NASCAR series directors Chad Little (Camping World Truck Series), Wayne Auton (Nationwide Series) and John Darby (Sprint Cup Series) participated in the NASCAR weekly teleconference earlier this week to discuss their respective series, both looking back to the young season so far and what’s ahead for each series for the remainder of the year. Here’s a transcript from the teleconference:
Q. Wayne, you were in the Truck Series for many years, have you been able to apply anything new from the Truck Series to your position in the Nationwide Series?
WAYNE AUTON: The Nationwide Series is the No. 2 motorsports series in all the world, and with that being said, the competitors, the teams, are just absolutely great to work with.
Coming from the Truck Series after 18 years, I was a little reluctant how I was going to fit in with that group but it’s actually went very well. Teams have been very receptive to some new ways that we are enforcing some policies and procedures in the garage.
After five races, I stand pretty proud. We have had five really, really good races. I know Kyle Busch has won, and with everything that’s happened so far this year, looking forward to having a couple weeks off. And I guess the biggest thing is I’ve worked my first five races in a row to begin the season. Actually looking forward to a break and we’ll get back at it at Texas.
Q. Chad, this is your first year as the truck series director. How do you think things are going so far, and just talk about the upcoming race in Martinsville?
CHAD LITTLE: After five weeks off, I’m really looking forward to Martinsville. Wayne told me this was going to be the best part of my job was the five-week vacation following Daytona, and then it was time to get busy. So I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.
I think the competitors are anxious to get back to Martinsville. Most of them come from the short track circles and it’s most near and dear to their heart, so that’s another reason we are all excited about. It will be our first race where we’ve had a chance to see the new rule where competitors under 18 can compete on tracks under a mile, so we are looking forward to a few new faces there.
I guess mostly it’s just exciting as you grow up in racing, you want to be at the racetrack and you look forward to being there and working with the competitors, and that’s where I’m at.
Q. Can you give us any details yet on the Eldora format?
CHAD LITTLE: We are getting very close to finalizing all of the details for Eldora from the procedural changes for that race to the rules package, we bounced around several ideas internally here and we are visiting with the teams. We will probably finish our final visits at Martinsville, and then I expect that we’ll have an announcement very shortly after that race.
Q. Wayne, I was wondering, you guys have had fight races just like the Cup guys had and there’s been a lot of attention paid to that series. What have you seen so far just in the five races that you’ve had your hands on the program, and where did you feel like it stands from a competitive standpoint with the different drivers you’ve got in the series this year?
WAYNE AUTON: Well, I think the on-track competition that we’ve seen has definitely proven that the NASCAR Nationwide Series is worthy of their standing in all of motorsports. Sam Hornish Jr. has an incredible start to the season, leading by 28 points at this juncture.
I think Roger Penske really knows how to get communication amongst people very well, bringing in Greg and his crew chief there; I think we have seen a difference in Sam this year already. You can’t say enough about the competition level that’s there, and what we’ve seen with Kyle Larson, a young gun, young up-and-comer. All the rookies that are in the field this year, how well they participated; Parker Kligerman finishing third on Saturday, a great race of his amongst all the years itself.
I guess what I have been sort of proud of is the way that I’ve learned how these guys and gals and owners and drivers and crew members handle themselves in the garage area, and how good the cars really, really are and how competitive they are once they get on the racetrack.
Q. Comment on the influx of former Cup veterans; guys have been pretty successful moving back. What are your thoughts on that and is that good for the series?
WAYNE AUTON: I don’t look at it as moving back. I look at it as drivers that really love motorsports and the venues that we go to mirroring the Cup Series at a lot of racetracks, and adding new tracks like Mid-Ohio this year. I don’t look at any driver going backwards.
I think the competition level, the way it is fits everybody’s driving style, and also, if you look at other sports that there is out there today, where else can you go and compete against the best. The influx of the Cup drivers, we are I tickled to death to see them in there because where else can you go and run against the best to be able to make yourself better.
Q. In what ways can those guys bring in some extra fans on the Nationwide side, given the familiarity there?
WAYNE AUTON: Well, I believe the competition on the racetrack No. 1, and when you have competitors like it is in this NASCAR Nationwide Series this year with Brian Vickers coming in, Elliott Sadler, Sam Hornish; and then you throw in a bunch of young guns like Kyle Larson, Parker Kligerman, young drivers like that. And now you even look at Austin Dylan as a veteran instead of a young gun; even if he’s in his second year, he’s won some races.
