The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. It was better…but why?

Recent races at Texas Motor Speedway, to put it kindly, have not been the most interesting on the circuit. Like you, NASCAR officials watched those events — along with other races on many 1.5-mile tracks — and thought, “UGH. Surely this can be better.”

So they came up with the 2019 rules package, which by now you’ve heard is the most dramatic change to the cars in years.

Until Sunday, the package hadn’t really worked as intended yet. And it was somewhat of a head-scratcher to those who saw glimpses of it in action before the season began.

But as it turns out, perhaps all the package needed was some chilly weather, sprinkled with a little love — in the form of VHT/PJ1/traction compound/whatever you want to call it.

“I feel like it was good racing,” Daniel Suarez said. “We were able to make runs and move around, get a little crazy on restarts — which is what people like and what we like. Hopefully we can learn from this and repeat it.”

Of course, that’s the tricky part. The rules package clearly isn’t going to work on every track — and it requires the right combination to be successful. As it turned out, Sunday was much closer to the ideal conditions of the Las Vegas test (which was misleading at the time).

On the first day of that test, the temperatures were cooler and the simulated racing looked great. The next day, it didn’t seem to be quite the same.

“We all drafted well and we were putting on a hell of a show — hell, it was fun in the car,” Clint Bowyer said Sunday of the Vegas test. “Then the next day at that test, the sun was out, it was 20 degrees hotter, we were single file and it wasn’t very much fun.”

Texas was more like Vegas in that temperatures were in the 50s, and it unlocked the key elements of the package when drivers could run around the track mostly wide open (except for Turns 1 and 2).

Since its controversial repave — where Texas built those turns to be flat compared to the more traditionally banked Turns 3 and 4 — the racing had struggled. So officials put a heavy amount of traction compound on the upper groove and it led to the track widening out.

That’s the first time the sticky stuff has been used successfully on a 1.5-mile track, following other trials at shorter tracks Bristol and New Hampshire.

“I was pretty bummed when I landed and saw the VHT on the track,” Bowyer said. “I was like, ‘Damn it, what are they doing?’ Because I haven’t had the best experience with it. But I felt like it helped this place.”

Erik Jones said the better Texas racing was caused 70 percent by the VHT and 30 percent by the temperatures.

“I actually thought the racing was better than what it was in the last few years with the low downforce package, and it’s probably the first week I would have said that,” Jones said. “… Cooler weather helping us be wide open was benefitting our package of racing. The other part, being able to move up in both ends and get completely clean air, was letting you get big runs.”

If those circumstances could be replicated more often, NASCAR might really have something to work with. Unfortunately, the weather is about to get a lot warmer.

2. Hockey pucks

If Sunday was a good race, it was in spite of the tires — not because of them.

Races are best when drivers have to manage their tires, choosing to push hard for short term gain or take care of the rubber in hopes of making passes during a long run. Tire wear creates passing and comers and goers, regardless of whatever cars or rules package might be on track.

Clearly, Goodyear could provide a little more in this area. The tires at Martinsville last week were said to have 3,000 laps in them and Texas didn’t seem much different.

“We’re basically running on brick walls, so they’re pretty durable,” Chase Elliott said.

“I don’t build tires,” Kevin Harvick said. “The tires suck every week.”

Aric Almirola said he was running as fast on 70-lap-old tires as he was on a restart with new tires. And Kyle Busch said the pace “didn’t fall off one bit.”

“We ran 28.80s to 29-flats the entire run,” Busch said of his lap times.

That’s two-tenths of a second for many, many laps at a time! Yikes.

It’s no surprise, then, that a pair of fuel-only calls ended up winning the race for Denny Hamlin. Crew chief Chris Gabehart said the object was to spend “minimum time on pit road” instead of worrying about tires and thus opt for track position. That helped his driver overcome two pit road penalties and another time when Hamlin missed pit road and lost six spots on the track.

Bowyer, who finished second thanks to another no-tires call, said he started to realize the strategy would work when he looked in his mirror on the straightaway and noticed no one was gaining on him.

“When you’re that far ahead you start to wonder ‘Can we get in and just do a splash-and-go and prevail?’” he said. “It’s a different kind of racing, there’s no question about that.”

Hopefully, as Goodyear adjusts to the slower speeds and increased downforce — and sees how these first races have played out — it can start introducing a softer tire into the mix.

3. Survive and…adapt?

On Sunday morning, Gabehart told Hamlin the No. 11 team had a winning race car.

Hamlin said he thought to himself: “He’s full of shit.”

After all, the team had struggled with the balance of the car all weekend and gave Hamlin little reason to believe the race would be any different.

But once it started, Hamlin realized Gabehart was right — he had a car that could pass anyone.

Though the car was obviously fast, Hamlin himself had to adjust to what was required from this form of racing. He ended the day with his first 1.5-mile track win since 2015 and joined Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski as the season’s multi-race winners.

