Commentary

Triathlons are tough

Updated: July 13, 2012, 6:41 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

There is a fundamental reason I'm a sports reporter: because I wasn't good enough to actually play. I was reminded of this fact on a recent Sunday morning in Charleston, S.C., by way of a 67-year-old man in a unitard and two giggly 14-year-old girls.

I was on a remote road adjacent to James Island County Park, on my road bike, roughly halfway through the Charleston Triathon. I was five hours removed from filing for "SportsCenter" -- in Daytona Beach, Fla. -- and hadn't so much as reached REM before the alarm started hollering. I was running on adrenaline, and it felt awesome.

While still patting myself on the back and praising my Maker that I'd actually made it through a 600-yard swim (for which I'd practiced a total of once), I felt fantastic about my position: upright and breathing.

That pond was dicey. I swim like an anvil: 50 yards in, I was gurgling pond scum and floating on my back staring at the sky, pondering the plausibility of this venture. At that moment, the challenge shifted from physical to mental. I dominated two divisions that day: the backward doggie-paddle division and the fake-me-out freestyle.

Fortunately, there was a shoal in the outside lane some 400 yards in. I took advantage. I walked on the dirt and pretended to swim. (When I admitted this to my buddies at the watering hole, tequila shot out their noses. It got even funnier when our buddy Chopper Shelton admitted to doing the same. He swims like an anvil too.)

Upon exit of the doggie pond, I was euphoric. From there this deal was manageable. It's like Bobby Bowden so poignantly said when comparing NASCAR to other sports: In football you might get injured. In baseball you might get injured. In NASCAR you might die.

Same goes for biking and running versus swimming. You can meet your Maker in the water. That actually crossed my mind during a particularly lengthy stint on my back. At one point, some random guy in a red swim cap (mine was navy blue, which means he started four minutes after me and had caught me in the water) swam by and screamed, "CALM THE $#%^ DOWN AND SWIM, DUDE!"

Easy for him to say. He wasn't aspirating sphagnum moss. Nearly 16 minutes after I jumped in that pond, I emerged. Alive.

Once out of the water, it took me several minutes to transition to my bike. I failed to buckle my helmet, prompting race officials to make me start over. That cost me another minute.

Finally I was rolling. I continued to remind myself to race the clock and not other competitors, and I tried to take in the scenery along the route. I'm not an adept cyclist. In fact, during training for this race, I toppled over twice at four-way stoplights. Just fell over. I lost focus for a moment and shifted my weight to my left side -- the side still clipped into the pedal. And like an old, tired dog on a front porch on a lazy summer day, I just laid it down.

That brings us back to the 67-year-old and the two 14-year-old girls. I know their ages because in triathlons your respective division is drawn in Sharpie on your right calf. I was cruising along, past a slew of signs that requested riders stay to the right unless passing. I didn't pass a soul. I stayed to the right.

Meanwhile I was getting my doors blown off. My buddy Barry Byrd screamed by me with some words of encouragement. He started several minutes behind me. I told him he was No. 1. Several more folks passed me, including No. 48 jack man T.J. Ford. He too verbally encouraged me. I told him to head south. He laughed out loud.

That he could laugh at all made me even madder. I couldn't breathe well enough to laugh.

I'm pretty sure Lance Armstrong went by me at about Mile 10. The guy had to have been going 30 mph. It took me more than 38 minutes to finish the ride.

I'm a runner. This is where I made some hay. During those 5 kilometers, I passed everyone who had passed me on two wheels and a few more. So I finished up strong at 23 minutes.

That told me I hadn't sold out on the bike, and it troubled me.

It troubled me far worse when I realized that three race car drivers -- Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Sweet -- had smoked me. Kahne and Johnson beat me by some 10 minutes. Ten minutes! And they were just hours removed from racing at Daytona.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
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I challenge anyone who claims drivers aren't athletes to join us next time. You'll get your comeuppance.

Ultimately it was a blast. We'll do it again soon. I'm very competitive by nature and expect to do well. But from the moment I retired from organized sports it's always been about the experience for me, the camaraderie. Even in an arena as trivial as beer-league softball, I want to win. But the memories aren't the victories. The memories lie in the time spent with the boys, celebrating success or laughing at ineptitude.

I figure those are the best memories, even for the most-celebrated professional athletes. The trophies are nice. The relationships are forever.

That's what I will remember about the Charleston Triathlon, the laughter in the aftermath and the bond that only competition can forge -- a bond that creates a void many former athletes can never truly fill. I just might have found an avenue to suppress that hunger.

I certainly found a reminder of why I'm a sports reporter.

Chatting With the Chairman

While in Daytona, NASCAR granted me 15 or so minutes to sit with NASCAR chairman Brian France. We covered a lot of ground. Here's a transcript of that conversation, which included the single most authentic, honest answer I've ever heard him give to a question.

Marty Smith: How would you rate the general state of NASCAR right now?

