Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Juice: The All-Star Showdown Ain't About All-Stars Anymore

-by Justin St. Louis

The season-long hype surrounding the inaugural ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was a pretty cool thing for the fans and teams of the American-Canadian Tour. The pressure bearing down on 300 or so Late Model drivers to win a race and get invited to compete at the "Magic Mile" nearly broke some of the toughest men in the sport, while for others, the feeling of overcoming that pressure, getting that big win, and stamping their tickets to The Big Dance was pure utopia.

It reminds us of something: The NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, in the glitz and glam of suburban Los Angeles, live on SPEED TV. A national stage for the local heroes. The Super Bowl of NASCAR short track racing. The highlight of the whole year.

It was a simple and wonderful concept in 2003: race your heart out all year long, and if you finish in the top-15 in points in what are now the K&N Pro Series East and West divisions, you'll get rewarded with an invitation to race on national television at what may be the nicest short track facility in the country. No points on the line, just money, bragging rights, a really nice trophy, and a chance to maybe turn yourself into the next hot prospect in the NASCAR garage.

Californian Austin Cameron stole the hearts of America as he came back from cancer to win the inaugural 125-lap event. In 2004, Massachusetts underdog Mike Johnson set the world on its ear with his victory. David Gilliland won in 2005, and just another year later found himself winning a Nationwide Series race at Kentucky and a Sprint Cup Series pole at Talladega. Matt Kobyluck brought the trophy back to New England in 2006. Everyone gathered around their TVs to watch -- even us East Coasters who had to stay up way past our bedtimes. The were times when the racing got a little chippy and cars got torn up, but the idea was that we were watching the 30 best short trackers in the country.

Then NASCAR went ahead and ruined it.

Beginning in 2007, ten starting spots and 100 more laps have been added to the race (only 225 laps for this year's edition, however), and qualifying is open to anyone approved by NASCAR to run on a half-mile or longer track. The top-15 from both the East and West divisions are still invited, but only the champions and race winners are automatically qualified for the race. In addition, the champions from the northern and southern Whelen Modified Tours, the Canadian Tire Series, the Corona Mexico Series, and the Whelen All-American Series (read: drivers that have nothing to do with the East and West divisions) are guaranteed starters, provided they can find a ride. And since the only East/West drivers guaranteed to start are the champions and winners, the potential exists for a championship runner-up to travel to California only to not qualify for the All-Star (!!!) race.

"That race had tremendous potential when it was first announced," said reigning American-Canadian Tour champion Brian Hoar, a three-time Toyota All-Star Showdown participant. Hoar, of Williston, ran full-time in the Busch North/Busch East/Camping World East/K&N Pro Series East/What'll It Be Next Year Series from 2001-2006, and was a top-10 finisher in all three of his starts at Irwindale.

"When it first started, that race was huge for our group of drivers that, at the time, was still centered here in the northeast, and it was just as big for the group of guys regionalized out west. The East versus West thing was a neat format, and we beat those guys on their own turf two out of the three years I went out there. It's totally different now, and not only do I not have the answers for [why NASCAR changed it], I don't care. It still has the potential to be great again if they fix it."

Hoar points to NASCAR's recent penchant to seemigly try and reinvent the wheel as the blame for the change in the Showdown. "NASCAR changed the event when they changed the series [from Busch North to Busch East in 2006]," he said. "By 2006 things had really started to change, and by 2007 everything had changed. Now anyone can get in the race and win. Look at Joey Logano last year."

Logano, the 2007 Busch East Series champion (and eventual 2009 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year), won the Showdown following his championship season. In last year's event, he brought his Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide Series team to Irwindale and was dominant -- in his one and only race in the East/West divisions the entire year, mind you -- before ultimately being disqualified from the win following a last-lap wreck with Peyton Sellers, who at the time was a high-talent, low-budget full-timer with the East Series. Multi-time Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday was also in the race and wrecked several cars. Matt Crafton, another Truck Series racer, finished fifth, one spot better than Hornaday.

Logano has a ride (and backing from his Sprint Cup sponsor The Home Depot and Nationwide crew chief Kevin Kidd) in the Fadden Racing entry fielded by ACT driver and former Busch North/Busch East champion Mike Olsen of North Haverhill, N.H. Olsen will also enter a car for -- get this -- 18 year-old Willy Boucenna, a road course racer from France who has zero history with NASCAR.

"It's all buy-a-ride now," says Hoar. "You can't blame Mike for taking the money that [Logano and Boucenna] bring with them, he races for a living and has to do what he can to survive. But it's sad that the regulars of the series can go out there and get their butts handed to them [by outsiders]. Say they have a bad qualifying lap, that's it. They can support the series all year long and look forward to [Irwindale], and then not make it in. It's too bad. I'm excited to see this year's race, I always am, but I'm not excited to see guys like [Logano] in the race."

