The hardest decision of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s life was the most sensible. As a stellar 18-year career in NASCAR began its journey to the final chequered flag following the 42-year-old’s revelation that he will quit at the end of the season, fans were gearing up to say their goodbyes to another legend.
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon – two celebrated drivers who often got the better of Earnhardt – have departed in recent years.
The remainder of this campaign, however, will be all about the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt whose Southern style rumbustiousness and swagger elevated stock car racing to the pinnacle of US sports during those wild days of yesteryear.
Yet while the Earnhardt name will always be synonymous with NASCAR, so too will be paying the ultimate price. In 2001, Dale was left mourning the death of his father, killed in a crash at the Daytona 500. He was just 49 years-old.
It was a horrific way to lose a parent and now he’s recently married and looking forward to starting a family, good health has trumped all.
“The timing is surprising ,” a well placed racing source told me. “Most people thought he’d end in 2018.” It was however on the cards. Earnhardt , who is now worth upwards of $300 million, missed the final 18 races of 2016 with concussion.
It wasn’t the first time either. Dizzy spells have only reinforced his desire to swap the car for a rocking chair and the good life.
Driver safety, as in F1, has improved but it wasn’t enough. Carl Edwards shocked the sport earlier this year by quitting. While Edwards’ stance surprised Nascar, this has caused far more aggressive shockwaves.
We are talking about the cool, social media savvy (he has two million Twitter followers), roundly loved and revered by the NASCAR devotees who voted him their favourite driver for the past 14 years despite the fact his best push for a championship ended with a third place finish in 2003.
“I wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said. “As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realisation that my driving career may have already ended without me so much as getting a vote at the table.
“Of course, in life we’re not promised a vote, and that’s especially true in racing. “But during my rehab, I was given something else I wasn’t accustomed to, and that was time.
“Time to understand what’s important to me, time to realise the incredible support system I have in my wife, my team and my doctors.
“And time to work like hell to wrestle back some semblance of say-so in this whole matter.” As noble and sensible as the decision is, losing another stellar name is a hammerblow for a sport fighting for its future.
Sport360° detailed earlier this month the drastic changes race bosses have implemented this season to ensure falling TV figures don’t begin to sap NASCAR of relevance in what is supremely saturated US sporting market.
Yet arguably the most precious commodity in any sport is star names who bring punters to the race track and customers scurrying to merchandise stores.
Of course, the future doesn’t rest solely on Earnhardt’s weary, battered shoulders. His departure elevates the need for an exciting bunch of youngsters coming through.
This is the chance for the likes of Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin and Ty Dillion, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones to prove their worth.
NASCAR will undoubtedly be poorer without Earnhardt yet his parting gift could be invaluable. In such a macho, high octane environment, few speak freely and honestly of the dangers which present themselves every race day.
For the sake of everyone involved, and thanks to Earnhardt, let’s hope the times are changing.
The new season of competition officially revs up in Kuwait next month.
On Thursday May 4th, Sirbb Circuit will host the Red Bull Car Park Drift qualifiers before a selection of Kuwait’s elite drifters contest the national final on Friday.
The competition, which was held for the first time in Lebanon ten years ago, is designed to give amateur enthusiasts a chance to showcase their skills and represent their countries at the regional final in Qatar at the end of 2017.
BMRC will organize this year’s event in partnership with the Public Authority for Youth and Sports, Drag 965, Go Pro, Aqua Eva and Kuwait Times. Regional sponsors also include Falcon Tires, Shop and Ship, and Total.
Last year, Mesyar Abu Shaibah won the national championship and later represented Kuwait at the regional finals held in Oman.
Indeed, he weighed in with a special performance in the final, which was hosted at the Sultan Qaboos Port course and witnessed the participation of drifters from Qatar, Mauritius, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as Kuwait and Oman.
The top three winners were Omani and the King of Drift title was awarded to Oman’s Haitham Al Hadidi.
10 YEARS OF THRILL
The first edition of the 2008 Red Bull Car Park Drift Competition was held in Lebanon at the parking lot of one of the malls.
For all amateur competitors, the motorsport gathering was the perfect opportunity for drifters to put their skills and abilities under the microscope.
The event also highlighted rally hero Abdo Feghali, who became a legend in this discipline, while Michel Feghali was crowned the first champion of the series overall.
In the early days of drifting (the 1960s), results were based on the use of manual brakes and special drifting skills.
This was to try and combat rugged and mountainous roads where a group of contestants competed to break records for every distance.
By 1970, drifting had gained widespread popularity as an important part of the prestigious Japan Motor Show.
Each drifter was superior to his predecessors, and the drifters demonstrated their tremendous talent in controlling the car more remarkably every year.
Twenty years later, the motorsport is now contested all over the world.
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Jeff Burton isn’t the kind of man to sugarcoat a problem.
The NASCAR legend has been in the game long enough to know when difficulties lie ahead.
Yet the man known as ‘The Mayor’ has always been a fighter – and that’s why when it comes to talking about his beloved sport’s future, the tone is bullish.
In an ever changing world where action is consumed on myriad platforms in countless ways, stock car racing couldn’t stand still. Evolution is crucial and with widespread changes being implemented this season, eyebrows have been raised while the same questions are asked.
