Wrapping Up At The End Of The Year

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It’s a Gas, gas, gas…..With all the controversy over changes to the points system and the confusion about Nextel’s plans as the sport’s new title sponsor, Sunoco, hasn’t been getting a lot of ink. Sunoco will taking over as the official fuel supplier of NASCAR from Unocal76 which has held that title under various names (it used to be Pure Oil) since NASCAR’s inception. Long time race fans may recall that Sunoco has been involved with racing previously, perhaps most notably backing the championship winning and stunningly beautiful blue and yellow Camaros the late Mark Donohue used to race for Roger Penske in the Trans Am series in the late 60s.

As I see it, Sunoco has an opportunity here to start the switch from leaded racing gasoline to unleaded. Due to environmental concerns, lead is some nasty stuff, American passenger cars were designed to run on unleaded gasoline starting in the mid-70s and leaded fuel is no longer legal for highway driven vehicles. This is Sunoco’s chance to show environmentalism and high performance are not mutually exclusive. Lead is used in racing fuel for two main reasons. First it helps lubricate valve seats. Secondly it boosts octane ratings to allow for the high compression engines found in most naturally aspirated fossil fuel race cars. (Higher compression ratios make for a more efficient powerful engine, but require higher-octane fuel to avoid detonation given the same cylinder head material and timing.) Cutting Winston Cup engines back to a 10:1 compression ratio (which would require approximately 100 octane gasoline) would reduce power which would in turn slow speeds and make for better racing. And it’s going to be better PR for Sunoco to phase out lead on their initiative than to wait for some environmental extremist group looking for a high visibility symbolic target get big government involved in the process. And if that allows for 100 octane street gas served up at the Sunoco pumps for us old muscle car guys, so much the better.

Farewell to the Preview- I’m still getting a lot of email on the topic so here’s the best information I have so far. The T Wayne Robertson Winston Preview normally held in January in Winston-Salem NC has been scrapped. That’s a real pity because the show was always hugely popular with the fans and the central location allowed fans from the Northeast and the Deep South to attend the event which was within reasonable driving distance. The show was named after RJR marketing great T. Wayne Robertson who was instrumental in the growth of NASCAR racing prior to his untimely death just before the 1998 season in a boating mishap.

The “replacement” for the event will be called “Fan-fest” and will be held in Daytona, Florida in conjunction with pre-season testing. On January 6th to 8th the drivers of teams that finished in odd numbered positions in the 2003 Owner (not driver!) points will be on hand. On January 13th to 15th the drivers whose teams finishes in even numbered spots in the 2003 Owner points will be in town.

Limited information is involved in what exactly “Fan Fest” will be other than a marketing boom for the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce and a sloppily apparent ploy to lure fans into paying to enter the Daytona USA dog and pony show to further bolster the ISC’s already bulging coffers. Exhibits outside the track (unspecified) will be free to the public. Paying a $10 admission fee will get fans a goody bag full of unspecified stuff autographed by unspecified drivers. There’s no indication if there will be driver autograph sessions similar to the ones traditionally held at the Preview or what mechanism will be used to select the fans who will get those autographs. Perhaps that’s because some drivers have already indicated while they didn’t mind taking an afternoon or morning to go to the Preview they have no intent on spending an extra day in Daytona doing the same. Nor is there any clear indication if show cars featuring all the cars new war liveries for 2004 will be on hand at one time as had been the case at the Preview. It seems that half of the cars will be there for one session and the other half will be there a week later. So if you and the spouse are fans of one driver who finishes in an odd team owner points slot and one who finishes in an even numbered points slot you’ll just have to make arrangements for two trips to Florida.

Yeah, it’s a bummer. But this is what happens when we so sloppily, allow NASCAR and the ISC to have a veritable monopoly. Perhaps Humpy Wheeler and the boys at the Lowes Motor Speedway could save the tradition of a Charlotte based Fan Preview by holding an alternate event at the track this winter. Note to Nextel: You shouldn’t have let this “Fan Fest” thing happen.

Silly Season Score Card- With testing at Daytona only weeks away there’s still a lot of teams out there beating the bushes hoping to find a sponsor for 2004 including a couple of high profile outfits.

Most notable, perhaps, is Jeff Burton and Jack Roush’s 99 team. As of yet they have not found a backer and there is a possibility that Burton will run only a limited schedule in 2004 if a sponsor isn’t found soon. That’s surprising in that the 99 team is a stablemate of this year’s championship winning team.

