NASCAR Isnt The Only Show

(RacingOne is proud to welcome our newest exclusive columnist, Rick Benjamin. Rick is a familiar face to racing fans - having hosted the popular "RaceDay" program and called races for MRN and television - and will share his expertise into several areas and circuits of auto racing. Here's Rick's debut column.)

We all know how “big time” NASCAR racing is. Just count the number of Brinks trucks lining up on International Speedway Boulevard on a weekly basis.

But maybe the best action in stock-car racing these days is the jockeying that's going on for second place among sanctioning bodies.

That battle, for many years, has been between the Auto Racing Club of America and the American Speed Association.

ARCA has benefited greatly from its unofficial alliance with NASCAR and many of its tracks. ASA has chosen to go its own way for the most part, and has really carved out its own path the past two years.

The two groups run some of the same tracks in the Midwest, but they help drivers, owners, and crews gain experience with entirely different race cars.

ARCA machines are basically Winston Cup cars with Hoosier radial tires at the corners. ASA's cars are purpose-built, with unique BFGoodrich radials, and the GM Vortec 5700 spec engine under the hood. If your goal is running in NASCAR, the technical comparison suggests running ARCA makes a lot of sense.

For 2001, the competition between the two leagues will be even more intense. ARCA has beefed up its schedule greatly, signing RE/MAX as its title sponsor, and putting up considerably more cash in purse and point money. ASA will be in the second year of its great experiment with the GM spec motors, and has a trump card to play: 20 events (as always), but this time all of them will be live on TNN. That's a great asset.

The number of drivers and owners who look at ASA as a key step up to big-league racing continues to grow. They know if they're good enough to qualify (no sure thing these days), they'll get 2 1/2 hours of live coverage, weekly, on a cable network that's in 80 million U.S. homes.

For drivers and owners, it's a choice as to the type of exposure they'd prefer. With ARCA, a fair number of events are run in conjunction with Winston Cup races, which means a stellar run can get the phone ringing with job opportunities (See Ryan Newman, 2000).

On the ASA side, drivers know Cup owners tune in to the broadcasts to check out the talent pool. That's what put Scott Wimmer in Bill Davis' BGN machine at the end of 2000, and it's what has given Tim Sauter a shot in the IWX Busch Series ride for the coming year.

ASA may have another major advantage. While its season is a bit shorter, it's a full-timer's tour.

The vast majority of the ASA teams make all 20 races, since Rex and Brian Robbins have followed the NASCAR template by making it financially worthwhile to do so. This year's champ, Gary St. Amant, picked up $200,000 for the title… as much as the NHRA's Top Fuel and Funny Car champions earned.

ARCA has been handicapped by the fact many of its teams don't chase points, preferring to cherry pick just the superspeedway events. That could well change this coming season with the new title sponsor and the schedule changes, but it seems to me the nature of ASA, being a true points-driven series, gives a driver or a team the kind of experience they will need in the pressure cooker of NASCAR's major series.

ASA is a great deal for another reason. Safety is always on the minds of those in charge.

In ASA, two incidents this past season brought the issue front and center: Butch Miller's fiery wreck early in the Nashville event back in May, and David Anspaugh's frightening wreck into the first-turn wall at the Milwaukee Mile, late in the summer.

While Butch jumped out of his Pontiac safely, Anspaugh remains in an extended-care facility in Indiana recovering from head injuries. Those two wrecks caused many within the series to re-examine the race cars, and work to improve driver safety parameters.

While no one expects the changes to be widely copied anytime soon, ASA tech officials - led by Technical Director Joe Balash - have worked hard with GM to develop a safer race car. The fruits of their labors were shown for the first time at the Society of Automotive Engineers Motorsports Engineering Conference last month.

They've moved the driver 4 inches toward the middle of the race car, which could be enough margin to save a life. They're strongly suggesting each pilot use the HANS head-and-neck restraint system. ASA is now mandating a six-point safety harness, and they're recommending the use of Randy LaJoie's "Joie of Seating" driver's chair… with shoulder, not rib support.

That’s not all, either. They're putting energy-absorbing materials in the rear-bumper section of the car. They've also reacted to Miller's fiery wreck by repositioning the fuel cell, making sure it's boxed in more securely, and adding additional tweaks to cut down the chance of fire with the fuel-injected Vortec engine.

And, as has been the case in Indy-car racing, GM's Delphi Division is contributing a "black box" to gather data in crashes, along with providing a way to show drivers in the cockpit when a yellow or red flag is displayed.

Anything that allows us fans to continue to enjoy racer's talents, I'm for. It's clear to me these changes are another way to make sure that the sport's up-and-coming stock-car pilots - in whatever series - are around long enough to reap the rewards they earn.

So, in that battle for second in the world of stock-car racing… give it to ASA, by a bumper. At least this time around.

NOTE: RacingOne will be adding a new ASA/ARCA features section – running daily and full of live news, columns, schedules, bios and statistics – in 2001. Stay tuned!

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