Photo by Dustin Long

Long time coming: Eight years after then-record fine, Carl Long returns to Cup

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STATESVILLE, N.C. — It is 8:15 p.m. Monday, 14 hours after George Church and Ken Kotlowski arrived at the tiny warehouse where race cars, pit carts, tool boxes, fuel cans and old tires are scattered along with hopes and dreams.

There is a problem.

Less than three days before they will load what will be a green-and-yellow No. 66 Cup car for a trip to Kansas Speedway, Church stands in the doorway of Carl Long’s cramped office, cluttered with a rear axle housing on the floor, and gives Long the news.

“There is no way those headers are going to work,’’ Church said.

The car’s oil pan is not clear of the headers. If left unchecked, the headers will “boil the oil’’ Long says.

They need new headers.

Compared to what Long has experienced in his racing career, it is a minor inconvenience, another sign of the roadblocks the 49-year-old endures to compete in NASCAR.

For nearly eight years, Long was barred from the Cup garage, prohibited to own a car in that series and forbidden to race there because of an unpaid $200,000 fine for an oversized engine.

Long lost both appeals and was stuck with the burdensome fine he could not afford. In one appeal, the panel noted his “strong love of racing’’ and that his testimony “came across as genuine and heartfelt’’ but that the penalty, although extreme for the low-budget team, was warranted.

Exiled to the Xfintiy and Truck Series, Long toiled until his sentence was commuted by NASCAR before this season. Long only says that he and the sanctioning body reached an “agreement” on the matter.

Friday morning at Kansas Speedway, Long will walk into the Cup garage for the first time since 2009.

TRYING TO DO A LOT WITH A LITTLE 

Although he also oversees the operation, Carl Long isn’t noted as the team owner. He lists his 72-year-old father, Horace, in that role.

“I told him, now it’s going to be Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and you’re going to be right in the middle of them,’’ Long says with a laugh.

Long laughs a lot. It’s therapeutic.

Without self-deprecating humor, he would be miserable over the challenges he’s stomached to race. He once climbed into a trash bin at another team’s shop to take scrap pieces for his car years ago. He’s accepted used tires from teams, watched his savings account wither and winced at how human error before Xfinity qualifying at Daytona this year cost his team nearly $100,000 all told.

George Church works on Carl Long’s Cup car at the team’s shop earlier this week. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Yet, here he is in a 4,750-square foot structure — 50 times smaller than the space occupied by Team Penske’s NASCAR teams in its shop — to compete against the sport’s elites. There is no engineering department, no fab shop, no set-up plates, no engine shop, no R&D department and no training room. The most sophisticated piece of equipment in the shop might be each person’s cell phone.

There’s also not enough room.

Some cars are kept in storage containers nearby, others are kept in the haulers until it is time to switch them out and head to the next race. Another car is pushed outside the warehouse and placed on a grass patch by the street corner, as if it is a sign telling people where the race shop is located but fans don’t flock here.

If this was the 1960s, this might be one of the best shops in the sport. Instead, it’s a place for Long to work and try to survive in a sport he’s invested nearly 35 years of his life.

“Racing is an addiction,’’ Long says, leaning back in a black office chair, arms crossed. “There’s some people that get over an addiction real quick when they’re broke. But when you start off broke and somehow seem to manage it and it gets in your blood, it’s hard to just walk away.’’

He’ll do whatever it takes to race.

That includes driving the team’s hauler to Kansas Speedway. 

BACK IN TIME

Carl Long and wife Dee Dee looked over paint schemes for the car that will mark his return to NASCAR’s premier series. He showed the options to his eight full-time employees who help him field a two-car Xfinity operation and now a Cup entry.

They all told him to go with the green-and-yellow scheme that his car had at the 2009 Sprint Showdown — the last time he competed in a Cup race.

“There’s no better way to go back then the way you left,’’ said Jason Houghtaling, who joined Long’s operation in January.

The only difference will be that the number on the green roof will be yellow instead of red as it was in 2009. Long thinks the number will stand out more that way. Instead of No. 46, it will be No. 66, a tribute to Mark Thompson, a friend who has raced Long’s Xfinity cars in the past, including last weekend at Talladega. The 65-year-old Thompson finished 25th after an engine failure in that race.

Maybe a new number can provide Long with better fortune. His Cup career is best remembered by long-time NASCAR fans more for bad times than good.

