Monday, September 28, 2009

What Happened Between Mark Martin and Jack Roush?

Mark Martin and Jack Roush built each other. Mark Martin was a driver who, though obviously skilled (winning four ASA championships between 1978-1986), struggled to make it in NASCAR early in his career. Jack Roush was a brilliant Ford engineer who started a race team and a racing engineering company. It wasn’t until the two hooked up in 1988 in the Winston Cup Series that the two were successful at the top level of motorsports.

Martin and Roush stayed together through the 2006 season, 18 years during which Martin would finish 2nd in the championship standings four times. When Matt Kenseth won Roush Racing’s first championship in 2003, Roush was sure to thank Martin in every victory speech. Martin tried to retire in 2005, but due to driver shuffling in the organization, Roush needed Martin to stay, and he agreed.

Mark Martin and Jack Roush seemed inseparable, like best friends or long-lost brothers. Everyone thought Martin would be in a Roush Ford until the last time he hung up his helmet. It was a given.

Then, they split.

Martin went into semi-retirement with rival Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and the affiliated Ginn Racing, but came back to full time competition this year with Roush-Fenway racing’s arch nemesis, Hendrick Motorsports (and, quite frankly, is kicking the pants off of the whole Roush organization). Seeing Mark Martin in a Hendrick Chevy was almost like seeing Dale Earnhardt in a Toyota – unfathomable. And, in victory speeches or otherwise, Mark Martin no longer thanks Jack Roush, and Jack Roush no longer thanks Mark Martin.

So what happened?

To be short, we don’t know. Probably the only two who do know are Mark Martin and Jack Roush. There have been no stories, no media investigations, no scathing tell-alls by the hauler driver.

Perhaps this is how it should be, but we can still wonder. Was Mark kept out of retirement a year too long? Was he hoping for some sort of management or ownership role at Roush Racing in his retirement that Jack was reluctant to give?

This is pure speculation, as it should be, and probably will remain. Mark Martin and Jack Roush are two of the most respected people in the garage, and I highly doubt either of them would come out and say anything, should anything have happened.

It will be interesting, though, if Mark Martin is able to win his first championship this year, if he will thank Jack Roush for the role he played in Mark’s career. Yes, he will have won the championship in a Hendrick car, but without Jack Roush, there would be no Mark Martin, and without Mark Martin, there would be no Jack Roush.

Other NASCAR Notes

Goodyear will test a larger Sprint Cup Series tire on October 6th at Richmond International Raceway. The new tire amounts to 1.5 inches taller and wider, in an effort to give the unruly COT more mechanical grip and handle better. I think this will be a good move.

The last few years in Formula One, they had been racing on a grooved tire – the cars were getting too fast, so the sanctioning body took some grip away to slow the cars down for safety reasons. This year, however, they made some aerodynamic changes to slow the cars, and put pure slicks back on to improve the mechanical grip in the corners. This has made for some exciting dogfights in Formula One.

I used to be completely against any change to the COT. To provide a good show, I thought the cars needed to drive ugly, and the uglier the better. The drivers in NASCAR are the best in the world, and if the cars handled perfectly, they wouldn’t need the best drivers in the world to drive them.

I figured out the problem with my old way of thinking when I realized the cars simply cannot race against each other unless they're handling. Only when a driver can sail into a corner with full confidence that his car will stay under him can he truly race the other car. This is why the bigger tire will be good, should it be implemented. I’m sure NASCAR can find some way to limit the costs – we’ve seen too many good things happen with the COT and underfunded teams to undergo wholesale expensive changes now, far removed from just a few years ago when NASCAR would announce that a certain manufacturer would be allowed a nose kick-out next week.

Reporting for NASCAR Now on ESPN after the infamous driver's meeting this summer, Dale Jarrett said, “The cars have the same size tire they did when I started racing 20 years ago, but have 200 more horsepower.”

In a quick note, the “Sights and Sounds” videos produced at are amazing! Watch them for a few minutes of enjoyment at:

-David Dubczak

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Potential Sponsors Are Missing Out on the NASCAR Game

Over the past year, sponsors leaving NASCAR has left a huge void in the sport. With the economy today, it's been difficult to replace them, leaving many teams underfunded (Robby Gordon Motorsports), unfunded (NEMCO Motorsports), or completely shut down (Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing no. 8). However, it's not like there aren't any potential sponsors out there - America is a consumer nation with companies abound! Many of these companies are simply missing out on the benefits of NASCAR sponsorship.