If you look at those names, along with Joey Logano (the season’s other race winner), you have to wonder what they have in common aside from driving for great teams.

Perhaps the answer is adaptability.

None of the drivers have raced a package like this before, so they all have to get up to speed on it. Whoever wins these races might just be the ones who aren’t committed to a certain style or feel and are able change on the fly.

“I’m still learning as a driver,” Hamlin said. “This is a complete different style of racing than what I used to do in the past (and that) just doesn’t work that well. I have to adapt. Seems like I’m adapting quickly.”

As noted by the excellent stats account @Talon64, Hamlin is off to the best start of his career as a result. He has two wins and hasn’t finished worse than 11th.

4. A brief word about attendance

I got a lot of tweets today from people ripping Texas for the sparse grandstands. But while it certainly wasn’t a NASCAR crowd from 10 years ago, it also wasn’t awful by today’s standards.

Yes, really.

Here’s the thing: It’s all about the optics. Texas still has 133,000 permanent seats, which is second only to Bristol. It hasn’t torn down large sections of grandstands like most other tracks.

I have no idea how many people were at Texas, but I’m going to say somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 if I had to take a guess. Tracks don’t release attendance numbers anymore, so that’s just a shot in the dark.

But the point is, if you take the Texas crowd and put it at Phoenix (capacity 42,000) or Martinsville (44,000) or even Homestead (48,000), people wouldn’t be as critical. In fact, I’d bet money some people would tweet, “Great crowd, Phoenix! Way to go!”

Sunday’s numbers would have been horrifying in the not-so-distant past. But the reality is in 2019, any NASCAR attendance of 50,000 or more for an average regular-season race would be a good crowd. Even 40,000 is OK.

I’m not saying any of this is ideal, but let’s just be real about it. We’ll likely never know, but I highly doubt Texas had the smallest crowd of the season so far.

5. What’s next

Intermediate tracks are going to take a month-long vacation now as two short tracks (Bristol and Richmond) and a superspeedway (Talladega) take the spotlight.

Some of the upcoming storylines to watch include the effect of the high downforce on Bristol — drivers have said it could take a physical toll on them — and whether the rules package will put a damper on passing. Then it’s off to Talladega, where there will be no more restrictor plates and we’ll see NASCAR use tapered spacers instead (how that will go is anyone’s guess).

It’s also worth keeping an eye on whether Stewart-Haas Racing can join Gibbs and Penske as the only teams to win a race since November, whether Martin Truex Jr. can win his first race of the year and whether the signs of a Hendrick Motorsports resurgence are real or glimmers of false hope.

Cup qualifying takes on bizarre feel again

Despite some tweaks to the Cup Series qualifying format, Friday at Texas looked a lot like previously messy qualifying sessions at Fontana and Las Vegas.

Drivers were upset with how the session unfolded, with cars mostly waiting on pit road until the final minutes and then scrambling to try and get laps recorded before time ran out.

“You just can’t qualify these cars this way,” Kevin Harvick said. “I love group qualifying, but I just laughed all the way out to the racetrack.”

“It’s frustrating and that’s all you can really say about it,” Denny Hamlin said. “It’s just frustrating.”

“It’s chaotic,” Aric Almirola said. “It’s silly.”

But NASCAR in turn criticized the drivers, believing they could have done more to avoid the session turning into a strange spectacle.

NASCAR Cup Series Managing Director Jay Fabian said officials were “disappointed” to see drivers stay on pit road for so long before making their lap and cited Daniel Suarez as a driver who didn’t need the draft to qualify well. He questioned why other drivers didn’t follow Suarez’s lead.

“It’s disappointing they give reasons why they don’t go, then someone goes and they choose not to follow them,” Fabian said of the drivers. “A lot of what they say doesn’t add up with their actions on pit road. That’s the disappointing part. When you see someone roll, you would assume somebody would follow them — and they chose not to.”

Fabian vowed NASCAR would “take whatever steps we have to to clean it up so we don’t have this problem again.”

“Pretty much everything is on the table as far as what we’ll do moving forward,” he added.

Fabian also said Clint Bowyer’s complaints about Ryan Newman clogging the middle at the end of Round 1 were a product of Bowyer being “upset…probably because he didn’t get to make his lap” — and Newman didn’t do anything worth being penalized.

“There were plenty of TV views that showed there was room to go by (Newman),” Fabian said. “I’m sure (Bowyer) is upset.”

Bowyer was indeed upset, feeling like NASCAR should have learned from its previous qualifying “failure” and changed the format before this happened again.

“It’s sad,” Bowyer said. “Those people up there paid a lot of money to bring their families here to watch a qualifying session where people try to go out and do their best, and you’re just sitting around waiting because you know your best is only good enough if the guy in front of you does a good job.  That’s not qualifying.”

Martin Truex Jr. said the solution would be to “Take the plate off and let us qualify like men — drive them,” he said.

But while many drivers were fuming, Joey Logano wasn’t. Asked about how to fix qualifying, Logano said, “Who said there’s a problem?”

