NASCAR’s Winter Dreams


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NASCAR’s winter is short by some accounts, a cold and dark sprint from November to early February. Hardly enough time for the sort of seasonal rest needed to engender the wild hammering horses of threescore-and-more races to come in 2010: still, it’s too damn long a wait for us track junkies.

Snow now piles on tracks, hiding all but their rudest contours; icicles hang from garage roofs where rows of 1000-hp Cars of Tomorrow sit motionless beneath draped cloths, hibernating their carburetors and ignitions while winter storms rage outside, Naked of their numbers and sponsorship decals, they’re more like ghosts of themselves, white horses huddled and dreaming of sunny days to come, the corral gate unhinged and the naked gallop into fields of timothy and mint, intoxicated with the freedom and fury of fuel-injected, spinning hooves.

If a sport could be envisioned as a person in bed under heavy covers, snoring as 30-below winds whip the rafters of a house, that house would somehow be ship crossing from Homestead to Daytona on a sea of apparent idleness.

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Let us also presume to enter that sleep and navigate the depths below which teem with winter dreams. at turns restful, even smiling at unbustierr’ed pleasures, at other times disturbed, cringing as its toes are pulled by the abominable snowman of events at the foot of the bed.

For many in the United States, this winter has been a bellicose one, hurling several massive blizzards arcoss the Midwest and into the East and sending temperatures plummeting as far south as Key West. In early January, testing for the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway was delayed because of snow, an event which befalls Central Florida only 20 years or so. (But why bitch? A great blizzard in 1897 brought sub-zero temps to Florida.) Juan Pablo Montoya, waiting for the weather to improve, shot a photo of a snowman who had been fashioned by bored crew members and posted it via Twitter. Montoya, along with Jamie McMurray, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon will run the No. 02 Target/TELMEX Dinan-BMW Riley at the Rolex 24 for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

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(For those who point at the record cold weather as a proof against global warming, sorry: a weather anomaly far north is to blame-a high-pressure mass that’s been sitting over Greenland and forcing the jet stream way, way south. Happens every 20 years or so.)

Things quieted down in cyberspace. Many driver and team websites haven’t been updated since the Homestead race in November. Many bloggers also signed off. Monte Dutton – whose NASCAR reportage is the mainstay of the blog I edit, NASCAR This Week — stayed busy with his writing and so we’ve kept a pulse. Traffic has been light, a few vehicles wending snowy rows.

A fellow blogger NASCAR-ista wondered in an email exchange what she would do to keep a lively blog. She figured it out, with a great series, “The Twelve NASCAR Days of Christmas” (“Eight Drivers Feuding,” “Seven (‘Most Popular’) Wins for Junior”,” “Six Restart Misses,” “Five Martin Wins”). You go, girl ..

Many sites have counters showing how may days, hours, minutes and seconds remain til the start of the Daytona 500. Counting steadily as snow falling all through the night.

Winter can be seen as a season of rebirth-observe the beginning of astronomical summer on December 23, the Winter Solstice. Accordingly, one of NASCAR’s boys looks like he’ll emerge from winter a man. When a racer becomes a team owner, some of the hell-bent edges get honed down. Humility begins to seep into the hubris. Speaking at Sound and Speed in Nashville, Kyle Busch, who has become the owner of his own truck series team, told the media that he might personally be to blame for some of the drama his team experienced last season. “Sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes.” Maturity is what many wait for in Kyle Bush, and it has been a slow process for him – remember all the times he crashed in his arrogance a few seasons ago, his pit-road tantrums following losses last year? Question is, will a mature Rowdy be a racecar driver who’s wild enough yet to win? A perilous balancing act … no way too tell right now, when the wires are all iced over …

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Kyle Busch Motorsports owner and Camping World Truck Series driver Kyle Busch (center) flanked by Brian Ickler and Tayler Malsam. Behind them, the No. 18 Miccosukee Resort & Gaming Toyota and the No. 56 Toyota. Busch said he wants to come up with enough sponsorship to put former Truck Series champion Johnny Benson Jr. in a third Tundra.

