Remember Fearless Freddie Lorenzen? One of Ford's finest, back in the day. Hmmmm, just who is driving ol' No. 28 these days... (Photo: Atlanta Motor Speedway)
By Mike Mulhern
The tight-knit community of NASCAR journalists -- small and getting smaller, and maybe a Baker's Dozen here this particular afternoon -- sat in semicircle facing six of this sport's key NASCAR officials for the annual preseason briefing on new rules and issues...and a look-see at some familiar faces in new jobs: Chad Little, Wayne Auton, Joe Balash...and words of wisdom from the trio Robin Pemberton, John Darby and David Hoots, the garage-and-control-tower veterans who try to keep order in this sport.
These are the foot-soldiers who run the day-to-day operation of stock car racing down in the garages.
These are the men who regulate the nuts and the bolts, the bumpers and aerodynamic spoilers, the size of gas tanks, and the timing of caution flags.
These are the guys who deal in the nuts-and-bolts of racing. They handle rules and regulations, balls and strikes, and lately the development and fine tuning of the new 2013 stockers.
No new faces here.
Auton, who has been running the Truck tour since 1995, takes over the Nationwide series from Balash, who has run that tour since 2004.
Balash has a curious new job, as NASCAR's International Competition liaison (currently working out the probably tortuous logistics of getting NASCAR's Toyota/Mexico series teams across the border for its Phoenix debut in two weeks).
Little, the former racer who spent most of his 10 years now with NASCAR running the sport's Mexico series, takes over Trucks.
For some two hours these six rolled through a list of things to anticipate this season...and things not to anticipate (like any significant change to traditional better-of-two-laps qualifying).
It was an interesting session, a meet-and-greet of sorts. Informative, as much for the interaction as for the information. It was a chance to size up not just the men with the rulebooks but also the men and women with the notebooks....
Big Bill France Sr., at the track he made famous (Photo: Daytona International Speedway)
The top NASCAR bosses, of course, are Brian France and Mike Helton...and somewhere, ultimately, Jim France, the man who owns controlling interest of both the sport's sanctioning body and a dozen of its most important tracks: Daytona, Phoenix, California, Martinsville, Kansas, Richmond, Talladega, Darlington, Michigan, Watkins Glen, Chicago and Homestead-Miami.
When it comes to the rich-and-powerful in American auto racing, Jim France, Roger Penske and Bruton Smith look to have the most skin in this game. Along with Chevrolet's Rick Hendrick and Ford's Jack Roush, and their strong Detroit corporate connections.
The most powerful men in NASCAR racing.
(Wondering here who the most powerful Toyota figure is, when it comes to NASCAR racing these days...)
The man (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
A short scorecard here, as Daytona prepares for SpeedWeeks.
Among the most powerful should be Lesa France Kennedy, Brian's sister. However just where she fits into all this appears somewhat murky at the moment. She is officially in charge of the International Speedway Corp. (ISC), and at each quarterly Wall Street conference call she is right there, and whenever there is a major ISC announcement, like Kansas' Hollywood Casino, she is right there too. However otherwise she is rarely seen down in the garages. And her distance from the game stands in contrast to Bruton Smith's much more engaging approach.
And among the most powerful should certainly be -- logically -- the people running Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However Indy has been in a slump lately, and it no longer has Tony George as point man; the five-man Holman-George family still controls the operation, but there is a sense that things are a bit lost at the moment. (Not sure if the July race week program is all that focused, for example.)
And also among the most powerful should logically be at least someone from the Fourth Estate.
However, since the 2009 death of writer/analyst David Poole, there has been no one with the wisdom, gravitas and impact he wielded stepping into the fray. Indeed the 'NASCAR media corps' has become a skeleton operation, ceding the court to TV and its quasi-journalistic approach to life.
The boss, and the face of NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Today, considering how huge NASCAR has become -- with a perhaps bloated executive staff of more than 25 people -- it may be hard to recall the day when all this was run by a single man. But it's been 14 years now since the late Bill France Jr. turned the reins of day-to-day stuff over to Helton, and 10 years since Brian France became NASCAR CEO.
Over the Brian France era there appears to be more distance between the Daytona power base and the teams in the trenches, the men who put on the shows during the 10-month season.
Helton has become the sport's 'sheriff,' generally dressing in black, and usually carrying himself in a quiet, dignified, if war-weary, manner.
Brian France as NASCAR CEO appears to be much more comfortable when in command of a situation, and less comfortable with the give-and-take that his father and grandfather seemed almost to relish. But then the sport has changed considerably over the last 10 years.
The NASCAR execs to listen closely to this season when they talk -- Steve O'Donnell, Steve Phelps, Robin Pemberton, and George Silberman.