“I think it’s entertaining,” Logano said. “There’s a lot to talk about for you guys. You guys all have microphones out and there’s a lot to talk about, so I think it’s OK.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoffs race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Ford goodness’ sake

After yet another Ford-dominated weekend — Ford drivers combined to lead 321 of the 337 laps at Texas — Martin Truex Jr. brought up a solid point.

What if the Toyotas were crushing everyone like the Fords are now?

“If this is last year, they would all be complaining we’re too fast,” Truex said on pit road. “So I don’t know if I should do a (Brad) Keselowski and start whining about it or not. They’re really fast, and if we’re off just a little bit, we can’t run with them.”

That was the case at Texas, as none of the top Toyotas — or Chevrolets, for that matter — could hang with the Fords. And with only two weeks to go in the season, nothing is going to change before Homestead. It’s a Ford world now.

In all likelihood, that means Texas race winner Kevin Harvick is going to head to Miami as the heavy favorite for the championship. I’d even put Joey Logano above Truex and Kyle Busch at this point, since they just don’t have the raw speed the Fords seem to.

It’s not a given Harvick will win it all — Jimmie Johnson won his most recent championship as the fourth-fastest car among the title contenders — but the final four is going to feel more like “Harvick and Friends” than “The Big Three and Joey.”

Who is going to beat the No. 4 team aside from themselves?

“I feel as a team we’ve been strong down there,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “Last year going into Homestead, I felt we didn’t have the cars to run for a championship, and we almost ran with them. So overall I think we have good cars right now.

“Everybody has done a great job. It’s just going to come down to executing and doing the best we can on pit road.”

I feel like I’ve written this a zillion times in 2018, but it’s still Harvick’s championship to lose.

2. Veteran move

Experience still matters sooooo much in today’s Cup Series, and that’s why drivers like Harvick can make the difference in crunch time situations.

Just look at Texas. Harvick got beaten by Ryan Blaney on a late restart, but he patiently caught back up and stuffed his car underneath Blaney’s in Turns 1 and 2 for what seemed like the winning pass. It was a pretty slick move that appeared easier than it was.

Then, on the overtime restart, Harvick switched up the strategy and started on the top — something no leader had chosen to do all race. If anyone doubted him, though, it worked — he easily cleared Blaney and sailed on to victory.

Blaney, to his credit, anticipated Harvick’s decision.

“I figured he wouldn’t make that move three times,” Blaney said. “We almost cleared him the first restart up top. Then I did on the second one. I figured he’d take the top.

“You get beat in one, you almost get beat the next one, you’re going to take the top, not restart on the bottom.”

Blaney can put that in his memory bank for the future, and that’s valuable. Those kind of scenarios can’t be simulated or pre-planned — only learned through actually being in those environments. But the winning veterans, like Harvick or Keselowski or Kyle Busch, already have those situations in their driver toolkits.

3. NASCAR mistake

Fans are continuing to light up NASCAR officials after Jimmie Johnson was mistakenly sent to the back of the field prior to the race.

For what it’s worth, NASCAR apologized in person to Chad Knaus and Hendrick representative Jeff Gordon, then told the media (through executive vice president Steve O’Donnell) the error was “unacceptable” and “disappointing.” O’Donnell vowed to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

It was certainly a big mistake, and this isn’t the first time NASCAR has goofed on a call. It seems to happen more often than anyone would like, which is inexcusable.

That said, I remember the not-too-distant past, when NASCAR officials never would have admitted fault on something like this and instead made up some B.S. reason to justify the call. They’d say something like, “Oh, that’s our policy now. You didn’t know that?” Seriously, I feel like that used to be practically commonplace. I hated that about covering this sport; it drove me nuts.

Now NASCAR has a tendency to admit fault and apologize when something like this happens. Yeah, the whole thing isn’t good, and acknowledging an error doesn’t erase the error — but at least it takes some of the sting out of it.

4. Texas needs help

It’s time to stop racing 1,000 miles per year at Texas Motor Speedway.

The repave and reconfiguration hasn’t made for good racing in the Cup Series, this time even drawing the ire of typically mild-mannered Chase Elliott.

Elliott said Texas is “a really frustrating racetrack ever since they ruined it two years ago” and added: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2, but not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Texas wasn’t very entertaining before, and now it’s gotten worse. A controversial new rules package will arrive for Cup next year, which could make the racing better — but it’s also going to make it a lot longer.

With the cars going slower, the 3.5-hour average time of the Texas races could creep closer to four-hour territory. Is that really necessary?

Even Texas president Eddie Gossage, by all accounts a great promoter, can’t do much with the racing product recently. Gossage’s customers have told him they don’t want any races to be shortened — they want more miles for their dollars — but given the sparse attendance on Sunday, is that even a consideration anymore?

A 300-mile race could be a lot more entertaining at Texas, since it could promote urgency and take away the time where drivers can just log laps. Either that, or it could be a chance for NASCAR to try a timed, three-hour race — just as an experiment.

