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Podcast: How Toyota develops its young drivers during the pandemic

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The 2020 season started off well for the vaunted Toyota Racing TD2 driver development program that has churned out top-flight prospects such as Christopher Bell.

There was an inaugural Xfinity Series victory Feb. 29 at Auto Club Speedway by Harrison Burton, who is the NASCAR circuit’s points leader. That came on the heels of a successful first two months of 2020 that opened with several Toyota Racing Development prospects excelling at the prestigious Chili Bowl midget dirt race.

“A lot of our young kids did a really nice job at the Chili Bowl, so that was a good start,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs (on the right of Bell in the above photo) said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “But the season hasn’t progressed quite like we thought it would.”

It hasn’t been a lack of results for the band of teenagers assembled by Gibbs and TRD senior commercial manager Jack Irving as potential future stars in NACAR.

It’s been a lack of track activity because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

How do you develop drivers during a two-month layoff in which no one is racing?

“Not going to the racetrack is a bizarre thing,” said Irving (on the left of Bell in the above photo), who normally travels 200 days annually helping manage the program but has been home for his longest stretch in 10 years. “We haven’t seen (drivers) in two months.”

Gibbs and Irving, the Southern California-based brain trust behind Toyota’s youth driver pipeline, discussed the difficulty of navigating the pandemic while also grooming young drivers.

Because the TD2 program is rooted in analytics and sports science principles that provide regular report cards on how drivers are progressing on and off the track, TRD has used apps to stay in touch with its prospects and ensure they are adhering to exercise regimens and proper nutrition.

Irving said much of the communication is through a private Instagram channel.

“They won’t go to a website, but they will for sure click on an Instagram link,” Irving said. “So that’s worked out. That’s just how you engage and actively keep them motivated. There’s a lot of text streams. You also don’t want to over-inundate them with data that they stop reading.”

As short tracks and series slowly come back online, some of TRD’s younger drivers are racing again. Giovanni Scelzi raced when Knoxville Raceway reopened with a World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series event May 8 without fans.

TRD officials have encouraged younger drivers to race if they feel comfortable

“I’m a fan of kids racing as much as they possibly can if they can safely race in anything they can,” Irving said. “I think it’s important forever, honestly. I think it’s a big deal. We don’t get enough races in anyway. So if you race once a week, and if you had a bad race, if you can go race Tuesday at Knoxville, you probably should. I also think it’s extremely important to cross develop. I think it makes them better pavement racers, and being a pavement racer makes you a better dirt racer. Great racers win in everything, that’s what makes them great.

“We did have a little bit different approach with the Cup guys. There was more focus on, ‘You’ve got to get to Cup racing,’ and you can’t put yourself in a position to where you’re exposed to anyone who may have had (COVID-19).”

Outside of the conditions limiting racing the past two months, Gibbs and Irving said Toyota generally allows its young drivers great latitude in choosing how and where to race.

“We’re not steel-fisted guys saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Irving said. “Everyone has what they are trying to accomplish, and it’s different for each one. If asked, we’ll give that counsel and let them make decisions. There are times those decisions aren’t ones we would have made, and we’ll let them know that, but it’s still their decisions.”

Gibbs said TRD is “much more open to letting kids race in multiple disciplines than most people.”

Reaffirming that philosophy also has been important during the layoff.

“We are going to race again, and you want to be ready when that time comes,” Gibbs said. “But most of the kids are pretty self-motivated. I think they all kind of took the first week or two soft, but after that they began to ramp back up again and were anxious to get started.”

During the podcast, Gibbs and Irving also discussed:

–The origins of the driver development program;

–How they sign sponsorship for the program;

–The importance of Bell’s success;

–Developing evaluation through best practices from TCU and the Texas Rangers.

To listen to the podcast, you can click on the embed above, or download the episode at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.

‘This will look unlike any NASCAR season in our history — by a mile’

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Chris Gabehart doesn’t know what the remainder of the 2020 Cup schedule will look like, but the crew chief for Denny Hamlin knows how it will unfold.

And as the plan for finishing the season continues to move “from liquid to solid,” Gabehart said he is “antsy, excited, focused and apprehensive” of what the final 32 races will hold.

“This is going to look unlike any NASCAR season in our history — by a mile,” Gabehart said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Obviously being a crew chief, I’m a major part of building a plan and unfolding that logistically. Crew chiefs have enough variables to deal with on a daily basis under normal circumstances. This will be an amount of variables that are completely unparalleled.

“You’re going to see a lot like a year ago when the new rules package was unfolded. There was so much uncertainty, you never know who’s going to be up front when or why. Well, this is going to be very similar but in a different way because we’re dealing with so many unknowns about how to prepare for a race.”

