America's newest media baron: Warren Buffett, with a NASCAR bud. Wonder how staunch a NASCAR fan Buffett really is?
By Mike Mulhern
Kudos to Jay Howard – the NASCAR events production wizard -- and his guys, and NASCAR inspectors too, for the classy, crisply timed, highly efficient – and, yes, positively legitimate -- major-league production Thursday evening, with the annual All-Star week pit crew competition.
And kudos to Chad Knaus' guys, the men who run Jimmie Johnson's pits – Brandon Harder gas man, Dave Collins front tire changer, RJ Barnette front tire carrier, Calvin Teague rear tire changer, Matt Tyrell rear tire carrier, TJ Ford jackman, and Greg Morin pit crew coach – for brilliant work, in winning, beating Denny Hamlin's two-time winners, avenging that Richmond embarrassment.
Knaus's guys aren't one-night wonders either. They've become a major power on pit roads across the tour since Knaus reformed things, in the wake of that late-2010 season controversy at Texas, when Knaus became so aggravated with pit stop mistakes he 'parked' the pit crew midway through the race and brought over Jeff Gordon's crew to finish things.
Yes, it was a major league, perfectly made-for-television operation Thursday evening in Charlotte's downtown coliseum – yes, the place right next door to the new NASCAR Hall of Fame.
And, as best could be determined, no ringers this time. NASCAR tweaked the rules.
Jimmie Johnson's pit crew, victorious (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
A few points need to be made:
First, and most obviously, the pit crew competition should be on real asphalt, with engines roaring, and real drivers at the wheel, not girl friends or wives.
Why not Bruton Smith's ZMax dragstrip, across the road from Charlotte Motor Speedway?
Second, the pit crew competition, if it's on TV, should be live, not tape delayed an hour. (And isn't this obvious too?)
And third, well, maybe NASCAR officials need to dust off that proposal that over-the-wall guys have to be doing some real work on the cars, not just pumping iron.
Ever since Ray Evernham came up with the concept of the specialized pit crew, guys who flew in on race day just to pit the cars, it has been somewhat controversial. To begin with, it's a huge expense, one that only big mega-teams can really afford; and it thus squeezes the smaller teams even more, unfairly. It's certainly a far cry from the days of Dale Earnhardt's 'Flying Aces,' that seven-man pit crew (best in the business back then), with all seven men holding full-time jobs working on the car.
NASCAR's Bill France Jr. once tried to limit these 'professional' pit crews by limiting the number of licensed crewmen who could actually be at the track on race weekend. For some reason France was persuaded to drop that.
Jimmie Johnson disagrees, saying that working on the race car at the track has become so grueling for the road crew that having a specialized pit crew is almost a necessity.
Evernham himself says
"When the rules allow for that, you have to take advantage of it.
"Is it expensive? Yes, incredibly expensive.
"But you spend millions on research and development on engines, to make your car go two or three-tenths of a second faster. And with the pit crew, you're looking at picking up five or 10 spots on pit road. What is that worth?
"Yes, I agree that it (a specialized pit crew) is expensive. But when I started, we had 700 horsepower and turned 8500 rpm; now we've got 900 horsepower and turning 10,000 rpm. That's been a heck of a lot more expensive than the pit crew guys.
"Racing evolves, just like other sports.
"Is it fair that athletes in other sports can get hundreds of millions of dollars? It just sports."
Ray Evernham, the legendary crew chief, who created the specialized pit crew (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Among the stories breaking here this week is a curious one from General Motors, that the 2013 NASCAR Chevy will be badged as the "Chevy SS."
For 2013 NASCAR is giving Detroit wide latitude in race car design, making it an expected watershed season.
However mystery continues to surround GM's NASCAR Chevy plans.
Using the SS badge sounds like a good move, classic even.
On the surface it sounds innocuous. SS – 'Super Sport' -- is a famous nameplate for Chevy, going back to the 1960s, perhaps most famously as the Chevelle SS, with that legendary 327, then the legendary 396, and then on to the Monte Carlo SS.
However that it will be built in Australia and based on the Australian-made Holden (certainly an unusual name for a automobile), and that it will be rear-wheel drive, is part of what makes the story curious. That it's not going to be made-in-America could be fuel for controversy. And rear-wheel drive cars themselves are dinosaurs, raising more questions about just what the heck is going on inside GM headquarters.
And then there is GM's curious timing of this announcement...an announcement accompanied with only a picture of a camouflaged car.
The announcement seemed surprisingly abrupt, and to be honest untimely and incomplete. And where are the Chevy big-wheels to talk it up? MIA.