And you also have got to look at the influence of the owners that’s in the garage area with Roger Penske, Turner Scott Motorsports, Kyle Busch Motorsports, you know, just — RCR; the list just goes on and on. And Junior, Dale Jr., having a couple teams in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, just shows how competitive this series really is.
Q. For Wayne and Chad, you both mentioned young drivers, I would like to ask you a question about young people generally, what you think, what would be your best advice to give to young people about being successful?
WAYNE AUTON: Well, I think at anything in life, to be a success is what you set your goals for. But I think if you set your goals high enough, you can at least meet part of them is success, and you ought to feel like that if you accomplish one thing in your life, then you’ve done a lot.
CHAD LITTLE: Yeah, I certainly agree with Wayne. I would just add that I put a lot of emphasis on education, encouraging these young kids to not only finish high school but to go on and get a college or even a post-college degree and give themselves something to look at into the future, as well.
Q. And as far as young drivers coming into the series, you obviously both have a lot of experience with that. Can you see things, characteristics in some of them that you feel is going to take them a long way?
WAYNE AUTON: Well, definitely their driving ability.
CHAD LITTLE: A lot of drive inside a person, a lot of drive not only on, but off the racetrack that pushes them to not accept the norm, not accept being average and trying to be better than the rest. That’s an important characteristic of a driver, but also someone that wants to excel at everything they do.
Q. The Truck Series at Eldora this year, the talk that Greenville Pickens might be headed towards that, is there talk to getting back to more of a grass roots type, maybe a shorter track and kind of carving that identity out for the Truck Series? And does that make it also, as you said, the age limit for tracks less than a mile, does that make it easier also, too, for new the young up-and-comers?
CHAD LITTLE: You’re always looking for new venues and evaluating the opportunities at any racetrack. But the short track races are definitely important. Getting back to the grass roots has always been very important for NASCAR. And lowering the age limit to 16 at the smaller tracks gives another opportunity for drivers to get experience before they get into the mile-and-a-half-type tracks.
So a very important goal for NASCAR, and it’s also working with our partners, the track owners.
Q. You mentioned Kyle Larson earlier, I was just wondering, has NASCAR closed the book on the investigation of the last-lap crash at Daytona? Did you guys find out anything more or will there be any changes made as far as when you guys go back to race there?
WAYNE AUTON: We look at all of our venues on a yearly basis. And as far as the accident at Daytona, we are still in the middle of it and trying to see how everything falls together. As we do at any venue we go to, if we see that any changes need to be made, then we’ll check into it.
Q. John, you are five races in, you’ve been to five different racetracks, five different winners and all three manufacturers have been in victory lane. How do you sum up the racing so far with the new Gen-6 car?
JOHN DARBY: Well, I think you just did. But obviously the good side from the competition arm is that we do get that diversity at the beginning of the year.
It’s very difficult to make a firm judgment off of one race or one style of racetrack. But we’ve had a great sampling of everything from short tracks to restrictor plate racing so far in 13, and we have been very pleased with all of what we’ve seen.
The momentum, actually, lately, as we kind of expected, every week that goes by, it still gets a little bit better. There’s a lot that that’s by design. All the engineers and resources in the world can put their heads together and present a car for competition.
But until the actual race teams get a hold of the race car and do what they do best, we still, I don’t believe, have seen its full potential, probably more so we have just scratched the surface.
As hard as the teams are working on the car and the improvements that they are making and getting more and more comfortable with the aero signature of the car and the handling characteristics and all the new gidgets and gadgets and toys they have to play with this year, it continues to improve, which has been from my seat, anyways, very satisfying to start the season out this well.
Q. There’s been a lot of discussion since Sunday about the wall Denny hit that caused the injury. Can you walk us through again and explain to us why all these tracks don’t have SAFER walls all the way around? And with regard to Fontana, how would the process work to have that wall changed to a SAFER wall?
JOHN DARBY: Our safety initiatives, which were really, really up scaled back in the early 2000s, and have continued to evolve since that day, encompass a good part of working with a lot of very smart people across the country.
