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A death in the family: Remember Manzanita, and reflect....


Okay, maybe it's not so pretty, maybe it's not a suit-and-tie sort of place, but Manzanita Speedway, and its demise, is cause for reflection (Photo: Manzanita Speedway)


   By Mike Mulhern

   The death of Manzanita Speedway, just 20 minutes down the road from Phoenix International Raceway, may be a warning.
   The legendary half-mile, which opened in 1951 and ran its last race Sunday, is set to become a parking lot.
   Saving racing's grassroots should be a major priority for stock car executives all around the country.
   Dusty, sometimes down-and-dirty grassroots racing is what helped create the phenomenon that is NASCAR. And in these trying economic times, NASCAR's bosses may need to take extra steps to reach out to grassroots America.
   Consider Nashville Superspeedway, that nice one-mile concrete just 25 miles outside the country music capital. NASCAR's stand-alone Nationwide 300 Saturday at Nashville wasn't quite the marketing hit stock car racing needs this spring, despite the hot duel among Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards….and despite a curious open-garage for the fans.
   How many fans really showed up at Nashville Superspeedway after all?
   Just what that might mean for this Saturday's Sprint Cup Phoenix 312 isn't clear.
   However the trend lines are clear. (And no one is making any announcement about the TV ratings for last week's Texas 500….)
   It could be a long, hot summer for this sport, unless some things start changing.
   And so far, apart from cheaper ticket prices and cheaper race weekend hotel rooms, there doesn't seem to be a lot of change in the wind.
   Maybe NASCAR's stars – cue Jeff Gordon, Busch, Edwards and Jimmie Johnson – can help rally the sport in the next few weeks.
   One thing is clear – pit road remains an issue for some teams. Edwards lost last week's Texas 500 with a bad pit stop, and he fell out of the hunt in Nashville because of an extra stop for loose lug nuts.
   Nevertheless, it sure looks like Edwards and Cup crew chief Bob Osborne are back in gear….though it's a shame that NASCAR's Cup events this season seem to be won and lost not out there on the track mano y mano but down on pit road, where the rush to pass is really too frantic for safety's sake.
   Car owner Jack Roush may be curious about his team's pit road issues, but the problem isn't necessarily pit road -- NASCAR officials need to become more attuned to the fact that fans, while they like pit road drama, also like to see action and passing out on the track.
   And when drivers says that the first man off pit road is probably going to win – or lead until the next round of stops – because the new car hasn't solved any of the aerodynamic issues that have plagued this sport for too many years now, something needs to be done.
   Passing on the track, that's the issue.
   Or is NASCAR in danger of becoming just an American version of Formula One follow-the-leader?
   Put some roof rails back on these cars maybe.
   Try some restrictor plates.
   Hey, here's a novel idea – let teams test at the real tour tracks with the real Goodyears.
   In fact testing like that, if promoted well, could be a good marketing tool for the sport.

Manzanita was always a staple for NASCAR's Kenny Schrader (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

