ELITE SERIES ENTERS SWAN SONG SEASON By Mike Twist
Champions Reflect While NASCAR's Hawk Explains The Tour's Demise
The NASCAR Southeast Series is scheduled to start off their 2006 season this weekend at Greenville-Pickens Speedway (SC) and it will be a bittersweet affair.
Like the other three tours that make up NASCAR’s Elite division, the Southeast Series will breathe its final breath of air this year. After the ’06 season is in the record book, NASCAR is closing the books on the SES, the Midwest Series, the Southwest Series and the Northwest Series as they currently exist.
Other suitors might come along and NASCAR will even help get them get going on the right track, but the NASCAR Elite era will end.
With it, a history that dates back decades to the NASCAR Southwest Tour, ARTGO [the forefather of the Midwest Series], the All Pro Series [now the Southeast East Series] and the Northwest Tour will abruptly end.
The four Elite Series tours of NASCAR, including the NASCAR Southeast Series pictured here, will be put to sleep after the 2006 season.
The racing homes of guys like Jody Ridley, Jim Sauter, Wayne Anderson, Kurt Busch, Freddie Query, Mike Cope, Hal Goodson, Kevin Harvick, Rick Carelli, Ron Hornaday, Dan Press, Garrett Evans, Toby Butler, Dick Trickle, Steve Carlson, Butch Miller, Joe Shear and countless other legends will be bulldozed.
Such is the price of progress.
It might make financial sense for a city to tear down a dozen homes to build a shopping mall. It also makes perfect financial sense to shut down a racing series that has been bleeding red ink.
“Doing away with the Elite Series was a tough emotional decision, but it really wasn’t a tough business decision,” said NASCAR’s Don Hawk, Director of Regional Racing Development. “We looked at it and wrestled with it.
“When you look at the Elite Tours, you have to ask at what point does it not make sense for the track operator and the competitor to build and race that kind of a car at that kind of a purse structure. At the end of the day, they have less of a purse structure than the Grand National model but they were spending as much a some of the Grand National teams. You know that isn’t a good model and you have to ask yourself at what point to they go broke.
“If there is something that is costing the teams and the track operations more and more money and it’s being driven into the ground, eventually you are going to have to make a business decision.”
For a the Elite Series drivers, it’s not all business though. It’s personal. Nobody has won a championship in SES other than Jeff Fultz in the last two years. In the Southwest Series, the same fact applies to Jim Pettit, II. Both of those guys hate to see their old playgrounds paved over.
“The biggest feeling that I have is disappointment,” said Fultz. “It’s something that I’ve been involved in for a lot of years and it’s a pretty big let-down. There are a lot of drivers who came through these series, all four of them, and it’s going to be a big disappointment for all of us.”
Pettit has been through the disappointment before. Last season, one of the headlining tracks of the Southwest Series, Mesa Marin, shut its doors. The feeling is very similar for Pettit.
“It’s real sad and it will be like when we ran the last race at Mesa Marin,” said Pettit. “We wrecked in that race and it didn’t go well for us, but when it was over I told my guys that I really wasn’t in any hurry to leave. It was the last race there and there was so much history. It will be the same thing this year.
“As the year progresses and we make our final appearances at the places we are going to, it’s going to be emotional. It will be sad. There are have been a lot of great drivers to come through this series and there are a lot of great drivers who are in this series. I just hope that this being the last year won’t hurt the series too much. It definitely won’t attract any new guys to come run with us.”
Fultz and Pettit have very different plans for the final years of their tours.
Fultz and his team have moved to the USAR Pro Cup Series, where they are campaigning at short tracks throughout the Southeast.
“We’ll miss it, but we’ll have to do other things,” said Fultz.
Meanwhile, Pettit just wants to go out on top with another championship.
“This gives us a lot of motivation,” said Pettit. “Before they announced it, we had a team meeting and talked about what we wanted to do for next year. Everyone was saying that they wanted to be the first ones to win three in a row and that was before we knew it was going to be the last year. This now puts that much more emphasis on it for us where it would be very special to win three in a row and be the last champions too. We’re going to shoot for that.”
Jim Pettit (L) and Jeff Fultz (R) show off their 2005 championship hardware. Only one of the two will be gunning for a 2006 NASCAR title. (51 Photo)
NASCAR's Don Hawk speaks to several NASCAR Touring champions at last season's New York City banquet. (51 Photo)
Jeff Fultz has gotten used to being in victory lane for the Southeast Series.
Both drivers saw the writing on the wall, but had different ideas of which direction that NASCAR would take the Elite tours.
