Living With the Ghosts of Racing

Darlington Raceway (photo courtesy of Caitlin Siem)

The sun climbs high in the sky as the humidity creeps above the mercury, shadows shrink and grow again as teams work on their cars. Men and women gather around mighty machines, some have computers, some have tablets, and some have an old notebook with a pen. Hand tools are still pulled from the box and the same old cuss words are uttered a thousand times. This is Darlington; one of the last great citadels of racing that stands the test of time.

This 1.366 mile oval opened in 1950 and has been a legend since the start. The two ends are different in radius due to a farmer’s minnow pond, it’s banks were once used to pull onto when there was an issue because the cars raced on the flat surface. The old surface was once said to be so coarse that just pushing the car onto the grid took the “good” off the tires. Darlington is the only place that not touching the wall will have your car owner asking, “Why didn’t you try harder?” Yes, this is a place of legend.

Once again we return to the Southern 500, the end of summer classic, the true throwback weekend. Cars will take to the track with paint schemes and colors made famous 25+ years ago. Paint schemes that harken back to an era when there really was a chrome horn to use and it wasn’t just an old adage used by men moved by nostalgia. This was an era of legendary drivers. Earnhardt. Allison. Petty. Pearson. Gant. Wallace. The names go on forever.

As these history inspired cars take to the track you can feel the drivers of the past rise up to watch their battle wagons take to the banks one more time. The old men today stand up and remember being a child, dust on their cheeks, the smell of bias-ply rubber in their nose, fingers wrapped around the chicken wire fencing as the original cars drove by. Long before the corporations opened wallets, the blue collar workers traveled to this site to open their’s. This is the history of NASCAR. Family, friends, coworkers, racers. Everyone gathered to celebrate the last days of summer, together.

As the red, white, and blue flies high overhead and the national anthem plays again; drivers will prepare to do what so many have done before on this track. Each will sit in their cars alone, strapped in and they must make a choice… Race the competition or race the track? The track is the ultimate competitor and those who learn from the past will know that you don’t need to beat everyone, you just need to beat the ancient one, “The Lady in Black.”

As I watch Austin Dillon pull his 1987 Dale Earnhardt, Wrangler Chevrolet inspired SS onto the speedway I can’t help but think of the years I watched this race with my grandfather and my parents or listened to it on the AM radio. It is history, a history so recent and yet so long ago. It was a time before splitters, before wings, before universal bodies. That was when a manufacturer could make the difference between dominating a race season and merely watching from the sidelines.

I often wonder what those drivers back then would think of the sport today. A sport that has blown up and come back down. A sport that looks for heroes and still needs a villain. These ghosts of racing past surely still race down these historic straights, still slide through these ancient corners. These ghosts live on in every memory, every legend, every inch of this track.

The old saying is, “Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it.” While many call for those days past, I like to think that we are writing history of our own. Who will be the next legend to win here? Who will be the next driver people only remember winning? Who will be the next driver that people love to curse? I don’t know the answer to any of that, but I do know that Darlington will still be here when they take their place in myths and legend.

This is Darlington. This is where the ghosts of yesterday meet the drivers of today, who write tomorrow’s past. This is Labor Day weekend. This is where we remember days gone by.

Enjoy the show.

Make Your Last One Your Best One

This weekend my father and I returned to the beautiful Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Every year since NASCAR has raced there, we have had made sure to go. It wasn’t just another weekend for us, it is possibly the last one we will share at this facility.

Every year when we go we bring a cribbage board, we have kept score through the years. We have always played to break ties when they have occurred, so we know who won the year. This year we started 3-3. This morning we ended it, 3-3-1.

Every year I would buy and event program and he would buy an event t-shirt. We each have our own collections. It makes for just an interesting novelty. This year, neither of us bought our keepsake.

This year was no ordinary year. In January I will move to North Carolina. The plan has been set in motion and it is just time for it to happen. If I want to get any further in the sport that I love, I have to make this change. This change that literally changes everything.

After a weekend of joy and fun, happiness and celebration, work and relaxation, my world has changed forever. Good people make the world move. At least they make my world move. Many of the best people I know are in NASCAR at some level, being around those good people is what life is all about to me.