Is this just another desperate attempt to douse trouble?
Some of the bare facts make uneasy reading. Last season saw a 7% drop in TV viewers with some of the lowest figures seen since 2001. Attendance figures at the track haven’t been released since 2012. No wonder considering crowds at some races last season, especially the Brickyard 400, were said to be the lowest ever. (250,000 attended Brickyard in 1994, compared to around 50,000 last year.)
More strikingly, when long term sponsor US telecom company Sprint announced in 2014 that their 10 year association with the sport would come to an end in 2016, there was a serious overvaluation which has cost millions.
Mooted deals with the likes of Microsoft never came to fruition and despite energy drinks company Monster jumping onboard to bring a new brand awareness, their deal was worth around $30 million LESS than the mobile phone operator’s $50 million a year agreement.
Furthermore, places on the grid have also become cheaper. Hopes of selling team spots for upwards of $10 million have been crushed with some going for around $2 million to $4 million.
“All these costs have become less expensive because everyone knows the sport isn’t as popular as it used to be,” said a well-placed source.
NASCAR bosses, however, have acted decisively.
A new format has torn up the traditional 500 mile race and will now break it into three segments, with points awarded to the top finishers of each stage in addition to the race winners. Extra points are dished out for winning stages, races and finishing the season in the top 16.
It’s a bold, brave move yet one which will encourage drivers to think – and drive – differently.
Legends like Tony Stewart aren’t around anymore – another cause for worry – but those in power are comforted by a massive decade long, $8.2billion TV package.
It’s hardly crisis time. (NASCAR still posted a weekly average of 4.6million viewers last season despite the drop in numbers.) Just like every other sport in the world, however, they are simply being forced to stay relevant and keep the customers happy – and excited.
“No-one should be in denial and say that NASCAR is as healthy as it ever has been – because it’s not,” Burton, who now works for NBC as an analyst, told Sport360.
“We don’t have the same numbers of people watching today as we did 10 years ago. But with these changes and evolution, the future remains bright. Reports of a demise have been exaggerated.”
With F1 now under new American ownership, there is sure to be a serious motorsport push stateside. NASCAR doesn’t fear Lewis Hamilton snaring any disenchanted petrol heads, especially with no star American drivers leading the charge in Grand Prix.
“I look at F1, they are part of the sports entertainment landscape who have a presence in the US and with our own ownership groups with Gene Haas involved,” said NASCAR’s Senior VP of Race Operations Jim Cassidy.
“But I like to think of it from a motorsport standpoint, if they are doing well that’s good news for everyone.”
The size of the NASCAR fan base is not in doubt – it’s the product on the track which needed a tweak.
“Look at the stands and the millions watching at home,” continued Burton. “Racing is still popular.”
Thus far, the format changes have gone down a storm.
In the past too many races faded into insignificance thanks to the leading drivers having already secured their spots in the end of season Chase with wins. Now, though, points are on offer in each of the three segments which stay with them right into the play-offs and through to the final race at Homestead. Every lap of every race now means something.
“We went into the playoffs last year, broke an engine and we were out”, lamented Furniture Row team boss Joe Garone.
“If we would have had those bonus points, we would have been okay. It would have acted as a reward for the consistency shown throughout the season. The new system makes the race throughout the whole event more exciting and valuable to the team because you carry those points into the play-offs.”
“The low downforce packages the cars have on them have also created a different type of racing. The cars move and slide around more. The race is put a little more back into the drivers’ hands.”
It’s a necessary move away from tradition but NASCAR fans, certainly those of a certain vintage, love the old days. Living in the past, however, can be dangerous. And with Monster now on board, a new era dawns. With their young demographic gorging on the razzmatazz of UFC, motocross and drag racing, race bosses are hoping for a serious injection of freshness and fun.
“It (Monster) is built on girls, parties and motorsports,” said Monster’s Mitch Covington.
That may sound like anathema for older fans. Yet no matter. A new vibrancy will be filtered in even if the financials paint a picture of belt adjusting.
Yet, in time, there’s hope Monster’s runaway success elsewhere – their net sales in 2015 totaled $2.7billion with a presence in 120 countries – will give racing the kind of jolt their drinks give to millions.
“They are growing and will continue to grow”, said Cassidy. “They are a brand that is on the side of being a maverick and resonate with our core fans. Monster love racing and bringing the following they do, it couldn’t have been a better match.”
But have Monster inherited a product which can fuel the excitement of their customers?
“We are pretty excited about what we have seen so far with the stage racing”, added Cassidy. “Every single lap of every race means just that little bit more and that is being translated onto the track. There are more storylines, more urgency, more moments.”
Analysing TV figures in today’s multi-media climate can temporarily blur reality.
The NFL, the undisputed sporting king of the US, suffered a slide in ratings last season, an even larger drop than NASCAR.
“2017 is all about stopping the bleeding by getting the people who are watching to want to watch it more”, concluded Burton. “The TV decline has stopped, the attendances have improved. There has been an upward trend. But this won’t all change overnight. It will take years.”
“We tend to glorify the past but it’s a different world now. The reality is we can’t go back. It has to be better than before.”