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Parting Shots ... Not Tired Yet?

Sunoco Super Series

Sometime right around November of 2003 everything in Late Model racing changed! And not necessarily for the better either. The past couple years more and more focus has been cast upon the ‘national' Late Model racing scene at the expense of weekly racing, the true backbone of this sport. Let's face it, while the national sanctions, both former and current (who the hell can keep track these days?) it would be prudent not to lose focus on the importance of weekly racing, as from weekly racing springs the beasts known as national touring sanctions and their ‘star' drivers.

Right now, well, since around November 2003, there have been some huge power plays and power struggles going on within the sport to see who will be King. Many race fans, teams, promoters, manufacturers, media and sponsors, at least long-time participants, find themselves perplexed and dismayed at the all the outsiders who have invaded the sport since early 2003 and with visions (or delusions) of grandeur that they, by God, will ‘save' our sport, will take us all to the Promised Land of big time purses, huge crowds and corporate America emptying their coffers into this sport.

Well, as some are now realizing, and to quote an old Chinese proverb: "To know the road ahead, ask those coming back." Up until this point it really hasn't been working. Although there is hope. In fact, when it comes to some (not all) of the sanctions and series, despite their best intents, despite their commitment to ‘save the sport', despite their wishful thinking, with most sanctions who wish to rule the world, one quickly finds most have been traditionally possessed with follow-through abilities equal to Stevie Wonder's chances at passing a driver's license test.

This should keep you busy indoors for a little while longer

Or turn this thing off and get to your local track. Go find out what racin' is really all about. It might look and sound a little like this:

Come on Wally, please get out of there and let ME show you what to do with that steering wheel.

OK, but more officials got to show up first and you've got to stay on that side of the car. Spencer-Dallenbach

Let me ask you. Do you think this would've happened with DT in the #15?

One now previous sanction ‘savior' came in with grandiose plans that, upon second review, were designed to be (detrimentally as it turns out) self-serving. And there is surely nothing wrong with that, except upon reflection it was too one-sided. It appears if one wants to assume the title of Lordship over dirt racing one must be willing to at least spread the wealth and follow through, or at least give the appearance that one is doing that. Because if one doesn't, one need look no further than the last pretender to the throne who got his ass handed to him faster than someone who just got liposuction. Make no mistake, his reality check bounced. (Access to power must be confined to those who are not in love with it. - Plato)

And that's the rub. After one of the most tumultuous periods in our sport the past couple years, and it's something that is still occurring, distrust, suspicion and acrimony is running rampant throughout the sport. No one trusts anyone else anymore, no one has the patience or maturity it seems, to at least listen to another's viewpoint. Admittedly it's not like that across the board totally, but it's prevalent enough to be obvious. Anymore it's like those who work in racing in general, and with sanctions specifically, is to lying what Washington DC is to politics. And yet day after day it appears that there are others who want to start their own ‘deal' which will, most of us know based on recent history, will only find themselves confined to the vast sanction gulag of oblivion.

In a new day where many press releases, pronouncements, schedules and contracts are seemingly printed on an Etch-A-Sketch, many we speak with have begun to feel that giving your trust and investing your track or team with some of these pretenders the past couple years is akin to letting your 17-year-old son vacation at a brothel with your credit card. It's uncomfortable in racing right now. Too much suspicion, too much anger, too much angst. And I may be making more out of it then there really is, but the paranoia that has enveloped this sport since November '03 has spoiled the fun, the adventure, the work, the growth. It now almost seems like, if you're in this business, you better brush up on old Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes and James Bond, Matt Helm and In Like Flint film plots and scenarios.

Prostitution is said to be the world's oldest profession. The past couple years, especially if you scan the various message boards, owning a sanction, according to some, runs a close second. That's too harsh and obviously too unfair, but that attitude has been growing daily.

But to be fair there are some series out there who are in it to do what is right. If they can make a few bucks, great, although the majority are not even close to breaking even. Maybe doing it the right way is wrong. Maybe having a true concern for the sport is wrong. Maybe it is now the day of the mercenary, God knows that's a reflection on what society is today. But sometimes I look around at this sport and those of us (myself included) in it make Goober, Gomer and Floyd the Barber from Mayberry look like the Board of Directors of Mensa.

We have no patience. We want schedules out NOW. We want answers NOW. We want the heads of sanctions served up on a platter NOW. And that pressure, especially from internet purveyors, has caused some in the business to make mistakes, take missteps and fumble the ball more than once which is akin to simply throwing more logs onto an already raging fire.

We need to take a break, take a deep breath and look at this more calmly and more reasonably. How really important are sanctions in the grand scheme of things? That is a question more and more promoters are beginning to ask themselves lately.

