Cilley’s Suspension Sends A Message -- Again

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

Is it possible that anyone still thinks tire softening is the way to go?

 

Last week’s news that veteran Late Model pilot Jim Cilley had been suspended from American-Canadian Tour competition for the remainder of 2002 and all of 2003 for illegally doctoring his tires was either a major surprise or an inevitable occurrence, depending on whom you talk to.

 

Cilley’s first tire-related suspension – at the midway mark of the 2000 campaign – sent a message to all concerned that ACT would no longer tolerate the presence of tire-softening chemicals in its pit areas. Apparently, it failed to make a big enough impression on Cilley, and some say there are other drivers on pit road who have still not gotten the message.

 

Less than a year ago, this writer penned an article for Dick Berggren's Speedway Illustrated magazine, examining the growing debate over tire softener use in big-league motorsports. While researching that article, I spoke with tire softener manufacturers, medical experts, chemists, drivers, and racetrack promoters. While each group had its own unique take on the issue, virtually all agreed that the vast majority of tire softening products are dangerous stuff.

 

Tire softeners work by physically breaking down the rubber compound, making the tire softer and increasing its ability to grip and hold the racetrack. The active ingredients in all but a select few of the softening products are hydrocarbons – chemicals like toluene and benzene – that are proven to cause cancer when ingested in even small quantities. These chemicals are easily absorbed through the skin, or inhaled as microscopic, airborne particles. Virtually every expert I spoke to -- other than the manufacturers themselves – stated unequivocally that anyone using tire softener is literally taking their life in their hands. In fact, the manufacturers themselves put warning labels on their products, cautioning users to avoid physical contact with the chemicals, and recommending the use of respirators, rubber gloves, and indoor ventilation systems when using them.

 

In truth, however, few (if any) crewmen take these precautions. Most slather the stuff on with a paintbrush, paying little heed to spillage or adequate ventilation. Off the record, one ACT Late Model crewmember admitted that before the softener ban took effect in 2000, he personally went through four pairs of sneakers in a season, after tire softener ate the bottoms.

 

ACT is not the only series wrestling with this issue. Two weeks ago at Kentucky Speedway, ARCA pole winner Vern Slagh “withdrew” his Ford after officials determined that his right-side tires had been soaked. Slagh withdrew his car after a lengthy meeting with ARCA officials, during which he was reportedly told – in effect – to jump, or be pushed. Slagh, of course, denied treating his tires. Less than a week later, he put all his ARCA equipment up for sale and announced plans to move to the NASCAR Busch Series.

 

If tire softeners are such bad stuff, why don’t more tracks ban them? Simply put, because they don’t know how.

 

As one midwest promoter said, “My tire softener ban ends the day someone challenges it in court. In order to prove that a driver treated his tires, I have to send the tire away to a laboratory and have it run through a spectrum analyzer, which gives me a read out of every chemical compound in the tire, at a cost of $200 to $300. Then, I have to go to court and prove which product he used, when he used it, and how much he used. All in all, it makes more sense for a promoter to allow the stuff, or at least turn their head and pretend it’s not there.”

 

Unwilling to stick his head in the sand, American-Canadian Tour President Tom Curley found a way around the problem. After consulting with attorneys and fellow promoters around the country, Curley crafted a rule that does not require his series to prove that tire softener has been used. Instead, ACT officials need only to prove that the tires in question are different than everyone else's; a determination that is easily made using a standard durometer. The specific wording of ACT’s tire rule eliminates the need for costly chemical analysis, and eliminates the possibility of legal chicanery, as well.

 

“If we have a question about tires, we bring the top five finishers into the tech area,” said Curley a year ago. “We have the offending driver take a durometer and test all the tires. If his are different than the others, that’s all we need to see.”

 

ACT’s tire softener ban has been in effect since the start of the 2000 season. Every driver, in every division, knows about it. They know the rationale behind it, they are aware of the dangers of tire softener use, and with Cilley now banned for the second time in three seasons, they know the penalties for noncompliance. With all that information to work with, why would anyone continue to soak tires?

 

In short, to keep up. In five Thunder Road starts this season, Cilley had managed just one top-five finish; a fifth-place showing on June 13, after starting from the pole. In the other four races, he finished 25th, 17th, 16th and 11th, usually after starting inside the top 10.

 

"I think the technology passed him by,” said Curley this week. “When we were running stock equipment, he did pretty well. But as time went on, he fell farther and farther behind. In this league, it doesn't take long to fall behind the eight ball.”

 

"It's too bad,” Curley said. “Jimmy's been with us for 19 years. It's not like he's a newcomer. He knew exactly what he was doing."

