AUTO RACING PACKAGE: Super Inaugural Season For SuperTruck Series
PHOENIX (AP) _ Born in February, NASCAR’s SuperTruck series enjoyed a growth curve of breathtaking proportions.
By the time Mike Skinner raced to the first-ever driving title, 57,000 people were in the seats at Phoenix International Raceway to cheer him on.
No series in racing history ever received that kind of welcome in its inaugural season. But NASCAR spokesman Kevin Triplett said it wasn’t hard to understand.
``Probably half the people in those stands got here in a truck,″ Triplett said.
``I mean, it’s unreal. We’ve had crowds of 30,000 and 40,000 this year, and now 57,000. For a new series, it’s been phenomenal, and now we have the support of a lot of guys in the Winston Cup garages, building teams.″
Skinner got his break with Richard Childress Racing, which has won six Winston Cup championships with Dale Earnhardt at the wheel.
Skinner, 38, had knocked around on short tracks in his native California before moving to Randleman, N.C. Despite never finishing higher than 22nd in 10 Winston Cup starts, Childress saw something.
When NASCAR announced the SuperTruck series in May 1994, the owner came calling.
Skinner, driving a Chevrolet, won one of three exhibition races, then won the series opener at Phoenix on Feb. 5. After 80 miles of racing, he nipped Terry Labonte by about the time it takes to blink.
And, while Skinner’s victory total grew _ his second win in Phoenix was his eighth overall _ the series grew with him.
By the time of the 124-mile finale on the 1-mile Phoenix oval, 55 trucks vied for 44 starting berths.
Behind Skinner at the finish were household names from the Winston Cup series _ Ernie Irvan, coming back from a near-fatal crash last year at Michigan International Speedway, Geoff Bodine and Ted Musgrave.
Household names, packed grandstands, television, big-time sponsors. It was all far removed from the jokes that greeted the idea of a truck series. (Question: ``How do you adjust the weight in a SuperTruck?″ Answer: ``Take down the gun rack.″)
Souped-up trucks have raced for years in the desert Southwest, but only the diehards noticed. It’s tough to draw fans when you race from point to point instead of on a track. Veteran desert racers Scoop Vessels, Dick Landfield, Jim Venable and Jimmy Smith saw the potential of racing trucks, and pitched the idea to Bill France Jr., the head of NASCAR.
``We knew truck racing could be popular,″ Vessels said. ``But in the desert it was so regionalized and so restricted. It had tremendous success there, and it was obvious that if we brought it someplace in front of the public, it would have a tremendous amount of success.
``Trucks are not farm vehicles anymore. They’re hot rods, family cars, anything you want.″
They visited France in late 1993, and 90 days later had the bones of a series assembled. At that, it was less than a year before the first checkered flag.
NASCAR came up with a format that put the sheet metal of a full-size pickup over a chassis similar to that of a stock car. Trucks have a wheelbase 2 inches longer than a Winston Cup car and are 8 inches higher.
A major difference is the engine, limited to a 9.5-to-1 compression ratio and about 600 horsepower, compared with the 14-to-1 and 800 horsepower of the stock cars.
With engines of the same displacement, the trucks top out at 160 mph, about 50 mph slower than the cars.
It’s a question of safety. The truck bed, although covered, reduces the vehicle’s handling characteristics. If trucks ran at the speeds of stock cars, there wouldn’t be many drivers left.
On the flip side, nobody runs away with a truck race.
Helped by a rule that a race cannot finish under a yellow flag, the biggest victory of the season was Hornaday’s 4.3-second margin on Sears Point Raceway’s 2.52-mile road course in Sonoma, Calif.
``They do not handle well like the Winston Cup cars do, but there’s a lot of side-by-side racing out there,″ said Owen Kearns Jr. of NASCAR. ``There’s just enough stability in the way they handle that people can jump right up alongside another one another and race.