How many sanctions have been in existence since Robert Smalley's NDRA? Cripes, who can count that high? Some had real potential. Some today have real potential. But these days sanctions come and go like the bubble gum ‘bands'. We don't have a Rolling Stones. We have the flavor of the month.

Yet probably over 90% of the people who have honest, deep-rooted passion (and investment) in this sport have spent the past couple years hand-wringing over the state of the sanctions. It's like the whole sport lives and dies based on how the sanctions perform. And based on the track records of some of them (not all), if that were true we might as well just shut down and lock all the shop doors, lock up the front gates of the tracks and grab a fishing pole. Of course, like racing, and owning a sanction these days, there's a fine line between fishing and just standing on the side of the lake looking like a moron.

But that's not the case. Sanctions are needed, there is room for them and there is a demand for them. They provide many teams the chance to do this full time and earn a living. But if one thinks the sport lives and dies by the fortunes or misfortunes of the sanctions alone they are sadly mistaken.

For argument's sake let's say there are 10 Late Model sanctioning bodies and series. Let's say each has 12 ‘regulars' on the average who travel to all the races. That equals out to 120 Late Model teams that hold the success or failure of the sport in their hands?

Nope. 120 teams spread among 10 sanctions/series does not fuel this industry. 120 teams and 10 sanctions/series will not keep over 700 tracks in business, will not keep all the chassis, motor, shock, spring and all the other manufacturers in business. 120 teams and 10 sanctions/series will not keep racing newspapers and magazines in business, nor will it fuel and feed all the internet websites now available. 120 teams and 10 sanctions/series will not make this industry the multi-million dollar industry that it is now nor will it keep the hundreds and perhaps thousands employed enabling them to make mortgage payments and feed their families.

It's all about the weekly racer and the weekly tracks. Weekly racers are what keeps this sport alive, keeps it nurtured, keeps it growing and just surviving. Weekly racers. You know, the thousands who pay the bills.

For several years weekly racing has been cast aside, lost among the glitter and dazzle of the big time national sanctions. But there are thousands of them spread all across the country. Whether they run a ‘Super' Late Model, Steel Block Late Model, Limited Late Model, Spec Late Model, no matter what tag you stick on them, there are several thousand who race some form of a Late Model.

Thousands. Do the math. Who keeps the tracks in business? Who keeps the manufacturers in business? Who keeps the racing media in business? It all comes back to weekly racing, weekly racers and the fans. They are the fuel that fires this industry, they are the ones who pay the bills internally, they are the ones who grow the sport, who build their skills and their programs and if, like winning the lottery, they get lucky enough to finance a team to go on the road, they can go to (Gawd, I hate using this term) ‘the next level' and travel around the country. As soon as one hot dog leaves the weekly track, there is usually a couple more to take his place.

But sanctions have been and can be, important and vital to promoters' use of black ink in their ledgers. Many promoters buy into the lines that many (but not all) sanctions are selling. You know the spiel, our sanction will fill the stands, will get mainstream media coverage, will grow the sport, draw in new fans. Our sanction will be the one to make every ball and stick fan and sportswriter a dirt racing addict. Our sanction will aggressively implement a marketing plan that will make our drivers household names. Our sanction will be the one to get coverage in Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone and USA Today. Fine in theory, and it's something that is possible in time, but Judas Priest, how many times have we went down that road? It's becoming a worn-out speech, a hustle and the constant failures over the years by some, have only contributed to the attitude that giving money and power to some sanctions is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

Basically, just quit talking about it and do it! Proof is in the puddin' and all that. Years ago when a new sanction would appear it usually was an exciting prospect, but anymore the news of a new sanction or series is as unwelcome by promoters as Bill Clinton at a Young Republicans convention. Most, unfortunately, became just another variation of the same old same old, usually just packaged in a different or prettier wrapper. But inside the box is usually found the same old promises, same old dreams, same old illogical platitudes. Reruns, if you will.

So now here we are in 2005 and another season of relative uncertainty, at least at this point. To be a sanction and survive these days, one speculates, means to not oversell, do not make promises you can't keep, institute controlled growth and deliver. If any of the sanctions can do this (there are some out there that have been doing this very well for the past several years) and keep a level-head, work within their means, then success, deservedly so, should come to them. In time. It won't happen in a couple months or even in one season.

We have some drivers people in place at the various sanctions, and we also have some who are clueless. Let's hope time will sort it all out. But let's also not forget the weekly racers or tracks. Let's not, as is clearly evident now, force them out of the sport due to finances. Let's not kill weekly racing in favor of ‘special events' each and every week. The market (i.e.; fan base) won't handle that right now (i.e.; "it's the economy, stupid").