He qualified for the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 only to see his car owner sell the ride so Darrell Waltrip, who had failed to qualify, could compete in that race in his final season. Long has never again qualified for the 600.

He tumbled down the backstretch at Rockingham in 2004, rolling four times after getting hit from behind.

His $200,000 fine in 2009 remained the largest NASCAR had issued until fining Michael Waltrip Racing $300,000 in 2013 for its team’s actions at Richmond.

While Long reached his dream of racing in the Cup series, he was tormented by lack of success. He’s competed in 23 Cup races but failed to qualify for 75 from 1999-2009. He never finished better than 29th in a Cup race.

It is one thing to dream but what happens when they don’t pan out as hoped? Does one feel fortunate to have climbed so far or cursed at never getting the chance to excel?

“I won’t consider it a curse,’’ Long says. “I think I figured out early how to survive without cashflow. Because I built my cars and set up my cars and drove the haulers and did all that other stuff, it made it easier for me for someone who had a limited budget to work with.

“The issue with cars, everybody has their own opinion on what they could do if they had Kyle Busch’s car. I don’t think I would beat Kyle Busch, but I would be way better than I am now.’’

CUP HOPES RETURN

As they prepared the primer grey car for this weekend, the team had wiring issues and sent the car to the engine provider for help.

The car returned to the shop shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, 10 hours before the hauler had to leave for Kansas.

Long purchased the car in December from HScott Motorsports and intended to convert it to the Xfinity Series, but he remained hopeful that NASCAR would permit a return to Cup.

Ken Kotlowski, in the engine area, and David Powers work on Carl Long’s Cup car. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It wasn’t until shortly before the Daytona 500 that he found out NASCAR would do so. It was too late to get the car ready for the 500. With the Xfinity Series off until May 27, this break gave Long and his team time to work on the car for this weekend. He also plans to race it in the Monster Energy Open at Charlotte next weekend provided the car isn’t damaged at Kansas. 

Should he return for the Open, it will complete the circle from when his Car career stalled in 2009.

NASCAR discovered that his engine for what was called the Sprint Showdown measured 358.197 cubic inches. The maximum allowed was 358.0 cubic inches. NASCAR fined Long’s crew chief, Charles Swing $200,000, suspended Long and his wife, who was listed as the car owner, 12 races each and docked both 200 driver and car owner points.

Long appealed. He didn’t contest that the engine was oversized but argued that the engine came from a third-party vendor, Ernie Elliott, and that the discrepancy may have been due to an error on the supplier’s behalf or expansion due to overheating or to general wear and tear. The National Stock Car Racing Commission didn’t agree.

“The Commission reaffirms that the race team is ultimately responsible for all components on the race car, including any supplied by third-party vendors.

“While it is tempting to consider penalties that this driver and team can more-readily bear, the sport would not be well served by having a sliding scale of penalties calibrated to a given team or member’s resources. Penalties of this magnitude for this type of infraction are warranted in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.’’

While a final appeal reduced the suspensions to eight races, the fine remained, effectively barring Long from the Cup series for nearly a decade.

NEXT CHAPTER

When Carl Long was 25, he set a goal of becoming a full-time Cup driver by the time he was 35 years old.

Four months shy of his 50th birthday Long, the 1990 street stock champion at Orange County Speedway, is still trying to meet that goal.

He admits that “the best talent today in racing is the ability to write a check. If you can write a check and keep writing them, you can get the best equipment there is.’’

An Xfinity car sits outside the race shop for Carl Long’s team. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Long knows his driving days are nearing an end. That doesn’t mean he’ll leave the sport. With a savings account that has about $1,500, his retirement plan is to keep working. His goal is to build his team to where more drivers are willing to pay to drive his cars.

“I’m very, very jealous of the people that I started racing with who can retire,’’ Long says with a laugh. “I remember when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. come asked me for advice when we were running some Late Model races. I grew up racing with Scott Riggs, Hermie and Elliott Sadler.

“I never figured I was any better than any of the rest of those guys, but I had beat them and they had beat me, so I figured if they could do, I could do it. I think the biggest problem I had was I never capitalized on good opportunities. I would follow them up and not be prepared. I’d prepare for a month or two months to go to Charlotte, go test, do what we needed to do, make the race, look good, everybody goes, ‘OK, this is good.’