The idea of eliminating testing to save money might have seemed a good idea last fall, but it's time to drop that and come up with a new plan.
    Look at it this way: Goodyear had a tire test at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last week….but it was marred by rain and cold. How much might really have been learned?
   Yes, it's a long haul from North Carolina to Loudon, N.H., but these teams have millions of dollars invested in this sports business.
   And the lack of testing not only hasn't produced a better product on the track, it's not helped open up the sport to promising new teams either.
   The Tommy Baldwin-Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield projects have both made the field for only three of the year's first seven events.
   It may be time to raise again the concept of franchising teams.
   It may be time to raise again the concept of Indy-NASCAR doubleheader weekends.
   It may be time for Indy's Tony George to partner his Indy Racing League with NASCAR, to give sponsors and potential sponsors more bang for the buck.
   And it's long past time for NASCAR to let teams start fiddling with this car-of-tomorrow to make it handle better. The idea that a bigger tire will solve the problems – well, Goodyear says that project is still at least a year away from providing new rubber for these guys.
   And it's not just the 2009 season that NASCAR execs need to be considering but the 2010 season too.
   Maybe it's time for some of this sport's key players to step outside the box and consider new ways of doing things.
   Maybe it's time for Jim and Brian France to hire Humpy Wheeler and come up with the bigger, bolder ideas for the sport.
   It's the middle of April and NASCAR is letting time slip away. Usually this sport gets a leg up on its sports rivals by this point, but it really hasn't caught fire yet.
   The Daytona rain….another California snoozer….a good race at Las Vegas but followed by another lousy race at Atlanta. And then Bristol has lost its spark. If not for Johnson's bump-and-run on Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, that 500 would have been another four hours lost.
   And Texas…another case of the blahs.
   When, or if, Fox decides to release TV ratings for the Texas Samsung 500, they'll likely be off. Overnight ratings were down.
   But NASCAR isn't alone in sagging TV numbers. The NCAA championship game was one of the lowest rated ever, not surprising considering North Carolina's blowout run through the tourney. The game pulled a 10.8 rating, with 17.6 million viewers. Perhaps surprisingly, key male demographics – 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54 – were all down.
   Sounds like an opportunity for NASCAR….if it had a really exciting product.
   Fortunately Phoenix International Raceway looks like a track well suited for this car. And Talladega always works, no matter what the vehicle. Then comes Richmond, which is one of the best tracks on the tour today for good racing.
   So NASCAR might be hitting another sweet spot in the season calendar.
   However, why the All-star race and the 600 at Charlotte's Lowe's Motor Speedway should be much different from the Texas-Atlanta-California snoozefests isn't clear.
      One thing that NASCAR officials might want to look at – putting some of their weekly short-track events on TV, to pump up the grassroots effort.
  How about moving all these Saturday night Cup events to Sunday nights…or Friday nights, and have Speed or ESPN or some cable outfit put together some regional TV packages of Saturday Night Thunder, for NASCAR's weekly shows, rotating the show from track to track.
   Out here in the Southwestern U.S. that might work quite well in fact, to help promote the grassroots racing that would presumably eventually feed new fans into NASCAR's big tracks at Fontana, Calif., Las Vegas, and Phoenix.
  NASCAR needs all these weekly short-track events to succeed and thrive. And NASCAR needs to figure out a stronger marketing vehicle there too.
  Remember Manzanita.

The end of the line for a legendary American race track....soon to become a parking lot (Photo: Manzanita Speedway)



Mike you raise many good

Mike you raise many good points, as usual. I still miss "Pit Bull", the best Nascar/racing TV show ever. I especially like the ideas of hiring Humpy and franchising, which should have happened many years ago. People like Ricky Rudd and Darrell Waltrip should not walk away from the sport they helped to build with nothing. If a Cal Wells wants to come into the sport, he should have to buy a franchise. I have had an interesting discussion about this with Dave Moody, who is against it. Bob Hall

If NASCAR framed franchising

If NASCAR framed franchising correctly, it would work. Maybe the Frances ought to hire Geoff Smith to write the contracts.
And it would be nice if TV execs -- read Fox-Speed and ABC-ESPN -- weren't such lapdogs. Fox' David Hill must be getting soft -- Digger? Give me a break. I'd bite his head off. Ruff!

Great Analysis Mike. Although

Great Analysis Mike. Although I am a Texas fan, it was hard to hear it was blah... Gordon did break a long streak. But hey, I suppose the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I look forward to reading more as the weeks forge ahead.-Bruce Cameron

Well, maybe blah may have

Well, maybe blah may have been a bit harsh....but when most of the action is on pit road, and when drivers know the first man out has such an aerodynamic edge, well, there's something wrong.
I want to see passing out on the track, I want to see passes for the victory out on the track.
The car-of-tomorrow needs some tweaking; it is a safer car, yes, but it has not solved any of the competition issues we've seen developing in aero the last few years.
One thing that worries me is that pit road will become increasingly dangerous, because drivers realize that's the best place to pass. And those over-the-wall guys aren't wearing rollbar suits.

I'm not a fan of dirt tracks

I'm not a fan of dirt tracks but it is never good for racing when a famous speedway goes under. Manzanita's passing should indeed be cause for reflection.

Those RJR execs -- like Ralph

Those RJR execs -- like Ralph Seagraves and T. Wayne Robertson -- understood the immense impact of grassroots promotion on this sport. Now sponsors just want to cherrypick the Sunday Cup stuff. NASCAR needs to make Sunday Cup sponsors spend more time and effort helping promote Saturday night weekly racing -- and it's really such a cheap buy, such good bang for the buck. Why are so many NASCAR marketers so blind?

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