March 13-- NASCAR was built on the shady enterprise of bootleggers along with grassroots racing. Both are gone in the modern-day incarnation, a business model now on wobbly legs.
That's not the moonshine talking. It's common sense, echoed by Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart in Phoenix last weekend.
We could have a week-long symposium on what NASCAR needs to do to get back to its "Glory Days."
But one thing that is an easy fix is to get those millionaire drivers out of their private jets and motorcoaches and into a ride to boost grassroots racing.
Harvick, for one, is in.
He will compete in the K&N West Pro Series opener Thursday at Kern County Raceway Park, more on a mission to raise awareness than cherry-pick a victory. Along the way, he admonished NASCAR officials for getting too fancy with the marketing plan. It's not just phasing out small-town tracks-like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro Speedway that helped build the NASCAR empire.
ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway) used to be in the mix, too, promoting at least one annual race on its one-mile oval from 1988 to 2015 in what is currently known as the NASCAR K&N West Series.
"One of the best things that happened for racing, it's not just about NASCAR, was when we had the Copper Classic here," Harvick said after winning in Phoenix on Sunday. "We had midgets, sprint cars. Didn't matter how many people sat in the grandstands. As competitors, those guys, this was their Daytona.
"It's kicking those guys low on the K&N West Series that they don't get to come and race at this particular racetrack because of the fact there's a little bit of a pissing contest between a budget, what is right, what is wrong from a sanctioning fee side on Trucks and Xfinity. So they cut the K&N guys out. Cutting the grassroots side of things out is not the right way to do things."
He's right, you know.
Meanwhile, ISM is going through some renovations, estimated at $178 million, chasing that newer audience. Old-school loses. Again.
"We can afford to spend $170 million to move the front stretch from there over to there," said Stewart, Harvick's boss. "I still have no idea what the reason for that is. I guess we probably can't afford to run any support races here that cost the track some money."
Harvick continued to speak from the bully pulpit, on a current rampage after winning three consecutive races. The rampage off-the-track is driven with the same amount of passion.
"In the end," Harvick said, "without those grassroots fans, those grassroots people, coming and being able to race here, whether it fits your budget or not, 10 years from now you better hope you have some people who will sit in the stands up here wanting to watch these races at your short tracks because those are your hardcore fans."
Harvick is hardly going rogue on this. Kyle Larson essentially said the same thing last year, imploring NASCAR to feature its star drivers in those lesser series because, he said, "I feel like we've lost touch with our grassroots race fans."
Harvick chasing history
Harvick has set himself up nicely for a chase at NASCAR history. He will try to make it four in a row this weekend at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, which is in Harvick's home state of California. No driver has won four in a row since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
Obviously, Harvick is crushing it. And he's not allowing any room in his rear-view mirrors for distractions. He came to Phoenix pestered and peeved after the NASCAR police tagged him for damaging violations.
Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing team was fined $50,000 and lost car chief Robert Smith for two races after officials found a brace failure bowed the rear window in Harvick's car during the race in Vegas. Harvick also lost the playoff points he had earned at Las Vegas.
"No question he's the top dog there," said Larry McReynolds, Fox Sports NASCAR analyst. "He's also the top dog in playing games. When he was pointing to the back window, that was for the fans who had said things (following the penalty).
"...Everyone was watching-the fans-what kind of advantage did that No. 4 car have? While it was probably a little advantage, that wasn't the reason he won the (Las Vegas) race. It was, 'Look, you can do anything you want to us, but we'll show you.' That was a statement race."
Jeff Gordon, already a cinch for the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a nominee in 2019, was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America Tuesday night at Daytona Beach Shores.
Gordon joins a class that includes drag-racing car builder John Buttera, Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl G. Fisher, the late Howard Hughes, motorcycle great Fred Merkel, three-time Indianapolis 500 champion owner U.E. "Pat" Patrick, and sports car legend Bob Tullius.
ABOUT THE WRITER
George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.
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