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NASCAR's Truckers on the hot-seat as SpeedWeeks opens: Will they survive 2009?


Ron Hornaday (R) shares the dais in Hollywood, Fla. with TV's Krista Voda (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Mulhern

     Will NASCAR's Truck tour survive?
    That's a heavy question to raise….and with NASCAR's strong support, it may be academic.
    However January sales figures are just out from Detroit, and the numbers aren't pretty:
    Chrysler sales were down 55 percent.
    General Motors sales were down 49 percent.
    Ford sales were down 40 percent.
    Toyota sales were down 34 percent.
    And – get this – more cars and trucks were sold in China in January than in the United States.
    Maybe NASCAR needs to get more international and faster.
    The problems facing the Sprint Cup tour are well-known. The problems facing the Nationwide tour too.
    But it's the Truckers who are really in hot water.
   The cost of running a good Truck team has soared to between $2.5 million to $3.5 million a year, after the initial investment. When the Truck division first kicked off, a good deal was for less than $1 million a season.
    And the depth and impact of TV coverage of the Truck tour has been iffy, despite heavy work by NASCAR's TV partners.
    So NASCAR's Truck series, which the late Billy France Jr. launched more than 10 years ago as a low-cost entry series, has mushroomed out of control over the past several years, and its original purpose has been lost. Big Cup team owners and drivers have taken over the tour, and the little guys, well, they're probably not going to make it much past the starting line this season.
   By the time the Truckers head west in a couple of weeks, the ranks could be very thin.
  In fact, there has been concern that there could even be a shortage of Truck teams here for next week's season-opener.
  Even last year's Truck tour champ, Johnny Benson, has lost his deal and is struggling to put things  back together.
   And so is veteran Mike Skinner…though Skinner has managed to parlay his Toyota ties into a ride with now ex-Chevy owner Randy Moss.
  So betting men have to be putting their money on Ron Hornaday Jr., the guy who lost last year's title to Benson in a thriller.
  Hornaday, as rough and tough as they come in this sport, in any of its three divisions, may be 50, but nobody messes with him, that's for sure.
  That means Kevin Harvick, who owns the Trucks Hornaday runs, may well be in victory lane celebrating with Hornaday later in SpeedWeeks.
  "It's been kind of hard -- my father passed away just a couple days before Christmas, and it was pretty tough," the legendary racer says. "But he was ready. Anybody as ready as my dad -- he paid his trash for a year, he paid all his taxes and everything for a year, so he was ready to go. 
   "We didn't know he was that sick. He was one of the quiet guys that kept everything to himself…didn't want to burden my racing. That hurts my feelings -- that he didn't want to bother me with my racing to let me know about his health. 
   "But he's in a better place.
    "Ever since I was born, he was racing. I'd come home to have a race car in the garage. He always raced for other people, and when he first got his car at home…just to show all the kids at school that my dad races: 'Come by the house. There's race cars there.'
    "He was a hard-knocks racer. Believed in his family first. 
    "He always put food on the table first, and racing came later. 
    "He taught me that way. 
    "The coolest part is my dad is like my father-in-law -- they old-school. Don't throw nothing away. And both of them raced together. 


Ron Hornaday wields a big hammer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


"I got my dad's toolbox when he passed away, and I was just remembering all the tools when I got to build my first race car…and all the trick tools we made to pull a shock off back then, or a spring out.
    "And I'm building a '66 El Camino with the tools my father left me.  It's a good remembrance of what he's done for me.
    "Hopefully he's taught me right. 
    "He never got an opportunity to go to Daytona…and I don't know if it's legal or not, but I've got a little bit of his ashes that I'm going to spread in the lake. So don't be watching me, because I don't think it's legal.
   "He raced with the best  -- raced from Ontario to Riverside, with all the big boys. And he gave me a big path to go down.
   "But he never got to race at Daytona."
   So Hornaday is the man to beat here? Hornaday is the man to beat this season?
   "No, I don't look at it that way," he insists. "Last year I was racing with Skinner….and then with Johnny…and then it was Todd Bodine…everybody. 
   "Mike Skinner was a tough guy to race for the championship the previous year…and look at how his season happened last year. 
   "Anything can happen.
    "I'm fortunate enough that Kevin and DeLana are very focused on racing to put people in the right places.
    "But if I say I was a favorite to come in, I'd be wrong. It's unbelievable competition. 
    "These young kids got something to prove, and I'm going to go in with an open mind.
    "If you get through Daytona unscathed that's going to set the whole season for you."

