Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Don’t Assume Anything

After years of rolled eyeballs and harrumphs of disdain, NASCAR Nation could only shake its collective head and watch the scene unfold – Jeff Gordon scrambling after a late fuel stop in an attempt to catch the No. 27 Chevrolet of Paul Menard as the laps wound down in the Brickyard 400. With three laps remaining, Menard roared past defending winner Jamie McMurray and went on to cross the line of bricks to end what had become a better-than-30-year family quest to win at Indianapolis.

The tears shed by Menard’s father – the billionaire, John Menard, who owns a chain of Midwest-based home-improvement stores – said it all: all good things come to those who wait – despite what assumptions we in the grandstands (and the garage area, and the media center) had.

And don’t forget to add that good things come to those who work hard, as well, because getting to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not been easy, regardless of the vast Menard fortune.

John Menard has invested a king’s ransom in an assortment of motorsports operations, most notably in open-wheeled Indy cars, with a win at IMS high atop his list of career goals. His cars have struggled in the Indianapolis 500 over the decades (Al Unser came closest to a win there with a Menard car back in 1992, finishing third), and it appeared that young Paul was headed toward a similar run for his overall (as short as it has been) NASCAR career.

His only other victory, prior to last Sunday, was a Nationwide race back in 2006 – an eternity in NASCAR time. Critics pooh-poohed Paul’s efforts, saying that it must be nice to play “racecar driver” with Daddy’s vast wealth. Such may be the case in open-wheel racing, where a blank check in a driver’s pocket has been known to buy him (or her?) a ride, but would this be the case in a more “work-ethic” based sport like NASCAR?

Many of Menard’s critics said “You bet!” But I can’t help but wonder how many of those critics were more jealous of Menard than incensed by the good fortune of his birthright. Sterling Marlin once said that the best driver in NASCAR history was probably some guy off driving a tow truck somewhere – a pure talent without the backing or the equipment to make their mark. Let’s be real here: success in racing is a matter of money; if you don’t have the money, your talent won’t matter.

If Menard had grown up in a family where afternoons in May were spent at the local country club, the notion that he could become a professional racecar driver might be the stuff of idle fantasy – the kind of career choice more suited for meeting women than becoming reality. Given that Menard and his family spent the better part of each May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, looking to earn a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy, it speaks volumes to his heartfelt interest in the sport.

The fact that Menard not only grew up around incredible wealth, but that he also grew up around automobile racing at its most significant level, should make his career path – and his accomplishment this last Sunday (July 31) – little more than a point to ponder briefly.

Had Menard taken up racing out of boredom, then the matter would be worthy of more overtly critical commentary. Spending more than 30 years chasing any kind of dream is a sign of familial dedication; to chase a dream and make it real after such a length of time, and to have your son behind the wheel sealing the deal, is a good sign that inspiration means more than income.

One thing that Menard’s win did was that it caused us to re-evaluate many of the assumptions we’ve made about him over the years. I’ll admit it; I was one of the critics who shook my head over a stock car where the driver’s name over the window net matched the sponsor’s name on the rear quarterpanels. All the typical accusatory adjectives came to mind: “spoiled”, “privileged”, “bored”, “wannabe” and the like.

Much of it, as I mentioned earlier, came from jealousy; why was Menard able to walk right into a NASCAR gig when it was obvious (if only to me, at least) that I was the one who should walk into a NASCAR gig? Never mind the fact that I had no talent and even less drive – the sheer audacity of Menard getting a shot at the big time, while other talented drivers toiled away on local short tracks with little more than a pocketful of borrowed gas money, rattled my cage. The mere thought of it made me furious.

Then I took a deep breath and saw what was really happening – the fact that Menard was getting noticed not for recognition of any driving ability, but primarily because of his last name and his family’s profitable business. When a car owner sees you, but smells your money, it’s a recipe for exploitation.

Such was the case with Menard back in those early days, when he seemed to be getting non-competitive rides from whatever team he was with at the time in exchange for a sponsorship deal through his father’s company. With sub-par equipment, the up-and-coming driver looked more like a wealthy namesake who was out for a lark.

During those seasons, Menard managed to stay above all of the criticism and the comments and maintain an air of maturity. He could have whined and cried and stomped around demanding acceptance, but he knew – because of his lineage – that he had to earn it from his competitors.

To hear a former critic like Tony Stewart (who has a negative history with John Menard, to begin with from back in his Indy days) speak respectfully of Paul’s success at the Brickyard suddenly turns all of that earlier nay-saying on its ear.

Regardless, Joey Logano – yet another Cup driver who’s been suspected and/or accused of using his family’s wealth as a springboard to a racing career – declared, following Menard’s win at Indianapolis: “Seems like anyone can win these things these days. You have to get lucky more than anything….”

