Friday, April 1, 2016

INTERVIEW: Norm Benning struggling under NASCAR’s 32-truck cap

The moment has played over and over since that warm July evening in 2013.  On the inside, Clay Greenfield and his black RAM.  To his outside, the cherry-red Chevrolet of Norm Benning.  Through clouds of Eldora dirt, these two underdogs waged sheet-metal war for the final transfer spot into the inaugural Mudsummer Classic.  In the end, the spot went to Benning, his battered #57 cheered by fans in the stands and drivers in the infield.  His late-race battle quickly became an internet sensation.

“I’m not tooting my horn,” said Benning in an interview last week, “but Eldora, three years ago, I went viral on three continents. . .I got texts from Jimmie Johnson on that deal, Mark Martin, and Clint Bowyer.  Bowyer came over and said ‘I’ve never in my life seen anything so exciting’ - that’s a direct quote. Jimmie Johnson said, ‘Norm, it’s one thing to be banging up against a wall out of control, it’s quite another when another guy hits you at the same time,’ he said, ‘that’s one helluva job.’”

Fighting for every last position is nothing new to Benning.  He cut his teeth at dirt tracks like Eldora as a 15-year-old racing adults.  He’s competed in ARCA and NASCAR, attempted to qualify for 11 Daytona 500s and the inaugural Brickyard 400, and now races full-time in the Truck Series.  Though Benning’s team only has three trucks in its stable, he has also fielded a second entry to fill fields, giving valuable on-track experience to series newcomers like Joey Gattina and Ted Minor.

But barely two years after his Eldora triumph, Benning and his team are struggling more than ever before.  He comes into this weekend’s race at Martinsville having failed to qualify for four straight races, including his first at Daytona in several years.  The skid began last fall at the Virginia short track, where he missed the race by four-tenths of a second.

“Four of my fans were together there at Martinsville,” said Benning.  “They said ‘You know what? We’re not even gonna stay. We came to watch him race.  We’re leaving.'”

In a cruel twist, Benning’s speed last fall was 34th-fastest of the 36 trucks who took time, which prior to 2015 would have been enough to put him - and his fellow three DNQs - in the show.  However, since NASCAR shortened Truck Series fields from 36 to 32 trucks, drivers like Benning are now regularly missing races they should be making - not because of a lack of speed, but due to a lack of available spots.  This problem has carried over into the current season.

“I was actually 24th quick at Daytona this year, but. . .I ended up getting squeezed out of that race - I missed it by one position.  And I went to Atlanta and the same thing happened. . .Now I’m falling into that bracket where I’m missing races - me and Mike Mittler and Mike Harmon - I’m just really aggravated about it.  I can’t afford to miss any races.”

Benning explained that the field reductions were put in place in order to curb “start-and-park” efforts, as well as to save purse money.  However, unlike Sprint Cup, which has been consistently unable to field its short 40-car fields, the Truck Series has still consistently pulled in more entries than available spots.  The result is what Benning has experienced: series regulars and fully-sponsored rides being sent home for no good reason.  “They sent 11 trucks home from Daytona,” said Benning.

Missed races mean big losses for a race team, and this loss of funding is felt much harder by teams such as Norm Benning Racing, where tire costs are a key issue:

“Well it’s all about the money, it’s that simple. These teams, we can buy 7 sets of tires, the most we’re allowed to buy.  The most I personally get is 3 sets, then not enough money to race.  These tires are between $2,300 and $2,500 a set.  The big teams, they’ll burn up 2 sets just in practice, that’s $5,000 - and the purses we get are $7,000, $8,000, $9000.  I’ve had major sponsorships, but this point and time I don’t.  And without major sponsorship, you can’t afford all the tires and equipment you need to compete with the major teams.”

Benning expressed concern about the future of the sport, that the 32-truck field will prevent so many small teams from competing that soon only big-budget and Cup development programs will run each race.

“The Truck Series is for up-and-coming drivers, and they need to limit the number of teams an owner can own. Because if they don’t, there won’t be a way for new teams to come in.  If it were up to me, there would be a limit of two teams per owner.  If you want to have more teams, then you should move up to Cup or XFINITY.”

The solution, says Benning, is to simply undo the 32-truck cap.

“Put it back the way it was 2 years ago.  Every driver that made all the attempts  - the top 25 or 27 teams that made all the attempts get provisionals. You know, if you didn’t make all the attempts you can’t get provisionals.”

Benning says he looks forward to returning to the Eldora track this July.  “I know I can win that race. It seems every year - that first year, I had nothing left because it was all banged up, the last two years I was very competitive in the main event, and this year I expect to be better.”  

“I would like to see the fans pushing to put the trucks back to a 36-truck starting field.  If the fans want to see more action, they need to tell NASCAR we need to have 36 trucks again in the starting field.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

How do we tell NASCAR to make the field bigger? What's the best way?