I could go over all the great times that were had this year, but too many don’t belong written down, only remembered. Just as in years past, the best times are always treasured and remembered and shared face to face, the way great stories should be told. This year, was the best year. Wins are great on the track, but wins in life are even greater.

As I move forward with this journey in life I will always look back to this weekend and think to myself, “That is how I want every weekend to be.” Good times. Great people. Lots of fun. Living in the moment.

Thank you Road America for providing the soil for these roots to grow. I started the first year as just a fan, I leave this year knowing I will always be something more than that. I can truly say that Road America is a magical place, a place to learn, a place to live, a place to grow. As I pulled out today knowing there is a chance that I may never be again, I smiled away what could be tears.

As Chris LeDoux so wonderfully sang, “Make your last one your best one…” That is just what I did.

May we meet again, old friend.

Small Team, Big Family.

In life we are all blessed with certain things; friends, family, people you know and love. Sometimes we get lucky and we fall in love with something so much bigger, a sport. I speak of course about NASCAR, today. Something that has given me years of fun and laughter, friends aplenty, and great times.

My father and I have come to the NASCAR XFINITY Racing Series event at Road America every year. The past three years we have been welcomed by multiple teams. First, Derrike Cope Racing. Then Derrike Cope Racing and Richard Childress Racing both welcomed us in 2016 and we were fortunate enough to be with the 2 team when they won.

This weekend I have the good fortune to be attached to BJ McLeod Motorsports for the Road America weekend. This small team is bigger than most realize. Not just in heart or in passion or even work ethic. This small team treats everyone around them like you hope a big team would, with hospitality and grace, comfort and welcoming smiles.

When I first signed up with BJ McLeod Motorsports to assist with their social media, I didn’t know what I was in for. What I found was a family, welcoming and loving of all new members. A team that loves all people in their circle. This team doesn’t know negative, they look for positives, they take comfort in improvement and good runs.

Winning, it’s not just about trophies and money. No. That’s not always real winning. Real winning is going out there and knowing your purpose; to entertain fans and enjoy the moment. Have some fun and at the end of the day maybe you celebrate with a good finish. That’s winning on a small team. This team knows these things all too well.

This is a team that not only works together and lives together; they sacrifice together and they spend quality time together. BJ McLeod Motorsports is a team that forms a bond with their members, bonds forged in the heat of battle, at the height of stress and fatigue. It is a family that I can only compare to the family I shared in the Army; a family that is so close and tight but still welcoming of all who enter.

As I lay here in the infield of Road America, I realize one thing, one fact that actually kind of makes me sad. After the race is over, the Beast is put away, the truck is loaded, and the engine started… I will have to say goodbye to this team, this family who has welcomed us with open arms. You hear other fans talk about the team and the experience and how great it is, then you experience it and realize that when they head home and you head home, you will feel as though a part of you has gone missing.

There will be other races for me this year and I will still talk to them during the week, every week, but it is a sense of loss. How can one team make everyone feel like such a part of the family? The answer is simple, all of us who wrap our arms around this team, receive the same in return. It is a true family. One that I will love and remember for all my days. I still have some time left, though it is fleeting, I will enjoy every last minute of it.

And when they turn those wheels south and head back to Mooresville, only one song will play in my head.

“Oh won’t you stay… just a little bit longer…”
-Jackson Browne-

Paying With Passion: the True Price of Racing

As the sun rises on Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the gates open for the first time of the weekend, one can sit and watch countless hundreds of the most passionate people to walk the Earth enter the historic landmark. Talent, skill, and who you know can get you far in the racing industry. However, it is hard to outlast the grind. Not everyone can do it.

Much like the priesthood you have to feel a calling, you have to feel something deep in you to last here. Forty weeks a year you are away from your family, your friends, your home. This isn’t something that just anyone does, this isn’t even something people want to do for money, there is always something else burning in the soul. How do you know that it is your calling? Easy, something inside you breaks and it hurts to be anywhere other than the track. It is a pain that is only relieved by horsepower, fuel, and hot rubber.

