Tuesday, October 25, 2011

F1 in Shadows of Manhattan, NASCAR Remains in Poconos

UPDATE 2:15PM 10/25/2011: The announcement is official. Race confirmed for June 2013. Contract for "full decade." F1 analyst Steve Matchett estimates top speeds of 200 mph. The most surprising aspect of the announcement: the rumored "well-regarded NASCAR executive" involved in the project is none other than Humpy Wheeler himself, who alluded to the difficulties he faced when trying to bring NASCAR to the New York area...

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announces that his state will host F1 in June 2013. Image from Speed TV streaming.

Official F1 street circuit layout through Weehawken and West New York. Image from Speed TV streaming.

Elevation changes of new F1 street circuit, Weehawken and West New York. Image from Speed TV streaming.

ORIGINAL CONTENT 06:00AM 10/25/2011:

A Manhattan literary agent once said to me, “No one here's going to give a damn about NASCAR unless they're running stock cars down Wall Street.”

Some awfully big names tried to make the next best thing happen: the construction of a major NASCAR track in the New York metropolitan area.

NASCAR show cars have rumbled through Times Square, but the Sprint Cup Series has no race that is local to Manhattanites –despite the best efforts of many. Photo: New York Daily News

As recently as 2000 – as NASCAR prepared for new levels of exposure via TV deals with Fox and NBC – talk was rampant that Donald Trump was on the verge of working a deal to build a track close by the George Washington Bridge, bringing NASCAR and its top series to the gates of Manhattan.

Pocono is the closest speedway that we have to New York City, and it’s not far from Philadelphia,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler in June of that year.

At the time, Wheeler was president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and a key member of Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. team. Expansion of the stock car racing market seemed limitless in 2000, and Speedway Motorsports was frequently mentioned in connection with NASCAR’s New York interest.

Those are two markets we must be in the vicinity of to grow [the sport]. Our new growth will not come from the heartland. We have to get to the top-10 markets,” Wheeler vowed.

But stock car racing’s dream alliance of NASCAR and New York would never be realized, dying on the vine of financial and local political turmoil.

Today’s announcement: Formula One in the streets of mid-town Manhattan? Not quite – but close! Photo: Shell promotional video

Now news comes that surely must rankle the power brokers of stock car racing: the official announcement of a Formula One race in northern New Jersey is expected to be made this afternoon by Governor Chris Christie. McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari, and the rest of the F1 lineup will be racing in 2013 on a street circuit in Weehawken and West New York, located essentially at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel leading to mid-town Manhattan.

One rumored layout for the street course that will be used by the highly-sophisticated F1 cars. Map: Google Maps
The October 25 press conference will be held at the Port Imperial ferry terminal in Weehawken, along River Road – a road that is to be a key component of the F1 course, paralleling the Hudson River with Manhattan in the background.

While the unpretentious Governor Christie may look like he should be wearing a flannel shirt and sitting in turn three with a cooler of beer, come 2013 he'll likely be wearing dressy casual and rubbing elbows with McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh, Ferrari's Stefano Domenicali, Force India's Vijay Mallya and the international cast of characters populating the Formula One circus.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (left) at Monmouth Park Racetrack in 2010. Today he breaks news regarding horsepower of a different kind.

Rumors about the race picked up momentum in August, gaining credibility when the mayors of West New York and Weehawken went public with a statement revealing that they were in talks with a group of investors led by Leo Hindery, Jr., a former chief executive of the YES Network, to bring a race to New Jersey.

"In these uncertain economic times when every direct and indirect revenue source is vital, our own Formula One race could be a very positive boost to our citizens," the mayors said.

"This said, we need to ensure that the financial benefits from the privilege of having these races in our towns are equitably shared and that no tax dollars are used. The investor group has already told us that our towns would be substantially compensated annually."

Ironically, a member of “Humpy” Wheeler's own family – daughter Patti Wheeler – is married to Hindery, the man who has helped F1 succeed where stock car racing failed. She has long played a major role in NASCAR and motorsports broadcasting through her Wheeler Television production company.

To add insult to injury, Autoweek reports that a “well-regarded NASCAR executive” is rumored to be joining the F1 New Jersey project.

F1's advance in the United States - first with the announcement of next year’s race at the new Circuit of The Americas outside Austin, Texas and now with the revelation of the New Jersey street circuit - signals a new push by Formula One to claim market share in the United States. It’s no secret that the most powerful forces in F1 have not been happy about the lack of an American race since last running at Indianapolis in 2007.

Static displays at the New York International Auto Show have been as close as F1 has come to Manhattan. In the year 2013, the show’s home at the Javits Center will be within earshot of F1 engines fired in anger.

While the funky, down-to-earth music scene aspects of Austin may seem like an odd pairing with the glitz of F1, the world’s most elite form of motorsports is an ideal dance partner for the city that never sleeps.

And so F1 will run in the very shadows of Manhattan's skyscrapers, reveling in the glamour to which it is accustomed. Meanwhile, NASCAR looks on enviously from the rustic Pocono Mountains 80 miles to the west, still unable to advance any closer to the world's biggest sporting stage.

So what do you think? Why did F1 succeed with this entry into prime real estate? Will you attend this event? And will these two US races allow F1 to finally make inroads with a fan base firmly committed to NASCAR?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Profile of Bill Elliott, Part Two

In October, 2011, Speed TV has been broadcasting "The Day: The 1992 Hooters 500." The documentary covers in detail the events and personalities involved in what history has recorded as aguably the greatest race ever in NASCAR's top series.

Of course, one of the largest roles on that dramatic day was played by Bill Elliott in Junior Johnson's red Budweiser Ford, as his bid for the season-long championship fell just short despite winning the race. Although Elliott saw that championship slip away on the banks of his home racetrack in Atlanta, many fans and media members thought the momentum of the Johnson-Elliott alliance was just getting started, and that championships down the line were waiting to be claimed. It was not to be.

Here is the conclusion of a conversation with Bill Elliott...


Many people were looking for one big reason why Elliott's performance in Junior's cars dropped off, but Elliott feels there were a number of contributing factors that combined to create the slump.

"There were several reasons," Bill explains. "NASCAR had changed when Gary Nelson came in. In the latter part of '92 we were constantly changing body parts and pieces and doing this and doing that. Then Mike came in. At the time that I had been in Dawsonville, I had driven a Banjo Matthews front steer car and Mike had worked on it. Since then Mike had worked on different stuff, and it all has a different feel. You're trying to get the feel you want out of a particular car, and that makes all of the difference in the world.

"That's why people on the outside looking in at this sport need to try to understand that it's hard enough to maintain a competitive deal, but if crew people change, if certain things change, it's hard to maintain a perfect consistency every week," Elliott sums up.

The news that Bill Elliott would leave the Melling team to drive for the legendary Junior Johnson was easily one of the year's biggest stories in 1992.

With the subtleties of stock car handling plaguing the team, the Goodyear-Hoosier tire competition during the 1994 season was just another headache -- one that Elliott feels brought additional risk to Winston Cup racing.

"Racing is a dangerous sport regardless, but the better they get the tires the faster you run the corners and the margin of risk continues to escalate," Bill states. "You've got to give up that margin of safety from the standpoint of how much faster you're running. You're pushing everything to the limit."

Regardless of the higher speeds in the wake of the "tire war," 1994 was a season when Elliott was once again a familiar sight running at the front of the pack. Numerous strong showings finally paid off with a return to victory lane as Bill Elliott ended a 52 race losing streak by winning the Labor Day classic at Darlington.

"If you can be competitive in each and every race, be able to stay on the lead lap and stay running competitively, I feel like I've had a good day no matter where I finish," Elliott notes. "Just like when we won at Darlington -- that's the fifth time I've had a victory there. We led some, and we weren't the best car and we weren't the worst car -- but we were right in there among the best cars. You put yourself in a position to win when you do that.

"Mike and I working together," is another reason Bill cites for the renewed success. "Everybody's working together like a team. I think that's what it takes. We came back this year. I was a little disappointed in the first part of the year, but we're really running strong in the second half. This really is a great bunch of guys, and they've worked hard. We've had our ups and downs but it's all come together."

Though everyone's all smiles in the promotional materials, the alliance of car owner Johnson and driver Elliott was a troubled one.

But not for long -- the troubled pairing of Junior Johnson and Bill Elliott came to a close with the end of the 1994 season. And for Bill Elliott, 1995 will mark a return home to Dawsonville with a new race team owned by Elliott and Georgia automobile dealer Charles Hardy. Bill will still drive a red Ford Thunderbird, but the number will be 94 and his sponsorship will go from beer to burgers as McDonald's comes aboard. How did the new Dawsonville deal come about?

"Well, we'd been in the planning stages for a while," Elliott begins. "I was weighing out my options as far as where to go. Junior never really asked me to stay, and had never talked to me about staying. So I knew that was one option that was out. I had several other options to go other places, but I thought 'well, why should I do that? Dawsonville is what got me to where I'm at today.'"

Brothers (left to right) Dan, Bill, and Ernie Elliott enjoy the first flush of Winston Cup success with father George (far right).

Joining Bill in the new venture are his brothers Dan and Ernie, giving the team a makeup that calls to mind the 1980's glory days. But family loyalty isn't the only thing Bill Elliott has going for him in 1995.

"Some of the guys who didn't want to stay with Melling when I left came with me onto my Busch Grand National team," Bill notes. "They stayed together and continued to work together, and I think there's a lot of merit in that. You have to understand that this is not a new team -- a majority of the people that work there have been on other teams. They understand it and I think it is a realistic goal to go for a championship."

The new Dawsonville team made several starts in 1994, with drivers including Bobby Hillin and Kenny Wallace warming up the seat for Bill. Wallace drove the car to a strong ninth place finish in Talladega's DieHard 500. With performances like that already on the books, what will be the biggest challenge for the new team?

"Knocking all the rough edges off," Bill says. "Getting started and acclimated and running all of the races and just getting the basics like the car setups. Most everywhere you go, the first time around I feel will be a testing ground, but by the mid-point of the season we ought to be able to get a direction and then be able to go do what we need to do from that point on."

One thing that won't change with the new team is Bill Elliott's status as one of Winston Cup racing's most important figures. With everything from high prices for autographs to strikes marring the images of other professional sports, Winston Cup drivers face enormous pressure to maintain a near-perfect image.

"This sport has gotten so popular that regardless of where you go you get bombarded. It used to be that you could get away from it to some extent," Bill recalls, "but now it's grown so popular that no matter where I go or what I do I'm constantly under a magnifying glass. And that's the problem -- if I have a bad day or I'm not feeling good or whatever, the fans get mad at me. You try to accommodate people, you try to do a lot of things, but there are certain times when you just can't do it. The more popular this sport gets, the harder it is to leave yourself accessible to everyone. When people come up and you're in the middle of your last practice and you're changing springs and changing shocks and trying to get everything worked out, I can't deal with people coming up to me and asking for things. If you get me out away from the racetrack where I can take care of the people, then I think I do an extraordinarily good job.

"People don't understand that I've never liked to be in front of a group of people," Elliott continues. "I'm a shy type of person by nature, I grew up in a small town, and if I had to stand up in front of a class of three or more people in high school, I couldn't do it -- I could not do it. And I've been forced into a situation where because all I ever wanted to do was drive a race car, now it comes to the point that here you are -- now you're a role model for a lot of different people, which I never wanted to be. All I ever wanted to do was drive a race car."

The demands on Elliott's time have grown as Winston Cup racing's popularity has grown, but the drivers aren't the only ones whose jobs have become more stressful with the addition of more races and more fans.

"The crew guys are under so much pressure," Elliott notes. "28 to 30 races is enough because I'll tell you what, these guys are away from their families so much. I've been fortunate enough to be able to kind of have my family with me a lot of times, but still it gets so hard on everybody. There is so much pressure."

But for the teams that can deal with and overcome that pressure, the rewards in NASCAR Winston Cup racing can be great. With a strong, new team in a growing sport Elliott seems ready to spring from Dawsonville with a renewed vigor. If everything goes especially well in the new season, would winning a million dollar bonus mean as much now as it did in 1985?

"Well," Bill Elliott laughs, "a million dollars in '85 goes a lot farther than a million dollars in '95!"

So what do you think? Are there characteristics that today's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, shares with Bill Elliott? If both were at the peak of their careers at the same time, who would win the hearts of the fans? Your comments, please...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A new blog’s green flag: looking back at Bill Elliott

It's impossible to watch NASCAR in 2011 without being constantly reminded of the presence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. No surprise there: he's undeniably stock car racing's most popular driver, and has been voted that title officially every year since 2003.

But for this first post in THE VIEW FROM THE PITS, I'd like to focus on the man who essentially owned that Most Popular Driver title in the 1980s and 1990s: Bill Elliott. From his first popularity title in 1984 to his last in 2002 – when Junior began his ascension as crowd favorite – Elliott was crowned Most Popular Driver an astounding 16 times.

Elliott crossed my mind recently when, early in September, he failed to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was the first time since 1976 – yes, 1976 – that Elliott had missed such a start at what is essentially his home track.

One of my first major motorsports interviews was conducted with Bill in his hauler one Saturday afternoon in 1995, as the drone of the Busch Grand National V6s echoed in the background. Elliott was notoriously soft spoken, even shy, at the peak of his fame. Sometimes all writers could coax out of him was, “Well, we'll just have to wait and see,” or “Well, we’ll just have to see what happens…”

But on this day, Bill was thoughtful and intent on explaining various aspects of his career – including his discomfort with his own racing stardom.

I suppose some people could have considered Bill's honest thoughts to be insulting to the very fans who voted for him as most popular drive year after year. But I guarantee you that even the most outgoing NASCAR personalities have encountered uncomfortable situations that left them wishing they were anywhere else. In my years wandering the NASCAR garage area I've seen what may have been well-meaning fans accosting drivers at the worst possible times. How'd you like to smack the wall at 180 mph, limp the car into the garage, drop the window net and see a Sharpie being presented to you for an autograph?

Here's a look back in time, with Part One of a candid conversation with “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.” The next post here will conclude the story.

While most NASCAR Winston Cup nicknames are dreamed up in the offices of public relations firms, some titles are built on a solid foundation of legendary racetrack exploits. Greatness in racing has given us The King, The Intimidator -- and Awesome Bill From Dawsonville.

Georgia's Bill Elliott was christened Awesome Bill after displaying an uncanny domination of the very fastest NASCAR superspeedways throughout the mid-1980's. If it was a track like Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway -- places where a gas pedal mashed to the floor for lap after lap determined who was the top dog -- often as not Elliott could be found at the front of the freight train, pointing the way through the treacherous draft. To this day, Bill Elliott still holds the record for the fastest lap ever run in a stock car with a 212.809 mph blast around Talladega's towering banking on April 30, 1987. And with NASCAR determined to keep speeds in check, that record may not fall for many moons to come -- if ever.

Bill Elliott's Coors-sponsored Melling Thunderbird leads the pack at Pocono in 1990 Winston Cup action.

Bill Elliott ascended to NASCAR superstardom at the wheel of a racing operation largely directed by members of his family. The team hailed from a small town in Georgia with a melodious name -- Dawsonville. But for the other teams in Winston Cup racing, that melody was often accompanied by a sour tune of defeat.

Elliott Racing first entered Winston Cup competition in 1976. The team was owned by George Elliott, and his sons handled the key responsibilities. Ernie worked on the engines and acted as crew chief, the main mechanical duties belonged to Dan, and youngest son Bill was behind the wheel. And while the team didn't set the racing world on fire right off the bat -- Elliott Racing did not finish six out of the eight races they started that first season -- the family operation had become competitive when an association with oil pump manufacturer Harry Melling began in 1982.

Bill Elliott's surge with the Melling team firmly established him as one of NASCAR's top Winston Cup Series drivers.

The first Winston Cup win of Bill Elliott's career came soon after on November 20, 1983 at the road course in Riverside, California. Melling Racing followed that up with three victories in 13 top-five runs in 1984. But the big season was yet to come.

Bill Elliott was almost unbeatable in 1985, winning an astounding eleven Winston Cup races. Elliott also picked up a new nickname in the process -- Million Dollar Bill. Winston Cup Series sponsor R.J. Reynolds decided it would be a good idea to offer a one million dollar bonus to any driver who could win three of four key NASCAR races at Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington. Bill Elliott thought it would be an even better idea if he went out and won those races.

As always, a driver depends on his crew, and the support Elliott received from the Melling team was top notch.