NASCAR, you see, has over 75 million fans from coast to coast... 75 million fans. That's almost 25% of the entire United States of America. NASCAR fans are some of the most loyal in the sports world, and the investment nearly always pays off. Last year, Alltel reported that the company receives a 6:1 return ratio from it's former NASCAR sponsorship (Alltel phased out their sponsorship this year because of conflicts with NASCAR's exclusivity deal with Sprint); that means, for every dollar Alltel spent, the company got 6 dollars in extra business.

Now, that's impressive. Want more impressiveness? In 2008, Lowe's Home Improvement Stores can claim to have received $49,568,850 in extra income through their $15 million sponsorship of Jimmie Johnson's team.

A lot of sponsors aren't simply trying to get you to buy their product, though. What they're trying to do is get you to buy their product instead of someone else's - Lowe's wants you to shop at Lowe's instead of Home Depot, and Amp wants you to drink Amp instead of Red Bull, and vice versa. When the cup series' title sponsor was Winston, I never got an overwhelming urge to start smoking while watching a Winston Cup Series race, but Winston wanted people to smoke Winstons instead of something else. This works even for sponsors without a rival company sponsoring a car - Office Depot wants you to shop at Office Depot instead of Office Max, even though Office Max is not a NASCAR sponsor. According to one study, 47% of NASCAR fans like one company over another simply because they sponsor a team.

So, with Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and DeWalt announcing they're leaving at the end of the season and still no sponsors to replace them, what companies are ripe to fill the void and are missing out?

Cruise Lines
Cruise lines are a multi-billion dollar industry world wide that would make an excellent fit in NASCAR. Cruise lines are competing over building the biggest ships, and big ships need power. What better fit for a cruise line than NASCAR? These companies are competing for each others business, and the two most notable consumer cruise lines who would most appeal to NASCAR, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, are continually vying for market share.
The thing about NASCAR fans is they take vacations too, and why not sponsor a favored driver's car to ensure fans take a cruise vacation instead of some other vacation, and go on their ship instead of someone else's ship. If Royal Caribbean and Carnival get into the sport, we now have two more primary sponsors.

Computer Manufacturers
I'm actually rather disturbed not to see any Dell cars, HP cars, or Apple cars around the track. The thing is, everybody needs a computer nowadays, so these companies would be appealing to a market that is buying computers anyway. Once again, Dell would be wise to get their logo on a car to ensure fans buy a Dell instead of something else. The market for computers is constantly evolving and shifting, and few computer users have a sense of what is the computer to get, and few computer users feel loyal to their brand. Why not use NASCAR to build this brand loyalty?

Has anyone else noticed the lack of resaurant chains sponsoring Sprint Cup cars? McDonalds (Richard Petty Motorsports) and Burger King (Tony Stewart) occasionally run a race, Taco Bell has a limited sponsorship of John Andretti, and Long John Silvers occasionally makes an appearance, but that's about it. Considering how often Americans like to eat out, this surprises me a great deal. Where is Perkins? Arby's? Panera Bread? Hooters? Cracker Barrel? Culver's? The pizza chains – Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's? Once again, marketing is about trying to get people to buy your product instead of someone else's. Why aren't these companies trying to tap into NASCAR fan's infalliable brand loyalty?
NASCAR seems especially useful to unknown brands. Case in point: earlier this year, a restaurant chain called Tilted Kilt sponsored Todd Bodine's no. 30 Camping World Truck Series truck for a single race earlier this year. This caused their web server to crash due to the sheer volume of people trying to figure out what Tilted Kilt was. These smaller chains might not be able to afford an entire season, but a one or two race deal will still work out well for them (provided their web servers are up to par).

OK, I'll admit the airlines have had a tough go of it lately, and many are cutting back their flights in an effort to cut costs and fill more seats. But, once again, this is a matter of getting a flyer to fly on your airline instead of another airline. Plus, NASCAR fans fly to racetracks all over the country - a United Airlines Racing fan would probably take a United flight to get there and back.
Airlines probably couldn't afford a primary sponsorship, but even an associate sponsorship to get fans to associate a sponsor with a driver goes a long way toward decision making. It is estimated that having the M&M's logo on Kyle Bush's rear quarter panel alone netted them $3,526,953, not to mention what the other parts of the car brought.

I'm sure one can think of more categories that I didn't list here. America is full of companies! Those that aren't in NASCAR or have left NASCAR are simply missing out.


