Views from the Grandstands

Crown Jewels

Want to increase interest in NASCAR? Give fans a chance to see drivers compete to win three of four races on the sport’s toughest, most historic tracks


Memorial Day Sunday was a great day for motorsports.

Chip Ganassi got the Borg-Warner Trophy from the Indy 500 to set next to NASCAR’s Harley J. Earl Trophy he won in February at Daytona.

Thanks to the checkered flags that Dario Franchitti took in May and Jamie McMurray grabbed in February, Ganassi became the first car owner to win Indy and Daytona in the same year. Can you say historic? Roger Penske is the only other owner to win both races, though in separate years.

And this year, Penske was close behind in the holiday hardware race. His No. 2 Dodge drove into the Coke 600 victory lane at Charlotte on Memorial Day evening, while his Indianapolis drivers did OK earlier in the day with two of them finishing in the top 10.

These cross-series accomplishments thrilled racing fans, even those of us cheering for other drivers. And it makes me ask: Why should owners be the only ones who get to have such fun?

We may one day get a deal between IndyCar and NASCAR that again will let drivers try to compete in both big Memorial Day races. But until then (and even after), NASCAR can spice things up by bringing back its Crown Jewels competition.

Between 1985 and 1997 series sponsor Winston offered drivers a shot at a $1 million bonus. All a driver had to do was win three of the sport’s four Crown Jewel races in a single year.

They were NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500; its fastest, the season’s first race at Talladega; the longest, the Coke 600 at Charlotte; and the sport’s oldest superspeedway race, what was then the Southern 500 on Labor Day at Darlington.

It was this special event’s first year of existence that gave Awesome Bill from Dawsonville another nickname: Million Dollar Bill. The fan favorite solidified that standing by promptly going out and taking the cigarette manufacturer’s money. Don’t you know R.J. Reynolds executives were freaking out, thinking they’d be on the hook for the cash over and over and over!

They didn’t have to worry. For the next 11 years, only a couple of drivers won two of the designated races and the $1 million stayed in the bank.

Then along came Jeff Gordon in 1997. The kid who so many loved to hate and his team with a flair for the dramatic had the bonus in their sights. After winning at Daytona and Charlotte, they came to Darlington with a special paint job; “Million Dollar Date” was printed in the rainbow stripes of the 24’s hood and on the rear quarter panels. Dollar signs let the jackman know the proper place for that piece of equipment at each pit stop.

In a hold-your-breath last lap, Gordon and Jeff Burton banged doors all the way to the checkers. And after the 24 eked out the win, Gordon’s victory lap was paced by an armored car spewing fake currency.

It was a day that got lots of attention, both weeks before and after the Crown Jewels win.

The next year, the contest was killed. Sure, a reworked $1 million giveaway replaced it, but fans knew it was just a marketing ploy. There was no historic hook, just an effort to gin up fake enthusiasm for something created to give more drivers more money.

NASCAR, you just don’t get it. Fans don’t care about the money — in fact, the fixation on dollars has driven away numerous folks who used to live for Sunday afternoon racing.

What we want is to see the unbelievable done. Two men in a dozen years were able to win the monster races of your sport. Those who saw both accomplishments will never forget it, and now it’s time to give us another chance to see such spectacular feats.

Sure, times and schedules and racetracks change. But NASCAR has the chance to rekindle some real excitement by providing us a race among races, a demanding mini-series where the best of the best can shine.

Yeah, yeah, I already hear the whining about the money. Don’t even bother. Even though the economy is tight, you can get multiple sponsors to pony up. Four presenters at $250,000 each, and it’s set.

Or NASCAR itself, despite its cries about costs, can foot the bill. As history has shown, it’s not going to happen every year. Besides, that’s what insurance is for!

I will make one concession to changing times. Replace Daytona with the Brickyard. Daytona already is NASCAR’s Super Bowl. It doesn’t need any more attention.

By putting NASCAR’s Indy race into the Crown Jewels, you’ll have a different layout and challenge. And maybe that’ll make it easier for the stock and open-wheel series to work out those Memorial Day scheduling issues, too!

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

 

LOOSE LUGNUTS

NASCAR demographic disaster NASCAR apparently needs to do something to generate excitement. A recent SceneDaily.com report says the sport’s 2010 television ratings have decreased slightly from last year’s lows. Even worse, the biggest drop was in the most-coveted TV demographic: Viewership among males ages 18 to 34 is down 29 percent from last year alone.

Teammate turmoil Some of the hardest racing this year has been between teammates on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. race fans are well aware there’s no love lost between Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. The internal feud came to the forefront during the Sprint Cup’s all-star weekend when the 18 and 11 tangled and Busch got the worse end of the deal. Sniping between the boys has since ensued.

Then came the Turkish Grand Prix, where the Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel was expected to solidify that team’s control of F1. But the competitive spirit proved too strong; the two crashed into each other late in the race. Webber salvaged a podium finish, but fingers continued to be pointed. Red Bull Team principal Christian Horner told Autosport.com the crash “has not done irrevocable damage to the intra-team relationship.” Maybe someone should give Joe Gibbs’ phone number to Horner, just in case.

More U.S. open-wheel venues It’s been a great summer for open-wheel fans. IndyCar confirmed it will race in the streets of Baltimore next season, and Formula 1 is returning in 2012 with a new facility in Austin, Texas. The Charm City race will be on the schedule for at least five years, starting next August with a 2.4-mile temporary street circuit incorporating landmarks such as the Inner Harbor and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. As for F1, Bernie Ecclestone said he hopes the Lone Star State is the series’ permanent U.S. home. Tavo Hellmund of Full Throttle Productions, the group behind the project, told the Austin American-Statesman that the state capital is a perfect fit: “The geography, the tech money, the nightlife, the music. It all just fits with what Formula 1 is all about.”

As an Austin resident and F1 fan, I hope Hellmund and Ecclestone are right, but I’ll believe it when I hear those vehicles actually start their engines.

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