Brian France: I think it's pretty good. I think there are some weak spots. We've been affected, as you know, more adversely to a tough economy. Higher fuel prices. Our fans stay longer. Drive further. That kind of thing. But generally speaking, we came off a great Chase last year. I think it's shaping up and we are about to make that turn. Dale Jr. now surging a little bit. That's nice to see. Jeff Gordon on the outside looking in, probably going to have to win a couple races as we make the turn on into the fall. And my hope is we'll have the kind of Chase that we had last year, and end with a very strong season.

[+] EnlargeBrian France
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesNASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France sees better days ahead for the sport.

Smith: You noted Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to Victory Lane. What impact does his success, his being relevant on the racetrack, have for NASCAR racing?

France: Well, you know with a lot of media outlets that may or may not cover us all the time, he is an attention grabber. If you see what was covered when he won a couple of weeks ago, it was very impressive. And obviously he has the biggest fan base. And he's a terrific guy. So it's nice to see him get not only a win, but to be really competitive week in, week out.

Smith: You noted the various aspects economically that NASCAR racing faces because of the sponsor impact and whatnot. When you look five years down the road, what do you see for this sport?

France: Well, I see the tracks doing some incredible things in terms of what I know is on the table, at least to consider for them to invest back into the facilities in a good way. I see us, and the moves we are making with technology and innovation, using more science than art to get the rules packages better than they are today. That's always a stated goal of ours. I see it still being the most competitive and greatest motorsports in the world. And a young batch of drivers is what I'm really excited about -- when you think about what's out there now, and some of these guys that are coming in. There's a lot of talk about this might be the best crop on the horizon that we've seen in a decade. So I'm pretty bullish that this sport, long term, is going to continue to be at the top of the list.

Smith: You're the chairman of NASCAR. With some of your peers in the other sports -- say Roger Goodell, David Stern, etc. -- they're extremely visible personalities to the fans, to the players, to the owners. What is the importance of your being visible in the garage and with the teams and fans?

France: When you say that, I don't know how visible that they are? There's hundreds of games.

Smith: I see them on TV every day. Like, every single day, they are on TV interacting in some facet, it seems.

France: I don't see that. But look, what I know is what it takes for us to be successful.

Smith: Which is?

France: All of the disciplines that we have. Then marshaling them to get to the right place. I mean, you think of the amount of change that has gone on just in the last two years with personnel changes, with our strategy changes. Our R&D splitting with the focus with Steve O'Donnell his group. It's enormous. And so when people don't see me that's what works for us. And everybody is entitled to different views about that. But we know what works for our organization and for us to be successful, and that's what we are going to do.

Smith: Why is that the right model for NASCAR?

France: Because I've lived this my whole life. I know what drives our business. I know what drives our people. I know what drives our strategy. And it's not me walking around signing autographs or smiling at people. If that were, that's what I'd do. I need to do what works for us. And we have Mike Helton and a number of great guys in competition who lead us every weekend. I talk to those guys twice a day, every day. I go to a number of events. Not as many as my predecessors have, but our sport is broader, bigger and the demands are just different. And so I'm very confident of what works for us.

Smith: One of the track owners, Bruton Smith, said recently that he felt we should have staged preplanned caution periods to try and spruce up the show, basically. What's your reaction to that?

France: Well, we are never going to do gimmicky things in order to promote better competition. That's just not in the cards and that's that.

Smith: There's much talk about the attention span of the fan. Of course some races have already been shortened in length, but what thought has there been to contracting the schedule at all, or shortening more races?

France: Well no one that I know wants to give up a date, so contracting the schedule would be hard to do. But it's fair. I think that you know technology and attention spans. I mean, we are looking at that carefully. And maybe the things we are going to be able to do with technology and interacting, interfacing with the events themselves will be unique for us. That may very well be a thing that keeps our fan base more excited throughout the course of the event. Being able to, and we have some exciting things on the horizon there.

Smith: When you do talk to fans, what are they telling you?

France: Oh you know most fans are very gracious, very nice to me. I certainly get emails. I certainly get letters and notes and so on. And there are some complaints, sure. I mean we got millions and millions of fans and they're going to all see a given race differently, or a given rules call that we may make, or directionally where we are going. But it is pretty good. There is some criticism, but I respond to that. I make a bunch of calls to people and I don't broadcast that. It's always fun when I call them and they're surprised that I responded to their letter directly and they're happy to tell me what they think. And that's the great part of having a loud, excited fan base.

Smith: In what areas from your perspective has the sport made the greatest strides recently?

France: I think it's changing with the times. I think if you look at our organization, not only how much bigger it is, but the kind of people we've attracted who are working on digital media. We are going to hire 70 people or more -- we are going to have our digital rights back a year from now. And that allows us to stay with it, with social media, digital media, and stay close to our fan base in ways we weren't able to do in the past. So executing on that. … I said that the R&D center getting the rules packages just right. The '13 car is coming, and we want to be as sound as we can with that. Innovation. We want to be able to dry a track off in 75 percent of the time that it takes today out of the window.

Smith: So that's one of the things you're working on? Really?

France: Sure, that's what we're working on and we'll solve that problem at one point. And all kinds of things that people will start to understand and start to see that will change the way either you consume racing or it makes it more exciting. And the tracks have got a number of things on their drawing board, and I hope that they are able to execute the majority of them.

Smith: I imagine that must be a tremendous challenge to stay ahead of all the moving parts, and the evolution of a sport in the moment. What's it like for you to lead your group and have those conversations on foreseeing what's to come?

France: I had one today, and they're fun. Those are the fun things, because that's going to change racing in a bit, to make it better. We use more science than art to figure out the rules packages to make it even closer, more competitive on the intermediate tracks or any track. Being able to figure that out with the individual race teams differently than we used to. That's the exciting part. Or working on diversity to find talent that we didn't know existed. That could help change the face of NASCAR. That's exciting. Lots of things that are going on. You asked earlier about my time, and it's focused on driving those to get the right conclusion. And if we let any one of those down, we will have left something on the table and that won't be good.

Smith: Last thing: You noted that there are a lot of things going on to make racing better. What's No. 1 on that docket for you?

France: No. 1 is for us to look at things more scientifically. And to look at data more the way that teams look at it. Here's the good news: The teams used to give us information, share things. Simulation. But they were very self-serving in what outcome they wanted. Today that's changing. They are much more, 'Hey here's what we're thinking, and if you are looking for this you might consider this.' And we're seeing a whole different kind of cooperation. That's been going for a few years. We're getting the fruits of that now. The whole industry wants to get to the right place on any one of these things. We may differ on where we are today or how you get there, but everybody wants to get to the other side.

Marty,
What do you make of the AJ Allmendinger suspension? What are you hearing he took?
-- Gayle Summers, Wichita, Kan.

Like most of my colleagues, this is the most-asked question of the week, and I've answered it in several forums. This is how I feel about it: First of all, I hate even answering this question without all the details. It doesn't seem fair to me. But for the sake of the banter, here are my thoughts: If the "B" sample comes back positive, sadly, I do not think Allmendinger will be retained by Penske Racing.

[+] EnlargeAJ Allmendinger
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesWe're still waiting to ultimately find out what happens to AJ Allmendinger.

For NASCAR to suspend him after the "A" sample was positive tells me that it was a substance that endangered other competitors in some fashion or other. It is far out of Roger Penske's DNA to tolerate something like this. Given what Shell/Pennzoil has experienced during its time at Penske -- first the Kurt Busch firing and now this -- Penske has little choice but to go hire an ironclad-safe, can't-miss spokesman who says, does, breathes, eats, sleeps the right message every single time.

Conversely, if the "B" sample comes back negative, Penske should absolutely retain Allmendinger. And if that happens, all hell will break loose in the industry. Allmendinger claims to have taken a "stimulant," and says he'd never knowingly take an unapproved substance.

I believe NASCAR gives these guys the benefit of the doubt. I don't think they'd publicize this to the entire free world if they weren't 2,000 percent certain that a driver had abused a substance that endangered the other competitors.

Not knowing what Allmendinger's legal advice is, this might be an ignorant statement. But it's how I feel generally: If I were accused of something I didn't do, I'd be shouting my innocence from the flag stand at Loudon -- live on "SportsCenter."

Marty,
Gun to your head -- who is the most talented racing driver in any series in the world?
-- C. Ray, Indiana

This may be a cop-out answer, C. Ray, so forgive me. But to me this is an impossible question to answer. Every racing discipline requires a completely different skill set from other disciplines. Making speed on pavement is entirely different from making speed on dirt, and on a road course versus an oval or a short track versus a superspeedway. Driving a Formula One car is a completely different challenge from driving a Sprint Cup stock car. Driving a World Rally Championship car is a completely different challenge from driving a World of Outlaws car. They're just not the same skill set. Is Lewis Hamilton better than Tony Stewart? At driving Formula One cars he is. But put them both on dirt and see what happens. Is Valentino Rossi better than Chad Reed? See what I'm saying? I'm interested in your thoughts on this, Team. Send me your opinions.

Marty,
How about the Next Six? Give us some insight on the next six up-and-comers that you think will make an impact in NASCAR.
-- Darrell Phillips, Esmond, Ill.

Great question, Darrell. NASCAR recently released its thoughts on the "Next 9" drivers that will make an impact. Here's a few I'm really impressed by right now.

1. Ryan Blaney: A superstar with generations of championship pedigree. The buzz about him is all over the garage. I expect a marquee owner to sign him very soon.

2. Kyle Larson: Everywhere I go, folks are talking about this kid. He may have the most potential of the group.

3. Chase Elliott: He's lighting it up in Rick Hendrick's K&N cars. And like Blaney he has championship pedigree. The old man -- Awesome Bill -- is a surefire Hall of Famer.

4. Darrell Wallace Jr.: I really like his attitude and approach, and was impressed with his effort in the Nationwide event at Iowa. He has big potential.

5. Dylan Kwasniewski: This kid drove me around Sonoma for a "SportsCenter" shoot and wore that Toyota Camry plumb out. I loved his disposition and self-confidence. He is focused, has a plan.

That's my time, Team. I appreciate yours. Thank you for being NASCAR fans and for being in The Six.

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