NASCAR not always the focus of Media Tour

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 26, 2013 at 8:14 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It may be called the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour, but NASCAR racing isn’t always the center of attention during the four-day event.

For example, Wednesday morning on the tour offered a visit to Ganassi Racing where aircraft and politics overshadowed race cars.

Held at the Concord (N.C.) Regional Airport with a trio of $18 million Cessna planes out front, inside Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Cessna Chevrolet was unveiled beside a Bell Helicopter and in front of the newest $22 million Cessna jet.

Standing next to McMurray, there were more questions asked about the aircraft than the race car.

Team co-owner Felix Sabates talked about his native Cuba. He questioned how Fidel Castro could still be alive after being diagnosed seven years ago with pancreatic cancer. He then explained how the Communist Party had been able to stay in power and keep an entire nation downtrodden for 53 years.

“The thing is Castro had to do one thing — he had to sweat out the first generation,” Sabates explained. “All of those kids who were 3,4,5 years old, they don’t know any better. So they grew up in a communist regime and they think being broke is the way the whole world is.

“There is no television in Cuba, no internet in Cuba. They catch you with the internet and you’re in jail for 30 years. They don’t take you to trial. You go straight to the jailhouse. So, those people they don’t know any better. It’s going to take years to educate them that there’s a better way in this world. It’s sad, but it’s reality.”

The conversation later turned into a full-scale debate on immigration between Sabates, who argued that immigrants to this country should have go through the same process he did to become an American citizen, and a reporter from a Spanish-speaking outlet, who offered the opposing view.

After a heated exchange, Lee Spencer, the veteran motorsports writer for Fox Sports, asked the question, “Can we talk about racing?”

There was plenty of talk about racing, but it wasn’t always NASCAR racing.

Four Indianapolis 500 champions were available on the tour, three at Ganassi alone with defending champion Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and current NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya. Another former Indy champ turned NASCAR racer, Sam Hornish Jr., was available later that evening at Penske Racing.

Unlike previous tours, the NHRA didn’t have a prescence this time around.

In recent years, NHRA champions John Force and Greg Anderson, as well as up-and-coming drivers Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria have been available on the tour.

On the NASCAR front, there wasn’t much breaking news to report, and each driver on the tour was subjected to the same questions from each throng of reporters about the new Gen-6 race car.

Still, Thursday’s visit with Roush Fenway Racing at the NASCAR Hall of Fame was one more suited for People magazine than Sports Illustrated.

The biggest story was whether Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would confirm his relationship with fellow Sprint Cup Series rookie Danica Patrick. Stenhouse halfway side-stepped the question, but the cat was out of the bag.

Weeks earlier, the two attended a Professional Bull Riders event at Winston-Salem, and Patrick had already dodged questions about their romance on Monday during the tour’s visit to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Once the tour concluded on Friday morning, they made their relationship public and the Associated Press ran it as their lead racing story of the day.

During an introduction of the team an hour earlier, the discussion centered around the fashion of new Roush driver Travis Pastrana. While the rest of the Roush Fenway roster came out in matching dark suits with blue shirts, Pastrana showed up in a checkered suit with tennis shoes.

Certainly, the extreme sports star has a style of his own, although he insists he’s serious about making it as a NASCAR driver.

Later, Carl Edwards answered a couple of questions about working out and also discussed his new venture as a soybean farmer.

“We wanted to start with something easy, but it’s so different from racing,” he said. “It’s something I can spend a couple of hours on each week getting our plans together, and it’s really relaxing. I’ve met a lot of nice people. The farming community has generations of people behind them who aren’t afraid to work. It’s been fun for me.”

With a busy travel schedule, he hasn’t ventured into cattle or other livestock. It’s something he’s not comfortable with until becoming a more experienced farmhand.

“That’s way difficult in my eyes,” he said. “We don’t want to mess with any living animals, we’ll just grow plants. But, we picked about the worst drought in 100 years to start last year.”

On the final stop of the tour, I had a conversation with J.D. Gibbs, the President of Joe Gibbs Racing, about how the organization has built in counseling and other Christian-based programs for its employees who need help facing many of life’s struggles.

“It comes from my dad, how he looks at life spiritually different from a lot of people,” Gibbs said. “He wants to have that as part of the process. There is the at-track part, but there’s also the home life. He would also say, ‘Where are you with the Lord?’ All that impacts what the end project is.”

While it’s not always about racing, the conversations are always interesting and informative. They provide different insights of the people who make NASCAR the most popular form of motorsports in America.

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