DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Drivers know three days of testing at Daytona International Speedway is necessary to prepare for next month's Daytona 500, but that doesn't mean it's exciting.
"I told Chip (Ganassi, car owner) it was like driving through the tunnel into the infield, driving back out, driving in, driving out, and doing that all day," Casey Mears said. "It's very boring."
That's why three years ago Dodge Motorsports decided to break up the monotony with an informal dinner for drivers and the media.
It's rare when drivers leave their handlers and sponsor commitments at home. It's rarer still when reporters leave their notepads and tape recorders behind. The dinner, held each Tuesday night during both test sessions, allows the drivers to relax and joke without fear of reading about it the next day.
Such gatherings were common 20 years ago when the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series gained a reputation for being an hands-on sport. That was before $10 million sponsorships, public relations firms and personal services contracts.
Half the teams that plan to compete in the Daytona 500 tested last week. The Dodge group that night included Brendan Gaughan, Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield and Jamie McMurray. This week's group included Ryan Newman, Rusty Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Mears.
The whole idea of the dinner, according to Dodge spokesman Ray Cooper, is for the drivers and reporters who cover them to enjoy an evening away from their environments. While there was some talk of racing, most of the conversation dealt with football, vacations, jokes and what everyone did during the off-season.
GORDON'S NEW 'DO: Jeff Gordon got a hair cut.
Much like a schoolboy with his summer crewcut, Gordon saved his hair within an eighth of an inch of being bald.
"The guy who cuts my hair came by my apartment and cut it the first time," he said. "I wanted it short in the off-season. I cut it myself the second time, and I missed a big spot. It's worth the money to do it right."
Gordon said he will let his hair grow during the 2004 season. Then he joked he may return in 2005 with something new - perhaps blond hair.
SPONSORSHIP WOES: Ultra Motorsports and driver Jimmy Spencer are one of many teams without sponsorship for the upcoming season. Spencer said his team plans to run in the Daytona 500, then races at Las Vegas and Atlanta before making further plans.
"After that, it will be a race-by-race deal," said car owner Jim Smith.
Jeff Burton has a one-race deal from cable network TNT for the Daytona 500, but after that it will operate under the possibility the team could fold without help. Dale Earnhardt Inc. and driver John Andretti only have plans for the Daytona 500, and Andretti said it's not likely the team will last much longer since it's too late to put together the team and equipment to run a full season.
Other teams looking for help are BAM Motorsports and driver Ken Schrader and A.J. Foyt Racing and driver Larry Foyt.
Teams that are out of business without sponsorship help include Travis Carter Motorsports and Brett Bodine Racing.