Neither of those ideas could make it any worse, right?

5. Points drying up in the desert

At first glance, it doesn’t look like NASCAR is in store for much drama at Phoenix. The points are blown wide open, with the two remaining spots held by drivers who are at least 25 points ahead of the cutoff.

Kurt Busch isn’t in a must-win situation, but close. He’d need a lot of help. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have to win Phoenix or will miss out on the final four.

But if there is a new winner among that group, things could get interesting very quickly. Kyle Busch and Truex would be in position to battle for the last spot on points, and they’re only separated by three at the moment.

“We might be racing the 78,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “We’ve got to out-run the 78 to make sure we’re OK, then hope there is a repeat winner or a non-(playoff) winner, I guess.”

If anyone can do it, the pick would be Elliott. He has the second-best average ever at Phoenix (6.8, second only to Alan Kulwicki) in his five career starts. He’s never finished lower than 12th there and has a second- and third-place result in his last two Phoenix races.

Friday roundup: Darlington Raceway

By John Haverlin

Here are some of the highlights from Friday at Darlington Raceway:

Gossage rips F1 for scheduling 2019 U.S. date on day of Texas race

This news obviously didn’t break at the track, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Formula 1 revealed its draft of the 2019 schedule on Friday morning, and the series’ date at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin is the same as the fall Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway — a 3.5-hour drive away.

TMS president Eddie Gossage went off on F1, saying fans will now have to choose which race they want to attend on Nov. 3, 2019. He tweeted the decision “is bad for both F1 and NASCAR. That’s a situation that nobody wins and everybody loses because both are less than they could be as a result.”

Does Gossage have a point? Certainly. Having two of the best racing leagues in the world competing in the same state on the same day is definitely a conflict of interest.

“F1 scheduling on top of the NASCAR race at TX Motor Speedway just isn’t good for the fans and forces them to pick one instead of picking both,” he said in another tweet.

Gossage said he would have wanted to attend both races. He tweeted in agreement with SiriusXM’s Dave Moody, who said F1’s decision was an “example of the systemic arrogance fostered many years ago by Bernie Ecclestone.”

Austin Dillon unveils throwback scheme

Austin Dillon’s No. 3 car will don the “Quicksilver” paint scheme Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove in the 1995 Winston Select All-Star Race for Sunday night’s event.

His current team and former members of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 crew unveiled the car to the media in the garage on Friday morning. Some of the crew members — including Chocolate Myers, Earnhardt’s former gasman — had never seen the car.

“Dale Jr. and I kind of talked about this car and it kind of came together,” Dillon said. “This is the one that kind of started all the wild paint schemes. I talked to different guys about how special it was, and it was a secret. That’s why we unveiled it the way we did.

“The first person that (asked me about the scheme) was Chocolate, actually. I was on a radio show and he was talking about what we’re going to do for Darlington weekend, and I said, ‘Well, I guess you’ll just have to wait until we get to the track.’”

Dillon said the scheme gives him a little extra motivation this weekend. He has already clinched a playoff berth despite sitting 19th in the standings, but he’ll need momentum if he wants to advance beyond the first round.

“You want to go out there and run well anytime you put a Dale Sr. throwback on the car,” he said. “I’ve got to get my nerves in the right area and we will go out there and log some laps here in the Southern 500 and hopefully put ourselves in a really good position at the end of the night.”

Kenseth’s future with Roush Fenway uncertain

Matt Kenseth isn’t sure what his next career move will be. He hasn’t committed to Roush Fenway Racing for next year, but said 2019 doesn’t concern him right now.

“I’m just concentrated on the rest of this season and trying to get this done, so that’s probably something I’ll talk about at a later date,” he said. “The season has been up and down. I wish the results were better than they are, but on the other hand, I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress. It doesn’t necessarily show in the stat sheet or box score all the time … really just trying to keep moving forward and get more competitive by the end of the season.”

Kenseth wouldn’t budge when asked if he would take an offer from a more competitive team. He was questioned about taking over the No. 41 car of Stewart-Haas Racing, but wouldn’t say if he’d be interested if the seat were to open.

“I still have seven races left this season,” he said. “I have not made the impact at Roush Fenway Racing that — at least in the finishes, the performances — as big as I hoped.

“All I’m thinking about right is trying to get the performance better and try to do a better job for those guys. … I’m not really looking forward right now.”

Bell and Allgaier are cool as the playoffs approach

Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier have been the class of the Xfinity Series field this season, but they don’t see each other as fierce rivals — yet, at least. Both drivers have four wins and are 1-2 in the standings. Allgaier leads the overall standings by five points, but Bell has a five-point advantage in playoff points.

“I do think Christopher has definitely shown that he’s the guy that we’re all going to have to beat to go for this championship when we get to Homestead,” Allgaier said. “Christopher and I have had our battles on the race track these last five or six races.