There could be fewer unknows soon as NASCAR seems to be closing in on announcing a finalized schedule for the remainder of May that likely would start at Darlington Raceway and include the Coca-Cola 600.

There could be multiple trips to Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway and tracks within driving distance such as Martinsville Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are being given priority.

In part because there likely will be midweek races between weekend races, it’s expected there will be no practice and possibly qualifying for one-day events that will send teams directly into the race.

“If we go Wednesday racing, not only are we not going to get practice or qualify, but our prep time’s cut in half because you’ll be racing Sunday, then Wednesday, then Sunday, then Wednesday,” Gabehart said. “It’s just a lot of differences. So there’s a lot to keep track of as a crew chief right now. Certainly, the planning side of it is starting to actually matter. There was a while there for a few weeks where it didn’t do good to do a whole lot, because (the schedule was) just going to change 10 minutes from now anyway. But we’re certainly past that. So it’s exciting.”

Gabehart said Joe Gibbs Racing has had planning meetings have been happening for weeks via videoconferencing. Employees will begin entering the team’s Huntersville, North Carolina, shop “any day now.

“And it’s going to happen in waves of essential personnel, nonessential personnel and all the things we need to do to stay safe,” Gabehart said. “But there’s been work going on behind the scenes, no doubt. And everybody’s looking forward to getting back to the shop and try to get going with our lives again to try to establish a new normal.”

JGR and other teams already had cars prepared for Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, which both were scheduled to hold races before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put the NASCAR season on hold.

“We do have a little bit of a backstop in terms of inventory, but again, our cycle time is not seven days a week,” Gabehart said. “Now it’ll be three days a week of putting another car on the racetrack and then that car has to go back in the system and get ready to go race again. So that’s going to be a challenge.”

So will social distancing, as teams will be limited as far as how many crewmembers are at the track and how they are allowed to assemble cars around the shop.

“Certainly as we go back to work, all the race teams are going to practice much different social distancing techniques than we ever have before,” Gabehart said. “Well, that’s going to be very unfamiliar, so it’s going to slow productivity down until we figure out how to maximize that. So you’ve got the schedule accelerating on prep time. And productivity decelerating because of social distancing. That’s really going to be a challenge balancing that.

“And then the other side of it of course is in these races where we’re going to unload with very little to no track time prior to the first lap of the race. We’re counting score right away. How do you prepare for that best? Who hits it the best? How do your drivers get locked in right away? That first run establishes track position. That’s going to be the week-to-week challenge that you guys are going to get to see unfold on TV.”

Hamlin got off to a strong start in 2020, winning his second consecutive Daytona 500, and Gabehart likes how the revised schedule could lay out for his driver.

“These are racetracks that are in right Denny Hamlin’s wheelhouse,” said Gabehart, who reached the 2019 championship round in his first season with Hamlin. “So honestly I couldn’t be more excited about the schedule that sounds like is laying in front of us, because I think there’s a ton of opportunity for us to wrap our hands firmly around this season, and I look forward to doing it.

“One thing I love about our sport, no matter the challenges, at the end of the day, whether it be a Saturday night or a Sunday or maybe even some Wednesdays here. They’re going to hand out a checkered flag and a trophy, and that signifies whoever did it the best on that day, and I don’t care what the rules or circumstances were. That’s our report card.”

During the podcast, Gabehart also discussed his involvement and support of Hamlin’s iRacing this season.

A winner in the Super Late Model ranks before becoming a crew chief, Gabehart has been practicing with Hamlin before races during the week and learning more about how to tune his No. 11 Toyota. Through the magic of Twitch, he also has seen a new side of Hamlin by watching his driver’s eyes and mannerisms in the way he stays focused and manages races.

“It’s been really neat the Twitch broadcasts are a lot of these drivers are doing, and Denny in particular,” Gabehart said. “I’ve really enjoyed watching that as much or more than the race because it allows me to evaluate how he works in more than just watching the 11 car go around the racetrack and every now and then, he keys the button and talks to me. I visually can watch how he thinks, what he looks at, how he reacts.

“It just gives me a whole new aspect, getting to visit inside Denny Hamlin’s mind while he’s doing the real deal, which is as close to it as can be without the fear side of it. He’s not worried about crashing into a wall at 190 mph, but you’re getting to really experience what it is he’s going through and how he thinks.”

During the podcast, Gabehart also discusses:

–His passion for iRacing and how long he’s been involved;

–His background as a real driver in Super Late Models;

–How iRacing can build the communication between Gabehart and Hamlin as NASCAR restarts without practice this season.

