For NASCAR, it's back to the future
CONCORD, N.C. -- The final day of the 30th annual NASCAR media tour began Thursday morning with the unveiling of a brand-new race car. Bill Elliott pulled the cover off of the blue No. 50 Wal-Mart machine he will drive in July at the Coke Zero 400, built by Turner Motorsports and powered by Hendrick Motorsports engines.
A more fitting exclamation point to this year's preseason sentence might have been the unveiling of Doc Brown's DeLorean.
Each edition of the media tour develops its own unique theme. Three years ago it was economic gloom and doom. Two years ago the tour was plastered by what felt like overly positive NASCAR-mandated talking points, clearly aimed at blowing away those dark clouds. Last year brought sweeping change, from shop floors to the points system.
This week it was all about riding into the future on the wave of momentum from 2011, one of the most competitive seasons in NASCAR history, but still keeping one foot planted squarely in the past to push off with. For example, the world's largest retailer hiring a 56-year-old former Cup champion to help its first ride make the field for its first race.
In other words, back to the future.
"It has been kind of an old-school, new-school kind of week, hasn't it?" said Elliott, about to embark on his 37th season and the owner of a past champion's provisional. "Y'all have been talking to old guys like me, young guys like [16-year-old son] Chase, and just, well, just a lot of old and new stuff all at once."
The past-is-prologue experience started with the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction in Charlotte on Friday, when the Hall's Crown Ballroom was packed with a beautiful blend of current and past stock car racing stars. The news conferences of this week were dominated by young blood, the largest group of fresh-faced drivers to come along in quite some time, and new blood, putting old faces in new places to try to create a spark.
At the Roush Fenway Racing stop, 21-year-old Trevor Bayne and 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr. acted as de facto emcees of a trivia contest. Danica Patrick, finally a full-time NASCAR racer, moved with ease between tables at a Nationwide Series dinner. And at Richard Childress Racing's sushi dinner, Austin Dillon threw down wasabi-eating challenges.
"It seems like it's been a while since a lot of new young guys all showed up at once," Dillon said on Tuesday, motioning to the Chevy he will race in the Nationwide Series, the first black No. 3 stock car since the death of Dale Earnhardt. "Among all of us there seems to be a real appreciation for the history of the sport. We know what these numbers mean and we respect them. We want to write the next chapter for them, whether it's me in this car, Trevor Bayne with the Wood Brothers, [Aric] Almirola with Richard Petty, or Brad Keselowski in the Blue Deuce."
On Thursday morning, Keselowski was clearly at ease with his new unofficial role as Penske Racing's No. 1 driver, practically running the team's news conference from his center stage chair. That promotion came via team owner Roger Penske's decision to replace the controversial Kurt Busch. He did that by digging back into his roots, hiring a racer who first made his name as an open-wheel road-racing ace, AJ Allmendinger. If that sounds like Mark Donohue, who came over with Penske from Formula One and Indy Car and earned the pair its first NASCAR win in 1973, The Captain says that's not an accident, even if he didn't realize it at first.
"I wouldn't say that was a conscious decision, but when you say it out loud like that, it sure makes a lot of sense. And there's no doubt that when you talk to AJ there's a real Donohue kind of mindset there. I don't think a race team can have enough of that. Working with guys like that makes an old guy like me feel young again."
The week peaked Wednesday with the unveiling of the 2013 Ford Fusion, the first of NASCAR's overhauled fleet of race cars that will contain new technology but look and feel more like, in the words of NASCAR president Mike Helton, "a real, genuine stock car that looks like what they sell in the showroom."
That reveal also marked the official beginning of the funeral march for the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow.
"There's things about the current car that will be in the new car," team owner Richard Petty admitted at the Ford announcement. "But I think you can say this is pretty much the day that the Car of Tomorrow became the Car of Yesterday."
Jeff Gordon talked about celebrating later this fall when he hits the 20th anniversary of his first Cup series start, while potential future teammate Chase Elliott, a Hendrick Motorsports development driver, worked the crowd. Kurt Busch said he was looking forward to "going old-school and rediscovering fun" with underfunded Phoenix Racing.
Tony Stewart looked over his overhauled team, smiled, and said, "This is just a bunch of short-track racers that live and breathe racing 24 hours a day. When we have a meeting it honestly feels like just a bunch of dirty racing guys talking. And by guys I'm including Danica."
Fostering these new youthful feelings is NASCAR itself. As recently as four years ago the marketing and promotional efforts of the sanctioning body were deliberately designed to disconnect with its so-called redneck past, with mandates such as no country music or mention of the word moonshine. In addition, no drivers were featured unless they were: (A) Sprint Cup competitors; (B) in the top four or five of souvenir sales.
There's things about the current car that will be in the new car. But I think you can say this is pretty much the day that the Car of Tomorrow became the Car of Yesterday.” -- Richard Petty
Now all of that has changed, as evidenced by the "Fast Forward" theme splashed all over Thursday's "state of the union" news conference, complete with a slideshow of young drivers, the introduction of the new Drive for Diversity class, and, yes, country music. All held on the main floor of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, surrounded by the cars of stock car racing's past.
"I think Trevor Bayne was a huge wake-up call for us," admitted Steve Phelps, NASCAR chief marketing officer. "He won our biggest race last year and fans knew nothing about him. Neither did sponsors. Candidly, neither did we. Luckily we had a media blitz that week that showcased Trevor, but it made us realize that we need to start planting the seeds and educating people about these young drivers early."
NASCAR now has a department dedicated to -- in Phelps' words -- star-making. According to Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR VP of racing operations, that group has created an extensive list of drivers who represent every tier of the NASCAR ladder, no matter how far down. "If they make a fan early, then they have a fan for life. That's how the drivers in this Hall of Fame became Hall of Famers. When today's young racers do start moving up that ladder, we need to give them the kind of stage and fan base they deserve."
It's about time. And if this year's Fountain of Youth edition of the NASCAR media tour is any indication, it's starting to work.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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