NASCAR and Fitness? Jimmie Johnson Changed That

A few years ago my friend, racecar driver Scott Lagasse, Jr. from St. Augustine invited me to come along on his Champions Ride for Bicycle Safety, I like riding my bike, and although I was coming off knee surgery, I joined in with some of Scott’s high-profile friends from the racing community to try and help “humanize” the relationship between cyclists and cars on the road.

One of the fun things about the ride was a lap around Daytona International Speedway and a finish in Victory Lane. Fifty-five miles in, we made the final turn south; the track loomed in the distance. That means the guys in the front of the peloton of about sixty riders kicked it up a notch.

They left me behind. In bike language, they “dropped” me.

That’s when I felt a hand in the middle of my back and the rider next to me said, “Hey buddy, we’ve all been there, let’s go.” I recognized 7-time NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson’s voice immediately. I looked at him and I’m sure I said something incoherent. When I glanced at my computer, I noticed we were already doing 28 mph. Jimmy Johnson was pushing me, riding one-handed doing 28!

“Let’s go get them,” I said as Johnson shoved me up to the back of the pack. It was my first hint at Jimmie Johnson’s level of fitness.

Lagasse and his friends ride the “Champions Ride” every year during Speedweeks in Daytona to help raise the profile of bike and vehicle safety. Anybody who’s been riding has had an unpleasant “interaction” with a vehicle.

That includes Scott and even Jimmie Johnson. Johnson will start on the outside of Row Three in today’s Daytona 500 looking for his third victory in “The Great American Race.” He announced earlier this year that 2020 would be his final year driving full-time on the NASCAR circuit,

Jimmie has been part of the Champions Ride since the beginning. He rides or runs at each stop on the NASCAR schedule and when he’s home in Charlotte. Being in a sport where safety is part of the rules, Johnson knows safety between cars and riders is paramount.

“Safety is everything,” Johnson told me at a rest stop during this year’s ride last Thursday morning. “I think it’s the responsibility of the cyclist and the motorists to find some common ground there. That’s the key.”

Jimmie is dedicated to fitness. He ran in the Daytona Half-Marathon last weekend before the Busch Clash. “The Half turned out better than the Clash,” he joked.

In his home base of Charlotte, Johnson has started numerous fitness initiatives. He’s shared his passion with everybody.

“I’ve enjoyed my journey and I wanted to share it with my friends. I’m impressed with the community of running and cycling and triathlons,” Johnson said.

Promoting small lifestyle changes among his crew and other crewmembers in the garage, Johnson has changed a lot of the perception of fitness in racing.

“Jimmie has changed the sport in that aspect,” said Lagasse, who will drive and field two teams full-time on the Trans Am circuit this year. “Guys used to think it showed weakness. Now team owners demand it. The drivers are training harder than they’ve ever trained. Crew chiefs pay attention to it. Even kids coming up now have trainers.”

Lagasse says he used to be a basketball player and used the sport to stay in shape. About ten years ago he started riding thanks to his father, Scott Sr.

“It’s something we can do together and be competitive,” Scott said of riding with his dad, who turns sixty-one this week. Scott Sr. is a two time Sports Car Club of America National Champion who still rides. “That’s probably where some of my passion comes from. He’s a machine.”

Cars and bikes don’t mix well on the roads in Jacksonville and North Florida. There’s not enough room. Despite the vast size of our community, there are very few bike lanes. It hasn’t been part of the plan. Neither group seems to have a good grasp of the laws that govern the road. That creates tension instantly.

That’s where the State of Florida’s Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow comes in. They’re a state agency that is solely dedicated to car, bike and pedestrian safety. .

“They work tirelessly to raise the awareness that both cyclists and motorists need about how to share the road,” Lagasse said before this year’s Champions Ride. “Both groups have a shared responsibility. Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow’s mission is safety.”

This year’s ride was in honor of Volusia County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Scofield who was killed in a bike accident just outside of Daytona last June. Lagasse had ridden with Scofield in the past and credits him with the large law enforcement support the ride has year after year.

“Frank had a lot to do with the success of this ride,” Lagasse said as he presented a signed cycling jersey to Scofeld’s widow. “We’re riding his training route today.”

Despite their sponsorship agreement ending, Lagasse says he’s staying involved with the state agency to help get the word out.

“They’re emailing me at midnight to ask if I’ll be a part of an event. They’re working all times of day because they believe in what they’re doing,” Scott explained. “It motivates me to want to do more.”

Racin’ and Fishin’ at Daytona

I’ve been pretty fortunate in my journalism career to do some exciting things and meet some interesting people. I’ve often said that I had the second best job in the world, Pat Summerall and now Jim Nantz topping that list. And you might have heard me say more than once, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. I’ve had breakfast with Ali, lunch with Richard Petty and beers with Arnold Palmer. Tony Trabert is one of my best friends. What’s not to like?”

Add to that list now, I’ve fished in Lake Lloyd.

If you’re not a NASCAR fan, you’ve never heard of Lake Lloyd and have no idea where it is. Because Lake Lloyd sits in the middle of Daytona International Speedway.

When Bill France, Sr. was building the Speedway in the late ‘50’s, they dug down in the middle of the racetrack to grab enough dirt to build the 31-degree banking in the turns. When the track was finished in 1959, France named the lake after a local car dealer in Daytona who had given him his first job as a mechanic in the 1930’s.

At 44-acres, the lake was a little close to the edge of the track and a few times cars did end up in the lake so it was trimmed down to it’s current 29-acre size. Early NASCR Driver “Tiger” Tom Pistone was so fearful about driving into Lake Lloyd. he’d keep scuba gear in his car. Just in case.

France also had the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission come in and stock the lake with bass. And it rarely gets fished.

So when the invitation came from NASCAR to fish in Lake Lloyd with 2011 Coke Zero Sugar champion David Ragan, I immediately said yes.

I’ve bass fished for about 35 years and since my friend and former Georgia and NFL quarterback Matt Robinson taught me how to bass fish, I thought it was only fitting that I invited him to go along. Matt was there to get some pictures of me fishing with Ragan and if the chance came, throw a line in Lake Lloyd.

Ragan lists his hometown as Unadilla, Georgia, just south of Macon along I-75. “Being from a small town, I’ve had a chance to fish in some ponds,” Ragan said before jumping onto the bass boat waiting at the dock. He fished with Daytona President Chip Wile and looked right at home with a pole in his hands. The media was aboard two pontoon boats waiting our turn to join them.

Actually during the NASCAR races, any fan in the infield can fish from the dock at the lake. And there’s a charity fishing tournament held there before the Daytona 500. But a chance to get into a boat and fish some of the nooks and crannies, some of the structure and the drainpipes was something special.

Smartly, the folks from Bass Pro Shops who supplied the boats and the fishing equipment put an extra couple of poles in the media boats.

Before you knew it, Wile had caught three good-sized fish along the southwest corner of the lake. Ragan pulled two to the boat on successive casts. It was pretty windy but the tackle provided was able to handle that.

While we were maneuvering to get more pictures of Ragan and Wile fishing, Robinson, in the photographers boat, and me, in the reporters boat, rigged up some green worms and got lines in the water.

If you’ve ever fished with friends, you know those dual, simultaneous feelings that come over you when they hook the first fish. You’re thrilled for them, and at the same time more determined than ever to have something happen on the end of you line.

That’s how I felt when I looked up to see Matt standing on the side of the boat with his line bent in half reeling a bass to the boat. No sooner had he held it up to show me when I felt that familiar “tap-tap” in my hands. I set the hook hard but the line didn’t move so I figured I was snagged on the bottom.

That’s when the drag started signing with the line going in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, I brought what turned out to be a 4-6 lb. bass to the boat. He was big enough that I couldn’t get him out of the water with just the line and the pole.

I was feeling pretty good when I showed him to the guide on our boat who said, “You could throw a sledgehammer in here and catch a fish,” to a big laugh.

Ragan was clearly enjoying himself when I jumped aboard his boat. He had reeled in a few fish and helped a couple of novice reporters catch their first ever in the process.

After this season, NASCAR will move the second race at Daytona to the end of the year, the final qualifying race before the playoffs. Ragan was nostalgic about racing this Saturday at Daytona for the final time during the 4th of July holiday weekend.

“I love coming here,” he said. “When I was a kid, I knew we were going to sit around the house and watch the Firecracker 400 (now the Coke Zero Sugar 400). It was something we knew we were going to do. My dad (Ken Ragan) got to race here. I was fortunate to win here. It’s really special to me and my family.”

Ragan’s father is involved in his career and according to David, sometimes just shakes his head at how technology has changed the sport.

“He shakes his head a lot,” Ragan said with a laugh. “We have a group of engineers using simulation two weeks ahead of the race to prepare. We know the car, the engine. We’ve scanned the racetrack for the different bumps, the width, everything about it.”

“We know when we hit the racetrack about what we’re going to do,” he explained. “Just 15 years ago you’d have to do all of that with a smart guy pulling wrenches here at the track after a practice session. Now we’ve got smart guys pecking on the computer. But when they throw the green flag its still man vs. machine.”

At 33 years old, Ragan could be considered in the prime of his career. But the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are reminders that driving a racecar won’t last forever.

