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A Fundamental Distinction – NASCAR and The Ongoing Flag Protests

(Gregory Shamus/2014 Getty Images)

In the wake of reading many of President Trump's tweets I find myself outraged, or disappointed, or embarrassed, or knowing more fuel has been added to a growing fire that seems to be threatening national unity from these days on.

Such was the case with one specific example of the president's tweets among the tantrum of outbursts he directed at sporting events and the protests that took place at these events over the weekend:

So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!”

The president, as he often does, is either displaying ignorance of how things work or is willfully distorting the depiction of a situation in the hopes of using it to his benefit – not to mention the stereotyping of all NASCAR fans as inevitably being members of the Trump base.

The national anthem plays at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, July 2017. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

To his great credit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was bold enough to quickly respond to the president with a tweet of his own, referencing President John F. Kennedy:

All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests -
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable-JFK”

To be honest, Earnhardt is in a position where he can afford to speak out. With his competitive career coming to an end and his popularity fundamentally established, the risk to his brand is smaller. For everyone else in NASCAR, participation in the sport is governed by economic realities.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the September 24 race in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) 

The 32 teams of the National Football League are generally owned by a single person, with the teams operating under the league's rules and benefiting from financial structures designed to generate profits to the league and team ownership.

NASCAR presents a totally different operating structure. From NASCAR's inception more than five decades ago, the teams that compete at events are independent entities. They are responsible for their own operating costs, which – whether it be local short track drivers or top competitors racing on the longest superspeedways – means generation of sponsorship income is the lifeblood of the sport.

The absence of any organized protest at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend was not a thumbing-of-the-nose at the NFL athletes who exercised their rights to protest, nor was it an angry disagreement with the increasingly frank criticism of President Trump's behavior and domestic policies from players in the NBA.

Rather, it boils down to a simple, age-old racing rule: don't piss off the sponsors. Until the unimaginable day comes when that rule becomes insignificant, expect business-as-usual among everyone involved in NASCAR.

The 260 MPH Street Car

Bugatti's Veyron blew fresh winds of performance into the rarefied air of the supercar class upon its release in 2005. But now the manufacturer has gone above and beyond with the astonishing new Chiron.

The Bugatti Chiron, as seen in a promotional video.

To test drive this latest mind-bending definition of “supercar,” Bugatti turned to Juan Pablo Montoya. Of course, Montoya is no stranger to going fast. A winner of races in vehicles ranging from NASCAR stock cars to Formula 1 creations, Montoya's trophy shelf bulges with hardware collected at elite events including the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the Grand Prix of Monaco. But despite all of that imposing experience, Montoya had barely eked past 250 mph in an Indy car to set his personal speed record – until he slipped behind the wheel of a certain French street car last month.

Juan Pablo Montoya can expect quicker trips to his local Wawa if he continues to have a Chiron at his disposal.
Montoya deployed the Chiron's four sequential turbos to propel himself to a cruising speed of 260 mph. Perhaps even more impressive, Montoya set a new record for zero-to-400 km/h-to-zero in under 42 seconds. Yes, that's from a standing start to 249 mph and back to zero in just over half a minute. The Chiron will haul itself from zero to 60 mph in just over two seconds, but it can stop almost as quickly as it accelerates.

A beautifully-shot, dramatic video of Montoya's feat while driving the Chiron can be seen here:

Clearly, this latest dream release from Bugatti is setting new standards. And it's so affordable! The Chiron will sell for less than $3 million. Delivered.

Murray Lerner: The Right Place at the Right Time

The work of Murray Lerner, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, is familiar to almost all fans of Jimi Hendrix, even if his name does not instantly ring bells of recognition.

Murray Lerner, documentarian of rock history.

Through the success of his film about the Newport Folk Festival titled Festival, Lerner was brought on board to document the preparation and staging of the 1970 Isle of Wight rock festival.

The festival drew a larger crowd than Woodstock, which had taken place a year earlier. But as might be expected when 600,000 people descend on a small island off the coast of England, problems were bound to crop up. Lerner's Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival offers a fascinating account of the festival, capturing everything from Joni Mitchell's on-stage meltdown to mercurial festival staff member Rikki Farr's high-strung dealings with just about everyone he came in contact with.

Fortunately for rock history, Lerner armed his small crew with plenty of film. As a result, Lerner's name is associated with quite the array of titles, all rooted in that single late summer weekend in 1970: Listening To You: The Who At The Isle Of Wight Festival, Nothing is Easy: Jethro Tull at the Isle of Wight, Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, The Birth Of A Band: Emerson,Lake & Palmer Isle of Wight 1970, The Moody Blues: Threshold of a Dream: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970, Leonard Cohen: Live At The Isle of Wight 1970, Taste: What's Going On Live At The Isle of Wight 1970.

Jimi Hendrix on stage at Isle of Wight. To the right of Jimi's Stratocaster headstock Hendrix road crew member Howard Parker, aka "H," observes the troubled set.