And we have a very strong association with the University of Nebraska and the Department of Safety from the transportation side, and a lot of people that eat and sleep this stuff. And it’s like anything else; we had to walk before we could run, and we have been running pretty hard for the last ten years, and I think it’s fair.
And in doing that, all of the venues are evaluated and looked at, at least annually. And if there’s troubled areas in a particular venue, then a recommendation is made to see if it can be addressed or a better situation evolved into.
Now, the part of the wall that Denny his in California, obviously that wall has been there since the racetrack was built. But one of the points that they look at is frequency of impacts are, and where the more prevalent points of impact are, and those are addressed first.
Now, as we go to each racetrack and that same evaluation happens, there’s a constant growth of SAFER barriers and closing gates and redesigning gates and wheel fences and the whole project.
But it’s, like I said, it’s an evolution. In light of Denny’s accident, I’m sure that there will be more investigations done in that area of the racetrack. I also feel very positive about the fact that if a recommendation is made, that the Speedway will be very proactive in helping getting that resolved.
Q. After the crash at Auto Club, you saw it as a racing incident; can you talk about what made you think it was racing rather than retaliatory in nature?
JOHN DARBY: Probably the simple fact that it was the last lap of the race and the last time they were both going to see turns three and four. They were side-by-side. And everything that great competitors do; if somebody was of the mind-set to retaliate, they probably would have been lined up nose to tail to start with and somebody would have drove into the other car and spun them around. But in this case, that is so far from the opposite that it never even crossed anybody’s mind that I’m aware of that paid attention to the race, that that was part of it.
Q. And also after last week, there’s been a lot of talk about blocking and also there was earlier this year. Can you go over what NASCAR’s rules are on blocking and your view of it and do you feel like you will need to take any second look to try to make judgment calls on that in the future?
JOHN DARBY: Right now, I can tell you there are not any conversations internally inside of NASCAR to look at blocking as a violation or a penalty-type situation that some other forms of motorsports do.
With Sprint Cup Series racing, obviously being far above a lot of the other forms of racing as far as competitiveness, we are going to have close racing, and close side by side racing, and we are going to have close front to rear racing, and there’s a lot of that that’s just part of competition.
You know, as good as the racing has been and as exciting as it’s been, I don’t think we need to jump in the middle of any of that and screw it up.
Q. I understand you guys went to look at the video from post-race on Sunday, and I take it you didn’t see anything in there that warranted a penalty, as well?
JOHN DARBY: That would be correct.
Q. And secondly, going back, since NASCAR seems to have a long history of letting things that happen on the racetrack stay on the racetrack and not respond with a penalty, why do you think the sanctioning body has always taken that stance?
JOHN DARBY: That’s part of what we do. Again, the competition today is so close, and the racing is so good. Besides the subjectivity of trying to define whether somebody blocked or just changed lanes without a turn signal; you know, we don’t need to introduce that into what we are doing right now.
Q. Going back to the decision not to penalize anybody there, Stewart did cut off Logano on pit road, and started an incident there. Can you tell me why the governing body decided there was nothing wrong there? Also I think there was some concern with drivers that went down pit road in all of the confusion when pit road was closed; can you talk about that?
JOHN DARBY: Yeah, all of the post-race incidents, a few years ago, we backed away from micromanaging drivers’ emotions. You would hope in today’s world that if somebody didn’t win a race, they would be upset about it for whatever reason. That’s what our drivers do is they try to win races.
So the emotions that follow a race sometime, as long as stuff — and keep in mind, there’s the checks and the balances, but a couple of drivers at the end of the race arguing a little bit doesn’t create a foul in our world today. The crews did a great job of managing their drivers to make sure that it didn’t cross the line to where there was physical violence or anything like that, and that’s what you would hope.
That’s just another example of the state of competition in NASCAR racing, and the disappointments that come sometimes when you don’t win the race. I don’t see any foul there at all.
And the second part of your question, was just wanting to make sure we had a small handful of drivers that did come down pit road, we directed the cars on the racetrack to make sure we had plenty of clear path to dispatch the necessary emergency units to the 11 car, and there was obviously some confusion amongst a few of the drivers. We just wanted to try to find out if it was mis-communicated from their spotters or what happened. I think we’re pretty comfortable with figuring out what happened there, as well.
