But as we’ve seen happen so often this season, Harvick played the bridesmaid once again. Second is the first loser, right?
  • It will be hard not to compare Jeff Gordon’s final season with Tony Stewart’s upcoming finale in 2016. One big difference between the two champions is that Gordon has remained competitive until the end. Stewart hasn’t been a threat to win for several seasons. I hope that changes.
  • OK, so Kyle Busch has won the championship, but I’m still thinking about how Joe Gibbs Racing went from having four cars in the Chase (and being the outright favorite to win the title) to having just one in the finale.
  • As Sprint Cup races go, the season finale was another of the many ho-hum affairs NASCAR fans have been forced to endure this year. Restarts provided the only excitement all evening and even they were in short supply. I think everyone is happy to see that this current competition package on the Cup cars has run its final race.
  • We’ve been talking about a Kyle Busch championship for years. But every year Busch always fell flat during the Chase. This time around, one thing was different. He really wanted (read: needed) it. After spending time in a hospital bed, thinking about how the whole dream might be over, changed him. Trust me, after spending a good deal of time in a hospital bed myself, your life changes.
  • It would be a mistake to overlook the 18 team’s flawless final pit stop with ten laps to go that secured Busch’s win and the title. During my travel throughout the year I often will meet someone for the first time and I tell them I work in NASCAR. In explaining why they too should be a fan, I always insist that among everything else, it is important that they understand that it is a team sport.
  • How about a championship race where only the final four (or maybe six) teams race each other in a 100 lap shoot out, perhaps split into four separate segments? Sounds crazy, right? But so did group qualifying when I wrote about it ten years ago. Back then I was met with “Are you out of your mind, Margolis?”
  • The departure of Brett Jewkes as the head of NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications group is a welcome change by this writer. Under Jewkes direction, the dynamic of how NASCAR was being covered by the media changed dramatically — and not in a good way. Under Jewkes’ reign, the sport experienced a homogenization and pasteurization of coverage. Like taking a glass of fresh organic milk and turning it into a McDonald’s milkshake. Sweet, somewhat appealing, but you hope there are still some remnants of “real” ingredients involved.
  • I shudder to think of who will be Jewkes’ replacement. I know of a few good candidates, but I seriously doubt any of them will get the gig.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time in and around the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in that series, you need to. There was a tremendous amount of young talent in the pipeline to the senior series this season (Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Roddick, Daniel Hemric and others). The races are short (most are under two hours), the competitors see NASCAR as a full contact sport and the passion for winning is genuine.
  • Speaking of Jones, he may be the best young pure talent to come into the sport since Kyle Busch. I know he’s already in the Joe Gibbs Racing pipeline, but I can’t help but think that when the bidding war for his talents begins, Rick Hendrick will be there as the highest bidder.
  • After spending billions of dollars in its NASCAR program, (yes, that’s with a “b”) Toyota finally gets a Cup title. Money well spent? The manufacturer spent the same kind of money, over an eight year period in Formula One, and never won a single race. There were five runner-up finishes, however.
  • Has the Xfinity Series lost its appeal for most NASCAR fans? I wonder how many can tell you who the top three drivers in points were at the end of the season. The series suffers from the Goldilocks syndrome — something just isn’t right. The current competition package makes for lackluster racing.
  • Now that Kyle Larson’s sophomore slump is officially over, I’m looking forward to the Ganassi Racing driver putting this season behind him and taking command of his future by winning races and being a contender in the 2016 Chase.
  • Will this season’s disappointment produce a hangover in 2016 for the 22 team? Is Joey Logano the kind of leader that can rally a squad back to the top?
  • Could we see Michelin make an appearance in NASCAR in the near future? I think so.
  • You can bet the farm that next year’s Ford Championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have a Ford team (or two) among the final four. I wouldn’t exactly call it embarrassment on the faces of Ford execs this past weekend, but there were a lot of forced smiles. Ford’s failure to have a team in the final four has made for a difficult start to Dave Pericak’s tenure as head of Ford Performance.
  • Meanwhile, Chevrolet execs are still scratching their collective heads and wondering how two of their top teams (Hendrick and Stewart-Haas) couldn’t beat one Toyota. I don’t think they were all that excited about Furniture Row winning since that team will be a Toyota team in 2016.
  • Speaking of execs, look for changes in NASCAR’s competition department executive suite in the near future.
  • Things I’ll miss next season: GoDaddy’s prominent sponsorship that helped keep Danica Patrick’s career afloat; and Budweiser, which has sponsored a car in NASCAR since 1983. The change from Budweiser to the Busch brand on the 4 car is not smart marketing. This is what happens when you’re company is no longer American owned and being run by the bean counters.

