Spade Racing’s 2017 Silly Season Recap—100% True, 95% Complete

Dale Jr. stands next to his replacement
driver--Alex Bowman--and replacement
car--the Chevy Camaro.

Spade Racing’s 6 for 6 offseason series returns next week

Happy New Year, everybody!  As we power into 2018, you might be wondering where the dust has settled in arguably the busiest Nascar “Silly Season” in recent memory.  Well, that’s where your good friends—well, ok, friend—at Spade Racing comes in!

WHAT’S THAT ABOUT DALE JR. LEAVING?!?  Yep, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Nascar’s most-popular driver, announced his retirement and has officially driven off into the sunset, minus a few Xfinity Series races over the next year or two.  He’ll be sticking around the sport, however, as an analyst for NBC Sports’ Nascar broadcasts.

WHO ELSE IS GONE?  Matt Kenseth announced mere weeks before the end of the season that, lacking a contending ride for 2018, he’ll be taking this upcoming season off, although one would have to think it would take something crazy to find him back racing in Nascar full-time in 2019.  Meanwhile, Danica Patrick, also lacking a ride for 2018, has announced she will run in the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 next year, then retire from racing.
--Daytona starts a week earlier, giving us three off-weekends
--Chicago moves to mid-summer
--New Hampshire loses its 2nd date
--Indy is now the final "regular season" race
--Las Vegas gets a 2nd race, which opens the Playoffs
--Charlotte's Playoff race will be on the "Roval" road course

EARNHARDT JR, KENNETH, EDWARDS, STEWART, GORDON—WHY ARE SO MANY DRIVERS CALLING IT QUITS?  There’s many reasons, but the main one is money—now that the boom period gravy train has derailed, drivers simply aren’t getting paid as well as they once were.  Nascar is much safer than it has ever been, but too many drivers, looking at a secure financial future from shrewd deals in the past, simply don’t want to be risking their health (and lives) for less money.


OK, OK, SO WHO’S MOVING AROUND FOR 2018?  Glad you asked!  Here’s where everybody’s wound up now that the music has stopped for this season’s game of Musical Racing Seats:
—Erik Jones slides over from the 77 Furniture Row car to take Matt Kenseth’s spot in the 20 Joe Gibbs Racing car.  The 77 team is shutting down with sponsor 5-Hour Energy moving over to Furniture Row’s remaining team, reigning champion Martin Truex Jr.'s 78.
—Alex Bowman moves into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s former ride, the 88 Nationwide/Axalta car.  Beyond that there’s some car number changes at Hendrick Motorsports—Chase Elliott’s ride will now be the #9 car (in honor of his father), while William Byron moves up to the former #5 car—renumbered to the 24—to compete for Rookie of the Year honors and sponsorship from Liberty U and Axalta.
—Released from the former #5 ride, Kasey Khane moves over to the Leavine Family Racing #95 car.
—LFR’s former driver, Michael McDowell, goes to Front Row Motorsports, where he’ll team with David Ragan, sponsors and number assignments to be determined.  Currently former FRM driver Landon Cassill looks like the “odd man out” without a ride for 2018.
—Kurt Busch looked like he could be leaving Stewart-Haas Racing, but has instead re-upped for another year.
—Aric Almirola takes his talents—and Smithfield sponsorship—from Richard Petty Motorsports to SHR’s #10 ride, formerly that of Danica Patrick.
—After a messy breakup, Smithfield will still support RPM’s famed #43 ride in some form, although not as the primary sponsor.  ROTY-candidate Bubba Wallace Jr. will take over for AA in the 43, which will switch from Ford to Chevy (and an alliance with RCR).
—Speaking of famed rides, the Wood Brothers will have a new driver next year in Paul Menard, who will drive the #21 in 2018.  Ryan Blaney will shift over to the long-dormant third Team Penske car, the #12.
—The only major ride left open as of now is Menard’s former ride, the RCR #27.  It has been linked to Brennan Poole and sponsor DC Solar, but could simply be shuttered for 2018.

