Ikens Korner:/I Full Steam Ahead

Good work if you can get it.

Here's all you need to do:

  • Inherit a sanctioning body and lure a sponsor that'll spend big money simply to attach its name to your top series.

  • Build a bunch of race tracks across the land. And most of those that you don't build, you buy. Sell boatloads of stock in your track-ownership company, but maintain control of the decision-making board, of course.

  • Since you own the sanctioning body and, therefore, make the racing schedule each year, and since your group owns the tracks where most of those races are run, right about now you should look into buying a money-printing machine.

  • Contrive a points system, with a big-money payout at season's end, that basically forces all team owners and their drivers to enter every single race -- this move alone separates you from the golf and tennis tours, which often stage tournaments without Tiger Woods, Karrie Webb, Pete Sampras and Venus Williams.

  • In case the monetary and status factors aren't enough to make all your stars enter every race, make sure you have a qualifying system that includes "provisional" starting spots for those who miss their qualifying setups. Teams can blow an engine in first-round qualifying, blow a tire in second-round, yet still get in the race and not risk the wrath of a sponsor who's paying them millions. They'll always get in the race ... as long as they're high enough in the points standings. Get it? Quite a little cycle, huh?

    Every now and then, I have to sit back and simply marvel at what they've built over there in NASCAR-Land. I found myself shaking my head again this past week, when NASCAR announced its Winston Cup race schedule for 2001. A few years ago, when they upped it to 33 races, everyone figured that had to be the limit. Then 34, surely that was the high-water mark. To add new tracks, they'd certainly have to start yanking a race or two from older venues.

    Nope. Two new races -- in Chicago and Kansas City, at tracks owned by ... oh, never mind, you know the story. And no one loses a race -- not Darlington, not Martinsville, not Dover. Throw in the preseason Bud Shootout and the Winston at Charlotte, and we're talking 38 races.

    Outside of the folks who own the tracks -- and those of you eaten up with it so bad, you fly your driver's flag outside your front door -- nobody can be truly happy about this. This is a season that now begins with "spring training" in January and ends on the third weekend of November.

    If you're talking pure physical torture, for my money, nothing compares with the life of an NHL hockey player -- nine months in bulky, sweaty uniforms, on a hard sheet of ice, with guys whose names end in V and K treating you like a tackling dummy. But for slow death, I side with the hundreds of mid-level crewmen whose paychecks are signed by the likes of Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick and Robert Yates.

    But you should only feel so bad for these guys. For every one being worked like a dog, there's a stack of applications in the crew chief's drawer. Here's what most are thinking when they get involved with a race team: "A job in the big time ... maybe $50,000 a year ... a chance to rub elbows with my heroes ... free trips to Vegas and California ... and man, this beats the hell out of Jiffy Lube."

    What they eventually learn, the hard way, is that they're too tired and dirty to enjoy any of the good stuff. Maybe the girl on the next barstool is really impressed that you help tune Runt Pittman's engines, but fat lot of good that does you when you share a room with the jack man and have a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call. And that 50 grand? Divide it by your 70 hours a week, and Jiffy Lube ain't looking too bad.

    Back in the good ol' days of a 33-race schedule, it was Felix Sabates who bemoaned the endless season and said, "You can't have a circus if you kill all the animals."

    He was wrong. You can most certainly do that, as long as you have plenty of replacement animals.

    The problem won't be the working men, and it certainly won't be the drivers, because they have it easier than anyone (well, assuming you ignore that nasty little element about defying death when they go to work). The problem area, in the short term, anyway, will likely be sponsors.

    The price of poker is lunging upward of $15 million per year, a full 50-percent hike from just a year ago. The small handful of teams that land this type of sponsor will obviously dominate the sport for the next few years even more than they dominate today. But eventually, it'll shake out and you'll have a basic pecking order much like you see now.

    "This biosphere that we work in is Darwinism at its most extreme, in every little area," says Geoff Smith, right-hand man for Jack Roush. Smith describes the growing gap between the Haves and Have-nots as "the start of a chasm that is eroding as rapidly as the rivers can flow."

    But he's basically OK with it, since he's a Have.

    Many others like to paint a picture of doom, figuring NASCAR (with its torturous scheduling and cut-throat marketing manners) and the track owners (with their ungodly ticket prices) have finally over-reached.

    Someday, the doomsayers may be right. But those in charge didn't get to this stage on pure luck. They may not all be here on scholarship, but they're no dummies.

    Yep, someday that stock-car train will jump the tracks, and a lot of us will finally be right and able to say "I told you so." And someday that roadrunner will trip and have his throat ripped out by the coyote. But you shouldn't lose any sleep waiting for it to happen.
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