Sunday, September 9, 2007

So you wanna be a stock car driver? -- Part 2

(originally published in in August, 2007)

Last year, hot on the heels of Juan Pablo Montoya's announcement that he was coming to run NASCAR, I wrote an article for AutoRacing1 entitled, “So You Want to be a Stock Car Driver.”

Over the past year I've asked former Indy drivers about their struggles in NASCAR. Most refused – some pointedly – to be quoted on the subject. This week, in the wake of Jacques Villenueve's announced that he was starting a NASCAR career, with rumors swirling that Scott Speed was joining Team Red Bull, I started updating last summer's article.

My previous article pointed out the three reasons why today's Indy (CART, IRL, CCWS) drivers have a more difficult time running NASCAR races than the greats of the past:

  • Most of the rides that are offered to Indy drivers are not the best rides. As Dan Wheldon told me, there are indeed only 2 or 3 teams a top Indy driver would want to drive for.

  • Sponsor obligations mean that drivers can't “cherry pick” rides in other series. For instance, Tony Stewart's personal services contracts probably include Goodyear and GM, which probably preclude him from running Indy in a Honda-powered car on Firestone tires.

  • NASCAR drivers are highly skilled in the specialized demands of NASCAR racing. Many of the techniques that NASCAR drivers use are the direct opposite of open-wheel methods learned in the IRL, CCWS or the Indy feeder systems. 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." Therefore, even when open wheel drivers do get hired for premium rides they often fail to be as competitive as their team mates.

Indy drivers – especially those with CART, CCWS or IRL wins -- are expected to jump into a car with little effort. The past year has proved once again that, contrary to expectations, they are subject to that same learning curve as any other rookie. John Andretti told me, “Bottom line is that Nextel Cup racing is the toughest in the world and if someone says otherwise, they haven’t competed in Nextel Cup,” and the past year hasn't proven him wrong. This year, we've seen three more Indy drivers try their hand at NASCAR. Few doubt the driving ability of JPM, Sam Hornish and AJ Allmendinger, but it's obvious that all are still mastering the art of running a Cup car.

Some AutoRacing1 readers will remember my prediction of JPM's tenure in NASCAR:
“Juan Pablo Montoya stands a significant chance of being another pointy-nose driver who fails at NASCAR... 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.”
To his credit and my chagrin, JPM has done better than I expected, with one win each in Busch and NEXTEL Cup. Chip Ganassi Racing's hardware hasn't gained on the competition, so one wonders what JPM could've accomplished if he'd been signed by one of the top 3 teams.
Still, Juan's experiences confirms my arguments. First, if you're a gifted open-wheel driver, and you jump from Indy (or F1) into NASCAR hoping to bypass the rookie learning curve and contest for wins, you've seriously underestimated the task. Except for the road courses, he's struggling like every other rookie. Radio chatter indicates that fellow Cup drivers don't believe that he's quite got the hang of NASCAR driving. He's 19th (out of 29 drivers that have run every race) in driver's points. Second, like many Indy transplants, he didn't get best equipment. Third, it took an army of lawyers and a bunch of money to get JPM out of F1 contracts.

As we predicted last year, AJ Allmendinger is with Team Red Bull in NASCAR. A new driver with no stock car experience, hired by a new team running a new brand of car, the results have been predictably disappointing. AutoRacing1 forum pundits have declared that AJ has the best job in auto racing -- “$3 million a year, with Sundays off.” Given AJ's competitive personality, the sudden availability of fellow Red Bull athlete Scott Speed, and the recent strong showing of Brian Vickers at Michigan, AJ can't be sleeping well at night. AJ hasn't bypassed the learning curve, and didn't get into a top team, both confirming my contentions.

At Michigan, Sam Hornish finished 25th in the Busch race, which is the best run of his NASCAR career (7 starts, all in Busch Cup). He came in second in an ARCA race at Michigan, but fellow Indy – NASCAR crossover Robbie Gordon wasn't impressed, noting that Hornish was running a full-blown current Penske Cup car in a field filled with lower-budget Cup castoff equipment. Everyone I talked to at Team Penske repeated the same refrain – no final decision has been made on Hornish's plans for 2008, no doubt waiting for Sam to show better results. Hornish again proves my point – even with a top-level team he isn't bypassing the learning (and un-learning?) curve.

