Competition Caution 400 A Blow Out For NASCAR, Goodyear

In what has to be the worst NASCAR race since the Professional Drivers Association (PDA) boycotted the inaugural Talladega 500 in 1969 over concerns about tire wear, Sunday’s Allstate 400 at Indianapolis was a nightmare of epic proportions. Thanks to a Goodyear tire that would not hold up to track conditions, the 160-circuit event was reduced to little more than a seven-lap sprint to the finish with Jimmie Johnson taking the victory over Carl Edwards.

Instead of 160 laps of racing on America’s most famous race track in one of the season’s most anticipated races, fans were subjected to a string of 10-to-12 lap runs before the cars were steered to pit road by NASCAR under ‘competition cautions’ to change tires that were shredding like cheese. In short, there was little competitive about the race.

“That wasn’t a race,” said driver Ryan Newman afterward. ‘It’s ridiculous. That’s a lack of preparation from NASCAR to Goodyear to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to put on a show like they did for the fans. It’s disrespectful to the fans, and I wish that it didn’t have to be that way. That’s not the way NASCAR racing is supposed to be.”

Newman’s right – it didn’t have to be that way. In April, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers did a tire test for Goodyear at Indianapolis. At that time, they reported the tires tested experienced excessive wear – the same kind of shredding and blistering seen this weekend. For whatever reason, no additional testing was done and Goodyear was left to its own devices to determine what tires to bring to Sunday’s race.

Obviously, Goodyear made the wrong choice. The results – and the race – were pathetic. There can be no question that Goodyear was at fault here.

Instead of a race, more than 200,000 fans at the speedway and millions more watching on television were treated to a pit stop contest and little else. Instead of full out, wide open racing, the cars idled around the track at a race pace more than three seconds a lap slower than those turned lap times in the final seven circuits when Johnson and the rest of the field threw caution to the wind and raced for the victory.

It would be easy to call the seven-lap event a joke, but that surely wasn’t the case for the assembled throng who spent thousands of dollars in tickets, travel and lodging to attend the non race

The embarrassing exhibition came on the heels for a tough week for NASCAR. With several high-profile national newspapers like USA Today running large stories about how the recent economic downturn has significantly impacted NASCAR attendance and team sponsorship, the sanctioning organization was hoping for a classic event that would stem the sudden downward turn the sport seems to be mired in.

What it got instead was a memorable race for all the wrong reasons – an event nearly equal to the 2005 United States Grand Prix, the Formula One race at Indy where just six cars started the race in protest over tire concerns.

“It’s all we could do aside from loading up and going home and not running at all,” said Earnhardt, Jr. in assessing Sunday’s pathetic event.

Maybe that would have been a better solution. It’s hard to imagine not racing being more damaging publicly than the ‘show’ NASCAR and Goodyear put on Sunday. In deciding to run the race and saddled with circumstances provided by the excessive tire wear already evident in Friday’s practice sessions, NASCAR did the only thing it could literally stopping Sundays event for safety sake every dozen laps or so.

For years, this column has insisted the tires Goodyear has been bringing to the track have been insufficient. All three top NASCAR divisions – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck – have been ‘under tired’ and have had to perform at less than peak levels on a weekly basis thanks to Goodyear tires that don’t grip the racetrack, or in the case of Sunday’s event, were totally untraceable and come apart without warning.

Frankly, it’s well past time for NASCAR to end its cozy ‘official tire’ relationship with Goodyear and open up the sanctioning body to any manufacturer who is willing to produce tires in the quantities needed and with a minimum durometer (hardness) reading established by NASCAR.

If Sunday’s race proved anything, it’s that the current tire testing procedure and the tires Goodyear is providing NASCAR do not meet the standards of the sport. Then again, we’ve known that for a long time but have chosen to look away instead. On Sunday, there was no looking away and the result was yet another black eye for NASCAR.

Maybe now, something will finally change.

Tony The Terrible Car Owner

You would have expected Tony Stewart, the two-time Brickyard 400 champion and usually unfiltered critic of the sport, to be one of the loudest voices in the chorus in the criticism of Goodyear and NASCAR after Sunday’s race. Stewart, however, was relatively silent maintaining a low profile since having a physical confrontation with a United States Auto Club official Thursday evening at O’Reilly Raceway Park.

Stewart, who owns the USAC midget cars of Tracy Hines and Levi Jones, was on top of the pit box during Thursday’s race at ORP when Hines brushed the wall and suffered a right rear flat tire. A quick stop to change the tire ensued and when a push truck wasn’t available to get Hines rolling again (midgets don’t have on-board starters), the crew frantically pushed the car down pit road in an effort to get Hines started and keep him on the lead lap.

When a USAC official stepped out to stop Stewart’s crew and tell them it was too late to rejoin the race, Stewart jumped off the pit box, sprinted down pit lane and confronted the official. There, Stewart – in full view of the near capacity crowd – shoved the official and knocked his headset off. Stewart them picked up the headset and smashed it on the ground.

On Friday, Stewart acknowledged the incident – which has curiously drawn little media attention – to NASCAR Scene.

“When you’re sitting there and you’ve got your corporate sponsors there and you’ve got a car on the race track and it’s sitting on pit lane and they can’t get a push truck to it, you’re supporting your guys and your team that worked hard on that car trying to get it back out,” Stewart stated.

Yup Tony, that’s right, your corporate sponsors were there and we’re confident your actions definitely got their attention. Supporting them and your team is one thing – assaulting an official is another. If USAC had any stones at all, you, your cars, and those sponsors you think so much of would be suspended at the very least for several events because of your actions.

It will be interesting to see what kind of response these types of actions will draw next season when Stewart assumes the role of team owner and protector in the NASCAR Sprint Cup ranks.

ORP – Overly Repulsive Pits

This column has gone on record many times over the past 15 years as to how much we love racing at O’Reilly Raceway Park. This weekend was no exception as we had the privilege of spotting Donny Lia to a ninth-place finish in Friday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.

But, just as it was in 1993 when we first visited the historic half-mile Indiana oval, the infield amenities this weekend were totally substandard and bordered on repulsive in some cases. Within two hours of the gates opening Friday morning, two of the three toilets in the men’s rest room – a dark, dank, small flat roofed cement block structure – were overflowing, stench ridden and unusable.

Media members were again subjected to working in a pair of mobile trailers parked with a third such structure acting as the infield care center. A large tent with cheap folding chairs was the site of the driver’s meeting.

Worst of all, teams again were faced with a tight, unsafe pit road along with cramped and unpaved areas behind their pit boxes. Their transporters had to be parked outside because of the unpaved and wet grass conditions in the infield. A mosquito infested pond in Turn 4 made working in the pit boxes there even more unpleasant.

In short, these are conditions that shouldn’t exist at a facility that hosts major NASCAR events. We don’t think it’s too much to ask for clean, working rest rooms and a concession facility that is more than a shack with an outdoor grill. Bulldozing the infield at ORP, putting up new bathrooms, media and concession facilities is way overdue. Reconfiguring pit road into a more workable and safer place and paving the infield so there is access for team transporters should be the first order of business on the track’s docket.

Given the large crowds the two NASCAR races have been drawing to the track for decades, the project has been paid for time and again. Bottom line is the management of ORP needs to step up and make these safety and humane improvements or NASCAR needs to pull these dates from the track – regardless how popular they are with the fans.

It’s 2008, not 1950 anymore, and there are plenty of tracks NASCAR can place these races at that provide good racing for the fans and safe, clean and sanitary conditions for the racers. Right now, ORP isn’t one of them.

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