Jimmie Johnson – who else? – won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee yesterday. It was his third victory in just five Cup races this season.
He’s well on his way to winning his fifth consecutive NASCAR Cup championship – he hasn’t lost the heavyweight title since 2006 – and I really think this is doing serious damage to the sport.
How else to explain the fact that the grandstands at Bristol were half-empty yesterday? (Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but between a third and a half of the 160,000 seats at that speedway didn’t have butts in them and that adds up to an awful lot.)
Bristol has two Cup races each year – in the spring and fall – and both are "must-see, must-attend" events. The place is always packed.
In fact, Bristol is "so NASCAR" that the opening scene of the cartoon movie "Cars" is set there. Every vantage point is occupied by a "car" (in the movie) and the flashbulbs are popping and the noise of the "crowd" can be heard above the roar of the race cars. The opening of that movie is exactly the way it usually is at Bristol.
Now, it can be argued that the late-winter/early spring weather just to the south of the Mason-Dixon Line has been chilly and that nobody wanted to sit outside yesterday and freeze their keesters off watching a car race.
Fine. But that didn’t stop people last year or the year before from bundling up and going. Besides, it’s always cold outside in March once you get north of Florida.
Another explanation could be that while the recession seems to have pulled in its horns in Canada and some of the wealthier American states, there are still some areas of the U.S. that are hurting and the hill country of southern Virginia and northern Tennessee (Bristol is right on the border) is still in negative territory and so that, surely, must be having an effect on NASCAR attendance.
But, again, that was the case a year ago and the crowd was still way better than it was yesterday.
So it’s got to be boredom – with Johnson winning all the time. (Before anybody jumps in here and says, ‘Hey, what about Michael Schumacher’s five straight championships in Formula One?" I just want to say that F1 fans are exactly the same as Toronto Maple Leaf fans – they’ll show up at the races (arena) or else watch on TV regardless of the product on display and it would take the work of a team of sociologists to explain why.)
So what can NASCAR do about this?
Exactly what the promoters at short oval speedways in Canada and the United States have been doing for years: put a bounty on his head.
What this means is that at the next race – Martinsville, Va., by the way – the promoter (or NASCAR, whichever) announces in advance that if anybody beats Johnson, then he’ll be paid double the winner’s purse or some similar bonus-type award.
It would all be symbolic, of course, so far as the other drivers are concerned (they’re all millionaires as the result of owner and sponsor contracts, so a few more dollars in the kitty won’t be all that much of an incentive), but it would create interest among the fans and that’s the result NASCAR would be seeking.
The TV ratings are still off and there are more and more empty seats (witness Bristol).
Bounties have always been good attention-getters on the short tracks so it’s time the big leagues gave them a try.
It sure wouldn’t hurt – and it might even help.
Meantime, the race itself at Bristol sure didn’t live up to advance billing. Everybody was on their very best behaviour (did NASCAR have a quiet word with everyone following the very public woodshed session with Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards and their owners, Jack Roush and Roger Penske?) and other than a few incidental comings-together, the Food City 500 went off without a hitch.
Tony Stewart followed Johnson home in second, with Kurt Busch third (he led the most laps, but for naught), Greg Biffle fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.
It was Johnson’s 50th Cup victory and his first at Bristol. He just keeps getting better and better.
Justin Allgaier won the Nationwide Series race on Saturday at Bristol. Brad Keselowski was second and both talked glowingly afterward about how there had been no trouble between them at all and it was just good clean racing that saw them finish that way on the speedway.
Give me a break. Both drive for Roger Penske and if one had taken the other out (as Keselowski surely would have done if he was on a different team), they would have incurred the Captain’s wrath and, trust me, that’s something no driver ever wants to happen. Kyle Busch was third, with Carl Edwards fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth. Harvick had no qualms about taking out Joey Logano with a tap to the rear bumper coming out of four late in the race. Who wants to bet that the payback comes next weekend at Martinsville? . . . The trucks haven’t been in action since Atlanta but will be front-and-centre at Martinsville next weekend. The good news today is that D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas, a class act in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series national stock car championship, will be making his first start in the Camping World Series in the No. 6 Northern Provincial Pipelines-sponsored truck out of the Rick Ware Racing stable. You can watch Kennington in action next Saturday at 2 p.m. on Speed TV.
Formula One: Australian Grand Prix
Don’t forget my pre-Grand Prix podcast with Canadian F1 expert Gerald Donaldson. Because of the time difference (Australia’s on another planet . . .), I have no idea when we’ll record the interview but, one way or another, it will be available on wheels.ca by noon on Friday.
Now, here are the TV times. Qualifying can be seen on TSN Saturday morning at 1:55 a.m. and the race can be seen live on TSN Sunday morning, also starting at 1:55 a.m. (Just think, if we all lived in Vancouver, we’d be able to watch at the civilized hour of 10:55 p.m. But we don’t.)
Okay, so how can we watch any of this stuff at a civilized hour here in the Eastern time zone? To do that, you must have TSN2 (unless Speed isn’t blacked out, but don’t count on that). TSN2 will show qualifying on tape-delay Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and will show the tape of the race at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. I think there might be repeats of qualifying and the race later Saturday and Sunday, but please check Star Week for the exact times.
In any event, here is what F1 is up against. Regardless of what the hard-core fans will do or not do, F1 has to be concerned about the casual fan and future fans.
After the first race of the season in Bahrain, a guy I work with walked up to me and this is exactly what he said:
"My wife (a dentist, by the way) used to be a huge F1 fan but she gave it up a couple of years ago when the racing got boring. But she read your piece on Saturday (the F1 season preview I did with Donaldson, which is here) and decided to give it another chance.
"So she got me up early on Sunday morning – normally I could care less but she wanted me to watch with her — and we were both numb by the time the race was half over. If that one driver (Sebastien Vettel) didn’t have engine trouble, there would have been no passing whatsoever.
"That wasn’t racing, that was driving. How can that sport be so popular and yet be so boring?"
So I told him about Maple Leaf fans (see above). Then I told him the Max Mosely story about comparing F1 racing to a chess game.
He rolled his eyes at that one.
Memo to Bernie: You’ve lost The Dentist again, which is not a hopeful sign for the future because there are many more like her.
12 Hours of Sebring
If I was at Sebring, and accredited as a journalist, the person I would have sought out immediately after the race was the marshal who took a fire extinguisher and single-handedly put out the fire that was rapidy engulfing Scott Sharp’s Ferrari.
The guy was brave, the guy was prepared and the guy (jeesh, maybe it was a woman . . . ) knew exactly what to do when Sharp pulled up beside the barrier and parked the fireball right beside the marshal station.
And why would I have built my story around that person? Because the story wasn’t that Peugeot and its stable of ex-F1 racers won the race – I mean, who did they have to beat? – and it wasn’t the crash of one Corvette into the side of another in the pits – these things happen and nobody was hurt and both cars went on to finish the race – and it sure wasn’t much else because not much else was compelling about this particular 12 hours.
But the work of the marshal was interesting and unique and illustrated perfectly one more time the dedication and bravery of this unsung group of people.
I mean, think about this for a moment.
The 12 Hours of Sebring is a multi-million-dollar motorsport event. Everybody in that race is either rich (as in, wealthy) or close to it. The purse is healthy. The TV broadcast costs a lot of money to produce and the announcers and commentators are all very well paid.
I would suspect everybody involved in this race – everybody - was on expenses, one way or another.
Except for the marshals and/or corner workers like our hero who saved Scott Sharp (owner of the team that fielded the Ferrari) a tonne of money by putting out that fire.
The marshals are not paid, which I find scandalous. They are "volunteers" who pay their own way to get to the events and their reward for a day in the hot sun or the pouring rain is a box lunch and maybe a beer bash at the end of the day.
Now, nobody’s forcing these folks to do those jobs. But if it wasn’t for them there would be no road racing. (Or, heaven forbid, the tracks or the sanctioning bodies would have to go out and recruit people, and train them and then pay them for being there. Couldn’t let that happen now, could we?)
Remember that when you watch the Formula One Grand Prix of Canada in June. Or the Grand Prix of Monaco.
Multi-billionaire sportman Michael Schumacher, who’s probably being paid a million dollars (at a minimum) cash money for three days of work, plus expenses, will be putting his life and his property (his car) in the hands of somebody working for a ham sandwich.
How ludicrous is that when you think about it . . . ?
Alexander Wurz of Austria, Marc Gene of Aprin and Anthony Davidson of Great Britain won the 12 Hours in their Peugeot 908 HDI FAP diesel. They travelled 367 laps of the Sebring course in finishing first.
Sebastien Bourdais of France, Nicolas Minassian of England and Pedro Lamy of Portugal were second in the sister Peugeot and on the same lap as the winners.
Adrien Fernandez of Mexico, Stefan Mucke of Germany and Harold Primat of Switzerland were third in a Lola B09 60, three laps behind.
See post below for the Canadian content.