Or is it more a matter of making your own luck through a combination of risky calls from atop the pit box, a consistent performance from a talented driver, and a lot of late-race patience? It seems quite clear that “Slugger” Labbe, Menard and the entire No. 27 team at Richard Childress Racing had a little something to do with their Sunday afternoon success. When it comes to winning in NASCAR, one cannot assume anything.

The problem with making assumptions about people is that they often prove to be incorrect. Assumptions are little more than self-rationalization and justification for why we think and behave as we do. Relying on generalities or assumptions usually results in having to eat your own words, and sometimes publically. Assumptions, when discovered to be false, typically lead to a change in thinking on the part of the person making the assumption in the first place.

The danger in dealing with assumptions reminds me of an episode of the ABC-TV comedy The Odd Couple where Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall) defends himself in court after being accused of scalping theater tickets to a woman. At one point, the woman says (during questioning on the witness stand by Felix) that she just “assumed” he wanted more money than the face value of the tickets.

Felix responds by using a chalkboard to explain the problem that arises when one makes an assumption. Writing the word “assume” in large letters across the blackboard, Felix says “You should never assume, because when you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’….” Such is the nature of acknowledging assumptions and thinking that our own personal perspective is the only perspective.

As Paul Menard said after his Brickyard 400 win: “You can’t change people’s opinions. That’s fine with me…” That’s because Menard added his family’s name to the list of winners at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Sunday, despite what some people might think of him and how he made it into NASCAR.

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup road show rolls into Pocono this week, Menard won’t be introduced as the son of the billionaire who owns the Menard’s home-improvement-store chain, he’ll be introduced as the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner and the driver who qualified second-fastest on the grid for the most recent event at Pocono Raceway.

Given the No. 27 team’s current momentum, and given that the team ran well at Pocono back in June (despite a speeding penalty along the track’s infamously long pit road), one could assume that Menard is a favorite to visit victory lane once again. He’ll have to deal with the usual suspects there – drivers like Gordon, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin – and other likely contenders such as Marcos Ambrose (mark my words!), Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, but Menard will certainly be a name to watch at Pocono.

The tricky tri-oval located in northeastern Pennsylvania has endured its own share of rumors and assumptions over the years. Despite this, the Mattioli family has managed to maintain a positive outlook while fending off criticism from competitors and pundits alike. This is the track so often mentioned when talk arises about dropping a facility from the Sprint Cup schedule.

Pocono is often discussed whenever people hold debates regarding whether or not race distances should be reduced to 400 miles. The track in Long Pond is usually compared to Indianapolis, even though it’s got three unique corners of differing banking and three straightaways of varying lengths.

Pocono Raceway has always been the racetrack most-likely-to-be-misunderstood on the NASCAR schedule, despite its challenging characteristics, its demands on setups and driving technique, and its close proximity to major East Coast/urban markets like Philadelphia and New York City.

My thinking about Pocono Raceway, having pretty much grown up there, is that it’s not utilized enough by NASCAR. For one thing, it might be fun to actually extend the length of races at Long Pond. If teams are challenged by 600 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway, imagine what it would require to run an additional 100 miles at Pocono? The strain on transmissions, engines, fuel loads and nerves is already excessive, so why not up the ante and test the mettle of everyone racing in NASCAR’s highest division?

Winning at Pocono under such conditions would rip a page out of Spencerian/Darwinian evolutionary theory, adding new relevance to the concept of “survival of the fittest.” Come to think of it, adding distance to other Cup races might accentuate a separation of the haves from the have nots. But then; that’s why I don’t work for NASCAR.

It’s been too easy to write-off a driver like Menard until this season, when his performances have grown more consistent and more competitive. It’s also too easy to write-off a track like Pocono, especially given the usual complaints from teams and fans that the location is too remote, the amenities for lodging are too limited, and the races there are often simply too dull.

Just when you think you have the Sprint Cup season all figured out, someone (or something) goes and throws an oily wrench into the high-performance machinery (News flash! This just in, Danica Patrick is moving to NASCAR full-time in 2012. Nationwide ride with JR Motorsports – partial Cup deal with Stewart-Haas Racing – details to follow!).

As we’ve seen so far this year, one should beware of making assumptions about drivers, teams, tracks and events. Just remember what Felix Unger said.

On a more personal note; I’d like to wish my darling wife a very happy wedding anniversary. She’s been patient with me through races and deadlines, and she’s my favorite traveling companion when it’s time to visit North Carolina. She’s an amazing mom, stepmom, critic, muse and friend, and I’m honored to be the lucky man by her side. Today commemorates the day we said “I do”, and I plan to take her someplace special so we can celebrate this most joyous event.

Maybe we’ll go to Menards.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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