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Ingram: Bruton Smith’s Bonus On The Money

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 31 2010

Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith may be onto something with his bonus offer. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Not that many years ago, Al Unser Jr. went to visit then NASCAR president Bill France Jr. in his offices prior to the Indy car driver’s first appearance in the Daytona 500. The meeting summed up the longstanding rocky relationship between NASCAR and Indy car racing, a subject recently revisited by track owner Bruton Smith’s suggestion of a $20 million bonus for a driver who wins at Indy and Charlotte on the same day.

Following a none-too-friendly greeting, France Jr. told Unser Jr. that he didn’t appreciate Indy car drivers coming to Daytona and running faster than the NASCAR regulars. Unser Jr, who had been turning some very fast laps in his Rick Hendrick-owned Chevy, listened but didn’t slow down in practice. Prior to qualifying, his car failed the ride height segment of inspection under the heading of “We don’t like it.”

After qualifying poorly due to the change in ride height, in the race Unser Jr. was sent spinning by Dale Earnhardt Sr., one of many in the garage aware of the Indy car star’s problems during inspection for motives clearly vested in NASCAR’s desire to keep Indy car drivers on a tight leash. Unser Jr. swore he would never again compete in a NASCAR event and made good on that promise.

In this light, Smith’s suggestion of a $20 million bonus to any driver able to win motor racing’s biggest daily double is typical of the man who has been a longtime gadfly in the ointment when it comes to NASCAR and some of the stock car sanctioning body’s prevailing attitudes.

Another event over the course of the weekend blended the lines between IndyCar and NASCAR as well. Chip Ganassi’s respective teams became the first to win at Daytona and Indy in the same season — and came within less than a second of winning at Charlotte on Sunday as well.

While the Ganassi teams’ accomplishments are impressive, the achievement carries a modest impact at best outside the boundaries of those in the know in motor racing. But there’s a kernel of an idea involved in Ganassi’s feat as well as Smith’s suggestion of a big bonus for the two major races on Memorial Day weekend. I would suggest establishing the $20 million bonus for the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 daily double and add an extra $10 million if the same driver wins the Daytona 500 as well.

Other sports focus on strings of major accomplishments by participants such as golf’s Grand Slam and the Triple Crown in horse racing or Major League baseball’s Triple Crown for hitters. So why not offer a bonus for a driver winning three of motor racing’s biggest events in a year? The fact that two of the races take place on the same day would certainly make this the most unique and toughest Triple Crown in all of sports – and most lucrative.

If this seems preposterous, consider the drivers and teams capable of pulling it off. Tony Stewart and this year’s Indy 500 winner, Dario Franchitti, come to mind. If Kyle Busch spent some time in an Indy car, he’d be a likely candidate as well. Robby Gordon might land some top rides at Daytona, Indy and Charlotte if such a bonus were offered. And the Gordon named Jeff was a pretty fair hotshoe in open-wheel machines before he headed south to NASCAR. Likewise, fellow Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman could knock off some open-wheel rust and be a candidate to win in all three places. Kasey Kahne was brilliant in open-wheel machinery on his way up to the Sprint Cup.

Danica Patrick would be a long shot, but she would add a certain level of interest if she chose to pursue this Triple Crown. There would be long odds against Sam Hornish Jr., too, but he could pull it off. A.J. Allmendinger would be another candidate.

Politically speaking, a new Triple Crown for motor racing is a long-shot idea. Neither the people in charge of the ruling structure at NASCAR and Daytona or at the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianpolis Motor Speedway would quickly hop into the same bed of mutual promotion from February until May for the sake of raising the level of interest in motor racing. Then again, there were a lot of empty seats this year above and below the Mason Dixon Line on the biggest day in American motor racing.

Motor racing has always been about the big event, promotional hoopla and a few gimmicks to help sell the sometimes laborious battle of man and machine. But as big events go, motor racing no longer quite enjoys the edge it once had. The average sports fan and the stick-and-ball oriented editors/producers are looking elsewhere based on the fact there are empty seats presently, just as they were drawn to motor racing at Indy and in NASCAR when the events consistently jammed every seat in huge arenas.

A $30 million bonus would catch some attention and help boost ticket sales and TV ratings. Evidently, Smith is already having conversations with the folks at Indy about moving the starting time of their 500 up to 11 a.m.

The late Bill France Jr. would roil at the prospect of formally linking Daytona to Indy, as would “Big Bill” France, who was once summarily escorted out of Gasoline Alley by security at Indy not long after he launched NASCAR. But the times are changing and motor racing sanctioning bodies need to keep the door open to big ideas if they expect to maintain their status as big events.

Quote of the week: “I’m thinking about two big wins in one season.” So said Chip Ganassi before the IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park in April when asked if he ever thought about winning a Daytona Prototype, IndyCar and Sprint Cup race on the same weekend.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 31 2010
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Joe says:

    I’ve got a better twist on the idea for the Triple Crown:
    Daytona 500
    Indy 500
    U.S. Nationals

  • Moose says:

    The 20 million dollar double idea was Randy Bernard’s, although he recently said that he doesn’t care who gets the credit. So, considering where the idea originated, it might not be that unlikely for the IZOD IndyCar Series to agree to the idea. What is required is for the start time of the 500 to be moved up; both IMS, and ABC would have to be convinced.

    Changing the start time is something that Bernard has talked about quite a bit. He points out that changing it to 1:00pm didn’t move the needle for ABC anyway, so putting it back to 11:00 to enable drivers to attempt the double is a win. It seems almost a certainty that having NASCAR stars racing in the 500 would “move the needle,” yes? I think so.

  • jerrycruz says:

    the $20 million bonus idea came from Randy Bernard and was shared with Bruton Smith…I hate when NASCAR wants to take credit for everything…they have tried it for years with the SAFER barrier…unbelievable!