“Driving is a short window in the big span of my life and I want to make hay while the sun’s out,” he said. “Wives and girlfriends and children have to put up with a lot, but it won’t be forever.”

He admitted it was difficult to leave his two young daughters that morning for this appearance at Daytona.

“Sometimes you miss things you want to be at,” he said.

When I motioned to the water with a smile he answered,

“But hey, we caught fish!”

Lagasse Continues Speed Tradition

There’s always been a connection between North Florida and NASCAR.

LeeRoy Yarbrough called Jacksonville home and won 14 times on the top -rated NASCAR Grand National Circuit.
Speedway Park, also know as Jacksonville Speedway, was a half-mile dirt track at Lenox Avenue and Plymouth Street in what was then called “Southwest” Jacksonville.

The track hosted seven NASCAR Grand National races, won by racing legends like Lee Petty and David Pearson. Wendell Scott won the race there in 1963, and was the first and remains the only only African-American driver to win on NASCAR’s top circuit. Jacksonville Speedway closed in 1973 and a housing development now occupies that spot.

From his shop in St. Augustine, Scott Lagasse, Jr. continues that North Florida speed tradition.

His father, Scott Lagasse, Sr. had been a racecar driver for all of Scott Jr.’s life. He faintly recalled his dad’s success in the Sports Car Club of America Corvette Challenge Series in St. Petersburg in October of 1989.

“I can barely remember that,” Scott says, “But his original Corvette Challenge car was from Jack Wilson Chevrolet. He got wrecked early but came back and won.”

Lagasse Sr. raced 39 times across the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck series after winning back-to-back SCCA National Championships in the ‘80’s.

“A couple out of Wisconsin bought that Challenge Series Corvette sometime in the ‘90’s,” he explained. “They restored it and got all the ratings. They called us last year and said, ‘It’s time for it to go back to its home’ and sent it to the shop. It sits there now. It’s really cool.”

Scott Jr. knew early on he wanted to race.

“I remember my first motor cross bike for sure. I wasn’t good on two wheels, I was better on four,” he said this week as he prepared to drive the #4 Camaro for JD Motorsports Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series.

“I got in a car my dad was using to transition from the road track to the oval world. It was a fast car at St. Augustine Speedway. I ran my first race and won. I just had to lean on 30 years of stuff that was going in my ear,” Lagasse said with a laugh of his quick learning curve.

The Lagasse’s are operating out of a huge race shop right on San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine. Just less than 20,000 square feet and sharing that space with “Art’nMotion,” they also have a fabrication shop next door, “Where we do our real gritty, nasty work,” according to Scott.

A competitive nature has always been a part of Lagasse’s personality. A multi-faceted athlete, Scott says driving a racecar feeds that perfectly.

“It’s just a form of competition. The sport has competitive people. There’s the thrill of having to be perfect. It’s a high-speed chess game out there. A tenth of a second matters and all of that happens at 180 miles a hour.”

And it was that competitive part of his personality that ultimately led to a self-diagnosis of a serious medical condition.

“I was on the bike doing two-a-days, working on going to Charlotte to see Jimmy Johnson for his triathlon,” Scott said. “I texted my doctor and I just didn’t feel right. I was having to take days off because of a ‘tightness’ I felt after workouts.”

Lagasse went to see a gastro-intestinal specialist who found cancerous polyps in his colon. He had surgery and was back racing in six weeks. “It was the competitive side of me that forced me to the doctor.”

That’s one of the reason’s he’s is excited about his #4 Camaro this weekend sponsored by locals Micah Linton and Wally Devlin of the Rimrock-Devlin Group.

“There was open (sponsorship) space on the car and they put the Jay Fund on it. That has a really personal connection for me having gone through it.” The Jay Fund is Tom Coughlin’s charity that helps families’ battle childhood cancer.

Throughout his career, Scott has had success on several racing levels, and has had offers to drive full-time on NASCAR’s top circuits. None were fully-funded, top competitive teams, so he chose to race where he thought he had a chance to win.

“Could it have been different,” the 39-year old asked rhetorically. “Probably, but I’m really committed to the road race program we have going on.”

Lagasse has thirteen races on the schedule for his Camaro in the National Trans Am Series this year. Last September, Lagasse won his first Trans Am race and was surprised by his ability to adapt. “I’ve been pretty good on superspeedways but our team is really committed to our road race program.”

An avid cyclist, the Flagler College grad is the spokesperson for the “Alert Today Florida’ a campaign which raises awareness about pedestrian and bicycle safety. On Thursday he organized and rode in the third annual “Champions Ride for Bicycle Safety” from Daytona International Speedway. Jimmy Johnson, Aric Amirola and other NASCAR drivers were among those riding. Professional cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vandevelde along with former drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kannan have been part of the ride in the past.

Lagasse and his wife Kelley have two young children, so will the racing bloodline continue?

“I was watching a race the other night with our 4-year old daughter” Scott said. “And she said ‘This looks like a lot of fun.’ and I said. ‘No, no, no a piano is a lot more fun.’”

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Shorter SpeedWeeks, Better Racing?

From a 21-day stretch known as “SpeedWeeks” the racing at Daytona International Speedway has been condensed down to a few days. NASCAR fans still plan their February vacation around the 500, but the days of comping out in the infield for weeks or parking your multi-million-dollar RV and making new friends around the nightly bonfire are gone. There’s still camping in the infield, and the RV’s are still lined up, but a four-day stretch encompassing the qualifying races on Thursday through the Great American Race on Sunday is about the extent of racing now to kick off the season in Daytona.

“I learned I didn’t have enough race car,” Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me once walking through the garage after a practice 10 days before the 500. “We’ll get it right though. There’s speed out there,” he explained. He and the rest of the NASCAR drivers as well as the truck racers (when that became a thing), the ARCA drivers and the guys in the Busch series spent hours on the track testing and in practice, looking for the right setup.

No more.

Trying to even out the field, NASCAR has limited the amount of time on the track, keeping the big teams from spending time and money to gain an advantage over the field. Most drivers don’t like it.

“We don’t have enough time on the track,” Dale Jr. has said in the past. The two -time Daytona 500 winner is happy to just be driving in 2017, back from missing half of last season with concussion symptoms.

“I’m happy, I’m smiling, I’m back,” he said on media day this week. The newly married driver didn’t rule out a shorter than expected career.

“If I were to win the championship this year, I would consider it,” he said when asked about retirement. That, I’m sure, sent shivers through the NASCAR brass who are presiding over a fragile time in the sport, looking for star power.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Carl Edwards left the sport abruptly to perhaps pursue a political career and young drivers like Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott are just now finding their footing among the loyal fan base.

Without emerging stars in a personality-driven sport, changes to the race formats are what they hope is the first step toward re-capturing some of the magic.

“We’re doing things to make the sport better on television,” Johnson said this week. “If we can get people to watch on TV, they’ll like it and they’ll want to come see us race live.”

The 500 will have two stops this year, one after 60 and another after 120 laps. Points will be awarded for position in the race and they’ll restart.

“Just enough to let fans go to the bathroom and get a commercial break in,” one driver quipped.

FOX and NBC split the season for broadcasts and are counting on increased ratings and fan engagement on other media platforms to re-energize advertisers. If not, fewer races will be on TV, fewer dollars will be flowing into the sport and they’ll have to adapt. From a regional southeastern sport until the ’90’s, NASCAR races now in non-traditional places like New Hampshire and Las Vegas. If they don’t turn the fan decline around, Rockingham and Darlington will be back with prominent spots on the schedule.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Earnhardt, Kyle Busch win Duels at Daytona

He knew it was a fast car so it was a little bit of a decision at the end of the first Duel 150 race at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It’s a hard equation,” he said in Victory Lane when I asked him which was his priority, save the car or win the race. “But your instincts take over and you want to win the race”

No question Earnhardt had the fastest car in the race as he was able to hold off Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney for the victory. It’s his fifth Duel victory, the most among active drivers and his second straight.

“We knew it was a real good car. … It’s a great car,” said Earnhardt. “Another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts, adding to our legacy.”

Earnhardt led 28 of the first 30 laps after taking the lead from pole-sitter and teammate Chase Elliott. With six laps to go, Earnhardt got past Hamlin and went into the lead and onto victory. All told, Earnhardt led 43 of 60 laps.

Brining this car to Daytona was the plan all along as “Amelia” as Dale’s ride is nicknamed, was fast right off the truck again. Last year Earnhardt won three races and had a second and a third in five races driving “Amelia.”

“Even if the guys told me we were going to have a fast car and it was a new car, you get comfortable in certain cars and I really like this one,” he explained. “I don’t spend time in the garage but you figure cars become obsolete after about six months for whatever reason. But this car is still fast.”

Today (February 18) was the 15th anniversary of Dale Sr.’s death at Daytona, a fact not lost on his son. “I was daydreaming a little bit,” Earnhardt said in his post-race interview. “I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day. That was special to me.”

“It’s real special,” Earnhardt admitted. “I was thinking about that. I try not to make too big a deal. I’ve told all you guys in interviews we’ve done how much I like people to remember dad, talk about dad. It really warms my heart to see the stuff on social media and so forth. That’s probably my best way to gauge the reaction to a day like this. You see a lot of people mention him … It’s pretty cool.”

Michael McDowell will advance to the 40-car Daytona 500 field Sunday, while Whitt and Josh Wise will miss the 500.