 

In this writer’s opinion, there are a number of reasons to support ACT’s ban on tire-softening compounds. There is no reason to oppose it.

 

Talk about the expense of tire softeners; $100-$200 per gallon, with at least a gallon needed each week. Talk about the time it takes to use them; a minimum of 2-4 hours per tire, per week. Talk about the fact that softener use takes all the challenge and intelligence out of setting up a racecar. And talk about what happens when even a small amount of tire softener seeps into the groundwater at your local speedway, prompting government officials to shut it down for good and turn it into a superfund cleanup site.

 

Talk all you want about those issues. They’re all valid points. But to me, the real question is this. Do you want your five-year old child coming home from Thunder Road with a souvenir castoff tire that's going to give him cancer?

 

Tire softener adds nothing to the sport, and the risks are enormous. If drivers still aren’t smart enough to protect themselves and their teams from the risks inherent in tire softener use, sanctioning bodies must do it for them.

 

rrrr

 

New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre has got to be feeling like the hapless fraternity pledge in the movie “Animal House” these days; bent over, hands on knees while someone viciously paddles his backside, with no option other than to yelp, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

 

The embattled speedway owner was once again forced to defend his speedway this week, after NASCAR’s Winston Cup drivers lined up en masse to criticize the track. The issue? A racing surface Bahre went to great expense to improve prior to Sunday's race. The longtime track owner spent $200,000 to pave a new inside lane at the Loudon oval, then repeated the process when hairline cracks appeared in the new asphalt less than a month ago.

 

Despite two major repaving jobs in the last three months, a number of NASCAR drivers complained bitterly about the “unraceable” racetrack Sunday, after a post-race examination reportedly revealed problems with the asphalt in turns three and four. A two-foot-wide section of pavement -- roughly eight feet off the yellow boundary line at the bottom of the racing surface – reportedly had pieces missing, and sources said it was possible to tear pebble-size chunks of the track up with a fingernail. Compounding the problem was a Goodyear radial tire that left large chunks of rubber – known as “marbles” – just above the normal racing groove, causing drivers like Stewart, Gordon and Kyle Petty to lose control after straying too high on the race track.

 

There was no visible problem with the asphalt in turns one and two, and the buildup of “marbles” there appeared to be far less severe.

 

"The track was coming apart like crazy," said driver Matt Kenseth afterward. "There was gravel all over. With these cars and these tires, you ought to know better than to pave the track in June, because it's gonna come apart when it's 90 degrees out.”

"The track was absolutely junk, the worst racetrack I've ever raced on,” sniped Connecticut native Jerry Nadeau. “No matter if I live up in New England or not, I hate it. I love the Bahre family -- they are great people, but it's not a place to race on.”

"It's not racing,” echoed crewchief Greg Zipadelli, after driver Tony Stewart crashed all alone in turn four, then stalked away to his motorcoach. “You can't pass, you can't do anything.”

"They should give everybody their money back for impersonating a race,” said former series champion Bobby Labonte.

Thanks for the love, fellahs.

Bahre, who has faced a steady barrage of criticism about his track since drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, Jr., died in separate practice crashes there in 2000, was clearly irritated by the latest round of driver complaints, saying "If (the track) was perfect, it would still be an issue. I would be concerned if they weren't complaining.

"I thought it was a hell of a good race," Bahre said. "The fans were excited, and if you don't have fans, you don't have anything. I thought it was a pretty good show, personally."

The statistics appear to back Bahre. Sunday’s race featured 22 lead changes; the second most in the track’s 15-race Winston Cup history, and more twice as many as the last three Loudon races. The top three finishers; Burton, Green and Jarrett, all started 30th or worse, in a race that featured no less than three spellbinding drives through the field by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt’s Budweiser Chevrolet reeled-in and passed cars all day long, virtually at will, while Matt Kenseth surged from sixth place to the lead in the final 35 laps; a feat previously unheard of at NHIS. Kurt Busch battled from four laps down – four laps down – to finish in the top-10, while winner Burton powered his way from 31st place on the starting grid. Yes, some of Burton’s progress can be attributed to savvy mid-race pit stategy, but he still passed more cars in the final 50 laps Sunday than big-brother Jeff did all day long in last year’s “no lead changes among one driver” snoozathon.

 

One-lane racetrack, my fanny.

 

Despite arguably the most competitive Winston Cup race in NHIS history, NASCAR spokesperson Danielle Frye said officials planned to meet with the Bahre and officials of Pike Industries -- the asphalt company that did the work – to discuss steps than might be taken before the Winston Cup Series returns to the Granite State in September. But Bahre, who did not examine the track after the race, said he doesn’t need a meeting to know where the problem lies.

