Opinion: National Signing Day

Rick Mast
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This week brought National Signing Day, where star high school football players declared what college or university they would be attending. It's a crazy media circus that used to be reserved for only the most elite players and now has trickled down to any player with an offer.

The most interesting aspect of this is when the player, who all along has said he was going to school "X," reveals that he has changed his mind at the last minute and is going to school "Y." This year, that chaos took another step toward the absurb when Florida prep star Alex Collins chose Arkansas over his hometown school of Miami. Because Collins is underage, his mother has to sign the paperwork. Well, mama wasn't too happy about his choice and not only wouldn't sign but took the papers and left the room.

Sometimes, these players turn out to be big stars such as South Carolina defensive end Jadavian Clowney, who was the top player in 2010. But sometimes, they bust and never live up to expectations. That got me wondering how "signing days" have worked out in NASCAR.

Signing days might be a bit of stretch in our world. Press announcement is probably a better name since we all basically know who, what and when at the time of the presser. The first big signing I can remember was back in 1996 when Rick Mast joined Butch Mock and Remington for the 1997 season. The media was poised with their cameras and notepads at Bristol Motor Speedway as Mast signed the contract and held up a giant PGA Tour-type check which, if memory serves me right, was for $750,000 over the three years of the deal.

It made Mast one of the highest-paid drivers at the time, according to the team. It was also the first time contract details had been made public and many in the garage weren't happy about it. While Mast didn't have to worry about his mom taking the papers and running, he did have to worry about living up to that large contract. In 1997, the Remington Ford showed up at Daytona and ... missed the race.

Is Mast the only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver to come into a deal with great expectations only to miss the mark? Nope. I offer up the following names: Steve Kinser, Casey Atwood, Scott Speed, Mike Bliss, Mike Skinner, John Andretti and many, many more. Feel free to insert your favorite or least favorite, as the case may be.

My all-time favorite is Mike Harmon. In February 1999, team owner Junie Donlavy unloaded his No. 90 Big Daddy's BBQ Sauce car at Daytona. He told a few of us with Motor Racing Network that he had signed this "hot shoe" who'd been very succesful on the short tracks of the Southeast. "In fact, here he comes now," said Donlavy.

You'll recall that at this time in NASCAR, the new drivers were young and looked the part of the new Madison Avenue NASCAR. For all who have met Harmon, he is the complete opposite of this sterotype. Don't get me wrong here ... great, great guy ... but not billboard material, by any means. So here comes Harmon and we all are a bit suprised. New star of NASCAR? As it turns out, Harmon - who was scheduled to run for Rookie of the Year - was alledgedly fired during Speedweeks for not allowing another driver to try and see if they could find more speed in his car.

In the end, Big Daddy's cheated just about everybody in the garage by never paying the money it said it would. As for Harmon, give him credit. He's still out there every week in the NASCAR Nationwide Series making a go of it.

For all those stories, there are the super signings. Jeff Gordon has surely turned out well for Hendrick Motorsports and Brad Keselowski has proven to be the championship driver Roger Penske saw when maybe the rest of us didn't. And it's hard to top Michael waltrip getting the call to drive the No. 15 Chevrolet. He goes out and wins the Daytona 500 after 462 attempts without a victory.

I was involved in that particular decision. I had been working with Ron Hornaday during my Truck Series days and into the 2000 Busch Series season. While in Michigan late in the year, NAPA President Steve Handschuh asked me what I thought about the company going Cup racing in 2001. I told him it sounded great and internally, I was so happy for my good friend Ron Hornaday Jr.

Then the bomb dropped.

"(Team owner) Dale (Earnhardt) wants to put Michael Waltrip in the car," Handschuh said. "He says he can win the Daytona 500."

My reaction was, "Michael (expletive) Waltrip? He hasn't won anything. In fact, he's the poster boy for 'trouble-in-turn-two' calls on race broadcasts." But as hard as I fought for Hornaday, Earnhardt had already sold the NAPA brass from Atlanta on "Mikey." Turns out he was right. Dale was always right.

Damn, I miss him.

I never told Hornaday about that conversation. I didn't want to crush his spirit. He so loved being at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. But I was able to have a few conversations with the folks at A.J. Foyt Racing and Conseco Financial, which may have opened the door for Hornaday in the No. 14 car. I certainly won't take credit for that deal, but I know I helped some.

By the way, I ended up working for Michael Waltrip from 2006-2009.  I consider him one of my better friends within the industry and while I still wish Hornaday would have had that shot, Waltrip has been the gold standard for the driver/sponsor relationship. 

One last thing on signings.  Motor Racing Network will be at NASCAR Preview '13 on Saturday, Feb. 9.  The following talent will be signing autographs:

9:00am - 11:00am     Steve Post and Woody Cain

11:00am - 1:00pm     Joe Moore and Tony Rizzuti

1:00pm - 3:00pm      Alex Hayden and Kyle Rickey

3:00pm - 4:30pm      Dave Moody

Please make sure you come by and see us.  Also, be sure to drive a few laps in our simulator provided by iRacing.com!

So that's today's trip down memory lane. Will Danica Patrick be the next top signing to star or fizzle out? Maybe it's Bubba Wallace or Kyle Larson? One thing is for sure. The next talent is out there. You just have to find them ... and hope mom is on board!

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup

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