Race Two of the Duel 150’s was pretty uneventful until the end. Matt Kenseth was on the pole and held the lead until Kyle Bush went to the front and took control. On the final lap, Jimmy Johnson, running third, got pushed sideways coming out of turns one and two starting a chain reaction through the field that ended the race on a caution. Busch cruised to the victory, the second in a Daytona qualifying race for the defending NASCAR champion.

“I feel like we’re on a birdie from last year,” Busch said from Victory Lane. “Winning this race was great and hopefully it is a good sign for Sunday.”

With his victory in the Duel and Kenseth being forced into a backup car because of a crash on the final lap, Busch will now start on the front row in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

“I haven’t had a chance to run this car much in traffic,” Kyle told me after the race. “It’s too scary in practice and I don’t think I was any worse than 2nd in this race. So we’ll keep this car shined up and ready to go for Sunday.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

NASCAR: Looking To The Past To Find The Future

It was about racing.

From the inception of what is now known as NASCAR through the beach driving in Daytona and onto the 2.5 mile tri-oval through the rule changes designed for speed and safety and all the way up to about 2000, driving at Daytona was all about racing. Finding speed was always the key, either by being better than the rules or just bending them a bit.

Walking through the garage area you were just as likely to find the drivers elbows-deep in the engine under the hood as you were seeing them on a slider under the chassis. They knew the car. Most of them helped build them. The car was an extension of who they were. If it didn’t feel right on the track, they’d whip into the garage, jump out of the drivers window, unlatch the hood and grab a wrench.

If you wanted to talk with Richard Petty, he was probably going to be talking to you while using a grease rag to wipe his hands. Cale Yarborough talked about driving that “MC Anderson Valvoline Buick” as if he was piloting a supersonic jet. And in some ways he was. “At 180 you have time to do this,” he told me as he jerked the imaginary steering wheel to the right. “At 200, you’re on it already.” Dale Earnhardt was elusive and almost made a game of disappearing and then all of the sudden being in the car and rolling onto the track. Walking through his garage one afternoon during Speedweeks after practice I found him sitting on the floor, by himself, leaning up against the wall.

“You OK?” I asked

“Yup,” he responded without looking up.

I figured I’d take a chance and sat down next to him. He never gave me a glance.

“Learn anything out there today,” I said after a minute or so of silence.

That’s when he looked right at me and said, “Learned I don’t have enough car to win.”

What do you say to that? So I just sat there. And so did he. I suppose contemplating how to make the car faster. After a short while, he got up and walked away.

“See ‘ya,” I called after him.

“Yup,” he answered without turning back.

You knew who had the best chance to win before the green flag even dropped. Certain cars had money; everybody else was scraping it together for the race.

While NASCAR was the first sport to embrace sponsorship as part of the “game,” the drivers knew how to fit it into the conversation as part of any sentence.

The “STP Pontiac” and the “Wood Brothers Ford” were part of the lexicon of the sport. They knew what kept them driving. And they knew it was their relationship with the fans that kept the attendance high, the merchandise sales going and the payouts increasing. That’s why “the King” would sign autographs ’till the last person was happy. Why Cale called to me across the garage and asked, “Where you been boy?” when I moved from Charleston to Jacksonville and he no longer had a Charleston TV station connection he could watch from his home in the Palmetto State. When NASCAR couldn’t figure out how to keep the crews in line when it came to following the rules, they plucked the guy most known for skirting the regulations to police the rest of the teams. They hired the crew chief who was driving them crazy looking for ways to “get around” the rules.

When their most popular driver died at Daytona on the final lap, NASCAR revamped their whole safety structure, requiring a safer cockpit for the drivers and even changing the cars, trying to move the sport forward.

They’re raised and lowered spoilers, put restrictor plates on the engines and gone through a half dozen “generations” of cars looking for safety and speed but still trying to find that “racing” heritage that made the sport what it is today.

So many fans I know have tired of the pack racing that happens at Daytona. It’s an aerodynamic race now. While drivers used to shift 1,000 times during the 500, now once they’re up to speed, their foot is on the floor all the way around the 2 ½ miles.

The sport is still driven by the personalities of the drivers. They’re all fast, hundredths of a second separating the first from the 43rd qualifier. Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the qualifying races, contested at night for the first time on Thursday. Both admitted they have fast cars but said, “Everybody’s fast. Anybody can win. Honest.”

While the spectacle of “The Great American Race” will carry the day as Luke Bryan performs and the Air Force Thunderbirds perform the flyover we can only hope the racing will be as exciting.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The “New” Media

In Daytona for Speedweeks there was a lot of talk about the quality of racing, the two by two and what was going to happen when the Daytona 500 rolled around. Regardless of what you thought of all of those ideas, it got me thinking that we were at least talking about the actual “sport.” The competition, the racing, the guys on the track.

Everywhere else we’re talking about something else.

In football it’s been about their labor agreement. Billionaires and millionaires squabbling.

In the NBA, the owners are threatening a lockout, mainly because they don’t like how much the players are making.

Golf’s main news is their most recognizable golfer is spitting on the green.

And in baseball, the best player in the game is asking for somewhere near a third of a billion dollars to play for the next ten years. And isn’t happy with the quarter or a billion he’s being offered.

Is this where we’ve gotten to in sports?

The 24-hour news cycle has brought us a whole different idea about what’s happening when we’re supposed to be “at play.” We know every detail of how much everybody’s making. We know the minute-by-minute analysis of every negotiation, every dollar that’s accepted or rejected and the story changes five times on any given day. Because sports “journalists” are now competing with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, the information is blurred. Cutting through the “dis” information is as much of the job as finding the information in the first place.

I like the instant information and the access the social media gives to fans (and media) alike when it comes to hearing what players, coaches and even organizations have to say. But it’s just that. What they have to say. There’s an agenda and sometimes the truth is even in question. That used to be what the media was all about: filtering through all of the blather and finding something close to the truth. Hopefully, some of that will survive.

Your Mom probably told you once, “Don’t believe everything you hear,” or something like that. She’s right.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Daytona Or Bust

It’s kind of a pilgrimage every year, returning to Daytona for the 500. This year was a little different, knowing that it was the 50th running of the race and they’d have plenty of special things line up to celebrate. (Not technically the 50th “anniversary, but the 50th running of the race). And they did have all of the past champions there with fireworks and a special gold and white-checkered pattern to commemorate the occasion.

It’s a spectacle.

I mean a spectacle that makes the Super Bowl look like an amateur. It’s not like any other NASCAR race. Other races have qualifying and maybe a Nationwide race on Saturday but Daytona is a week. Or two, thus the designation of “Speedweeks.” And fans set their calendars to this “celebration.” They take at least a week off, show up in their trailers, RV’s pickups or whatever and plant themselves for the next 10 days.

It used to be that they made everybody leave the track before Thursday and then re-enter for the weekend. That was a huge cluster so they’ve streamlined it and now it becomes it’s own city inside the track. In turns three and four, people set up small tents and camp for the duration. On the east side of the infield there are travel trailers with flags flying and cases of beer in the beds of pickup trucks. Moving west, the trailers give way to million dollar luxury buses, all complete with flat screens but with their own bonfires and outdoor setups.

One fan sets up a Tiki bar every year, complete with a thatched roof and the small paper lanterns. Thursday night when I left, he had at least 500 people as “guests.” (I’m back and forth a few times during the week to cover different events. For the past few years I’ve left via the turn one tunnel and because I drive a foreign car (BMW) I get a lot of strange looks. Honest. If it’s not American made or a truck, it’s out of place. Maybe that’ll change with Toyota making some inroads.)

Luxury busses have made a big change in the infield at Daytona. Since they built the turn one tunnel they can arrive at their leisure instead of at only certain times to cross over the track. You can tell that it’s made a huge difference. Also since Monday was a holiday, most fans stayed Sunday night, making an even more festive atmosphere. (It would have only been crazier if Junior had won.)

It used to take hours to leave the infield because the trucks and buses couldn’t depart until the race was over and they could cross over the track. Now the tunnel allows big rigs to leave when they’re ready.

The people watching is unbelievable as you might imagine. But first and foremost the people there are fans. Big time fans. Everybody has a driver allegiance and they display it as loudly and as proudly as they can. It’s really a cult of personality multiplied by at least 43 times. More if you count the folks still tied to Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. (I’d wear my “3” stuff occasionally but what I’d really like is some throwback Cale Yarborough swag.)

Everywhere you go is packed. Even the pits, where you could get away from the craziness in the past are now packed with people. Some watching the race on the track, some watching the pits and others with their back to the track and watching the race on the 30-foot big screen next to Victory Lane.

The race was somewhat uneventful until the end, and I’m sure that’s how NASCAR likes it. The first caution wasn’t thrown until 81 laps in, and that was for the phantom “debris on the track.” There wasn’t “the big one” that everybody waits for at the super speedways and that’s good. Just some high speed bumping in the final laps as drivers jockeyed for position. The finish showed why you need help at Daytona with Kyle Busch pushing Ryan Newman past Tony Stewart to the checkered flag.

Newman had a fast car all week but Stewart was the man to beat. Had Busch decided he wanted to win instead of pushing his teammate to victory, Stewart would have caught and passed him.