Those drivers join a long list of Indy drivers, whose results are a decidedly mixed bag. Tony Stewart, the undisputed leader of the Indy-to-NASCAR drivers, is a real threat to win his third NEXTEL Cup Championship, recently winning the Brickyard as well as at Watkins Glen. Casey Mears won a race this year, some 6 years after his last CART ride. While not running as strong as his Hendricks teammates, he's currently 16th in the points, and starting to show promise.
Some Indy drivers are notable by their absence in NASCAR. Sarah Fisher returned to the IRL after having disappointing results in NASCAR's Grand National West series. Paul Tracy returned to CCWS, never landing sponsorship to capitalize on his relationship with Richard Childress. AJ Foyt IV is probably trying to forget NASCAR, safely back in the IRL.

The rest of the open-wheel alumni continue to struggle. Robbie Gordon and JJ Yeley are mired mid-pack in the points, and Yeley just lost his premium ride for next year. John Andretti found another Cup ride, albeit with a bottom-tier team that never puts him in contention for the win. Michel Jourdain led a few laps at Watkins Glen, but is still in search of a full-time ride. Scott Pruett has run 3 Busch series road course races this year, losing his most promising run when Juan Pablo spun him out in Mexico.

So, if NASCAR is tougher than it looks -- in some ways the exact opposite of driving an Indy car -- why would Scott Speed, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Jacques Villenueve want to try out NASCAR? What would motivate virtually every IRL and CCWS driver to maintain relationships with NASCAR people?

Well, let's grant Hornish the benefit of the doubt – maybe they do get restless, maybe they just love to drive cars. Maybe racers just want to compare themselves to drivers of all series, as well as the greats of the past.

However, we can't discount the appeal of MONEY and JOBS. In their top 3 series, NASCAR has around 100 full-time rides. For the most part, they are not rent-a-rides, but actually pay the driver to run. Better yet, a popular driver can actually make more money in NASCAR's third-level Craftsman Truck Series than virtually everyone in the CCWS, and most in the IRL. NASCAR owners actually break even, or even turn a profit, with their racing ventures.

By comparison, probably half of the CCWS rides need the driver to bring his own sponsorship, or a very large wallet. The combined number of full-time paying Indy car rides is certainly under 40, and probably closer to 30. The CCWS drivers have very little chance at lucrative personal services contracts, with the IRL drivers doing only a little better in their quest for endorsement gigs.

Quite frankly, if Scott Speed has become accustomed to living like a millionaire while running F1, he'd have to make quite a financial adjustment to run the IRL or CCWS. In contrast, it is estimated that Dale Earnhardt, Jr's annual income is in excess of $20 million, almost twice the the sum total of the 2007 money in CCWS. Tony Stewart's new contract gives him $5 million a year in base salary, plus winnings, endorsements, service contracts, etc. Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti's income this year will probably not exceed the winnings of the Busch series champion for 2007.

To that end, Champ Car's Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing merged operations with NASCAR's Robert Yates Racing, joining Penske and Ganassi as former CART teams in NASCAR. The marriage was “arranged” (highly encouraged? Shotgun wedding?) by Ford Motor Company. The new team, dubbed “Yates/Newman/Haas/Lanigan” -- “Why NHL” in Ford-speak -- is supposed to provide Yates racing with the engineering prowess of the Champ Car people. If the Yates cars suddenly develop the ability to run on the ceiling at 150 mph, we'll know that the Champ Car people have done their job, but right now they haven't had enough time to change the logo stickers on the team haulers. Carl Haas is open with his expectations – he gets half ownership in a NASCAR team, a huge hedge bet in case of CCWS's demise, and perhaps a NASCAR franchise in the future.

Finally, NASCAR might have to do some soul-searching. Suddenly, they've got drivers named “Jacques,” “Juan,” and maybe “Michel,” two F1 drivers, three former CART teams, in a series where TRD is spending millions to put Toyota in victory circle. Is NASCAR is well on its way to becoming like CART in the mid 1990's, albeit with the largest track owner firmly in charge?


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