Phoenix Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway:

  • It took a dedicated NASCAR fan to stay awake for the rain-shortened penultimate event of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. I feel asleep about 75 laps in. Woke up at lap 122. Long rain delays are miserable if you’re at home — stuck with watching hours of NASCAR talking heads going over the same stories several times. Its far worse if you’re at the track.
  • Just to change things up, NBC should have taken their cameras into the media center to hear a different angle on the sport, from those who work in the media trenches — the beat reporters. They have the closest connection to the fans — via social media — not the television network’s talking heads.
  • Last week I wrote that the outcome of the race at Phoenix would have little impact on the top four teams in points that will duke it out at Homestead. That’s exactly how things played out. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
  • Who will win the championship? Any one of the four drivers: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr would make a great champion to represent the sport. Each one can put two sentences together in a meaningful way, each represents a long-standing and dedicated sponsor and each driver has a special story.
  • Gordon is in his final season and his win at Martinsville was like magic. Some fans will always insist that some higher power in Daytona Beach scripts the story for the sport and Gordon winning his fifth title in his final year as a driver is just the kind of storybook ending NASCAR needs at this juncture.
  • Harvick has been the driver to beat all season and his is easily the best of the four teams. A repeat win by the Stewart-Haas driver would be beneficial mainly to those who are in the sport. It would serve as another reminder of how hard work, combined with team wide talent and chemistry is what makes champions in auto racing, not big money or a talented driver alone.
  • Busch’s season is easily the most remarkable. Sitting out for nearly a dozen races due to injury and then returning to destroy the competition with a mid-summer winning streak is truly a story for the ages. Being a father has changed the younger of the Busch brothers and it’s easy to see that the devastating injuries Kyle suffered at Daytona was a wake up call about racing and the meaning of life.
  • Truex Jr.’s team is a lone wolf organization that chose to build its cars a thousand miles away from the competition, making the acquisition of the talent necessary to win all that more difficult. Somehow, team owner Barney Visser has done it. To be honest, moving to Colorado is really a no-brainer. This single-car team is clearly the underdog of the Gang of Four and while winning the title would make a good story, it wouldn’t have the lasting power of a Gordon or Busch win.
  • NASCAR championships are not decided by who would make the best story. If that was the case, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won six titles and not Jimmie Johnson. This year the title will be won by the team that has shown consistency all year long.
  • I’m thinking that means it’ll be the 4 car. Unless they screw it up.
  • By the way, the race is in Homestead and NOT Miami. I don’t have anything against Miami. I grew up there and graduated high school there. I love Miami. I love the city, the people, the food and the weather. But, the track is in Homestead, just like Auto Club Speedway is in Fontana and NOT Los Angeles.
  • I wonder how Ford executives feel about hosting the season finale, known as the Ford Championship Weekend, yet there are no Ford teams in the Gang of Four? They have to feel like the only one at the dance without a date.
  • The Air Titans (I love that name) were once more called into action at Phoenix. I would prefer not to see them on the track until sometime next June or July.
  • I’ve not written anything about Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the rain-shortened race at Phoenix. It just seems meaningless after a marathon day that disappointed everyone but the winning team and the four going to Homestead for the title.
  • I never like to prognosticate, but I do think that if the race continued after a brief rain delay, Joey Logano would be in the Gang of Four.
  • See you in south Florida. Let’s get together for a Cuban coffee and a pastelito de guava.

I read the news today, Oh boy, Jeff Gordon!

Hello my friends.

I have found it difficult to write here for the past year. I’ve gone through some extreme changes in my life, both personally and professionally and unfortunately most of them have been unpleasant. As a result, it’s left me with little desire to write about anything, much less NASCAR, for which most of you come here to read about. And since I’m not being paid anymore for my opinions and words, my former employer Bleacher Report having found my work not to their needing or liking and so they cut me loose, I am left with this blog, for which I am grateful for and even more important, for your support by coming here.

On the occasion of the announcement yesterday that the legendary driver Jeff Gordon is planning to end his NASCAR career at the end of the 2015 season, I felt compelled to write about the two people associated with Gordon who have meant the most to me.

First up, however, I must say a few words about Thursday’s media teleconference with Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick. From a technical standpoint, it was poorly designed and executed. The setting was bleak. There were numerous technical difficulties at the start of the teleconference that made it difficult for questions to be asked. And the volume on Hendrick’s microphone was so high that I could hear every breath, groan and clearing of the throat he made while Gordon was talking. When Hendrick was finally asked a question, his microphone was so high, it nearly blew out my computer speakers.

