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On NASCAR: Cathy's Corner
NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott <<>> Courtesy of NASCAR

For seven years Cathy Elliott as media director for Darlington Raceway, the track "Too Tough to Tame", used her skills to overcome many logistical elements, but in the shadow of those dreaded walls she also honed the ability to tame the right words.

Refreshing column words from Elliott are a cut away from mainstream and available to media from NASCAR. Enjoy an experienced and respected edge from one who has been ever so close to speed.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame.

Cathy Elliott [Syndicated Columnist]  Season 2015

My Brain on NASCAR: Coming In From the Cold

As I sit down to write this column today, a significant portion of the racing community will be attending the memorial service for Steve Byrnes, the FOX Sports broadcaster who lost his battle with cancer on April 21 at the age of 56.

I don’t know how it works in other professional sports, but in NASCAR, when you lose a member of the press corps, you lose a member of the family.

“Family” is a word that you hear – and say – quite often in conversations about stock car racing. The thing is, it’s not just a word: It’s the truth. I can’t think of another professional sporting environment that consistently puts its athletes in such close proximity to each other on a regular basis for the better part of a year. At some tracks, the conditions in the garage are so “cozy,” for lack of a better word, that when teams working on cars “rub shoulders,” they can literally BE rubbing shoulders.

Similarly, although we all know that good fences make good neighbors, motorcoach parking has gotten so tight in some of the smaller infields that as few as five or six feet can separate one superstar from the next, a prime setup for the airing of laundry both clean and dirty. No matter how much you love Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne, you probably don’t want to smell their socks.

On the other hand, the drivers, NASCAR officials, team owners and the like do have the luxury of being able to retreat into those motorcoaches when they feel the need for some alone time.

Most of the motorsports media, however, isn’t in the same cushy boat. They are writers and publicists and photographers and statisticians. Their daily workspace mainly consists of a choice between a speedway’s media center (normally located in the infield in close proximity to the garage area) or the press box, where they are seated high above the grandstands, shoulder to shoulder in rows, with their laptops in front of them and on-track action showing on TV monitors scattered throughout the room.

If you’d like a mental picture, think of it as a smaller version of Buffalo Wild Wings without servers and beer – or wings, for that matter – where the same show is on every channel.

They travel by different means to the same places week after week. Like the rest of us, they tend to be creatures of habit, staying in the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants each year, spending time at home three days a week; four, if they’re lucky and that week’s race is within driving distance. From the outside looking in, it seems glamorous, but from the inside looking out, it’s a job, and a demanding one.

Like any workplace, it also binds people together by a common thread and creates an environment where casual relationships and close friendships form. Like a never-ending episode of Survivor, alliances come and go. Sometimes people work together; sometimes they don’t. Smaller local publications struggle for supremacy – which in this case would be defined as the best, and best-written, stories -- with the big dogs like ESPN The Magazine and USA Today.

There are squabbles which occasionally turn into actual feuds, but mostly there is mutual respect, a pervasive feeling of kinship … and love. Which brings us back to Steve Byrnes, the NASCAR family’s most recent loss.

Byrnes wasn’t a guy who let celebrity go to his head. He was the consummate professional, an extremely talented and trusted broadcaster, a devout and devoted family man, and a beloved and respected co-worker who always found time to stop and say hello to his fans as well as his friends. His loss will be keenly felt for a very long time.

The French writer Andre Maurois is quoted as saying, “Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold.” Our shared experiences, whether they turn out to be fantastic or heartbreaking, nevertheless bind us together, so I know that for all their differences, the media men and women of NASCAR will always share a familial warmth for one another, and will therefore never be left out in the cold.

To read comments about Steve Byrnes from fans, friends and racing professionals on Twitter, visit #ByrnesStrong.

My Brain on NASCAR: Welcome Back, Kurt Busch

By Cathy Elliott

If I had to list the drivers people have asked me about over the years, Kurt Busch wouldn’t be in the top 10.

But over the course of the past several weeks, he has been number one.