Other NASCAR Notes
This week, Tony Stewart visited the Hendrick Motorsports Chassis and Engine shop to personally thank the employees who have been supplying his equipment. Way to go. Tony Stewart the owner is far superior to Tony Stewart the anger-management-problem-ripping-cameras-out-of-reporters-hands that I watched growing up. Some of the guys in the shops work at thankless jobs who might get a pat on the back by the competition director. But having the owner/driver of another team come over and thank you has got to be a big shot in the arm.

In addition, Kevin Harvick Incorporated released development driver Cale Gale from his contract. This is a shame, considering KHI worked dilligently to get him some Nationwide Series races, but none of the sponsors were willing to go along with this untested, unknown kid who showed a lot of talent in the few races he was able to start. I hope he finds a ride in the future with a good team and can show what he can really do.

What do you think about all of this? Comments are welcome.
-David Dubczak

Monday, September 21, 2009

Success With TRG Good for Labonte, Bad for Hall of Fame Racing

When the 2000 Cup Champ Bobby Labonte suddenly found himself without a ride at Hall of Fame Racing for seven of the last twelve races of the season, the underfunded but respectfully well-performing team of TRG Motorsports offered him a spot in their no. 71 car for those races (it didn’t hurt that Labonte has a past-champions provisional to bring to this non-top 35 team, guaranteeing them a starting spot). Surprisingly, in the two races he has been in this car, he has run very well, posting an 18th at Atlanta and a 22nd at Loudon. In fact, in all parts of the weekend, he has outperformed his no. 96 HOF entry, both compared to his own stats and the performance of the driver who bought him out, Erik Darnell. This is going to work out either very good for Labonte, very bad for Hall of Fame, or both.

TRG, while not being new to racing, is new to NASCAR this year. They have a limited fleet of vehicles, and 10 total employees (including the truck driver). The no. 71 does not have a primary sponsor and cannot afford to run the whole race on their unsponsored weekends, relying on their winnings to fund their week-to-week operations. Though they tend to qualify well, often being one of the top go-or-go-home cars on Friday, their race finishes when they do race are usually poor, despite the efforts of driver David Gilliland.

Then Bobby comes along, and the whole team seemingly perks up. They’re fast in practice and run in the top ten during the race. At Loudon, Bobby, who thought he had “forgotten how to qualify,” put the car in the 8th starting position… his only top-ten qualifying effort all year, with only two other top-15 runs.

With TRG, Bobby is showing he can still “get it done,” and hasn’t lost the talent he had in 2000. At Gibbs, his team relied to heavily on the status quo, the sport surpassed them, and he struggled in his latter years. He then went to Petty Enterprises to drive the no. 43, whose fame was the only thing going for it. Now, TRG often outqualifies fully-funded teams, and with Bobby in the car, outraces them.

Herein lies the problem: Labonte’s normal ride, the no. 96 Hall of Fame Racing entry is, for all intents and purposes, a Yates Racing car and full teammate to Paul Menard, and fully sponsored (save for those seven races) by and Texas Instruments DLP. This car is one of the ones being outrun by Labonte and TRG. Yates has two fully sponsored cars, and the full slate of technology available to them. Yates has a technology and information-sharing alliance with Roush-Fenway Racing, and supposedly builds the best engines in the business. Yet, they have finished one-third of the races in 2009 outside of the top 25, have had one top-ten, and sits 31st in owner’s points. TRG, the-little-team-that-could, is not supposed to be beating them.

This could affect sponsorship for Hall of Fame. For their first few years, Texas Instruments DLP was their primary sponsor, and they have reduced their backing to the associate level. came in this season as one of the few companies with new money to spend in the sport, and signed a one-year deal with HOF. They, now, are looking elsewhere for 2010.

As is Hall of Fame. For their first few years, they were the illegitimate child of Joe Gibbs Racing. They thought the cars were getting equal preparation and they were in equal equipment, but it took Joey Logano, who raced the no. 96 for a few races at the end of 2008, to find they did not. The deal with Yates was supposed to be a full partnership, being Yates cars in all but name (to be fair, Yates driver Paul Menard is 33rd in owner’s points). And, with the Yates-Petty merger, Hall of Fame will have to find a new team to align with in 2010. However, if sponsors doubt their ability to perform, especially when their driver outperforms them in a “worse” team, it is unlikely they will remain in the sport for much longer.

Bobby Labonte, though, has shown he can still do it. He’ll be with a good team again next year.