WHEW—THAT’S A LOT OF CHANGES.  ANYTHING ELSE I NEED TO KNOW?  All Chevy teams will be running Camaro’s instead of SS’s (EssEssEs?) next year.

HOW ABOUT SPONSORSHIP SHIFTS?  The biggest one, mentioned above, is Smithfield following Aric Almirola to SHR.  Also, Target departed motorsports entirely, with Credit One taking over as the main sponsor of Kyle Larson’s #42 car.  And Brad Keselowski’s #2 car will have sponsorship split relatively evenly into thirds with Miller Lite, Discount Tire, and Alliance Auto Parts.

SO WHO’S LEFT WITH SPONSORSHIP TO FILL?  Well, many announcements could be forthcoming, but right now the biggest teams with major holes appear to be Chip Ganassi Racing with the 42, Joe Gibbs Racing with the 20, Richard Petty Motorsports with the 43, and, depending on how you consider in-house sponsorship, possibly the SHR teams of the 14 and 41.

UGH, OK, TELL ME—WHAT ARE THE RULES CHANGES FOR 2018?  Surprisingly few—there’ll be five men over the wall on pit stops instead of six, but other than that, things are pretty much the same…for now.

Spade Racing Films 6 for 6: An Offseason Documentary Series--Don’t Turn Out That Light: The Last Man at MLC

(Open on a wide-shot of an aging Detroit-area office building at sundown.  The building has a large “RENT/LEASE” sign plastered over what appears to be a 90’s era Chevrolet logo.  As the narration begins, the camera very slowly zooms in onto the only window of the building with the lights on in it)

Narrator: “There’s an old saying—‘Last man out, turn off the lights’.  Well, truth is that in some cases, there’s reasons—usually of the legal variety—when one man has to stay.”

(Switch to an interior of the office building.  Dusty cardboard stand-ups of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are piled against a wall in an otherwise unused conference room.  Another switch, to a rust-covered bathroom with a 90’s era Detroit Lions decal on a stall.  Finally, another switch to an office door, with lights on the other side.  We enter, to see a late-middle-aged man working at his desk.)

Narrator: “This is the office of Allen Cathy.  From 1999 until 2009, he helped run GM’s Chevrolet racing division, pumping millions of dollars into race teams like Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.  In 2009, GM entered a government-backed bankruptcy proceeding.  The profitable assets of General Motors was transferred to a ‘NEW’ GM, while the remaining components were kept in what was now know as Motors Liquidation Company.  The bankruptcy judge decreed that someone had to remain at MLC for legal reasons.  This is his story.”

Allen Cathy: “Hi—I’m Allen Cathy, executive director at Motors Liquidation Company, formerly known as General Motors.  Welcome to my world.”

(Title screen ‘Don’t Turn Out That Light: The Last Man at MLC’ appears across a late-90’s-era CRT computer monitor)

(Scene is set in an “interview corner” of Cathy’s office—there’s a framed autographed picture of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the wall, as well as a random IndyCar diecast car on a small pedestal.)

Cathy: “Well, we did a lot here back when it was the old GM.  We won races, won championships, even established a dynasty with Jeff Gordon.  Not a lot of people know this, but I was one of the first people to suggest hiring Jeff to drive for us.  Back then Ford has all THEIR eggs in the Robby Gordon basket.  Nice to see how that’s turned out for THEM.”

Narrator: (as we see Cathy thumbing through filing cabinets) “Every weekday for the past nine years, minus vacations, Allen Cathy has come in to work at 9am, leaving at 5pm.  He’s the sole employee of this company, one that once employed hundreds of thousands around the world.”

Cathy: (interview corner) “The idea to bring in the Looney Tunes characters, that was all me—the bigwigs had their hearts set on Felix the Cat for some reason, but I convinced them that Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) transforming into the Tasmanian Devil was money in the bank.”

