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 those dreams 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 it, 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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Ron Hornaday Jr. kept up a cold tradition with Hall of Fame induction

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – The call came “out of the blue” in November.

The name “Horny” flashed on Wayne Auton’s phone.

The nickname belonged to Ron Hornaday Jr., four-time Camping World Truck Series champion and one of Auton’s closet friends.

Earlier in the year, the former Truck Series director and current manager of the Xfinity Series had been the one to call Hornaday and let Hornaday know he was one of the nominees for the 2018 class in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Hey, buddy, I need you to do something for me,” Hornaday said. “I want you to induct me into the Hall of Fame.”

Auton needed a moment.

“Ron, did you just say what I thought you said?” He eventually responded.

“Yeah.”

“Damn man, you need to let somebody in your family do that.”

“No, you are my family.”

Auton began crying.

For two days Hornaday couldn’t sleep.

The 59-year-old native of Palmdale, California, fretted over the speech he’d give Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center as the first Truck Series champion to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“This is really the crown jewel of everything he’s done,” Hornaday’s wife, Lindy Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He was scared he was going to forget somebody and I said, ‘Everybody knows you and they know that you’re thankful to everybody. So don’t thank anybody specifically. Just thank them all.'”

Friday morning, Hornaday woke up without a speech set in stone.

“I got up at 9 o’clock this morning and it was like *makes gagging noises*,” Hornaday said. “I walked away, took a deep breath, come back and I couldn’t do it again. And I said to hell with it. When I started seeing my friends and family, something will come to me instead of trying to read this speech off that prompter. I got back to the room and I’ve never had an anger deal, I don’t know what it’s called in your stomach, but my stomach was turning over so bad. I was regurgitating air for about four hours. I finally fell asleep for a little while. My wife wanted to go to lunch. I sent her with all the family to lunch. I finally thought about thinking about what this really means and still didn’t know what it meant until I started seeing friends, family, peers, the Hall of Famers. They really just got me into a different mood. I did that one sober. Usually I get a couple of beers in me before I speak.

“Everybody’s telling me, ‘be yourself, take your time.’ How can you do that? It’s the freakin’ Hall of Fame!”

Those are the same words Hornaday bellowed at the beginning of his unscripted speech, with both arms raised high.

“That was the best part about the whole thing,” Hornaday said. “Had to break the ice, just to get somebody to giggle. And I knew I could get on a roll.”

Hornaday said he only forgot to mention Chevrolet, the manufacturer he earned all 55 of his NASCAR wins with.

Wayne Auton, left, poses with Lindy Hornaday and Ron Hornaday Jr. (Photo: Daniel McFadin)

During the two days Hornaday fretted over his speech, Auton was with him.

The two first encountered each other in 1995, the inaugural season of the Truck Series.

“He was there at every one of my wins,” Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He’s the one that gave me the words of wisdom, he’s the one that pulled me down and closed doors and told me what I had done wrong on the race track. He’s the one that chewed my butt out, he’s the one that when he got all done and said I’d chew his butt out. We got all done and said and we’d get a beer together.”

For 18 years, the two were “friends, enemies and warriors,” said Auton.

“Whether he won, whether he lost … when we were inside the gate we had a job to do,” Auton said. “When we walked outside the gate we were very good friends. We had to have a beer together. Cold beverage. We knew each other’s family like they were our own.”

Leading up to the ceremony, the two pestered each other about what the other would say when the time came.

“I said, ‘Ron, I just hope I don’t pee in my pants,'” Auton said.

“When he was up there speaking, I seen him shaking pretty good,” Hornaday said. “I’m glad I got back to him and made him as nervous as I was.”

Standing on the auditorium floor afterward, Auton described the moment as “the biggest honor” he could ask for.

“I’ll never top that.”

When they left the stage, it took them awhile to get back to their seats.

Auton said they stopped to have a cold Coors Light.

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

 

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”