What the Future Holds

American Speed Association Pendleton, Indiana October 8, 1999 End of V-6 Era Marks Start of LS1 V-8 Epoch Founding Family Charts ASA's Future By Ron Lemasters Jr. and Glen Grissom October 5, 1999 -- Rougemont, NC, is a long way from Pendleton,...

American Speed Association Pendleton, Indiana October 8, 1999

End of V-6 Era Marks Start of LS1 V-8 Epoch Founding Family Charts ASA's Future By Ron Lemasters Jr. and Glen Grissom

October 5, 1999 -- Rougemont, NC, is a long way from Pendleton, IN, where the American Speed Association has been based for more than 30 years. But Rougemont -- and more specifically Orange County Speedway -- marked the end of an era for the Stock car sanctioning body and will bring about what promises to be a remarkable new one in the history of U.S. motorsports.

Saturday's North Carolina Sweet Potato 400 was the final ASA race using the current V-6 engines, a format ASA went to in 1992 from the 9:1 compression V-8 engines it pioneered in the mid-1980s. The format, which has seen the cars move from the old Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird/Ford Thunderbird bodies to the more streamlined Monte Carlo/Grand Prix/Taurus fiberglass bodies and trade their bellowing howls for a more sedate V-6 buzz, has done the organization proud. Its connection with TNN has helped immeasurably, as having the majority of its races televised live has boosted both the sponsorship dollars and the ability of the teams to present a professional face to America's racing fans.

Next year, however, it's a whole new ball game.

Enter the LS1

The announcement of the LS1 V-8 engine as the spec powerplant for ASA was accompanied by much enthusiasm on the part of the competitors. They now can buy the same engine their competitors have for the same price -- a ridiculously low $12,000 per piece -- instead of spending $30,000 on privately-built V-6s. The teams will be able to cut their engine budgets by one-third, according to ASA President and founder Rex Robbins, who also said there's a lot of room for improvement in the way motorsports works as a whole.

"The one thing I've learned in two years' time is that there have been a lot of people getting rich off racers and car owners for a lot of years," the elder Robbins said. "Are you sitting here telling me that Ford, Chrysler and General Motors do not have the money or the expertise to hire engineers that can build an engine as well as Jack Roush can? They don't believe that. They pay those engineers down there to build those engines for him. "We ordered the first 300 LS1 engines, and do you know how long it took to run those 300 engines through the assembly line? About three hours. Got the line up, turned it on and there you go.

"The other misnomer that everyone has to rationalize is, everybody -- Busch, Cup, Truck, ASA -- runs a spec engine," Robbins continued. "Everybody. I can't build a Winston Cup engine unless I read out of the rulebook what the size of that engine is going to be, the bore, stroke, everything. It's a spec engine. We have a spec engine, they have a spec engine. The difference is the delivery system. We're going to deliver down through the pipeline and out, sealed up. You throw it away like a pair of razor blades and put a new one in. We're going to sell the engines for $12,000 instead of $35,000. That's the difference."

What the word enthusiasm means, in this case, is renewed interest in the ASA from a wide variety of areas. A lot of interest, from a lot of areas, to the tune of more than 200 inquiries for next season from team owners and drivers in the NASCAR All Pro and RE/MAX Challenge series, the Goody's Dash series and many more. What's drawing them, according to Brian Robbins, Rex's son and the vice-president of the series, is the opportunity to race on a level playing field with cubic dollars factored out.

"There's a heck of a lot more have-nots than haves, and that's true at all levels of racing," Brian Robbins said. "A certain amount of it is hard work, dedication and talent, and then you get to that point where it takes a lot of dollars. If you could ever get some parity there to where it wasn't a dollar issue ... what's going to happen to these engines that aren't worn out, but these guys don't want to take a chance on? Joe Henry running Hickory or Orange County would sure like to get a hold of one, and they'll sell it for $5,000. They don't care."

Not content with just changing the engine, the ASA brain trust decided now was the time to take advantage of a comprehensive tire deal from a company thirsty for oval-track racing but with a limited choice of outlets. That program -- which will add dollars to the overall point fund as well as the various programs for the racers -- will be announced at the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association show in Las Vegas next month.