Narrator: (as Cathy eats a small lunch at his desk) “Its often been said that history cannot be bought, sold, or faked.  In that sense, the nearly-century-long history of Chevrolet is not embodied in the company based in the Renaissance Center down the road—its embodied here, by a man who maintains a job that consists almost entirely of archiving files and answering the phone calls of asbestos litigants.”

Cathy: (interview corner) “Nobody knew who Jimmie Johnson was until I put him in front of Rick Hendrick.  That kid was raw—anybody who saw him race for Herzog-Jackson in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series would know that.  But that’s what the sport needed at the time, not some polished pretty-boy who’d spend time every morning manicuring their facial hair.”

Narrator: (as Cathy adjusts a clock on the wall) “‘What’s good for GM is good for the country’, the old idiom supposedly went, but ironically the success of ‘NEW’ GM has pushed the legacy of MLC further from the minds of the public.”

Cathy: (interview corner) “So in 2009 I got reassigned to this place.  I still don’t know why I was moved off of the motorsports division, but one rumor I heard was because I took too much credit for everything, which is funny because I invented telling people that they did that.”

Narrator: (as Cathy sits idly at his desk) “As you watch Kyle Larson competing for another win.  As you drive by a Cadillac dealership on your way home.  As you see a Buick commercial and wonder how the heck they stuck around.  Remember that this all is from a company less than a decade old.  And that 101 years of success, history, and legacy is maintained here, in this office, by Allen Cathy.”

(Fade out over the office building as the single light remains on)

Spade Racing Films 6 for 6: An Offseason Documentary Series--Let’s Go Away

“Hi, I’m Kyle Busch”  “Hi, I’m Austin Dillon”  “Hi, I’m Kyle Larson”  “Hi, I’m Brad Keselowski”  “Hi, I’m Jimmie Johnson”

Narrator: “These drivers don’t have a lot in common, but they do have one common thread

All Drivers In Unison: “Hi, I’m a Nascar driver, and I was inspired by Daytona USA!”

(Daytona USA theme starts as “attract mode” screen is shown) “Doo doo doodoo doodoo doodoo DOO DOOOOOOO DayyyyyTONNNNNAHHHHHH!!! DayyyyTONNNNAHHHHH lets go away…”
(Title screen is shown)

Kyle Busch: “When I was growing up my brother would take me to the mall.  He’d go to hit on some girls over at the weapons store and leave me at the arcade with five dollars in quarters.  I used to play NBA Jam or Virtua Fighter, but then one day that Daytona USA console showed up.  Just think what might have happened otherwise. (image shown of Kyle Busch’s head superimposed on a basketball player’s body)  Before then, racing was just something my dad and my brother did on the weekends.  But from the moment I put in that first dollar’s worth of quarters, I knew that racing was something I could do, and do as much as I wanted to, no matter what.”

Austin Dillon: “I remember seeing a Daytona USA console for the first time, oddly enough, at Daytona USA, the old exhibit they had down at the track in the 90’s.  I guess you could say my introduction to the game was just like anybody else’s—I played it once, said I thought it was cool, and next thing you know it, my pop-pop has a four-seat unit shipped to my parents’ house for my birthday. (image shown of Austin Dillon’s head on a kid’s body, a clipart party hat cocked at an angle)  It was great because before, to me, racing was what my my dad did with my pop-pop watching his every move.  Now, pop-pop was focusing his attention on ME, making sure I never screwed up, and was always learning about what it meant to be a racer.  You know, I still have that unit today (shot of a Daytona USA unit in a ‘man cave’, with one seat well-worn, the other three in pristine condition).”