So with a new season, maybe we can start off with a clean slate. We now have two specific sanctions who were born a little more than a year ago in place today. They know what came before, they know all about the failures of others so we must give them the benefit of the doubt to do the right things. If not, well, like I mentioned a year ago: What if they gave a sanction and no one came (or booked them)? Don't think that's a smarty remark, there is more truth to that than you might think.

There are promoters across the country, powerful promoters and track owners, who are getting tired, getting dismayed, getting impatient and basically getting pissed. They are tired of the turmoil, the confusion, the uncertainty and what many of them see as acute instability. Many have been burned. For years most promoters have followed the lead of the various sanctions to some degree, but those days, well, they may be nearing an end. There are some promoters who feel the sport has been taken away from them. Like team owners, promoters have large overhead and each week is a constant gamble. Some feel others, who don't have a substantial vested interest in the sport, shouldn't be gabling with the promoters' time and money. Some feel they "need to take the sport back".

The first rumblings of promoter discord I heard were during Ohio Late Model Speedweek in 2003. Frustration had begun to set in with the direction of some of the sanctions and during a conversation I was privy to a ‘concept' was brought forth. Alone each promoter was basically powerless to influence any of the sanctions. But together ...

Fast-forward to 2005 and word has already filtered out about a ‘consortium' of powerful and influential track promoters and owners who have basically tired of the recent turmoil and uncertainty. While not privy to any inside information, speculation has it (and I could be entirely wrong) that a group of first-class tracks may come together and work out a ‘series' (no, not in the traditional sense) of high-profile big-money events for 2006 if the sanctions don't "get it together". Some think they may go forward regardless. Speculation has it that this ‘consortium' of promoters would cast their lots together, pick and choose dates for their mega-events, cross promote and support each other, combine buying power for not only supplies but also for advertising, marketing, sponsorship, who knows, maybe even a TV package to broadcast their ‘mega-events' that would be highly publicized, highly marketed and high-paying.

Speculation also has it that this ‘consortium' would stay off each other's mega-events yet solidify a similar package from track to track with each promoter choosing his own racing format as he/she sees fit for their particular ‘mega-event'. The catch? If all this speculation turns out to be true there will be one thing missing from the equation: sanctions.

Promoters are starting to express their feelings that they want control of the sport back, feeling that since they are responsible for the bills to be paid, the promotions to be done, the gamble that needs to be taken, then they should have a say, or authority, to implement what they feel is in their and the fans' best interests. In other words, there may come a day when promoters won't allow others to spend the promoters' money anymore. Pay the money, create a buzz, create an ‘event' in the truest sense of the word, and they will come without sanctioning is the sentiment of more and more promoters these days.

A stereotype in the racing business for decades and decades has been that you would never, ever, get two promoters to agree on the day of the week. But that's old school. We're in a new era, a new century, a new way of doing things and promoters and track owners, bottom-line, are the lifeblood of all sanctions. Without a track or two, a sanction could still survive, Without 10 tracks, 20 tracks, 30 tracks, well…you get the picture. And yes, promoters are talking, comparing notes, sharing ideas, making calls to each other. Hell, they may even be meeting in Florida. There could possibly be a new world order on the horizon.

But regardless, it will be, yet again, another interesting year. Let's hope the big sanctions, although relatively new, do a drivers job and deliver. If not, well, the speculation, in some variation, may become true and may come sooner rather than later. As always, the success or failure of each respective series lays in the hands of sanction management and it's their game to win or lose. But we must always keep in mind that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

If NASCAR is the majors, then dirt-track racing is AAA ball-more localized, just as exciting, and the beer's a lot cheaper. Cram an 800-plus horsepower engine into a body that's half the size of a NASCAR ride, put that lethal combination onto a dirt track with 25 other overpowered micromachines, and what do you get? The best side-by-side racing since that slot car set you got in fifth grade. Tony Stewart made his bones in dirt races, which usually run for about 40 laps on a track as short as three-eighths of a mile. Plus, admission is cheap - as low as $10, depending on the series - and there are hundreds of tracks in the U.S. Here are three worth checking out.

  1. Perris Auto Speedway, Perris, CA
    This half-mile high-banked oval was built in '96 to revive sprint-car racing in SoCal. The shiny new digs are a nice change from older tracks that are starting to show their age.
  2. Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, PA
    Opened way back in 1939, this legendary stop on the circuit has seen greats like A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti perfect their skills while power-sliding through its corners.
  3. Eldora Speedway, Rossburg, OH
    Tony Stewart bought this half-mile oval with its high, 24-degree banked turns in 2004, no doubt because of its reputation as one of the fastest dirt tracks in the nation.

Doc Lehman. What If They Gave A Sanction. Dirt America.

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