Friday, May 3, 2002
A writer's study
Pascoag, Rhode Island
Well, here it is nearly a third of the way through the 2002 season, and already enough has happened to fill another book. The most dramatic news, of course, has been Jack Roush's crash on his 60th birthday -- and the miraculous rescue and recovery that followed. The early worry was that Jack would die, and then the concern became lasting brain damage, but now the biggest question is when will he return to the racetrack. Amazing, truly amazing.
Not as amazing, but nearly as exciting and uplifting for Roush Racing fans, has been the dominance of the Cup team this year. Kurt Busch with his first win, and holding second in the point standings -- what a tear he is on! And yet he's matched by Matt Kenseth, who has two wins and holds third in the standings. And also by Mark Martin, who is in sixth, and so close to his first win since 2000 that he (and his fans) can all but taste it. True, Jeff is still struggling some -- but twelfth in the standings is hardly shabby, and it sure beats where he was a year ago at this time: lost in the cellar somewhere. One way or another, Jeff will turn it around. You can count on it.
The Roush Revival, as some are calling it, is so remarkable that we already are planning a second edition of MEN AND SPEED -- an edition that will include all or some of the 2002 season. Won't Jack's deal make for a great chapter, too.
And so, I have been keeping in touch with the drivers and jack, and will be attending several races, the next being the Coca Cola 600, which is the week the book will be officially be ``launched'' -- with TV and radio appearances, and signings, notably at Books A Million in Concord, N.C., right near Lowe's, the evening of Wednesday, May 22. Kurt and Matt will be there, and so will Jack, his health permitting.
I have recently talked by phone with everyone -- Jack right before his accident, the drivers over the past few weeks. Here's what they're saying about the 2002 season as it continues to unfold:
Is delighted at the season so far.
``Through all of last year, I had to be thinking in the dark corners of my mind: Is my process OK? Is our model OK? Is four teams too many? Can we really organize the efforts of this many people and get more out of it from a collective synergistic point of view than people who work more enthusiastically together in smaller groups?
``If I had another year that felt like last year, I'd have been for breaking this thing up and putting it under somebody else's leadership other than mine that could be able to fix things that I was not able to fix. I'm relieved that we're on track.''
Is excited with his new crew chief and crew.
``They're young, enthusiastic and really charged-up and excited. It's like plugging into an electrical socket or something!''
Mark reports that his cars are superior to less year, and the Roush engines have more power. ``I'm pleased. I think we have potential to still grow and get better. We have a really good team. Ben has been a lot of fun to work with. Feels real good!''
Is of course pleased to be in the thick of a championship hunt.
``I feel really good about it -- a big improvement from where we were last year for all of us,'' Matt said. So what's changed?
``Winston Cup racing is so hard that when you're off a little bit everybody is like, well what's wrong with them guys? It's so easy to run bad and it's so difficult to run good. It's just a bunch of little things.''
Among those Matt cited were superior engines – and also the one-engine rule. Matt said that last year, qualifying engines under the two-engine rule made less horsepower than race engines, and that put the Roush drivers at a disadvantage when making a race.
But the difference is not engines alone.
``Some of it is just also getting our cars better: figuring out the setups we need and just making the bodies and everything else on our cars a little bit better.''
Was still high from his win when we spoke.
``There's no drug that'll get you there. It's more than adrenaline -- it's more than just pure emotion. It's the most gratifying moment there ever can be!''
And part of the thrill for Kurt was the chance to celebrate with his mentor, Jack Roush.
``He was starting to give me heavy emotions when he was speaking at the press conference. The thick words that he was laying on were, I mean, just compliment after compliment. It really starts to hit you hard on the amount of risk he took... I knew that I could do it all along, but it was a matter of proving it -- and he said that he never had a doubt. He knew from Day One when we raced that Truck that he needed me in the Winston Cup position and it was just a matter of time before the people got developed around me, so to speak.''
Is not happy with 12th, and thinks despite the progress in the second half of last year, they were lulled into complacency.
``We never really showed the kick-ass kind of speed that you gotta have. We probably should have been a little more critical of ourselves and understood that we had some gains to make... Frank and I just aren't doing a good job. The direction we're headed in hasn't gotten us the results.''
And thus, Jeff has undertaken a complete review of the 99 program, looking at the wind tunnels results, scrutinizing the operations of the 6, 17 and 97. ``It's a pretty exhaustive process.''
Bottom line for Jeff: ``We've never been the worst Roush team. It's never happened to us before and it's not going over very well with me.''
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