Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: An Idiot Pastor, a Stuntman & NASCAR Fans Who Won’t Be There

ONE: Talladega Nights Storms Nashville…

In the form of an invocation that was missing nothing more than references to KFC and race sponsor Federated Auto Parts. There’s no getting around it; a pastor’s attempt at humor didn’t do NASCAR any favors, even with 18,000 fans seemingly screaming their approval from the grandstands in Music City on Saturday night (July 24).

Speaking as a longtime agnostic, the religious sensitivities/insensitivities that were tweaked by this pre-race prayer are really not of any concern to me. That being said, I am fully aware of just how significant the tradition of the invocation is to the sport, especially in this day and age. There’s no shortage of outspoken Christians behind the wheel, on top of the pit boxes and in the stands on any given race weekend.

But NASCAR is also the only professional sport out there to make such an offering before every event. It’s one of the few remaining tangible connections the sport maintains to its past, to a fanbase that it has done everything to squash and alienate over the last decade.

To see it reduced to a comedy routine completely worthy of ridicule, well… does any race fan out there concerned for the sport’s overall well-being want Talladega Nights to be the face of major-league stock car racing?

TWO: Expect a long night for Travis Pastrana

Take away the name power and look at the numbers. Despite having considerable backing from Michael Waltrip Racing, an organization that’s had no trouble winning at the K&N Pro Series level (Ryan Truex won the series title both in 2008 and 2009), Travis Pastrana‘s average finish in four K&N starts has been 25.5, with only one of those results coming on the lead lap.

Yet, the X-Man will still be making his major league, Nationwide debut on the tight confines of Lucas Oil Raceway this weekend, whether he’s ready or not. It’s certainly a far more suitable venue for a debut than Daytona was for Danica Patrick, but the deck is stacked even more than it was for the last big name jumping disciplines at this level.

Pastrana is driving for a team that hasn’t raced in over a month and hasn’t fielded a top-10 car on any track since Richmond back in May. He’s tackling a venue in Indianapolis that, surprisingly, is the tightest he will have seen outside of the exhibition race at Irwindale he ran earlier this year. And, frankly, K&N is nothing compared to what Pastrana will face in terms of competition at the Nationwide Series level.

This is yet another example of a short-sighted marketing move at the expense of actual driver development. Perhaps the driver with the background closest to Pastrana’s would be motorcycle extraordinaire Ricky Carmichael, who – even with the full backing of longtime sponsor Monster Energy – spent time in late model racing before making the move to NASCAR. Now, years later, Carmichael has proven to be a capable driver, but he’s still not setting the world on fire on-track or become a booming fan phenom off it. His performance, gradually improving has come from actual development as a stock car racer.

So it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to see Pastrana doing anything to excite his fans this Saturday night. Avoiding attrition and simply running at the finish will be an accomplishment for he and the No. 99 team at the end of 200 laps.

THREE: Just How Bad Will the Brickyard Crowd Be?

The projections have to be pretty God awful if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway somehow got a Sprint Cup Series autograph session together, and if NASCAR felt the need to send a memo to teams updating them on ticket sales for the coming race, as was reported by The Charlotte Observer.

The fact is, having a bad crowd at Indianapolis is going to be an issue of magnitude for a number of reasons. For one, given that the facility is all but surrounded by grandstands, no amount of shifty camera work by ESPN is going to hide wide swaths of empty seats. Not exactly a scenic backdrop for what is supposedly one of the sport’s crown jewel races, right? There’s nothing like photographic evidence to prove that something is wrong.

See also
Say No to the Brickyard

What’s more, though, is that IMS is proving unable to recover from the debacle that was the 2008 Brickyard 400. It was a race, if one could call it that, with such pronounced tire problems that the event was essentially rendering a stretch of 10-lap parades, with caution flags thrown frequently to allow teams the opportunity to continually refresh their rubber. Two-hundred forty thousand people were there for that one. One year later, the crowd was down to 180,000. This past year? One-hundred forty thousand. Do the math: that’s a 42% decline in the past three seasons alone.

Those are scary enough numbers on their own right, but they get worse when compared to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track that endured a disaster of its own in 2005 when levigating the racing surface turned the Coca-Cola 600 into the most caution-filled race in NASCAR history. In that one, tires failed nearly on cue every 20-30 laps, slamming cars into the fence with regularity. Yet three years after that ugly night, attendance for the 600-miler was down only 4%. Even by 2011 comparison, CMS is facing declines of 13%, not 42%.

The bottom line is when it comes to Indy, NASCAR’s somewhere it shouldn’t be. Even if that is the most famous racetrack in the world.

FOUR: Another Red Bull Cast-Off, Another Cinderella Story Needing to Happen

NASCAR Illustrated‘s Joe Gunn did a fine piece earlier this week describing just how crucial it was for AJ Allmendinger‘s career that he qualified for the Daytona 500 in 2009 after losing his ride at Red Bull Racing the season before.

Get ready for the sequel to that tale this weekend. Scott Speed, the driver that ultimately booted the ‘Dinger out of Red Bull’s second seat lost his ride in the No. 82 a season ago. Now, in danger of falling off stock car racing’s radar screen for good, Speed has landed a three-race deal with Max Q Motorsports, a team that has missed six of the last 12 Cup races after losing their Top-35 slot earlier in the season. That contract will start in another big-name event, the Brickyard 400, this coming weekend.

There’s two ways this partnership goes, as Speed will have the benefit of an FR9 engine under the hood. Make the Brickyard and the No. 37 team scores a much-needed big payday and momentum heading into Pocono and the Glen, two tracks that should favor the road racing background of Speed. Miss the Brickyard, though, and not only does Speed and team miss out on one of the season’s biggest paydays, they at best make only races at Pocono and the Glen. Qualifying on a roval and road course aren’t going to look as great an accomplishment if Speed can’t make the field on the one true oval in that slate.

Stock car racing’s going to see what Speed’s made of this weekend.

FIVE: Allen Bestwick to take a larger role in ESPN’s Booth

Rare good news on the TV broadcast front. Here’s hoping a long overdue move to put Bestwick up front is enough to bolster a stretch of the season Frontstretch readers as a whole appear to be grimacing at the thought of viewing on TV.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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