Thunder Road Goes Topless, Stewart’s Car Towed

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

They’ll be running around topless at Thunder Road this season, and it has nothing to do with an overdose of revelry on “Bud Hill.”

ACT’s new, beginners-only, four-cylinder division will reportedly include bonus money for “topless" racers; drivers willing to remove the roof and install an additional protective bar. Double purses and additional tow money will be paid to these brave souls, who will harken back to the earliest days of the speedway, when drivers like Stub Fadden strutted their stuff in the open breeze.

The new division was created for beginners, and ACT President Tom Curley is serious about keeping it that way. The sanctioning body has instituted a $600 claiming rule to weed out the ringers, meaning that the track can purchase any competitor’s car for $600, any time they like. Suddenly, those $2,000 race engines don’t sound like such a great investment, do they? Rules allow any American or imported car with a maximum wheelbase of 104.5 inches, with a major emphasis on strictly stock parts.

“We’re going to enforce the stock parts requirements very forcefully," warned ACT President Tom Curley. "We’re also going to require professional welds at every joint" to ensure safety.

"We’ve had a lot of requests for the rules, which we began mailing out last week," said ACT’s Tina Boutin this week. Licenses ($75) are available now, and if you’ve got a favorite number in mind, you might want to get your application in, pronto. The division will be named by a fan contest to be announced soon, and will make its maiden Thunder Road voyage on Hannaford Market Night, the season’s first Thursday night race, June 5.

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The Home Depot team is in hot water this week, and for once, it’s not Tony Stewart’s fault.

NASCAR impounded Stewart’s #20 Chevrolet Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, after officials determined that it did not conform to mandatory body templates. In question was the rear window and deck lid area, which reportedly had been massaged to direct more air onto the rear spoiler. While further investigation is still pending, our sources say one of two things had been done to the defending Winston Cup champion’s car. Either the rear window had been moved to the left, or the rear quarterpanels and deck lid had been moved to the right, resulting in a cleaner flow of air to the right-rear corner of the spoiler, and increased rear downforce.

NASCAR immediately took the unprecedented step of impounding the car, forcing the Joe Gibbs Racing team to use a backup for the rest of the weekend. The confiscated car was prominently displayed beside the NASCAR trailer, and officials did not allow team members to cover the car.

"When the (car) came through inspection, it was not in a condition where it would pass," said NASCAR President Mike Helton Friday. "It was enough that we felt like we wanted to impound the car, instead of letting them cut it up and try to fix it, even if they could. It did not fit the templates, and did not fit them very well at all.

“This is the first we've seen this year of anything this exotic," said Helton, adding that he did not recall NASCAR ever confiscating an entire car before. Helton said the car would be taken back to NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, NC, for further analysis, with additional fines or penalties possibly to follow.

"We feel that taking this car out of their system is quite a reaction,” Helton said. “The car they presented to race is now not an option for them to use. That car is ours for right now."

"There's a measurement between the offset of the deck lid and the roof, and it wasn't exactly where it needed to be,” said Stewart’s crewchief, Greg Zipadelli. “It's something that they check back on the plates (at the shop) as we're building the car. Obviously, they didn't check it close enough. When they put the back window in, it seemed to change the measurement an awful lot. It's something (NASCAR) didn't like.”

“I'm disappointed with the people at the shop, because it's a measurement that's pretty cut and dry. We've just got to deal with it and move on. It's nobody's fault but our own.”

For his part, Stewart downplayed the controversy, saying, "I've got three things that I'm in control of -- steering wheel, shifter, and pedals.”

Team owner Joe Gibbs said Saturday that his team was embarrassed. "I am not sure what happened, but we are going to find out," he said. "We embarrassed ourselves here. You have a reputation, you work hard to get it, and…you shouldn't mess up. This thing is our fault, and there's no excuse.”

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It was a rough weekend for the powers-that-be in NASCAR, who came under fire for a pair of controversial rulings that impacted the outcome of Saturday’s Busch Series O’Reilly 300, and Sunday’s Samsung/Radio Shack 500.

Sunday’s controversy erupted when Jeff Gordon passed leader Matt Kenseth while racing back to the yellow flag, in an effort to keep fellow competitors Kurt Busch and Ricky Rudd a lap down. After reviewing the situation, NASCAR elected to reinstate Kenseth as the leader of the race, despite putting Busch and Rudd
back on the lead lap. Tuesday, NASCAR President Mike Helton admitted they had blown the call.

“If we had to do it over again, we would do it different,” he said. “What happens between the leaders is their prerogative. What we did Sunday was interject NASCAR into that prerogative, and we shouldn’t have.” Helton said NASCAR would not reverse the decision - as if that were possible now - and said he is not contemplating changes to the race-to-the-caution rule.

Saturday’s Busch Series snafu was equally sticky, and may have robbed 19-year-old Brian Vickers of his first career victory. Just 21 laps from the finish, leader Vickers drove his Chevrolet to the inside of Chad Blount’s Dodge after Blount spun his tires and failed to come up to speed on a restart. Blount was running on the tail end of the lead lap, and thus restarted in front of Vickers. NASCAR rules forbid passing on the left before the start-finish line, and officials black-flagged Vickers, despite the fact that his car was only partially alongside Blount at the start-finish line.

Vickers’ crew protested, but heeded NASCAR’s summons to pit road for a stop-and-go penalty, aided by a caution flag for debris on the backstretch. The situation went from bad to worse on the ensuing restart, when Vickers was caught up in a mammoth, 14-car pileup that relegated him to 25th place in the final rundown.

“I have a lot of respect for NASCAR’s officials,” said an admirably restrained Vickers afterward, “but I really disagree with what they did. We had our first victory, (then) we had it taken away from us. They made a really bad call.”