“If he and I battle it out for a win, that means we’re doing our jobs and putting ourselves in a good position. Yeah, he is a direct competitor and somebody that I’ll have to beat; we’ve known each other for a long time and we definitely push each other hard.”

Said Bell: “The biggest thing is whenever you get to Homestead, the guy that excels there in practice, that’s going to be your biggest rival and your biggest competitor. We go through these races during the playoffs and whenever it all comes down to it there’s going to be four guys that have no advantage over the other one whenever you get to Homestead. It’s whoever beats who. Those practice sessions at Homestead will decide who your main competitor is going to be.”

How I Got Here with Mike Zizzo

This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on Up next: Mike Zizzo, vice president of communications at Texas Motor Speedway.

First of all, what do you do here at Texas so we can understand how you got to this point?

I handle all the media relations, so that entails any driver events that we do, setting up credentials for media, working with the marketing team on certain initiatives we have there, and then being on the executive team here at TMS. We get to do advances with drivers. We have Daniel Suarez this year, we had a special guest in Jared Leto earlier this (month), which was really cool. And we’ll have Kevin Harvick in the fall. So a lot of media events and such. It’s basically just managing the media and making sure when they come and visit us that we get the coverage that we’re looking for as well as accommodating them as guests for the weekend.

How long have you been here working at the track now?

Feels like 50 years. (Laughs) No, I joined in ’05 after I left NASCAR, so I’m starting Year 13.

Obviously you didn’t just magically plop down here in Texas and start your career here, so where did this whole thing begin for you?

I was a scribe just like you back in the day. I graduated from Florida Southern College in Lakeland. I wanted to be a sports writer, and I was fortunate enough to land at a major paper at the Orlando Sentinel. Just like any young scribe, I started out on the agate desk and did a lot of box scores before I got my break.

People were calling in with their high school football scores and you were taking the stats on the phone?

That was the worst thing ever when we had to do it. We got a call-in and you’re like, “Oh, no stats, please.” And then you got to move up and you actually got to cover a game, which was awesome. But I worked at the Lakeland Ledger when I was at Florida Southern, so I got a lot of game type experience and live experience, which was great. That helped me at the Sentinel, and I covered everything from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first year to the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Citrus Bowl to a lot of preps. So it was a great experience for me, and that actually led into racing, which was actually odd for me.

So did you cover much racing to that point. How did the move to go into racing get on your radar?

They put it on my radar. I was living in Cocoa Beach and I was covering Brevard County preps and some college sports and pro sports like spring training, and then I got the call. They’re like, “Congratulations, you’re our new auto racing writer.” I grew up in New England and my dad loved cars, but he never went to any races or anything. And they’re like, “You’re the auto racing writer.”

I’m like, “What? I don’t know anything about auto racing, I grew up in New York. The only thing I saw going around in circles is horses, like at Belmont.” And they’re like, “Well, you better learn it.”

I swear, I was so panicked because it was one of those sports I’ve never really followed. I did a little bit … growing up as a kid, I loved Mario Andretti because he’s Italian and I was rooting for him in the Indy 500. And then in NASCAR, (I knew) Richard Petty and all that, but I never really followed it enough that I could cover it.

So when they told me that, I was panicked and like, “What am I gonna do?” and my good friend in Cocoa Beach, Mark Tate, he grew up in Hickory (N.C.), grew up with the Jarretts, so he was over the moon that I was gonna cover NASCAR. I said, “You’re gonna be my mentor.” So I’ll never forget, I was so panicked that we went up to Daytona during testing and I said, “We’re gonna go around the garage and you’re gonna help me here.” And he was explaining everything.

It was awesome, and he knew a bunch of the guys that were on the crews, they were like, “Hey, Mark Tate!” and it put me at an ease. It was a great training period for me, especially at testing because it’s more laid back and not a lot of reporters there where I can ask that stupid question, and it was really cool.

We asked Jack Roush of all people about testing and trying to get that extra tenth of a second on a car, and he started telling us about this matrix system they did — they changed the springs with the shocks and they all these different changes to find the ultimate. So I’m thinking, “Everyone knows about the matrix system.” So who do I find of all people, the novice, I’m like, “Hey, that’s Hut Stricklin. I’m gonna ask Stricklin about the matrix system, if they use it on their team.” So Mark and I walk up to Hut, and we’re talking to him about racing and the system and I ask him and I say, “Jack Roush is talking about this matrix system. What do you know about it?” And he goes,”May-what?” And all of a sudden his crew guy goes, “Hut, get in the car.”

What year was this when you started on the racing beat?

1992 was my first race at Atlanta. which was Richard Petty’s last race, Jeff Gordon’s first race, and my first race. So it was ’92 I believe, right? 

That’s the other part of the story. People talk about Petty and Gordon, but they don’t say Mike Zizzo’s first race.