Since they rebuilt Victory Lane, the crowd inside has swelled and swelled each year. There’s a media section for photogs and another for television and a third and fourth for fans and VIP’s. But what’s happened is that the floor of Victory Lane is now packed with family members and other assorted visitors. The entire Thunderbird squad was crammed in there. Not just the pilots who did the flyover but the information officers, mechanics and anybody else in a blue jumpsuit and a T-Birds patch.

They fire off cannons of confetti, this year gold metallic to mark the 50th running, so that’s everywhere. There’s Gatorade everywhere and chaos reigns. It’s pretty well managed by NASCAR who take the winning driver where he needs to be, from Speed Channel to the local media, to the hands and feet in the concrete station and back up on stage for about 50 pictures with different hats on.

I was glad to get a chance to speak to Roger Penske in Victory Lane. After more than 20 years of coming to Daytona, he finally had the winning car. I believe he’s the only car owner to have winners at Daytona and at Indianapolis and he said, “I hadn’t thought of that, but with 14 wins at Indy, we have a ways to go here!”

Penske is a top-shelf guy, and seems like the kind of guy you want to work for. I’ve been around him a few times and he’s always been extremely gracious. I thanked him for that the last time I spoke to him at the announcement that Detroit was getting Super Bowl XL and he laughed. But the guy standing next to him stepped out and introduced himself as the Mayor of Detroit and said, “You’re right, he’s the greatest isn’t he?” So that was a pretty solid endorsement.

Everybody should experience Daytona, if only once.

There’s nothing like it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Cheatin’ Ain’t Right

“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Somehow that phrase became acceptable in competitive sports with rule makers, athletes and even fans turning a blind eye to those who were trying to get around the rules.

“I knew he was cheatin”, Richard Petty said on Thursday at Daytona referring to David Pearson. “’Cause I was cheatin’ trying to keep up with him.”

Everybody laughed at the King’s comments but it struck me as strange. I don’t want to know that Richard Petty was cheating. I want to think of him as a great, dominating driver of his era. Getting around the rules though, was part of the game. That was the culture of NASCAR and it hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.

This year the sport’s governing body has tried to crack down on cheating, trying to bring a higher level of credibility to the sport. Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, two of the sport’s biggest stars, have incurred big fines and suspensions because their cars didn’t conform to standards.

Is that attitude around everywhere else?

For most sports it’s not the equipment that can be tinkered with, it’s the athletes themselves. And that’s where the line is blurred.

Putting jet fuel in a car to make it go faster is one thing. Putting jet fuel ‘in your body to go faster is something else. But at the highest levels, where the money is the greatest, athletes and competitors seem to be willing to try anything, even if it might kill them, to get an advantage.

Cycling has a culture of cheating that has nearly wrecked the sport. Cyclists used to ingest just enough strychnine, a poison that also apparently made them go faster, before races even though the wrong amount would kill them. Cycling is paying a big price, right now, for looking the other way for decades while their competitors put all kinds of things in their bodies looking for an advantage.

I guess we have to remember that top-flight athletes are also young and generally think they’re invincible and immortal. Baseball and football players jumped on the “cheating” bandwagon within the last three decades, taking anabolic steroids to give them that slight advantage or that one more year in the league. Have you seen pictures of either game from the ‘70’s? The players look like Baseball players can also tinker with the equipment, corking bats to make the ball jump off a little farther.

But where does the blame lie, if there is any blame at all?

NASCAR signed a big-money television deal a few years ago and knew they’d have to clean up the sport if they were going to withstand the spotlight that would inevitably come with increased exposure.

Football instituted a steroid policy in the ‘90’s, knowing fans would turn away if the game was only played by a bunch of juiced up freaks.

Baseball finally created a drug abuse policy when long-held records started to fall and people started to ask the simple question: Why?

8 So how do we break out of this culture of cheating? If the governing bodies won’t come up with a strict enough testing policy, it’s up to the fans, the paying public to demand it. Not by writing letters to the editor or calling sports talk radio but by not supporting it. Don’t buy tickets, don’t buy merchandise and don’t watch it on television. The powers that be get the message very quickly.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

I Miss Dale

I’m a little sad today.

After spending the whole day at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday for the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races, I realized my real, visceral passion for NASCAR is gone.

I certainly looked for it.

Thought about it all day.

But I just couldn’t find it.

Even sitting in Victory Lane, twice, seeing Tony Stewart and the Home Depot crew and Jeff Gordon and the Dupont crew celebrate their victories, I just didn’t have it. I walked through the garages. I went to see some fans. I was in the pits looking at the crews work at the cars go by. There is no sensation like standing a the end of pit road going into turn one and have the cars coming at you and going by at over 185 mph. But I just didn’t love it like I used to (sounds like a country song).

So why?

I was always attracted to NASCAR as a sport because of the personalities. The drivers, the crew chiefs, the owners, all self-made men interested in their sport. They were interested in racin’. They liked to drive fast. They wanted to beat the other guys.

Every time.

They weren’t happy with second or fifth or a top ten, they wanted to win and they would do just about anything to get there.

Cale, Richard, Dale, Donnie, Bobby, all of them knew each other, knew their strengths and weaknesses, could speak about each other personally and it was real. It seems rather homogenized now. Very corporate. Victory Lane is orchestrated with the “partners” getting their shots while everybody stands around to watch.

Maybe it’s become routine for Gordon and Stewart but even the “Wooo” from their crews while having their picture taken was muted. Stewart and Gordon’s exit from their cars seemed staged. Their answers were very stock, very carefully crafted. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both great drivers and their interviews are full of sound bites we can use for weeks at a time. But there was no excitement to it.

Could NASCAR be losing a part of its core fan base? A quick tour through the infield reveals a lot of expensive RV’s and not a lot of tents and pick up trucks. Fans are more sophisticated, for sure, but NASCAR was built on fans that loved the cars, the drivers, the speed and the track. The smell of burnt rubber and a blown engine. It’s still there in small doses, but the days of the old infield are gone.

I miss Dale.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Changing Daytona

From the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500 is a big jump, but since the NFL moved their big game back a week, the two biggest events in football and auto racing now follow each other just two weeks apart. Detroit was miserable and everybody knows it. They got a free pass from most of the media because they knew it was going to be miserable and the people tried hard.

You can basically hold the Super Bowl anywhere because most of the parties are indoors and in plush places. Those people in Detroit do have a lot of nerve picking on Jacksonville though. But when you get down to it, the people who attend the Super Bowl don’t want free concerts and an outdoor party atmosphere. They want late-night parties, strip clubs, casinos and cocktails that last deep into the night. If they could hold the game in Las Vegas, they’d think it was perfect.

Daytona is a whole different story though.

It’s people from everywhere, from all over the world and from every economic category you can think of. They’ve dubbed it “Speedweeks” in Daytona, bracketing the few weeks between the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Daytona 500 as one huge event. It’s now three weeks of races, preliminaries, hype and parties. They might call it a celebration of speed, but it’s really a fix for anybody who loves the smell of burning rubber and gasoline and gets a shot of adrenaline every time somebody zips by at more than 100 mph.

And likes to be seen at the place to be seen.

I’ve never been a big fan of the actual racing but have grown to appreciate it and admire all that goes into it. I like hanging around the garage area and seeing the meticulous details that are ironed out before a car hits the track. I have driven at Daytona, getting the car up to over 160 and that was a thrill, so I can appreciate somebody who’s just wild about the sport. And there are plenty of those.

It’s certainly more corporate than it used to be. From the fans to the drivers it’s a little more rehearsed, more refined if you will. Tents are still pitched in the infield between turns three and four at Daytona but they’re far outnumbered by the luxury buses and campers that are parked throughout the infield for the week leading up to The Great American Race. The days of catching a minute with the drivers in the garage area are gone, replaced by scheduled press conferences. Fans are still drinking plenty of beer and brown liquor at the track, but now white wine seems to be as popular.

And there are as many ladies rooms as bathrooms for guys. There used to be one in the infield, and it was always empty.

It’s not quite as fun as it once was, with the driver’s personalities driving the sport and the fan loyalty to a particular driver starting plenty of fights among friends.

When Jimmy Johnson won the 500 on Sunday, there was a collective shrug among the 200,000 plus fans at the track. No hooting and hollering and partying well into the night. Johnson’s proclamations in Victory Lane included all of the right people and no controversy, despite being found to be a cheat earlier in the week. His answers were nice neat and sound bite length, and I didn’t see a drip of chew anywhere.

It’s another shift in the personality of the sport.

From Richard and Cale, to Dale and Darrell and then Jeff, it’s now all guys who were trained to be drivers from birth. But it’s bigger than ever and includes just about everybody and there’s plenty of money to go around.

As long as NASCAR stays “cool” they’ll continue to grow. If not, we’ll all just have to become Tony Stewart fans.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Talented Skilled (And Spoiled)

I’ve always had a pet peeve about rude and spoiled people. It’s spilled over into my professional assessment of the people I cover, and usually colors my opinion about what they’re like. Not they’re accomplishments, or their talent or skill, but what they’re like, how they got where they are and what they’ll be like when their talent and skill erodes and the next big thing takes their place. That’s why the latest tantrums thrown by Tony Stewart and Kenny Rogers particularly frost me.

