• NASCAR Sunday

Racing Roundup: IndyCar sucked in by NASCAR – again 

Latifi sounded unhappy Sunday, ROVAL leaves much to be desired, and all the news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald October 13, 2020
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Welcome to the Monday racing roundup on Tuesday. And because it’s Tuesday, we’ll just publish Notebook Jottings about all the racing that took place this weekend, because it’s sure not news by now. But first, the Sermon.

On Aug. 6, 1994, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series cars got the green flag to start the first Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I sat in front of my TV and when it happened, I said: “That expletive deleted expletive deleted.”

That “expletive deleted” times two was Tony George, chairman of the board of IMS, who had made an agreement with NASCAR to run a stock car race at the Speedway that, until that moment, had been the sole preserve of the Indy cars that got their name from that hallowed ground.

After calling him more names, I said to my wife: “You watch. NASCAR talked that nitwit into letting it into the inner sanctum and the war is officially on, whether people realize it or not. NASCAR is out to kill Indy car racing and this is the first shot. NASCAR is not looking to take over Indy car racing, it wants to eliminate it.”

Egged on by NASCAR executives and, some say, Bernie Ecclestone, Tony George then spent much of his family’s fortune perpetuating a civil war that pitted his Indy Racing League against, first, CART and then the Champ Car World Series. This could have gone on forever – or as long as auto racing is around – except the partners who owned Champ Car had a falling out and one of them went to George to throw in the towel.

But the damage had been done. After that, with some exceptions, IndyCar races struggled to attract an audience at both the circuits/speedways and on television. The series was the butt of jokes: question – what time does the IndyCar race get the green flag? Answer – what time can you be here?

The schedule was never the same two years in a row. Alleged “fans” would beg the series to include oval-track races on the schedule and then not show up to watch them. Races like the Molson/Honda Indy Toronto that once upon a time would attract 70,000 real people on race day would struggle to attract 30,000. If it wasn’t for multi-car teams owned and operated by fans like Roger Penske, Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi, fields of 12 or fewer would be the norm.

NASCAR, meantime, signed a series of monster TV contracts and had stable funding, stable schedules and 40 cars at every race. Life was good. The big stockers were No. 1 in the auto racing world in North America and No. 2, after F1, in the world. Some observers even went so far as to write that NASCAR was gearing up to challenge NFL football as the most popular spectator sport on the continent.

But that didn’t happen. NASCAR’s momentum stalled and now it’s up to its old tricks again of doing all it can to stamp out the competition.

It agreed, for instance, to a twin-bill, a double feature – the Cup series with the IndyCar series – on the road course at Indianapolis next August. If COVID has died down by then, it will be a good payday for Roger Penske. But otherwise, this spells disaster for IndyCar. Why?

First, IndyCar will race Saturday and NASCAR will race Sunday. NASCAR will be seen to be the headliner with the IndyCars racing in support. It should have been the other way around – although perhaps NASCAR wouldn’t have agreed to the race if they weren’t No. 1.  Second, it is a good bet that the IndyCar race won’t be any more exciting than the stock car race. All those guys in the Cup series can race just about as well on road courses as the open wheel drivers. So the Indy twin bill is a win-win for NASCAR and a potential disaster for IndyCar.

Then, when IndyCar made its 2021 schedule public, there were – as usual – serious changes. NASCAR used its mountain of money to land a race at Circuit of the Americas in Texas, which dropped the IndyCar race. I would suggest it was a condition of the agreement that the IndyCar race be jettisoned but I can’t say that because I don’t know for sure. However, COTA is either for sale or flirting with bankruptcy, so why not run three races there (NASCAR, IndyCar and F1)? In the end, chalk up another win for the stock cars. But it gets worse.

IndyCar has been fighting to hold onto the few oval tracks remaining on its schedule and NASCAR isn’t doing much at all to help. In fact, it eliminated two of them in one fell swoop. IndyCar had a three-year contract to race at Richmond, which NASCAR owns, and while COVID led to the 2020 race being cancelled, it was NASCAR that pulled the plug on the one scheduled for 2021. Then it served notice that it would stop operating the oval in Iowa, much like it did with the speedway in Nazareth, Pa. Penske had rented Iowa for an IndyCar double-header this year and when negotiations started for 2021, tried for the same deal. Suddenly, the rent went way up and an offer to buy the place brought an out-of-this world listing price. Penske has money, but not that much money.

So IndyCar welcomes NASCAR into the Speedway with open arms while NASCAR is busy stealing a glamorous road race right out from under IndyCar’s nose. And they killed three IndyCar oval races for good measure.

Look, this is business. It’s the way it goes. I’m not blaming NASCAR for any of this. But I do get cross with people who should know better when they hop into bed with that behemoth. Those NASCAR folks might seem like the nicest people in the world but when push comes to shove, they’re in it to win it and if the only way to do that is to pulverize the opposition, so be it.

I love IndyCar racing, but I fear for its future. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

FORMULA ONE 

Okay, Lewis Hamilton won his 91st world championship Grand Prix at the Eifel GP Sunday, tying Michael Schumacher for most wins in F1, with Max Verstappensecond and Daniel Ricciardo third. Mick Schumacher presented Lewis with one of his father’s race helmets, which I thought was a nice touch but a race early. Don’t you usually congratulate a guy when he sets a record? Anyway, Mick will be in F1 next year, likely with Kimi Raikkonen at Alfa Romeo.

Everybody’s been saying that Raikkonen has an option for a third year at Alfa but Kimi said on TV Sunday that he hasn’t signed the option because there’s no option to sign, that there’s nothing after this season. I would still bet they will keep him around to school Mick, who will make it into F1 primarily because of his name but will need some help learning to drive and race in the big league. What will happen to Antonio Giovinazzi is anybody’s guess. I think he’s got great talent and deserves a better car but he’s had two years in the big league and doesn’t have much to show for it so could be looking at a future in sports cars.

The TV people were making a big deal about how well Sergio Perez was driving for Racing Point, considering they are dropping him at the end of the season. He finished fourth Sunday, helping the team in its quest to finish third – best of the rest – in the Constructor’s Championship. Look, these guys are professional drivers. They have their pride. They will work their butts off if they are in a car. It’s what they are being paid to do this year; next year will look after itself. It’s like Ricciardo at Renault. He is moving to McLaren next year. He finished on the podium for Renault at the Eifel round. Renault is the team paying him millions to drive their race car this year. He is doing his absolute best, as a result. So is Perez. It should not come as any surprise.

NASCAR Sunday

Speaking of doing his absolute best, Nico Hulkenberg was called to replace ourLance Stroll, who was ill (not COVID, the team says) and drove his Racing Point car to eighth place. Yet again, the commentators were talking about Hulkenberg “deserving” a place in F1 next year, which I don’t get. He has done a good job filling in at Racing Point this season but he has not scored a podium and in 179 starts in his F1 career in total he has yet to finish either first, second or third. That’s not good enough. Same with Conor Daly in IndyCar. Another really nice guy who hasn’t done much of anything. People say he deserves a place on the gird and I say, “Why?”

For the first time since I (and other Canadian racing writers) have been interviewing our Nicholas Latifi after Grand Prix races, I honestly don’t think he looked very happy on Sunday. The theme was how had he done in the race (he started 19th and finished 14th), and this is what he said:

“There wasn’t one standout thing that was wrong with the car – we know what its strengths are, what its weaknesses are. We were in the window but we were missing a lot of pace compared to the cars that we normally want to fight with – the Haas’ and the Alfa Romeos.

“I did my best. I had some racy moments, particularly with Kvyat in the last five or six laps. That was fun; I enjoyed that. But I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this race. It was probably a step back when compared to the previous ones.

“It was a lack of pace. We know where the car’s weak. In some of the big braking areas, I was losing a lot. It’s not as if I feel like we got the setup on the car wrong, or the car was not in the right window. I think for our car, for how it was this weekend, it was just slow.

I was pushing as hard as I could but it was not enough. We’ll have to analyze why.”

For anyone still interested in a complete story about this race, please click here

NASCAR Sunday

OTHER RACING 

I don’t like NASCAR’s “ROVAL.” The reason why – reasons, actually – were on display this weekend. It poured rain Saturday night when the Xfinity series/ISMA races were held and even with rain tires the cars didn’t have any traction. And once you got off the oval and into the infield road course section, there were no lights and it was pitch black. Xfinity Series race winner A.J. Allmendinger said the only way you could drive the infield was by memory. That reminded me of Jim Clark in 1967 at the first F1 Grand Prix of Canada at CTMP (Mosport) who said the weather was so bad, making it difficult to see, that the only way to drive the course was “count to 4 and turn.” The weather was better Sunday for the Cup cars, but just. Chase Elliott was the winner. For a complete story on the Cup race, please click here.

Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor drove a Corvette to victory in the IMSA race at Charlotte Saturday night, winning the GT Le Mans class in the process. Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley were first in GT Daytona, driving a BMW.

Congrats to Devlin DeFranceso of Toronto and West Palm Beach for winning a round of the Indy Pro 2000 Road to Indy Series at New Jersey Motorsport Park Saturday. Not only did he win the pole, he set the fastest lap and led every lap en route to winning his first road-course event in the series. Sunday was not as good. In races two and three, he was involved in crashes. A fellow named Sting Ray Robbclinched the title, which brings with it a scholarship to drive in Indy Lights next season.

Clint Bowyer, who finished 10th on Sunday in the ROVAL Cup race, is yet another NASCAR driver who will hang up his helmet at the end of the season and join the FOX Sports broadcasting team. I hope he’s not another one of those hillbilly-sounding analysts whose voices drive me crazy. Dale Jr. is okay because he’s Dale Jr. But the others? Forget it. If NASCAR ever wants to regain its position as the No. 2 racing series in the world, it has to tell the talent it approves to stop sounding like Gomer Pyle.

By Norris McDonald / Special to wheels.ca

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