I’m way down on that list. But I also went with Mark Tate, he went with me to that race and I’ll never forget on that one, he said, “Before we ever get going, we’re gonna go to Turn 1. We’re gonna stand in Turn 1 outside the fence so you can realize what these guys do for a living.” And I was blown away and I said, “Wow, this is incredible.”

And if you recall that race, (Alan) Kulwicki wins the championship, Davey Allison gets in a wreck, Ernie Irvan’s involved, Bill Elliott, he stays out and gets the laps and he gets more points — there were so many storylines. I’m like, “This is awesome.” There’s so many great storylines and in fact, I got on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel for Richard Petty’s last race. So it was just an incredible experience, that first one. And then to be inside the community and see how accommodating they were and the drivers, it won me over immediately.

How many years did you cover racing before you went to the dark side of PR, as the journalists say?

I went to CART, which is IndyCar, in 1996. So I didn’t cover it a ton, but enough where I was pretty well-versed on both IndyCar and NASCAR. I got a call from IndyCar and they were looking for a news manager. Basically, they were looking for a former sportswriter who could write releases and such.

I didn’t know if I wanted to go that way or not. It was back in the day when newspapers were flourishing, and I loved what I did because I got to cover such a variety of sports from the World Cup to the Citrus Bowl to all kinds of major events, so it was a great experience. And then they said, “Well, with CART, you can travel the world. We go to Australia and Japan and Brazil.” And that kind of won me over.

Mike Zizzo during his days doing PR for CART. (Courtesy photo)

That would be a very attractive opportunity to take advantage of. So you got to do that. What was that experience like?

Absolutely incredible. Not only being part of a sanctioning body and seeing the inner workings of a sanctioning body, but traveling to different venues all across the world was just fabulous — meeting people, understanding cultures, like in Japan. Having a great time with drivers in Australia, Surfer’s Paradise. We have so many stories with Dario (Franchitti) and Greg Moore and all those guys.

It was just such a cool experience because you went to places I would probably never vacation to at times. For instance, I went to Tokyo. I would probably never vacation there, but I had an incredible experience. Going to down to Rio for Brazil, another place I would probably never vacation or think about. Australia, definitely. I want to go back there; I was so fortunate to go six, seven times, but I’ll go another 10 times. It’s a beautiful country.

And then even Canada. Living in the United States, I’ve never dreamed of going on vacation to say Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal — we hit all those cities and they’re absolutely fabulous. I tell all my friends, if you want to do a quick trip, go to Toronto in the summer, go to Vancouver, go to Montreal. They’re fabulous cities. So I was very fortunate to realize all the different countries and cultures and enjoy it.

Unlike some of the people we had that travelled with us who are like, “Where’s the McDonald’s?” I’m like, “No, we’re in Tokyo, I’m gonna try sushi, I’m gonna try some specialty items.” When we were in Australia, same thing — and they’d be looking for American food.

Why did you go from CART to NASCAR, then?

I loved CART, I loved open wheel, and that was during the split, so at times it was difficult. But probably the most difficult thing for me was we lost a number of drivers during that period — one in particular, Greg Moore, who I was extremely close with.

At Fontana.

Yes. And then also Alex Zanardi, another driver who I was very close with, lost his legs in Germany, which was over the course of 9/11, which was very difficult on me. I thought I was going to leave the sport then. I had so many friends in it that drove cars that every time we raced, it was just very difficult for me to watch it and hope we got through the race.

So that took a toll on you. It started to weigh on you, the danger aspect of it and it took an emotional toll?

Big time. I’ll never forget the whole 9/11 situation. We went over to Germany and if you recall, everyone in the United States, all the sports decided not to run at all or have any games (the week after 9/11). And we had to make a decision at the facility we were at. That entire region in Germany put their money in, and they told us, “If you don’t run here, you’ll bankrupt the region.” So we had that weighing on us as well.

Plus we already had everyone over there in Germany, so we’re like, “Why don’t we run and honor those victims of 9/11?” And we still got some criticism, but we thought it was the right thing and eventually we renamed the name of the race and we were all dealing with that as Americans.

We were scared. We got over to Germany and we landed, and we’re in our room and we’re exhausted and we all took a nap. Steve Shunck, who worked with us, calls me and he says, “Turn on the TV.” I said, “I have it on, there’s some movie on where a plane just hit the Twin Towers.” I couldn’t understand it. You couldn’t fathom that that was actually happening. He goes, ”No, that’s happening right now.” I’m like, “Oh, is it a private plane?” He’s like, “No, it’s terrorists.” And I’m like, “Oh my God.”

So after that reality hit, we’re like, “We’re stuck outside the United States.” And then we see CNN on the ticker it says, “The CART contingent in Germany is the largest American contingent outside the United States right now.” So now we’re all worried — is something gonna happen to us? Are we ever gonna get home? So we’ve got that weighing on us.

And then we have this great race and (the Germans) did fabulous tributes to us. People over there were just amazing how heartfelt they were about talking to us about the situation and how sorry they were and thanking us for running that race. We were a couple of laps away from (finishing) that race, and then Alex Tagliani and Alex Zanardi got into it. As soon as (Tagliani) hit him, I was like, “Oh my God, this is bad.” And he lost his legs.