Stewart thought the woman in front of him coming through the tunnel at Daytona was going too slow, so he reportedly honked his horn at her and flashed his lights. When they emerged from the tunnel, Stewart reportedly swerved around her car, when, according to Stewart, the woman gave him the finger as he went by. Instead of acknowledging his part in this little dust up and moving on, Stewart stopped the car, jumped out and “went to find out what her problem was,” according to the driver of Joe Gibbs’ #20 on the NASCAR circuit.


Of course.


Absolutely, and either stupid or cowardly, depending on whose point of view you have. I can’t help but wonder what Stewart’s reaction would have been if it had been the typical male NASCAR fan driving that car in front of him. First, if Stewart had gotten out of the car, the guy driving would have been out and waiting on him. Second, there wouldn’t have been a lot of words exchanged. Stewart, who’s not a big guy to begin win, would have either been running or on the ground.


There had to be some talk in the infield at Daytona this week about what Stewart’s fate would have been had the situation been different. Stewart’s situation was recounted as a second-hand story. Kenny Rogers’ little tantrum was, as they say in the news business these days, “caught on tape.”

Rogers had missed a start for the Texas Rangers because of a tantrum he’d thrown the week before in the dugout. He smashed a few coolers in the dugout and broke a bone on his right (non-pitching) hand. So when he came out of the clubhouse for warm-ups the next time he was at the ballpark, naturally the cameras from all television stations in Dallas as well at the networks were trained on him. It’s their job. As in the producer told the photographer, “Get some pictures of Rogers when he comes out on the field and we’ll show them on the early news.”

No big deal.

Unless you’re rude, and spoiled, like Rogers.

I’m not sure if he was embarrassed, or there’s something truly wrong with him. But his attack on the photographers at the ballpark was unprovoked and way over the line. I’ve seen guys grab the lens of a camera, but never throw it on the ground, kick it and cuss the photographer. What’s the excuse or reason? Don’t give me this “he has anger issues” argument. What’s Rogers have to be angry about when he gets to the ballpark? And do you think he ever considered that those guys were just doing their job, much like he is when he comes to the ballpark every fifth day?

I couldn’t help but wonder, (again) what Rogers might have done if the photog was somewhere near his size. I can tell you there were more than a few discussions in the sports department about what Rogers’ fate might have been if it had been a couple of the guys I work with. All are hoping for that chance some day.

Bud Selig’s suspension of 20 games was not nearly enough, and the $50,000 fine isn’t much to a guy like Rogers who’s making $3.4 million this year. And it’s not like he’s a young rookie who doesn’t know any better. Rogers will be 41 this year and has had a long and relatively successful and lucrative career. And then they’ve allowed him to be selected to the all-star team? Is there any wonder that people don’t have any passion for the players or the teams any more?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Driving At Daytona

I’ve been trying to do a story on driving at Daytona International Speedway for a couple of years now. The Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) runs an operation there, as well as 21 other tracks around the country. It’s been suggested to me more than a few times, “Why don’t you just do the ride along?” “Look,” I’d answer, “if I’m going to get on the track at Daytona, I’m driving.” So, I contacted the RPDE p.r. department last year and finally settled on a date, April 16th of this year.

The sun was shining and the wind was down when I arrived at the track, “a beautiful day to drive” is how my ride described it. I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of driving at Daytona. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if I would be once I got behind the wheel. I heard a coach once describe that feeling of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” So I thought about that and settled into the routine set up by the Petty instructors. Those guys were great. There were 31 “drivers” in my class. The only requirements are you have to be at least 16 and have a valid driver’s license. You also have to know how to drive a “stick.” My class was varied, with some returnees, some thrill seekers, some NASCAR fans, and others who were given the driving experience as a gift. So a lot of the class was on a “0” birthday. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy. One driver was 74 years old. “Just wanted to see what it was like,” she explained.

Arriving at the media center, the instructors helped everybody get into an official RPDE drivers uniform and laid out the plan for the day. It started with a video, featuring “The King” himself, going over what to expect and what some of the basic rules were. Then the instructors followed that with a review of some of the technical parts of the day, and then split us into four “teams.” We headed out the door in groups of eight to get a basic overview of the car we’d be driving. I’d wondered if the cars were fake versions of Cup cars, but they’re the real deal. Climb through the window, put the steering wheel on, locate the fire extinguishing system and figure out how the switches on the left dash get the car started. My “team” then climbed into a 10-passenger van for a trip around the track. Out on pit road, James, a RPDE driver and instructor, floored it and headed for Turn One. When you haven’t driven on a high-banked track, that’s a weird experience when it first happens. The van just goes sideways and you’re going around looking “down” at people and cars on the infield. It’s like being on a carnival ride. James was an expert on the track, and it showed as he maneuvered the van in and out of the turns, talking about the line and how to drive the 2 1/½ile tri-oval. “Make you’re instructor do this,” James told us as he showed the hand signal for “back off.” (Waving his right hand in front of the rear view mirror.) “You should get waved off at least twice while you’re out here,” he continued as he talked about the sight picture you should get by keeping your instructor’s car about 5-car lengths in front of you. From there it was on to some pictures and a final drivers meeting. The lead instructor of the day, Dave Williams, (who actually runs the Orlando operation) was funny and cordial, treating us like real drivers and getting our competitive juices flowing. “Rev it at 2,000 rpm, and shift at 4, 000,” Williams explained, “and don’t spin the tires. If you do, it’ll be a stop and go penalty.” That’s a term familiar to NASCAR fans but Williams followed it up with, “We’ll tell you to stop, and you’ll go home. Our version of stop and go.”

I was about two-thirds down the list so I got to see a lot of the “drivers” go on the track, following their instructors around Daytona. It’s true, the anticipation was revving up my own motor and I was getting more comfortable with the idea of getting behind the wheel.

They finally called my name, and I was off to the staging area where I was fitted with a helmet and a head restraint system (it’s just like a parachute harness that hooks to your helmet. It’s a good idea that they have you completely ready before you get into the car so you can start to get “comfortable” with being “uncomfortable” wearing the equipment.

I can’t stress enough how much fun the guys at RPDE made the day. When it was my turn, another staff worker greeting me with a big smile and yelled, “ARE YOU READY?” Walking out to my car (The Aarons 312 machine) I reminded myself to “go for it” as I have many times when I’ve gotten to do these kinds of things because of my job. As expected, climbing in was an adventure, but the briefing was a big help. Another RPDE staffer helped me strap in the four-point harness, fire the engine and yelled, “When I tap the roof, GO GET THAT GUY!” At this point, I’m completely stoked these guys have me so fired up. So just like in the real thing, I’m sitting there running the RPM’s up, listening to the exhaust, waiting to go. My instructor (it turned out to be James) pulled five car lengths in front of me and I heard the “bang, bang” on the roof and “Go get ‘em” from outside the car. I pushed the gas pedal in and slowly let out the clutch and the car began to sputter and cough. “Don’t kill it you idiot,” I heard the voice inside my head scream as I pushed the gas pedal down. Meanwhile, James is pulling away from me, so I slid it into second gear and picked up speed. James was still pulling away. Into third as pit road was going by, and James was disappearing. So I jammed it into fourth and shoved the gas pedal down. “Roar,” is what I heard from the engine, as I closed the gap on my instructor. No sooner than I figured out the “sight picture” we were ON THE TRACK! We stayed low coming out of pit road, letting two cars on the track go by as we got up to speed and that voice in my head was screaming, “YOU’RE DRIVING AT DAYTONA! HOW COOL IS THIS?”

It’s an eight lap session, with your warm up and cool down laps counting, but your instructor is trying to give you the best experience possible. Before I knew it, we’re coming out of turn two and heading down the back straightaway. James is still accelerating in front of me, and I’m pushing the throttle down staying five car-lengths behind him. That’s when I remembered that he told me to make my instructor wave me off a couple of times in the first lap. So I jammed the accelerator down and tucked up behind the car in front of me, and sure enough, he waved me off. I saw turn three looming in the near distance and realized that “WE’RE TURNING LEFT THERE!” I never could figure out what those white stripes were on the track around Daytona, but behind the wheel, it’s obvious. They’re sight lines for the drivers as they get into position on different parts of the track. So as James put his right tires just inside the white stripe going into turn three, I figured my car would follow his if I just didn’t mess things up.

It might seem that the cars just follow the banking at Daytona, but I can tell you, if you don’t drive thru the turns, you’re going into the wall. Particularly coming out of turn four. The centrifugal force wants to run your car up the track, so you constantly have to adjust the line. Doing this without backing out of the throttle is un-natural, but I’ve heard the Earnhardt’s say that so often that it rang true in my head as I was doing it myself. Through the tri-oval and back into turn one, James was pushing the speed up incrementally, but we were definitely going faster. With each lap I was getting more comfortable, even telling myself to relax and made James wave me off a couple more times. I started to look around, seeing different things on the track and realizing there were constant adjustments needed to “find the line.” Driving was a full time job. But I did look around, even noticing the stands and where Dale was killed in turn four.

