A popular victory in NASCAR, as well as controversy, and a NASCAR-type "big one" crash in the second IndyCar Series race at Detroit, were highlights of this weekend’s auto racing.
It was also a weekend of "firsts."
At Dover, Del., Tony Stewart won his first race of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season after Jimmie Johnson was penalized for jumping a restart with 19 laps to go when leader Juan Pablo Montoya didn’t go with him.
It always takes two to tango or, in the case of car racing, two drivers in sinc on a side-by-side restart when the green flag is thrown. When the green comes out, both guys are supposed to go. Johnson, on the inside, went and Montoya didn’t and NASCAR ruled the 48 was in the wrong and assessed Johnson a drive-through penalty.
Johnson had the option of relinquising the lead to Montoya but refused and that’s why he was penalized. He eventually finished 17th. Montoya, meantime, was three laps short of his first oval-track victory when he was passed by Stewart. Jeff Gordon finished third, with Kyle Busch fourth and Brad Keselowski fifth.
Incidentally, Keselowski’s car flunked post-race inspection – the front end was too low – and he will be assessed some type of penalty in the week ahead. (Click here for full story and results.)
Stewart has been having a miserable year, as has his whole Stewart-Haas Racing team. Danica Patrick was 24th Sunday (after starting 39th) and Ryan Newman, who went off fifth, crashed out after exchanging paint with David Gilliland.
Said Stewart: “Man, it’s been such a tough year. We’ve let them (fans) down for a long time. Hopefully, we’ll start building that momentum.”
Keep an eye on Stewart now. He has a habit of slumbering, like a bear. When he wakes up, everybody else would be wise to watch out. Sunday afternoon at Dover, he emerged from hibernation.
At Detroit, Simon Paginaud won the first IZOD IndyCar Series race of his career by surviving some serious carnage that saw poor A.J. Allmendinger crash out for the second time in two days at almost the same place.
In the first double-header in Indy car history (there have previously been two races held on the same day, called "twins," in which full-race distances were cut in half in order to have two green flags and two checkers), the drivers pretty much behaved themselves on Saturday during the first race (won by Mike Conway) but checked their manners and good judgment at the door on Sunday and all bets were off.
James Jakes followed Pagenaud to the checkers, with Conway finishing third for his second podium in two days. (Click here for full story and results.)
As well as being the first victory for Pagenaud, it was the 100th for Honda when competing against other manufacturers in IndyCar. Pagenaud was also the sixth different winner in seven races and the third first-time winner.
Said Pagenaud in Victory Lane: "It’s unbelievable. I don’t know how we did it. It’s a great feeling. One I hope of more to come."
Ten cars were either eliminated through crashes or sufficiently damaged that although classified as running at the end of the 70-lap contest they were just turning laps for points.
For the second straight day (and race), Alex Tagliani of Montreal failed to finish because of a crash. He and Justin Wilson were eliminated on Lap 27 when Sebastien Bourdais tapped Will Power going into a corner and caused him to go into a slow, lazy spin and everybody piled up behind them. Many of the drivers got going again but couldn’t be considered threats for victory by any stretch of the imagination.
One of those was poor James Hinchcliffe of Oakville. Winner of two of the four opening races of the season, his performance has been less than stellar since. Of course, as is the case with jockeys and horses, if the car ain’t working, there’s not a whole lot the driver can do to get it to run faster.
For instance, Hinchcliffe was behind Power when the Penske driver started his slide and so he backed off. As Power’s spin continued, "Hinch" ducked to the inside and floored it, expecting to shoot past on the right, only to have the Aussie’s mount start to straighten out and POW!
Hinchcliffe made it to the pits but by the time repairs were made and he rejoined, he was out of contention and finished the race 13 laps behind the winner in 19th place, four worse than where he finished on Saturday.
As well as being the first victory for Simon Pagenaud, it was also the first for Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, a team in which supermodified and Indy racer (and friend) Davey Hamilton has a direct involvement.
Paralyzed ex-racer Sam Schmidt and Hamilton both personify the "never give up" philosophy of automobile racing pioneer Louis Chevrolet.
A short-track oval racer and champion, Hamilton first went to Indianapolis looking for a ride in the early 1990s when CART was in all its glory and road racers were the drivers of choice. Although he never did make a start at Indianapolis under CART sanction, it wasn’t for lack of trying and Hamilton went on to become one of the early Indy Racing League stars.
In fact, by 2001, he was the only one of the original IRL drivers (a group that included Scott Goodyear and Tony Stewart) to have raced in all of the league’s races and in which he finished second in points twice.
Schmidt didn’t start a professional racing career until later in life – he was 31 when he was rookie-of-the-year in the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series. Five years later, after three Indy 500 starts, Schmidt rode a car backwards into the wall at Walt Disney World Speedway near Orlando, leaving him a quadraplegic. In 2000, he formed his own racing team and Hamilton became his driver.
Hamilton’s own world nearly came to an end in 2001 during a race at Texas Motor Speedway. Another car below an engine and Hamilton lost control in the oil. The ensuing crash into the wall tore and broke his feet and ankles so badly that doctors prepared to amputate.
But a friend who was with him, John Nicotra, begged them to reconsider - they did - and Hamilton subsequently underwent more than 20 operations, many performed by Dr. Terry Trammel of Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, to restore them to where, today, you wouldn’t know he’d been so badly injured.
Forced to retire from driving at the time, Hamilton promoted races, race series and managed racers and joined the Indianapolis Speedway Radio Network as a colour commentator. (In fact, he was on the air with play-by-play announcer Mike King in Detroit on Sunday when his driver and team won the second race.)
However, you can’t keep a good racer down and Hamilton not only returned to Indy cars to race in the 500 again – he made the field five more times, in fact – but continues to drive supermodifieds at Oswego Speedway in northern New York state, cars that are entered for him by – would you believe? – his old pal, Johnny Nicotra.
Hamilton’s ambition, perserverance and courage have not gone unnoticed and are largely responsible for his ongoing relationship with sponsor Hewlett-Packard. HP’s support is Davey’s contribution to Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports.
Now, you could produce a "made-for-TV" movie out of a story like that, couldn't you? It’s just the sort of thing that IndyCar has to jump on if it wants to regain its proper share of the North American auto racing audience.
The question is: will it?
Now, on Saturday, I said I’d make a suggestion in this column today about how IndyCar could seriously start to improve its marketing and public relations. But this entry is too long already, so I will spell it out in the next one – if I can keep myself from being sidetracked.
But the Sam Schmidt-Davey Hamilton saga is too good a story to wait for another day, which is why it got priority this time around.
PARTING SHOTS: I hate to be negative - those two races in Detroit were really good stuff - but somebody has got to get hold of the people at IndyCar and shake them. Hard. Why in the world would they hold qualifying for the second Detroit race before they even held the first race? They held qualifying on Friday afternoon for the first race Saturday. Fine. But then, on Saturday morning, hours before they held the first race, they conducted qualifying for the second race, which wasn't going to be held till Sunday. What is with those people? Let’s hope that by the time they get to Toronto for the next double-header, they’ll have fixed that. . . . The crowd for the Sunday race in Detroit looked significantly bigger than the crowd that turned out on Saturday. . . . Will Power looked like he was going to punch Sebastien Bourdais’ lights out – or try to – for triggering that pileup on Lap 27. One or two members of the safety crew held him back. All he could do was toss – toss! underhand, even – his gloves at Bourdais. They should have let Power alone. Did anybody try to stop Tony Stewart from throwing his helmet last year? Not a chance. . . . Jorge Lorenzo won the Moto GP race in Italy. . . . Bobby Santos won the USAC Silver Crown race at Gateway Raceway outside St. Louis. Closed for several years, Gateway previously held CART and NASCAR races. . . . Finally, at Spielberg, Austria, another round of the German Touring Car Series championship was held (DTM) and Canadian Bruno Spengler leads the championship for BMW. Robert Wickens, of Guelph and Toronto, started seventh in the race and finished 12th. I must say I find his post-race comments curiously amusing: ""Unfortunately, my race did not go according to plan. I still cannot understand how I fell back from seventh to twelfth place. I was even in sixth position on my first stint. I didn't get stuck in traffic at all, nor did I make any mistakes. The car didn't feel in any way different to yesterday either. We need to analyse exactly what happened before the next race."
- NORRIS McDONALD