Motorsports Column |

Motorsports Column

Roger Diez

Open wheel racing in the U.S. seems to have taken a back seat to stock car racing, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is the tremendous help NASCAR (born in the southeast tobacco-growing region) received from Winston, not only in money but also in marketing expertise. Secondly is the rift in open-wheel racing, fomented by spoiled rich kid and megalomaniac Tony George.

Problem No. 2 may be on the way to taking care of itself, as it was recently announced that the IRL season is being shortened to nine races, while CART has increased its schedule to 20 events.

It was also recently announced that Shigeaki Hattori, who was 86’d by CART last year for not being up to speed, has been named to replace Sam Schmidt in IRL.

Meanwhile, Kenny Brack, winner of the Indy 500, the IRL’s crown jewel, has gone to CART. Does anybody besides me see a pattern here? Certainly not Tony George, who said, “We will now turn our attention to the 2001 season and will develop a schedule that builds on the growing interest in the Northern Light Series.”

I only hope that no more IRL drivers are hurt or killed at Phoenix this weekend.

— NASCAR will be appearing on grocery shelves near you soon, with a new series of Wheaties limited-edition boxes commemorating the careers of four stock car racing legends: Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons.

Wheaties will also adorn John Andretti’s No. 43 Pontiac for the Winston Select race at Charlotte (oops, Lowe’s) Speedway on May 20. You may recall that Wheaties featured Dale Earnhardt on a special package in 1997, but had to abandon the promotion when it began bumping other cereal boxes off the shelves.

— There is a lot of speculation in the NASCAR garage area that there is a giant magnet hidden somewhere in Buckshot Jones’ car. That would certainly explain its attraction to other cars at high speeds.

Unfortunately, Buckshot’s mishaps have provided a fair percentage of what excitement there has been in the top levels of NASCAR racing this season. Traditionally, NASCAR fans have taken great pride in their belief that fender-rubbin’, wheel-bangin’, door-handle-to-door-handle, three-wide stock car racing is far superior to all other forms of the sport.

But what makes big old sedans going around in circles so exciting?

Lately, not much. Daytona was a snoozer, Rockingham not much better. Las Vegas got rained out before it could get interesting. The last 20 laps at Atlanta were exciting, if you like a two-car race.

Of course, the media came under fire from Dale Jarrett and other drivers, as well as the NASCAR establishment, for pointing out the obvious. Recent polls have shown that the NASCAR marketing juggernaut is starting to lose momentum, and there have been noticeably empty grandstand seats at recent races.

True, the empty-seat syndrome is partly because many tracks have recently added extra seats, but it is also partly because some fans would rather watch the race on TV or go do something else.

NASCAR has taken some technical steps to even up the competition between makes, and there were more lead changes at Atlanta than in the three previous races combined, or so it seemed.

But I’m afraid that NASCAR’s recent focus on merchandising, theme parks, restaurants, and entertainment packaged as racing has taken the emphasis away from what has been their traditional core product; close, hard racing.

The similarities to the excesses of the World Wrestling Federation grow every year, much to the chagrin of many, myself included.

— Personnel changes in Winston Cup have already started after only four races. A.J. Foyt has replaced driver Mike Bliss, who failed to qualify for three of those races, with 58-year-old veteran Dick Trickle.

I’m surprised A.J. didn’t jump into the car himself to show the good ol’ boys how it’s done.

— Finally, the unanimous choice for quote of the week comes from Mike Skinner, referring to his bumping incident early in the race with teammate Dale Earnhardt: “I’d crash my mama to win my first race!”

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist.