Door-To-Door: Race dates all about money

Is racing twice at California better than racing at Darlington once? For competition, no. For money? Marty Smith goes Door-To-Door to add it up.

Updated: March 2, 2007, 9:50 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

It's a never-ending debate, given NASCAR's concerted expansion initiative into major media markets and gradual penetration of mainstream American consciousness: Who's next to be left in the wake?

Door-To-Door
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Some fear it's Darlington Raceway. Others say Martinsville Speedway. No doubt both tracks are Davids in comparison to the Goliaths in some major NASCAR cities. But rest assured: Both have a slingshot cocked and a handful of stones.

They ain't goin' out easy, and by-grannies they shouldn't.

Having spoken with both track presidents about this situation multiple times, and given the cyclical trend of promotion that invariably comes back to grassroots ticket sales, it stands to reason both venues are stable in the current climate.

Used to be promoters had to get out there and get their hands dirty. The trend is coming back that way. The days of build 'em, open the gates and watch the stands fill up are over.

NASCAR is damned expensive. Persuading a guy to spend a few hundred hard-earned bucks to take his family to the Nextel Cup race is no simple sell, especially given the in-depth network television coverage and cheap beer back at the hacienda.

But that's what Martinsville and Darlington have always done. They've never altered the business model.

NASCAR Fan
AP Photo/Gene BlytheYou can say this for fans at Darlington. They are among the most knowledgeable -- and avid -- in NASCAR.

The on-track product at Darlington and Martinsville is so vastly superior to that at California or Pocono it's hardly debatable. Fontana wins the amenities battle going away, but I'd still betcha Bill France Jr. would rather have an ol' nasty Martinsville slawdog all day, every day, than a Wolfgang Puck gyro.

Fontana has big-time singers and actors, too, but meander out there in the Martinsville campground and you'll find hard-core fans, like my boys Pork Chop and Party Boy, on the homemade karaoke mike belting out Hank Jr. and acting as if they're enjoying the company of the Jeff Gordon fans camped beside them.

Oscar-worthy stuff, I tell ya …

NASCAR jerked a date from Darlington because it wasn't selling out. Principle says Fontana should go before Martinsville or Darlington No. 2.

I understand if it's almost full. But from what I saw Sunday, attendance at the Auto Club 500 was way down. Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell has told me in the past that he'd rather sell all 65,000 of his seats than have 120,000 at his disposal only to sell half of them.

That's the crux of the great debate. The bottom line.

If Darlington sells out, 65,000 butts are in the seats. Fontana can fail to sell out and still get 80,000 fans in there, and in the second-largest market in the country. If an average ticket at Darlington is roughly $90 and the average ticket at Fontana is $155, the difference in revenue for International Speedway Corp. is a substantial $6.55 million.

That's the scale on which ISC is measuring -- not old-school side-by-side slidin' and slammin' versus the aero-push parade.

Chop's Line of the Week: Speaking of my boy Pork Chop, I think the time has come to share his infinite wisdom with NASCAR Nation. This is the first installment of "Chop's Line of the Week."

"Mark Martin won't be able to run at Bristol 'cause his restricted license won't allow him to race after dark. Oh, and do they make Rockport racing shoes?"

Hilarious … I literally laughed out loud.

Marty,

First of all, thank the good lord David Root is all right. Blood alcohol level is a little too high to bother spelling his name correctly. Second, great run for Sheriff Vickers, a top-10 in the first race for Team Red Bull.

That says a lot for BV as a driver, and Doug Richert, to put a brand-new team and manufacturer up front in their first race, don't ya think? I would be happier if Vickers quit super-gluing [bleeeeep] hair to his face to form somewhat of a beard.

Finally, please give me your opinion on the 1992 half-ass 3-D animation that FOX utilized to illustrate for the viewer the lineup under caution. I have no affiliation with FOX, and I was embarrassed each time they put that on the screen.

-- Richard Weed, Bloomington, Ill.

Whoa, Ricky. Did the Captain kick your tail? How drunk are you, man? (Much editing was required, FYI …)

Where to start … First, David Reutimann. His impact at Fontana was among the most violent ever recorded, and the fact that he walked away speaks volumes to how far NASCAR safety has come in the past six years. The SAFER barrier, HANS device, cocoon seats and headrests may well have saved his life.

Sheriff Brian Lee: Excellent effort by the entire Red Bull program and Brian Vickers. A top-10 in Week 2. They're already ahead of schedule. I honestly didn't think Toyota would score a top-10 on a high-speed, high-downforce track for months. Tracks like California separate good from not-so-good. Very impressive.

Oh, and I'll see whether I can arrange for Kasey Kahne to pass off one of those new Gillette razors to BV for you …

Fox 3-D: I spoke with Fox director Artie Kempner about this, and he said to give it time, that it's no "TV toy." Toys, he said, are for the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500. This is a legitimate tool that he feels will be quite beneficial to the viewer in the future, once the kinks are worked out. Kempner's my boy, the nicest guy in the business, so I'm willing to give it time.

That said, I'll admit it seemed a bit forced. Like with wreck replays, just show me the real replay and let Larry Mac or DW 'splain it. They're the best there is. Let them do their thing.

Marty,

You make good money now at ESPN. Two things: (1) Buy some dress shoes and quit wearing sneakers with your sport coat. You are furthering the stereotype of NASCAR being a hillbilly sport. Yes, shoes will do that much damage. (2) Stop feeding your kid mutilated Nutri-Grain bars, unless you get free Nutri-Grain bars for saying so.

-- JB, MIA

Jeez. JB must have a direct line to Miss Cleo. (1) How's he know my salary? (2) Walking around a racetrack for 15 hours in dress shoes sucks. I'm a Chuck Taylor and Levi's kinda guy. (3) My accent does enough for the stereotype all by itself. The shoes are merely icing. (4) The bars hit the plate fully intact. My son makes the executive decision to mill them in his hands like a Play-Doh meat grinder.

Marty,

The two Busch Series races held outside of the U.S. seem to be embraced well by U.S. NASCAR fans. Do you think there's a future for Nextel Cup races outside of U.S. borders?

-- Kathy, Atlanta

Yes. In Canada. Just my opinion, but I think the Cup Series will race in Montreal within the next few years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a great point to me at the banquet back in December.

"I like the idea of racing in Canada. There's obviously a huge untapped market up there for us," Earnhardt said then. "It's not that big of a deal [logistically]. It's very difficult to go to Mexico, the logistics of traveling in and out. But Canada's relatively easy. It's like traveling to the West Coast. We could go up there and have a lot of success in Nextel Cup, not just the Busch Series."

Canadians are rabid NASCAR fans. Back when I was at NASCAR.com and got a million e-mails a week, about 70 percent of them came from north of the border. They're hard-core up there. The Busch Series event in August will be a rousing success.

Marty,

I'm a proud member of the Junior Nation, and I'm worried! Junior's engines are big trouble. People were picking him as a legitimate championship contender this year and he's 40th in points! Is this something [VP of racing] Richie Gilmore and the boys can fix before Las Vegas? Please say yes!!

-- Butch, Virginia

Ultimately the answer is yes, Butch.

Dale Earnhardt jr
Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCARDale Earnhardt Jr.'s day ended in a cloud of smoke -- and later a bow -- at California. You can bet DEI is working hard to figure out what went wrong.

But understand this is no simple transition. Having spoken with two top-tier engine builders about the conversion to unleaded fuel from leaded, I can sympathize with the DEI boys.

Leaded fuel contains lubricants that unleaded does not. Those lubricants acted as a buffer for the valve seats in the engines, offering cushion when the valves pounded down on the valve seats. That is now gone, and Doug Yates tells me his group at Roush-Yates Engines spent upward of $1 million to find special coatings for the valves that replace the buffer lost with the lead. Heck, they're still researching it.

Jeff Andrews, head engine builder at Hendrick Motorsports, told me his research and development group spent three months, from early November to early February, testing various combinations before it found one it was comfortable taking to the track.

Andrews said they typically spend 50 percent of their R&D time on durability and 50 percent on finding more power. This offseason, the ratio was 90 percent durability, 10 percent power. He also noted that on the Cup package, after about 250-300 miles, they started seeing wear in the valve to valve-seat interface. That's what failed for Junior.

HMS' testing consisted of 10 complete engine builds that went on a dynamometer that simulates exact race laps. Before Andrews was satisfied, the engines had to run 700 wear-free miles because with the 500-mile race, plus practice and qualifying; that's a lot of wear on a motor.

HMS had nine engines in the field at Fontana. None failed. In fact, Andrews told me they took the valve covers off of the Nos. 24 and 48 cars after the race and saw very little wear.

Lastly, unleaded fuel has changed routine. Yates told me a typical spark plug check used to show discoloration of the spark plug. With unleaded, the spark plugs remain stark white.

Fortunately, DEI has two weeks to pore over those engines and remedy the problem. To its credit, DEI made huge gains in 2006 with horsepower on racetracks like Fontana and Vegas, only to have a wrench thrown at it in the form of unleaded fuel an entire year early.

Marty,

You think you know a lot about NASCAR racing. You really don't. Us fans know more than you. Just give it up [and] find a job that you know more about than this sport.

-- Dan Stockwell, MIA

Thanks for the shout-out, Dan. What do you suggest I try? I know a bit about nutrition. Maybe I could give seminars on the glycemic index. Trade white bread for whole wheat, Dan. Trade your Coors Original for a glass of merlot. You'll shrink without even trying. You'll be the Don Shula of your neighborhood. The ladies will swoon.

Marty,

In your last column you mentioned that Jeff Burton "stopped by the NASCAR hauler to make sure the 24 got a fair shake." Does this mean Burton has taken on the leadership, or "Dale Earnhardt," role among the drivers?

This issue has come up numerous times, with drivers venting they don't have a leader since Earnhardt's death. It was mentioned last year by both Harvick and Stewart. Harvick, I believe, suggested it should be Gordon, but he didn't seem to want that role.

I vaguely recall Burton being asked about it once, and he seemed to indicate he didn't feel right about it since he had not been very competitive on-track for a while. Now that he is among the leaders on the track, has he become the leader off the track?

I found that comment very interesting, especially because it was Gordon he was looking out for.

-- Eric Williams, Cleveland

I call Burton "The Mayor" because he is the voice of reason among the driving corps. Why? He's not a bit scared to take on the establishment when necessary. He'll question unfairness and call out shadiness. If I need a true, real opinion on a pressing issue, the first phone call I make is to Jeff Burton.

Okay, this is entirely too long. Most of you didn't even get to this point. If you did, bravo. It was a commitment. Not unlike going to Mexico City. Said Heads Forever.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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