- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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Is it just me, or is it a little too quiet in here?
For the first time since anyone can remember, the first Monday morning of the New Year did not begin with the sounds of 358 cubic inch monsters roaring to life at the Daytona International Speedway. In fact, a quick phone call to the infield revealed that the only noise to be heard were from a couple of weed eaters and two maintenance guys yelling at one another in the garage.
The silence is deafening.
No sport has been slapped harder by these tough economic times than NASCAR. After decades of unparalleled growth, the winter months have been riddled with sponsorship terminations, team shutdowns and an epidemic of layoffs that as of December 31st has totaled more than 700 race team employees.
In an effort to slash operating costs for its teams, the league announced a ban on all testing at tracks that are sanctioned by NASCAR's top four series—Cup, Nationwide, Trucks, and Camping World East and West Touring Regional Series (think AA baseball).
That ban includes what had become an annual migration to Daytona Beach for teams, officials and the motorsports media. All of those folks liked to bitch and moan about what a pain it was to spend two weeks in Florida before having to turn around and come back again for Speedweeks one month later.
But now that the calendar has turned to January and no one is flying south for the winter, everyone feels like the one Canadian Goose that got left behind in the snow when the rest of the flock left for Florida.
"It is weird to think about, isn't it?" Eddie Wood asks, as the reality of not making the trip seems to be settling in for the first time. The co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing has made trips down for Daytona testing as a child tagging along behind his father, as a teenage apprentice, a young adult crew member and now as co-owner of the team. "We are creatures of habit in this sport, we stick to routines. When we go down in early January we stay at the same place, eat at the same restaurant, say hello to the same folks, it's just part of the deal. That said it sure did cost us a lot of money…"
When the testing ban was announced, Rick Hendrick admitted that his team spent as much as $1 million per car per test. Others owners threw around numbers that were much smaller, but still six figures. NASCAR president Mike Helton said that he believed the ban would save teams "tens of millions of dollars". Even if they end up saving only half that amount, the new policy was worth it, especially to the Eddie Woods of the world.
But that doesn't mean that the January ghost town of the Daytona infield won't still be weird.
"What I like about Daytona testing is how low key it is," says Kyle Petty, one of a growing number of drivers who enter 2009 without a ride. "Over the last few years NASCAR has really pumped it up and started selling tickets to fans and all of that, but it still isn't the madhouse that Speedweeks is. In January you can really try some off-the-wall stuff on your car during testing and talk about it and move at your own pace. There's also time to walk around and visit with people and catch up after the holidays and shoot the bull. The week of the 500 you can do any of that. It's just crazy."
NASCAR increasingly used testing to promote the upcoming season, labeling it "Preseason Thunder" and spreading it out over 22 days at Daytona, Las Vegas, and Fontana, California. It gave them a chance to trot out the stars in front of TV cameras for a solid month and take advantage of the post-Super Bowl sports lull to drum up some coverage. This year Thunder will return, but has been reduced to fan meet-and-greets and a media gauntlet later this month.
"Nothing beat going down to Daytona testing and posting a big speed," says driver Stacy Compton, who shocked the world in 2000 by topping the Daytona January speed charts with second-tier Melling Racing. "You couldn't buy the kind of publicity we got during that month. We were looking for sponsors and for three weeks every NASCAR story you read contained the line 'testing was led by Stacy Compton at so-and-so miles per hour…' But now Melling Racing is out of business because it just got too expensive to race. That's why we have these new rules."
In 1996 I was in Daytona for my second tour of testing duty, covering it all as a young field producer for ESPN. We were the only TV crew on duty for the entire week, occasionally joined by a local group from Orlando and a couple of sportswriters from the Daytona Beach paper. Last year more than one hundred credentials were issued for testing.
As was the case most mornings, the start of the first '96 session was delayed because of a pea soup fog sitting on top of the track. To pass the time I sat on an old wooden table top with Ricky Rudd as we talked about the challenges of his life as a driver and team owner.
For two hours we chatted as the crew of his Tide Ride exchanged off-color jokes and took orders for a Steak n' Shake run. The only time we were interrupted was by someone coming over to shake Ricky's hand and ask him if he'd had a nice Christmas.
"Ask me ten years from now if being a driver-owner is worth it," he said that day. "The costs are escalating so quickly that I don't know if I'll be able to keep up. But when you enjoy a sport as much as I do, you don't mind putting in all the hours of signing paychecks and rounding up sponsorship and tracking personnel and all of that."
As the announcement boomed through the garage that the track was finally clear, Rudd hopped down and slapped me on the leg.
"You want to know why I love this sport so much? This right here. Times when you can just sit and talk racing and meet good people. A lot of people complain about Daytona testing, but I thoroughly enjoy it. Now I get to go drive this car at 200 miles per hour and go eat dinner with my friends. Not a bad day huh? I just hope we don't ruin what we've got."
No sir, not a bad day at all. And damn prophetic.
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