“Next week, I’d go to Dover and didn’t have a clue where I was going, didn’t have the car set up, just took that same car and turned it around and go up there and wind up in the fence somewhere or another because I wasn’t prepared. I’d go from a hero to a zero.’’

Starting this weekend, he has another chance. It just took eight years to arrive.

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Two members of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew suspended 3 races for incident at Indy

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Joe Gibbs Racing has suspended two members of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing pit crew.

Front tire changer Chris Taylor and rear tire changer Lee Cunningham will both be suspended for the next three races following a confrontation with Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch, after Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The incident happened after Busch and Martin Truex Jr. crashed while battling for the lead on Lap 112 of last weekend’s race.

Joe Gibbs Racing has not issued a statement on the suspensions, but confirmed that Taylor and Cunningham will be replaced by Kip Wolfmeier and John Royer.

Joe Gibbs Racing provides crew members to the No. 78 team, which is why it issued the suspensions and not Furniture Row Racing.

Bank of America 500 ticket buyers to receive commemorative Dale Earnhardt Jr. bobblehead

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In addition to their hopes of his winning there, fans attending Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will receive something special to remember him by.

CMS officials announced Wednesday that for every two tickets purchased to the Oct. 8 Bank of America 500, fans will receive a commemorative Dale Jr. bobblehead.

It will be the 14-time Most Popular Driver’s final chance at earning his first Cup points-paying win at his home track (he won the 2000 non-points NASCAR All-Star race as a rookie).

“We wanted to do something special to celebrate with our fans all that Dale Jr. means to our sport,” CMS executive vice president Greg Walter said in a media release. “These keepsakes will be a must-have for collectors and avid fans alike, and a tremendous way to commemorate his last home race here in Charlotte.”

Fans that purchase two tickets before Oct. 1 (or while supplies last) will receive a voucher to pick up the commemorative bobblehead during the 500 race weekend.

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Water company to sponsor Navy officer/K&N racer Jesse Iwuji

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As a Lieutenant and Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy, Jesse Iwuji is used to being around water every day.

Iwuji is also a second-year driver in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. And now he’ll be sponsored for the rest of the season by a company that, much like the Navy, specializes in water.

The Perfect Hydration water brand has stepped up to back Iwuji and his Patriot Racing team.

MORE: Ex-NFL star Shawne Merriman, racer Jesse Iwuji team up in NASCAR K&N effort.

After the first eight races of the 14-race K&N Pro Series West Series, Iwuji sits 15th.

He’s hoping the six-race sponsorship will help improve his performance to finish as well as he did in his K&N rookie campaign last season (10th place) – or better.

Iwuji’s best finishes this season are a pair of back-to-back 14th-place showings He also has three other top-20 outings.

“This season so far has been a great test of the durability of our team” Iwui said in a media release. “We’ve managed to bring home clean racecars which allows us to spend more time on trying to improve the cars and the way we race other teams this year in the West.”

Iwuji races this weekend at Iowa Speedway, the only time the K&N Pro Series East and West race on the same track during the season.

Iwuji is 12 points out of 12th place and 55 points out of 10th.

“I’ve raced these tracks, I’m here to compete, and I’m ready to maximize the capabilities of our team,” Iwuji said.

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Kligerman: Formula E is an Instagram hit, but attending a race is an out-of-focus experience

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NEW YORK — On a rare Sunday off (after a few days in the pits covering one of the oldest and most popular racing series in the world), I decided to spend my day attending one of the world’s newest racing series, Formula E.

If you haven’t heard, it’s an all-electric Formula car series (think F1 with electric cars).

The race was being held in, as the CEO of the new series called it, “The Capital of the World” — New York. Specifically, a picturesque setting near a landing area for cruise ships in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. This fittingly positioned NYC’s famous Manhattan skyline as the backdrop for many pictures of the cars and track.

Formula E is car racing’s first disrupt-the-status-quo tech startup built on a Silicon Valley vibe, social media buzzwords and celebrity endorsements. Like the provincial tech companies of the West Coast, it was born because a couple of people believed there was an insatiable appetite for something that didn’t exist.

Mitch Evans (NZL), Spark-Jaguar, Jaguar I-Type on track in front of the New York skyline during the New York City ePrix. (Photo by Andrew Ferraro/LAT Images)

An eco-friendly, bring-it-to-the-people, electric-car test bed.

And car manufacturers the likes of BMW, Audi, Citroen, Renault, and Jaguar agreed and all joined.

