AUTO RACING PACKAGE: NASCAR Truck Series Begins Second Season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Over a half-million fans turned out to watch NASCAR’s truck series last year and another 20 million tuned in on TV. It was a success story unparalleled in the history of auto racing, ending any debate about whether people would embrace a series featuring American-manufactured pickups.
On Sunday, the $4 million series begins its sophomore season at the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex in south Florida.
The question facing the series is, how do you top 1995?
One way is by putting the $401,475 Florida Dodge Dealers 400, on live television _ it will be telecast by the TNN cable network _ and radio via the new Truck Broadcasting Network.
The 167-lap race over Homestead’s 1.521-mile superspeedway will be the richest and longest in the series’ short history and the first on a track over a mile in length.
It’s the circuit’s first official appearance in Florida, underscoring NASCAR’s determination to give trucks the broadest possible national exposure.
The series expands from 20 races to 24 in 1996, and Homestead typifies the new venues.
Six tracks, all but one a mile or more in length, are mostly located east of the Mississippi River. Watkins Glen (N.Y) International and New Hampshire International Speedway, both Winston Cup facilities, join the series rotation, but on non-Winston Cup weekends.
Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway and Nashville (Tenn.) Speedway USA are the other eastern venues. Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track nearing completion, hosts the Nov. 3 finale which carries a $600,000 purse. The Las Vegas event will be televised live by CBS, one of five races on the network in 1996.
``The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is giving NASCAR fans racing where they’re not used to getting it,″ said Richard Childress, owner of Mike Skinner’s championship-winning Chevrolet. ``It’s given tracks the opportunity to schedule new things and that’s a big plus.
``The thing you’ll see (in future years) is even bigger tracks getting picked up. The sport is just going to be bigger and bigger this year.″
Skinner, who won eight races in 1995, concedes his team may not win as many races this season, but believes the title is his to win or lose.
``We’d love to win the championship again, so we intend to do the best we can,″ he said. ``We still have more depth than the other teams. We don’t have to lead all the laps; we don’t have to prove a lot of points. Until our (1995) game plan lets us down, we won’t be adjusting anything.″
The first nine championship finishers from a year ago and six of seven 1995 winners are among 50-plus Homestead entries. Four teams with NASCAR Winston Cup Series ownership _ Childress, Ernie Irvan, Dale Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick _ placed Skinner, Joe Ruttman, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Jack Sprague in four of the top five spots.
Together, the quartet won 16 races and 16 poles and more than $1 million.
Their success nudged three of their peers to field 1996 championship efforts. Jack Roush will prepare Fords for Ruttman while Bill Sedgwick, seventh last year, joins Darrell Waltrip’s new Chevrolet team. Richard Petty rejoins Dodge in its factory-supported return to NASCAR with Winston Cup veteran Rich Bickle.
While not running full schedules this year, other prominent Winston Cup teams will compete in the Craftsman Truck series. Roger Penske will enter a Ford in a dozen events, the driving chores split by Kenny Wallace and former AMA supercross champion Rick Johnson. Bill Elliott brings up Ron Barfield Jr. from NASCAR’s All Pro ranks, and Felix Sabates will run a two-truck tandem in selected events for midwesterner Jay Sauter and Kyle Petty.
Ken Schrader, who won last year’s race at the now-closed Saugus Speedway in Santa Clarita, Calif., will compete when his Winston Cup schedule allows. He’s entered in Sunday’s Florida Dodge Dealers 400.
Geoff Bodine and Waltrip said they’ll compete in selected races, as will Mark Martin, Ted Musgrave and Jeff Burton in a second Roush Ford. Busch Grand National champion Johnny Benson, who won the pole for the recent Purolator 500 at Atlanta, will be part of a two-truck team which will provide the U.S. four-wheeled debut, in June at Topeka, Kan., of former world Formula One motorcycle champion Kevin Schwantz.
Even with all the veterans, there’s a long list of rookies who will battle for a $7,500 bonus at the end of the season. Among the newcomers are Sauter; Brian Reffner, last year’s American Speed Association champion who replaces Ruttman in Irvan’s Ford; Doug George, the 1995 NASCAR Winston West champion, and Bobby Gill, twice runner-up in the All Pro series for late-model stocks.
End advance for Thursday, March 14