Upside Down

The usual craziness that is the Winston Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway was just one of the big stories of the week. Is it just me, or have things been more than a little goofy lately?

How wacky has it been? Well, arguably the two most sympathetic figures in all of NASCAR lately are none other than Bruton Smith and Jimmy Spencer. If that wasn’t enough for the bizarro world, Kevin Harvick is now the spokesperson for rule, order, and chastising the cocky, arrogant punks of NASCAR.

It wasn’t too long ago that Bruton was the most hated man in NASCAR. He was the 1990’s version of Mr. Potter, a billionaire heavyweight who stepped on the little people of North Wilkesboro to further his personal fiefdom. Now, thanks to some guy named Francis Ferko, Mr. Smith is the underdog in a high stakes battle with NASCAR over a second race at Texas and what some say is a too cozy of a relationship between ISC and NASCAR. If you don’t believe that Bruton has undergone a transformation more dramatic than Michael Jackson’s nose in the opinion of race fans, you should have heard the cheers for him on Saturday night at Bristol. Public Enemy Number One is now leading the trumpet in the requiem for the common man.

Then there’s Jimmy Spencer. You might remember him as that aggressive driver that fans loved to hate. In the mid 90’s he made driving below the yellow line and endangering the lives of 42 other people at Talladega a semi-annual rite of passage. Most race fans didn’t like him and at least one big-time sponsor told James to cool his jets.

Fast forward to 2003. The Big Man from Berwick turns pugilist on the punk and he becomes a national hero. “Free Jimmy,” screamed the throngs at Bristol. Kurt Busch, the one who actually received the punch while sitting helplessly in a race car, is somehow deemed the villain. Judging by all of the middle fingers I saw in the air at Bristol when Busch was introduced, it’s safe to say that the Roush PR brigade may be putting in some overtime.

Then in steps Kevin Harvick. You might remember him as the assailant on Greg Biffle, the recipient of a one-race suspension, and someone who joined the likes of Delta House when he was put on double secret probation just one year ago. Like a former smoker who can’t keep his success at kicking the habit to himself, Harvick goes on national TV and calls Busch “Rubberhead”, refers to him as a “butthole,” and talks about how cocky and arrogant the skinny kid from Las Vegas is. Next time, Dave Burns needs to hold up a mirror to Harvick’s face when he gets a post-race interview.

NASCAR is all part of this craziness too. They doled out fines and probation, with Mike Helton refusing to go on TV to answer a few simple questions from Bill Weber. As usual, NASCAR takes the public stance that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated, but in the offices of Daytona Beach you’ve got to believe that a segment of the NASCAR leadership is thrilled with the controversy and added attention all of this turmoil brings. Like many acts that are publicly frowned upon, look for the highlights on a NASCAR commercial fairly soon.

One other surreal moment at Bristol on Saturday night was the dedication of the Earnhardt Terrace. They replayed highlights of MRN broadcasts from Dale Earnhardt’s victories at Bristol. On at least two occasions they replayed the highlight when Dale spun out Terry Labonte to win the night race. Each time that the MRN crew gave the blow-by-blow of Earnhardt’s spin of Labonte, the crowd went nuts. If memory serves me correctly, the in-person crowd the night of the race read Earnhardt the riot act. Now they roar with approval.

The craziness of Bristol also brings to mind a few issues on the TV front. First, how much longer can NASCAR, Dick Ebersol, and Jeff Zucker keep this race off of NBC? The contest with the toughest ticket in NASCAR, the beating and banging on the high banks of Bristol under the lights is worthy of a big prime time slot on the Peacock Network. No offense to the fine folks at Turner, but a marquee event like this shouldn’t be relegated to cable TV.

NBC’s ratings were horrible on Saturday night, with the network coming in dead last among the big four, with a 2.8 rating. With Bristol on instead, they would have easily won the night, as CBS took top honors with a 4.3.

NASCAR’s self-proclaimed mission is to bring their product to the broadest possible audience. Relegating the most exciting race of the year to cable while putting Watkins Glen on NBC just two weeks earlier doesn’t help build that audience to its maximum potential. This race should be big, really big.

The other story from Bristol that’s flying under the radar of most of the media, but a big topic among race fans, is what happened with all of the hoopla surrounding the Winston Tribute cars. NASCAR and Winston have said that the “Victory Lap” program would be a big deal, but its inaugural effort at Bristol was a major dud.

I got to my seat in Row 14 of the Kulwicki Grandstand at Bristol at least 40 minutes prior to the start of the race and it was too late for the big Winston salute. NASCAR and SME people have assured me that tribute did indeed happen somewhere in the pre-race ceremonies, with Jimmy Hensley driving the #7 car and Jerry Kulwicki and his wife riding in the pace car. But a thorough review of the nation’s newspapers and even the racing press shows that the moment went off with no noticeable fanfare.

The only mention of any Winston salute on TV was a mention in passing by Allen Bestwick that Rusty Wallace had a special paint scheme as a past champion as part of a salute to Winston. This was a sadly missed opportunity for race fans, Winston, and the television partners.

Just imagine the emotion of 164,000 people cheering the #7 car for a few ceremonial laps, only to get more intense when Hensley turned that car around to do a Polish Victory Lap. TNT could have thrown in a brief touching video montage set to music. Heck, if they can toss in 30 seconds of girls in bikinis set to an Eddie Money song during green flag racing, some footage of Kulwicki doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.

Instead, the powers-that-be relegated the emotional tribute to a time when the stands were half-full and a national TV audience had not yet tuned in. It leads one to believe that the same people in charge of that bad TV known as the Winston Cup Awards Banquet are biding their time working on the Winston tribute. Race fans and all of those past champions deserve a lot better.

THIS WEEK’S NOTES: Some of the non-IRL fans on the Internet message boards have been trying to make hay about the Little League World Series getting priority on the Disney networks over the IRL, when it’s really a no-brainer and no slam against the IRL. The LLWS gets strong TV ratings. The overnights on ABC showed solid numbers of a 3.1 on Saturday and a 4.7 on Sunday (Figures provided by Nielsen Media Research in Sports Business Daily) . . . The Winston Cup ratings from Michigan were down from 5.3 to 4.9, a 7% decline . . . Jeff Gordon will be on “Wind Tunnel” with Dave Despain tonight at 9:00.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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