Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: So What Happened While I Was Gone?

There’s nothing like a week down the Jersey Shore to refresh an aging soul. Yeah, it was quite hot here in the Northeast while I was away, but generally along the shoreline it was pretty comfortable and if it got a bit hot there were always cans of liquid air conditioning at hand. The sand, the sea, the breezes and girls in their summer clothes. I had to come home, but I know I’ll be back next year and every year after that until I am too old and decrepit to carry a rolled up rice mat and a six-pack cooler to the waterline.

It wasn’t that many years ago (OK, it was a few) the annual trek east to the Shore involved a complete disconnect from NASCAR and related news. Nowadays, everybody (except me) has some sort of portable digital device that retrieves information from the web with the alacrity of a Golden Retriever puppy sent after a tennis ball. Thus I was able to keep up with what was going on though whether that’s a blessing or a curse I don’t know.

Here’s a couple things that piqued my interest:

Uneasy Lays the Head That Wears the Crown

Being a crew chief in the Cup garage is a pretty sweet gig. A lot of the crew chiefs with the bigger, more successful teams now have multimillion-dollar Prevost and Newell motor coaches just like the drivers and team owners. But in the current “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” climate in the garage area, those crew chiefs better not let their teams go into a slump. See, the pay is good but the retirement benefits are lacking.

As a sultry July gives way to a steamy August the portion of the season Mike Joy once coined “Silly Season” kicks into high gear. Drivers, crew chiefs and crew members begin their annual game of high stakes musical chairs looking for the right opportunity for next year.

When I was in college, a friend who was in the Marines ROTC once told me during an amphibious assault against the enemy, the life expectancy of the average first lieutenant was under a minute. It’s the same with crew chiefs. If a team isn’t living up to expectations, someone has to get thrown under the bus.

Usually it won’t be the driver because the sponsor often has marketing tie-ins with him. It’s usually impractical to fire the entire pit crew and try to replace them in a week. So that leaves the guy atop the pit box making the calls, often a fall guy for a plethora of other problems with the team, but usually the fall guy anyway.

Initially, I was stunned about Todd Berrier. Berrier has been around a long time and I don’t think his qualifications as crew chief are open to dispute. But then I looked at the big picture. Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team are 25th in the points. Their chances of making the Chase are gone and Burton used to be a perennial title contender. They have a big-name, high-dollar sponsor and things just aren’t going to plan. It’s time to start building a new alliance for the rest this season to get ready for the next one.

In the same week, Brian Pattie of the No. 42 team and Mike Shiplett of the No. 43 team bit the dust. Shiplett will be replaced in turn by Greg Erwin who was recently released as Greg Biffle’s crew chief.

Meanwhile, Kenny Francis of the No. 4 Red Bull team got some better news. He’ll be making the switch to the No. 5 Rick Hendrick car along with his driver Kasey Kahne. With the future of the Red Bull team still in the air, that had to be welcome relief on the job security front, but it’s got to leave Lance McGrew scratching his head wondering what “key role” at HMS he’s been promised for next year.

Editor’s Note: McGrew will be working on development of NASCAR’s new 2013 car, part of an R&D role within Hendrick Motorsports.

Under nearly every shade tree in the rural south there’s some determined young mechanic wrenching on his buddy’s racecar with dreams of eventually becoming a NASCAR crew chief. But this recent rash of firings is one of those instances where you need to be careful what you wish for.

Does Watching NASCAR Racing Cause More Accidents?

Frankly, I was flabbergasted at the very premise of the headline I saw over at Jayski while on vacation… and more than a little annoyed. In the midst of this economic crisis, the government and universities living on governmental largesse never seem to lack funding to study the most ridiculous things. Perhaps “The Military Uses For the Frisbee” study was the most infamous case.

West Virginia was chosen for the site of the study because the researchers claim that more people in the oddly-shaped state identify themselves as NASCAR fans per capita than any other state. (I didn’t know that. Chalk one up for the researchers.) These noble truth-seeking scientists go on to claim that because there are no tracks that sanction any of NASCAR’s top-three touring divisions within the (relatively small) state, all of these NASCAR fans are glued to the TV every Sunday.

I hate the term “glued to the TV.” My sister’s idiot cat Bootsy once knocked over the rubber glue on the arts and crafts table at the house then took a nap in her favorite spot, atop the ever warm TV in a five-child household. As far as I know, Bootsy is the only creature ever to have been glued to a TV and she didn’t like the extrication process much if I recall it.

I haven’t been able to get a copy of the formal study yet, but I’m not sure how the researchers determined which proportion of the self-proscribed NASCAR fans actually tune into each race. That’s the odd thing about NASCAR fans nationwide. Though they profess to be hardcore fans of the sport, less than one in 10 of them watch each week’s race.

Secondly, the average NASCAR fan who attends races will travel 600 miles to attend an event. That leaves folks all over the great state of West Virginia easily within travel range to a dozen NASCAR tracks if they choose to (and can afford to) attend. So maybe some of these “aggressive” drivers actually were at the races, not watching them on TV (after gluing the cat to the TV for safekeeping, of course.) I’ve met plenty of folks from West Virginia at races and have seen license plates from the state on cars at tracks across the country.

Already, the methodology is suspect but let’s take a result at the findings published to date. The scientists would have us believe that a NASCAR TV broadcast causes a spike in the number of accidents related to “aggressive driving” for the next five days. Jezum Crow, Auntie Em, no crap? With your typical Cup race run on a Sunday the next five days are weekdays, what those of us outside the Ivory Tower of Academia call “the work week.”

You have more cars on the road. You have congestion. You have traffic jams. You have road construction. And people with low degrees of frustration (NASCAR fan or not) start taking some stupid and unnecessary chances trying to get where they need to be. Wrecks result and that certainly isn’t just in West Virginia. Short of confessions by West Virginian NASCAR fans who ran a red light and broadsided another car then went on to explain they were driving like they’d seen Kyle Busch do so on Sunday, I can not see how a correlation can be made.

Fortunately, after five days the demonic possession caused by a NASCAR race wears off. Obviously. Less cars on the road, less congestion, less accidents. (Except those tragic single-vehicle late-night types after the bars close.) Sunday, the researchers would have you believe those fans are glued to their televisions, not out terrifying the gentler populace on the roads.

Let’s look at some more stats for the state of West Virginia. The roads there are ranked the fourth worst in the nation leaving three states where I must presume even the interstates are goat-paths. West Virginia has the fourth-highest traffic fatality and injury rate per capita of the 50 states. There’s a strong correlation between the quality of roads and the deaths per mile driven on those roads and there’s something the State and Feds can actually do something about.

In terms of average income per capita (what the average citizen makes) West Virginia is ranked 49th in the country, above only Mississippi. That would help explain why the registered vehicle population of the state is the 47th oldest in the nation. Older, more affordable cars often don’t have such life-saving niceties as air bags, antilock brakes and stability control, much less some of this new high-tech stuff like blind spot avoidance systems, self-actuated braking and the like. You actually have to drive older cars using a combination of two or three pedals and a steering wheel. Mistakes can prove costly.

Even if the conclusions of this study turn out to be indisputable (which I highly doubt) what do you do with the results? To increase public safety, do we ban broadcasting NASCAR races in West Virginia? Do we issue special permits to watch races only to West Virginians who complete a psychological profile with results stated that their frontal lobe is well in control of their hypothalamus? Do state workers hand out cookies and sodas to drivers Monday morning to calm the savage beasts at the wheel? Do ESPN and FOX have to run those ubiquitous “Professional driver, closed course, do not attempt” warnings throughout the race?

I’m sorry, but to me it sounds like the nanny federal government is just looking for a way to screw up another one of life’s little pleasures.

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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