I’ve internally debated what my response should be. Do I defend NASCAR’s decision to suspend Busch from racing for a couple of weeks while waiting for a court’s decision on whether or not to bring criminal charges against him? (He was reinstated in time for the March 22 race at Auto Club Speedway, where he started on the pole.)

Do I loudly decry violence against women – or against anyone, for that matter – for the whole wide world to hear? Do I decline to say anything at all? Most importantly, does it even matter what I think?

Call it self-congratulatory, but I haven’t heard many women sticking up for Kurt, so I kind of think it might.

I have only one had one meaningful encounter with Kurt Busch. Here’s what happened.

I was the director of public relations at Darlington Raceway on March 18, 2003 – that was back in the glory days when Darlington had two annual Sprint Cup Series weekend; just thought I’d throw that one out there, NASCAR – when fans who came for a race left as witnesses to history.

It was the day Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch (who was battling the car as well as the track since his power steering had gone out several laps earlier), to the checkered flag by .002 seconds. It was the closest finish in NASCAR history, and one heck of a show.

We brought Kurt and Ricky back to the track for a media event, and as part of the old-school promotional silliness that Darlington was famous for back in the day, asked them to put on boxing gloves and pose for a photo op on the start/finish line. They declined the invitation to wear the satin trunks, citing skin allergies or something like that. Go figure.

Think about it; it’s great to be part of the closest-ever finish if you end up in Victory Lane at the end of the day, but for the second-place guy, well … you kind of become the sport’s most famous loser. Yet Kurt Busch, without complaint, drove himself from the Charlotte area to Darlington, SC on a Tuesday morning and posed for a slightly embarrassing photo to promote a race at a track where he had never scored a win.

In all my years at Darlington, I can honestly say I never worked with anyone more gracious and accommodating.

In a court of law, one person can hang a jury. In the court of public opinion, this may be more akin to a lone voice crying in the wilderness, saying something that few agree with.

We have seen Kurt Busch lose his temper and let his mouth get the better of him. That’s happened to me; it’s probably happened to you, too. We have seen him blame his co-workers, AKA his team members, for a poor job performance. I’ve done that; you probably have, too. We have seen him lose jobs as a result of his questionable behavior; that’s probably happened to some of us, too.

And we have definitely experienced the thrill of seeing him race. Week after week, he reminds us that as far as pure driving ability goes, he is as good as anyone in NASCAR, and better than most. Like him or not, you can’t deny his talent. I love to watch Kurt Busch drive that stock car, and hope I’ll be able to continue doing that for a very long time.

The details of Busch’s domestic problems have been prominently featured by most national news outlets for a number of weeks now – where is all this coverage when the really positive stuff happens in NASCAR, by the way? – so I don’t feel the need to reiterate them here.

I do, however, feel the need to stick up for the guy. If we’re going to judge somebody and endanger the décor of our glass houses in the process, then whenever possible we should try to base our opinions on what we know of the person in question through our own experience.

For me, it’s time to put these recent events in the rearview, stop talking about it already, and get on with the so-far exciting 2015 racing season. The court system couldn’t find a reason to charge Kurt Busch with anything; who are we to judge?

Cathy Elliott [Syndicated Columnist]  Season 2015
My Brain on NASCAR: Express Yourself

By Cathy Elliott

I snapped to attention recently when I heard a TV news anchor reporting a small but public war of words between a couple of high-profile celebrities.

It wasn’t the story of yet another back-and-forth sniping session that piqued my interest, however. It was the unlikely parties involved: Brad Keselowski and Madonna. When was the last time you heard those two names in the same sentence?

Actually, there is a connection between the iconic singer and the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Madonna and Brad both grew up in Rochester Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. In an interview on March 11, Howard Stern talked with Madonna about her early struggles in New York City – which included a traumatic physical assault – and asked if she had ever considered packing up and going back home.

“Have you ever been to Rochester Hills, Michigan?” she replied. “"I just didn't fit in. I just felt like I was with rich people, and I wasn't, and I felt out of place. And I felt like they were members of country clubs and they had manicures and they wore nice clothes and I didn't fit in. I felt like a country bumpkin. And I was resentful.

I just didn’t want to go back … I can’t be around basic, provincial-thinking people.”