Hoar also said that in the formative years of the Showdown, the East and West series regulars really were the stars, and that having drivers like Logano and Hornaday in the race now takes away from the original purpose of the event. "We had all kinds of support and exposure from NASCAR for the whole week we were out there. The TV crews were there, and their job was to make us stars, and they did it. Last year it was all Joey Logano, and he wasn't even part of [the series]."

The similarities between the first Irwindale event and September's ACT Invitational at NHMS were many, says Hoar, and going through the same type of experience brought back a lot of memories. It also reminded Hoar of the changes the old Busch North Series went through once the Loudon, N.H., mile became a part of the series. "Absolutely, to a great degree," he said. "We had exposure all year, and it was all anyone talked about, just like Irwindale [in 2003]. Will the second one be the same feel? I don't know. But I hope the race doesn't get out of control. As long as ACT stays on top of it, I think it will be good.

"Running races at Loudon singlehandedly changed the Busch North Series [in the early 1990s], and everyone thought they had to go out and get superspeedway bodies and superspeedway cars and spend lots of money. Then the series became what it is now. And it's already started in ACT -- Patrick Laperle had a car built specifically for Loudon before he was even invited. Ricky Rolfe tested well there in August, and put his car up on jackstands and pulled out a back-up car for the rest of the races until the Invitational. Guys are figuring out that aerodynamics have never been as important on a Late Model as they are at Loudon. It's up to ACT to clamp down on it."

Brian Hoar is right. The Toyota All-Star Showdown was an outstanding event at one time, and it still could be if it went back to the basics. Now it's just another race. For that matter, the K&N Pro Series East was an outstanding series at one time, too.

Let's hope the ACT Invitational doesn't go down the same path. We don't think it will.

***

Speaking of the Showdown, there's a touch of local flavor headed for L.A. this weekend -- Colchester's Sam Caron, a part-time ACT competitor, will head to the event as crew chief for driver Steve Park and owner Bob Torriere's NDS Motorsports, working under the #35 Whelen Engineering team based in Georgia, Vt., and Barre native Matt Goslant will be the crew chief for two-time West Series champion Eric Holmes and the #20 NAPA Toyota, fielded by California powerhouse Bill MacAnally Racing.

Catch the Toyota All-Star Showdown live on SPEED TV or Sirius NASCAR Radio at 10:00pm, Friday and Saturday.

***

How does anyone not love Robby Gordon?

***

Remember those old commercials with the egg and the frying pan?

"This is your brain." ---SMASH!--- "This is your brain on drugs."

Well that's what I feel like when I watch Madhouse. It's not real racing. It's WWE with nerf bars and a southern accent.

Here's my expert analysis after three shows:
1. Burt Myers is a moron. And a hot-head. I can't imagine what's gonna happen to that poor little baby he has at home the first time he spills his Cheerios.
2. Chris Fleming is a moron. Some people get it, some people don't. Guess which category he falls under.
3. Junior Miller is a total moron. I have nothing else to say about him.
4. Jason Myers might be a moron, but they don't show him enough for me to be able to tell.
5. Tim Brown isn't a moron, but he is a total jerk. His wife hates him, but hey, look at the publicity Michael Waltrip Racing is getting from that crew shirt!
6. Eric Stigall is a special kind of moron. Far and away my favorite character on television right now. In fact, his personality is so addictive, even I twitch when he talks.
7. I am a moron, because I can't freaking wait for the next episode. And I guaran-damn-tee you I'll buy the DVD after the season is over.

***

By the way, Irwindale isn't the only place running this weekend. The Pro All Stars Series heads for sunny... er, not... Florida this weekend for the first annual WinterFest 150 at New Smyrna Speedway.

VMM will have a correspondent at the track in Dave Parker, who will be taking notes all day and giving us occasional updates during the event. It looks like rain might play into the schedule, which may postpone the event from Saturday to Sunday.

The WinterFest 150 is the first PASS National Championship event for 2010. Drivers expected to compete include 2009 PASS North champion Johnny Clark, Danville youngster Steven Legendre, Qu├ębec native Mario Gosselin, and the new teams pairing owner Richard Moody with driver Brad Leighton, and owner Scott Mulkern with driver Ben Rowe.

We're not entirely sure how close to the computer we'll be all weekend -- ya know, real world commitments and all -- but we can Tweet with the best of 'em! Keep a watch on the VMM Twitter page at twitter.com/VtMotorMag, or "@VtMotorMag" for those of you that already know what the heck a Twitter is.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

ACT Invitational lackluster - Too bad someone like Eric Williams won a race and then got booted from the list. I guess in reality there is no guarantee and the hype is really not warranted.

Justin said...

Williams was invited to practice at NHMS in August as part of the original 53 invited teams, but had his car damaged in a wreck at White Mountain and was unable to commit to the test until after the cutoff date, at least that's my understanding of the situation.

-Justin