For many in the racing industry, the season never stops. Miss Sprint Cup Monica Polumba is one who kept up the pitch, like an ice sculpture of a smiling, discreetly-draped maiden. Palumbo taped, in full uniform, a video at the recent Nashville Sprint Sound and Speed festival, smiling like all the sunshine in Antartica these days as she interviewed the Kyle Petty, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sam Bass (the artist who designed the Gibson guitar smashed by Kyle Busch after winning the Nationwide race in Nashville last year) and Mike Helton. Ah Monica. I still remember you working in the torrid sun of Daytona in July prior to the Coke Zero 400, taking photo ops all afternoon. You has such a sweet, sweet smile, but ya gotta wonder if it’s gotten frozen in place. And our Twitter friendship ended when I asked her who was the rankest-smelling driver after the hottest of summer races. Still that smile hangs in my winter gloom.

Drivers are growing up in other ways. Carl Edwards and Elliott Sadler will both become fathers in February and March, and 4-time and reigning Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson and his wife Chandra are expecting their first baby in July. Robby Gordon’s girlfriend Athena Barber, reputably the hottest WAG in NASCAR, is expecting a boy this month.

These will join the ranks of NASCAR daddies Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya. Gordon said that now he’s a family man, he would devote the biggest chunk of his off-season to daughter Ella and wife/ultrababe Ingrid. We have to wonder if, under Christmas trees adorned with racecar ornaments and strung with green-flag tinsel, were there waiting, in packages wrapped with their car’s decal scheme, radio-controlled cars and other baby food for the aspiring young driver?

Kyle Petty spoke on Jan. 15 to the students of Edmond North High School in Oklahoma, thanking them for their $55,000 donation to his charity ranch, Victory Junction, which he co-founded after his son Adam was killed in a racing accident. Kyle’s dad Richard-King Richard, that is-took over driving when his daddy Lee was almost killed in a racing accident.

Others, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. continue to enjoy their unencumbered, free-to-fling bachelor status, though he rounds a second-off season with the same girlfriend. (A record for Dale? Only Tallglassofmilk knows for sure.) Besides, nights Dale Jr.’s been busy schmoozing at his Whiskey River bar (one night in late December he picked up the tab, for an hour, of the some-800 patrons partying there), and by day he’s throwing his formidable popularity behind introduction of the latest member of J.R. Motorsports, the cool but stock-car-unproven hottie Danica Patrick, who will see Nationwide Series action in the  No. 88 Go Daddy Ford. In a press conference following Danica’s road test at Daytona in December, Dale said: “Our company ((J.R. Motorsports)) needs this. Our company wants this Bringing in Danica was a no-brainer for us. I was hoping we would have that opportunity because it’s such a strong hit for your program.” As the scuttlebutt knows, the question is mainly whether Dale’s talking about marketing or racing success – he, of anyone, should understand the difference.

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Dale at his Whiskey River nightclub. This one’s on me, boys and girls.

Anybody imagine what a Danica-Dale  pairing would look like, off-track & off-promo appearance? Such squirmy winter dreams whisper of high octane coupling, the need for a generic bed perhaps, Trojans that won’t burn, fucking the wheels of winter itself …

— Yes, er, well, back to Danica The Real Person. The gal saw no downtime this winter, what with the media furor over her announced entry into Nationwide competition. There was her extensively-covered ARCA test at Daytona in December. This month she’s slated to film in an episode of CSI: New York that features fiery explosion during a race through the streets of the Big Apple. (The episode airs Feb. 18 on CBS). Danica’s Press Pass NASCAR trading card will debut on Jan. 20. Of course she will appear in a Go Daddy TV commercial which will premiere at the Super Bowl in February. She makes her NASCAR debut in the ARCA Slick Mist 200 event on Feb. 6 prior to the Bud Shootout. And then she will somehow divide her season efforts between IndyCar and Nationwide competitions. Sheesh. The girl could surely use some sleep. Mabye next off-season. She sure is a looker, though there’s something of the ice-princess in her stare. Perhaps its been steeled by the trade she has thrown herself into.

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It Girl Danica.

Martin Truex took a regular-guy approach: “I’m going to do a little more hunting, I’ve got a few more trips lined up. I’ve got to take my girlfriend on vacation somewhere or she’s not going to be happy. Not really any big plans. I like to spend some time at home, relax, just do what normal people do. Just chill out. We’ll see what happens.”

“Just do what normal people do:” Do you get the sense that these drivers suffer from their stardom more than we do, who can’t stop dreaming of them all winter long? Here’s Carl Edwards at the end of the 2009 season: “I’m really looking forward to Christmas,” he said. “I’m going to have some time off. I think we’re going to go somewhere crazy, out of the country, where they don’t speak English and don’t know anything about NASCAR, and get a week or so of that. But, I like racing. I’ll probably end up doing something during the winter. We started a [remote-control] car track back home, so we’ll race some of those a little bit.”

Taking it easy and being just a “normal” guy this winter is Kasey Kahne. I know, because he posted all sorts of inanities on his MySpace page. I know, because I’m one Kasey’s 63,195 MySpace friends. (That’s nothing. Tila Tequila, the stripper/reality TV starlet and grieving ex-fiancee of gazillionaire heiress gal-pal Casey Johnson has 3,897,692 friends. Hey, you know who to hook up with.) Before racing this weekend in the NASCAR contingent racing in the 24th Annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals at Tulsa Expo Raceway in Oklahoma, things for Kasey were, well, almost normal, if that’s really him who has been posting updates on his page and not some wonk in the PR department.

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Kasey Konnects with everyday folks. From his jet.

To wit, let’s follow some of Kasey’s winter, and the record some of the zealous fan replies, almost entirely from women (go figure):

11/26: Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I’ve been taking it easy this week and am really excited to dig into turkey dinner soon. (The ONE Red Baron Sharon replied, “Happy Thanksgiving young man.You have an invite to come to my home for Christmes Eve. at any time you can make it my son has been a fan from the start.he’s 26.I am in Newark Ohio.??”)

11/28: Worked out and had a lot of leaf blowing to do today. Need to do more tomorrow. Going to watch some football tonight and have a Budweiser. (SeattleBound replied, “Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Kasey. Leaf blowing huh? I know all about that. 🙂

12/5: Taxing out. Heading on vacation with family and friends. Should be fun! (Youhavebewitchedmebodyandsoul replied, “Hope your going somewhere warmer than here. have fun and take some fun pics for us all to look at!”

Well, suffice to say that Kasey’s at the bat in the winter wonderland dreams of a vast chorus-line of swooning sugarplum princesses.

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Robby Gordon (here racing in Dakkar in his Hummer) didn’t slow down.

Some drivers  though have kept at it. Tony Stewart spent three weeks in Australia, vacationing and racing sprintcars. Denny Hamlin ran a late-model race. Robby Gordon’s gotten much of the media ink, driving that Monster Energy Hummer in the Dakkar rally (Gordon is fading fast as the final stage approaches, lagging some 6 hours behind the lead in 8th place).  Joey Logano competed in the 2010 Bodine Bobsled challenge along with Boris Said. (Team NHRA would win the competition with rookie Melanie Troxel – the first woman to compete in the event–earning the gold medal.)

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Joey Logano bobs in his sled, losing–Yikes!!!–to a girl. An omen of things to come?

Personal appearances are a year-round occupation. 25 NASCAR drivers including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart participated in the Sprint Speed and Sound event in Nashville, and both will join with 25 NASCAR drivers this weekend at NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fest at Daytona International Speedway.  On the way over for the Preseason Thunder Event at Daytona, Jeff Gordon stopped in Loris, S.C. to help build a new home for “Extreme Makeover.” Surely the unveiling of the digs will be a springtime happiness to a deserving family whose material fortunes have undergone an  extreme change for the better.

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Jeff Gordon answers media questions on Jan. 15 at NASCAR Preseason Thunder; fans take note.

At these events, the drivers as a group are supportive of NASCAR’s recent changes, purportedly in response to fans’ concerns-no more bump-drafting at Talladega and Daytona, elimination of the wing on the COT in favor of spoilers. Here is Clint Bowyer, making a fan appearance at “Right now we need to do something, you know,” he said. “Our fans are not happy. You’ve got to do something to cater to our fans. Without them, we can’t do what we do. They’ve made a lot of changes on this car over the years, but nobody has been able to see them. You take a wing off the back, put a spoiler on it, and a fan watching on TV can see that change. He’s going to stay tuned and follow how that reacts and how it changes the sport going on into the season.”