A Watershed Year

What it all boils down to is this: in 2000, it will be a watershed for the ASA project, which the Robbins family has nursed from a regional series with tremendous potential to a national series with even more potential. It has been, according to both Robbins', the most difficult program they've ever undertaken.

"This is the biggest, most drastic change we've ever made in the 30-some years we've been doing this," Rex Robbins said. "It's not technologically bold at all, it's just common sense."

A Brave New World

The engine itself plays many roles in the new, revitalized version of ASA. It forges even stronger the link between General Motors and ASA, for one thing, and it gives Robbins and his little group from Indiana's Rust Belt the moxie to wage war on a national scale.

"The electronics, black box, G-force indicator, telemetry, everything that CART and IRL and those guys have, we will have on this car for next year," Brian Robbins said. "The difference is, in CART, IRL and Formula One, all that is proprietary to the teams. In our situation it's proprietary to ASA. We have plans for that information in combination with our TV deal for next year." Those plans are moving right along, as a tire test is scheduled in early November at USA International Speedway in Lakeland, FL, site of the 2000 season opener. There will be a "Spring Training" event "somewhere warm" before the season opens in March, which should give teams plenty of experience with their new LS1 V-8 engines and new radial tires -- mounted on 9.5-inch Winston Cup-style wheels, no less

In all, the switch to the sealed, factory-built and maintained engines was a no-brainer for ASA.

"This electronic telemetry information is twofold," said Brian Robbins. "We can monitor for longevity, as well as policing the engines. All engines should sound the same if they have not been tinkered with. These engines will all be sealed, but we already know the downfalls of sealed engines and have a lot of input back. It's specific to the SCCA groups now, as far as being sealed engines, and we know the depths the guys go to to try and cheat the system. That's why we think we have all this covered."

Ironically enough, it was Ford that triggered the process which brought General Motors to ASA's doorstep with the idea for the LS1. In 1997, Ford let it be known that it was running out of available inventory for its V-6 engine, and that program would cease to be by 2000.

"We just talked in general (with GM), and what we found was we all had some common issues," Brian Robbins said. "So GM said 'look, let's get together and have a little roundtable to talk about your future direction.' Ford told us they were going to run out of parts on the V-6, that was the whole view; they gave us plenty of warning. We knew that GM was going to have the parts for the V-6, but it's not their focus anymore. When we went down this road in the late 1980s, GM told us to go this way. We went this way at the direction of the manufacturers. Now, they're all telling us we want to go back to V-8s.

"Our alternatives were to go back to the 9:1-compression V-8 we pioneered in the '80s," he continued. "We already know that bit, been there, done that, what's new? We got together up in Detroit, and they [GM] took us through this great big room. They told us, 'we built this room, to pull motorsports in this direction, really for NASCAR, but after we got this room done, and we got a [negative] reaction from them, our relationship sort of diminished. They don't want to talk about what we want to talk about. Disc brakes and the rear-view mirror are about the last two things we built that have anything to do with racing.'

"They walked us through, and a lot of principles are very similar."

Brian Robbins said his first reaction was to hit the gas and go as fast as possible, but there were some snags along the way. "We went down the route, started discussing and as we were getting geared up for it, I said, 'man, we have to move as fast as we can move,' he said. "We talked with the competitors and asked them, 'are you worried about your inventory, and the costs you've got wrapped up in this?' They said, 'heck no, the prices you're talking about for this engine, we'll throw this stuff away, we don't care, it's a boat anchor. One rebuild and four races, I'm even, so the sooner the better.' So we go back to GM and tell them we're ready to go now. They're saying, 'whoa, whoa ...' Now you can see why this could never have happened this year."

What is on tap for 2000, from the Robbins' point of view, is a lot of hard work.

More Racing for More Cars

"What we're really trying to do -- and it's more than just 2000, the plan runs for three or four years here -- step one in 2000 is to handle the onslaught, that's the primary goal," said Brian Robbins. "Right now you have to look at your restrictions, which are the facilities, venues. I can't start 80 cars at a track. You're really stuck with the facilities saying, 'we think 32 cars should start, or 36, or 40 on a mile, or whatever,' you have pits for all of them. Those are givens. What happens, just like this weekend here (at Orange County), you have 41 cars here and start 32, nine guys go home. Nine or 10 guys isn't bad to send home.