You can listen to Gabehart’s appearance on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode by clicking on the embed above, or downloading at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

Podcast: Can the Twitch phenomenon transfer to real-world NASCAR?

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With a few notable exceptions, Twitch streaming has been among the major success stories of the iRacing explosion in motorsports during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdown of sports.

As NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA drivers have competed in a variety of virtual races during the pandemic, many are sharing their point of views (and radio chatter) via their Twitch channels or other social platforms (such as Facebook Live for Simon Pagenaud, winner of the past two IndyCar iRacing Challenge events).

It’s been an enormously well-received feature by fans who can handle the sensory overload. Watch the races via TV or streaming while monitoring what multiple drivers are saying to their teams and sometimes each other.

And the popular feature naturally has prompted the question if the Twitch phenomenon, which essentially allows on-demand in-car cameras and radios, can be transferred to real-world racing.

When NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman initially entered broadcasting, one of his first questions was “Why doesn’t every car have an in-car camera?”

He has spent several years lobbying within the racing industry for such an advancement while coming to grasp the challenges. But he believes some form of it could happen, particularly now that iRacing has provided a taste.

“One of the things we’ve been missing as an opportunity is thinking that (in-car cameras are) solely for the broadcast,” Kligerman said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “And what the Twitch streams have exposed in connection with the linear TV broadcast is these are being put up by the drivers themselves who are willing to do it and offer this inside little view. It’s not great for watching the whole race, but just seeing their little view and seeing their chat.”

There are some hurdles to bringing a Twitch-type system to the Cup Series. It likely would be cost-prohibitive to overhaul the infrastructure needed to put a camera in every car (Kligerman notes Formula One essentially has done it but with roughly half the field size). There would need to remain in-car cameras exclusive to the weekly TV broadcasts (usually there are several sponsored each week in Cup).

And the cellular and data transmission technology still is catching up to make it feasible for 30-plus streaming cameras at 200 mph (though the migration toward 5G signals would help).

“The service infrastructure in terms of data and getting (the feed) from the camera inside the car out at a high enough quality is pretty tough,” Kligerman said. “But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

He believes one solution might be allowing teams to “own” their cameras and streams, helping defray costs while allowing another avenue for content (and perhaps sponsorship) on social feeds and platform such as Instagram and Twitter.

“There’s your in-car camera exposed to hundreds of thousands if not millions that might not be watching on TV and have the ability to go viral,” he said.

It also would be beneficial to the broadcast, too.

“Then you have this flush of content that we don’t always have,” Kligerman said. “You see a wreck happen in 32nd place, and we don’t have a camera on it, and they don’t have an onboard camera. Well, now you have that chance. So I think the sport could think about it in a way that isn’t degrading the TV broadcast … but it’s almost adding content they maybe wouldn’t have had before.”

And possibly adding fans, too.

“We talk all the time about wanting to get younger viewers, wanting to get them to watch this,” Kligerman said. “Why not go where they are with even a slice of the content they would find familiar from the gaming side and hopefully give them an interest in racing?”

During the podcast episode, Kligerman also discussed:

–Whether the iRacing Pro Invitational Series will continue when “real” racing returns.

–A recap of his third place at Richmond Raceway (which was clouded by some politics).

–A preview of the Talladega race.

–His long backstory in iRacing.

To listen to the podcast, click on the embed above, or download at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.

NASCAR America: Kyle Petty on how much driver friendships changed

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Though the driver motorhome lot and social media have provided new windows into collegiality in the Cup Series, driver fraternization isn’t a 21st century phenomenon in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt and Neil Bonnett were close friends while racing each other, and among many in the Baby Boom generation who developed strong bonds in stock cars (Ernie Irvan and Mark Martin are another example).

NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty, who raced in that era, believes there’s an important distinction between how drivers hung out then vs. now.

“Neil and Earnhardt were only friends when Neil was on the back side of his career and driving lesser cars,” Petty said on the latest episode of NASCAR America Splash & Go (video above). “There’s tons of ‘A’ drivers that would go to dinner with ‘C’ drivers. But not a lot of ‘A’ drivers went to dinner together. If I’m your competitor, no. But if I know I can beat you, yeah, we’ll be friends, dude. Because I’m beating you every week.

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“So it’s a totally different mindset (now). I didn’t experience this. I know it probably happens in other sports, but I still believe if we’re friends and it comes down to the last lap of the race, I’m not going to drive you as hard, (and) you might not drive me as hard. You just don’t put it all out there.”

Driver relationships and how they impact NASCAR have been an ongoing topic. Analyst Steve Letarte, who had some strong opinions with Petty on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, called out prerace socializing as a problem three years ago in a NASCAR on NBC Podcast appearance.

