State racing fans can root for homegrown talent leading Hornish team

Racing fans living in Pennsylvania rank as some of the most loyal in motorsports, with both anecdotal and empirical evidence to confirm their support of stock-car racing.

For example, a quick glimpse at NASCAR Scene, the weekly publication that focuses exclusively on the Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series and Craftsman Truck Series, shows regular feedback from our friends and neighbors. Hardly a week goes by without at least one letter to the editor from someone with a Pennsylvania address.

Ticket statistics from NASCAR tracks back up that somewhat cautionary example. According to those stats, people from Pennsylvania attend more races at more different Sprint Cup Series tracks than residents of any other state — even North Carolina.Apparently, Pennsylvania racing fans, like Penn State football fans, travel well.Now, whether those fans are watching in person or on TV, whether they’re complaining or second guessing in a letter, they’ll have another homegrown talent to support.

Pittsburgh native Travis Geisler was named crew chief of the No. 77 Dodge driven by Sam Hornish Jr. this week. He’ll begin his career in that role Saturday night in Tennessee with the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Geisler, 27, was introduced to race tracks at a young age, following his father, Lynn Geisler, each week as he racked up numerous top finishes and track championships in dirt late model races throughout western Pennsylvania. The younger Geisler even crafted his own success on the track, but he was more interested in engineering than driving.

He earned a mechanical engineering degree from Vanderbilt University (while balancing many weekends back home still racing) and eventually joined Robert Yates Racing as an engineer. He moved from Yates to Penske in November 2006 and this week earned one of the most high-profile positions in motorsports — crew chief for a Sprint Cup team.“Travis is another example of our willingness to promote from within,” Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said. “His depth of knowledge as a racer and engineer, as well as his proven ability to work with both driver and crews, will be a great addition to the entire Mobil 1 team.”

In fact, Geisler’s people skills and pure-out smarts constitute a potentially potent combination. Any expectation that he’ll immediately lead the team to Victory Lane — especially this weekend — might be unfounded.

Still, eventual success seems possible because he’s grounded in racing with his background doing dirty work and little jobs for his team on short tracks throughout the region. That type of work ethic earns respect among others on a race team, and Geisler backs up his blue-color street cred with the type of savvy necessary to lead a team.While almost all fans root for a specific Cup Series driver, Geisler would be a crew chief worth cheering, too.Bainey business

Philipsburg’s Tim Bainey Jr. turned in a solid effort Wednesday in the USAR Hooters ProCup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.Bainey’s No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine started 26th in a 40-car field that included both Northern and Southern Division teams. He worked his way up, finishing 13th, one lap down to winner Caleb Holman on the famed high-bank oval. The solid finish moved Bainey up a spot to ninth in the Northern Division season standings.

The race will be televised at 4 p.m. on Sept. 4 on the VERSUS cable network.

Scouting Bristol

Last season’s second Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a nighttime event long marked as a fan favorite because of the high speeds of the high-banked half mile (and the accompanying accidents and driver emotions), was regarded by some as boring because it produced mostly nose-to-tail action and few fender benders.

There were nine cautions, about the normal number at the track, but five of those were single-car spins, with three of those by one driver.For a track that had built its reputation on, and sold many tickets because of, aggressive, high-speed action under the lights, it was a stark change of style. It’s a style that might get repeated again Saturday night because NASCAR’s improved car and a revamped surface at the track have combined to slightly change what constitutes racing at the speedway.

Many drivers seem to appreciate the change, but it’s the fans who buy tickets that matter. While a few fans might complain about fewer accidents and cautions, the action at the big concrete cereal bowl probably remains attractive enough to keep the race as one of the series’ most popular events.

Plus, it would only take a little bobble by one driver (or a nudge from another) in the 43-car field to unleash a Bristol-worth train wreck that would again cement the track’s reputation.

State sprinter

State College dirt track driver Billy Johns, who sits sixth in the 360 sprint division standings at Williams Grove Speedway, raced against three Sprint Cup Series stars and fared well in a special event at the speedway earlier this week.

Two-time NASCAR champ Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Dave Blaney were part of the field for the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 360 Challenge, which benefited the Kasey Kahne Foundation.

Race winner Jason Johnson earned a $56,000 payday with his victory ($6,000 for the race and a $50,000 bonus for winning his second race in the Challenge).

Among the NASCAR drivers, Stewart finished fifth, Kahne ninth and Blaney 23rd. Johns put together a steady race and finished 14th.Noting NASCAR

u Yes, Penske Racing is the same organization that previously utilized State College native Troy Raker as an interim crew chief for its No. 12 Dodge. He remains an engineer for that team.

u For the most part Juan Pablo Montoya has been a successful addition to the Chip Ganassi Racing stable of drivers, but he’ll need to find another sponsor for his No. 42 Dodge in 2009. Texaco/Havoline has announced it will not return next season.

Steve Sampsell writes about racing for the Centre Daily Times. He may be contacted at cdtrace@hotmail with comments, results and story ideas.