Racing Roundup: F1, NASCAR not particularly welcoming

Larson, Herta best stay put, Sir Frank Williams dies and all the week’s news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald November 29, 2021

Some observers, me among them, have suggested there are several North American drivers ready for Formula One. They are IndyCar driver Colton Herta and NASCAR superstar Kyle Larson. I’m particularly bullish on Larson; others think Herta is the cat’s meow and who am I to argue?

Larson reportedly will attend an F1 race either this week in Saudi Arabia or the following weekend in Abu Dhabi. Maybe both. He’s going as a guest of owner Gene Haas and the Haas F1 team and this is because Tony Stewart, who’s Haas’s partner in NASCAR Cup racing, has been promoting Larson as “the best race driver I’ve ever seen.” For Stewart to say that is high praise indeed because he’s watched and raced against the very best of the modern generation of drivers.

Now, cast your mind back to the first paragraph when I said Herta and Larson were ready for F1. I stand by this but, on reflection, I don’t think it would be a good idea. Why? Because regardless how good one or the other may be, they wouldn’t be allowed to succeed. No “outsider” can expect to go into any modern racing series and beat the regulars right off the bat. It just won’t happen.

Let’s take Michael Andretti, for example. In 1993, he signed a contract to race for McLaren and by the third race he’d realized he’d made a horrible mistake. You see, Formula One is an Old Boys’ Club and you have to pay your dues and climb the ladder their way or they’ll just bring you down. Whether they like to admit it or not, this is the way it is in NASCAR, too.

Once upon a time, racing cars – even the ones at the top of the heap, like the F1 and Indy cars – were simple machines. Drivers could race by the seat of their pants. If there was a problem, they could pit and tell the chief mechanic what was the matter and how to fix it.  Not any more. Now the cars are computers programmed by aeronautical engineers and a “3” setting instead of a “2” can mean the difference between the car going like a rocket or stumbling like a pig.

So Michael arrives in Europe as this big-shot CART driver from the U.S., son of world champion Mario (the name did it for him, plus he was born in Italy) and he finds out that McLaren has three cars – one for him and one for his teammate, Ayrton Senna, plus a spare – and all are set up for Senna. It was impossible for Michael to race the car the way Senna did. Early in his short F1 career, Michael was left on the grid when the lights went out. Nobody told him how to arm the anti-stall technology and guess what happened? Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to Europe to do a story and he wrote a hatchet job, not about Michael but about his first wife who liked to wear dresses and pantsuits made up to look like checkered flags. After nine races of this kind of nonsense – I wrote a column in the Globe and Mail as a result of an interview I had about this with Mario at the Molson Indy – Michael said he would do one more race and then retire from F1. Ron Dennis told the boys on the team to knock it off and set up the car the way Michael liked to drive it and he finished third in the Italian Grand Prix. But that was only because he was leaving.

There is no doubt Michael Andretti was sabotaged. Larson and Herta would have to fight the same battles.

Now, before anybody says, “Whoa, what about Jacques Villeneuve?” there were two things at play there. No. 1, his name was magic because of his father. No. 2, Bernie Ecclestone knew F1 needed a star. Nigel Mansell had retired and F1 didn’t have anybody to take his place. Yes, there were lots of good drivers but nobody with charisma and talent rolled into one. Bernie made a deal with Frank Williams to hire Jacques, who nearly won his first race and the world championship in his first year. Jacques had talent but Williams was the dominant team in F1 then and it was a perfect combination.

And then there was Scott Speed. Who was Scott Speed? Nobody heard of him before and nobody has heard of him since, so he doesn’t count.

Speaking of NASCAR – which we weren’t, but I said we would because they don’t cotton to strangers there, either – we have the strange story of Danica Patrick. She won a race in IndyCar and was getting lots more attention than any of the NASCAR drivers of the day so NASCAR, naturally, wanted her. They built her up to be a female Richard Petty. In her first race, she won the pole at Daytona (which was the reverse of sabotage; translation – she got help) and finished eighth in the race when she went from second coming out of Turn 4 to being overwhelmed by the oval-track plate racers charging from behind.

But then the boys in the shop said, ‘Okay, the bosses have had their fun; time to put this broad in her place.” And they killed her. I have several years of media releases from her team and the pattern was unmistakeable: she would qualify around 20th and the race would start, and she would sink like a stone. Every race, the release would say, shortly after the start, “Driver complaining of handling.” Over the course of the race, the crew would “work to improve the handling” and she would wind up back between 15th and 20th, which was pretty much where she started. It happened all the time, at just about every race.

I know the other drivers didn’t like her. Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch – everyone I asked used the same phrase: “marketing machine,” as in “She’s a marketing machine,” but not much else. Petty even went so far as to say that the only way she’d win a NASCAR Cup race was if “everybody else stayed home,” as if racers like Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves and the rest of the IndyCar drivers she beat that time in Japan were nothing more than chopped liver.

So enjoy the Paddock Club in F1, Mr. Larson, and imagine what it would be like to drive on that circuit. You too, Mr. Herta. And then both of you stay home and wow the crowds on this side off the ocean. Trust me, you don’t need the aggravation.

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Sir Frank Williams, one of the original F1 team owners, along with Bernie Ecclestone, Eddie Jordan, Enzo Ferrari, Ron Dennis and one or two others, died Sunday at age 79. An amazing man, he spent the last 35 years of his life in a wheelchair after an accident on the way to the airport in the south of France (the same area where Princess Grace of Monaco crashed to her death). A hand-to-mouth racer in the 1960s, he came into some money when he sold his team to Canadian Walter Wolf but wasn’t really successful again until he joined the legendary Patrick Head to form Williams Grand Prix Engineering. The rest is history. For a full obituary, please click here.

Remembering Sir Frank Williams, 1942-2021 | RACER

Toronto’s Nicholas Latifi, who drives for Williams F1, which has since been sold to Dorilton Capital, Tweeted: “RIP, Sir Frank Williams. Such sad news. A huge loss for our sport and our team. It’s been an honour to represent your name on the world stage and we will continue to push hard to take the team back up the grid.”

Paul B. Cooke of Oakville, who was vice-president of ASN Canada and Clerk of the Course of the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, knew Sir Frank for many years. He emailed the following to me Sunday evening:

“I met Sir Frank in 1969 when he came to Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) with the late driver, Piers Courage. Frank was operating on a shoestring.  There was himself, a mechanic whose name I do not recall and his driver, Piers Courage.  A well-used Brabham F1 car, a driver, a mechanic and not much in the way of tools, let alone spare parts.

“As the event unfolded, they had a lot of car problems (mission-disabling) and sought help from the organizers who suggested that they get hold of me. We arranged transport back to our shop in Scarborough and spent the evening and through the night fixing a variety of ailments. The next day, Piers qualified P10 but failed to finish the race because of a fuel leak. I remember Frank then as a consummate professional, respectful of everyone and appreciative of assistance.

“Fast forward to a Montreal F1 event a few years after Frank’s severe car accident which left him confined to a wheelchair. I was Clerk of the Course.  Frank’s driver had broken a rule and the team was notified.  Frank asked to see the Clerk of the Course and it was agreed.  Frank was carried in his wheelchair by two assistants, whose forearms were bigger than my thighs, up the six flights of stairs to Race Control.  He sat with me discussing his plight, eventually accepting that the team was in the wrong. As he was leaving with his helpers, he quipped that we should install an elevator to which I replied that it was in the plans but in the meantime, his drivers best behave.  He laughed as we shook hands.  Again, a perfect gentleman.

“Frank was a role model in Formula 1, He is gone but the differences he made are permanent. Well played, Frank.  RIP.”

A passing of note took place last week with the death of Thomas (Garnet) Williamson. A fan of fine boats and auto racing, he supported the supermodified career of his son Kenny and sponsored other cars raced by the likes of Warren Coniam. Among those who attended a reception was now-retired racer Gary Morton (left, above, with Ken Williamson). While Ken is out of the sport (he’s an executive of Walmart with responsibility for stores in Pennsylvania and – lucky stiff – a resident of Mechanicsburg, home of Williams Grove Speedway), Gary prepares supers and sprint cars for Dave McKnight Jr. of Brampton. Garnet was a character, however. Once we were in Winchester, Ind., for a race there (Gary said the place reeked of history) but got rained out. I took Garnet into Indianapolis for dinner at what I consider the greatest steakhouse in the world, St. Elmo’s. “The steak is good, but I know a better place,” said Garnet. So we got back to Toronto and he took me to the Tom Jones steakhouse beside the King Edward Hotel downtown. Pretty good, too. Another time, we flew to Phoenix to go racing. As I was want to do in those days, I fell instantly in love with one of the air hostesses. “I’ll get her phone number for you,” Garnet said, which he did. After a few more pops, we landed but not before Garnet had set the date for our wedding and settled on the names of our first two children. What a guy. RIP.

I never thought it would happen, but Tony Stewart got married on the weekend. Top fuel driver Leah Pritchett was the bride. The photo at the bottom of this column was taken by Marco Andretti. I wonder if our James Hinchcliffe was there? The Mayor is tight with both Tony and Marco.

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I can’t believe I am reporting this, either. Kyle Larson, who won the NASCAR Cup championship as well as about 100 sprint car races this year, could only finish fourth in the 98-lap Turkey Night Grand Prix for USAC National Midgets, held this year at Ventura Speedway in California. California driver Logan Seavey was the winner. Of note: the front row for the feature was made up of two women. Kaylee Bryson was on pole and Taylor Reime was second fastest, Bryson eventually finished fifth behind Larson and Reimer came home eighth in the 28-car field.

Finally, REV TV (which I can’t get; thanks Rogers) will be airing live coverage for CSN Collision Centre’s Hope for the Holidays charity auction from the Hagerty Garage and Social facility. Live coverage will begin Tuesday Nov. 30th at 8 p.m. ET on both REV TV and online at Building off last year’s success of raising more than $95,000 for Make-A-Wish Canada, this year’s event will be hosted by IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. The online auction is open to the public for bidding for one week and will feature amazing items including electronics, unique experiences, destination packages, and sports memorabilia.

“REV TV is delighted to be able to work with CSN Collision Centres on such a worthy and humbling charity like Make-A-Wish Canada,” said Mike Garrow, president of REV TV. “We look forward to an exciting and memorable night that will help raise funds for wish children and their families.”