But the controversy around how Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson interacted on and off the track (and how team owner Chip Ganassi reacted to it) has raised the issue again. Hamlin, Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are sharing a house this week in the Phoenix area and have posted about playing golf together and joking about the incident in which Larson’s car was damaged by Hamlin’s in the race Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

Petty said it’s a problem when friendships become too tight between elite drivers such as Hamlin, the two-time defending Daytona 500 winner, and Larson, who is at the top of this year’s class of impending of free agents.

“If this was (Hamlin or Larson) and a guy who’s consistently 28th or 29th, that’s OK,” Petty said. “They’re not competitors.

“Let me put to you this way: Joey Logano, nobody likes him, doesn’t have friends. What’s he do, though? Wins races and championships. Kyle Busch, you see him out? Kevin Harvick is a good example of someone who doesn’t hang with a lot of people. Jimmie Johnson has always been a loner and he and his wife, that’s their drumbeat. So the guys who come along, ‘Yeah, I’ll be nice and cordial to you, but I’m going to slit your throat.’ That’s the mental attitude you have to have.”

Petty also corrected a perception that he was close with Davey Allison and others he raced against.

“Davey and I grew up together but weren’t best friends,” Petty said. “We were competitors. I was never really close to anybody, and I got that from my dad. He was not close with anybody because he grew up in a time when drivers perished in race cars and no one got close to each other. Totally different.”

Podcast: Kyle Petty on wounds being reopened by Ryan Newman’s crash

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Kyle Petty had a hard time getting to sleep Monday night.

That was partly because of the uncertainty surrounding Ryan Newman’s condition after the terrifying last-lap wreck in the Daytona 500.

But it also was because of the dark memories it dredged up for the NASCAR on NBC analyst, whose son, Adam, was killed in a May 12, 2000 crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – one of four fatalities during a nine-month period culminating in Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“Look at pictures of Adam’s accident between at New Hampshire, if you look at Earnhardt’s, so many, many people gathered, but nothing going on is what it looks like,” Petty said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast, comparing those crash scenes with the response to Newman’s wreck. “All of a sudden, 20 years of having that in a box, someone ripped the top off the box, and you can see right down in it again.

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“So for me, it was very emotional. I didn’t sleep much Monday night, honestly. Worried about Ryan, praying for Ryan. But at the same time so many emotions that I thought that time was supposed to heal those wounds. That wound is right there. It’s just under the surface. So it was a tough day or so.”

Petty’s anxiety subsided Tuesday with the news that Newman was alert and talking. The Roush Fenway Racing driver walked out of Halifax Medical Center with his daughters Wednesday afternoon. He is being replaced this weekend by Ross Chastain in the No. 6 Ford at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and no timetable has been provided for his return.

NASCAR hasn’t had a fatality in a national series since Earnhardt’s on Feb. 18, 2001, and Petty openly wondered during the podcast about a youthful generation of budding Cup stars who have yet to experience what it’s like when a peer perishes in a crash.

“When the last fatality happened in a NASCAR upper division, they were in kindergarten or first grade,” Petty said. “So they’ve never seen anything like this. I grew up where you go to the racetrack and you’re playing with a bunch of kids, and their mom comes and gets them, and you never see those kids again. When Friday Hassler got killed at Daytona (in 1972), I never saw his kids again. Have run into them since but never saw them again at a racetrack.

“So many times, you’d go to the racetrack, and a crew member would be killed. A driver would be killed. Whether it was in a qualifying race, practice at Daytona. It was just there. You got used to it. This is an exaggeration, but it’s almost like you’re in a war zone. You just become numb to it. Now we don’t understand it because we don’t see it. We don’t know how to react to it. When we do see something, everyone turns it into a joke, and we laugh it off. … The sport has gotten to a point that it’s incredibly safe, as safe as it’s ever been. But it’s never going to be foolproof safe.”

Since Earnhardt’s crash, NASCAR has mandated the HANS device, SAFER barriers and numerous other safety elements in the car and cockpit. While it’s decreased the danger Petty also worries if it’s led to a false sense of security.

“We just got complacent to the fact that auto racing can be a dangerous sport,” he said. “Now the element of danger has decreased, but it’s always that deep water, flowing really fast, and at the bottom of that well, there’s death.”

During the podcast, Petty also discussed:

–His thoughts on “slam drafting” on superspeedways and how it should be addressed;

–Reacting to Corey LaJoie’s recent comments that no changes need to be made;

–How a driver such as Newman rebounds after such a vicious wreck;

–The laudable way in which Denny Hamlin captured his third Daytona 500 victory.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the embed above, or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

There also is a video version of the podcast available at the Motorsports on NBC channel on YouTube.