Sunday, May 20, 2001

Auto Racing Insider


Area native giving Winston Cup a shot

By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Blue Ash native Jeff Fultz will run with the big kids this week. He will try to qualify for a NASCAR Winston Cup event, a rarity for a Greater Cincinnati driver.

        Fultz, 30, will make his first career Winston attempt at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., site of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday.

        “I'm real excited,” Fultz said. “If we just stick in there for two (qualifying) laps, we'll be OK.”

        Rodney Combs, formerly of Hamilton, is believed to be the most recent Greater Cincinnati native to drive in Winston Cup. Combs ran in 55 Winston races over the past two decades and drove in the Busch series through the mid-1990s.

        Fultz is a star on the NASCAR Gatorade All-Pro regional circuit, finishing second in the 2000 points race. For Winston Cup, he has a one-race deal with car owners Gene DeHart and Mike Clark for the Coca-Cola 600. DeHart's father, Gary, is crew chief for Winston driver Terry Labonte.

        “We tested last week at Charlotte, and I was running with Dale Jarrett and Ward Burton,” Fultz said. “In race terms, we were as good as them. I was right in the middle of 'em, not gaining much but not losing much.”

        Fultz didn't want to risk much. He has only one car, the No.54 Ford Taurus he will try to qualify this week. Most of the high-rent Winston teams have fleets of cars — in some cases, more than a dozen — that they use during a season.

        “We didn't want to do any banzai runs,” Fultz said. “We've got to be cautious.”

        Fultz lives in Mooresville, N.C., where he works as a fabricator in the race shop of Winston driver Robert Pressley. His main sponsors for the Winston deal are Juba Glass and C & C Boiler, two Charlotte businesses.

        The odds are against Fultz making the field, as a one-man show with limited funding. At age 30, he won't get many more chances like this. But he'll at least be in the qualifying line, a place most drivers will never see.

        “We were competitive during our test,” Fultz said. “That gives me a good feeling.”

        Fultz also might attempt to run in the Busch race at Kentucky Speedway next month.

        INDY BLAHS: Think about this:

        Kentucky Speedway drew 26,202 people for its ARCA stock race May 12. The same day, only about 20,000 attended Indianapolis 500 pole qualifying, according to the Indianapolis Star.

        The old Indy aura is gone, and it's not coming back. Despite the biggest “name” field since the CART-IRL split of 1995, Indy has lost its cachet because of the open-wheel war.

        Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. are both in the field again. Arie Luyendyk is back from retirement. Tony Stewart will attempt the Indy-Winston Cup “double” next Sunday.

        Roger Penske, Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Chip Ganassi all will be in the pits with their teams.

        This is what we wanted, right?

        Yes. But somehow, the big reunion is less than satisfying. The NASCAR train roared away from the station years ago, and open-wheel racing has lost much of its audience. More people are interested in who wins next Sunday's NASCAR race than in who wins Indy.

        Then there's Indy pole day, a shell of its former self. Pole day once drew more than 100,000 fans annually, but the grandstands are a virtual ghost town now. When you put 20,000 people into a 300,000-seat facility, it's not exactly the greatest spectacle in racing.

        Race day remains a sellout, but veteran observers say it's not the traffic-snarled madhouse it once was. TV ratings have slipped. With the proliferation of TV channels, the popularity of the Internet and the graying of Indy's fan base, the “500” is just not as big a deal anymore.

        And that's too bad.

        E-mail tgroeschen@enquirer.com.



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