Merry Christmas, Guys! You’re Fired…
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
It’s going to be a blue Christmas for a number of NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Series teams.
Last Monday, team owner Roger Penske began handing out pink slips to workers on the #12 Mobil-1 Ford Taurus team, despite a late-season surge by replacement driver Mike Wallace, after Jeremy Mayfield left in early October.
Former USAC and ARCA driver Ryan Newman’s new, Penske-owned team will now be transferred into the former #12 team's quarters, as a prelude to a run for Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors next season. Newman will reportedly inherit the #12, along with the owner's points tied to that number from the 2001 campaign.
End result? A new, two-car operation combining Newman and veteran Rusty Wallace. Wallace will continue with Miller Lite sponsorship on his Ford, while ALLTEL is slated to sponsor Newman's Taurus. Mobil 1, which backed the now-defunct Mayfield/Mike Wallace entry, will continue as an associate sponsor on both cars.
Despite rumors of the Penske Racing South’s impending demise, approximately 60 full-time employees remained with the operation until last week, hoping the team would compete again next year. Roughly one-third of those employees will be given positions with the new team, while the others have been let go. Among the casualties is crewchief Peter Sospenzo, who could be headed either to Jim Smith’s Ultra Motorsports #7, or to the Terry Labonte team.
Like Penske, team owner Mark Melling began handing out pink slips of his own last week, laying off a number of employees.
"My greatest concern is that Melling Racing employees have the best possible chance at landing on their feet," explained Melling, who is still without a sponsor for the 2002 season. "If nothing were to materialize, sponsor-wise, in the near future, our employees would be out looking for a job after all the other teams have filled their positions. I don't want that on my conscience. I would like to think that Melling is known as an organization that is fair to its employees."
"My marketing department is still working full-tilt (to secure a sponsor)," said Melling. "I am talking to everyone possible about putting something together for next year. My family has fielded a car in the Daytona 500 for the past 20 years, and it's going to be a heartbreaker if that string is snapped. However, we need something in place very soon to make it 21 years."
Melling and driver Stacy Compton earned the outside pole and a tenth-place finish in last year’s Daytona 500, the pole for both Talladega races, and five top-15 finishes. Compton has been offered the ST Motorsports #59 Busch Series ride for next season, but has yet to commit, waiting for the outcome of Melling’s sponsor search.
Times are also tough on NASCAR’s Busch Series, where Michael Kranefuss’ MK Racing Team closed its doors last week. MK Racing fielded the #98 Starter-sponsored Fords for veteran Elton Sawyer, but was forced to shut down when Starter elected not to return, and no replacement could be found.
Just four short words, if we may, on the new superspeedway being hyped for the Clinton County (NY) area.
Don’t hold your breath.
WCAX television reported last week that a Florida developer wants to build a track on the site of the current Clinton County Airport and fairgrounds. The proposed 150-million dollar project is being touted as a future venue for NASCAR Winston Cup series races by developer Tim Fry, who admitted that landing a Winston Cup race is “difficult.”
Plattsburgh is just one of several locations Fry is said to be considering for the track, and after viewing the proposed site earlier this year, the developer said plans call for acquiring approximately 1000 acres of land at a cost of over $150 million. The Clinton Country site could soon be on the auction block, but only if the county decides to move its airport to the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
NASCAR has had no comment on the proposed new track, and they won’t. The sanctioning body’s stance on new speedways has always been, “build it first, then we’ll talk,” in an effort to insulate themselves from the torrent of speculation that follows the dozens of new track announcements made each year. Very few ever turn so much as a shovelful of dirt. Fewer still - New Hampshire, Chicagoland, Kansas - have been able to earn a spot on NASCAR’s Winston Cup schedule.
Coincidentally, two other proposed superspeedway projects are pushing up daisies this week, after lengthy periods of hype and speculation, but no actual progress. A deal forged by International Speedway Corporation and millionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump to build a track in the New Jersey Meadowlands -- just south of the George Washington Bridge -- was defeated by voters recently, and is now believed to be dead. Another project, the publicly funded $1.5 million Sunnyview Speedzone Raceway in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, has also been given the thumbs-down by local officials, despite the fact that the plan called, not for new construction, but for renovation and enlargement of a financially troubled half mile track already in existence.
Beginning to see a trend here?
Simply put, the odds of seeing Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, and the boys racing in eastern New York anytime soon are astronomical at best, for four simple reasons:
· Building a $150-200-million track is a risky financial venture, since the only way to recoup that investment is to get at least one coveted Winston Cup race. No matter what people like Fry claim, all the Busch, Busch North and Truck Series races in the world will not pay the bills.