By driving to victory at the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 Talladega race, and the Southern 500 at Darlington, Bill became the only driver to ever claim the Winston Million. Does Elliott think anyone in today's highly competitive Winston Cup world has a shot at claiming the huge bonus?

"The only guy I know who's been consistent and run well at those places is Dale Earnhardt," Bill Elliott says. "Earnhardt came close to winning it two or three years ago. Rusty Wallace's weak points are speedways like Daytona or Talladega. He's good at Charlotte and he's good at other places, but until he gets his speedway stuff better he's going to have a hard time winning it, too."

When the idea of affinity credit cards crept into the world of NASCAR fan marketing, Elliott and Earnhardt were easy choices as the trail blazers.

The Elliott family's NASCAR success continued in the seasons after 1985, leading up to Bill's capturing of the Winston Cup championship in 1988. But in racing things often happen in cycles, and staying on top for years at a time is just about impossible. The wins became less frequent as the 1990's arrived, and late in 1991 Bill Elliott made an announcement many people thought they would never hear -- Elliott was leaving Melling Racing and the Dawsonville team to join Junior Johnson's two car team in 1992.

"I just wanted to do something different," Elliott now reflects. "I'd driven in that particular situation for my entire career, and it was time for me to just change. I wanted to see how the world revolved on the other side."

As things turned out, it revolved in a very positive fashion. Junior Johnson's teams were the fastest qualifiers for the 1992 Daytona 500, with Sterling Marlin claiming the pole. Elliott started on the outside front row in his red Budweiser Ford Thunderbird, and ran at the front of the pack before a crash involving Ernie Irvan and Marlin knocked Elliott from contention. But that proved to be a minor setback, as the combination of crew chief Tim Brewer and driver Bill Elliott led to four straight wins in the month of March.

"Brewer and I worked real well together," Elliott comments. "I came in and stepped into an entity that was already in place. Junior had some good stuff, and he had a good organization and things came together very well. We put together a heck of a season for the first time we were together, and we accomplished a lot."

The accomplishments nearly included the 1992 championship, but the late Alan Kulwicki captured the title by gaining just ten points more than Elliott. Still, Elliott won the last race of the 1992 season, and with five victories under his belt with the new team Bill had high hopes for 1993. But the expected success never materialized.

After a personal disagreement, Junior Johnson replaced Tim Brewer with Mike Beam as leader of the Budweiser team. While Elliott had worked well with Beam when the two were together at Melling Racing, a crew chief change can upset the temperamental balance of a Winston Cup team. In 1993, the Bill Elliott-Junior Johnson alliance had no wins and just five top-five finishes.

"Junior let Tim go at the end of '92 and brought Mike in," Bill says. "We changed some personnel around on the team and it took us a while to rub the edges off. We had worked together before, but it had been a while. Things had changed so much. I felt we got to running pretty well towards the middle part of the season -- we didn't win a race but we got awful close and ran well and came back well in the points."

Was Junior Johnson around the cars a lot as the team struggled?

"Well, no," answers Elliott. "I'm sure Mike and Tim conferred with him, but he was kind of like an entity that wasn't there all of the time. He would just kind of oversee everything."

As the winless streak grew, Elliott -- consistently voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver -- began to see some of the uglier sides of race fans.

"I guess I'm going to sound a little cold here," Elliott begins, "but a fan ought to be a person that's with you through thick and thin. If I walk out on a racetrack and a guy walks up to me and he says, 'I'll pull for you if you never win another race' -- that's what makes you feel good. When you walk out there and a guy says, 'if you don't win I ain't gonna pull for you no more' -- fine! You don't need to be pulling for me anyway.

"Everybody wants to be for a winner," Bill continues, "but the way this business goes there's going to be ups and downs, there's going to be cycles, there's going to be people winning and people losing -- but there's always going to be more people losing than there are winning. That's just the way this business is. And I can't control a lot of the circumstances that go on. I'm going to go out there and do the best job that I can, I'm going to try to race people as clean as I can. That's my style, and if people don't like it, fine. I can't help that."

So what do you think? Do you remember when Bill Elliott won the Winston Million, or was that before your time? Were you one of the many who kept Elliott at the top of the most popular driver polls for so many years? Your comments, please...