Q. And back to the other one. Did you instruct drivers to come back the opposite way to the entrance of pit road coming in? And the reason I ask specifically about Tony cutting off or blocking him, I know with the Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch issue at Darlington years ago, that was a little different because Kyle shoved a car and possibly injuring a safety worker. But did you feel like the fact that they clogged things up there at that end of the track did not put anybody in any kind of dangers or safety workers or interrupt the flow there?
JOHN DARBY: No, what we asked the drivers to do was to stay on the racetrack to clear the accident, right, so they did. They did the smart thing. They stayed on the racetrack and came in on the opposite end of pit road. Obviously it wouldn’t have done anybody a whole lot of good to have them make laps after the race was over.
So they did, the majority of them, heard the directive from the tower, stayed clear of the accident scene and came up pit road to get back to the garage.
I mean, the Stewart deal, I’d be hard-pressed to even call that a collision. All they kind of did was drove up pit road and decided to park in a little different area than anybody else did.
Q. Going back to the question about the walls, you said that all the venues are evaluated and you guys make recommendations. When NASCAR makes those recommendations, are tracks required to implement them at the risk of losing their sanction?
JOHN DARBY: Well, if they were, I wouldn’t call them recommendations I guess. But just to correct you a little bit, the recommendations come from the experts in that part of the industry, not from NASCAR. We receive the same reports, but they actually come from the folks that are the best suited to make those recommendations and understand what they are recommending.
Now, if you look at similar incidents in the past; if you remember back to the 24 car at Vegas that hit an inside wall, the track was reviewed and the racetrack very promptly made an addition to some SAFER barrier.
If you go back to Kentucky, I think Nationwide rise, where Jeff Fuller in a Nationwide race found an area on the backstretch that probably could have been updated and had a little bit better design. That was investigated and that repair was also made.
It’s not — nobody’s reluctant to do the things that need to be done. But with the same token, it needs to be reviewed by the expert people who know what the heck they are talking about, and the proper directives and follow-ups made.
Q. In this case is it fair to say then that there had been no previous recommendation on that wall made by those experts you mentioned?
JOHN DARBY: I don’t know, because I don’t see them personally, what I do know, a lot of it goes into frequencies, you know. And like I said earlier, the walls at California have been there since the very first day we raced, and if that had been viewed as a high-risk or a high-trouble spot, you know, it would have probably been different.
But now in light of that accident, I’m sure it will be re-looked at and if the folks make a recommendation that they think will help ensure the safety there, then I’m sure the Speedway follows it.
Q. You were talking about the Gen-6 earlier. I assume California was going to be a big test study there. I assume your guy is going to be looking again at Texas. At this point are you pretty happy with the car and plan no changes, say, by May or is Texas still going to be a big barometer of where you go with it?
JOHN DARBY: Well, Texas is, I’m going to say is our second look at that style of racetrack. Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the first, and that proved to be a very good race, as well, shattering all kinds of records for lead changes and passes on the racetrack.
So Texas, sure, it will be another check in the box. The biggest difference between Las Vegas and Texas is a hundred miles, right. It’s a 500-mile race instead of a 400-mile race. So we’ll see how that turns out.
But I have to tell you, I don’t know if I could be much happier right now with the first five races that we’ve rolled out. The competition has been phenomenal. The races are just fun to watch. I mean, I don’t know how else to describe it.
And I know my role in the sport, but I’ve got to tell you, there’s a lot of race fan in me, as well, and you know, I would already be buying tickets for the next race if I had seen the first five that I have this year.
So, yes, we are pleased and I think we can keep that momentum rolling.
Q. John, it used to be in years past — and you can correct me if I’m wrong –
JOHN DARBY: I will.
Q. — you couldn’t punch somebody but you could push them straight on and we thought we knew where the limits are. But understandably, the ‘Boys Have At It,’ but is there a certain line over ‘Boys Have At It’ that’s marked down somewhere or you’ll see it when you see it, because you are officiating the race obviously, and that you just have to observe it; is there a particular line?
JOHN DARBY: I don’t know if we’ve actually got a rule book that describes every push in the chest or kick in the shin or — or whatever. But I think your question is pretty silly, too, by the way.
Q. Oh, you do? The fans debate it all the time and they wonder where the line used to be or where it is — and I understand. You can’t write everything down. But punching used to be a line we kind of thought was a line, but things have changed over the years, too. You know what I mean?
