E.A. Sports Today

Helton on NASCAR

NASCAR’s vice chairman returns to the area he once called home (and maybe again), talks Gordon, charter system, competition clock

By Jason Katz
For East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – Mike Helton speaks about Talladega Superspeedway as one of his favorite places on the NASCAR circuit. One day, when he retires from the sport he currently oversees as vice chairman, he just might return and call Talladega and East Alabama home.

He’s been here before. Helton was Talladega’s chairman for four years (1989-93). It was among the best of times at the track and in the sport. Big crowds. Exciting races. Accessible drivers.

After experiencing a few lean years, the sport in Helton’s eyes is on the way back and his former track is “in the forefront of the resurgence.”

It’s a place he’d like to be when he becomes more spectator than administrator. It would be a nice getaway from the daily grind of Daytona.

“This place is so special to my wife and I,” Helton said Wednesday after speaking at the Greater Talladega and Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce awards luncheon. “We have talked about coming back here. When it comes to Talladega I know this area can be challenging but the spirit of figuring it out and how this area handles that is what a lot of what the country is struggling to figure out.”

In a wide-ranging discussion after his formal remarks, Helton talked all things NASCAR. Among the hottest topics were Jeff Gordon’s move from the driver’s seat to the TV booth, the ongoing negotiations of the charter system, and the new chase format making its way into the lower series of the sport.

Gordon, one of the most popular drivers of his generation, is turning in the steering wheel for a microphone this season as he joins FOX Sports in its weekly race broadcasts.

It’s a big change to a sport that saw Gordon race every weekend for the past 24 years in the DuPont/Axalta Chevy. But he is following a long line of popular drivers like Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace who have gone from the cockpit to the broadcast booth.

“We are lucky for our sport and for people like (current TSS Chairman) Grant Lynch that Jeff will be still talking about racing on FOX,” Helton said. “Jeff Gordon fans will get to see him every week and even though it will not be in the car, they have to understand that it is now part of the history of our sport. This has happened before and will continue to happen. It is a cycle that we must get through, and we will.”

One of the elements that may come into play that was missing in Gordon’s day is the projected charter system that has been a conversation in race shops around the country for months.

The system would allow certain teams guaranteed spots in every race and a certain amount of guaranteed purse money. This could allow teams to project revenue and allow them to function a little more freely.

The practice, if adopted, will make it seemingly easier for teams to get through a long and financially treacherous season with less worry.

“(NASCAR Chairman) Brian France in his state-of-the-sport speech last week said we are ‘cautiously optimistic’ about where the deal is right now,” Helton said. “We look forward to having something new in the next few weeks, but right now we are just cautiously optimistic.”

Tony Stewart, another legend of the sport about to take the white flag on his racing career, had some critical words for France. It was his belief France was not allowing the sport to be as visible as it needed to be.

Helton defended his partner’s effective management of the sport and criticized Stewart for taking him to task.

“This is 2016, so every business is run differently,” Helton said. “Brian is third generation and has run the sport very well in his own way. Tony is a very opinionated driver and always has been and always will be, but I don’t think that was fair to call Brian out in Tony’s opinion, and that be the only opinion out there. It was unfortunate and unnecessary.”

The Sprint Cup Chase playoff format will trickle down into the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series for the first time ever. Also, the new “competition clock” will make its debut in the truck series this year.

It is the hope of NASCAR officials this will create more interest in the lower series of the sport the way they believe it has benefited the Sprint Cup series since its introduction there. Drivers and fans have differed from NASCAR in their opinions on the topic, but Helton thinks over time these changes will become second nature.

The competition clock is a 20-minute segment that will start at the drop of the green flag. If no caution occurs during the period an automatic caution will display when the clock expires. If there is a caution before it runs out, the clock will reset. This will continue throughout the race.

“A lot of thought is put into each decision and before we go public with these decisions,” Helton said. “This competition clock is not a way for us to manufacture a race. It is designed to look at a format in our national series program that would give it some enthusiasm and see how it works.”

People are still talking about last year’s fall race at Talladega, particularly the way the race that eliminated four drivers from the Chase ended. It didn’t set well with many fans and a certain driver named Dale Earnhardt Jr., but Helton argued the sport benefited from the race last year because of all of the drama.

“Talladega is such an important race and can create such drama like last year,” Helton said. “Some will agree with it and some will not and that transcends to the fans and the rest of the sport, but one thing is certain: We know when we come to Talladega it is going to be an entertaining weekend.”

Lastly, Helton was asked about last year’s ongoing drama between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano that got physical at Martinsville and other tracks and if the days of “letting the boy’s race” or handling driver beefs out on the track were over.

He said NASCAR would continue to monitor these situations from week to week and make decisions as they come.

“We are still of the mindset that racing on the track is do it your own way and we encourage that every race,” Helton said. “Obviously last year we saw that there is a line and that it can be crossed.”

On the cover: NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton speaks to media after delivering remarks at the Greater Talladega and Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce awards luncheon. (Photo by Talladega Superspeedway)

You must be logged in to post a comment Login