Hendrix fans first saw Lerner's documentation of Jimi's performance excerpted on VHS and LaserDisc titles like Jimi Hendrix: The Great Pop Festivals and Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight. But it wasn't until the 2002 release of Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight that an accurate assessment of Jimi's full set could be made. The fascinating documentary allows viewers to watch as Jimi struggles his way through one of his longest sets ever, complicated by repeated technical difficulties ranging from recalcitrant effects pedals to festival security walkie-talkie conversations being picked up by the amplification chain and broadcast to the audience. As a Hendrix performance, Lerner's film offers moments of typical Jimi brilliance rising above the shambles.

A screen image from the film trailer depicts an aerial view of the 600,000 people gathered in the summer of 1970.

When Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight was released, Murray Lerner appeared at Philadelphia's Prince Theater for a screening of his new film. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk to him about Hendrix's set and the festival experience in general. He was thoughtful and humble, characteristics that no doubt contributed to his ability to capture those critical moments that make so many of his films stand out.

Variety obituary of Murray Lerner:

Video interview with Murray Lerner:

Finding Lonnie Youngblood to Talk Jimi Hendrix in a Pre-Google World

I was recently added to a Jimi Hendrix online group, and looking at the list of members I was startled to see how many were associates of or had crossed paths with Jimi himself.

I reminded me of my efforts – undertaken more than two decades ago – to find and interview Lonnie Youngblood. Lonnie's name was linked to Jimi's through a number of releases documenting – many might say exploiting – early studio sessions the two men had shared in New York City.

Just one of the many albums from the 1970s and 1980s linking Lonnie Youngblood and Jimi Hendrix. More recently, Youngblood appears on People, Hell and Angels and Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Jimi Hendrix

Like many musicians of the early to mid 1960s, Youngblood had little control over his own recordings. And once Hendrix attained stardom, the Youngblood tapes on which Hendrix had played were released on an avalanche of albums and later CDs.

Though I'd been traveling in Hendrix realms since first seeing Jimi play in 1969, I couldn't recall ever reading an in-depth interview with Lonnie. So, being curious about the relationship between Lonnie and Jimi and the circumstances of their recordings, I decided to find Lonnie and tell his story.

Now, in 2017, it would probably take about ten minutes to track down anyone. But back in the mid-1990s – pre-Google, and do you remember Netscape Navigator? - it was considerably more challenging. After exhaustively following leads, I found Lonnie's name associated with a music event that had recently taken place in Newark. After contacting the promoters of that gig, it opened up a path that eventually led to Lonnie's phone number.

Lonnie Youngblood at one of our interview sessions in 1996, outside the landmark Harlem destination Sylvia's.

We met in Harlem several times, and Lonnie's story was fascinating, not even taking his association with Jimi Hendrix into account. It was the tale of a musician working in the trenches, determined to make it.

If you don't know much about Lonnie Youngblood or that era of music, please take some time to follow this link to the articles page of my website and read the conversation with Lonnie:

Increments in Stealth

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness several passes over Delaware's Dover Air Force Base made by a B-2 Spirit, more commonly known as the Stealth Bomber. The aircraft's presence was certainly a highlight of the Thunder Over Dover airshow.

The Northrop Grumman B-2 "Spirit of California" over Delaware, August 26, 2017.

I have always been fascinated by the realm of secret aircraft development, to the extent of climbing Nevada's Tikaboo Peak so I could see the notorious Area 51 with my own eyes – while creating a promotional video for my band at the time, Third Stone Invasion. I've also read a number of books about the famed Lockheed Skunk Works, where revolutionary planes like the SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk were developed in need-to-know secrecy.

Commemorative artwork depicting the top-secret glories of the Skunk Works' past.

The problem with those books is that they all tend to feature the radical angles of the F-117 on their covers. Understandable, as the F-117 stealth attack aircraft is one of the wildest-looking planes to ever fly. But state of the art? Consider that the F-117 has been retired from service for almost a decade.

As the ominous B-2 flew over my head the other day, I couldn't help but wonder, “What's next?” After all, this specific aircraft was the Spirit of California, the second B-2 to enter into service. That happened almost 25 years ago.

It had been some time since I'd looked into developments in this realm, so spurred on by my B-2 encounter I wanted to find out if there was speculation about military aviation being on the verge of wild, radically intimidating new designs.

Screen grab from a 2014 promotional video created by Lockheed to call attention to Skunk Works activities.

What I found was evidence of highly-advanced but incremental progress. The emergence of the F-117 after growing familiar with the planes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s was startling. But a similar aesthetic shock does not seem to be in store. Lockheed, now publicly promoting its Skunk Works with its very own website - Click here to visit Skunk Works website - presents a video in which the concept of “collaborative systems” is stressed, combining manned and unmanned aircraft. Several of the concepts seen in the video call to mind the spooky shape of the B-2.

Artist conception of the B-21 Raider, with the "21" reflecting the 21st Century.