 

"Talk to Goodyear," Bahre said. "The track didn't come apart. If there's anything on it, it's rubber.”

 

Bahre added that he has no plans to make any changes to the surface before the series returns here in September, saying, "We'll stick with what we've got and we'll be fine."

 

Attaboy, Bob.

 

rrrr

 

Short (Track) Subjects…

 

…Quote of the Week: This week’s gem comes from recent “True Value 250” runnerup Mike Rowe, who at age 51, is older than winner Scott Robbins (29) and third-place finisher Ryan Moore (18) combined. In his words, “These young guys are putting us old guys to shame. I've got to retire real quick."

 

…Speaking of the “True Value 250,” the midsummer classic, which once drew the top short-track drivers from throughout the United States and Canada, has now become a decidedly regional affair. Of the 84 drivers attempting to qualify for this year’s race, all but 10 hailed from the state of Maine. Four Canadians – the late Don Biederman, Junior Hanley, Derek Lynch and Dave Whitlock -- carried the checkered flag in past seasons, but only four drivers from north of the border even attempted to qualify for this year’s race.

 

…Shawna Robinson said this week that she may have taken her last ride in the BAM Racing Winston Cup Dodge. Ron Hornaday Jr., is scheduled to drive the #49 at Indianapolis next month, prompting complaints from Robinson that she hasn’t gotten a fair chance to succeed.

"I'm extremely frustrated," she said. "The owners are good people, and they've given me a great opportunity, but I just don't know where I stand with the team at this point. Our (original) goal was for me to qualify and to learn. At this point, I don't know what I've done wrong. Evidently they're unhappy, so I've been in and out of the car. I don't know what my plan is now."

Robinson claimed she has been the victim of gender stereotyping, saying that when she becomes emotional during arguments over the car's setup, people view it as weakness. “If I cry, it means I'm too weak to compete in this sport,” she said. “That's bull. All I need is a crewchief who works with me, who has confidence in me, who believes I can get the job done. But that’s interpreted as, 'The girl needs to be loved everyday.’”

 

…Steve Park is not interested in the one-year contract recently offered by Dale Earnhardt Inc. If a multi-year pact is not forthcoming, Park could be headed for either Bill Davis Racing – as a possible replacement for Hut Stricklin – or possibly even to Hendrick Motorsports. Kenny Wallace is also rumored to be en route to Davis' #23 Dodge, bringing sponsor Stacker 2 along with him. Davis said this weekend that that if his current sponsor, Hills Brothers Coffee, re-signs within the next two weeks, he might even field a third team for Wallace, keeping Stricklin in the #23.

 

…NASCAR Busch Series driver Andy Kirby was killed in a motorcycle accident last Thursday evening in his home state of Tennessee. 

 

…Former Thunder Road and Catamount Stadium Hurricane division driver Gerry White passed away in a Florida hospital last Tuesday. White, a multi-time feature winner in his familiar #50, was the step-grandfather to current Thunder Road racers Adam and Aaron Maynard.

 

…Thunder Road is back in action tonight with “Routhier Quick Lube Night,” beginning at 7 p.m. Tomorrow night, the Canaan (NH) dirt track rolls out a huge show, headlined by a 40-lap Twin State Modified Series event, along with the 358 Modifieds and Sportsman Coupes, with the Pro Streets and Fast Fours running twin features to make up for those lost to the rain last week. The Granite State Mini-Sprints will also be on the card, post time 7 p.m. Also tomorrow, the Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring division contests the “NASCAR 150” at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut. Bud Pole qualifying begins at 6 p.m., with the green flag set for approximately 9 p.m.

 

After a two-week layoff, the ACT Dodge Tour is back in action Saturday night at Star Speedway in Epping, NH. Post time is 5 p.m., with ACT Dodge Tour competitors taking part in a driver autograph session prior to the first green flag. Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, rolls out its weekly, three-division race program Saturday night, with the Flying Tiger Sportsmen, Streets and Renegades rolling at 7:00. At Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, it’s double-point night for all divisions, with racing for the Cyclones, Strictlies and Sportsmen, plus the NEDA Late Models, NEKC Karts, and a 75-lap Ladies’ Enduro. Show time is set for 6:35 p.m. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, also returns to action Saturday, with a multi-division race program at 6 p.m. Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford will host a four-division program, plus a V8 Enduro, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

 

Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven holds its annual “Biker Night” promotion Sunday, with all motorcycle riders and their companions admitted free of charge. Racing will begin at 7 p.m.