It contrasts sharply with Ford's out-in-the-open debut of its 2013 here on the track in January, with the media able to touch and feel and ask questions about.
And Dodge likewise debuted its 2013 at Las Vegas two months ago, with boss Ralph Gilles on hand for some Q&A.
Toyota is to reveal its 2013 NASCAR racer next week, at its Charlotte headquarters.
So when will Chevrolet actually reveal its new car? No word yet.
Chevy's new 2013 NASCAR 'SS,' still under wraps. But why? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The bigger story here, though, may be coming out of Warren Buffett's headquarters, where the Berkshire Hathaway boss just wrote a check for $142 million to buy some 60 newspapers, principally in the Southeast – the heart of NASCAR country. http://wapo.st/Kgs60v
Those papers, including the Winston-Salem Journal and Richmond Times Dispatch, have severely cut back NASCAR coverage the past three years. And NASCAR executives, who have been paying close attention to the demoralizing decline in independent newspaper coverage of this sport, appear to be quite interested in just what Buffett's plans might be for those papers. (Here's one take on Buffett and his new newspaper empire: http://wapo.st/Kv3r8m )
If Buffett can perk things up at those 60 papers, and revive NASCAR coverage, that would be a big plus for this sport.
(Point of view here: one of those 60 papers has budgeted only a four-page Sunday sports sections....and coverage of Saturday night's All-Star race may be delayed until Monday....)
Kurt Busch: A 'make my day' kind of driver. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then there's Kurt Busch....
A little volatile, yes.
That Darlington episode with Ryan Newman was just the latest. Jimmie Johnson, who has had a history with Busch, says they've made peace and have no problems.
Still, it seems like Busch has a hair-trigger temper, and it's not always clear just what might set him off.
Looks like a potential issue in the All-Star race.
Busch held an informal media session here at Charlotte Motor Speedway Friday morning (supposed to be an 'invitation only' media session, rather oddly).
Busch is dismissing the Darlington post-race deal as much ado about little.
He repeated that he ran into Newman's car on pit road because "I was taking my helmet off.
"The lesson that I learned is keep your helmet on all the way to the garage area. I should have learned that from the Jimmy Spencer incident years ago.
"I didn't have a problem with Newman. I didn't have a problem with his crew guys.
Then things just really got out of control in a hurry."
Back when Ryan Newman (L) and Kurt Busch were teammates at Roger Penske's, Busch pushed Newman to victory in the Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
During the final moments of the race, Busch was making a pit stop and returning to the track; he was pitting near Newman, and Newman's crew said Busch roared dangerously through their pit.
"I was just trying to beat the pace car out," Busch says. "I didn't think anything of it.
"We just wanted to finish on the lead lap, so I was trying to get off pit road as quick as I could. Newman left his pit a good 10 seconds before us, and I didn't think there was any reason to think any crew guys were in danger.
"So one guy has a problem with it, and it just escalated from there."
The $50,000 fine?
"The fine is what it is," Busch says.
"There was the problem of me not lining up properly when NASCAR told me to get to be the last car on the track. You have to do that when you pit too soon. That's just a normal penalty you have to adhere to, and I was.
"But everybody kept waving me by. And when everybody's waving you by, and NASCAR is yelling in your ear to go to back, it's like I'm confused on where I'm supposed to line up.
"Newman and I were friends; we were great teammates (at Roger Penske's)... and he needs to check his trophy case on the Daytona 500 trophy that I helped him get years ago.
"We've always been great friends.
"There was no need for his comments afterward.
"At the end of the night everybody is hot and pissed off.
"It was a tough night that all went bad in a hurry. For that I apologize to NASCAR, for them to have to make a decision on penalizing us.
"I'll move on.
"Is my 'strike zone' bigger than others? Yeah, it might be. But I don't have a problem with it."
Actually the Busch-Newman fracas may be a plus for the sport, in a way, coming during a rather boring spring on the stock car tour.
Busch, tongue in cheek, realizes that: "This is good for our sport. This is WWE type action."
Busch, whose volatility is one of his good points, in way, points out "I've been fined the most probably of any driver..."
But Busch disagrees that he was driving dangerously on pit road.
NASCAR, he said, "fined us for a multitude of things. I closed the door abruptly too when I left the NASCAR hauler, and they didn't like that."
It all certainly breathed a bit of life in the sport," Busch noted wryly:
"The fans -- I heard them cheer louder than when Jimmie Johnson pulled into victory lane for when the crew guy came over and got agitated and knocked an official on top of our hood. That's when the crowd reacted the most.
"So you tell me if they're wanting WWE?
"This is fun. This is entertainment, right, guys?"
Jay Howard, NASCAR events producer extraordinaire (Photo: JHE)