"But next year, you'll have 250 people wanting to come and play this game, and even if you only get 25 percent of them ... we have seen this series in the 50s and 60s (in terms of car counts) in 1994-95, and we never addressed it. We let it seek its own level, and we ran those 20 guys off. We don't have eight or 10 spares, just like Busch, just like Cup. That's the way it's always been, but it's not necessarily the answer. So what we're saying is, 'let's plan for them, they're coming, let's get geared up this time to handle them.'"

Brian Robbins said there would be plans in place to deal with however many cars show up at 2000 events. "What we're saying is, every race will be a two-day format, every race, we'll have a 100-lap or 50-mile event for the non-qualifiers, and we'll advance a couple out of that into the field. So that way, you'll have 60-some cars that are going to get a race. What we're going to do beyond that is probably have a last-chance qualifier to get those guys into that B race.

"You've got to race the guy," the younger Robbins said. "He can't get any better if he doesn't race. He doesn't learn anything. The only thing he learned was to write a check. Drive on down the road, pay the motel, food and write a check. Come on. One, it gives us a heck of an opportunity to sample our product at a very low price. We've kept the prices down and can continue to keep them down to where it only costs you $20 to attend a race. You can afford to bring the whole family and it's only a $100 bill. You can sell the preliminary race for $5 or $10 on the ticket, and you get to see all the qualifying, get to see everybody run and all the practice and the 100-lap race and the pit stop contest. That's typically what everybody else gives you for $20 and you get it here for $5 or $10. What we really think that we'll do, like the promotion with the McDonald's people and all the people who are getting involved in the series...it's a sampling. People can come and sample that product, inexpensively."

Despite the new cars, there will not likely be any more races added to the schedule.

"We'll stay with the 20-race schedule," Brian Robbins said. "I think you have to do that. Whenever you start increasing the schedule, whether it's in travel or number of races, that becomes a real burden on teams that they have to be prepared for. You burn them down. That is something else we feel is very critical with our series. Look at NASCAR's schedule. They start in February, run to November. They've only got two months down; they run 10 months a year and they test the other two. They give them Thanksgiving and Christmas off, then it's right back under the whip, with the banquet, sponsor demands and all that. That's just part of the life they chose. You fire them all down. The top five teams here today, those guys running for the championship, all of them have one thing in common: they have a burnt-out Winston Cup guy who has been there, done that, can't stand the pace, and has come back here to do 20 races and stay the heck at home."

There's plenty of money waiting to be claimed next year, too, as the series point fund will grow from $3.5 million in 1999 to $5 million in 2000. "That's not counting any [contingency] postings, either, just the increase in raw takes us to over $5 million," Brian Robbins said. "We do lose some contingency sponsors, however, but that's a natural progression, because you're going from an aftermarket to a more pure manufacturer-based deal. We don't want to bastardize the engine, but you do have to look at revenue streams. But when you add it all up, it's a drop in the bucket compared to what you're looking at. What's most important is to get a sponsor on the side of each one of those cars out there so they can afford to go out and do this. That's the key element."

Bigger Series, Bigger Value

Brian Robbins also commented that sponsors would see the value of the series with the new engines and will come calling. "It will be easier to get a sponsors," he predicted. "Easier, because as the focus increases on the series, then its value increases. It costs you, turn-key car to turn-key car, $300,000 a year to run this other car somewhere else, all the purses and stuff, and you run for $750,000. It costs you more to run that car than it does to run ours in a $5 million series. That's just economic sense.

"The things you have to look at are what is wrong with racing today and what's going to be wrong in the future, like ecology, the environment, getting to unleaded fuels, noise pollution, things of that nature. We run mufflers. The economy of it is going rampant and out of style in NASCAR, CART, IRL, Formula One. You can't believe the cost!"

With the advent of the new era in ASA racing, the Robbins family has addressed the cost issue, the competition issue and the marketing side of the business -- the television package and sponsor support. The rest is up to the participants.

Article courtesy www.country.com

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Series Stock car
Drivers Jack Roush