Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Rambling Man

You know what? This weekend, I played hooky. Few of you are going to be surprised to learn I really don’t care for the Cup racing at Fontana. As that date approached on the calendar, I grew more and more restless. Another date rapidly approaching on that same calendar – Oct. 25, the night we set our clocks back an hour, another concept I am not fond of – is the unofficial end of motorcycling season here in the Northeast.

With less daylight, there’s no more evening rides; even now, the temperatures are already unseasonably chilly. But that’s not the only reason riding gets rough. As the whitetail deer enter their rut, they make traveling in a car, much less a Harley, extraordinarily dangerous, especially out here in Chester County (the deer/vehicle collision capital of the universe). Oh sure, there might be one or two nice Saturdays to get the bike out this year, but they will be rare and cherished.

The forecast for Sunday was brisk but sunny. (I believe they used the term “abundant sunshine;” there’s a poetry major who became a meteorologist to pay the rent.) As the day wore on, two things became clearer and clearer to me: I really wanted to ride my motorcycle and I really didn’t want to watch Fontana at all. So I burned my scheduled sixth weekend of the season off on Sunday.

How’d it work out? Splendidly, thank you for asking. The day was crisp enough that full leathers were in order, but the sunshine on my back kept things tolerable. I rode past Amish and Mennonite farms where they’re beginning to gather in the harvest, backdropped by acres of trees in their autumnal multi-hued finery. Overhead, huge V-shaped flocks of Canada geese headed south, while along the roadside small wooden stands offered fresh produce and pumpkins.

The cooler air seemed to suit the Harley, which had an extra rush to its step… or maybe I was just enjoying it more, knowing time is fleeting. At traffic lights, I’d warm my hands by that big old V-twin engine, then set out in search of new, blue highways yet unexplored. An early dinner consisting of a prime rib sandwich and a Corona capped off the day at the local tavern before the brief jaunt home.

The whole ride was, for the want of a better word, magic. It was as if the Norman Rockwell channel was being broadcast across my visor. Afternoons like Sunday are going to provide the memories that get me through to spring, all while I load another bag of wood pellets in the stove and stare restlessly out the window at drifting snow and the plunging mercury, waiting.

Despite myself, I caught the end of the race upon my return. I’ve got three words to offer here – “Stink, stank, and stunk.” In the end, NASCAR had to play that magic “invisible debris” card a few times to try to add a little spice to the proceedings, and that stinks as well. Ask Kasey Kahne… from a safe distance.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Should Debris Dictate the Outcome of the Chase? It's Coming Close

Is this what it’s come to? Our sport has become so lame that NASCAR officials must orchestrate a race rather than officiate it to add even a modicum of interest to get the fans to tune in again next week? Where’s the consistency? One week, a stricken racecar sideways across the racing groove on the last lap draws no caution; next time, a piece of rubber I’d gladly stuff in my ear on a dollar bet brings out the yellow hanky. Is there any more question why the Lebanese Vegetarian Cooking Channel is drawing better ratings than NASCAR racing these days?

Well, they’ve lost me on this track. After the race, I didn’t feel elated – I felt irritated. Life’s too short to spend on things that annoy you, unless they happen to be really good-looking. I’m 50 now. I have no hours to waste watching a Fontana race and I’m not going to do so anymore. I’m going riding. And if it rains, I’ll go work in the garage rather than wasting four hours on Fontana. Some folks are saying the last little bit of the race was actually pretty good.

I guess that’s like getting beat over the head with a hammer for three and a half hours. If the beating stops for a half hour, it feels pretty good… in a twisted sort of way.

This genuinely wasn’t an easy call for me. For over 25 years, I missed only one race and that was the 1989 Daytona 500, held the day my best friend died in a car wreck – and I taped that one and watched it later that evening. I’ve been a hardcore fan of this sport for over 42 years and this is what I do. But I just can’t cover Fontana anymore; and if the hardcore types like me are looking at our watches and edging towards the exit, NASCAR is in big trouble.

Moving on to some “Water Cooler” topics of the week.

Saturday – I watched the Nationwide race from Fontana. (It was raining.) Two things are inarguable: It was a damn fine race, one of the best of the season, but the crowd on hand to see it was pathetic enough to embarrass a small-town high school football team with an 0-10 record.

The 89% Solution – Jezum Crow, Batman! The International Speedway Corporation (sister company to NASCAR and the owner of tracks like Daytona and Fontana, amongst many others) saw their profits shrink 89% in the third quarter over the same period last year (and 2008 was hardly a banner year for them, either.) 89%? Even General Motors and Chrysler aren’t bleeding away profits like that.

That which Brian France has sown with the Chase, the CoT and the proliferation of McTracks, he has now begun to harvest – and a bitter harvest it appears it will be. To repeat that old business axiom, the first generation creates, the second generation perfects and the third generation destroys.

As it stands written in the Book of Bob: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, dinchu? People called, said hey beware, you’re bound to fall, you thought they were all kiddingju!”

You have to wonder now if the ISC officials now regret the money they pissed away in their salad days on stuff like cookie-cutter tracks… and, oh, um, I can’t remember the name of that other website in the rearview mirror.

Racing in the Streets – Speaking of the third generation of the France family, two members of that clan had an even worse week than Brian and Lesa studying the ISC balance sheets. JC France and his half-brother (sons of Jim France… Bill Junior’s brother) were arrested for street racing, one of them in a Lamborghini and the other in a vehicle I have seen alternatively described as a Porsche Cayenne (a largish ugly version of a VW Toureg, for people who have more money than sense) or a Porsche Cayman (a high-priced sports car for those with the money to buy one, but lacking the balls to drive a Shelby.)

Either/or, I suppose. Back in my tire-selling days, we used to say, “Every rose has its thorns, every thorn has its prick and every prick has a Porsche.” Oh, calm down. I had a brief dalliance with a 356.

Worse yet, both men were found to be drunk and in possession of cocaine at the time of their arrest. France is a driver in his dad’s Grand-Am series, but was immediately suspended just like any other driver would be under the drug policy.

I’m not going to make jokes about substance abuse problems and I’m not going to throw stones. I’ve street raced myself on occasions too numerous to recall, though too long ago to put a date to. Drunken driving is one of the pressing social problems of our age, but I’m not going to say I’ve never done it. I just don’t do it anymore.

And next to meth, I’ve watched cocaine destroy more good people’s lives than any other candy from the devil’s apothecary. I did that dance myself and quit cold turkey while not necessarily in a tailspin, but with the altimeter shedding numbers at an alarming rate equal to my bank account. That’s some seriously vile crap and it owns you before you know what hit you. I hope both gentlemen get the help they need.

But here’s what I found galling reading the story: the way the other fellow (not JC) jumped down the throat of the arresting female police officer. He demanded to speak to her superior, asking her, “Do you know who I am? We own this town!” referring to the France family, otherwise known as the Daytona Beach Mafia. The clear implication was her career was in danger because she was doing her job.

C’mon, guys. If you get busted street racing, drunk and holding coke at all hours of the night, I’m thinking a little repentance and remorse is going to serve you better than arrogance and hostility directed at a duly sworn officer of the law.

Now sports car racing has a dark history involving users and purveyors of illicit narcotics, from team owners to drivers. (Remember John Paul Sr. and Jr.?) Young people, fast cars, fast times and big bucks don’t always add up too well. But the other part of this story I find irksome is that while Brian France has all but crucified Jeremy Mayfield‘s alleged drug usage, the IMSA website was rapidly deleting posts noting, commenting on and asking about JC’s arrest. Double standard?

Well, it’s a Start – Perhaps realizing that the problems with TV ratings and declining attendance are real at last, NASCAR made a move this week to standardize race starting times beginning next year. East coast daylight events will start at 1:00, with cars racing by 1:15. West coast daylight events will start at 3:00, with genuine racing or some facsimile thereof going by 3:15. Night race start times will also be standardized, with the sole exception of the World 600 due to its extraordinary length. Great idea. I wish I’d thought of it, like, maybe three years ago.

See also
What's Vexing Vito: It's About Time - NASCAR Reverting Back to Sane Start Times for 2010

As the fire department sifts through the flames of the wreckage of what was to be the 2009 Cup season, two gems they will be able to salvage for next year are the standardized starting times and the side-by-side restart rules, a glimmer of proof that NASCAR, in the face of rising catastrophe, is finally willing to listen to the fans that keep it in business.

So while we’re at it, let’s schedule Fontana’s races for April 31 and Sept. 31 next year, all while moving Darlington back to Labor Day weekend where it belongs.

Divorce, NASCAR Style Certainly, it hasn’t been an easy year for the RCR teams and drivers, but Kevin Harvick has apparently had enough. In a media interview over the weekend, he at least strongly hinted he tried to get out of his contract for next year and, since he could not, all but said he’ll definitely be moving on after 2010. He used an interesting book analogy to indicate the final chapter is upon him and Childress, claiming it’s better for both parties to finish up and start a new one.

Of course, I’d be interested to see Harvick reading a book to see if his lips move to the point they go numb while he does so. But Harvick has made this sort of noise before, back when there were prevalent rumors Toyota was courting him as one of their lead drivers once the Japanese automaker prepared to enter the Cup Series. Harvick leveraged that rumor to get a nice pay increase at RCR.

This time, though, it looks like the departure’s for real… with some real-life consequences. There’s nothing more toxic to a team than having a driver announce he’s jumping ship, and the No. 29 bunch now have to deal with that scenario for the rest of 2009 and all of 2010. So I feel it would be in RCR’s best interest to tell Harvick if he doesn’t want to come back, hit the highway… as a matter of fact, starting this weekend.

That’s how Junior Johnson tended to handle things, anyway. My guess is that RCR has a commitment to Shell that Harvick will remain in the car and they want another year to find a new sponsor, knowing Shell is probably going to follow Harvick out the door to his new team – which I’d guess would be a third Stewart-Haas entry for 2011.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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