Sunday, June 22, 2003

Dow: Auto racing insider


NASCAR's grasp equals its reach with new sponsor

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As if it hadn't already crossed the threshold years ago, NASCAR took another step toward mainstream America by agreeing to a $700 million deal with Nextel last week for title sponsor rights to what has been the Winston Cup Series since 1971.

It's about time.

There aren't a whole lot of drivers smoking cigarettes around the garages these days, but you can bet every one of them is downloading personal ringers and checking his text messages. Now they have the added benefits of the "walkie-talkie" feature.

It may seem that NASCAR has successfully reached out to every conceivable demographic in marketing its product. But it can always get younger, and it's a lot easier to sell racing to kids with a cell phone commercial than a cigarette ad that can't be shown on TV.

NASCAR proved its loyalty by sticking with RJR Tobacco for as long as it did, but Nextel Cup racing is no longer just a thrill for people on Tobacco Road.

NASCAR has become a national phenomenon, and it deserves a sponsor that reflects that reach.

BUMPY REACTION: Several Indy Racing League drivers' comments about bumps at Kentucky Speedway were blown out of proportion Friday.

Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Al Unser Jr. and Kenny Brack all complained that the track's surface was bumpy during a test session Friday.

"When you went out, you went, 'Oh my God!' " Unser Jr. said.

Speedway officials said an unusual amount of freezing and thawing this winter caused the bumps, but that it isn't a major concern. General manager Mark Cassis said "minor changes" might be made to Turns 1 and 2, but added that the bumps are part of the track.

Drivers should expect nothing more than minor changes. Bumps come with the territory, and teams can adjust by tweaking their suspension systems.

The IRL teams might have been caught off guard Friday because Kentucky has been known for having a relatively smooth track since it opened in 2000.

Castroneves went so far as to say the bumps could cause an accident, but that is where driver and team knowledge are supposed to come into play.

Cassis said he will meet with IRL officials to discuss the track conditions, but he said he didn't plan on making any significant changes either before the July 12 Craftsman Truck Series race, or the IRL race Aug. 17.

"We just have to take that into consideration and try to set up the car so we can handle those kinds of situations," Brack said.

BEGINNER'S LUCK? Toyota engines are performing quite well in their first year in the IRL. Cars with Toyota engines have won five of six races this season, with points leader Tony Kanaan's Honda-powered car winning the other race.

But drivers say that doesn't mean Toyota is building a better engine. Rather, they note there are just more cars with Toyota engines under the hood.

Toyotas outnumbered Hondas 10 to six in last Sunday's race at Pike's Peak.

"Toyota has done an incredible job and was very organized coming into the series," said de Ferran, who drives Toyota. "They're doing a good job, but Honda is very close. The fight is going to last a long time."

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E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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