Knowing that this is your calling is the easy part. Anyone can say, “This is where I belong.” The problem is, earning your spot in the garage. You can love the sport but you’ll need to find someone that believes in you, someone that can help you get in. Just remember, this is a “Pay-to-Play” sport and everyone will give their pound of flesh.

One such person trying to make it in today is Caitlin Siem. She’s had short stories published, won writing awards, is a school librarian, interned for Sarah Fisher Racing in 2009 and today she now finds herself with BJ McLeod Motorsports. Interning with BJMM and working in NASCAR is a culmination of life ambition and events.

“I was a teenager when I decided that I wanted racing to be my future career. I’ve wanted to be in racing for almost 15 years now. I would say the first time I was truly called to the sport was the first race I went to, Michigan International Speedway. I was in high school and went with my dad. We sat in turn four and once I saw those cars come around and got a whiff of the smell that is so uniquely NASCAR, I knew I was done for.”

Like many in the sport, her path hasn’t been a direct one. Having tested the waters on the engineering side of the sport, she found herself on the outside looking in. Passion never dies, it always bubbles up and pushes you forward.

“If you don’t love this sport to the very fiber of your being, it’ll eat you alive and spit you out. You have to be willing to work every day, bleed for a team, and do anything necessary. That’s what I’ve learned.”

“If you were able to measure the desire and love I have for this sport in a concrete way, like water for instance, it would fill the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as if it was a swimming pool.”

“Getting into NASCAR is a fight I won’t ever consider backing down from. It’s where I belong.”

Now Caitlin is willing to give it all to get into the sport any way she can. True passion means sometimes you have to spend your own money down to your last dime, you have to be willing to stretch yourself, sleep in cars, push yourself into situations you normally wouldn’t.

“Honestly, I don’t think I ever considered not being willing to do absolutely whatever it takes to get into the industry. That’s what you do to achieve your dreams, yeah? How far will I push? To quote Buzz Lightyear: To infinity and beyond.”

Any team would be lucky to have Caitlin working with them. People say it takes “Drive” to succeed. Drive is easy, it’s easy to be motivated. What this takes is true unbridled passion, that’s something not many find in their daily lives. In this garage area, it’s very important . Any team owner will tell you as much. BJ McLeod has a team full of passionate people. That’s why he brings them on board.

“Passion is everything, it’s your foundation. If you have passion you can do anything.”

Passionate people will go to new lengths and learn special skills, use their God given talents, and do anything to succeed. If you truly love what you are doing, you’ll do anything to keep doing it.

Caitlin Siem is a perfect example of that. I know whatever team she lands with, will be better for it.

See you in the box.




The Indy Experiment.

Welcome my friends to the experiment that never ends, making the race at Indianapolis as interesting as possible. A race that industry insiders, media, and Indy fans consider a “Crown Jewel” race. Indianapolis is one of the most historic race venues in all of the United States of America. That is why we all strive to make the racing as legendary as the track.

Before we meddle with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cups Series, NASCAR has decided to try a very interesting experiment with the Xfinity Racing Series which you will see this weekend. It could make the racing great, but could also make it worse. The changes are various and target multiple points of the car.

1. New aero duct to keep brakes cooler, will also add some downforce.

2. A larger front splitter, will add downforce.

3. A larger spoiler, similar to last year’s, will add downforce.

4. A restrictor plate.

What the intention of all this is, to create a larger hole in the air for a bigger draft that allows the car in back to suck up and slingshot pass the front car. The theory is sound, cars should get a large speed gain behind the other car and when they pull out the drag on the front car should multiply to slow it down. This should allow the back car to pull alongside.

The restrictor plate is an interesting addition. It effectively nullifies horsepower difference. By cutting all horsepower in half even the smallest teams will be on near equal footing, similar to Daytona and Talladega when they can run with the large fully funded teams. Also, this will allow the trailing car to keep the throttle wide open and duck out at the last moment with a higher speed.

Will it work? That is the giant question now. I believe there are three possible results. Each may have an up side and a down side.

Result One. Everything goes according to plan. It is a great race, fans love it, the industry is proven right and this is applied to the Cup series. You’ll see good side by side racing, maybe even three wide racing. The slingshot returns and most every car is on equal footing. Likelihood of this happening, I would say is about 25%.