Other NASCAR Notes:

Espionage at Richard Petty Motorsports? On Monday’s This Week in NASCAR, Jimmy Spencer eluded to the possibility of a “snake in the wood pile” in the engine room at RPM, causing their lone chase driver Kasey Kahne to blow an engine 70 laps into the Sylvania 300 this Sunday, the first chase race. This is in the wake of the announced Yates-Petty merger, which effectively will lay off the entire RPM engine-building staff. Here’s the interesting thing: none of the RPM drivers have had a single DNF all year, much less an engine related issue. Interesting…

Kurt Busch will not win the championship. His crew chief, Pat Tryson, has been locked out of the Penske Racing shop after announcing he will jump ship to Michael Waltrip Racing next year. I’m sorry, the crew chief needs to be at the shop building cars. This move, put in place to protect their preparations for next year from leaking to MWR, has cost them the championship.

-David Dubczak

Saturday, September 19, 2009

ASA-North and USARacing Pro Cup Action at Iowa Speedway

With all the attention paid to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, sometimes I find it a bit refreshing to take a step back and review some of the smaller racing series that don't often get much attention but are still the places where young racers learn to race.

Such is the case with the ASA Late Model Division and the USARacing Pro Cup series (formerly the USAR Hooters Pro Cup series). Yesterday, I had the pleasure (yes, the pleasure) of watching these series race at the Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.

The ASA Pork 100 was entertaining from start to finish. As with all of the lower divisions of racing, there was not a whole lot of parity in the field, and only 10 of the 32 cars entered had a legitimate shot of winning, but there were good battles all over the track. With Iowa being a compound-banked oval, drivers could race without having to fight for the bottom. However, the high side appeared to have an advantage off the corner, allowing the lower-horsepower ASA Late Models more momentum going down the straights. Dillon Oliver survived the restart with four laps to remaining to go on and took the checkered flag.

The USARacing Pro Cup Pork 200 was thrilling as well, but the parity issues found in the ASA series were even moreso in this race: only 21 cars started the race, and only about 8 were legitimate contenders. These 8 did not disappoint, however. They stayed bunched up on the restarts, but after about 15 laps, the dominant cars were definitely the no. 22n of Derek Kale and the no. 22s of Drew Herring. Following a restart around lap 70, Kale and Herring were pulling away from the field, when Kale suddenly loses an engine.

For the next 50 laps, it appears to be a one-man show with Drew Herring, but after a caution around lap 120, we have a new challenger: J.P. Morgan (no, not the financial giant), who started in the back in his no. 23s. Herring and Morgan treated Iowans to a thrilling battle for the next 70 laps, with not one driver able to gain more than a car-length on another. Finally, with about 10 laps to go, Morgan pulled ahead of Herring for the final time, and went on to win the race.

If Morgan hadn't passed Herring and they had still been racing close coming to the checkered, I have no doubt the race would not have ended cleanly.

The amazing thing is the USARacing series was all but defunct over this past winter, as Hooters decided they no longer wanted to be involved in the series they founded. The series was saved in January by a new investment group, and are working diligently to bring the Pro Cup series back into glory. They have put on some great races in the past, with many three-wide finishes in their 14 race season. The cars are basically the same as NASCAR Nationwide Series cars, with the full amount of horsepower and all 3,300 pounds, but on a budget. If this series can increase it's car count (by the end of the Iowa race, 12 cars remained on the track) and parity, fans would get their money's worth at any USARacing Pro Cup Series show.

Two tigers have been unleashed this week in the Sprint Cup Series: Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kyle Busch. Montoya's Earnhardt-Ganassi team has kept the reigns on him this season, forcing him into a plan to make the chase. Montoya has shown he can win (cough, Indy), but his team has kept him from taking unnecessary risks to reach victory lane in an effort to simply gather enough points. They have executed this plan brilliantly and flawlessly (except for one race, cough, Indy), and now that he's in, expect big things. At New Hampshire, he won the pole and has been fastest in every practice session.

Kyle Busch, on the other hand, is not in the Chase. Though he has won four races this year, he simply was not consistent, and his team did not prove worthy. The past few weeks, he was also playing the points-racing game (something the I-hate-losing-so-much-I-won't-even-talk-to-you-even-when-I-finish-second Kyle Busch actually agreed to), and came up just a few points short of the magical 12th position. With that pressure off, he will be looking to make up for that as much as possible and steal the show from the chase drivers, especially Mark Martin, who begins the Chase in the top seed in Kyle's old car from Hendrick Motorsports.