Mike Helton talks about state of the sport




NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED, the definitive NASCAR pre-race show, interviewed NASCAR President Mike Helton during this past weekend's NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.

Helton spoke to host John Roberts and drivers Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace about some of NASCAR's challenges and future plans. Here are the highlights of what he said to SPEED:

Roberts: ...in light of last week's race at Dover (Del.) Downs, where only 42 pit stalls were utilized for 43 starters, where does the responsibility lie between NASCAR and the race tracks on making improvements?

Helton: It comes from both directions. If you look at the history of the sport, as we've grown fields, race tracks have, in general, grown with the sport. Tracks have helped the sport grow by modernizing their facilities, especially when a new race track comes along and raises the standard. It's not an instantaneous thing that can be fixed across the board or throughout every season. It's a working relationship we have with race tracks to improve the facilities, not only operationally for NASCAR and the race teams that are there, but also for the fans and amenities they experience -- to continue to grow the sport.

Spencer: ...why doesn't NASCAR talk about all the research and development that goes on in the Concord (N.C.) (Research & Development) facility?

Helton: The primary function of the NASCAR R&D center in Concord, and the vision behind it, is to improve the sport -- safety, competition and what lies behind the economy of the sport. Keeping car owners healthy is a big element to the future of this sport. The mission there is to get those target elements accomplished and not to take credit for what's happening, and not to publicize all the activities, but to actually, physically work on those issues. It's a great commitment by the France family to what I think is to the all of motorsports. Not just NASCAR, but all motorsports sanctioning bodies are welcome to come there and learn. We think motorsports in general being healthy, helps NASCAR be healthy. So the primary function at the NASCAR R&D Center is to make the quality of NASCAR better, and to establish some criteria for the future of the sport, so we can keep it healthy in the garage area.

Wallace: ...many of the old school NASCAR Busch Series team owners feel there has been an invasion of NASCAR Nextel Cup Series owners and all of their resources. I have people every week tell me that it's unfair. Now, I don't think it's unfair, but I want your response because it has become such a heated issue.

Helton: It's not a new issue. I recently spoke to Brett Bodine, and he was talking about when he and Dale Jarrett, back in 1988 and '89, ran both series. They both did it back then, so it's nothing new. What I think is new however, in this modern era, is the standard and quality is being raised, as well as the depth of that quality in the Busch Series garage. It's the uncertainty of what to do next by some car owners. I don't think NASCAR is going to change its philosophy on the Busch Series or Truck Series. It's open to whoever wants to participate in it. But, what we do need to pay attention to is how we can change the rules, regulations and the operational procedures -- these are issues NASCAR can control. How do we do that so past champions like Joe Nemechek can defeat a Dale Earnhardt on the last lap at New Hampshire, or a Jimmy Spencer can beat a Bobby Allison competing in a Busch race? Those are the types of things I remember seeing, and things NASCAR can work on so the Busch Series can learn from the involvement of Cup teams, yet not be damaged by it.

Spencer: People write in all the time about wanting the competition to be more level and a little closer. Now, no question, the future looks really bright for the car of the future. How close are we to seeing these cars run?

Helton: We're today closer than we've ever been with 'the car of tomorrow' being part and parcel of our everyday life on the racetrack. It's not a new project and it's been five or six years in the works. We're now, very actively testing to receive input from crew members and race teams. What we've done on paper and in our R&D Center with the help of manufacturers and others is to develop a safer car, a car that is more 'race-able' on the racetrack and a car that should be much more economical for car owners to participate in the sport with. Those are the major goals. Right now, what we're down to is finding a car that is race-able. That's what we're doing at race tracks with the teams is find the little minutia we need to make them run nose-to-tail and side-by-side. We will debut the car in Bristol (Tenn.) in 2007 and it will be on a fast track from then on.

Wallace: ...There is some talk about a new Busch Series race in Canada. How do you make a decision on whether or not you send Busch or Cup out of the country?

Helton: It comes down to supply and demand. With the Japan exhibition race we ran almost 10 years ago now, there was timeliness within the (Nextel Cup Series) schedule. Today, it's a lot more difficult to do that with the amount of races we run in the United States. We still had a little bit of room to play with the Busch Series, and it gave us the opportunity to take NASCAR, as a community, to Mexico City to play out in front of millions of passionate race fans. We are still exploring the possibility of doing that, maybe not with a fresh date, but some dates we can (race in Canada) with in the Busch Series. We're not sure what will come of that, but it certainly has a great deal of interest from our side.

Roberts: ...what are your thoughts about Toyota coming into NASCAR Nextel Cup Series competition next year?

Helton: There are two things, one is the Toyota brand in this country is huge. And in fairness to Toyota, they are very much a part of American daily life. There are 41,000 Americans that are employed in this country by Toyota, building those cars and trucks. In today's world, and as small as it has become, it's an issue you need to take a great look at, and understand the impact Toyota has, business-wise, on the American citizen. From the competition side, I think it's always good when a new manufacturer enters the sport. When Dodge came back into our sport a few years ago, I think that was good for the sport. It gave more people an opportunity to compete at this level of the sport. People like Ray Evernham for example with Dodge, and Toyota has Michael Waltrip and Bill Davis to bring up the level of quality. It grows the sport and has kept everything healthy in the Cup Series, and in the Busch Series. I think we've seen evidence of health in the Truck Series because of it. I also think it's a little bit of a wake up call for the other manufacturers to step up their level of participation.


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Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Brett Bodine , Dale Jarrett , Michael Waltrip , Jimmy Spencer , Joe Nemechek , Bobby Allison , Mike Helton