Stories To Watch Part Two
December 31, 2003 | 10:06 A.M. EST
There will be some major changes for the Fords this year. (See below.) In addition, Ford is trying to combine their two powerhouse teams by forming an engineering cooperative involving Roush Racing and Robert Yates Racing. Yates will concentrate on the engines. (Which isn’t sitting too well with some Roush engine shop employees.) Roush will provide some chassis to Yates Racing.
Wherefore Art the Fords?- It seems odd to say considering Matt Kenseth drove a Taurus to the championship, but Ford struggled during much of the 2003 season. Kenseth was the only Ford driver to finish in the top 10 in points. Ford finished third behind Chevy and Dodge in the manufacturer’s title chase. As such NASCAR has granted the Ford teams new fascias for their cars and approved a new cylinder head design. Will the Fords rebound to competitive status, dominate or continue to run in the Chevy’s rearview mirrors? With Toyota on the way to Cup and Ford Motor Company losing records amount of money will they stay in the series if their cars aren’t competitive? Stay tuned.
Tora, Tora, Tora- Ready or not, here come the Toyotas to NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series. And they’re bringing along cubic bushels of yen when they arrive. Garage gossip claims the new Toyota race-only engine loosely based on the best parts of the Dodge, Ford and Chevy engines, can spin reliably to 10,000 RPM, an almost unheard of RPM range for a pushrod equipped V8 competing in medium distance races.
One of the interesting stories early in Speed Weeks will be how the fans react to the presence of the Toyota teams. My guess is with lusty cries of disapproval and outright hostility. And the jeering is only going to get worse if those Toyotas start winning.
The Lawsuit- Unless the two sides find a compromise solution (unlikely but not as unlikely now that Brian France has taken over the reins from his dad) the Texas lawsuit should reach the courtroom sometime in mid to late 2004. The suit pits NASCAR against a fellow by the name of Francis Ferko who represents the interests of the Texas Motor Speedway in particular and the Speedway Motorsports in general.
Ferko alleges that Bill France promised Bruton Smith a date for the Texas track before construction began. Smith then went ahead and purchased half of North Wilkesboro to get a second date for his track. France counters no such deal was made. This is a high stakes poker game with tens of millions of dollars on the line. The all too cozy relationship between NASCAR (which awards race dates) and the International Speedway Corporation (which owns race tracks and competes with SMS for race dates) both of which are owned or controlled by the France family. A finding against NASCAR could have long term implications for the sport and force the France family to distance themselves from either NASCAR or the ISC. Who’d have thought it might come down to racing fans having to watch Court TV rather than SPEED to keep up with racing news?
Ryan Newman- At the end of the 2003 season Ryan Newman was hotter than the Fourth of July in Birmingham. Will he continue where he left off? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Remember how hot Kurt Busch was down the stretch drive in 2002, rising from eleventh to third in the points and winning three of the last five races. Busch started out 2003 well, but then floundered during the late part of the season. And if Newman does in fact continue to dominate the sport, how delighted is Nextel going to be that a car sponsored by one of their telecommunication rivals is getting all the headlines?
Will Rusty be Trusty or Crusty?- Sometimes great drivers have an off year. It happened to Earnhardt more than once during his illustrious career. But it’s rare a driver who is still competitive can go two straight substandard seasons then bounce back. (Call it the Darrell Waltrip Principle.) If Rusty Wallace doesn’t win the Daytona 500 (and he’s a very long shot for that honor) or Rockingham his winless streak will have reached the 100 race threshold. With the way Newman is running and winning races, Wallace can’t blame his lack of success on the Penske South equipment he drives. If he goes winless again in 2004 will Wallace retire? Will he have a choice?
Why Johnny Can’t Race- Heading into the New Year Johnny Benson, a favorite of the fans, still hasn’t landed a full time ride for 2004. Nor have John Andretti or Steve Park, much to the disappointment of their fans. Dave Blaney’s future is unclear. Why are all these long term drivers on the sidelines? Take a look at that long list of Rookie of the Year contenders above.
How Will Bill Elliott’s Part-Time Job Go?- Will Elliott reappear at Las Vegas and be able to run as competitively as he did in the later stages of 2004? Will he win another race next year, or will he show up and fail to qualify as a part time driver? If Elliott is successful and content, the part-time option might seem more palatable to other drivers in his age group who are still competing full time, especially those who have been with the same team owner a long time who would have the backing to ease into retirement gracefully. (I’m thinking Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace here.) If enough drivers want to race part time will NASCAR finally adopt a Senior’s series like the one I’ve been proposing for seven years now? And if the part-time racing deal doesn’t work out for Elliott? Well, a lot of retirees work part time as greeters at Wal-Mart.
Open Wheel Racing- CART racing (under a new name) will at least start the 2004 race season, but it seems to have been dealt a death blow in the long term civil war with the IRL for dominance in American open wheel racing. So what does that have to do with NASCAR racing? A single open wheel series, particularly one that features the Indy 500 and some great racing, will be better able to compete for the heart and pocketbooks of race fans, many of whom are growing disenchanted with NASCAR especially since this playoff idea was proposed.
Heading To California, For the Labor Day Weekend Show- For the first time since 1950, NASCAR’s top drivers will not be racing at Darlington this coming Labor Day weekend. Instead they’ll be heading to the Penske built-ISC owned cookie cutter in South California unless the state burns to the ground, falls into the sea or is covered by thirty feet of mud first. And there’s going to be a lot of long time fans, myself included, who not are only hoping the race is rained out on Sunday, but run under searing 100 degree plus temperatures on Monday. Either way I won’t be watching, and my guess is a lot of hard core race fans are going to find some other way to spend Labor Day Weekend this year that doesn’t involve staring dull-eyed at four hours worth of a monotonous parade on the California Cookie Cutter.
But there’s an interesting footnote to the story. Darlington is adding lights to the track. Is seems unlikely they’ll ever be able to race under the lights in February or November, the two dates that Darlington has on the 2004 schedule? Could the Southern 500 move back to Darlington on Labor Day Eve in 2005? (Like most purists, as much as I think the race belongs in the afternoon, better Darlington at night than not at Darlington at all.) And why would NASCAR consider such a radical reversal? Because giving California (an ISC track) the date in November and moving the Southern 500 back to Darlington would mean that California would be one of the ten tracks involved in the Playoff scenario if that concept is approved.