A real fan of NASCAR, or the fans, or either? If anyone doesn’t know by now, NASCAR is big business, and it runs a tight ship. Earlier this week, The Supreme Court heard arguments by American Needle Company against the National Football League’s exclusive logo apparel agreement with Reebok, in place since 2000. The exclusive deal has made billions of dollars for Reebok – so much that other entities – like American Needle Company, which used to do a lot of hats and jerseys for the NFL – are crying foul. Lawyers for ANC contend that the league is not a single entitiy but a collection of 32 independent companies-and thus is violating antitrust laws. Now, the NFL sounds an awful lot like NASCAR, doesn’t it?  Though I understand that NASCAR controls more through bullying than contracts, doing a pretty good job of convincing teams they had better not cross it.

Guilty sleep for any of our drivers who could give a damn about fans and hate NASCAR’s bully but go along anyway, because the love the racing,  because there is just so much money to be made, because there is just so much money to be made? Cold winter dreams of deals with the devil?

I doubt it. Not with so much money being made (Jimmie Johnson–$ 7,339,630 in winnings; Tony Stewart- $6,836,150; Casey Mears- $3,958,460; “Back row” Joe Nemechek- $2,411,240). You gotta do something with all that dough. Please rest assured that many of our drivers hauled ass out of Wintersucksville,  USA and flew off to Rio or the Riviera with wife or girlfriend or mistress in tow to suckle on the golden teat of privilege a while, lounging in the soft sunlight on beaches so white an pure that a baby’s ass looks gnarly by comparison. They will party late and sleep in, attend gala events and smile, smile, smile for the cameras of fans who turn up everywhere, out of any woodwork, like cockroaches. They will make deals with their agents and prepare to film commercials and make appearances on daytime TV or in dramatic series or something else. They will try to slake in all that abundance for as much as the NASCAR winter as they can, knowing that the uneven, 200-mph terrain of Daytona International Speedway awaits them, and all the ferocities to follow.

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It’s different winter’s sleep for a good chunk of the 1,200 team and crew members laid off at the end of the 2008 season, more deep-frozen and barren, whipped by winds which offer less and less hope. The racin’ industry has downsized and may never grow enough to offer these lifetime racers a berth. The website dontcheckup.com  was created on an idea by Don Gemmel, formerly of DEI Racing, to help “NASCAR families weather the storm” with news and information, job search engines and resume assistance. But the picture remains bleak. In the past year, foreclosures nationwide soared 20 percent, totaling some four million homes; and many of the racers displaced by Black Monday are now joining the ranks of the erased, simply walking away from their homes.

Icicles have formed on the roofs of racin’ journalists as well. Earlier in January, NASCAR Scene Daily shut down its print publication and laid 18 editorial and advertising staffers. According to Monte Dutton of the Gaston Gazette (and NASCAR This Week), “The number of papers staffing NASCAR full-time is a small percentage of what it once was ten years ago. When I started (1993), the newspapers that covered, say, three quarters of the races included Charleston, Spartanburg, Greenville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Knoxville, Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta. None has a racing beat reporter now, or at least one that covers other than a handful in person.”

Of course, the freeze is on for the entire newspaper industry. In December, the final issue printed of Editor and  Publisher, the primary source of news about the publishing industry for 125 years. Contraction in the industry put a big hit on E&P’s advertisers and-well, you get the rest. I ran into a guy the other day at the gym who’s still hanging in there at The Orlando Sentinel where I worked for 18 years, selling advertising in a micro-managed environment he described as “absolutely disheartening.”  Everything he does through the course of the day is recorded in a software system which calibrates performance. Everyone’s report is posted for all to see. The Sentinel still has a NASCAR beat reporter, Tania Ganguli, though their coverage has been greatly trimmed back. (Editor Matt Humphries was a prolific Twitterer on things NASCAR until he was reassigned amid all the layoffs in the Editorial department.) I remember the guys in Sports back in the 1980s – back when it was all guys – gnarly, anti-corporate sport-devout kind of guys who came in late and worked long pass the press deadline of 1:30 a.m. Not many of those ones left.