They saved his life and Dr.  (Steve) Olvey called me, he says, “You need to come now, we’re getting on the helicopter.” So I went with Alex’s wife and then Ashley Judd was on that helicopter, too. I followed behind the main one, and we got to the hospital and they landed us on the pad. We had to go down (into the building) and we saw the stair where they took him down, and there was just blood everywhere.

And then we get down there and all the drivers are there — they got there as quick as they could — all his buddies, Tony (Kanaan) and Dario and Max (Papis) and Jimmy Vasser. We didn’t think he was gonna make it. We were so scared and we’re like, “God, please just let him make it.”

And then when we found out he was gonna make it, we need a little brevity in that room and we’re like, “Man, is he gonna be pissed when he finds out he lost his legs in that deal.”

So his wife was in there, and she came out, she’s like, “He’s doing alright.” And when we finally got to see him. He’s like, “I’m just glad to see my wife.” And he just had a child. He’s like, “I can do whatever I want without legs.”

And he has been a huge inspiration to me ever since then because the way he handled that situation was absolutely amazing, and he’ll joke about it. I’ll never forget when I called him afterward, I said, “Hey, I just wanted to check in on how you’re doing, all that.” He goes, “I have a dilemma.” I said, “What’s wrong, Alex?” He’s like, “I have to get fitted for new legs. I’m like you — I’m Italian, I’m short. I can actually be over six feet now. But then I’m gonna have to get new clothes.”

So that’s the way he handled it. I’ll never forget from that day, he said, “I will play soccer with my son, I will go swimming with my son, I will do everything with my son and family that I’ve always wanted to do — with or without legs.” And he did.

That’s unbelievable. Wow. So how soon after that did you say, “You know what, I gotta do something else. I can’t be so involved in CART.”

I thought I was gonna quit then. I decided to just stick it out because I just loved the sport, and then Jim Hunter called me at NASCAR. Actually a head hunter called first, and then Hunter called me, and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come visit with me?” NASCAR was extremely successful like it is today, actually even moreso back then. And I met him on a Saturday, I drove up from Cocoa Beach and we talked for like three hours. It was an absolutely amazing conversation. I’m like, “I would love to work with this man.”

I’m not sure how many people they have in the Integrated Marketing Communications department now — I’m guessing at least 30 or something like that. How many people were on the PR staff when you went to NASCAR?

We didn’t have a fancy name either, we were just the PR team. We probably had, I’d say eight or 10 people — and that was with assistants and everything, so it was very streamlined. It had Hunter, it had a director, managers and coordinators, and that was it, and assistants. We all worked together really well. We got a lot done.

What I liked about it back then with Herb Branham and Kate Davis and everyone was we were extremely tight with the drivers, because we did so much with them. We worked with them on a daily basis.

I was fortunate enough that Hunter wanted me to handle the competition side of PR because of what I did in IndyCar. So he moved me up to the R&D Center and I got a lot more integrated on the competition side, which was a lot of fun, and dealing with Mike Helton. Also the R&D team with Gary Nelson and everything. So it was very educational to me.

Kate Davis and Mike Zizzo pose with Jeff Gordon. (Courtesy photo)

What did you learn from the CART stuff that applied to the NASCAR stuff that you could take there?

I guess the biggest one would have been crisis management (in the aftermath of serious accidents), unfortunately. Hunter quizzed me a lot about how we handled things, how we changed some of our processes in terms of crisis management. Because every time we had one, I got very involved in it because I knew we had to make changes ever since my first year when we lost Jeff Krosnoff. I saw a lot of things we didn’t do right. But it’s a crisis, so that happens.

So we talked a lot about crisis management, and I learned a lot on the NASCAR side about how integrated they were with each department to take one item and make it as big as possible, like the Chase back then — the “Chase for the Championship.” We would have meetings and they would integrate all the departments and say, “What are you gonna do to make this big?” whether it was marketing or PR. That was very educational for me about seeing a big company take something and raise it to a higher level.

So you’re living in Florida. Now you’ve worked for a newspaper, you’ve worked for CART, you’ve worked for NASCAR itself. Why Texas Motor Speedway?

I had no plans to leave NASCAR. I loved it, I loved working for Hunter. I loved the sanctioning body, it was a lot of fun. I felt very privileged to work there. And Eddie Gossage calls me and he says, “I’ve got an opening down here. I want you to come down.” I said, “I don’t have an interest, I’m happy here.” I’d only been to Texas for the race. He’s like, “Why don’t you come down and just talk to me?” I said alright.

So I came down, we had lunch, he took me out to the facility. Even though I’d been there, when it’s empty, it was massive. I was like, “Wow.” And we talked and had a great conversation. I’ll never forget he said, “You’ll be working for me.” And I said, “We’ll see about that.” He says, “I can give you something NASCAR can’t.” He goes, “It’s not money, it’s not this, it’s not that — I can give you time off.”