On my fifth lap coming out of turn four, I caught a glimpse of the two cars in front of us heading into turn one. Right away I thought, “We can catch those guys.” So I tucked up under James’ car again, and he waved me off, again. But he knew exactly what I was thinking because he picked it up again heading through the tri-oval and into turn one. Those guys in front of us kept appearing and disappearing out of my peripheral vision but I could see we were gaining on them. So as we rolled out of turn two, there they were, right in front of us, easily get-able. Just as they had described, the two cars in front of us drifted ever-so slightly down on the track, and James and I slipped to the outside. “Whoosh,” I heard as we went by them on the back stretch. That was really a highlight. We averaged about 150 mph, not fast by NASCAR standards, but enough to get my attention. I went as fast as James would let me, and thought later that I probably could have gone 30 mph faster, but it would take faster reactions in the turns and setting the car up right as you entered the high banking.

So it was great. “Put that among the coolest things I’ve ever done,” is how I think I described it when I got out of the car.

It costs around $500 and worth every penny. If you ever thought you’d like to do it. Go. And go FAST!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Junior Wins Daytona

There’s not much sentimentality in sports. Guys retire, they’re celebrated for a day, or possibly have a farewell tour in their last season, and they’re gone. Replaced by the next group, the next generation, the younger, faster, bigger stronger evolution of whatever game is being played. NASCAR might be the least sentimental of all, drivers retire, or die, and the sport keeps plowing along, growing in popularity, garnering new fans and creating a niche for itself as one of the premier sports in America. But even with the celebration going on as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 , I’m sure more than one fan had a sentimental thought remembering six years ago when his father drove into victory lane at Daytona for the first time as the 500 champion.

When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, a big segment of fans changed their designation from “rabid” to “casual.” He wanted to win and wasn’t interested in second or third or “a good run.” The other drivers knew it, and it made them compete hard against “The Man in Black.” Fans were polarized by Earnhardt, either they loved him or loathed him, even creating the ABE faction among themselves (Anybody But Earnhardt).

Dale Sr.’s presence is still felt at every NASCAR track, with his memorabilia for sale and the number “3” still popular among the buying public. No where is his presence bigger though than at Daytona. As the track’s winningest driver, Earnhardt looms over the field every time they take the track. So his son feels it as well. The pressure to continue his father’s legacy has been enormous. But right now, he’s succeeding in doing it.

It took Dale Sr. twenty tries to win the Daytona 500; Dale Jr. did it on his fifth attempt. Junior said earlier in the week, “A lot of guys have great careers and never win the Daytona 500 or the points championship. I hope I’m not one of them.”

Running with the best equipment and a solid race team, Earnhardt always has a good car at the super speedways. But he knows what to do with them. He gets to the front and figures out how to stay there.

On a day that the “Great American Race” live up to its billing as perhaps the greatest spectacle in American sports, Dale Jr. provided the finishing touch fans were looking for. He’s become NASCAR’s most popular driver, and is backing it up by getting to victory lane. Winning a championship is next on his “to do” list.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Not Ready for Prime Time NASCAR

Of course NASCAR should have run the Daytona 500, 500 miles, that part is indisputable. If it’s the biggest race of the year, it needs to be afforded that kind of attention to detail. But again, NASCAR is a growing organization, still uncomfortable in the glare of the “big sport” spotlight.

The Monday before the 500, Channel 4 meteorologist Brad Nitz said on our half-hour special from Daytona, “it’s going to rain on Sunday, but when it comes in is the question. They’ll get most of the race in.” That was seven days before the event, and as Sunday drew closer, it was obvious that rain was going to play a role in the 500. So many new fans have come to the sport that the expectations might have been different. But long-time NASCAR fans knew the rules. If rain is going to be a factor, they can’t stop the race and start it again tomorrow after they reach the halfway point. Once they got to 100 laps, the teams, drivers and informed fans knew that each pass and each pit stop could determine their final standing in the race. That’s why Michael Waltrip’s pass with Jr.’s help, even though he was two laps down, was so crucial: and everybody knew it.

There was a large, uninformed cry after the race was called that NASCAR couldn’t do that. Actually, NASCAR can do anything they want. They run all of the events and make the rules, and in this case, they stuck to them. The problem is, they had a chance to get it right and for some reason, couldn’t figure it out. Start the race early. I know they started somewhat early, but they knew the rain was coming and could have started at noon. NASCAR doesn’t like to cut into church time on Sunday, so noon is about the earliest starting time. Still, they had the chance to move it up, tell Fox they could televise it live, or join it in progress, let the fans in early, and get 500 miles finished. NASCAR fans don’t care what time the race is! You let them know, and they’ll be there. If it’s early, it doesn’t matter, because most of them are already there anyway! I’m glad NASCAR didn’t change rules on the fly, but as they take these baby steps into the psyche of the casual sports fan, sometimes, they’ll need a better plan.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Art of Daytona

Opening testing to the news media and the public in January gives NASCAR a head start on publicity for the new season, but it really kicks off ten days before the Daytona 500, a 10-day “Speedweek.” The drivers gather on Thursday for the Bud Shootout draw, a goosed up media event that determines the starting grid for that weekend’s race. They used to run this race on Sunday afternoon when it was called the Busch Clash, but now it’s at night, better to take advantage of the higher television viewing, and give Fox a chance to figure out how they’re going to cover the big race. The Thursday event is also a sort of “media day” for the 500, with the drivers consenting to interviews after the draw. It’s a far cry from years past when drivers chased down the media in the garage area, seeking publicity for their sponsors and owners. Now, Thursday is the time to get the questions in, because the top guys disappear virtually until race day.

You can feel things get revved up at the track. The haulers arrive, the sound changes as more cares are cranked up, tested, and get on the track. The numbers increase, whether it’s fans, media, sponsors or NASCAR officials. The place is buzzing by Saturday of the Bud Shootout, campers have arrived, tents are pitched and the beer is flowing. I’ve covered NASCAR for 25 years, but the last ten years have seen the sport explode. The hard-core fan has always been there, setting their calendar around the Daytona 500. Vacations are planned, money is saved, and hopefully, designated drivers are assigned. International Speedway Corporation owns and runs the track in Daytona (as well as several others) and allows people in and out of the track based on the events scheduled. You can buy a day pass, a multi-day for the infield, or in some cases, a weekend pass to experience the race environment with about 100,000 of your closest friends. If they’re not when you get there, they will be by the time you leave. The sight of the infield as you emerge from the tunnel beginning on Thursday of race week is at first stunning, and in part mystifying. Where’d all these people come from and what are they doing here? Jaws drop as the tube tops start to come off, the flags flap in the breeze and the pile of beer cans turns into first a hill, then a mountain. There are some fans that make artwork out of their discarded cans, a testament to their stamina and creativity.

I was standing in the parking lot once, surveying the line of vehicles preparing for entry to the infield through the tunnel. They weren’t opening the gates for another eight hours, but the cars and trucks were already lined up. “Hey, Sam,” one of the drivers called out. “Check this thing out,” he shouted as a follow up. His pickup was outfitted with a welded ironwork platform on the back with the bed full of beer. “Twenty-two cases,” he said with pride. “But we’ll have to restock in a few days.” “That thing’s too tall,” I naively said, noting the height restriction to pass through Daytona’s tunnel. “Naw, seben, leben, tree-quarter,” was the immediate reply. It took a few times of hearing that phrase repeated to translate it to seven feet, eleven and three-quarter inches. “The man says ‘too tall’ I tell him, ‘put a stick on it’,” my new friend’s way of inviting a measurement. Anything over eight feet has to wait for the gate to open to cross over the track. That’s wasted infield time, and nobody wants that. “I still think it’s too tall,” I said after surveying the height. The driver leaned toward me, glanced over both shoulders and whispered, “We lit the are out the tares,” and chuckled at the thought. I laughed as well, and gladly accepted the offer of an adult beverage. I’ll drink with anybody with that kind of ingenuity.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Daytona 500 2002

The 44th running of the Daytona 500 had all of the elements that have made NASCAR racing the premier motor sports attraction in the United States. It had the blend of racing, rubbin’, cautions, a rare red flag, lead changes, personality and goofiness that draws people to NASCAR racing.

I was walking through the infield during the beginning of the race, and heard a loud cheer. I figured that Dale Junior had taken the lead but to my surprise, it was because Tony Stewart was out of the race. It was a cheer akin to when Dale Earnhardt would take the lead. Stewart is talented with a good car and a great owner, but is not a popular driver. He’s unpopular in fact, to the point that fans are happy when he’s out of the race. Kind of like Jeff Gordon, only that’s subsided a bit.

People don’t want to see Gordon win, but like how he competes on the racetrack. His competitive nature pushed Kevin Harvick off the track and started a fourteen-car pileup that took many of the contenders out of the race. Gordon received payback a few laps later, as Sterling Marlin rubbed him off the track with a bump on the rear fender. Gordon said he was just trying to protect his track position, much like in the Harvick incident.

The rules at Daytona mandate that the drivers hold their positions, keep their foot to the floor, and don’t yield an inch. Gordon said he was just trying to keep his position, and following the rules. “I wasn’t going under the yellow line, that’s for sure,” said Gordon in the post-race interview. “It was just racin’, no hard feelings,” according to Marlin.

When the race was red flagged in lap 195, Marlin was in the lead, but had damaged the front of his car in his altercation with Gordon. During the stop, Marlin inexplicably jumped out of his car and ran around to the right side,, pulling on the fender. The NASCAR official in the pace car jumped out and yelled something to Marlin like, “Hey, get back in the car!” Marlin ran back to the drivers’ side and got in but it was too late. NASCAR assessed him a penalty, putting him in the back of the lead laps “longest line” and his chances to win were dashed.

Gordon was put in the back as well, with NASCAR officials saying he pitted too early during a caution. Thankfully, no one was injured in the race, despite 9 cautions and multiple wrecks. “I think we need to go faster,” 2001 Champion Michael Waltrip said. “It strings us out more, but I don’t make the rules, just dabble in the rules. Make the restrictor plate bigger and we’ll race more.”

Ward Burton knew luck was on his side, “we didn’t have the best car, we only lead the last couple of laps.” It’s Dodge’s first win at Daytona since 1974, and only their third win ever in the Great American Race.

There’s something about the 19th starting position as well. Michael Waltrip and Burton both started from the 19th position in their winning year. Waltrip and Burton join Dale Earnhardt as first time winners at Daytona, three of the last five years. But it’s not all-good news. Only once since 1980 has the winner of the Daytona 500 gone on to win the NASCAR season championship. That was Jeff Gordon in 1997.

Give me more races like this one. Nobody gets hurt, everybody’s talking about the race and the finish and how to make it better. I don’t care who wins, just give me some racing.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Fix

The fix is not in.

The talk about Dale Jr.’s win and Cal’s home run being pre-planned is silly. I guess next you’re going to tell me that the rest of the guys in the Tour de France are laying back so Lance Armstrong can win. Soon, people are going to go through past sports feats and figure out what looks fishy. Are you thinking about Jackie Smith’s dropped pass as some part of a great plot to keep the Steelers winning? Bill Buckner’s miss a conspiracy to keep the Red Sox from winning the World Series?

Come on.

The sports world is full of cynics, people who aren’t going to believe that great feats can be performed. That sacrifices will be made for the team, and that good things can happen through hard work. Why won’t they believe that? Because they’re not willing to do those things themselves. They’re afraid, afraid of failure and “what people might say.”

That’s when cowards become cynics.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “they are among those who neither enjoy much, nor suffer much, for they live in that gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.” They’ve never been in the arena.

How many owners and sponsors in NASCAR do you think would approve of a race being fixed for one car?

Exactly zero.

Take the drivers out of it, the crew chiefs, and the fact that NASCAR has a shady reputation about the outcome of some races. There’s too much money at stake these days. What would Miller think about letting the Bud car win?

I don’t think there was any great conspiracy to let Lil’ E win. I do think he had the best car, and drivers weren’t willing to gang up on him or go through any great blocking scheme to keep him from going to the front. Somebody could have put him into the wall, but they didn’t at 180 mph.

The idea that Chan Ho Park grooved a pitch for Cal Ripken at the All Star game is really silly. The night before, they were throwing nice little meatballs over the plate, trying to let players hit home runs in the Home Run Derby. Some went 25 pitches without hitting one over the fence. And if Park was grooving one, why did he throw it at 92 mph?

Those two events are the very reason we watch sports. The essence of what keeps our interest from season to season, from sport to sport. Good things can happen in sports.

Let the cynics howl.

Then tell them to get back on the couch.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Return to Daytona

“Seven, eleven and three-quarters,” a fan shouted to me through the rain few years ago before the infield was open at Daytona International Speedway.

“What?” was my bewildered response from the parking lot outside the tunnel entrance in turn four.

“Seven, eleven and three-quarters,” (which actually sounded like “sevem levem, tree quarters”), the fan repeated.

“Every time we come to the tunnel, the man says, ‘too high’ we just laugh and say ‘put a stick on it,’” the loyal fan continued.

The vintage ‘70’s Chevy pick up had an odd looking iron podium welded to the truck bed.

“Custom built this platform,” he added. “Looks too high, but before he put the stick on it, (measures it) we jump out, let the air out of the tires just enough, and it’s seven, eleven and three quarters.”

“Just need the right number of beer in the back, about twenty cases is right,” he said as he surveyed the truck bed.

“Want a cold one?” (I promise this is a true story)

One of my favorite sights, and one of the most amazing in all of sports, is the one as you emerge from the tunnel and into the infield at Daytona International Speedway. I’m always anticipating that moment, emerging from the dark, quiet of the tunnel into the sun-splashed infield, full of sights and sounds made by partiers and fans strewn inside the 2.5 mile track. I really like taking people there for the first time, and seeing their eyes wide open, mouths agape, speechless at the reverie enjoyed hours, and sometimes days before the race. Vehicles of every shape and size, most customized to fit through though the eight foot height limit imposed by the tunnel, are painted NASCAR colors with every number represented.

People of every shape and size are there as well. T-shirts, or no shirts are the standard infield uniform for guys, bikini tops for women. The excitement is high, fueled by anticipation and beer.

I spent most of the day at the track Saturday before the Pepsi 400 that night. Taking my nephew and my son to the infield for the first time on race day was particularly fun. But it was a bit more subdued than in the past. “The Man in Black,” was missing.

Sure, there were flags everywhere, most topped with the familiar “3” on a black background. Lots of “thumbs up,” or “three fingers” exchanged between Dale Earnhardt fans still wearing black hats. I know this because I wore my Dale hat to the race for the first time. It was a little strange but I learned a lot too. For the first time since Earnhardt died, fans returned to the track. Many were there to pay tribute to Dale, but all were there for the same reason: to see a race.

There were memorials to Earnhardt and reminders everywhere. Wearing my “3” hat when Dale was alive would have aligned me with 100% of NASCAR fans: those who rooted for Dale, and those who rooted against him. Now, it puts me among the “old school” of racing fans.

“We’re sold out of those, gone yesterday,” one concessionaire told me when I asked for a Dale Jr. hat for my nephew.

“Used to be that we couldn’t keep the 3’s in stock, but now the 8’s go flying out of here.”

“Lots of switching going on.”


Not yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Petty, Petty?

Eventually, we’ll know why Richard Petty decided this week to speak out regarding the Dale Earnhardt situation, but for now, it makes no sense at all. Petty chastised NASCAR fans for holding on to Earnhardt’s memory, saying it’s time to move on.

“He didn’t win that many races,” the man they call The King said, “and he wasn’t that dominant of a driver.” Petty won 200 races during his career as a driver, Earnhardt 76.

Dominant? Win or not, every person at a NASCAR race was aware of Earnhardt’s position. Half were happy when he went to the front, the other half booed. Dominant in terms of winning every week, perhaps not, but in terms of fan interest and his overall effect on a race, there was nobody like him in racing since, well, Richard Petty.


The King’s comments seem like sour grapes when put in the context of Petty, the driver, vs. Earnhardt, the driver. Petty was universally loved, but nobody was passionate about him or his racing. He was one of the boys, the one with the best equipment, the one with a chance to win every week. You knew Richard would be a factor, but you also knew he was just racing the Allisons, Yarborough, Pearson and Parsons. A few teams were capable of winning, the rest were just there to fill out the field. It wasn’t a free-for-all, big money proposition every time he took the track.

Dale, on the other hand, drove the passion for the sport to a higher level by the sheer force of his personality. People liked Richard because he won, because he was identifiable and because he was easy going. People liked Dale for the opposite of all that. He won, and did it with an aggressive style. He was identifiable, but only when he wanted to be. He was anything but easy going, creating a competitive tension in every situation.

Petty is trying to protect NASCAR in some way, deflecting the criticism the sport’s governing body is taking regarding their handling of the whole Earnhardt situation. It’s very weird though because it’s completely out of character for Richard. Every time I’ve talked to him, even in private, he’s never been anything but gracious and complimentary.

What happened? It almost seems as if somebody else wrote his comments. The words, the grammar, even the way the sentences are put together seem very un-Petty like.

They’re in a word, petty.

Richard hasn’t denied the comments, so I guess he stands by them.

There are pretty much four things you can walk into any bar in America, especially in the South and get a fight started by commenting on them. You don’t say bad things about a man’s mother, his religion, Elvis, or Dale Earnhardt. Maybe Richard was just looking for a fight.

For me, and awful lot of people I know, I’m holding onto Dale’s memory. I’m gauging other drivers against him. Their ability, their will to win, their kindness, their passion for being the best. Petty used to be the measuring stick, his 200 wins un-attainable in the regulated world of modern day NASCAR. Earnhardt is now the benchmark. Perhaps Petty and NASCAR don’t like that.

Sorry, they’ll just have to get used to it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Special E and NASCAR

I found out this week I was a bigger Dale Earnhardt fan than a NASCAR fan. I guess a lot of people found out the same thing. I was talking about it with my long time friend and co-worker Kevin on Tuesday (Kevin is one of the biggest Dale fans anywhere). He’s always said Dale and I shared the same personality. I usually took it as a compliment, laughed and didn’t think about it. This week, Kevin really zeroed in on it, saying two similar aspects were very apparent. One, people who knew Dale, liked him. People who didn’t know him, didn’t know what to make of him. Two, he had a willingness to act like a jerk, as a last resort, to get the job done. When all else failed, he’d take over and bang his way through to the front.

He seemed to validate that attitude for a lot of people. His success showed that it was OK to believe you were right. Somewhat Machiavellian, but effective, as long as nobody got hurt.