Result Two. With an aero package that we have run in past years we have a similar race to years gone by. Tedious to watch, drivers complaining they are bored. The industry scratching its head on how to make this race as legendary as this track. Fans not embracing the Indianapolis race like they should. Likelihood of this, I believe is about 35%.

Result Three. By far the most likely at 40%. Cars will be able to catch each other, bump draft and shove off into the corner. That sounds great, right? No. If you get more than a half lane out of the groove only one thing happens, you find the wall. So there’s going to be a ton of give and take, drivers are going to get out of the way and log laps. With the giant holes in the air like years past, you can catch each other. When you all have half the horsepower available, you may be able to stay near each other.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a momentum track, that has not and will not change. The secret to the track is keeping your speed up in the corners. This is actually going to be worse with restrictor plates. Plates make the throttle response a lot worse. So if the car in front of you gets into the throttle 200 feet earlier than you, they are gone. If the car ahead gets back to the throttle even 50 feet earlier, they are going to walk away.

With the high downforce package the rear car will not be able to get back to the throttle earlier. It is a near certainty. Without clean air on the nose of the car and on the splitter, the car will be aero tight, it’s going to push, when you turn the wheel left, the car will want to go straight. So, you have to back out of the throttle more and wait for the front tires to gain enough mechanical grip to turn. The trailing car is slower, it’s off throttle longer, the lead car is walking away.

Yes, you may be able to catch the car ahead, but passing will be a terrible pain. If you stay in the throttle and dive off into the corner under another car, you will have brakes to stop you, if they are operating at the right temperature. Up and down pit road teams have had brake issues with temperature all year. The Cup teams have had issues and the Xfinity teams have had issues, all of them. Now we are changing their brake cooling system for one weekend only and teams haven’t been able to test it. So brakes may have issues. They may grip too quick or may not grip enough.

There are a ton of factors here. Drivers wanted a low downforce package which created better racing, but it keeps the field separated. This new package might bring the small teams closer to level on equipment, but you still have experience. Those who figure out how to keep the throttle up through the turn will prosper in Indy, like always. That’s the name of the game, it always has been and always will be.

I believe the best drivers will find that by letting off the throttle early, staying off the brake and letting the car set early in the turn and then pick it back up will be the best. The straights need speed, whether it’s the long straights or the short chutes, top speed is king at The Brickyard. If you can get the car to turn early in Turn 1 and Turn 3 you can hold the throttle open through the short chute and through Turn 2 and Turn 4. This will maximize speed down the long straights. With the restricted engines, this will be the winning strategy.

What can be done? If you don’t have a solution, you’re just whining. What would I do? Open up the existing radiator opening, tear off splitters, minimum ride height of 4 inches, go to a very small spoiler. Allowing the engines to cool while adding drag will allow you to tuck behind another car for extended periods of time. With higher drag on the nose of a car you will get the big drafts. Small spoilers allow you to upset the aero of the car ahead of you. By lifting the front of the car up, you get air under the vehicle which also adds drag. High drag, good cooling, ill handling cars will make for a very interesting race.

Those are just my thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think!

I’ll see you in the box!

Testing the Field.

Once upon a time there was a race hauler that pulled into the race track early on Tuesday morning. The sun rose gently over the stands, the car in the trailer was lowered to the ground. The mechanics prepared the car, just like any race day. The engineers, crew chief, driver, and spotter would gather around to go over the day’s list and together decided what the main things they wanted to learn were.

This is testing. It’s long days, lots of travel, junk food lunches, and a lot of guys watching 1 or 2, maybe 3 cars, circle the track. Teams were once allowed to test at will, then they were told only 4 tests on tracks that they visit, then, no testing. All was done in order to “level the playing field” and “save the owners money.” Well, I honestly think the verdict is in.

It has done, neither. Every team spends more and more money on wind tunnel tests and pull down rig testing and dyno testing. Teams look to gain an advantage. If they can find one one hundredth of a second, they’ve made a gain. In NASCAR that little margin is huge. The cars are so closely prepared and built to specification that it can cost teams hundreds of man hours in design and engineering. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in proofing, testing, refining every aspect of the car.

This is better, right? I mean, small teams are better off this way. No, they aren’t. If a small team sees a pull down rig, it’s likely once or twice a year. If they see a chassis dyno, it’s roughly the same. Wind tunnel? Never heard of it. Many small teams run second hand equipment, sometimes third hand, sometimes innumerable people have owned, raced, beaten, and repaired that chassis. There’s no wind tunnel testing here, in the second half of the field.

Would testing be any different? Yes. Small teams once had a chance to go “all in” on a certain type of track. Maybe they would invest in testing on a road course. Maybe they would invest on testing the Restrictor plate tracks. The point is, they had options. Maybe it would only help in four races, but it was something. This testing also gave young drivers and drivers new to the series actual seat time.

Simulators are great, they can help learn a racing line, they can help with reflexes, they can help with muscle memory for shift points. They cannot replace true “seat of the pants” data. How does the car feel? How does the car sound? How does the air pressure in the cockpit change? This is all very important for a driver to learn, to experience, to feel, and to see! If you need practical demonstration as to why this is better, look no further than licensing in NASCAR. You have to drive a real car, on a real track, so real NASCAR officials can watch you.

Doesn’t this help the big teams more? No. Big teams have plenty of ways to research and develop, incredible think tanks of men & women designing the next big thing. They can simulate and test it, send crews to wind tunnels, put it on the pull down rig. Would they test? Absolutely, but it gives the small teams a chance at some tracks. Right now, it’s a week in and week out struggle. If they knew that once they got to New Hampshire Motor Speedway they had a good set up, they’d circle that and say, that’s our week. Save money and save equipment, we are putting everything we can into that track.

When you give small teams hope, they can go to sponsors and tell them, “We have what it takes here. We need to get the best tires and best motor and best transmission money can buy because this track, we know.” Now they have a shot. They can potentially run in the top 5 when they go to NHMS year after year. Right now, most small teams are hoping to get a few top 20 runs so they can afford to get to a pull down rig test for the end of the year, if they have time.

Testing would allow small teams to spend a few extra days at a track they just raced at and prepare for the following race there. What would I like to see happen? Unlimited testing for any team not in the top 20 owner’s points but is running full time. Very simple reason, if only the small teams can test, some big team is gonna walk up to them and say, “Test this for us and we will give you…” It’s like a type of revenue sharing program like other sports have. This elevates small teams and allows big teams to continue to prosper.

But, that’s just my thought.

I’ll see you in the box.


Ok, that’s as close to mainstream media as I will get here. Interestingly enough, we don’t need to fix NASCAR. I hear you, “But Couch! Look at the stands! Look at the ratings! Look at the…” No. If you find pleasure and entertainment in looking at the stands and ratings, then this IS A GREAT time for you. I, like many others, watch what’s on the track.

So, what has happened? This doesn’t make sense. How can NASCAR go from top popularity to struggling. Now, I am no political science major, I’m not some marketing guru, I don’t even do long range planning. My long range plan is to hopefully have pork chops for dinner tomorrow night. It isn’t hard to see though.

The cycle. Let’s start with the 1950’s. Open wheel racing is at a peak, people are fascinated with it. NHRA drag racing is founded in 1951. 1959, NASCAR is born. By the early 60’s NHRA is fast on the rise. It’s fresh, it’s new, it’s loud, and there are events everywhere. The mid 1960’s everyone is TransAm road racing, LeMans is HUGE, at it’s peak. The late 60’s NASCAR is building up steam.

Then come the 1970’s. Open wheel is low, NHRA slowly starts to lose ground. NASCAR & TransAm are hosting events coast to coast at local tracks. They are affordable, families can go for an entire weekend and camp. We get to the 80’s, NASCAR is approaching it’s peak. TransAm is on the slide. Open wheel is starting it’s comeback. 90’s hit and you see NASCAR at its peak, open wheel is back in popularity. Sponsors, big corporations see stands full of fans and get in line to get on a car. TV sees this so they start paying money that sanctioning bodies can’t pass up to get these sports on TV.

