By Mike Mulhern
The irrepressible John Force, drag racing’s biggest star, with one of the sports world’s wildest personas, couldn’t make it to the track, because he’s still recuperating from that savage crash. But Bruton Smith officially wrapped up the final pieces from last fall’s political battle over his planned new NHRA dragstrip here Thursday with the announcement of the Carolina Nationals for Sept. 11-14 as the newest event on the NHRA tour and now the kickoff to that sport’s six-race championship playoffs – at his new $60 million facility, under construction across the street from his Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
And Smith said Rick Hendrick, NASCAR’s hottest team owner, has promised now to build his own NHRA team, which Smith said should lead other NASCAR men to join.
“We just love to do things,” the head of one of the sports world’s biggest companies, Speedway Motorsports, said, with clear glee, on the final day of his annual NASCAR media tour through racing’s heartland. “Just wait for our next press conference…”
The best Bruton Smith story of the week: Hendrick, with a laugh, says Smith just offered to buy up some of his car dealerships “because he said I was probably getting ready to retire.” Hendrick is considerably younger, but says he is constantly amazed by Smith’s energy and enthusiasm.
Smith of course loves a good challenge from anyone.
So last fall when local politicians abruptly changed the zoning on that part of speedway property to keep Smith from building the 30,000-seat dragstrip, Smith responded by threatening to tear down the entire Lowe’s complex here and build condos, and move his Charlotte racing operations, perhaps across the border to South Carolina. “We had a lot of options.”
So those politicians quickly backed off, giving Smith millions in tax incentives not to move, and then renaming a street in his honor.
Smith and Jim France, both billionaires, are the two most powerful men in this sport, and while France (the uncle of NASCAR CEO Brian France) shuns the spotlight, Smith relishes it. And Smith was comfortably basking in it yesterday: “We forgive and forget.”
Smith not only toasted his newest project but then broadly hinted that the 2009 NASCAR Cup tour schedule would include a new track somewhere, replacing one of the current 23 speeedway on the France family’s circuit….though Smith declined to get more specific: “Think of a place you just don’t like to go to, a place where they don’t treat you right…..
That will certain fan speculation that Smith and NASCAR are moving toward a second Sprint Cup weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, though at whose expense isn’t clear. If Smith and Jim France (who owns controlling interest in the family business) jointly buy one of the current tracks and then split the dates, the France’s International Speedway Corp. would also add an event, possibly at a new track.
While Smith was playing with the media covering his annual NASCAR preseason media tour, on its fourth and final day, Team Ford was center stage around the corner at Roush Racing. And the lead-off was the heaviest hitter on the roster, Edsel himself: “A lot has been written about us the past year, much of it negative. People have written us off, saying we couldn’t compete.
“I’m here today to tell you ‘Don’t underestimate our resolve.’”
Dan Davis, Ford’s racing boss, concedes 2007 “didn’t go as well as we expected. We got caught a little off-guard with the car-of-tomorrow.”
But Davis then pointed to a host of new engineering initiatives he said will help Fords’ teams. And he pointed to a new boss Jim Farley, who just came over from Toyota’s TRD, where he helped that car maker in its move into NASCAR.
But success in this sport comes down to a very personal level. Perhaps a good way to look at this situation is not to focus on Jack Roush, the biggest car owner in the sport, but on one of the smallest teams – the Woods.
When it comes to Ford and NASCAR, Eddie Wood’s family’s racing roots go very deep, back to the sport’s very earliest days. And he says he’s completely revamped his stock car team for 2008, after a rough couple of seasons.
“I just want to get settled back in this year,” Wood says. “We’ve have a couple bad years, and we’ve made some big changes in the off-season.
“We’ve been doing a lot of testing, a lot of work on the ‘shake’ rig over at Roush’s, and a lot of time in the wind tunnel.
“I think we’ll be a lot better this year. In fact I know we’ll be a lot better. We just need to get where we need to get.
“We didn’t have a lot of changes in the crew itself, just in the management.”
The Woods, who revolutionized pit stops back in the 1960s, who had some awesome runs with legendary David Pearson, including that classic ‘76 Daytona 500 battle with Richard Petty, have struggled lately, as still a single-car team in this era of multi-car operations run by multi-millionaires.
So for the upcoming season the Woods, taking a page from NASCAR CEO Brian France’s own playbook, are going back to basics—- with Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, Bill Elliott, at the wheel for much of the season in their Fords. Included: some of the biggest events, like Daytona, Phoenix, Michigan, Indianapolis, Loudon NH, Talladega, Homestead-Miami and Bristol.
It’s the third season the Woods are running out of Charlotte, after moving down from Stuart, Va.
“There are some cool things out there…..but the changes, as you’re going through it, don’t seem very monumental….but if you stop and consider everything, it’s ‘Wow!’” Eddie Wood says.
“This business is rough. It’s not easy. Hey, you want to buy a race team?
“The sport has changed a lot, and it’s going to change more. Like the rolling-road wind tunnel. We’ve been using that 40 percent scale model wind tunnel in Indianapolis.”
Isn’t NASCAR trying to make wind tunnels superfluous?
“The concept is to make all the cars as similar as possible. But we built three cars for Daytona, and one of them is 10 horsepower better (aerodynamically). Race cars are like people; they’re all different.
“The box (of rules) is tighter now, and you’re not moving noses and tails and roofs like we were; last year’s car was like a banana if you looked at it from the top.
“But this new car, well, you worry about so many things, but with this car, you have a lot fewer things to have worry about messing with.
“It’s like restrictor plate racing every week – you work so hard just to make little gains.
“We’re a small team, and one advantage for a small team is it’s easier to turn this boat around.
“It’s hard enough just to do one team, and I can’t imagine how hard it is for someone like Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick, who have so many teams.”
So the Woods will be banking heavily on Elliott to make it all work: Adding Elliott, Wood says “It’s big. And it’s just a handshake. It’s the way life used to be. I trust him and he trusts me. You don’t have a lot of that now.
“When I think about Bill driving my car, I really get choked up about it.”
Elliott, now nearly 54, and semi-retired, maybe, joined the Woods late last season when Eddie Wood asked for some help. NASCAR’s top-35 rule – with the top 35 teams in owners standings guaranteed spots in the 43-car fields, and the other 15 to 18 teams scrambling for those few remaining spots – “is a hard deal to overcome, if you’re out of the top-35,” Wood says.
“Bill just brings so much experience, and that will help Jon and everyone. Because he’s a guy who’s been there and done it. When he tells you something, you can bank on it.
“And he knows how aggravating this business is. So he just looks at me sometimes and says ‘You’ve got to be nuts.’”
The Woods have been working to bring Jon Wood, Eddie’s son, up to the Cup series, but it hasn’t been easy. This season Elliott will handle the bulk of the tour, with Jon Wood running eight or nine events, and newcomer Aussie Marcos Ambrose also doing eight or nine.
“I can’t tell you how much it means to me for Bill to come on like this,” Eddie Wood says. “It’s like in that movie (ital) Tombstone, (close ital), when Doc says to Wyatt 7’I just don’t have the words…..’
“That’s kind of like where I am.
“Bill is an old friend, and we just sat down one day and I gave him a sheet of paper with all the races on it and asked him which ones he wanted to do.
“It’s ironic, perhaps, because through the ‘80s Bill was one of our biggest competitors; he was the guy you had to beat. But we were always friends.
“It was like with the Pettys too. The Pettys were some of our biggest competitors in the ‘70s, and yet Dale Inman (Richard Petty’s crew chief) is one of my best friends.”