So what is NASCAR going to do with people like me now that Dale’s gone? They can’t just invent another Earnhardt. Dale, Jr. is a young driver with a good car, but he’s a completely different personality than his father. Many fans will just transfer their allegiance from the “3” to the “8.” Others won’t be able to do that. Dale Jr. is 26 years old; his father was 49 when he died. NASCAR’s fan base is closer to 49 than it is to 26. So they have to make the sport itself the attraction.

Since it’s inception, NASCAR has been a sport built on personalities. Petty, Yarborough, Roberts, Allison. All personalities who reminded people of themselves. Dale Earnhardt might have been the last of those individual personalities. Willing to speak his mind, Dale never worried about sponsor relations, political correctness or what people thought. He had his fans, and he had his detractors. He was what he was.

Most other drivers have fallen lockstep into the corporate world of niceness. They’re homogenized so as to not make anybody mad. There’s nothing the matter with that with all the money at stake, but it’s not going to draw fans to the sport in the traditional way. The competition itself has to be the reason to watch.

With constant changes in the rules, NASCAR is trying to keep that balance between safety and competitiveness. Keeping the drivers alive should now be the clear focus of the NASCAR officials in a very public way. Nine deaths in the last ten years are starting to make even the diehards wonder.

I’ll be watching the races on Sundays. I used to check who won if I was out. I now realize I was just checking to see if Dale had won. Now I don’t know what I’ll be checking for. Maybe NASCAR will have an answer for that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -


As the two cars he owned flashed past the checkered flag in the 43rd Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt’s life had already ended. Racing inches apart in a pack of cars in turn 4, Earnhardt’s Chevy was touched by Sterling Marlin, dropped down to the bottom of the track then shot up into the outside retaining wall at about 180 mph, hitting it head on.

Had anything else happened, another car touched him on the way up, Kenny Schrader hit him earlier, anything, and Dale Earnhardt might be alive. But Earnhardt’s neck took the brunt of the impact and he died instantly. When Schrader looked into the 3 car in the infield and immediately called for emergency personnel, you knew it was really bad. And when NASCAR officials and others associated with the track were mum about his condition, we feared the worst.

But when the announcement came, just before seven o’clock, there was a real sense of disbelief.

Earnhardt? Dead? Impossible!

He’s the guy who always walks away! He’s the Intimidator! But it is true and perhaps NASCAR’s greatest driver and certainly their biggest star is now gone.

The only thing that overshadows his death is his life itself. His career is nearly unmatched. Seven Winston Cup titles, 76 NASCAR victories, 34 wins at Daytona in all kinds of races, two-time American Driver of the Year. By any measure, his career stats put him among the best ever. But it was his style, his attitude that separated Earnhardt from the field, and fans loved him, or hated him for it.

As he sat in his car prior to this year’s Bud Shootout at Daytona, a reporter asked Earnhardt if he had a strategy for the race. “Get to the front,” he said slyly with a smile. “And then,” the reporter continued. “Stay there,” Earnhardt replied. That was it in a nutshell. Get to the front and stay there. Don’t be content with second if you can be first or even tenth if you can be ninth. Earnhardt brought an attitude to the track that he was going to win. Period. Anything else is less than acceptable. His fans loved it. They knew he’d do just about anything to be the winner, even bend the rules a little bit. If it meant shoving somebody out of the way, or putting them in the wall, he’d do it. Yet, Earnhardt was never accused of being a dirty driver, just aggressive. He was considered one of the safest drivers during his best years in the early ‘90’s. His style polarized the fans. There were those for Earnhardt, and then the A.B.E’s. Anybody But Earnhardt.

People “connected” with Earnhardt. He was a son of the South, and made no excuses for it. He made NASCAR fans proud to be NASCAR fans. You couldn’t go five feet at a race and not see something with the famous “3” on it.

It would be hard to overstate the loss NASCAR has suffered with Earnhardt’s death. The most famous driver, still at the top of his game, gone. Killed on the biggest stage in the sport at the beginning of what NASCAR had hoped to be their biggest year ever. For all the talk about restrictor plates, aerodynamic packages, new sponsors and the new television contract, there is no getting around the risk inherent in the sport. We’re just reminded of that too often.

The safety of the drivers, the safety of the fans and the competitive nature of the racing are NASCAR’s biggest concerns. Finding the right balance between the three is a delicate juggling act. Yes, the Daytona 500 was as competitive as ever, but at what price? Were the drivers involved in the wreck on lap 174 just lucky to walk away? One accident, nineteen cars.

Last year’s three NASCAR deaths and now Earnhardt’s have all been attributed to trauma to the base of the driver’s skull. Would wearing the HANS device, designed to keep the head in place during an accident, have saved those drivers? His voice cracking, the trauma surgeon at Daytona speculated he didn’t think so yesterday at the track.

Dale’s death will make NASCAR take an even closer look at driver safety, especially on the high-speed, super speedways.

When a NASCAR driver is killed, the sport usually takes care of itself. It’s a part of the game, they tell themselves. Because the popularity is so personality driven, the fans take it hard. Drivers spend hours with the sponsors, fans and media to fulfill one of the primary functions of NASCAR itself: promote the product. Even though there are “teams” in NASCAR, the only faces recognizable are the ones behind the wheel. Earnhardt’s was the most recognizable face. He was the face of NASCAR.

As a reporter, I covered Earnhardt’s entire career. From his first appearance in 1979 to his final race at Daytona. I liked Dale. I was even an Earnhardt fan. He could be short with the media, but usually only after a failure in a race that didn’t make sense to him. His approach to the sport appealed to me. He was meticulous in his preparation and interested in one thing: winning. After his victory at Daytona in 1998 I have never seen a competitor that happy. No post-game locker room celebrations at the Super Bowl or the World Series matched the mixture of joy, relief and accomplishment Earnhardt displayed that evening. Like most fans, I checked on Dale’s position at every race. At Daytona I noted who’s leading and: Where’s Dale? He was my favorite driver. And one of my favorite people in all of sports.

And I’ll miss him.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Bright Lights, Big NASCAR

I was walking through the NASCAR Winston Cup Garage when a familiar voice called out, “hey boy, where you been?” I turned and saw Cale Yarborough headed in my direction, big smile on his face and his hand extended.

The year was 1981. I had been working in Charleston, S.C. for three years and moved to Jacksonville in the spring. This was before everybody was wired with cable, and way before satellite television was all the rage. Cale lived in Sardis, S.C., northwest of Charleston and had a huge antenna on his garage so he could get Charleston television. Turns out, he watched my station for news all the time.

“I moved to Jacksonville,” I answered.
“Well, it’s great to see you,” Cale said as he patted me on the back.

Boy, have things changed. It seems like a million years ago, but NASCAR has moved into the big time. NASCAR used to be the easiest sport to cover. The garage area was uncluttered, just a few writers and very few television cameras. No fans, no sponsors. The drivers were eager to talk, eager to give their sponsors publicity.

NASCAR didn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, so they created their own. Magazines, newsletters, their own radio network, all devoted to NASCAR, fulltime. There wasn’t a lot of money in the sport, and actually only a few teams had a chance to win. They had the money to do the testing, to buy the best parts and to have the right guys on their team.

I can remember sitting in the garage with Dale Earnhardt and saying “what’d you learn out there today.” “I learned we don’t have enough car to win,” Dale snapped back, and then smiled. All of that has changed.

Since cable television discovered NASCAR and began showing every race, the sport has exploded. The garage is packed now, dozens of writers and television crews with fans and sponsors granted access by NASCAR as well. Because they never needed it in the past, NASCAR never developed a public relations arm. The drivers sought you out.

Now, with drivers running in the other direction every time they see a reporter with a notepad or microphone (unless it has a network insignia on it), the relationship between the competitors and the media is beginning to be like every other sport: a bit frosty. Each team is beginning to hire their own pr staff, ensuring their driver and his sponsors will get airtime.

From a regional sport to the big time, NASCAR has made the transition with purpose. They’ve prepared to take the national stage bit by bit. Going to Indianapolis, promoting their own Daytona 500 as the “Super Bowl of Racing,” even holding their year-end banquet in New York, they’ve taken cautious steps before stepping into the spotlight across the country.

The new television contract, the extended season and just the sheer amount of money in racing now will demand they be prepared to take the good with the bad while under the natural scrutiny the exposure will bring. Up until now, the sport has been clean. The only scandals involved on-track incidents. No talk about the drivers’ personal lives. No investigations into what they’re up to off the track. Nobody but their loyal fans cared. Not anymore.

NASCAR is huge. Are they ready?

I think so.

They take care of their core fans, catering to them at the track and on television. You can buy just about anything and everything with Dale Earnhardt’s picture on it, or the number “3”. Want to listen to Dale talk with his pit crew, his car owner and his spotter? No problem. Here’s a pair of headsets with the frequency of every driver on the track. Need to know the rpm’s in the turns? Right on your screen, the in car telemetry tells you.

They’ll be made fun of, for sure. The way they talk, the billboard advertising on the cars and drivers. But aren’t they just taking the first steps where other sports will follow? Golfers have sponsorship worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even baseball and football uniforms have the first sign of manufacturers logos on them.

New fans being exposed to the sport for the first time will learn the drivers, their numbers and their owners and crew chiefs. They’ll know something about the personalities as well. NASCAR has taken a piece of the network television pie.

They’re sitting at the table with the other “major” sports.
Will they be served the main course?