Sunday, February 08, 2015

USELESS UNLIMITED (and Junior No. 1 on this week's Power Players list)

Longtime readers know I think the NASCAR All-Star race is the most meaningless event of an already overly long season. To summarize what I've written before:

Originally created to generate publicity for stock car racing back when the Indianapolis 500 was all dominant, that reason ceased to make sense with the IRL-CART split. The TV types then changed their tune and said it was "for the fans." Begging the question: Who were all the other races for? All credibility was lost when Kenny Wallace was named an "All-Star." Then it supposedly became a "Saturday night short track shootout" throwback. As recent years have proven, that doesn't translate. There is simply too much money, too much prestige, at stake in winning the actually Cup series championship for the smart guys to take a chance on getting hurt in an EXHIBITION. It's a waste of a weekend better left open to serve as someone's rainout backup.

This Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona, though, is rapidly running a close second to All-Star on the meaningless list.

Originally, it made sense. Monty Roberts, Busch beer brand manager, opened the tap for the first Busch Clash in 1979. It was a special event for the previous season's pole winners only, racing 50 miles, with no pit stops. The concept was brilliant in its simplicity -- the media and public instantly understood what it was all about. Now, just to get more cars and names into the field, there are multiple ways to become eligible for the Unlimited field.

The main purpose now is to provide TV programming and give reporters something to write/talk about as a device to generate "buzz" (and that's all the NASCAR PR executives care about anymore) and attract eyeballs for the Daytona 500.

What legitimate racing purpose does the Unlimited serve? Don't tell me prep for the D500 because the drivers and teams have plenty of track time to do that, including the increasingly devalued qualifying races, since only a couple don't make the 500 in a time of fewer entries. And here's a true secret straight out of the garage area: Even if someone thinks they have a useful advantage, car-wise, they aren't going to show too much of it in the prelims for fear NASCAR will make a rule change to avoid stinking-up the all-important Big Show.

The memory of Jeff Gordon getting upside-down a few years ago in this points-less exhibition is not a pleasant one. Just imagine if he had been hurt! Wasting money prepping and then wrecking cars also doesn't add-up in a continued sponsor-challenged period.

And, in case you haven't noticed, the grandstands are not exactly sold out, either.

I know somebody's going to say NASCAR's testing ban -- no running at Daytona, especially -- makes the Unlimited important. I would caution against over-emphasis. The Unlimited is staged at night -- different weather and track conditions -- than the 500. More useful than in recent years,  maybe. And the Grassy Knoll conspiracy bunch might respond by saying that's just the point: Testing wasn't allowed, in part, to ramp-up the hype for this Saturday night.

I'd say we could do without both: The conspiracy AND the Unlimited.

POWER PLAYERS for the week of February 8: This week's 10 most influential people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight.  (UPDATED MONDAY TO REFLECT BOB POCKRASS' MOVE TO ESPN.COM .)

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Stock cars are headed to Daytona. No other explanation needed.

  2. Lesa France Kennedy -- With the spotlight bright on pre-Daytona 500 events, the full-range of track business issues -- ticket sales, sponsorships, corporate hospitality activity, concessions, merchandise -- will be largely influenced by International Speedway Corp.'s CEO. And those results will significantly guide how analysts view the overall industry.

  3. Kevin Harvick -- His long-awaited Cup championship in hand, he begins season-long role as an official leader in the garage area, with the media, and the American public. 

  4. Donny Schatz -- With Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell no longer full-timers as the new World of Outlaws season begins, Schatz -- whose 26 wins last year beat the next guy by 12 victories -- is who people talk about when they talk sprint car racing.

  5. Mike Joy -- For the 15th straight year he's the broadcast quarterback in the Fox booth. And if you think it's easy telling the story while giving Darrell Waltrip running room, you're wrong.  

  6. Jay Adamczyk -- With NASCAR's on-track season set to start, his -- which has been called racing's version of The Drudge Report -- remains a daily must-visit and helps focus what those in the industry and grandstands are thinking and talking about. 

  7. Joie Chitwood -- Only the second person to serve as president of both Daytona International Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he has to improvise a satisfactory interim facility experience for fans before Daytona's $400 million "re-imagining" project is finished for 2016.  

  8. Chad Seigler -- Former Sprint Nextel executive promoted to Charlotte-based NASCAR business development vice president. A key early task: Securing a new Cup title sponsor. 

  9. Richie Gilmore -- Championship winning engine builder promoted to president of ECR (Earnhardt Childress) Engines to oversee daily operations, including engine lease programs. ECR Engines have more than 200 race wins in various series.

10. Bob Pockrass -- Announced Monday he's joined from Sporting News. The hardest worker in the media center. With Chad Knaus, maybe the hardest worker in NASCAR. Sometimes it seems he knows more about what is happening than some NASCAR executives.

new list and more next week . . . ]