Wednesday, August 22, 2007

So you wanna be a stock car driver?

(article originally published on August 30, 2006)

At the Michigan IRL race, each driver who was asked indicated that they were in contact with NASCAR Cup teams. Unfortunately, recent history shows that a move from pointy-nosed cars into NASCAR isn't a wise career choice. In fact, it might be a career-ending decision.

In the past, drivers were not paid well. Ned Jarrett retired from NASCAR as the reigning champion due to economic concerns. AJ Foyt slept in his truck, bathing in truck stop bathrooms. Drivers often stayed in track-area homes (one house near Indy had 6 bunk beds in its basement for drivers) because they couldn't afford hotel rooms. That economic reality, plus the grim mortality and morbidity rates in auto racing that made rides suddenly available, meant that guys like AJ, Mario, Bobby, Al, Parnelli, etc. were as likely to drive in a USAC dirt sprint race as in LeMans or even F1.

Times are different today in auto racing. Formula 1 no longer has a guest driver program, nor can car owners (a la Tyrrells) put together a competitive car in a 1-car garage. Drivers are well paid, and they don't need to race outside of their series to pay bills. Safer racing conditions mean that prime seats come available less often. Teams are governed by sponsors who won't allow their "property" to be seen in another form of racing, and certainly not under conditions where the sponsors' competition has sponsorship. With few exceptions, drivers never practice their skills in other forms of motor sports.

NASCAR itself has also grown up. Gone are the days when NASCAR teams built cars in garages out of the wreckage of police cars. Lottery winners can't buy a car and enter a Cup race anymore. Elliott Sadler's recent move to Evernham Motorsports required a fleet of lawyers to address over 20 personal services contracts. Tony Stewart is under contract with Chevrolet, which certainly prohibits him from running a Honda in the Indy 500. Top NASCAR teams have a whole stable full of development drivers, in whom they've invested millions of dollars, meaning that those rides are simply not available for outsiders. Dan Wheldon exclaimed, "There are only 2 or 3 that you want to drive for," and since he's still in IRL it's obvious that those top teams are not hiring IRL drivers for Cup rides.

Lately, several Indy-style drivers in the two leagues have mentioned their interest in NASCAR. Along with Dan Wheldon, Danica Patrick shamelessly used the "NASCAR card" when negotiating her salary. published reports that AJ Allmendinger is talking to NASCAR, and Team Australia is being forced into NASCAR by their sponsor.

Perhaps those drivers should note the experience of Paul Tracy, along with other "pointy-nose" drivers who've attempted NASCAR. In a well publicized move, Tracy got permission to drive in NASCAR, and tested in 2005 with Richard Childress Racing. However, RCR didn't provide a ride, and Tracy finally secured a five-race Busch deal with a new team with poor equipment. His best finish was 24th, which was in his first start at Daytona. He tested a RCR Cup car again last week, but has yet to make a start in Cup. He blames his lack of success mostly on the fact that top rides aren't available.

Even if an Indy driver lands a good ride, there is a definite "trick" to running a NASCAR-style car. Nothing in Indy-style cars prepares drivers for that experience. Perhaps Michel Jourdain Jr. said it best: "It's not only like you have to learn. I have to forget about everything I knew before, too."

NASCAR's David Gilliland, who raced with Sarah Fisher in NASCAR West, gave the following observation: "They're different. When Sarah Fisher came over she definitely struggled on the stock car side. We'll have a better idea next year with Juan Pablo Montoya coming... They are definitely different. For me to run the Winston West Series and the Busch Series then come to the Cup Series makes the transition way, way easier -- they're all very similar. In the Indy cars there's nothing like it -- you've got tons of downforce, lots of tire area. Here [in NASCAR] you're got not a lot of downforce, not a lot of tire."

Consider the results of modern Indy-style drivers who tried NASCAR:

  1. Tony Stewart -- Clearly the leader of the group, winning two Nextel Cup championships and 24 Cup races.

  2. Robby Gordon --Currently 24th in points in NASCAR Cup, with three NASCAR Cup wins.

  3. John Andretti -- 340 Cup starts, two wins, average finish was 24th, mostly in non-competitive Petty cars. Currently 12th in Busch points, running for "Rookie of the Year."

  4. JJ Yeley - 29 Cup starts, 2 top-10 finishes. Then again, with only five IRL starts, was he really an Indy driver?

  5. Casey Mears -- In JP Montoya's next ride, 108 Cup starts with only four top-5 finishes . Only eight combined Champ Car / IRL starts.

  6. Michel Jourdain Jr. -- In 2006 three Busch and four truck starts. His highest finish was 13th in a truck at Texas, which of course he didn't run in CART. In 2005 23 starts, 1 top 10 (tenth at Atlanta), 2 laps lead in that time, and he still isn't starting in NASCAR this year. He'll be at the races where Spanish-speaking drivers are needed, much as Paul Tracy will be at Canadian races (well, maybe not in Quebec). Window dressing for Mexican audiences?

  7. Christian Fittipaldi -- 16 Cup starts, average finish was 32nd, in sub-par Petty rides.

  8. Scott Pruett -- 39 Cup starts, three top-5 finishes.

  9. PJ Jones -- 22 Cup starts, one top-5 finish.

  10. Paul Tracy - Five Busch starts, highest finish was 24th. Despite good reports in testing he has yet to make a Cup start.

  11. Sarah Fisher - Signed by RCR as a development driver, but languished in the NASCAR West tour with four top-10 finishes in 12 starts before calling it quits.

  12. Anthony Foyt IV - Hired by Ray Evernham, his seven Busch starts made his IRL career look brilliant before being benched. Grandpa sold off the family NASCAR stuff last week.

  13. Adrian Fernandez - two Busch starts, both on road courses. More window dressing for Mexico?

  14. Max Papis - After looking for a NASCAR ride for years, he failed to qualify for Cup at Watkins Glen for Furniture Row Racing. Finished 14th in the Watkins Glen Busch race, and will sign for three more Busch races with McGill Motorsports.

And Juan Pablo? Juan Pablo Montoya stands a significant chance of being another pointy-nose driver who fails at NASCAR. Team Ganassi has only five wins to its credit (seven if you count the SABCO days), no wins since 2002, and their cars are 16th, 21st and 33rd in owners points this year. It can't be considered a "top ride" since it has never placed a car in the NASCAR championship chase. Odds are that when Montoya is mired deep in the Busch Series standings, when he's tired of using porta-johns (without a bidet), suffering through a season of corn dogs, Holiday Inns and miserable finishes, he'll be heading back to Bernie's World.

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