Mike Helton - Testing ban teleconference

NASCAR Teleconference Transcript - Mike Helton November 14, 2008 An interview with: MIKE HELTON THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. I have sitting here with me the President of NASCAR, Mike Helton. MIKE HELTON: We wanted to stop by to...

NASCAR Teleconference Transcript - Mike Helton
November 14, 2008

An interview with:
MIKE HELTON

THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. I have sitting here with me the President of NASCAR, Mike Helton.

MIKE HELTON: We wanted to stop by to formally announce what we've been telling the garages this morning regarding testing.

We announced to all the national series participants who are here, and we'll get the word to the others that are affected by this, that beginning January 1, 2009, NASCAR is suspending testing in our three national series, as well as the Camping World Grand National East and West divisions of NASCAR.

We're doing this after a good deal of conversation that's been taking place since June regarding testing. That conversation coupled with the continued turn of economic conditions has led us to this decision that we've announced today. And the particulars and on some of the details regarding this move will be formulated more over the next two or three weeks.

But there was an urgency, we felt, to tell the teams and the industry of the general decision to suspend testing before this weekend was complete. Because come Monday morning, everybody's focus will begin to be on '09.

So that was the timing today to get that word out. We felt like was important. There are a lot of moving parts and pieces that go along with this. Many of which will be more formalized over the next two or three weeks, but the important thing we felt was to get the general topic out there.

THE MODERATOR: We're going to open it up to questions.

Q: Can you give us an idea on how much this might save teams? Do you have a ballpark figure of what this will save each team?

MIKE HELTON: We don't know what the number is per team. We don't know what the collective number is for the industry. We do know or have a pretty good feel through the due diligence that we've done that this is in the range of tens of millions to the industry. When I say the industry, I'm talking about the garage areas all combined.

Q: Was it the economic downturn that caused this decision?

MIKE HELTON: Mike's question was, was it the economic down turn that drove us to this decision? It came along collectively between the conversations that we began having with teams back at the end of June about how to go into testing in '09. And there were a lot of conversations that were being held about a lot of different options as that dialogue unfolded.

Along the way, with the economic conditions turning the way they have turned recently, not just in our industry but worldwide, we began to think a month or so ago differently about testing as we were considering different options and different topics that we could look at in an effort to help the economic part of the sport collectively from race teams, racetracks, and the other stake holders in the sport. So it came kind of together.

Q: In talking about this, did you guys talk about the Daytona 500 and maybe an exception there because of the publicity run up toward the first race, and the testing at that track? Was that talked about at all?

MIKE HELTON: Yeah, there were a lot of variables that went along with this conversation. Of course, one of them was the typical preseason testing that goes on in Daytona, getting ready for speed weeks.

The ultimate decision was that the best case scenario for this decision was no means no. And it be applied across the board for the entire season.

We feel like there are other ways we can promote the start of our season. That we can work with Robin Braig and his folks in Daytona to promote speed weeks other than cars on racetracks. So the decision was that when it came to suspending the testing, that was across the board, and no meant no.

But we do feel like there are other ways that we can launch the promotion, the promoting, excuse me, of the '09 season, without having cars on racetracks.

Q: This kind of goes along with that question. When you say, no means no, teams -- there seems to be a confusion. Teams can still test at tracks that NASCAR does not host events at. And the question is, is that because some people think that's because you guys allow that, or is that because you don't have the power to enforce teams from going to places where you don't sanction races?

MIKE HELTON: I think it's typical for NASCAR's reaction or the big decisions to be realistic when it comes to the enforcement of it. The suspending of testing is broadened in '09, as it captures and makes inclusive all tracks that NASCAR has a relationship with all of the series that are having testing suspended. The Craftsman Truck, the Nationwide Series, the Sprint Cup, and the two Camping World East and West Grand National divisions. That takes in a pretty good community of racetracks because of the relationships we have.

The sanction agreements with our racetracks calls for the track to agree to abide by NASCAR's test policy. So that includes racetracks and the enforcement of the policy.

Beyond that, it's more challenging, if not impossible for us to have an enforcement element that we can lean on or utilize.

So that's basically where we've always stopped and limited it to the tracks that we have relationships with, as well as teams that we have relationships with.

Q: How much of the decision was based on a perception issue to make sure that not only the sponsors but the sporting world itself was not blind to the difficulties that were going on? I mean, this sport has experienced unprecedented growth over the last decade or so, and now it's being affected. Was there a perception issue that maybe you discussed before you made the decision?

MIKE HELTON: I don't think there was much to this around perception. I think most of this decision is around real. Testing is a real element. The cost attached to testing is a real element. The cost of racing, any form of Motorsports is expensive and has different elements that come with it. So this decision was made based on the culmination of all of those real elements.

I think it all falls in line with NASCAR's goal over the last few years to do major things that it can do and has the ability to affect by making changes around be it a single engine rule, be it limiting tires or different things that we have done. This falls in line with that.

