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Ingram: Pod Racing – The Next Olympic Sport?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 18 2011

The racing at Daytona International Speedway has a new look this year. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Daytona Beach, Fla. – I have seen tandem type racing and it is us.

It’s new, it’s terribly different, it’s complicated and compelling. Haven’t heard a single question about the state of the sport, slipping TV ratings, ebbing attendance. Everybody’s talking and asking about the NASCAR two-step.

If only the Daytona International Speedway had been repaved in, say, 2008. The NASCAR doldrums might have never occurred.

Michael Waltrip, now a well known author, called it “the most interesting thing I’ve ever done at Daytona.” He later added “It’s fun and it’s crazy.”

Some, of course, think two-car pod racing is just plain terrible.

It’s plenty weird at first. It’s almost like watching one of those oddball Winter Olympic events where teamwork and circumstances plus skill all come together with excruciating suspense as the TV announcers fill in the gaps about the strange new sport.

There’s plenty of slipping and sliding, contact and exchange of position among the pods at Daytona. In other words, it’s like curling – at 200 mph.

But seriously, the tandem tango is a he-man sport. It takes plenty of team chemistry to make it work. Both drivers have to have plenty of, well, hormones. The guy in front is at the mercy of the guy behind him, who can’t see a damn thing. When it goes wrong, as it did for Jeff Gordon and Trevor Bayne, things can get ugly in a hurry. Even practice is tough as pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., now forced to start at the rear of the field in a back-up car, can confirm.

It’s a workout for the arms as well as the brain. Holding the cars straight while dragging on the brake

Clint Bowyer moves alongside of Jeff Burton as they head to the finish line in the second Gatorade 150 on Thursday. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

to keep the two-car hook-ups in place taxes the arms. Figuring when to go where under these circumstances takes motor racing out of the usual questions about gray areas. Instead, it’s a study in gray matter – at 200 mph.

No wonder the guy considered the brainiest in the garage, Jeff Burton, won the second Gatorade Duel 150 with pusher and teammate Clint Bowyer behind him. “It is a different kind of an art to make this happen,” said Burton. “It’s harder than it looks.”

There’s a whole new vocabulary. There are “pushers” and “two-car swaps” in addition to pods, which sounds a little like science fiction – or junior high school.

There is a lot of peer pressure. Who’s going to work with whom? It’s also important to be cool. The Fords are touted as the coolest engines and therefore in the best position to push one another without taking a breather.

The most pressure may be on the NASCAR officials, who are trying to adjust the cooling allowances at the front of the cars in order to keep the tandems from running lap after lap until they either explode or hit some ungodly speed. This week’s rules changes have had some success and we now have ballet at speed on the banking, otherwise known as the two-car swap.

The tandem type racing has given the pursuit of the Harley J. Earl trophy momentum. And, it’s opening up all kind of possibilities. Kurt Busch won his second straight restrictor plate race in the first Duel 150 after posting a goose egg at Daytona prior to the pods. With Earnhardt Jr. dropping to the back, Busch will lead the field to the green on Sunday in his new yellow Pennzoil Dodge ride. His resurrection from the driver fans loved to hate now seems complete.

Regan Smith, the pusher for Busch, will line up right behind him, confirming his underated talent.

Brian Keselowski, son of Bob and one of the less well known of the alphabet soups from Michigan,

Pod racing is in vogue at Daytona this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

was actually leading the second 150-mile duel in a car built by two guys (including the driver) on the slimmest of budgets. Thanks to his younger brother Brad playing the role of the pusher, the older brother raced his way into the Daytona 500, one big step in trying to make it to the big time.

“You got a chance no matter what if you find the right guy to push you,” said Brian of the tandem thing. In his case, it was a matter of brotherly love from the “snot-nosed kid,” as he somewhat fondly describes his younger brother Brad, who beat him to the Sprint Cup and now drives for Penske Racing. (Brad, it seems, was kind of pushy as a kid, too.)

In general, it was a feel good day at the France family’s Speedway by the Sea. Busch got resurrected and Burton got back to victory lane at Daytona for the first time since 1999. Both will be looking for their first Daytona 500 victory.

Awesome Bill Elliott drove his way into his first 500 in a Chevy to help celebrate teenage son Chase’s signing by Hendrick Motorsports, also a Chevy team. (Although I guess this is a bit of a dud for the Ford fanatics who count themselves as Elliott fans.) Waltrip made his way in as well, which can only help his prospects as a team owner/driver/author, a reputation he hopes to further enhance this summer at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ultimately, it was Brian Keselowski who symbolized the new era at Daytona. “This is an old (Ray) Evernham car built in 2006,” he said of the car he will start his first Daytona 500 from the sixth row. “The old dog would just not hunt and I’m like, ‘We have no chance.’ But you get out in this draft at Daytona and get a guy that knows what he’s doing pushing you and, man, he can get you to the front.”

To pod or not to pod, that was the question. Not any more.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 18 2011
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Gail Forrester says:

    Your comparison to a weird Olympic sport is right on. It is like synchronized swimming, two-man luge, or biathlon – just strange enough you might tune it to watch for a little while, but….It just isn’t racing. Why is it so hard for NASCAR to understand what the fans mean when we say that? I know Daytona and Dega pose problems due to the banking, but….again, this mess started in 1987 with what I thought was a temporary fix in the @#$#$%%^ restrictor plate, but it doesn’t get fixed, it just changes every year. And if it makes me tear out my hair as a fantasy owner, what must it be like for the people who need this race to count? It’s like the late Davey Allison said, “I don’t mind helping out my Ford teammates as long as I’m the one out front.” Amen to that. This was not designed to be a team sport.

  • Terry says:

    I don’t like it…..I hope it hits 90 degrees in the shade on Sunday…If your a Chevy or Dodge…just find a fast FR9 FORD example(#21)to push you to Victory Lane….if you are a Toycan then you will blow up like Jiffy Pop trying to run this way or you will be a single car dump truck on your own.
    GO Wood Bros…and Trevor Bayne….NO more helping Hendricks….push a FORD….

  • Ray Saloomey says:

    I can’t say I really find this to be racing. Reminds me of Roller Derby where one skater whips another out ot the pack. Wish NASCAR could think outsidem the box…not just the same old restrictor plate bs. Here’s one idea – get rid of the plates – all the horsepower you can make – and remove the front air dam and rear spoiler – let’s see who can really drive!