"It's not anything different than we've been saying in every driver's meeting, that all passing must be done to the right until you get to the start-finish line,” said NASCAR spokesman Kevin Triplett. “I think the confusion may be in the definition of `passing’. Our definition is you don't have to be past the guy, which I think is the perception in the garage. It’s something we'll have to clear up.”

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Just seven races into the 2003 campaign, Winston Cup silly season is already underway. Our sources in NASCAR-land say New York native Steve Park may be on the hot seat, after a series of crashes this season, including two solo spins last weekend in Texas. Other drivers rumored to be on notice to improve their performance are Jeremy Mayfield, Robby Gordon, Jeff Green, and Mike Skinner.

One driver named as a potential replacement is Ricky Craven, who earned his second career Cup win just three weeks ago. Craven struggled in the Lone Star state, taking a provisional (38th-place) starting spot after failing to post a speed in qualifying. Craven took to the track just after Jeff Green's AOL Chevrolet appeared to drop fluid during its time trial run, and immediately backed out of the throttle, claiming there was oil on the track. Unfortunately, NASCAR officials ruled that since Craven had taken the green flag, he could not make a second attempt.

"I smelled the smoke, so I knew I wasn't going to be able to go another lap," said Craven, who struggled to a 21st place finish Sunday, but remains ninth in Winston Cup championship points.

…Michael Waltrip unabashedly describes himself as “loopy.” But last week, the NAPA Chevrolet driver put forth a NASCAR Winston Cup scheduling plan that was brilliant in its simplicity.

Asked about the very real possibility of Darlington and Rockingham losing one of their two race dates next season, Waltrip suggested taking a date from one of the tracks, every other year. Under his proposal, Darlington would lose a race next year, but get it back in 2005. Rockingham would keep both of its races next season, but host only once in `05. NASCAR could then move the “extra race” anywhere they wanted, on either a permanent or rotating basis.

Genius, Mikey. Pure genius.

…With so many former drivers and crewchiefs in the booth, you’d think the Fox-TV guys might have a better feeling for opinion on pit road. The new warning light system embedded in the asphalt at Texas Motor Speedway was roundly praised by Larry, DW and the boys all weekend, only to be panned by the drivers themselves.

"With cloud cover, you can see them, but I didn't even know they were on today," said rookie Jamie McMurray after Sunday’s race. Former Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon agreed, saying, “I hope they
didn't spend a lot on it. I never even saw them."

…At long last, a lousy racetrack may be taking steps to make itself better. Officials at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway are keeping mum regarding reports that the flat, 1.5-mile track may be radically redesigned. Several Winston Cup crewchiefs said they have been told the track will be redesigned with 20-degree banking, a major departure from the track’s current layout. By comparison, Atlanta Motor Speedway is banked at 24 degrees.

…First-time Thunder Road feature winners will receive cash awards and gift certificates this season, as part of the new "Lenny’s Hot Shoe Challenge" sponsored by Lenny’s Shoe and Apparel. Late Model drivers who win their first race of the season will receive $150, a discount gift certificate, a "Lenny’s Winner" decal and a hat. The Tiger Sportsman and Street Stock first-time winners will receive $100 and $50, respectively. Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel, which operates retail stores in Barre, Williston and St Albans, will also present "lucky fan" discount certificates at weekly race events.

…NASCAR is reportedly investigating a potential ban on ephedra. Available over the counter in a number of different weight-loss products, the controversial herb has been linked to at least two deaths among professional athletes, including the recent heatstroke-related death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. At least one ephedra-based product - Stacker2 - sponsors cars on both the Winston Cup and Busch Series circuits, prompting some to question how prevalent ephedra use is in the sport.

A published report recently estimated that 80 percent of Winston Cup crewmembers have tried ephedra-based products, prompting NASCAR to begin an informal investigation of its own. Winston Cup Director John Darby conducted a garage-area survey last week to determine how many pitsiders use products containing the herb, but NASCAR Executive Vice President of Communications Jim Hunter admitted that the sanctioning body still has a lot to learn.

"It's a hot topic,” said Hunter. “We need to know as much as we can…to determine if there's a problem.” Hunter said NASCAR believes ephedra use - to whatever extent it exists -- is more prevalent among crewmembers than drivers.

…Three NASCAR Winston Cup drivers -Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, and Rusty Wallace - are set to take part in a new “documentary series” on the FX network. Initial plans for an Osbournes-esque reality program did not come to fruition, due to driver concerns over a loss of privacy, and issues with the way they might be portrayed.

"There are a thousand things they can do with it, said Wallace. “You've just got to be cautious. I think people's personal lives are semi-private. That's the reason the show is not a reality show. This is a documentary, and I told them I don't want any part if it's reality. There's not going to be Ozzy Osbourne stuff going on."

…Hermie Sadler suffered a broken bone in his right foot and bruised ligaments in his ankle from a crash in
Saturday's Busch Series race at Texas. Sadler still plans to race in both the Busch and Winston Cup races this weekend at Talladega. Kyle Petty's crash in the Bristol Food City 500, which left him with two cracked ribs and forced him to miss last weekend's event at Texas, was measured at more than 80 times the force of gravity. Petty will be back in the car this weekend.

Still think these guys are overpaid?

…This week’s semi-final thought: Anyone who thinks Texas Motor Speedway should get a second NASCAR Winston Cup date obviously hasn’t been watching the one they’ve got. AMTRAK has more passing than the so-called “Great American Speedway.”

…This week’s final thought: With anti-war protesters clogging the streets in a number of American cities, nary a one can be spotted at a NASCAR race.