Ouch. I guess when Madonna wrote “Express Yourself,” she wasn’t just kidding around.

The mayor of Rochester Hills responded with one of the silliest comebacks I’ve ever heard – “We build more robots than any other city in America” – but Keselowski took a more thoughtful approach. We all know he isn’t one to back away from confronting what we’ll politely call “disrespect” on the track, and the same holds true in real life.

So, in the “rather than keeping my thoughts to myself I’m just going to share them with the world” spirit of social media, he borrowed a page from Madonna’s songbook, got “Into the Groove,” and took to Twitter.

My thoughts on Madonna's comments for my Michigan followers - It's difficult growing up in a low income area in a high income town. (Cont)

I know this first hand, that type of upbringing can give you motivation & a tremendous perspective on life. (Cont)

It can also lead to feelings of perpetual resentment and inadequacy. All of which I can identify with when going home to Rochester MI.

Nonetheless, even if Madonna isn't, I am and always will be proud to be from Rochester Hills, MI.

For good or ill, the remarks, opinions and actions of celebrities seem to carry a great deal of weight with their fans. Brad Keselowski and Madonna both had to face a lot of adversity and work extremely hard to get to the pinnacle of their respective professions, and how they choose to use that fame is entirely up to them.

When given the opportunity to comment on their shared hometown, Madonna chose to denigrate it. Keselowski didn’t exactly compare it to Disney World, but he did manage to take a more positive, and much classier, approach.

As much as I applaud the skill of professional stock car drivers during races, there are times when I admire their behavior off the track even more. This was one of those times.

Oh, how I wish I had been a fly on the wall when Keselowski’s comments were brought to Madonna’s attention. If that actually happened, it is highly likely she said something like, “Brad who?”and dismissed the subject with a wave of her queenly hand.

But millions of American NASCAR fans know who Brad is, and on this day, he did us proud.

Cathy Elliott [Syndicated Columnist]  Season 2015
My Brain on NASCAR: Betting on Brett

By Cathy Elliott

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that some friends put together a race pool for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1; not that I would ever be interested in anything like that, of course.

As long as we are wildly conjecturing, let’s say one successful participant in this hypothetical race pool could win some cash. Naturally that idea wouldn’t interest me, because it’s gambling and my mother wouldn’t approve.

But what if, by some random coincidence, someone happened to mention that when I was watching the race, it might be worth my while to take a particular interest in the drivers who qualified “on the eights” – eighth, 18th, 28th and so forth?

If I had taken their advice, I would have noted the names of reigning Cup Series champ Kevin Harvick, who qualified second although some trouble during practice forced him to drop to the back of the field at the start of the race, and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, who qualified 12th. These would have elicited murmurs of approval from me, I expect.

On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so excited about the prospects of the 22nd-place qualifier, a young guy named Brett Moffitt. There might even have been a couple of small groans involved. I’m not saying there were, but there could have been.

By the final laps of the race, however, those groans – OK, they were real – had turned to excited cheers, as Moffitt had raced his No. 55 Aarons60thAnniversaryDreamMachine Toyota, owned by Michael Waltrip Racing, into the top 10, ultimately finishing eighth. His best career Sprint Cup Series finish to that point had been 22nd, at Dover International Speedway in 2014.

It was the MWR 21-year-old test driver’s first Cup Series start for the team, as a substitute for Brian Vickers, who was still recovering from recent heart surgery. Vickers will reclaim the driver’s seat on March 8 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Mofitt, who is only 21 years old but looks younger, was visibly emotional after the race, and not afraid to admit it. "I'm trying not to cry right now. Honestly, I was tearing up out there. This is the biggest accomplishment I could have ever done,” he said. "I want to be in the car the whole year. I'm sure something will come about and an opportunity will open up, so we'll see."

I have a habit of beating the drum about the changing face of NASCAR, this current time of transition when icons, most notably four-time champion Jeff Gordon, are either talking about moving on or actually doing it, and we have a crop of relative newbies to get acquainted with. It’s hard to let go of old friends we’ve been cheering on for, in some cases, over two decades, but it’s also exciting to let it sink into our heads that the future is looking pretty promising.