The world’s tabloid hogs have joined, too, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson and (in attendance at the Brooklyn event) Michael Douglas, and Chris Hemsworth. The only thing missing amongst the Instagram-friendly metrics are what most racing series tout first — fans.

But before I go any further, full disclosure: I attempted to race in this series a couple years ago. It was 2014, and my NASCAR Cup team had folded. It seemed through a friend who was a CMO at an energy company that there might be a way to swing getting into a Formula E car.

It wasn’t to be as it was too new, too foreign, and we quickly got distracted by other opportunities. But ever since, I have kept a keen eye on its development.

Bring on NYC.

I was excited to view the upstart series up close. But after a little too much caffeine in the form of a coffee, a bigger coffee and then an energy drink to get home from New Hampshire. I wouldn’t rest my overly caffeinated body until 2:30 a.m. that day. It was a struggle to awake.

Awaiting me was a media credential. But it was to lay dormant as I decided to bring my girlfriend and conned my best friend into joining us. Mostly because he lives in Brooklyn, and this event has zero parking. The official travel guide tells you, “Not to bring a car.”

Certainly odd for a car race but understandable being in NYC. So I parked at my friend’s apartment, and we Ubered.

The Arrival

As we approached the ride-share dropoff zone, I oddly felt devoid of that half-euphoric, half-anxious feeling of attending a new racing series.

I turned to my friend and Blondie to say I remembered attending my first F1 race in Montreal at 14 years old and being able to hear the cars from 2 miles away. The city was overflowing with Formula One fever.

Antonio Felix da Costa (PRT) and Amlin Andretti, Spark-Andretti, ATEC-02 race during the New York City ePrix in Brooklyn. (Photo by Alastair Staley/LAT Images)

I’ll never forget walking up to the corner just before the hairpin at the Montreal circuit, as practice just had started and an F1 car approached. It sounded like a fire-breathing, human-slaying alien spacecraft was rapidly coming our way, and it was not going to be pleasant.

Suddenly, the sound was all around us in a flash of yellow, an ear-piercing scream and a loud BOOM! The Jordan F1 car of Timo Glock streaked past where I was standing. As he shifted gears, the sound and explosion hit me in the chest so hard, I could barely breathe.

It, to this day, is one of my favorite memories in life.

This event was not going to provide that.

Obviously one of the biggest departures from traditional motor racing is the cars don’t make a lot of sound. That’s part of what allows them to race in The Capital of The World. There are no issues with deafening sound reverberating through NYC’s already overflowing boroughs.

As we told our Uber driver to stop, a few Formula E signs were plastered on the walls around us. He asked, “What is this?” and my friend said, “It’s like a Formula One race.” The Uber driver replied, “Who knew? That is cool.” Not exactly a good sign for the promotion of the event.

Nonetheless, I felt good about being able to buy three tickets if our driver had no idea it was happening.

Except when we went inside, the ticket building was completely empty. We abruptly were told it was sold out and actually had been for months. Even though on Friday, Ticketmaster indicated (for $85, mind you), there were tickets available … odd.

G.H. Mumm champagne was served at the inaugural ePrix Race in Brooklyn. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for G.H. Mumm)

We were told we could have free general admission tickets and maybe could get in with them. And this was something I knew Formula E did in its first season as a way to get people to come. I’ve always thought this was brilliant.

From there we went into the stringent security lines, where I got my first glance at what I will refer to as “the clientele” and not “fans.”

Two young men in front of me were the embodiment of the clientele. Both almost identically dressed in expensive, perfectly pressed, white button-down shirts, light tan belts and navy blue linen chinos.

I must have missed the memo.

One wearing Oliver Peoples glasses (if you ever go to an Oliver Peoples store, they will remind you President Obama wears their glasses) turned to the other as they were going through the security scanner. He remarked, “This certainly isn’t like Monaco,” and his friend nodded. Aside from wanting to punch him square in the face, I knew I was in for an experience only the Europeans can provide.

Fans enjoy a champagne toast during the inaugural ePrix Race in Brooklyn. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for G.H. Mumm)

I call it, “European Exclusionary Events,” where they invite you to spend money to feel superior to the others around you. Hence our free ticket allowed us in, but Mr. Oliver Peoples took a very visible red carpet-lined hard left into the E-Motion club, and we were forced down a route past a port-a-potty.

The Europeans love this sort of thing, because it makes an event feel exclusive – as if you have done something to deserve the first-class version of race attendance.

But Americans do not. Sure we have courtside seats in basketball, but the guy who got a ticket from his company raffle can be sitting right behind Kim Kardashian. American events are put on to make everyone feel inclusive. Formula E missed that memo.

But I digress.

As we entered the general admission area known as “E-Village,” it was not overflowing but definitely not sparse. Scattered throughout were a few informational and promotional booths from car manufacturers and racing simulators. Par for the course at a race.

And here I bumped into a friend who lives in Brooklyn. He knew nothing about racing but had brought his wife and twin babies in a stroller. It was free and a block from their place, and the electric racing ensured their babies would be OK with the sound.

It definitely wasn’t something that would happen at a NASCAR race. I thought that was very cool.

The Race

The schedule listed a 1 p.m. start, and as 1 p.m. came, everyone in the E-Village excitedly was listening for a signal or sign that the race had started. And then suddenly at 1:05 a group of cars rounded the hairpin adjacent to the E-Village. There was no warning (not even a race announcer) and the only reason you knew was the chirping of the tires and smashing of bodywork.

Surely, they must have forgotten to turn up the race announcer. But as the laps continued, it became clear they had not put any speakers in the E-Village area. So here we were with what seemed a couple thousand people desperately wondering what the hell was going on.

The start of the New York City ePrix in Brooklyn. (Photo by Steven Tee/LAT Images)

This was incredibly perplexing because the whole selling point as an attendee of Formula E was that it was quiet enough to foster conversation. And to be able to hear the announcers so well they even could play team radios over the loudspeakers, so you could be immersed in the race.

Guess it didn’t apply to the free tickets and the people the series desperately should be trying to impress.

I became Formula E’s best friend as I informed people left and right about the rules and who was leading the damn race. At the other end of the E-Village was a nice lounge area with a big screen TV sponsored by VISA but with no volume. So once again, I was the on-the-ground Formula E informant, letting people know why they were pitting and what the energy percentage meant.

But the best part occurred as the race came to a close, as you only knew it was over because of the fans in the frontstretch grandstand that rose to give the winner a standing ovation. As the cars made their cooldown lap, a fan turned to me and said, “I think this is when they go pit and change cars.” To which I replied, “Uhh, no. It’s over. That was the winner.”

But then as the cars continued to trickle through the corner on the cooldown lap, another person asked, “Why are they going so slow?!?”

Winner Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing, Spark-Citroen, Virgin DSV-02, celebrates on the podium with Felix Rosenqvist (SWE), Mahindra Racing, Spark-Mahindra, Mahindra M3ELECTRO, and Nick Heidfeld (GER), Mahindra Racing, Spark-Mahindra, Mahindra M3ELECTRO after the New York City ePrix. (Photo by Sam Bloxham/LAT Images)

It was clear with no info whatsoever, these attendees might be there until Tuesday wondering what happened to the race.

Why was it like this?

I stood at one of the exit gates to survey the crowd as the attendees and clientele left the grandstands. I begged the event for a redeeming quality, something to make me want to come back, but to no avail.

It suddenly became clear as I looked at photos of the massive but mostly unfilled E-motion VIP club for Instagram “influencers” — celebrities, media, and marketing chiefs.

Was it that this event was not for you or me? That the series wasn’t aiming to impress a race fan such as myself? (A race fan who loved this form of racing so much, I responded “open wheel cars with little to no downforce and 1000 horsepower engines on city street tracks” when asked 10 years ago what my perfect race series would be.)

Everyone attending with me began to refuse to call it a race event and started using words such as “promotional display” and “a massive advertisement.”

It became clear that Formula E is for the sponsors, the car manufacturers and the series to have media outlets talking about how they have a presence in the future of the world.

So the CMOs, marketing managers and executives in linens and sports coats can walk into boardrooms with PowerPoint slides of their logos being called “eco-friendly” in the media. And use social media buzzwords such impressions, engagement and KPI (key performance indicator) while showing their logos with Instagram “influencers” drinking champagne and being eco-friendly.

Formula E is an event that has a purpose but to entertain you would be a stretch. It’s much like in school when the teacher tells you you’re watching a movie, and it turns out to be an instructional video. It’s a relief you’re watching a movie, but you still need to learn.

This is Formula E.

You’re provided a race and a damn good one at that. But it’s clear, the truth is it’s for show and not the kind that entertains.