Some reporters find life outside the industry as bloggers-of-concience. Or they find PR gigs. I’ll bet displaced reporters and racers have crossed paths somewhere, both applying for work at Home Depot or filling for an extension on unemployment.

A deep, deep freeze, no matter what the local temperature, and the year ahead for so many will stay in cold doldrums, no matter how the actual year turns. Yet somehow, business was brisk at the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Orlando in December, with about 1,100 industry suppliers in 3,200  booths, showing off their wares to some 38,000 attendees. Racing extends far, far beyond NASCAR, with the soul of every ever-lovin’ eternal American adolescent boy/man housed under the hood of a hot car. The 2010 Dodge Viper SRT10 ACR-X was introduced, the non-street-legal (yeah right) model the last of the line. Practicality and innovation was also evident in the unveiling of a modified Champ Car powered by a pair of electric motors that together generate 600 hp.

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The 2010 Dodge Viper SRT10 ACR-X. This little puppy will kick your ass outta hibernation.

But if you think business was brisk there, consider the war in Afghanastan, where President Obama has recently decided to send 30,000 more troops to add to the 70,000 member force already there. Now, it’s expensive to do business in Afghanastan. Since 2005, the annual cost to support one U.S. servicemember in Afghanistan averaged more than $1.1 million, twice the amount in Iraq, according to the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The situation is complicated by Afghanistan’s poor road system, which increases the need for air and land convoy protection and raises fuel consumption.  In the past, military operations in Afghanastan-by both sides–have suspended during the brutal winter months, but this winter there’s been no letting up.

Mountain passes snow over, visibility is poor for air operations and its just so fucking cold. “There’s always this shadow factor,” said an American paratrooper who has served in several forward bases close to the frontier with Pakistan. “I feel it more in winter than in summer, though — that sense of being hunkered down, that it’s hard to know what’s happening out there around us.”  A cold war, fought by many guys who sorely wish they were instead in the stands at Talladega or Bristol or Darlington or Daytona in July, sweltering in the heat of a summer’s afternoon or night amid all the track hotties and cold beer and swirling thunder of the rabid NASCAR pack.

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U.S. Marines conduct a  mounted patrol in the cold and snowy weather of the Khowst-Gardez Pass in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.

And how can we who are hunkered around our space-heaters bitch with the sort of news coming from Haiti, that balmy hell-on-earth which never seems to get a break?  Tuesday’s earthquake just outside the capital of Port-Au-Prince measured some 7.0 on the Richer scale, is said to have killed 50,000 and disrupted the lives of 3 million. With all the hospitals collapsed or too structurally challenged, doctors have had a nightmarish time tending to the wounded. (One reporter spoke of massively injured people being carted to medical bivouacs in wheelbarrows.) Hendrick Motorsports has loaned out an airplane and two flight crews to Missionary Flights International, which will send support teams daily in and out of Port-au-Prince.

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Hell on earth in Haiti: Rescuers carry a 3-month-old baby found alive in the ruins of Port-au-Prince; Brangelina pledgd their support, saying, “We are devastated by the news from Haiti. We will work closely with our good friend Wyclef Jean to support the humanitarian efforts on the island and help those who have been injured and left without homes and shelter.”  Now which pic are you looking at?

Well, so goeth the world. The winter grinds on, with not a sign of spring in sight for most of the country for some months to come,. Here in Florida, the worst cold spell in 20 years has just dissipated, returning days to the mid-70’s. And we’re just three weeks from the Daytona 500. Spring is surely coming soon to NASCAR. And you know what every Sprint Cup driver dreams of, at some time in the passing of the long winter’s night? That of standing in the place of Jimmie Johnson next to the 2010 Cup in a blizzard of confetti and huzzahs. (The world dreams of that, too. HBO’s series 24/7 is running a four-episode series on Johnson’s preparations for the coming Daytona 500.)

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And do you hear the cars in their snow-covered garages coming to, up out of hibernation, groaning and stretching, soon to roll forth and roar?

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