"That has to be the story of the day," said MWR Executive Vice President Ty Norris after the race. "From the first corner of the first lap, I was nervous for him because I really wanted him to showcase his talents. What an incredible story, for him to come out here and finish eighth … He went three-wide and passed Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne, then held off Brad Keselowski for the last 10 to 12 laps to do it. It wasn't like he just lucked into it; he earned it and I'm proud of him. I hope his phone rings off the hook.”

Even seasoned corporate types still have the capacity to get excited.

Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson won the race, but ultimately the story of the day was Brett Moffitt, a longshot on a mission. I’ve never been so excited by an eighth-place finish, and I look forward to whatever opportunities arise for this young driver.

Long story short, it was the best 10 dollars I ever lost. Hypothetically, of course.

Cathy Elliott [Syndicated Columnist]  Season 2015
Sliced Bread: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

By Cathy Elliott

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s time to start taking Joey Logano seriously. After claiming the lead with nine laps remaining in the 2015 Daytona 500 on Feb. 22, Logano managed to survive an end-of-race caution and then held on to win NASCAR’s most famous and prestigious event.

When asked what went through his mind when he saw that late caution flag come out, Logano said, “Once you get over the fact that you’re about to throw up, you start figuring out how to win the race.”

I’m trying to recall whether I have ever heard Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or the late Dale Earnhardt mention the possibility of

cookie-tossing in regard to winning a race … nope. I loved it, though. It was honest and refreshing, the difference between merely another day at the office and “Holy cow, I just went to work and won the Daytona 500!”

It was also age appropriate. Logano isn’t the youngest-ever Daytona 500 champion – that title currently belongs to Trevor Bayne – but he comes close. He may look like a kid who could come knocking at your door one of these nights to pick your daughter up for the prom, but in fact he is 24 years old and a married man with nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins to his credit. He was a strong contender for the series title last year, winning five races and ultimately landing at number four in the year-end standings.

Sometimes NASCAR feels like a real-life combination of the movies Mean Girls and Animal House. Seasoned veterans eye newcomers with a combination of mistrust and misgiving: Does this newbie know what to do on the track? Will he (or she) be a help or a hindrance during races? Hey, let’s grab a toga and apply a little pressure and see what happens!

Sometimes the answer comes quickly; think back to the days when Jeff Gordon and his infamous bad mustache – does that thing have its own Twitter handle yet? – began to regularly accomplish the unbelievable (and unforgettable) feat of regularly beating the late Dale Earnhardt to the checkered flag. The man who would go on to win four series titles (so far) and become one of the most popular and successful drivers in stock car racing history had to run the gauntlet of NASCAR’s fraternal hazing program before being issued his racing-man card.

Gordon wasn’t accorded any respect just for showing up. He had to earn it.

The same holds true for Logano. He fell victim to early pressure when Tony Stewart’s unexpected departure from Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2008 season put the still-teenaged Joey in the driver’s seat before he was fully prepared for fulltime Sprint Cup Series competition. Expectations and predictions ran the gamut from overnight sensation to rapid burnout. Things at JGR ultimately didn’t work out and in 2013 he made the move to Penske Racing, subsequently earning his first-ever spot in the championship Chase. He finished the season in eighth place.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that both NASCAR and Hollywood host their biggest events on the very same day. They weren’t the frontrunners going in, but two strong contenders carried the day as Joey Logano and Birdman soared to victory in their respective, and very hotly contested, races. It felt like a day when anything was possible.

We talk a lot about the changing face of NASCAR and what the sport’s future holds in store. If you’re the visual type and need to see what it looks like, sneak a peek at Joey Logano. He’s a scrapper.

He fell victim to some unfortunate hype early in his career, as he had been branded with the nickname “Sliced Bread” (as in “the greatest thing since …”). That’s not the most glamorous moniker, and he has pretty much managed to shed it as this point, but I like to look at it this way.

In order to properly slice a loaf of bread, you need sharp equipment, a keen eye and a steady hand. In NASCAR’s kitchen, if you use the right ingredients, the proper technique and make the cuts just right, at the end of the day you can end up in Victory Lane … and everyone else will just be toast.

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