And while I admit that it was an emotional day for both men, their mood appeared overly somber and serious, they exuded an uncomfortable feeling that made them appear to have been forced into doing the teleconference. There were rare smiles from either man and both appeared less than enthusiastic about their surroundings. Guys, this was a time to celebrate Gordon’s unbelievable career, not look like you were both on Xanax!

*****

There have been tributes aplenty in the past day or so, all of them praising Gordon as a game changer for NASCAR (he was), a role model for drivers (he is) and much, much more. I’ll not add to those platitudes here. I prefer to watch the man in his final year behind the wheel of a Cup car, making magic in his Chevy race car and once again reaching for that highly prized trophy called the Sprint Cup. In NASCAR, it’s tough to be at the top two years in a row these days. Even the dynamic duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson know that. Gordon and his teammates had a slow start to the 2014 season and peaked at the right time. Had it not been for the race at Texas and Brad Keselowski’s questionable bump pass, NASCAR would have crowned Gordon the champion and not my pre-season pick, Kevin Harvick.

*****

Which brings me to Alan Gustafson. Gordon’s crew chief since 2011, Alan has been my friend for much longer. He and I met during his first season as Kyle Busch’s crew chief on the 5 car. He gave Busch a great car every race and the young and brash Busch took full advantage of it, winning races, but just as important, scoring many, many top fives and top 10s. Gustafson taught me a lot about a Sprint Cup car back then. He was the person who took the time to explain how everything worked.

Gustafson became my “go-to” guy for many of my questions. I could always count on an easy to understand answer to any technical question I had. And I also learned over the years about leadership, the Gustafson way. The kind of leadership that kept the 24 team together. At the beginning of the 2014 season, their bad luck had them disappointed, frustrated and questioning themselves. Gustafson knew what to say to them and how to say it. He is truly a leader of men. And he is to be applauded for resurrecting Jeff Gordon’s championship style.

On occasion, Al and I would also talk about each other and our families and life in general. His southern accent is, well, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a NASCAR crew chief. Most of today’s Cup crew chiefs come from the Northeast or Midwest. Not that that’s bad or anything. But NASCAR would do well to keep its southern roots strong and healthy in order to keep the sport moving forward in the 21st century. Which is, another blog for another day.

I have no doubt in my mind that Alan will be able to duplicate the success that 24 team saw last season in 2015. If Gordon remains healthy, he is my pre-season pick for the championship.

*****

Jon Edwards. Most people know his face, but they’re not exactly sure who he is and what he does. His official title is somewhere in the vicinity of publicist. But in reality, he’s one of Gordon’s closest confidantes. They’ve worked together almost since Gordon’s entry into NASCAR. If you’re a member of the media, Edwards is your go-to guy for anything regarding Gordon and an invaluable ally when you needed to connect with the driver of the 24 car.

It was a rare occasion that Edwards would say no to a request. He often will go above and beyond to get the job done, presenting an extremely professional face to the world for anything relating to Jeff Gordon. I am proud to say is also my friend, someone whose first question when seeing me is always “How are you feeling?” And then our conversation turns to Formula One racing or something other than NASCAR. I met Jon when I first came to work in NASCAR. He is always there to answer any question, whether my role was as a journalist, publicist or television producer. Yes, television producer. I had approached Gordon’s father with an idea for a television show for Gordon several years ago. I believed it was perfect for him and I spent quite a bit of time putting it all together. It never did see the light of day. There were issues with logistics and many other reasons. I still believe it is the ideal vehicle for Gordon to segue into once he puts his driving gloves away.

Once you know Jon and how he works, it’s easy to see why he won the 2014 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports PR, a most prestigious honor!

And he’s just a good guy, too.

*****

I don’t profess to know Jeff Gordon the way some journalists do. He was already an established star in the sport when I first began to cover it some 15 years ago and for whatever reason, my relationship with him just remained professional. But, I have always and will continue to admire both his talent and his person. He has done it all, from winning championships and the sport’s biggest races (more than once) to hosting “Saturday Night Live.” I mean, it is very easy to blast out a thousand words of praise and affection for the man. But, I’ll leave that to those who feel they know him better than I.

I prefer to watch Gordon do his thing, alongside the two men in his life who I consider to be among the most important to him. And that I can proudly call my friends.

Thanks Jeff for all those great years of racing. I look forward to your final season.

And thanks Alan and Jon for your friendship. Knowing both of you the way I do makes it easy to see why Jeff Gordon is so successful. He’s got both of you working with him.

*****

Thanks for stopping by. And I promise to write more. Really!