Now that I have your attention, I’ll get to the hole that NASCAR has dug itself into in a second.
First, a commercial – sort of.
This was in my Toronto Star Wheels column on Saturday, but in case you missed it . . .
For years, Gerald Donaldson, who’s acknowledged to be Canada’s foremost authority on all things Formula One (he’s been writing about the sport since the 1970s and has authored about two dozen books on the subject, including bios of James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve), reported on the sport for TSN from press rooms around the world on Grand Prix mornings.
We haven’t heard much of, or from, Gerry in the last year or so because TSN cancelled its Sunday morning pre-F1 race program. When I heard they didn’t plan to revive it again this year, I called Gerry and asked him if he’d like to bring his expertise to wheels.ca
Instead of talking to Vic Rauter on TSN Sunday mornings at 7 or 7:30, I suggested he record a podcast with me after first practice on Friday and it would be posted to wheels.ca by noon and be up there through to the race on Sunday morning.
We would do this for each and every one of this year’s F1 races, starting this coming Friday with the Bahrain GP.
“Sounds like a swell idea to me,” said Gerry, who’s no stranger to Star readers, having provided dispatches to our sports pages during the Jacques Villeneuve era.
Our 10-minute podcast chat, complete with visual images, will report on practice times, drivers’ performance and, yes, all the gossip that Formula One is famous for. And we’re going to have some fun with it, too.
Practice for the Grand Prix of Bahrain will take place early on Friday morning, EST. Go to wheels.ca at noon for the first of Gerry Donaldson’s preview podcasts.
Okay, so now to NASCAR and it’s big mess.
In case you missed seeing the big accident just before the end of yesterday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta, which was won by Kurt Busch, involving Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, here it is.
Pretty blatant intent to wreck an opponent,
wouldn’t you say?
If you look closely, you can see Edwards’s white driving gloves steer his car deliberately into the rear quarter-panel of Keselowski’s car just as we saw Michael Schumacher turn his Ferrari into the side of Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams at Jerez, Spain, in 1997.
There was no doubt about what Schumacher did in 1997, just as there is no doubt about what Edwards did yesterday.
In fact, Edwards’s arrogance about the whole business knew no bounds. After being disqualified and ordered out of the race, he responded by driving the wrong way down pit road on his way to the garage. He then gave several TV and radio interviews admitting that what he’d done had been deliberate before going to be interviewed by NASCAR officials.
And if I’d been a fly on the wall inside the NASCAR trailer, I bet you this is what Edwards said.
“I'm sorry his car got upside down. I didn’t mean to endanger any fans or to hurt him. I planned to spin him out in order to ruin his race, as he’d ruined mine (they’d had a coming together early in the race and Edwards had spent most of the race in the garage while his crew repaired the damage.)
“Having said that (Edwards probably continued), what happened out there is exactly what you suggested we do. You said you wanted us to put excitement and emotion back into racing and that’s exactly what I did today.
“You can’t have it both ways. If you penalize me for doing what you told us to do, the commentators in newspapers and on radio and TV will have a field day.”
For the record, on Jan. 21, Jenna Fryer, the AP’s main motorsports reporter, filed this dispatch from NASCAR HQ (I’ve edited it down a bit):
CONCORD, N.C. – Have at it, boys.
NASCAR is . . . encouraging drivers to show more aggression and emotion, in large part to answer a growing fan sentiment that the sport has gone stale.
“There’s an age old saying that NASCAR, ’If you ain’t rubbing, you ain’t racing,’” NASCAR president Mike Helton said Thursday. ``I think that’s what the NASCAR fan, the NASCAR stakeholders all bought into, and all expect.’’
“We will put it back in the hands of drivers, and we will say ’Boys, have at it and have a good time,’” vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said Thursday.
As NASCAR exploded over the 1990s past its small Southern roots into a billion-dollar, corporate-fueled sport, its participants seemed to morph into robotic sponsor shills too frightened to make waves. NASCAR wasn’t immune, either, and started policing on-track aggression and off-track emotion.
Intentional on-track retaliation was met with immediate punishment, while transgressions such as shoving a competitor or cursing in a television interview were met with monetary fines and/or points deductions.
Fans were incensed that the rough and tumble
sport they once loved had been molded into boring, follow-the-leader racing,
and their favorite drivers had become too vanilla.
It wasn’t until last fall — when (Denny) Hamlin waged a months-long feud with up-and-comer Brad Keselowski, and Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya intentionally wrecked each other in the season finale — that NASCAR finally saw the lift the emotions and personalities can deliver to the sport.
What wasn’t said in that piece was the worrying decrease in TV ratings and the empty seats at all of NASCAR’s big events toward the end of the season that forced the sanctioning body to take some action.
Retired driver Kyle Petty, appearing the Speed TV's Victory Lane program last night, sounded like a hangin’ judge. He wants NASCAR to throw the book at Edwards and to actually suspend him for his move on Keselowski.
(Kyle actually had a pretty good line: “Brad Keselowski said the ball’s in NASCAR’s court. We’re going to see if they’ve got a pair now.”)