``There’s a lot of passing going on back in the field, so we see this as a plus, not a negative, because it’s very entertaining.″
Edward Calzada of El Mirage, Ariz., and Greg Starkjohn of Simi Valley, Calif., came to Phoenix to watch the Winston Cup race. For lack of anything better to do, they came to the track on Saturday to watch the trucks.
``It’s a sideshow, but they’re fun to watch,″ Calzada said. ``There’s a lot of really good competition there.″
``They’re a little bit slower,″ Starkjohn added, ``but there’s enough speed to keep your interest, especially with the competition.″
Kearns said the future of the series lies in separating it from the stock cars. The trucks ran as a warmup for the cars at Richmond, Va., Martinsville, Va., North Wilkesboro, N.C., and Phoenix this year.
``We did not create the series with the idea that it would support anything,″ he said.
In 1996, the trucks will race at Phoenix in early May, part of a Trans-Am weekend.
Emmett ``Buddy″ Jobe gave the series a boost when he included it on his Copper World Classic racing program. Other track operators did what they could to get the series running.
``We had promoters that, when we went to them, we said we’ve got this new series and we’d like to have an event,″ Kearns recalled. ``They said, `Well, how many trucks do you have?′ And we said, `Well, we’ve got one right now.′ And they swallowed hard, and we assured them that we were going to bring the series along.″
That kind of faith is a reason why only one venue that hosted a 1995 SuperTruck event won’t be back in 1996. The casualty is Saugus Speedway in Santa Clarita, Calif., at one-third mile the shortest track on the circuit. Ken Schrader won that race with an average speed of but 43.526 mph.
``I think we’ve outgrown the Sauguses of the world,″ said Vessels, co-owner of the DieHard Racing Team. ``On the other hand, being a businessman myself, I understand that NASCAR has some people they probably need to take care of, and we’re a good series to do that.″
Kearns said the series would steer clear of the big superspeedways like Charlotte and Daytona.
``We feel that it’s better to go into a stadium that seats, say, 10,000, and you have standing room only, than to go into one that’s got 100,000 seats, and you only have 28,000. There’s something about a sold-out house that creates electricity,″ Kearns said.
NASCAR has just two Winston Cup races west of the Mississippi River, and likes being able to promote a series with 12 western sites in places like Denver, Portland, Ore., and Topeka, Kan.
Changes in the specifications of the trucks will be minimal, if any, and not much will be different about the vehicles themselves next season. NASCAR amazed itself with the series’ success, and it isn’t going to tinker with a proven commodity, even to the point of keeping the unique ``halftime″ feature.
One lap past the halfway point, the race stops while trucks pit for repairs, tire changes and other tinkering. The race resumes with trucks running in the same order in which they stopped.
A car-racing style of pit stop would dramatically increase costs because of the need for larger crews and more tires, Kearns said. By contrast, such a halftime could boost TV ratings.
``You can actually talk to the participants and see what they’ve done and what they’re going to do. And a lot of racetracks had people on the P.A. system down there in the pits, so the fan in the stands is going to know what’s being changed on the trucks and what to expect in the second part. You don’t get that with a green-flag pit stop,″ Kearns said.
The trucks will be faster in 1996.
Lee Morse, Ford’s director of Special Vehicle Operations, said the 1996 Ford racers are based on the 1997 F-150, a sleeker, more aerodynamic version of the company’s flagship truck.
``The F-150 was an old truck,″ Morse said. ``It didn’t have very good aerodynamics, and so we spotted the Chevy and the Dodge a fair amount of downforce and drag. So we’re excited now about being able to race a modern truck next year.″
He acknowledged that Ford was surprised by the popularity of the series and was late becoming a player. But Ford fared well, with Joe Ruttman finishing second to Skinner in the driver standings.
Skinner said Morse wasn’t the only one who underestimated the trucks.
``By the time we had half the races through,″ Skinner admitted, ``the SuperTruck series had already gone a lot farther popularity-wise than I thought it would.″
End Adv for Thursday Nov. 2 and thereafter