I had gotten to that point with NASCAR where I was doing 28 to 30 races because Hunter’s back was going out, so Mike Helton liked me to be that No. 2 guy on the competition side. So as much as I loved it, I started to feel the burnout a little bit. And I called Eddie the next week, just like he said, and here I am.

But the backstory on that was that CART incident at Texas.

Which is what?

This would have been 2001. So we came down here, the first CART event at Texas, a big deal. And you know Eddie makes everything big, and it was gonna be exciting. We did the premiere of Driven — not a great movie, but it was part of the week — and we didn’t run the race.

The G forces were so high on the drivers that the drivers were passing out. It got extremely dangerous. Mauricio Gugelmin hit the wall in Turn 2 here and wound up in Turn 4. It was crazy. There were going like 236, 238 miles an hour on a mile-and-a-half track.

So the G forces were taking such a toll, even on the CART drivers who were used to high G forces, that they just could not get around the track?

Correct. You’re not supposed to do sustainable Gs at more than four to six seconds, I think. And I’m trying to remember back then, but on a 22-second lap they had, 18 seconds of sustained Gs. Michael Andretti talked about it feeling like he had a 100-pound weight on his lap the entire lap. Max Papis was talking about he didn’t know if he was on the frontstretch or the backstretch. We had another driver black out for a little bit. And it was scary.

But then we had to do the press conferences (to announce the cancellation). Eddie wanted to do one and we were gonna do our own.

Like dueling press conferences?

Yeah, and it almost turned into a duel between me and him because we’re trying to protect our brand. And we did two separate press conferences, which I didn’t want. We took our stance, he took their stance and that occurred and we left here and that was a disaster.

Then I went to NASCAR, and what’s the first race I go to? Hunter sends me to Texas. And I said, “Jim, you know what happened at CART?” He goes, “Oh, I know. And you’re going there.” And I said, “Oh, hell.”

So there was a lot of bad blood with Eddie?

I thought so. I’m like, “I’m gonna go in, I’m gonna take my beating from him.” And we had the safety meeting, and he was in there and he said, “Can I grab you for a second?” And after this meeting, I said, “Oh, I’m gonna get berated and he’s gonna tell me to pack up and leave the track.” Although Hunter had said, “If you get that from him, you’re staying.”

So he pulled me aside and he said, “Hey, I hope there’s no hard feelings. I realize what you were doing, and I hope you knew what I was doing.” I said, “Yeah, we were both protecting our brands. I appreciated how you protected your brand and I had to do the same. That’s our lifeblood. You can’t compromise on that, and I don’t expect you to do so either.”

And that conversation, I don’t know if it led to him making that call where he said, “Hey, I want Ziz to work for me.”

That had to help the respect level you guys still share today, and you’ve been able to work together obviously really well. I don’t know how many other lengthy PR guy/track president combos are out there, but I imagine that you’re probably the longest.

Probably. Although he says I’m day-to-day all the time. And I believe it.

So you’ve made a home here. Is this is where you see yourself ending your career? What else do you want to accomplish in your career?

I love it here, got married here. My wife’s from Fort Worth, and we’ve got two great kids that love living in Texas. I still miss Florida, but I love Texas. I see myself staying here.

Really, over the years, I like to help people. So I think as time goes on, if I have the opportunity, I’d like to do something where I can help make an impact on a community. I deal with the “Speeding to Read” program at Texas Motor Speedway with literacy and elementary school kids, which is dear to my heart just because of the impact you can make with just a little work. Seeing the kids’ faces and all that, so whether it’s on the charity side, whether it’s with education, it’s just something dear to my heart. I just love the look you see on someone’s face when you can help them, whether it’s with education or just a charitable good deed.

Speaking of helping people, you get some people who want career advice from you and say, “Hey Ziz, how do I get to where you’re at? I’d love to work at a track someday.” If somebody’s reading this and is interested in that kind of career path, how would they go about getting started these days?

I thought journalism was a great route for me and I think journalism to this day is still very important to what I do in terms of writing press releases, strategic writing, script writing, all that type of writing, as you know as well. It’s very important to write intelligently and also creatively.

I’d say internships would probably be the one I think is most beneficial. When I look at resumes, I look at what they’re done in terms of internships. Because I know when I was in college, I was a good student, I was a B student. But when I worked at the Lakeland Ledger, I learned so much more. It wasn’t about the inverted pyramid while writing a story, it was about deadlines and hustling your butt off and getting that story to them in nine minutes or whatever that was, and you’re in a panic mode, but you have to learn that.

I think internships give you a great perspective on a racetrack, how things are run. And you also get some mentorship if you have someone that works at a racetrack or with a baseball team, and they want to spend some time with their interns. I think you can learn a lot.

Mike Zizzo and longtime friend Tony Kanaan. (Courtesy photo)