But Petty admitted that he’d intentionally wrecked people. So in the end, all that’s different here is that the car got airborne.
This is what I think NASCAR will do.
Edwards will either face a substantial fine or a one-race ban for deliberate dangerous driving - for going the wrong way along pit road after he was disqualified from the race. That, frankly, was really stupid. Nobody's expecting a car to be coming that way.
They will also put him on probation for the rest of the season for wrecking Keselowski. (I betcha they have a quiet word with Keselowski, too, suggesting he steer clear of Edwards as much as possible.)
They can’t do much else. To suspend Edwards for rough riding would be to contradict everything they’d said about emotion and tradin’ paint. NASCAR’S credibility is at stake here
A decision on the penalty or penalties is expected later today or tomorrow.
It was Kurt Busch’s first victory of the young season. He was followed across the line (in the second of a green-white-checkers finish – there was a crash the first time they tried to finish the race as the result of the Edwards-Keselowski wreck) by Matt Kenseth and Juan Montoya.
Kasey Kahne, who dominated much of the race, finished fourth and Paul Menard, in his best finish in Sprint Cup competiton, was fifth.
Other notables: Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson was 12th and Tony Stewart 13th. Pole-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 15th. Jeff Gordon was 18th and Kyle Busch (what’s happened to him this year?) came home 25th. Mark Martin finished 33rd.
For the record: Keselowski was 36th and Edwards was 39th.
One last observation about Atlanta:
The spring race always has empty seats because it’s cold outside in Georgia at this time of year. It was hard to tell if there were more yesterday than usual.
However (and there’s always one of those, isn’t there?), motorhome row for spectators along the backstretch at Atlanta is always a doorhandle-to-doorhandle deal but yesterday it was half-empty and that, ladies and gentleman, is not a good sign.
National Speed Sport News Editor Emeritus Chris Economaki said it three years ago during a panel discussion at the Canadian Motorsports Expo: “The bloom is off the rose.”
It’s going to take more than feudin’ `n’ fightin’ to fix this.
P.S.Kevin Harvick won the Camping World Truck Series race Saturday afternoon at Atlanta. Kyle Busch was second and Aric Almorolo was third.
NASCAR will now take a week off before Bristol in two weeks.
But that's okay because Formula One and IndyCar start their seasons next Sunday.
PRUETT WINS GRAND AM ROLEX RACE AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI
Scott Pruett (with Memo Rojas) held off David Donohue (and Darren Law) to win the Grand Prix of Miami, which was the second round of the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series championship held at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday.
The team of Alex Gurney and Jon Fogerty finished third, just edging the AIM Autosport of Woodbridge No. 61 Pacific Mobile Ford-Riley piloted by Mark Wilkins of Toronto and Burt Frisselle of Aspen, Colo.
Th AIM team skipped the 24 Hours of Daytona in order to concentrate on the shorter Grand Am Rolex races and was thrilled to come away with a solid finish.
Said Wilkins: "First off, a big thanks to
the entire crew who have worked so hard the last two weeks to get us here. They
have done a fantastic job and put in some long hours. These guys are dedicated
and have always given us a good car.
"Ian (Willis – a founding partner in the team) and Jim (Malicki) always seem to find the magic setup that works for us as well. It is a strong effort and both Burt and I are glad we could bring this one home."
Said winner Pruett: "I sure didn't want to see that last caution (brought on by a car fire on pit road), but I was happy for the fans. This is tough competition. You never know what's going to happen until the checkered flag falls. It was pretty exciting in my seat, that's for sure."
He’s right about the competition. It’s great racing.
I have no idea, however, what fans he was talking about – unless they were the ones watching TV. I have never – and I mean never – seen as empty a stadium for a big-league car race as Homestead-Miami was at 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon when this run was held.
There was not a soul in the grandstands. And I have stood in the infield there for this very race (the Grand Am Rolex Series has shared the speedway with the IRL in the past) and I can tell you there were not many people in there, either.
In the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge race that preceded the Rolex run, the team of Jack Roush Jr. and Billy Johnson won, with Terry Borcheller and Andrew Hendricks second and Joey Hand and Michael Marsal third.
Roush and Johnson were in a Mustang GT while the second and third-place cars were BMW M3 Coupes.
Canadians in the race:
Kenny Wilden of Oakville, who won this series a year ago, finished fourth (with partners); Scott Maxwell of Toronto, who was champion two years ago, was seventh; Dave Lacey of Toronto was 11th. All were driving Mustangs in the GS class.
In the ST Class, Lawson Aschenbach and David Thilenius drove Karl Thomson’s Toronto-based Compass 360 Honda Civic to a second-place finish behind winners Tom Long and Derek Whitis.
Jose Leroux and Carlos Tesler-Maber drove another Compass 360 entry to a 10th-in-class f inish; Jesse Combs and Gregory Liefooghe were right behind, in 11th in class, in another Compass 360 Honda Civic and Ryan Eversley and Zach Lutz were 30th (64th overall) in yet another Compass 360 entry.
Gunter Schmidt of Midland and Thomas Lepper didn’t start in their Sick Kids Foundation Chevrolet Cobalt SS.