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Copyright © 2001 Curtis Redgap. All rights reserved. August 2001.
I must thank the ORLANDO SENTINEL for this thought-provoking concept. They ran a very complete article in their sports section about 2 1/2 weeks ago. It was a direct comparison between Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon. Now, some of you, as I did, will react, that there is no one that will ever compare to Richard Petty. Statistically, that holds true for the present, and into the near future, without a doubt.
Yet, NASCAR went into internal convulsions with the untimely passing of racing giant, Dale Earnheardt Sr. in the Daytona 500 in February of this year. Every sport must have an image maker, a sort of "hero" if you will, to hold up in the limelight. In and of himself, Dale Earnheardt was a selfless promoter of his own image. And why not? He himself stated many times that his racing was "Sunday Money." He alluded to making some 50 million dollars a year in promotional fees, let alone clothing, souvenirs, magazines, and other things NASCAR.
With Earnheardt's untimely passing, NASCAR had to revamp itself and is still in internal turmoil with all the outside pressure to open itself up for proper oversight of its internal policies and procedures.
William "Big Bill" France Sr. made abundantly clear from the onset of his organization that he "by damn" owned it, ran it, and no "damn" body else would ever tell him what to do. His decisions were final, and that was it. That sort of policy continues to this day. NASCAR represents that last big organization that is internally operated with absolutely no outside interference or oversight on anything that it does or chooses to do ... or not do.
After Earnheardt, there was no single image maker on the immediate horizon except, with the right mix, Jeff Gordon. To kick off the campaign to bring Gordon into the image maker for NASCAR, statistics were released comparing Gordon to Richard Petty, who is still the absolute reigning King of the roundy round sport.
There are some items of interest between Petty and Gordon that should be of note when you start putting Gordon on the pedestal that Earnheardt once had.
Born in July 1937, by the time Ricard was 30 he had won 56 races, and held two Grand National Championships [forerunner of the Winston Cup]. Gordon, who just turned 30 in July 2001, has also won 56 races and holds 3 Winston Cup championships.
In 1971, driving a Plymouth Road Runner, Petty secured the first major corporate sponsorship in NASCAR history. It only lasted a few races. No, it was not STP which came along for the 1972 season. It was, believe it or not, Pepsi, which we know is a major sponsor of Gordon, especially in the Busch Series. Richard made his last appearance in the Atlanta race in 1992. Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR appearance in that same race.
The biggest point that the ORLANDO SENTINEL article went on to make is the percentage average of races to victories between Petty and Gordon. In just about any sort of stat you want to seek, you are going to find Richard Petty on top. He was the first to win 7 NASCAR championships. Earnheardt equaled, but never surpassed him. Could Earnheardt have won an eighth Championship? Only NASCAR could know that for sure. Certainly Earnheardt had a few more seasons that he could have run. But, no man, even as tough as Richard Petty was, can last forever before things take a slow down. Your reflexes, interpretations, and reactions get a tad bit behind what they used to be.
According the SENTINEL, Jeff Gordon can surpass every Richard Petty mark in the next ten years. This is based on the statistical average for victories in the upcoming seasons based upon his present performance. Petty in the early years faced a grueling schedule of 48 to 62 races a season! When Winston became the major sponsor for NASCAR in 1972, the schedule went to 31 races that year, then 30 in subsequent years, virtually eliminating 100 and 125 mile events at local small tracks.
By the way, 1972 was a significant year in that Big Bill France retired, handing over the NASCAR Presidency to Bill France Jr. Winston sponsored all 31 events, which were over 250 miles in length, thereby allowing everyone to compete for the same points. STP, or Studebaker Technical Products, inked a sponsorship deal with Richard Petty that lasted 28 years. [That is a record I doubt anyone will ever break.]
In another milestone, Petty debuted a Dodge Charger on May 7 at Talladega. Just why he switched from Plymouth to Dodge was never made entirely clear. The 71, 72 and 73 Plymouth models were slick and good racers. Petty won his 3rd Championship in a '71 Plymouth. Alternating between the Plymouth and the Dodge in 72, he won his 4th championship.
But there are no more Richard Petty types. As well, he has been retired now for nine years. People tend to forget quickly. As well, Dale Earnheardt is no longer with us. May he rest in peace.
That leave NASCAR looking for someone to promote. Take note of all the spots now featuring Jeff Gordon and the number 24 car. NASCAR is on the move, pumping Gordon up to be the next big image maker.
I noted with more than just a passing interest the editorial in ALLPAR.COM about the race that Sterling Marlin won at Brooklyn Michigan on the 19th. It was pointed out that this was a surprise win since NASCAR virtually dictates winners by its selective enforcement of the rules. Upon reflection of this, I, and many others I am certain, have concluded that this statement is rapier sharp in its point.
Finally, I have been able to put my finger on what NASCAR has been doing for a very long time in its quest to be the number one fan participation sport in America, even surpassing the NFL. There are just way too many coincidences for this practice to be ignored.
The ORLANDO SENTINEL has even gone so far as to accuse NASCAR of doling out its prizes by way of "the call" to the team selected to win that week. With as much control as they exert of the cars, it falls to reason that the driver is actually the "second" in the winning combination. The front of the car crosses the finish line before the driver. Control the car, and the driver can only follow, albeit that it his foot on the accelerator.
NASCAR had to let Dodge take a win. For several previous weeks, newspapers, TV sports journals, and the regular media have been digging deep to find out why a car company that re-entered the arena of roundy round racing with ten teams has been unable to win a race. Of all the Dodge teams, it has been Sterling Marlin that has been the closest to winning in the most consistent manner. Ray Evernham, with the two Dodge factory backed teams, hasn't been anywhere as close. Again, changing the rules to select Dodge, NASCAR allowed a front air dam change that appears to have been most favorable to the Dodge teams since there were four Dodge cars in the top 10 finishers at Brooklyn Michigan.
However, Dodge best beware. This year in the Craftsman Truck Series, Dodge Ram pick ups [NASCAR's best imitation thereof ] have been cleaning up the NASCAR truck series. The first 8 races resulted in Dodge Ram wins. That is the sort of thing that NASCAR frowns on, sticking doggedly to the "fairness and parity of competition."
Of course, I cannot close without mentioning the NASCAR report on its own investigation of the death of Dale Earnheardt Sr.
Difficult as it is to believe, [ed-yea, rightttt!] NASCAR did not blame the car or NASCAR's own mandated design of the car. As I indicated in the beginning of this article the cars are assembled as steel boxes. Most blunt force, such as hitting something, ends up being transmitted to the driver and driver compartment. The ORLANDO SENTINEL speculated this same theme, even though certain car builders, one of whom assembles an average 550 (!) cars a season, had advocated putting in aluminum foam filled "crush boxes" in the empty space between the front sheet metal and the beginning of the tubing of the front clip on the cars. This could be a tremendous help, allowing for a great dissipation of kinetic energy long before it gets transmitted to the driver and/or driver's compartment.
NASCAR says "no." Even refusing outside testing. Instead it choose to focus on the allegedly broken seat belt from Simpson Safety Products as the root cause of the death of Mr. Earnheardt. I, for an Army of One, question that finding. I truly believe that the car and the design are the major culprit. Without any testing, the results are highly inconclusive allowing for major conjecture of something that should be investigated independently until there is no longer any doubt!
Along with NOT mandating the HANS neck devices, NASCAR again is playing speed over safety. Every time a driver straps into one of those "old" car designs he risks his life in the same way Irwin, Petty, and Earnheardt risked theirs.
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