Craig Murto: Busy time of year on motorsports

Craig Murto


Fans like to call this time of year the “off season,” but there truly is no off season in motorsports.

A couple weeks ago the granddaddy of all pavement Late Model events took place at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, which celebrated the 50th running of the Snowball Derby.

Kyle Busch took the win, but not because he had the best car. At best, he had a third-place car. But his experience and talent surfaced when in the final stint of the 300-lap race he allowed the cars of Jeff Choquette and Bubba Pollard to simply go ahead and race each other. With 30 laps remaining, it was obvious that Choquette and Pollard wore their tires out completely, and Busch reeled both of them in to grab the lead with 15 laps to go.

The stands were packed at Five Flags, and the pits were full. The names of drivers who failed to make the field — such as five-time Derby winner Rich Bickle, Northeast champion Ben Rowe, and Northwest legend Garrett Evans – would have made for a star-studded feature event anywhere else.

Last week NASCAR held its Weekly Racing Series banquet, which awarded Lee Pulliam his fourth Whelen All-American Series national championship. One of those receiving accolades was Mason Diaz, the 17-year-old racer from Manassas, who was the track champion at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park, and also the Whelen rookie of the year for both North Carolina and Florida.

Those not attending the NASCAR banquet in Charlotte, North Carolina, were probably in Indianapolis for the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show. In fact, much of the racing industry from around the globe attends PRI, which is not only the largest motorsports trade show in the world, but one of the largest trade shows of any kind globally.

The 2017 PRI show was a huge success. Though some East Coast attendees chose to leave following Friday’s show, enjoying only two of the three days in order to attempt to beat the snow home, the crowds on both Thursday and Friday were larger than the crowds on those respective years for about a decade. It appears that the improving economy is trickling down to the racing industry, and more people feel comfortable spending money in the sport.

Race teams are busy now trying to secure sponsorship for the 2018 season, hoping the rising economy will inspire corporate America to use motorsports as a marketing platform. If you’re a local racer and you’re not out trying to secure your sponsorship now, you’re behind the eight ball.

Other deals are evolving this time of year. One piece of news that broke while attending PRI was that the rumored Ganassi seat for Danica Patrick’s 2018 Indy 500 attempt will probably not happen. As with anything else at that level of the sport, money nust be the issue.

Another piece of news that broke is that Richard Petty Motorsports will transition from Ford to Chevy during the off season, and will be allied with Richard Childress Racing. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will drive the famed No. 43, and will be the first African-American to compete full time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since the legendary Wendell Scott.

The final Formula One race of the year at Abu Dhabi was rather boring. It wasn’t the way to end a season if you wish to generate excitement for 2018. On top of that, NBC Sports no longer has the F1 TV contract, as all the races will be on ESPN.

Most motorsports fans are a bit put off by ESPN due to their penchant for mixing politics with their sports coverage. And the rumor is that ESPN won’t even hire any broadcast personalities for their F1 coverage, instead opting to simply air the English world feed. I also doubt that F1 fans will see the extensive pre- and post-race coverage that NBC broadcast.

Now is the time of year that F1 engineers are hard at work trying to find an advantage for their team. The season is won or lost during this time of year.

But the thrashing isn’t exclusive to F1; NASCAR teams have adjustments to make now that the number of men allowed over the pit wall on pit stops has been reduced from six to five, and the gas man is not allowed to do anything but fuel the car. The choreography of pit stops will change, and now is the time to practice those changes.

The fans may be waiting for the season to start, but for those in the sport, there is no off season in racing.