O'Donnell is in charge of 'racing operations.' Phelps is in charge of marketing. Pemberton is in charge of the garages. Silberman is, well, he's sort of a roving exec, something like the late Les Richter was for a time.
However if you're looking for someone, anyone, with an engaging personality, well, keep looking. Whatever this sport has evolving into over the past several years, it is not brimming with engaging personalities, on the track, in the garages, or in the suites.
At least not on the NASCAR/ISC side of the game.
(Ever wonder just how outrageous promoter Bruton Smith might run things if he were in charge?)
NASCAR in Montreal. Losing this deal wasn't this sport's finest hour (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So what are some of the key story lines and hot button issues as the new stock car racing season opens?
Uh, good question.
Number one is still the economy. For fans, exorbitant hotel rates, outlandish air fares, expensive gasoline. For teams, sponsorships lagging. (Is it time yet to ask why Red Bull now boasts three straight Formula 1 championships, yet it couldn't seem to do much at all in NASCAR, and finally pulled out? Red Bull probably had the best NASCAR sponsorship package ever, and yet it never produced much. So Red Bull can win, and win big, in the hyper-political atmosphere of F1, yet not on NASCAR's 'level playing field'? Curious at the least...)
Two: the competition. Too many gas mileage races the past two seasons, too much boring, single-file racing. Will that dynamic change with the new 2013 models? Or will the shortage of cars and parts force teams to play it even more conservatively?
Three: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Okay, maybe he's not one of the biggest issues, but NASCAR still hasn't figured out a way to deal with concussions, like the two last season that took the sport's biggest star out of the championship chase down the stretch of one of his best years ever. In fact NASCAR execs appear to be trying to avoid dealing with this issue, Helton himself saying it's up to the driver to know when to take himself out of the game.
Robby Gordon. Quite a character. Still world-class at the wheel...but maybe NASCAR execs don't need 'characters' any more (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Four: Twitter and Facebook. Social media is changing this game, by bringing fans and their opinions right to the fore. Officials may be able to regulate, through penalties, how drivers use social media, but not how fans react to this sport.
Five: the long-running, sometimes simmering, sometimes cool, battle of wits between the sport's two major track owners, the Frances and the Smiths. Is it time for a more in-depth analysis and comparison of races? In the battle for butts in the stands, has something changed here? For example, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles all with races in a three-week stretch? Who gets hurt?
Six: TV. Is it doing a good job covering this sport? Are these announcers doing a good job, or just shilling? And what's the real story on Fox' Speed channel?
Seven: Detroit...or rather the three major car makers in this sport. Chevrolet has dominated NASCAR racing for years now; Ford has played second fiddle. But Toyota has some of the most intriguing characters at the wheel. With Detroit's push to hit 15 million in new car sales this year, where will NASCAR racing fit in? And how might Dodge's withdrawal play out, in the big picture? Does Detroit really need NASCAR racing? Or does NASCAR racing need Detroit more than Detroit needs NASCAR? Would this sport be better off or worse off if the big car makers decided to cut back on their support? Are there any other major world-class auto makers interested in playing the NASCAR game? If not, then why not?
Kyle Busch. But has NASCAR defanged him? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Eight: The weather. The weather? Richard Petty likes to say 'It's either going to rain or it's not going to rain.' But NASCAR's long-standing policy of 'next clear day' may need to be tweaked. It was extremely unfair to Southern California fans how last spring's California 500 played out. Texas promoter Eddie Gossage has a good idea: fans affected by rain get a discount on the next similar event. And NASCAR itself is ready to unveil a new 'rain vacuum' machine that could cut track drying time considerably.
Nine: The changing of the guard in the driver corps. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, for examples, turn 42 this season, Greg Biffle turns 44; typically a driver's best years are before 40. And on the under-30 roster -- Toyota's Kyle Busch, Ford's Brad Keselowski, Ford's Joey Logano, and Ford's Trevor Bayne.
Ten: The sport of NASCAR racing itself. The go-go days of the late 1990s and early 2000s are go-go-gone. Since 2006 or so, things just haven't been as hot. Was this stretch simply another dip in the roller-coaster ride? Will 2013, and the 2013s, spark a renewal of interest? Is this sport at a crucial turning point?
When Daytona's annual pre-season Media Day Frenzy clicks on on Thursday, will we get any good answers?
At least Saturday night's Unlimited/Shootout should provide some fireworks. Uh, what's that format again?
NASCAR pit stops haven't always been in the 12-second bracket. But legendary Jake Elder (R, with air hose) does strike a pose when helping pit Donnie Allison at Charlotte (Photo: Charlotte Motor Speedway)