· NASCAR already has more tracks than it needs. With the new Nashville, Gateway, Memphis, and Kentucky Speedways already built and begging for a NWC date, the odds of a new Empire State track - once built - jumping to the head of the line are not good.
· The Winston Cup schedule is already bigger than it should be. The Cup troops went 13 or 14 weeks without a break this season, and any effort to expand the schedule further will be met with nothing short of open revolt.
· No current Winston Cup tracks - even those fortunate enough to host two races per season - are looking to drop a date. In fact, with each race earning its host an estimated $11-million profit, any attempt by NASCAR to take away dates will be fought tooth and nail.
So take Fry’s plans for what they are; something fun to talk about during the long, cold winter. And nothing more.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…After struggling with lower back pain for much of the season, Ricky Rudd underwent an exploratory arthroscopic procedure this week to determine the cause. Rudd’s procedure was performed on an outpatient basis at a hospital in Charlotte, N.C., and will entail a recovery period of approximately two weeks.
…Despite skyrocketing ratings, NASCAR’s new TV partners lost their shirts this season, according to published reports. The Sports Business Journal reported last week that Fox, NBC and Turner Sports lost more than $100 million on NASCAR racing this season; the first of a six-year, $2.5 billion contract. Sources close to the situation say NBC/Turner lost nearly $50 million, while Fox lost even more on the first-half package.
…For a guy with no full-time ride for next season, it looks like Mike Wallace is going to be a busy guy at Daytona in February. The Missouri driver reportedly met with car owner Andy Petree last week to discuss driving Petree’s as-yet unsponsored #33 Chevrolet next season in the Daytona 500, whether or not Petree’s ongoing sponsor search is successful.
"Andy and I have agreed to at least run the Daytona 500 next year," said wallace. "If a sponsor comes on board before that for a full-year deal, then I'll be there for the year. If not, then we'll see what happens after Daytona." Wallace is also set to drive the Biagi Brothers #4 Busch Series Chevrolet at Daytona, in addition to his 2000 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win in Ken Schrader’s Federated Auto Parts Chevy Silverado.
…In other sponsorship news, Smucker's Jelly may be in line to sponsor Brett Bodine’s #11 Ford next season, either as a primary or associate backer.
Quote of the Week: Tony Stewart, displaying his sense of humor by shedding his tuxedo jacket to reveal a much-hated Hutchens device at the Winston Cup Awards Banquet. “I began wearing it at Talladega and it's so comfortable I didn't want to take it off."
…Effective immediately, Mark Martin’s crew belongs to Kurt Busch, and Busch’s team works for Martin. Team owner Jack Round announced this week that crewchief Ben Leslie and the entire #97 crew will now be assigned to Martin’s #6 Ford, while Martin’s former crewchief, Jimmy Fennig will take the entire #6 team to work on Busch’s cars.
…Second-generation driver Terry Pearce, Jr., will move to Thunder Road’s NAPA Flying Tiger ranks next season, in a car purchased from 2001 feature winner Josh Lovely.
…Kenny Wallace will run 20 races in the #48 Busch Series entry next season, on weekends where the series competes at the same track as Winston Cup. Wallace is already signed to drive Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s Pennzoil Winston Cup Chevrolet in relief of Steve Park. Shane Hmiel, son of D.E.I. Technical Director Steve Hmiel, will drive the #48 in 10 additional Bisch Series races.
…While there is still no word on whether over-the-wall crewmembers will be required to wear helmets next season, sources say NASCAR will mandate helmets for its officials assigned to pit road duty.
…Riverside Speedway regular Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor will be a weekly Thunder Road regular this season, after purchasing last year’s Joe Blais #14 Street Stock. The St. Johnsbury driver fared well in his first career T-Road start at the Milk Bowl in September.
…In Busch Series news, Lyndon Amick is set to replace Bobby Hamilton, Jr. in the Carroll Racing/Dr. Pepper Busch Series Chevrolet, while veteran Jeff Purvis has been signed to drive the #37 Timber Wolf Chevrolet. Casey Mears, the 23-year-old nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, has signed to replace Geoffrey Bodine at the wheel of the #66 car. Mears will run the full Busch Series schedule in search of Rookie of the Year honors, likely in a Dodge.
…Get well wishes go out this week to Canadian racing legend Jean-Paul Cabana, who is recuperating from recent quadruple bypass surgery. The Quebec veteran ranks on the short list of Canada’s all-time greatest drivers, and is without peer on the list of all-time great pranksters. If laugher is truly the best medicine, J.P. should be up and around any minute.