Then IndyCar tries to off itself by fracturing down the center. NASCAR loses some huge stars, drivers that people grew up watching. Prices have gotten so high that families have to budget for just one race instead of three or four. Then NASCAR in conjunction with SMI and ISC leave the small local tracks. You get a ton of 1.5 mile tracks. So the racing is similar at all these venues. This is all because so many people wanted to go. Now you have hundreds of thousands of seats and suddenly people get burnt out. They’ve seen the races in person. Plus who wants to sit shoulder to shoulder with 110,000 people? So people start leaving.

Where do they go? They still love Motorsports. They go back to road racing, local tracks, places they can afford to go to regularly. With cable having all the races they can stay home and watch NASCAR. IndyCar reforms with the best of the best, they listen to fans and try to give them what they want, within reason. NASCAR has long term deals that keep them at tracks that people just don’t want to go to anymore. Now people stay home and rather than buy cable or go to the race, they live stream the race. They see it in different ways.

So that is just the first bit. The cycle has many more spokes that cause it to move, right now, NASCAR has lost a chunk of their fan base, kind of. Those fans are excited about IMSA WeatherTech series, IndyCar, F1, Pirelli World Challenge. They’ve got a great product at an affordable rate because they’ve all been on the bottom, they’ve all lost TV contracts, they’ve all had to go through empty stands. NHRA is even on the rise with bright young stars that have come on in the last 10 years and first class fan access. It’s ok! NASCAR will survive.

How will it survive? TV will eventually reduce how much they pay for the broadcast. Then they don’t have to have as many commercial breaks, since there are fewer commercial breaks the corporations that want that advertising will go back to cars. The cars will once again become the rolling commercial. Corporations will realize that fans now take in all sports in a whole new manner. Millennials want the experience, the face to face, the one on one time. So social media will become huge and drivers will be asked to use their social media to promote product. Sound familiar? Ask Nature’s Bakery, they were just the start.

Drivers will have to realize that the fan now is like the fan in the 60’s and 70’s. They want to see you, they want to shake your hand, and they want to buy you a beer. Because it’s all about, “What did you do this weekend?”

So, do we have to fix NASCAR? No. What do we do? We ride out the cycle until people want to go back to big circle tracks. If that doesn’t happen, NASCAR will move back to smaller tracks because SMI & ISC & NASCAR all do the math. It doesn’t pay to maintain 150,000 seats if you only have 35,000 fans. It’s a self correcting system.

What about the quality of racing? It’s so bad! No, no it isn’t. The TV coverage is bad because they follow the top 10. That’s not where the racing is, that’s between 15th and 30th. Listen to an in-car radio. Those guys are like hornets who just had their nest hit with a rock. Plus, many can’t afford to tear up their car. So they race, on old tires, pinching dimes. They aren’t your big names, but they have die hard fans and they fight for every position. Fans have to say, “It’s ok, I don’t need to see the biggest names on TV, I want the closest racing on TV.” They do it a little, not a lot. Trust me, there is great racing.

Well some drivers say the cars suck! Yeah, sometimes the cars aren’t great, but welcome to spec racing which is what NASCAR is today. Everyone has essentially the same thing. Fans demanded closer, tighter, cheaper racing. You got it. All drivers have to deal with the same thing out there. If the drivers don’t like it, Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA have a wide variety of BOP (Balance Of Performance) racing that they can go to, some love it, some hate it. It’s just a matter of what you want to drive, what fans want to see, and where you want to race.

Welcome to Motorsports. We have cycles, we have personalities, we have companies that want to make money, and we have people that love to drive fast. We also have fans that need to reeducate themselves about what racing is, man and machine trying to be the fastest in whatever discipline. If you don’t like the racing, tell your driver to quit sandbagging for 100 laps.

Whats wrong with NASCAR racing? Nothing. It has great racing. What’s wrong with NASCAR really? We are at the bottom of a cycle, waiting for contracts to expire so we can move some races where they need to be and so we can watch a race with commercial interruption instead of watching commercials with race interruption.

So feel free to listen to talking heads about ratings and attendance. Watch or don’t watch. Go or don’t go. NASCAR was here before many of us, NASCAR will be here after most of us leave. It’s like life, it’s going to go on with or without us.

I will see you in the box.