Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Humpy Wheeler's take on Juan Pablo Montoya's NASCAR experiment

   Former Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler is never at a loss for words, especially lately with his YouTube postings. But Wednesday, he wrote down his thoughts on this week's announcement that Juan Pablo Montoya would not return to Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42 Chevrolet in 2014:

   One of the world's greatest drivers Juan Pablo Montoya fired, booted, dismissed … what is going on?

   In case you were on sabbatical in Katmandu it was announced Tuesday he would part ways from car owner Chip Ganassi. I mean this guy is a hero in Colombia and South America. In Europe as a Formula One world champion he was as well known then as U2. However, in 239 starts in NASCAR this Indy 500 winner has won only two races.

   A more probing question is why great road and Indy racers can't cut it in NASCAR Cup cars? Do these heavyweights of racing possess some mysterious qualities that make them very difficult to drive?

   I have talked to just about all of them from A.J. Foyt, probably the most successful in NASCAR of all of them, to Juan Pablo himself. Foyt, the ornery Texan, could drive anything from a fork lift to a D8 dozer, and won the Indy 500 a record five times and seven NASCAR races.

   "You gotta remember I started off driving the old front engine sprint cars and later Watson Indy car roadsters. I learned the rear engine later. Stock cars are front engine, rear wheel drive so maybe I had an advantage there from these guys who have only driven rear engined cars. All of your Indy and Fl drivers today came from a background where they started driving rear engine cars," Foyt said.

   World champion F1 driver Jimmy Clark whom I worked with at Firestone once told me: "My background was rear engine, very light, very quick, darty  formula cars. When you ran that first test for us at Rockingham in the Holman Moody cars I thought they were beasts. First, they weighed about a ton more than my  Lotus-Ford and felt like it even though we were going very fast. Also, the brakes were awful. I never thought I would learn to stop on pit road. I couldn't believe how narrow the tires were which made driving them even worse compared to my Indy or formula car. Could I ever be successful in NASCAR? Maybe if I had started off with them. Now … it will take me a long time," he said. He died tragically a few years later in a F1 car and never had another crack at NASCAR.

   Former world champion Alan Jones hit the bell when I asked him about the NASCAR car. "It is bloody black magic. It looks easy. Everything seems so simple. It isn't. Anyone who thinks they can jump out of a formula type car into one of these beasts and do well right off is in for a big surprise. Also there is that element of drafting which one must learn. They are just so heavy and powerful at the same time," he said after spending a week at Charlotte Motor Speedway prior to the 600.

   A lot of guys have tried the 3,500 pound stock cars including Fl driver David Hobbs and Dan Gurney, Indy drivers Parnelli Jones, Gordon Johncock, Sam Hornish, A.J. Allmendinger, road racers Elliot Forbes Robinson, Max Papis, Marcos Ambrose to mention a few. Hornish, Papis and Ambrose are still racing in NASCAR.

   I have left out former Indy driver Tony Stewart because his background was like Kasey Kane, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman. They all cut their teeth on front engined midget and sprint cars so were prepared for the NASCAR scene. Ambrose has been moderately successful but he came from the Australian Supercar series which  is really stock cars on tough road courses down under.

   Smokey Yunick, one the greatest wrench turners in NASCAR and the only person to win in both Indy and stock cars as a crew chief, once told me: "to make the crossover from Indy or formula cars to NASCAR is the most difficult of challenges in auto racing. It's like going from a hot jet jockey to flying a bush plane in bad weather in Alaska (Yunick was a bomber pilot in Europe during WWII). I don't know if it can be done today no matter how good the driver," he said.

   I believe that it is more the difficulty of heaving the weight of the NASCAR car around on high banked tracks on the narrowest tires in major racing than anything else. The rear engined Indy or F1 cars have huge tires and major downforce that greatly help the driver deal with their tremendous acceleration and corner speeds.

   Like one noted Indy driver told me: "If you have the courage of a bullfighter you can drive one of these. On the other hand, a stock car is much more difficult because it is all over the place compared to an open wheel car."

   So, to aspiring NASCAR wannabes my advice is to start with a Legends car and stay with front engine, rear wheel drive cars -- late models, midgets and sprint. For the open wheel novice start with rear engine cars and stick with them. Unfortunately, we probably will not see drivers successfully cross over like the old days again unless you are of the House of Stewart or Foyt.