Wayne Auton

Friday 5: ‘Everything is in play’ as NASCAR looks ahead to new ideas

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This weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval could be a start of new ideas, new races and new ways of thinking in NASCAR.

Steve Phelps, who begins his role as NASCAR’s president Monday, acknowledged the possibility of doubleheader races, ending the season sooner and closer ties with grassroots racing, among many topics in an hourlong session with reporters this week.

“Everything is in play,” Phelps said.

For a sport that divided its races into stages in 2017, changed the tracks in its playoffs this year and is expected to soon announce rule changes intended to tighten the racing in 2019, Phelps’ attitude shows the efforts series officials will make to retain fans and reach new ones.

His comments come as NASCAR soon will enter a key period with its scheduling. The five-year commitments with tracks expire after the 2020 season and gives NASCAR more flexibility to change its schedule as soon as 2021.

NASCAR typically announces the Cup schedule at least nine months before the season opener. That timetable would give series officials about 20 months until the 2021 schedule is revealed.

With the call for more short tracks, can NASCAR accommodate fan interest? Speedway Motorsports Inc. has expressed an interest in bringing NASCAR’s national series back to the 0.596-mile Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee.

With the success of the Truck race at Eldora Speedway, would it make sense to run Cup there or on some other dirt track? Could Iowa Speedway land a Cup date? What about midweek races?

Another key question is what about tracks that have lost significant attendance? NASCAR’s charter system allows the sanctioning body to take a charter from a team that has ranked among the three lowest chartered teams in three consecutive years. Is it time to consider taking races away from tracks that have had a precipitous decline in attendance?

“We need to make sure that the race product that we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do,” Phelps said. “I do know that the race day experience or the race day weekend is really important and we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that.

“We need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion. What that looks like. That gets back to a collaboration effort, which we are going to see between our race tracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way that we haven’t in the past. That is really coming together and creating unique opportunities that reach fans and ask them to come out and see what is going on in NASCAR.

“It’s part of our 2019 business plans. We’re working with the race tracks to have them understand that we need to make a change.”

International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, saw a 10.7 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, ISC tracks removed 172,000 seats at its tracks during that time. In July, ISC President John Saunders cited “an issue with star power” as a contributing factor in the company’s attendance decline recently saying, “hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is controlled by Bruton Smith and his family, saw a 25.1 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, SMI tracks removed 183,000 seats at its tracks during that time. 

The declines for both track companies have come in a period that has seen Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 15-time most popular driver, quit driving full-time.

Some in the sport also have raised concerns about the season’s length, suggesting NASCAR should not end in November and compete against the first 11 weeks of the NFL season.

“There’s a lot of discussion about that among the industry,” Phelps said. “There are a lot of things in play. We would rule out nothing at this particular point. We need to make sure that we have all the input, all the information necessary to make an informed decision that will allow us to get to what that 2020 schedule will look like.”

2. Reset button

At the Kansas test this week, Kurt Busch was asked if NASCAR’s leadership issues — Chairman Brian France’s arrest, Jim France taking over as acting Chairman and Brent Dewar’s term as NASCAR president ending — since August have taken away from the playoffs. 

Busch said those events hadn’t but noted a change has taken place in the sport.

“What it has done, though, is behind the scenes, hit the reset button and it’s created a refreshment of communication lines between the drivers, the owners and the way that the sport works,” Busch said. “I’ve never seen so much involvement from Jim France, Mike Helton, Steve Phelps, Steve O’Donnell, the whole group. It seems like a weight was lifted off their shoulders through all of this and now everybody is communicating more easily.”

Jim France has been visible in the garage more often than Brian France had been before his indefinite leave.

“If you’ve been at a race track, you’ve seen Jim France there,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s incoming president. “From the moment he was announced as the Chairman, CEO of NASCAR, replacing Brian, he has been at the race track.”

3. Charlotte surprise?

Erik Jones enters Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs.

He is 21 points out of the final cutoff spot. As he looks to this weekend, he knows anything can happen and expects it will.

“I’ll bet you will see a surprise winner this weekend, somebody you wouldn’t expect just because it is going to be a little bit of an attrition race,” he said. “For us, we have to survive, we have to make it to the end of the race.

“We can’t wreck out and not put ourselves in a spot to take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes. We’ve got to hope for some trouble from some of the other playoff guys and hope we can be in position to capitalize on it. Obviously, winning would be the easiest way for us to guarantee it but that’s going to be tough to do.”

Others below the cutoff and in danger of being eliminated after Sunday’s race are Clint Bowyer (four points from the cutoff), Jimmie Johnson (six points from the cutoff) and Denny Hamlin (29 points from the cutoff). Ryan Blaney holds what would be the final transfer spot.

4. Special drivers meeting message?

Justin Allgaier, who has won the last two Xfinity races on road courses, is concerned about the start and restarts on the Roval.

NASCAR will not have drivers go through the frontstretch chicane when coming to take the green flag. If drivers had to go through that chicane, those at the front would be accelerating while some in the back would be braking to get through the chicane.

Instead, drivers will do restarts on the frontstretch and skip the chicane. That means they’ll be entering Turn 1 — a sharp left-hand turn — anywhere from 15-30 mph faster. So, as lead cars brake to make the turn, others behind them will be accelerating.

“It’s such a slow, lazy turn in and the speed that we’re going to be carrying, somebody that ducks to the left could potentially wreck a lot of cars,” Allgaier said. “I think we’re all going to have to really be mindful. It’s either going to go one way or the other. We’re either all going to wreck there or nobody is going to wreck there because we’re all very aware of it.

“I’m hopeful that Wayne (Auton, Xfinity Series managing director) will talk about that in the drivers meeting (and say) ‘Hey, let’s at least make it through Turn 1 at the start of the race.’

“We have generated a lot of hype and a lot of buzz around this race, there’s a lot of attention with coming here … the last thing we want to do is go out there and make a bunch of idiots of ourselves.”

5. Still searching 

Eight drivers who won races last year remain winless this season. They are: Kyle Larson (four wins 2017), Jimmie Johnson (three), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Matt Kenseth (one), Kasey Kahne (one), Ryan Newman (one) and Ryan Blaney (one).

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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.

NASCAR Xfinity Series to use composite body for three races this season

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NASCAR Xfinity teams will be allowed to use a flange-fit composite body for races at Richmond, Dover and Phoenix, series officials announced Wednesday.

The announcement is part of NASCAR’s move toward the composite body, which series officials said could provide cost savings for teams. The composite body can be used in 2018 for all races except superspeedway events. Series officials plan to make composite bodies mandatory for all Xfinity races in 2019.

Whether this will transfer to Cup remains to be seen.

“Right now we’re 100 percent focused on the success of this body in Xfinity,’’ said Brett Bodine, senior director of R&D at NASCAR, during a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We’ll certainly learn about the performance of the body and the durability, and certainly always look at potentially moving things into other series, but currently we are just worried about Xfinity.’’

The composite body has 13 separate panels that attach together on flanges. Bodine said several body panels have security features to prevent teams from tampering with them to gain an advantage.

The body panels come from Five Star RaceCar Bodies in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.

NASCAR said the inspection process won’t change for teams with the composite body.

If a car crashes during practice, repairs to the car body should be easier, NASCAR states.

“Say you damage a right rear quarterpanel,’’ Bodine said. “It can be easily unbolted from the other body panels and from the chassis and another one can be bolted on in its place. And not only at a race event weekend, but that is how we envision this repair process taking place after an event. The turnaround time for a team that might have received damage at an event should be significantly reduced by the fact that these panels can be unbolted and a new one put on.’’

Wayne Auton, Xfinity Series managing director, said that the damaged vehicle policy remains. Teams will not be able to add new parts to the car during a race.

While NASCAR typically doesn’t create rule changes during the playoffs, Xfinity teams will run twice in the playoffs with the composite body.

“We looked at different models to roll this out, preferably in 2017,’’ Auton said. “Number one, we wanted to get it on the racetrack.  We’ve worked for a year to get the body finalized. We’re at the point now that teams are putting race cars together. They’re getting to do some aero testing with them. 

“So we feel confident that whenever they go into these three races …  that you won’t see a significant difference in the competition. We think it’ll bring the competition closer together, and that was just a collaborative effort of the teams on the type of racetrack that we wanted to start them on, and working with our third‑party vendor of when parts could be ready for teams.’’

For those teams that choose the steel body instead of the composite body at Richmond, Dover and Phoenix, they’ll face significant challenges.

“There will be competition restrictions on the steel body versus the flange fit,’’ Bodine said. “Obviously we want the flange fit to be the body of the future and phase out the steel body. There will be weight and aero differences between the two to make sure that the flange fit body has a competitive advantage.’’

The Xfinity Rule Book notes the difference in weight between the two car body styles. A composite body car with a driver who weighs between 130-139 pounds can have a minimum total combined weight for the driver and car of 3,540-3,549 pounds. That will be about 90 pounds lighter than a the minimum combined weight for a car and a similar driver in a steel body vehicle.

Another advantage that Bodine touts is the potential savings teams could experience as they use the composite body more.

“The efficiencies of using a composite flange fit body really are across the board from potentially needing less chassis to do the Xfinity Series because of the turnaround time on repairs, to the actual amount of time it takes to hang a complete new body on a chassis,’’ Bodine said. “The repairs most likely can be done by the team instead of potentially having to farm it out to a body hanger that they do business with now with the steel bodies. There’s a lot of areas that this cost savings of this type body will provide for the team owners.’’

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NASCAR may further reduce how many Xfinity races Cup drivers can compete

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INDIANAPOLIS — NASCAR has talked with Xfinity teams about further limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity races, series managing director Wayne Auton said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

One possibility would be for Cup drivers to be limited to five Xfinity races only regardless of their experience level, which could be a significant cut for some drivers.

Currently, drivers with more than five full-time seasons in Cup are limited to 10 Xfinity races. They also cannot compete in the four Dash 4 Cash races and the final eight races of the season.

Drivers with less than five full-time Cup seasons — Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez for example — are allowed to compete in the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races and all playoff events except the season finale in Miami.

The rule has had a limited impact with the results. Cup drivers have won 13 of 17 Xfinity races this season, heading into Saturday’s event at Indianapolis. Even with fewer Cup drivers in the Dash 4 Cash races, Cup competitors still won three of those four events.

“We have been in talks with teams about even limiting the number of races more or stay where we’re at,” Auton said. “Those conversations are ongoing. Stay tuned. I think some announcements will be coming out here pretty soon on what the garage area has asked us to look at.’’

With the current rules, 14 of the 17 Xfinity races have had at least three Cup drivers finish in the top five. The exceptions were Iowa (standalone race), Daytona (few Cup drivers competed) and Phoenix (a Dash 4 Cash race).

“We want to make sure that we have 40 cars on the racetrack every week and we have 40 competitive cars on the racetrack every week,’’ Auton said. “I’m very proud of the way our Xfinity drivers have held up this year. Have they won as many races as the other series drivers? No, they haven’t, but I’m going to tell you what, you can’t go from a lack of effort. They’re really driving their cars really hard this year to make sure they get that championship at Homestead.’’

Kyle Busch is against the rule and reiterated his disappointment Friday at Indianapolis when asked about how he plans to stop racing in the Xfinity Series after he accumulates 100 wins (he has 89).

“Nothing came into the thought of it,” Busch said. “Joe (Gibbs) and I, we’ve always been joking for the last two or three years they’re going to kick us out and they are. They’re trying year by year and race by race of eliminating myself from competition in the Xfinity Series.’’

Asked what NASCAR does not understand in the debate and why he should be able to race as often as he wants in the Xfinity Series, Busch said: “I don’t think that’s a battle that I’ll ever win, so I’m best off keeping my mouth shut.’’

Kevin Harvick also has issues with further reducing the number of Xfinity races for Cup drivers. He notes such a change could impact teams financially. 

“I think that’s the one thing that a lot of people forget,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “They want to take this Xfinity Series and they want to make it into Xfinity drivers only. Well, guess what? If you don’t race against the Cup guys and you don’t have that experience on a weekly basis of learning what those Cup guys are doing to run fast and how this sport works, all that is going to happen is you’re just going to struggle longer when you get to Cup. You’re not going to have all the tendencies of the things that you need just racing against Xfintiy drivers that don’t have all the experience that Cup guys get.

“And oh by the way. Those Xfinity sponsorships? Most of those sponsorships are tied to a Cup guy. If they dropped these races to five races like they’re talking to next year, we’ll have to cut two races. There’s probably a million dollars tied to those two races in sponsoring the race, associates on the Cup car, personal services contracts, so there is a lot of money on the line.

“So when you look at a Ryan Preece gets to run a Joe Gibbs car (as he did at New Hampshire last week, finishing second), he got that opportunity because they want to run that car full-time and obviously they’re getting enough money from the races that Denny Hamlin runs and Erik Jones runs and Kyle Busch runs to charge the top dollar.

“When you have a guy in it — and this is from a team owner standpoint when DeLana and I used to have the teams — when you have that top-dollar guy and you can charge $200,000 a race for sponsorship, you can take a chance on the non-companion races or the races you haven’t sold of selling a guy a race for $100,000 or $125,000. Those are where the opportunities come from.

“I just think we need to be very, very careful about cutting all the Cup ties to the series out of the (Xfinity) Series because there is a lot of sponsorship that really probably won’t show up until you get two, three or four years down the road, when these sponsors say, ‘Well, if I can’t have Kyle (Busch) in the car, I’ll put the money in the Cup car. We’ll just use the Cup car and that will be it because that is what will happen because the price point is becoming increasingly closer as we go through the years from one series to another.’’

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NASCAR warns Xfinity drivers on a variety of matters for tonight’s race.

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NASCAR warned Xfinity drivers about locking bumpers and swerving after tonight’s race at Daytona International Speedway.

During the drivers meeting Friday afternoon, Wayne Auton, managing director of the Xfinity Series, told competitors: “This is your warning drivers. Locking bumpers in an attempt to push another car to advance your position, you will be black flagged.

“No swerving or any means to circumvent the postrace inspections as you’re coming back to pit road.’’

Competitors were reminded that if they go below the yellow line to advance their position, they will be black flagged. Competitors were told that if they force a competitor below the yellow line to stop from being passed, they may be black flagged.

Drivers also were told twice in the meeting that they must have four tires below the orange box at the commitment line to enter pit road.

Tonight’s race is scheduled to take the green flag at 7:49 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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