Kyle Larson: “Daytona USA—well, to be honest, i didn’t really play it that much.  I think my dad played it with me a few times when I was really little, but by the time I can remember going to the mall with my mom, the arcade was replaced by a Chipotle.  (image shown of Kyle Larson in cartoon form showing up at a mall, seeing “ARCADE CLOSED” sign, and walking off despondently).  In fact, I’ve never really been much for video games at all.  I thought most people knew that—why am I being interviewed for this?  Oh, wait, *I* get it—you think just because I’m part-Japanese, that I’m really into video games?  Huh?  Well I’m sick and tired of that stereotype!!!  I grew up like a redneck and spent every waking hour on the track, not watching anime or having Pokemon battles!  And another thing—“

Brad Keselowski: “Growing up in racing, we weren’t like most families.  I knew I’d go down to a restaurant down the block with a little ‘arcade’ section and play Daytona USA till I ran out of money.  I earned myself quite a reputation down there, taking on all challengers for the title of ‘Jerry’s Grill & Sports Bar Daytona USA Champion’. (image shown of Brad holding up an animated championship belt as an unseen crowd cheers)  Yep, me and some stranger would sit down, start the race, and just go back and forth.  He’d say something about my car looking slow, and I’d say something about how the general acceptance by most of the public of an omniscient being makes free will truly an illusion.  He’d ask me what my problem was, and I’d say that it’s wondering how we can go on knowing that there are likely whole other planes of existence and consciousness yet to be explored by man.  Funny thing was, win or lose, they’d never want to play me again."

Jimmie Johnson: “It’s funny—when I first moved to North Carolina to pursue my dream of being a Nascar driver, it was hard to meet new people.  So on Friday nights when I didn’t have a race to run, I’d go down to a mall near my condo and just play Daytona USA for an hour or so.  It gave me a chance to clear my head, think things through, kind of like what running and biking does for me now (image of Jimmie’s head on a cartoon body in a Daytona USA console, steering with his arms but pedaling a bike with his feet).  You know, the strange thing was, I’d always see Ray Evernham down at that mall too.  It was kinda weird, I mean, him being a world champion crew chief around a bunch of teenagers, but he’d always say he was ‘scouting for his next project’.  Me being a nobody trying to become a somebody, I’d ask if he was looking for a driver, but apparently he was only looking for female drivers for some reason."

Narrator: “Daytona USA—one of the most-popular, most-successful, and most-influential video games of all-time, especially amongst Nascar’s ‘Young Gun’ crowd.  Well, most of them.”

Chase Elliott: “I wasn’t allowed to play Daytona USA—my dad made me play Bill Elliott’s Fast Tracks on a Game Boy.  I kept telling him that nobody HAD Game Boys anymore, but he really wanted me to learn how to win in an Oldsmobile for some reason.”

Competing with Nascar, A Two-Part Longform Series from Spade Racing--Part 2: The Attempt

It is inarguable that Nascar has a stranglehold on stock car racing in this country—the most-prominent stock car racing organization not owned by Nascar is ARCA, a minor league that has worked with Nascar for years.  But in 2001 a group of investors looked to change all that by taking on Nascar at their own game.  That’s right, someone actually tried to compete with Nascar.

They called themselves TRAC—Team Racing Auto Circuit

WHO WERE THEY?  TRAC’s owners were a hodgepodge of investors from different backgrounds—men like longtime TV executive Robert Wussler and future politician Charles Jeter.  On the motorsports side of things longtime Nascar team owner and Ford executive Michael Kranefuss was on the board of directors, while three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough served as the organization’s spokesman.  Some have even suggested that Yarborough’s involvement with the Nascar competitor delayed his entry into the Nascar Hall of Fame.

WHY WAS IT POSSIBLE?  For those of you newer fans, you might have trouble believing this, but in the early-00’s, Nascar was white-hot.  At that time it was the number-two professional sport in America (behind, of course, the NFL) and there had been a bidding war over the first-ever unified TV contracts.  Fox, NBC and Turner (TNT) won, leaving ESPN/ABC and CBS/TNN out in the cold.  A contract for TRAC to televise races on ESPN and ESPN2 was quickly reached, as was an agreement with media conglomerate Raycom Media to handle the organization’s sponsorships and advertising.

WHERE WOULD THEY RACE?  The series reached an agreement with Speedway Motorsports Inc. to host eleven of its twenty estimated first-season events at SMI tracks, including Las Vegas, Bristol, Texas, and Atlanta.  SMI was, and still is, owned and operated by Bruton Smith, the irascible thorn-in-the-side of Nascar since their earliest days.  While Smith kept his distance from the upstart TRAC, taking no ownership stake and staying out of its affairs, he no doubt enjoyed sticking it to Nascar by offering his facilities to a brand-new competitor.

HOW WERE THEY DIFFERENT?  Teams would be centrally-owned by TRAC management, but would each represent a different city or region (Atlanta, New England, etc.), similar to how Major League Soccer was started in the early-90’s.  Sponsorships would be arranged by TRAC via Raycom for each team, aiming for eight-to-twelve teams of two cars each.  All cars would be centrally-produced by Riley & Scott to allow for competitive-balance, similar to IROC.  Instead of the sedan-style stock cars of Nascar, TRAC planned to utilize high-performance sports cars—Dodge Vipers, Ford Mustangs, and Chevrolet Corvettes.  In a bit of a preview of Nascar’s future Chase/Playoff format, teams would be divided into “National” and “American” conferences, accumulating points throughout the year and allowing for a “championship race” at the end of the season.  Furthermore, the organization took a page from Formula 1 by planning to limit its races to a two or three hour television window.

WHEN WERE THEY PLANNING TO START?  The original target year for their first season was 2003.  Eventually this got pushed back to 2004.

WHAT WENT WRONG?  Money, or lack thereof.  The series got as far as doing some on-track tests before money woes derailed the organization.  TRAC owed most of its money to car builder Riley & Scott, which naturally stopped production.  No cars meant no progress towards getting the series off the ground, and everything ground to a halt.

WHY DID IT GO WRONG?  Raycom Media was unable to sell any of the sponsorships for any of the teams.  The group had outsourced its marketing to them, but had retained the ownership of the prospective sponsorships themselves (in other words, sponsorship money would’ve gone directly to TRAC after Raycom got their cut, since they owned the teams outright).  Furthermore it appeared as if the TV deal with ESPN was a “barter/buy”-style deal in which ESPN paid little to nothing up front, while TRAC would’ve retained the rights to sell commercial time (again, via Raycom), although this cannot be confirmed.

WHEN DID IT ALL END?  August 26th, 2003.  That was when TRAC announced that none of the team sponsorships had been sold (apparently they needed to sell at least six to get up and running) and that the organization was no more.

WHAT WAS THE FALLOUT?  The following year a group of investors sued TRAC’s former management for mismanagement and fraud.  While the organization itself claimed losses of nearly $7,000,000 over its short, abortive lifespan, the suit alleged shareholder losses at over $50,000,000.  The result of this suit is unknown.

WHAT REMAINS?  Virtually nothing.  The whereabouts of the test cars are unknown, though they were likely repossessed for nonpayment.  The website has long-since been shut down, the domain taken over by an unrelated company.  ESPN eventually re-entered Nascar, only to leave again in the 2015-16 offseason.  Nascar’s current “Playoff” format’s similarity to TRAC’s league-style points system is likely more of a coincidence than a copy.  Arguably its biggest contribution to the world of motorsports was a valuable lesson: If you plan to compete with Nascar, prepare to lose everything.

Competing with Nascar, A Two-Part Longform Series from Spade Racing--Part 1: The Inventory

We’ve all heard it.

Heck, some of us might have even said it—“If only someone would come along and challenge Nascar, then we’d REALLY have the stock car racing we’d like to see.”  For a lot of fans, someone else either taking control of Nascar or challenging them with a competing series would not only shake things up, but force Daytona Beach to up their game in the management department.

Well, I’d hate to break it to you, but there’s two things you need to understand:
1.) We can be about 99.9% sure that the France/Kennedy family will never sell their controlling interests in Nascar and International Speeday Corporation.
2.) Wanna know what two competing racing organizations would be like?  Look back at the IRL/CART war of the 1990’s.

BUT…let’s take a look at the hypothetical WHAT IF…what if someone DID decide to compete with Nascar—some incredibly rich person or company with a love for racing and the patience to let it grow.  Well, that person or entity would need quite a number of things to actually compete with Nascar at the Cup-level, such as…

—MONEY—this is the most-important thing anybody would need to compete with Nascar.  Heck, its the most-important thing anybody needs to compete with anything.  It doesn’t matter how much a new series would try to spin things about being “cost-effective”, the start-up costs would be astronomical before a single car ran a lap.  On top of that, any new league anywhere (think Major League Soccer) will almost certainly lose money for years—maybe even decades—before they begin to break even.

—A BENEFICIAL TV DEAL—as much as we’re getting our entertainment from other sources now, we still see television as the standard-bearer—just think how much fans have complained with more races being on cable instead of network TV.  A TV partner would have to be willing to televise races live, give them proper support (no random announcers from an off-site studio), and promote promote promote.  Having races on a cable/satellite channel not many people get won’t cut it—MavTV might be great for motorsports, but it isn’t available to the average fan.

—TEAMS and EQUIPMENT—how would such a hypothetical organization operate?  Would they follow the traditional model of allowing anyone with a car that passes inspection to attempt races?  Would they instead own the teams and simply lease them out to interested parties?  Would they have some sort of hybrid similar to Nascar’s current charter system?  Either way, cars will have to be provided by someone, and lots of them.  Then add on all the other equipment necessary—tires, engines, fuel, etc.  Keep in mind that companies might not be willing to provide the sweetheart deals they give Nascar to an upstart company, and you’ll understand by MONEY is the most-important ingredient here.

—TRACKS—on the one hand, we always hear about how Bruton Smith is itching to finally get back at the Frances by starting (or significantly helping) a brand-new racing series to challenge Nascar for stock car supremacy.  But let’s be honest here—as crazy as Bruton is, would he really risk losing his dozen or so Cup races to gamble on a brand-new organization?  While he did it once before (more in PART 2), we’re assuming THIS new organization would actually get on the track.  Its not like Nascar would still be in the mood to deal with him if he would back a competitor so quickly.  Meanwhile, since Nascar essentially owns ISC, those tracks would almost-certainly be off the table.  Any new organization would left to broker deals with a hodgepodge of non-Nascar affiliated tracks to cobble together their schedule.

—DIRECTION—and I’m not just talking about the usual “mission statement” BS.  Any new series would have to determine what they wanted to be like in comparison to Nascar.  How would they differentiate themselves?  Low-cost spec series or unbridled innovation?  Oval-only, road-course only, or a mix?  Plenty of new rules to stay on the cutting-edge, or a return to old-school-style racing?  A steady vision would be needed or things would be changing all the time—you know, just like Nascar.

—DRIVERS—and this is where the biggest variable would come into play.  What kind of start would a new series want—getting in on the ground floor with young, unknown drivers and building around them, or going after big-name veterans from Nascar to make a splash?  Either way carries its own risks—who would want to watch a series full of nobodies vs. a bunch of guys who would be labelled “Nascar rejects”.  Of course our old friend MONEY comes into play here as well, since plenty of that would be needed to either develop drivers from scratch or pry name-guys away from big budget Nascar teams.

—LEADERSHIP—racing brings with it a litany of on-the-spot decisions to make both on and off the track.  Of course a brand new series would bring with it even MORE decisions to be made in relation to the racing product.  Who would be in charge?  Who would set the nitty-gritty rules?  Who would make the calls during races?  Who would organize payouts and levy fines?  A new series could outsource this to an outside sanctioning body, but doing so would likely hurt credibility in the long run.

SO, these are just some of the most-important aspects a brand-new stock car racing series would need.  Remember that 99.99% chance of the Frances ever selling?  Well, I’d say its about the inverse that a competitor would ever come along.

BUT, there was a group that tried to compete with Nascar, in the heady days of the early-00’s.  Next time we look at the story of TRAC, the only recent group to ever attempt to go toe-to-toe with Nascar.