JOHN DARBY: Okay, so you’ve got to go back and redefine punching, right. So you have to make sure that the punch lands and it does damage and all the rest of that stuff. That’s why I think your question is pretty silly.
If two guys get in a hell of a fight, yeah, we’ll have to react. But a couple guys blowing off some steam and slapping at the air isn’t going to get anybody in a whole lot of trouble.
Q. That’s very helpful. I know it seems like it’s not but when a lot of calls and a lot of questions are asked, that’s extremely helpful. And I understand what you’re saying, you can’t lay down every part of a fight and where it is or over the line and where it isn’t. Appreciate it. Thank you.
JOHN DARBY: You’re welcome.
Q. As you understand it, having been around the industry for so long, what level of pressure does all the braking at Martinsville put on a driver’s back, and maybe how physical that driver has to be in the car? And of course specifically I’m discussing Denny’s particular back compression fracture, what that might mean for him physically if he were to attempt it.
JOHN DARBY: Well, and I’m not — please, believe me, I’m not dodging your question, but that’s why we’re going to let other folks decide that. But yes, I think what we can all agree on is Martinsville is a very physical track because of the endurance factor, there’s a lot more movement in a very short period of time than there would be in a two-mile racetrack.
What I’m very, very positive of is all of those precautions and things will be looked at before the medical experts sign off on Denny getting back in the car at Martinsville. I would also put some practice at a pretty good priority, which I’m sure that the team will agree that they would want to, as a last check, understand that if it is uncomfortable or unbearable for him. A lot of it is the seats today, they hold a driver very nicely, very tightly, and a lot of what you and I might view as motion or severe movement may not be there to start with.
That’s something that it will start with the medical experts and then it will go probably just — if they sign off on that, then Denny making some practice laps to see how he feels himself.
Q. I know it’s early and I’m not even sure if the cars have been back to Charlotte yet, but have you had a chance to look at Denny’s car at all, and if you have, have you gotten any reports on if it was structurally did what it was supposed to do?
JOHN DARBY: I know our engineers have already been in contact with Gibbs Racing. I’m only going to guess at the fact that the car is back; if we have actually been there to visit and look at it and have discussions with the team yet, I’m going to say I don’t know because I really don’t.
JOHN DARBY: If it didn’t happen today, I’m sure it will happen as soon as it’s available.
Q. Do you guys, with somebody who has a bad back like Denny, as far as approval process, does it matter how quickly he would be able to get out of the car and does he have to prove to you guys at all how quickly he would be able to get out of the car in case of a fire?
JOHN DARBY: Well, I mean, again, it starts with the medical experts. They are not going to — I don’t believe they are going to sign off on Denny competing if they don’t believe that he can. And then from there, a lot of it is Denny himself and saying, yeah, look, I’m okay. Him being out there racing, and not being competitive isn’t good for him or the team or anybody else.
So I think there’s enough responsibility amongst the drivers and I think there’s enough professionalism that if they can’t do it, they will say they can’t do it and put a replacement driver in the car.
But all that is yet to be seen with the majority of the decisions being made by the medical folks first.
Q. There’s a lot of emphasis on safety talk right here obviously, and NASCAR has done a lot with that over the years. I checked Wikipedia one time to see the deaths on race tracks, and the first 80 years I was stunned; and then you take the last dozen years. Can you tell fans the extent NASCAR does to go through to make sure that they are doing everything in the most safe manner from the car to the walls and all that?
JOHN DARBY: It’s a huge project. Obviously it’s at the highest level of our priorities. And you know, we have a lot of fans, and those fans have a lot of heroes. So it’s only natural and very natural for me to say that the safety of the drivers is always our No. 1 concern.
The reasons that our sport changed probably so much in the last 10 years was all safety-driven. It’s responsible for the Gen-5 race car. It’s responsible for SAFER barriers. It’s responsible for all the wonderful work they have done inside the cockpits of the cars with the seats and the restraints and the head and neck devices, the improvement in helmets. And really, and education to everybody of the right and wrong ways to do business.
With that said, those are the things that are already in place. Our engineering staff here never stops to look at better ways of doing business. It’s just enough time that you get to a point where you say, what else can we do. Our guys in the back will come up with laminated windshields and better window nets and the list keeps going on and on and on, because that’s all they do is look at everything that we do when we are out at the racetrack, and figure out how to continue to make improvements on driver safety.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR