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Monday, February 25, 2008

Ex- NBA Star Eyes NASCAR

John Salley is interested in becoming a team owner in NASCAR. Other athletes have gone into racing but did not last long. Can he be any different?

Former National Basketball Association star, John Salley, has expressed interest in NASCAR ownership. Salley was in attendance for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 and was thoroughly impressed. As a member of Detroit’s championship winning Pistons, John Salley understands the intangibles and the hard work that is required to be a champion.

“I enjoyed it better than watching the NBA All- Star game,” said Salley. The NBA All- Star game was held on the same Sunday as the Daytona 500. “This is the best stuff I’ve seen in my life,” continued Salley.

It is a positive moment when racing can reach a new audience, draw new fans, and attract potential participants. John Salley claims that he is ready to join a growing list of former athletes that have ventured into motorsports. However, the list of former athletes that remain in motorsports is considerably shorter. Aside from ex- pro quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, athletes from other disciplines have not been able to remain in the sport. Carmelo Anthony, to my knowledge, was the most recent NBA player to go racing and declined a return to the Indy Racing League.

NASCAR’s efforts to increase minority involvement are commendable. However, Michael Crawford, the owner of Crawford Motorsports of the Indy Pro Series, gave me a bit of wisdom that anyone considering team ownership on any level must know.

“Racing is an expensive sport and it is a terrible business. You cannot buy into this sport and hope to get rich. To go faster you must spend more money,” said Crawford.

In that sense, racing is not a pure sport. Hold on, I can hear the non- race fan muttering that racing is not a sport. I contend that in racing the best person does not always win. For example, in track and field, the best-trained and the faster athlete will always win barring disqualification. Racing requires inordinate amounts of money to find that extra tenth of a second that another competitor may not be able to afford. In this case, the well-funded driver will win rather than the most talented driver.

It is exciting to see a high profile athlete like John Salley talk about joining NASCAR as a team owner. It appears that athletes get in over their heads and do not understand the staggering amounts of money that racing commands. If he finds a good team and competent advisors, John Salley might make a good owner. He has to consider that most of the owners in motorsports have amassed their wealth in other industries before tackling auto racing making him a not- so- big fish in racing’s financial pool.

Let’s hope that John Salley and other minorities with the resources to enter the shark-infested waters of racing ownership do their homework. The most important aspect, that people from other forms of entertainment seem to overlook, is the love of the sport. To sink the type of money necessary to compete in any form of racing, an individual must have a desire and commitment to succeed in auto racing despite poor performances, wrecked racecars, and steep operational costs.

John Salley posing in Daytona courtesy of Jeff Siner/McClatchy-Tribune
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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Will Open Wheel Racing Survive?

The Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League are close to a merger. After 13 years, can a unified series contend with NASCAR?

It has been reported that the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series will announce an agreement that will reunite the two series. The rumored announcement is scheduled for tomorrow. With NASCAR’s remarkable growth, one might wonder if this unification is a case of too little too late to save Indy style racing?

The late Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, built Daytona International Speedway with one motive in mind. He wanted to build a speedway that was bigger and faster than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Many saw the notion, that Daytona was a bigger draw than Indy as a dream, years from being credible.

Guess what, that day is here now. The IRL and Champ Car split in 1995, not only divided open wheel racing fans, but also aided the NASCAR growth explosion. I remember the Indy 500 after the split when the IRL was in its infancy. Teams were forced to use year old cars and drivers faced an added element of danger. The Indy 500 faced strong opposition from Champ Car, formerly known as Championship Auto Racing Teams, who staged a race in Michigan on the same day. It was a bit strange seeing drivers at Indy who might not have had the backing or skill to compete without the split.

This presented an interesting opportunity for young American drivers. The IRL was created for young American drivers whose background in sprint cars and karts would prosper in an all oval racing series. Before the split, it was difficult to find a talented American driver with decent equipment and a realistic shot at winning the Indy 500 and the season title. Most of the drivers were Formula 1 defectors with names unfamiliar to longtime Indy fans. Nothing is wrong with a foreign influence because the goal of any series is to attract and retain the best drivers available. However, CART was growing thin on American talent and top heavy with foreign drivers. Tony George, founder of the IRL and President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, disagreed with this trend and created the IRL.

This was a good idea in theory, but losing some of the best drivers and teams to CART in order to make a point seems ludicrous. Now, the IRL and Champ Car want to make up. There are some logistical items, like engine formulas, that will make this announcement a long shot. Even if things go well and an agreement can be made the damage has been done.

I am trying to imagine the entry list for the 2009 Indianapolis 500. I see plenty of drivers from Champ Car with substantial funding and just a few of the IRL regulars outside of the Ganassi and Penske teams with a legitimate chance to win. The problem of finding room for American drivers and sponsors remains. NASCAR has already taken the best drivers from the IRL and one of the best drivers period, Juan Pablo Montoya. This is really kind of sad because many people would have paid top dollar to see Sam Hornish, Montoya, Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti and the other open wheel stars battle it out at Indy.

I want to see a unified open wheeled series, but I feel like 13 years were wasted and Indy race fans are no better off. Danica Patrick of the IRL versus Katherine Legge of the Champ Car World Series struggles to evoke memories of Indy battles of the past like A.J. Foyt versus NASCAR’s stars of that era.

photo of IRL President Tony George and Tony Stewart by Ron McQueeney of IMS
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Monday, February 18, 2008

A Great Race Ignored!?

The Daytona 500 was an excellent race and the excitement is building for a great season despite being downplayed in mainstream media.

The 50th running of the Daytona 500 is history. This was one of the best races from start to finish in recent memory. Some casual observers may focus on last- lap finishes but this race was thrilling for the entire 199 laps leading into the final lap. Congratulations to Ryan Newman, car owner Roger Penske, and Penske South on their victory. As an observer of Indy racing, Roger Penske’s name is synonymous with Indianapolis 500 victories, as he has collected 14 titles. This marked Penske and Newman’s first Daytona victory.

True race fans should feel insulted about the way our sport is treated in mainstream media. Of course, coverage on Speed TV and ESPN’s “NASCAR Now” was complete and
comprehensive. That is to be expected when racing is conveyed by former drivers, crew chiefs, and astute and passionate observers. However, when Sportscenter personalities and everyday ESPN hosts discussed the results, they were incorrect, omitted, or told with an air of disgust.

There has been an age old and often heated debate about whether auto racing is a sport. Sport is defined as “an individual or group competitive activity, involving physical exertion or skill, governed by rules, and sometimes engaged in professionally.” An individual who has ever talked with a driver or actually watched a race cannot argue with the fact that auto racing is a sport. People may not like motorsports or think racing drivers do very little in the cockpit, but this is an incorrect assumption.

Take Sunday’s 500 for example. There were 43 individuals, who race professionally, vying for the win in oppressive heat. There was a crew chief and spotter with whom the driver remained in constant contact. There is no discussion about defensive coverage as in other sports, but these conversations affect the outcome of the race. The driver and teams that are able to effect the proper adjustments to their car were in contention for the victory on lap 199. Unfortunately, “Pardon the Interruption” and Mike and Mike in the Morning” were not too concerned with the results and the excitement surrounding NASCAR’s “Super Bowl.” Instead of discussing the race with fans on the air and reading our emails, we were treated to the same tired news surrounding baseball and football scandals. Football season has been over for some time and spring training for baseball has just started.

Yesterday was a great race. I feel sorry for those that aren’t racing fans. The new car, personnel changes, and a long season should combine to make this year’s championship battle as exciting as the 50th Daytona 500. There is nothing about Andy Pettitte, HGH, or “Spygate” that is nearly as exciting as the 2008 Daytona 500. Enjoy the season and take pride in the fact that our drivers cannot rely on HGH or performance enhancing drugs to win a title!

Ryan Newman Victory Celebration photo by Pierre Ducharme of Reuters
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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Spanish GP's Threatened Amid Racial Tension

It has been reported that, due to racial remarks made last weekend in Spain, the FIA has threatened to drop the Spanish races from the F1 schedule.

This was supposed to be an entry that paid tribute to great upsets in sports history. It was intended to parallel the New York Giants’ victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII with the memorable 1987 Indianapolis 500 win for Al Unser Sr. That year Unser stepped in for an injured Danny Ongais and drove to his record tying fourth Indy win as a huge underdog.

However, something happened, during recent Formula 1 testing in Spain, which may produce much larger ramifications in ALL sports. It has been reported that, due to racial remarks made last weekend in Spain, the FIA has threatened to drop the Spanish races from the F1 schedule. Fans were seen jeering and taunting black driver Lewis Hamilton. There were signs and banners to further make the point that racism is alive in international motorsport. This may be a result of the contentious relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Spaniard Fernando Alonso. As former teammates, Alonso accused McLaren, a British team, of showing preferential treatment to Hamilton who is British. Alonso went so far as saying that McLaren was guilty of racism before his departure.

As to be expected, the organizers were quick to remove the offenders and make an apology to Formula 1 and Lewis Hamilton. Bernie Ecclestone’s swift actions should be commended. Racism is deplorable and has no place in motorsports.

I understand having an affinity or a strong dislike for a driver. I may boo a driver because he might win too much, complain about other competitors, or because I dislike the team owner. But I have never disliked a driver because of where he’s from, his religion, or ethnic background. People pick their favorite drivers for many of the same reasons that determine what teams they follow in other sports. It can be as simple as a family member’s influence, meeting the driver in person, or from where the driver came.

Lewis Hamilton handled the pressure of last season beautifully. He managed to put together a stellar inaugural season and is poised to top last year’s successes. The incident in Spain had to be unsettling for the second year driver. However, there were black drivers in America who dealt with racist remarks on a daily basis. Charles Wiggins, Wendell Scott, and other black drivers in history had to endure much more than an inappropriate sign.

Formula 1 has moved quickly to put an end to such activity at F1 sanctioned tracks. Hint to the rest of the racing world: Hit the offending parties in their wallets! Can you imagine a city losing the Super Bowl because of inappropriate remarks made to participating players? Racing has made strides to become more inclusive. I am looking forward to the day when a driver is just a driver. You love him or hate him for who he is and not because of the color of his skin.

Photo of rowdy Spanish fans during testing at Barcelona courtesy of itv formula1

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