“It’s been a declining series for some time, but that’s not just this series,” said Fultz. “I think that it is every series around the world except for Nextel Cup.
Still, he hates to see it go away.
“I’ve been watching the series since I was born just about,” said Fultz. “Back in the old days when ASA got together with All Pro and they had the North and South Shootout, it was always a dream of mine to go and race in the series. To go and do what we have done has been great.”
Pettit thought up until this winter’s announcement, that the Elite Series could be saved.
“I know that some of the other [Elite] Series were in struggling quite a bit,” said Pettit. “I was surprised because they had been talking about combining the Northwest and Southwest Series into one and the Midwest and Southeast Series into one to make everything stronger. I was just hoping that before they did what they did, that they would at least attempt that for a season and see where that led. For whatever reason, NASCAR feels that they need to go in the direction that they are going in right now instead.”
Now, teams are left with a question of what to do next with their Elite Series-specific racecars. NASCAR has indicated that there could be some hope for other sanctioning bodies to pick up the ball and run with it.
“The best thing that we can do is to see if there is somebody in American who could run these things,” said Hawk. “It looks like right now, there is a group in the Northwest that has been formed to run the cars at Yakima, Wenatchee, Evergreen and Rocky Mountain. Then there is the SRL [a sanctioning body set to run Southwest Series-spec cars next season]. I’ve been on the phone with Steve Fensle and Davey Hamilton from the SRL multiple times.
In the Midwest, it could be a case of back to the future. Hawk was asked about the rumor that ARTGO might be resurrected in that region.
“There’s a group in the Midwest that is going to have a meeting with us soon,” said Hawk. “I believe that some of the interest in the Midwest might be with the old ARTGO bunch. They’ll put the perimeter cars with the straight rail cars together and turn some lemons into lemonaide. It could be revised with a lower purse structure and some cost saving rules like you can’t change tires every time that the candy store is open. If that happens, then the Midwest could get back their old model.”
There’s not much hope for the Southeast Series at this time. Other than the possibility of incorporating perimeter cars into PASS South, there has not been any talk of a rebadged Southeast Series.
“There’s not a lot of interest in the Southeast,” said Hawk. “We don’t know if maybe that model of car has been moved away from, but it’s hard to book races there. The car counts are low too. So maybe that tells us that there isn’t the passion for that type of car in that part of the county.”
“I think that the cars will be obsolete,” said Fultz. “I don’t think that anyone will come in and run those cars. We hope that they do because there are a lot of people with a lot of money invested in those cars. Hopefully, someone will pick them up because it’s a good series.
NASCAR is trying to help the upstart tours too.
“We’re trying to help with the conversation,” said Hawk. “Most people think that we are trying to do away with it and wash our hands of the tours. But we are trying to have a working relationship. Sports in general are struggling right now. So are motorsports. We don’t want to see anyone go away. “
So that leaves the Elite Series teams a dilemma – should they race in a new home or move up to NASCAR’s Grand National Busch East and AutoZone West Series?
Like the decision to kill the Elite Series, the answers might be purely financial.
“They are trying to make the Grand National, the East and West Series, stronger and I think that what they are hoping for is that by eliminating the Southwest and the Northwest, that they can get a minimum of six or eight of our teams to move up and make that a stronger division, because it is not strong right now,” said Pettit. “I think that maybe they are hoping for the same thing with the Busch East Series – that six or eight teams will move up. That would make a fourth tier of NASCAR and they could promote everything from that into the top three levels.
“What would have to happen for us to do it would be to find some outlet to sell my existing equipment whether that would be ASA or SRL or whatever. I could take that money and reinvest it into a Grand National type of car or maybe get some sponsorship and take that to an established team and go from there. Those are the only ways that I can see that happening. We’d have to start from ground zero and that’s not going to happen. When we bought this team three years ago, I basically used my inheritance from the future to do what we are doing now.”
Pettit has no regrets about that.
“I’m not sitting here and saying that I wouldn’t have done it [knowing what I know now], because we’ve had a great last three years,” said Pettit. “I’ve ran NASCAR my whole career and I’ve been very loyal to NASCAR. If I can’t go to the next level in NASCAR, I hope that something does work out [with the SRL] so that I will have an outlet to run what I have. It would definitely be different.”
It can be debated all day long whether progress is a good or a bad thing, but one thing is for certain. 2006 and beyond will be very different not just for Jim Pettit, but for a lot of drivers, teams and fans.
The Midwest Series might be saved under a non-NASCAR banner for 2006 and beyond.
Elite Series teams are going to be forced to decide whether to leave NASCAR or move up to a Grand National-level Series. (51)