Jim France

Hall of Famer Maurice Petty dies at 81

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Maurice Petty, brother of Richard Petty, died Saturday morning at the age of 81, Richard Petty Motorsports announced.

The team said he passed away peacefully surrounded by his family.

Maurice Petty was the chief engine builder at Petty Enterprises and is credited with 212 Cup series wins as an engine builder with six different drivers.

Nicknamed “Chief,” he was the first engine builder to be elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2014.

Petty was the crew chief for Pete Hamilton when he won two races in 1970, the Daytona 500 and a race at Talladega.

NASCAR released the following statement from CEO and Chairman Jim France:

“The ‘Chief’ was one of the most talented mechanics in NASCAR history. He provided the power that helped Petty Enterprises define dominance in sports. While he was known for his work under the hood, Maurice played multiple ‘behind-the-scenes; roles, doing whatever it took to help deliver his cars to Victory Lane. On behalf of the France family, I offer my condolences to the friends and family of Maurice Petty, a true NASCAR giant.”

Long: A day unlike any other in NASCAR

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Drivers walked alone to their cars Sunday at Darlington Raceway. No team members with them. No family around them. No fans anywhere.

New procedures in an era of the coronavirus.

Drivers carried their helmet, water bottle and other supplies. They headed to their cars amid questions about NASCAR’s first race in 10 weeks, making it the first major U.S. professional sport to return during these times.

Would masks and social distancing be effective? What if someone showed symptoms? What if it was a driver?

“Up until probably about two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong,” Brad Keselowski said in a zoom call with media after finishing 13th in a race won by Kevin Harvick.

“What’s it going to be? Is someone going to be sick? Or is there going to be somebody boycotting outside the racetrack? But nobody did. Nothing bad happened. They pulled this thing off. It feels little bit like a Christmas miracle.”

Consider it Christmas all alone.

The track was empty except for about 900 essential personnel that included drivers, team members, series officials, safety personnel, TV personnel, media and others.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said everyone who went through the health screening passed and “our doctor at the check‑in … was 100% confident we were in a good place to go racing.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France was at the track but stayed out of the infield. Instead, he got on the track’s p.a. system before the race to thank the teams for their efforts to bring racing back.

Joey Logano carries his equipment to his car before Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Many were excited to be at the track again. Joey Logano said he was the first driver to arrive Sunday. After he passed his health screening, he went to his motorhome to isolate for a few hours before going to the car. When he unpacked his uniform — which normally would have been on the team’s hauler but is now the driver’s responsibility to limit contact with team members — Logano realized he had packed two left shoes.

Thankfully there was an extra pair in the hauler, but I thought that was funny,” he said.

After a few hours alone, the waiting finally ended and drivers emerged from their motorhomes or vehicles.

“About 10 minutes before we are supposed to be (by the cars), all of a sudden you see drivers popping out of their motorhomes carrying their helmets and walking to the grid,” Logano said. “That was funny. I have never seen anything like it.”

No one has.

Or heard anything like they did Sunday.

“Just very subdued, very quiet,” Denny Hamlin said. “That’s the biggest thing I noticed, it was just how quiet everything was.”

Erik Jones said it felt as if they were at a test.

“Then you get on pit road, and it feels more like a race,” he said, noting the pit crews in their stalls and cars on the grid. “You are just missing the fans. Unique, different. It was weird standing there for the anthem and it’s playing over the loudspeakers and then you hop in and go.”

After Darius Rucker sang the National Anthem, which was videotaped, a montage of healthcare workers came on TV screens and over the p.a system to give the command to start engines for the first time in 71 days.

“Man, that is a good sign,” Jimmie Johnson said to his team on the radio after he cranked his engine.

But the jitters remained for many.

No one knew what to expect when the green flag waved to begin the race. With no practice and no qualifying, drivers were making their first lap at speed on Lap 1. Seven of the 40 drivers competing Sunday had never run a lap at speed in a Cup car at Darlington.

“The feelings, the nerves, the anxiety, the excitement, knowing we were in uncharted territory,” Kurt Busch said about the start.

But nearly as soon as the green came out, the yellow flag waved. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with another car and crashed into the SAFER barrier on the inside wall along the backstretch. His race was over before completing a lap.

Drivers had a chance to catch their breath and then do it again.

Then, it became about racing. The lack of fans was noticeable in the background of TV shots. The color of the cars contrasted with the gray of many of the track’s empty seats.

As the race progressed, the focus remained on the track. Johnson wrecked on the final lap of Stage 1. Harvick and Alex Bowman showed they had the two best cars.

Bowman battled Harvick for two laps after a late restart but Harvick pulled away and went on to score his 50th career victory, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett on the all-time wins list.

A milestone victory, a first win this season, a fifth consecutive top-10 finish. All things to celebrate. Harvick screamed on the radio in celebration and did doughnuts at the start/finish line and then climbed to his car to silence.

“The weirdest part of the day for me was getting out of the car and not hearing anybody cheering,” Harvick said.

After his TV interview, he drove to Victory Lane for a muted celebration.

“There were two photographers there, no team guys,” Harvick said. “I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it.

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

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Roger Penske: ‘I think you’re going to see more’ NASCAR, IndyCar doubleheaders

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Roger Penske, the owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, believes “you’re going to see more” NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheaders in the future.

Penske’s comments Thursday on NBCSN’s “Lunch Talk Live” represent just how quickly the idea of doubleheaders with NASCAR and IndyCar has taken hold over the last two years, resulting in the first doubleheader scheduled for July.

In November 2018, NASCAR President Steve Phelps thought the prospect of an IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader “would be a good show. We would have to figure out how that works.”

Just last year, the idea of a doubleheader between the NASCAR Cup Series and IndyCar was gaining steam, but it was considered a “long shot” by IndyCar CEO Mark Miles in June.

Things have escalated in the last four months.

In January, Penske officially bought IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two months later, both NASCAR and IndyCar’s seasons were suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, causing both series to postpone and rescheduled races.

That long shot has turned into a reality, with Xfinity Series and IndyCar races now scheduled for the IMS road course on July 4, followed by the Brickyard 400 on July 5.

“I’ve known (NASCAR CEO and Chairman) Jim France and the France family for a long time, we were partners in fact at one point when we built (Auto Club Speedway),” Penske told Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.”

“So I reached out Steve Phelps and to Jim to talk about what we could do to potentially make these weekends better. We came up with this idea of running an IndyCar race on the Brickyard weekend, and I think you’re going to see more of that. I think it’s a fan experience, and I think it will be very, very good from a TV perspective to see the different disciplines. I would hope that this is just the start of things that we can do together as we go into 2020 and beyond.

“Obviously, NASCAR’s got a great fanbase and we’d love to be with them on certain weekends and vice versa. We need to be sure that we can bring motorsports back to where it was prior to this pandemic and I think that’s job one from a standpoint of not only NASCAR but IndyCar and our team.”

In late March, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal said the July doubleheader is “huge.”

“I’ve been a big proponent of it,” Rahal said. “IndyCar and NASCAR would be a great combination. It’s mutually beneficial for both to do this and for the health of motorsports.

Added Rahal: “From a TV perspective, to combine those two over a weekend is huge. I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Former NASCAR Chairman Brian France defends leadership style in interview

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Former NASCAR Chairman Brian France defended his leadership style when running the stock-car series and said in an interview with Sports Business Journal that he was working on leaving the sport before he was ousted after his DWI arrest in August 2018.

The interview with Sports Business Journal marked France’s first public comments since his arrest.

France became NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer in September 2003, assuming the position from his father, Bill France Jr.

Brian France held that position until Aug. 6, 2018, when he took a leave of absence after his arrest for driving while intoxicated in Sag Harbor, New York. He was replaced by Jim France and did not return to NASCAR.

Brian France pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in June 2019. As part of the agreement, he was required to complete 100 hours of community service and undergo alcohol counseling. If he completes those and does not run afoul of the law, his misdemeanor charge will be reduced to a non-criminal infraction in June 2020.

France told Sports Business Journal that he was actively talking to and identifying potential replacements before his arrest but did not go into detail.

France, who oversaw the TV deal with NBC and Fox that goes through 2024 and created the Chase/playoff format, defended his absence from the track during his reign. France did not attend every race and that became an issue in the garage, raising questions about how involved he was with the sport.

“I understand that kind of criticism, but there is no other sports league that gets any criticism like that,” France told Sports Business Journal of the time he spent at the track. “I’ve always found that a bit interesting that no one else asks another commissioner how many football games or practices he made.”

Jim France is at the track nearly every weekend. Brian France told Sports Business Journal that while his uncle attends more races to match his objective, “(it) didn’t match up with mine, so I had to take the criticism on my way to managing the commercial side.”

France, who endorsed Donald Trump for president at a Feb. 29, 2016 rally at Valdosta State University in Georgia, accompanied President Trump on Air Force One to Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, according to the pool media report.

NASCAR renames Cup championship trophy the Bill France Cup

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Starting this year, the winner of the Cup Series championship will be awarded the Bill France Cup, NASCAR announced Thursday.

The renamed trophy honors Bill France Sr., who founded NASCAR in 1947, as well as his son, Bill France Jr., who was the sanctioning body’s chief executive from 1972 to 2003.

“As the sport ushers in a new era, it’s fitting that my father’s name is associated with the highest mark of excellence in our sport,” said Jim France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO, in a press release. “My father and brother’s vision for NASCAR has been realized, many times over, as millions of fans follow and engage each week with the best racing in the world.”

The trophy will be given out on Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

Created by Jostens, the Bill France Cup, will maintain the size and shape of last year’s championship trophy and will feature outlines of the 24 Cup Series racetracks that comprise the 2020 season schedule. The trophy design will be updated as the race schedule evolves, and new tracks are introduced to Cup Series competition.