   That may all be good PR for the Truckers, but the cold, hard facts are that the fields will likely be very slim this season. Maybe only a dozen or so full-time teams, with full 36-car fields iffy on down the line.
   "We've seen a fall-off in the trucks before, but it always seems to come back," Hornaday insists.
    And NASCAR is trying to figure out rules changes to help Truck team owners make ends meet, like requiring engines be used more than once, and limiting road crews, and changing pit-stop rules.
   More changes may be coming. "We get back to the one day shows, and it's really going to help us out," Hornaday says.
   "I don't know how to fix it, but everybody is hurting right now, in the economy we have.
   "We're going to put on a good show for the fans… and we need you guys (in the media) to help out on that. We can't slam the Truck series, because it's one of the big three of NASCAR. 
    "All the series are down a little bit right now. It's tough out there to try to get sponsors.
   "We just need the support of the fans. 
    "I don't know how this is going to come out…I've heard we've got 35 Trucks coming to Daytona, so let's see how we can keep the Trucks going. 
   "I think the one that will hurt is California.
    "But we'll see. It's all talk right now. We'll have to see when we show up at the racetrack."

None of NASCAR's rule changes

None of NASCAR's rule changes will work, because team owners won't stop spending. I will be surprised if the Truck Series isn't disbanded after 2009 because it's too expensive, it's not that competitive a series, and the novelty effect wore out by 2000.

Can you say spending cap?

Can you say spending cap? Bring in the auditors. If other major league sports can do it, maybe NASCAR ought to try it....if that's the only way to save the series.
And you might be right about the competitiveness...but give me some examples.

Mike, you're correct about

Mike, you're correct about the need for a spending cap.

As for the Trucks' comparative dearth of competitiveness, consider from last season -

There were only ten winners in 25 races, compared to 13 winners in 25 races in 2004 and 16 winners in 27 races in 1998.

Only 11 races broke ten official lead changes; again, going back to 2004 there were 11 such races but one (Daytona) broke 20 lead changes - Talladega, BTW, hasn't reached 20 lead changes in Truck races yet, a fact that stuns me.

I don't have any stats on winning team owners but the increase in multi-truck teams suggests to me a decline in the number of winning Truck owners.

The biggest stat that jumps out at me - since 2005 Toyotas have won nearly 50% of the series races.

Also remember one of the unstated (or understated) rationales for the series - it was supposed to be a stand-alone series (remember when they raced Bristol in mid-June and Fontana in July? They used to race at New Hampshire the day after the Brickyard 400 and also raced on the Friday night before the Winston 500 in October, and on and on) and the implied hope was that the series would be built up enough that it would replaced some Winston Cup dates on smaller tracks and thus free up those dates for Fontana, Texas, etc. That rationale disappeared by 2000.

If we're going to eliminate a

If we're going to eliminate a series, can it be the Nationwide Series (Cup Light) instead? This series used to be a great one in the 80's and early 90's, but since about 1997 it's been ruined by Cup teams using the series as a seat time/testing series. The races are almost always won by a Cup driver unless the race happens to be at a track where they decide not to participate (which has become painfully rare). The disparity between the Cup participants and the "regulars" is greater than it ever has been. The Cup drivers use up all of the good sponsors for the series, and the "regulars" are left to fight for the scraps, if there are any. If NASCAR ran this series right, it could be really great. Limit the Cup regulars to 5 starts per season in the Nationwide Series, and no more than 5 Cup drivers in any one race. No current Cup driver that had been in the Cup Series more than 3 years could race in Nationwide Series. Keep the Cup out of Nationwide, and it might be worth watching again.

As for the truck series, expenses may be threatening its existence, but the racing sure isn't. It's more entertaining than the Cup Series, and the racing is better. I look forward to another great season this year.

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