Earlier this month Bill Elliott announced he was planning to cut back to a limited schedule in 2004, skipping the Daytona 500 and Rockingham and making his first Cup points race start at Las Vegas. (Elliott will also participate in the Bud Shootout as a previous winner of the event though he did score a pole in 2003.) But that plan is contingent on the new third Ray Evernham team finding a sponsor. With a driver as popular as Elliott I would have thought that would be simple, especially since a part time effort would be cheaper to back, but apparently not. And in another odd twist, while Kasey Kahne is slated to take over the 9 car, Ford is still playing hard ball and saying he’s under contract to them. Can you imagine a judge issuing an injunction banning Kahne from taking a qualifying run in a Dodge during Speedweeks?

One piece of the puzzle not yet officially in place is where Kodak and their money will end up in 2004. While it’s not official it’s widely believed that Kodak will back a third Penske South entry with Las Vegas native and truck series championship contender Brendan Gaughan at the wheel. The team will neither confirm nor deny that but has said they will make their plans clear prior to the end of this year. Rusty Wallace wasn’t thrilled originally that Penske South decided to run a second team, so one has to wonder how he’s going to feel about being part of a three car team where he might just end up lowest on the totem pole.

The loss of long timer sponsor Kodak has Larry McClure and the 4 team scrambling to find backing. Likewise Jimmy Spencer and the 7 team have yet to announce a replacement for Sirius satellite radio.

With the loss of Pennzoil as a sponsor, DEI has already announced that they will only be running the 1 car on a limited schedule in 2004. John Andretti will run the car at Daytona and Martin Truex Jr. will run up to five races this year in Nextel Cup, sponsorship pending. Despite a very credible season for a driver in a plain white wrapper Tony Raines and the 74 bunch haven’t landed a backer. Travis Carter lost hi sponsor, the National Guard, and his partner to Roush Racing’s 16 bunch, leaving Todd Bodine without a ride in 2004. Kenny Schrader and BAM racing took it on the chin when Nextel signed on as title sponsor of the series. Reports had AT&T ready to sign on as a full time sponsor but under the new arrangement NASCAR has with Nextel, AT&T is grand-fathered only as an associate sponsor.

Even with all those teams out there beating the bushes some high profile companies, most notably Microsoft and Wal-Mart, have decided against getting involved sponsoring NASCAR teams. Harley Davidson is apparently content selling all the bikes it can build, a lot of them to folks in the Cup garage, without spending 15 million dollars a year to promote them. McDonalds has apparently had their fill of writing super-sized checks to back one team and participates in that “members only” pit crew challenge thing. Burger King, Wendys and KFC participate only to a limited degree in the sport. Other entire industries once involved in the sport are no longer anteing up despite the fact NASCAR fans still drink coffee, fire up their PCs, have an occasional TV dinner, and brush their teeth. (C’mon, how simple is a toothpaste backed racing ad campaign. “Whiter teeth….FAST.”)

While it’s not unique this year’s sponsorship drought seems particularly severe. My proposed solutions include:

1) Lower the cost of fielding a competitive team in NASCAR’s top division.
2) Crack down on the “pay per view” tactics where team sponsors need to buy ad minutes during a race broadcast to get their cars shown.
3) NASCAR needs to stop competing with the teams for sponsorship dollars with their “Official Whatever of NASCAR” nonsense, and realize that the health of the sport requires a goodly number of adequately sponsored teams running out there every Sunday.

Up In Smoke- I’m told by an informed source that action is being taken to see to it the grandstands at Dover are smoke-free starting in 2004 to bring the track into compliance with Delaware’s tough new smoking regulations. (The slot machine casino at the track is already smoke-free.) Some folks will applaud the idea and others will be appalled by it, but one thing is for certain. This isn’t your father’s Winston Cup racing anymore.

Unless some huge story breaks in the next couple days this will be my last column prior to Christmas. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all my loyal readers for sticking with me and RacingOne.com through another season, for your friendship and your support. Nobody agrees with me all the time and some people never agree with me, but that keeps things interesting and keeps me on my toes. Thanks especially for all your concern and cards at this time last year when I ended up in the hospital. You’re the best. Happy Holidays to you all and best wishes for the coming New Year. Keep on rockin’ in the free world. See you in 2004. – Matt

Email Notification- My old standby @msn.com address was lost to a computer meltdown after the season. I’ve talked to half the population of New Delhi trying to get it back, but all the kings horses and all the kings men, can’t make that dang address start working again. My new email address is McMatt@comcast.net

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