Now this is a much more major decision and very significant. But I think it's warranted based on the significant times that we've got in front of us.

But to answer your question, I think most of this decision was made purely on real elements that are out there.

Q: Is there the possibility of going in on a Thursday or Friday, Rick Hendrick had talked about using data acquisition. Is that a possibility? And also, I know you guys have RFID chips in the Goodyear tires. Is that going to be one way to monitor or police it as well? Because obviously, they'll know where those tires are at all times.

MIKE HELTON: Let me answer your questions backwards. The chips that are in the tires are used currently to help us police the events and testing. So that is something that's out there already and we've got experience with that.

What might happen at the events, I think, is still on the table. I think that's part of the list of things that we owe answers to that we would get to pretty quickly, I hope. I think we should in the next two or three weeks.

But I would not encourage anybody that there are things out there that they would like to see that might happen. Because I think what's important is that for the potential of this decision having the impact that makes it worth it, it's going to be important for NASCAR to keep all of those elements captured.

If we start breaking out those elements, then I think we give the ability for this effort to not be worth what all the sacrifices and elements that have to be made to make it work.

So whether it's doing something different at the events by adding days or adding data acquisition elements at the event, whether it's coming up with opportunities for less experienced drivers, rookies, to have time in the seat behind the wheel, those elements are all on the table right now.

But I don't want to encourage anyone that they have any leg room right now because I'm afraid that, and I think as we talk through those issues, if we give up on any of those components that are captured by saying no testing and no meaning no, that we start allowing that to break out.

This is a, I'll remind everybody, that testing is something that we look at every year. It's a fluid movement, and our history tells you that NASCAR changes testing routinely. We do that to stay current.

This decision is a big decision, and it's a big decision because of the current set of circumstances we've got. And the spirit of this decision that we all share a responsibility in, is to be good for the sport.

So if we make a big decision like this, and then start piecing out little pieces of it to accommodate a specific area that then I don't think we do the decision justice.

But I will tell you there are decisions that are still on the table that have to be firmed up that include the conversation about telemetry at the racetrack.

Q: I think it's fair to say you hear a lot of people -- you hear politicians saying this is the biggest economic crisis since the '30s. Is it fair to say this is the biggest crisis facing NASCAR since the '70s when the factories left, and Winston came in, there was a fuel crisis in the country and racing. And the gentleman to your right is probably one of the few people that's dealt with any anything about we're going to (no audio) be bigger than football, we're going to take over the thing. Then you have to be aware of limitations that are imposed upon you. Where do you go for expertise on just how you cope with all of these things turning downward?

MIKE HELTON: Well, you go to all of your stakeholders, including guys like Jim Hunter, Jim France. But you also go to stakeholders that are currently involved in the sport, because it's their sport today.

So you talk to the sponsors, the racetracks, the car owners, the drivers, the crew members we have a lot of experience that we can attach ourselves to. But there are stakeholders in this sport whose livelihood and their involvement in the sport are impacted by the decision we make. So we spend a lot of time with the current stakeholders in making these decisions.

Q: When Brian was on the teleconference in Phoenix last weekend, he said over and over again that cost will be the number one priority along with safety. In what other areas are you looking at? Are you considering shortening the race weekends or capping team sizes? Are there any other areas you can get into?

MIKE HELTON: Not today. Except to tell you that starting next week, we, NASCAR have the opportunity to sit down and catch up on topics that will be timely for '09. And in reviewing that we will have things over the off season and maybe into January where we can come back and say these are things that we're doing in different series or all the series.

Hopefully, there are other things we can accomplish and put forward to address the issues and the future of the sport. In the meantime, there are a lot of good things in this sport, a lot of good things going on.

I think today's announcement, and today's decision is symbolic of NASCAR working with the industry, particularly the team owners and the crew members, and coming up with a procedure or a policy that allows the teams and crews and the stakeholders in the sport to make decisions for themselves as to how to go forward.

But, in the meantime, protect the quality of what goes on on the racetrack because at the end of the day, you don't want to cut into the muscle. You have to whatever your decision is whether it's your own media outlet, or your own household or whatever business you might be in, whatever stake you've got to watch after, it's important to make forward thinking and good decisions. But it's also important to not lose sight of the fact that things are different.

And I think this is one of those steps that we hope gives car owners the ability to reinvest resources, save the resources, and hopefully it's a temporary situation.

Q: Certainly this year saw a lot of issues at Indianapolis and I know Goodyear did a lot of testing. Is there something where you may lift the testing ban in place to let teams test at Indianapolis a little more next year? Also, as you move forward on this ban, what will be the things that you look at or listen for to consider lifting it at some point in the future?

MIKE HELTON: In regards to Goodyear tire testing, that will be a continuing program. Goodyear will continue to test tires. Might require additional testing to be sure that or to be as sure as you can be, to be sure we've got the right tires at race time.

Certainly there could be a special test if NASCAR felt like it was necessary because of some unknown today that could crop up along the season that would require the further development of a tire or some -- a new situation at a racetrack. That's something that could pop up. We don't see that right now, but certainly we're not closing out the completeness of being able to react to something that's thrown our way as we typically.

I think the other question is what circumstances might we look at this. Typically we put out a program that's the topic of the day. That team owners and the teams can plan on for the full season, and only make exception to that if the exception is extraordinary.

So the thinking would be that this is a plan for the entire '09 season. Because I think it's important for teams to be able to bank on planning out, and their plans be the correct ones. What keeps them correct is us not changing things. And we've been sensitive to that in a few years, the last several years.

So this is one of those decisions that I think it's going to be important to lay it out and say, here it is, and the teams can bank on it being the plan for the full season with the exception of something extraordinary coming our way that we didn't anticipate.

Q: Does it speak to the seriousness of this situation the financial situation that, in an era when Roush Racing had talked two years ago about testing their way out of difficulty with the new race car. Jimmie Johnson started this season struggling a little bit, and they tested a lot and tested their way back to enough competitiveness that they're going to win, perhaps, this championship. Given that the development of the Car of Tomorrow is still an ongoing process in the garage, and the teams are still trying to learn about this car and make it better, the decision to not let them continue to do that at the benefit of saving costs, does that speak to how serious the situation is? Was that a tough balance to strike for you guys in considering this?

MIKE HELTON: This decision was certainly one that came with a lot of conversation, a lot of discussion, a lot of thought and a lot of input from a lot of different stakeholders in this sport. And we reached it based on the thought that this is the time of year when race teams need to know what their test policy is to make plans.

Taking today's circumstances and looking into the '09 season, and what things are there that NASCAR can do to help car owners from a resource aspect going into '09 because of the challenging set of circumstances that everybody has. This was one that was timely and relevant, and we feel like even with the sacrifices that will be made from not doing it warranted doing it. So therefore we landed on the decision we landed.

The hope is and the thinking is that this unplugs one element of the '09 season. And if you look back the last few years, this element has been only a portion of the whole season. There was limited testing already. Limited access to tires, limited number of racetracks that we race on that you could go to.

So this policy already had limitations to it. We're simply removing the last portion of those limitations that were out there. And we feel like we can do that. We can accomplish giving the teams the tool to work with from a resource aspect, and not take away from the quality of the races on the racetracks. We think this one for at least '09 can do all of that

Q: Is there a concern though with eliminating this? The teams, the big four, especially, that have more money where they can invest in more engineers, the sevenpost, the pulldown rigs and all of that, that it's going to widen the gap from the top of the field to the bottom?

MIKE HELTON: You can make that argument. But I think there is another side of that. I think that you still in order to utilize engineers and sevenpost machines and all of that, you've got to have good data. And the best data that you can get is going to the racetrack and getting it.

So I think you could also make the argument that maybe it closes that gap some. But the decision was made based on having to come up with the test policy. Oh, by the way, we're going to go into '09 with some challenging economic circumstances around us. That was the driving force behind it at the end of the day.

Q: You know the garage unlike anyone else. What do you think the affect of this will be not in the saving of money, but what happens back at the race shops? What happens at Hendrick Motorsports? Do they spend more? What happens to a team that doesn't have the books or resources today to look over past history? What happens now with these guys, what do you see happening?

MIKE HELTON: I think you see pretty much what you see today. Different teams, different opinions, different approaches will be applied. It's the same thing that happens today. The only thing we've unplugged is testing at a group of tracks that they've been historically testing at.

But I think the reaction to it, and the steps that teams take will be the same that we've seen in '08, and '07, and '06, and 1952. They're all going to approach it differently. The way they approach it ends up creating their own level of performance and successes, and it applies in '09 the same way it did in '49, I think.

Q: The Goodyear tire tests are going to be very valuable to the teams that are invited to participate in those. Is there a way to kind of keep those fair? I know there was one team owner in the garage that suggested come up with a separate test team. Get a guy like Rusty Wallace to do the tire testing, so there is no perceived advantage from any existing team out there?

MIKE HELTON: Was that Roger Penske that suggested Rusty do that (laughing)? I think, obviously, the Goodyear tire testing will be important for two reasons. One, it will be important to get the right tire at the event, and it will have some merit to it for the guys that are in the test.

And we have been working with Goodyear to try to spread that out and make it fair, and we'll continue to do that and probably raise the bar on that a little bit in '09, to be sure that the participants of the tire test get those opportunities get spread out.

I think we still are best served by the active teams and drivers in the garage area doing the tire tests, because those are the ones that will be using the tire at times, and they're the ones that know, hopefully, how to put the tire through the proper tests to come up with the right answer when it comes time for us to have the tire on the racetrack.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR
Drivers Rusty Wallace , Jimmie Johnson , Mike Helton , Roger Penske , Jim Hunter
Teams Hendrick Motorsports