As for the B-2 itself, its successor is to be the B-21 Raider, both aircraft built by Northrop Grumman. The B-21 is expected to enter into service in 2025, while B-2s will continue to be flown well beyond that date.

Surely there are amazing technologies lurking beneath the skin of the B-21, but what's most interesting on the surface is how much it looks like the B-2. It seems that in this case, they got it right the first time.

An Unwelcome Truth

Disappointing finishes have become all too common for NASCAR's most popular driver.

If you follow motorsports even casually, no doubt you're at least well aware of – if not yet sick of hearing about – the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Junior in the wake of his concussion-plagued 2016 season.

I don't fault Dale Jr. for wanting to get out the car with his head intact. And I'm sure NASCAR, while displeased upon receiving the news, was grateful for a full season of retirement-based media attention and marketing opportunities – financially lucrative aspects not bestowed upon the powers that be in F1 when champ Nico Rosberg essentially announced, “I'm outta here – right now!” after the 2016 campaign went his way.

But the official Dale Jr. lovefest recently took a slight detour after Kevin Harvick, a real racer who clawed his way up the NASCAR ranks, made his feelings known about Dale Jr.'s career, one that has averaged just over a single win per season. Harvick said on his Sirius XM radio show that Earnhardt “hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver. When you look at other sports – you look at basketball and you look at football and you look at their most popular (athletes), they’re also right on the top of the list as their most successful (athletes).
So for me I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach these places that none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that.”
I had no problem with Harvick's comments, and think the outraged backlash over his remarks glosses over the facts. Harvick was referring to game changers like Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan. Dale Jr. seems like a super-nice guy, but if you're going to measure a career on bottom-line numbers, this member of the Earnhardt family ranks as mediocre in the pantheon of great drivers. He's always had top equipment, but not top results. And this farewell season has been particularly awful: he limped home to a 23rd place finish this weekend at Bristol, contributing to a season-to-date average finish of 21.7.

Dale Jr. (right) claiming one of his 14 popularity awards. Bill Elliott still holds the record with 16.

It's all just more proof that the NASCAR title of most popular driver certainly does not equate to performance. After all, before Dale's umpteen years with the title, there were a number of years when Bill Elliott was most popular while ending a career that was fairly far removed from the glory days of “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.” In fact, it was nine years between Elliott's last win and his last race, many moons that were far from awesome.

Dale announced that he found Harvick's comments to be “hurtful.” Of course, there was a time when such hurt would have been addressed in a more physical manner, out behind the haulers in the garage area. Ah, but those days – like the memories of the career of Dale Earnhardt Senior – are simply fading deeper and deeper into the mists of time.

Charting Out the Third Stone

With today marking the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 2, I was reminded of the vaguely controversial decision at the time to include a detailed stellar map of exactly where our planet is located.

How to find the third stone...

Of course, the hope was that friendly aliens might listen to the gold albums of earthly music also stowed aboard Voyager 2 and its sister craft Voyager 1, decide we sounded like a pretty cool civilization, and fly on over for an in-person greeting. Other people, however, feared that this map would lead directly to an alien invasion, brought upon ourselves thanks to our friendly outreach.

Jimi's map was sound.

Jimi Hendrix had already addressed the matter on his debut album, Are You Experienced, via the song "3rd Stone From the Sun." And walking in Jimi's footsteps – as almost all guitarists do – I once had the opportunity to interpret this amazing song.

Third Stone Invasion promo photo, J-Bird Records.

In 1998, my metal band, Third Stone Invasion, were label mates with The Who's John Entwistle and Billy Squier on J-Bird Records, a label that had a brilliant vision to market via the Internet - about two years too early. As a result, our concept album about the alien intervention on Earth sold terribly but got great reviews. I guess if you get favorably compared to Sabbath and Led Zep it's at least an artistic success.

The CD ended with one of my proudest musical moments, this cover of Jimi's "3rd Stone From the Sun." Jimi's song depicts an alien visiting Earth and deciding to do away with annoyances like "surf music" - though the visitor does find a "cackling hen" to be interesting (this set-up takes up roughly the first 1:20, at which point the serious sounds kick in).

Guitarist Rick Farnkopf prepares to answer the mixing call: All hands on the desk!

We mixed this on-the-fly in the old-fashioned, pre-mixing-automation manner - engineer Rick Statkus, my co-guitarist Rick Farnkopf, and yours truly all reaching around each other to ride the faders on 24 tracks at once. It was a complex mix and putting it together was a lot of fun - but exhausting! I've been asked what makes the alien ship landing and takeoff sounds at the track's inception? Pulsing away under effects maestro Mitchell Mercurio's recitation of Jimi's words is simply a chain of guitar effects (including a Roger Mayer Voodoo-Vibe) with no instrument input, being run through a fully-flat-out 5150 amplifier half-stack. Even with no guitar in that effect chain, it was about loud enough to kill ya... It's heard again at the end under the words of Ronald Reagan briefly mentioning aliens, and then it's up from the skies, so to speak. Enjoy!

Click below to listen: