With all apologies to Led Zeppelin, it’s been a long time since we’ve rocked and rolled at “Splash And Go.” There has been plenty of news since the North American season officially ended with the NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale Nov. 21, so it would be a bit tedious to review all of that.
Let’s just pick up with the last week or so, shall we?
The IZOD IndyCar Series season ended two months ago, but it seems that no series in America has more mojo right now than Randy Bernard and Co. The good news keeps coming and coming, putting more than a decade’s worth of acrimony due to “The Split” deeper and deeper into the rear-view mirror.
Mazda joins the party!
The Road To Indy ladder system for INDYCAR, consisting of Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda and USF2000, received a major boost this week when Mazda announced its title sponsorship of the program. The Mazda Road to Indy will provide scholarships to the champion of all three developmental classes to jump to the next level the next season.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. There’s no other way to describe this, on so many levels. The scholarships provide a legitimate carrot for aspiring open-wheel racers at all levels, and the addition of another manufacturer bullish on the future of INDYCAR racing is fantastic.
Combine the Mazda Road to Indy with the recently announced program to grant a Firestone Indy Lights oval program to the USAC National Drivers Championship winner, and few — if any — sanctioning bodies in the world have such a clearly defined road to the pinnacle as INDYCAR.
Team Penske continued to add sponsors to its stable, as series sponsor IZOD came on board this week. IZOD will use Penske driver Ryan Briscoe as its new poster boy, and the best series sponsor in INDYCAR history — by about 1,000 miles — already is activating both its series sponsorship and support of Briscoe through new TV commercials filmed in the desert with a live soundtrack provided by rock band Weezer. No more racing to the party, I guess. I shed no tears.
The addition of IZOD continued a hell of a capitalistic run for Penske, which also snared Shell/Pennzoil as an Indianapolis 500 primary sponsor for three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves, AAA of Southern California as a primary sponsor for Castroneves at Long Beach and Texas and Midwestern grocery store chain Meijer as an associate sponsor for all three of its cars.
NASCAR is in the midst of its most exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup since the inaugural year of the format, 2004, when just 16 points separated champion Kurt Busch, second place Jimmie Johnson and third place Jeff Gordon at the end of the season. Yet the endless bleating, soul-searching and head-scratching continues about NASCAR in reverse gear.
Make no mistake: NASCAR has problems. Declining TV ratings and race attendance. Top teams struggling for sponsorship. Yet it’s still the most popular form of motorsports in America, by far. Every other series in the U.S. would love to have NASCAR’s “problems.”
But can we just focus on the racing for the next three weeks? There are three races remaining in what has been a compelling Chase for the Sprint Cup. Four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson leads Denny Hamlin by just 14 points and Kevin Harvick by 38.
It’s high-octane drama, yet from Tuesday through Thursday of every race week during the Chase — after the race reports and analysis are out of the way by Monday and before the race previews and coverage start Friday — all I read about on NASCAR blogs and websites are theories and speculation about the root cause of the great withering of NASCAR. Dustin Long, who I read daily and whose work I admire greatly, even wrote that the close Chase could be hurting NASCAR.
Isn’t there a two-month offseason during which endless column inches and online bytes can be devoted to the Great NASCAR Decession? You know, when no actual racing is taking place?
The plunge off the ratings’ cliff is odd, because the racing has been very good this entire season, including the Chase. Even Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR’s generic prescription for Ambien, put on a very competitive race two weeks ago.
If you’ve tuned out the Chase on The Worldwide Leader in Sports this fall, you still should tune into ESPN tonight for what promises to be a fascinating 60 minutes of NASCAR programming. ESPN’s superb series of short documentaries, “30 For 30,” looks back at the life, legend and truths of Tim Richmond in “Tim Richmond: To The Limit” at 8 p.m. (ET) on ESPN and 11 p.m. (ET) on ESPN2.
The Last Rock and Roll Star: Tim Richmond
Richmond has sadly faded into the vanishing point of the rear-view mirror of NASCAR. This guy was an incredible force of nature and an incredible talent in Winston Cup racing during the 80s. He raced, partied and lived harder than most of the corporate automatons disguised as drivers today probably could ever dream. Imagine Kyle Busch’s speed and carefree talent mixed with the rock-star magnetism and lifestyle of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones or Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and you had Tim Richmond.
Much like James Hunt in F1, the number of Richmond’s laps led and ladies bedded ran side-by-side. But he had tremendous skill and huge attachments behind the wheel of a stock car and appeared headed to the high altitude of the legends of the sport before he contracted AIDS and died in 1989.
Want to see Richmond’s otherworldly talent encapsulated in one short video? Watch this below. Richmond is swallowing the field whole on a restart at North Wilkesboro while continuing to talk from his car with ESPN commentators in the booth after the green flag:
Due to his illness and the misconceptions associated with it, Richmond never has received his due from either NASCAR or its flag-waving, God-fearing fan base. Hopefully this documentary will help those who have forgotten or never knew about Richmond realize he was a rare supernova.
Watch this show tonight. Richmond is exactly the kind of character that corporate sponsors in 2010 never would bless even though racing needs talented showmen like him more than ever.
Back to racing 2010. It’s a quiet day in worldwide motorsport — a rarity during the season. But there’s still some news to chew on.
Some fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series were a bit peeved last Friday when all three of the 1.5-mile International Speedway Corporation cookie-cutter tracks on this year’s schedule — Kansas, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami — were removed from the unfurled 2011 schedule.
A few of the series’ top drivers don’t share that sense of loss, according to a piece by John Oreovicz on ESPN.com. Let’s face it: IndyCars on 1.5-mile, high-banked tracks are the series’ version of restrictor-plate racing. It’s fun to watch, to a point. But it’s insanely dangerous. Put yourself in the cockpit for a bit, and you’ll see the drivers’ point of view.
Plus it will be nice to race at two ovals next season, Milwaukee and New Hampshire, where the brake graphic actually will illuminate during in-car shots on the TV broadcast. I squirmed and squealed with delight over many of the races over the last decade on 1.5-mile tracks, especially the heart-stoppers during the epic 2002 season.
But after a while, I do start to wonder about the constant drone of engines wide open for the entire race minus pit stops. Is a race where the brake never is used except in the pits really a test of a driver’s total ability? It’s an unreal test of their courage and sanity, no doubt. But I’m ready for the flat, short ovals next season.
Another proponent of the brake pedal for IndyCars is three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser. I’ve heard Uncle Bobby say more than once that he thinks either horsepower should be increased or enough downforce removed from the current cars so drivers need to use the brakes entering Turns 1 and 3 at Indianapolis again, as in his day.
Bobby also is the subject of today’s “Gasoline Alley Unplugged” segment with IMS Historian Donald Davidson. This series, in which Donald offers audio commentary on a photo from the IMS archives, is superb. You really need to check it out now and daily if you haven’t yet. Donald is a gentleman and a genius, an irreplaceable part of IMS.
There’s not always a lot of overlap between the NASCAR and IndyCar world, except for maybe when Danica Patrick makes her sojourns to the Nationwide Series. So it’s nice to see the open-wheel set get some attention from the stock car media, such as this solid feature on IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard’s first six months on the job by Fanhouse NASCAR blogger Geoffrey Miller.
Hey, and there’s even more crossover. Joe Menzer at NASCAR.com conducted a good interview with Penske Racing President Tim Cindric, who oversees the IndyCar and NASCAR operations of the iconic team. Cindric is one of the sharpest cats in the racing business and a fine Indiana boy. I don’t think The Captain needs to look far to see his mirror image of class, professionalism, attention to detail and competitive spirit when he decides to step away from racing.
But enough of the overlap. What about THE CHASE? THE CHASE! THE CHASE!
The hype machine for NASCAR’s postseason — Brian France hates that term, but let’s face it: That’s what it is — is in top gear heading into New Hampshire. The analysis, dicing and slicing is almost done by the media, and some reporters and bloggers are making their predictions for this year’s Cup champion. Dustin Long is hanging ten on the momentum wave of Denny Hamlin, while All Left Turns is taking the conservative tack by picking a successful drive for five by Jimmie Johnson. Same with Terry Blount at ESPN.com, who even lays odds on the contenders. I’ll put an Andrew Jackson on Tony Stewart at 20-1!
One of the flaws of the Chase is that the other 31 drivers in the 10 Chase races usually are forgotten unless they’re leading or winning. But Patrick Reynolds raises a very interesting point at All Left Turns: Who would you rather be this Sunday, Clint Bowyer or Jamie McMurray?
Jamie Mac and Mrs. Jamie Mac
Bowyer is in the Chase but winless, the very definition of the mind-numbing consistency that often can land a driver a spot in the postseason. Meanwhile, Jamie Mac missed the Chase but held the checkered flag at the two biggest races of the season, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
It really is a damn good question. If Clint Bowyer finishes fifth in the Chase with no victories, will people remember his season more than McMurray’s? I think not. I subscribe to the short-track school of racing: Fans come to see drivers win races, not finish third every week. Checkers or wreckers, baby.
It’s also interesting from a sponsor perspective. Is General Mills stoked that Clint is in the Big Dance without any Victory Lane photos to show off at headquarters, or would it be happier from the kind of exposure that Jamie Mac landed McDonald’s and Bass Pro Shop for getting splashed all over the worldwide media pond for winning NASCAR’s two mega-races?
I’m not sure. Again, I lean more toward winning. What do you think?
But forget the race Sunday at New Hampshire. Qualifying will be the big story this weekend from Loudon since Coors Light is debuting a trophy queen, the aptly named Miss Coors Light, to pose with the pole winner and interact with fans every week. I’m honestly out of words to describe this brush stroke of genius.
MotoGP heads to Spain this weekend for its maiden event at the Motorland Aragon circuit. Let’s all hope for a safe, clean race there. The series really needs it after the recent tragedies at Indianapolis at Misano.
One of the lingering MotoGP questions hanging over the last four months of 2010 in motorcycle racing is whether Yamaha will release Valentino Rossi early from his contract so he can test with Ducati before New Year’s. Most rumors whisper that the Crossed Tuning Forks will not, as there was some bad blood over Vale’s departure to Ducati.
But it all might be a moot point, anyways. The Doctor is headed to the operating room after this season for surgery on the shoulder that he injured earlier this year in a training crash. That injury has been more bothersome than even the snapped lower leg Rossi suffered in June at Mugello.
Finally, it couldn’t be a racing blog without some sort of political, off-track news, could it? The Australian Grand Prix is reporting huge losses, causing some politicians to question continued state funding for the event.
That fact doesn’t exactly qualify as a shocker. One of the best ways to lose a fortune in the racing world is to stage a Formula One event, as Bernie Ecclestone’s contracts and revenue distribution almost guarantee burgeoning coffers for him and scraps for the tracks.
Still, it should trigger alarm bells that the Australian Grand Prix, one of the most well-attended and popular Grands Prix in the world, is bleeding red ink like an ill-placed Bic in a back pants pocket. But don’t count on any bells being heard in the F1 paddock. The team owners and sport’s bosses are too busy jingling the keys to their new Gulfstream jets to care, especially with oil-rich banana republics featuring tedious Tilkedromes lining up to replace the classic tracks of the world.
Who needs a joyous, traditional event on a great park circuit like Melbourne when you can have jewels of motorsport like Abu Dhabi and Bahrain?
Open-wheel racing revved to life this weekend with the Formula One season debut in the desert of Bahrain and the IZOD IndyCar Series opener in the concrete-and-asphalt jungle of Sao Paulo.
First, the facts. Fernando Alonso won in his Ferrari debut at Bahrain, and Will Power won in his debut as a full-time Penske driver at Brazil.
Enough of that. It’s time to dive into the pool of subjectivity, which usually is murkier than an act of contrition from Carl Edwards. And while it’s only one race, it would have been tough to see a clearer demarcation line between F1 and the IZOD IndyCar Series than the two races on display in beautiful high-def in my basement Sunday afternoon.