• Coca-Cola 600

Racing Roundup: Keselowski wins Coke 600 (but how were the ratings?)

Pinty’s at CTMP in July – maybe, and all the rest of the news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald May 25, 2020
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Roger Penske usually wins the Indianapolis 500 on U.S. Memorial Day weekend but with no Indy race, he won the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR stock car race at Charlotte Motor Speedway instead.

In a strange twist of fate, Chase Elliott was winning the 600 in a walk until there were only two laps remaining. At that inopportune time, his teammate, William Byron, had a tire go down and spun out, forcing a green-white-checkers finish.

Elliott’s team opted to have him pit for four tires while the second-and-third-place cars driven by Team Penske driver Keselowski and Jimmy Johnson stayed on the speedway. On the final restart, they held on for first and second – although Johnson was subsequently disqualified when his car failed post-race inspection – with Elliott, who had made it back up to third, elevated to second. 

Now, I hope the TV ratings were better for the Coke 600 than the NASCAR Cup race at Darlington Raceway last weekend.

NASCAR became the first major-league sport to return to competition since the COVID-19 crisis shut everything down several months ago. I was among many who wrote that with no competition, NASCAR would have record numbers for the Darlington race and would be stealing a real beat from IndyCar, which won’t start its season until June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway when the race will be shown on the full NBC network.

Well, they did get good numbers for that Darlington race – but not good enough. The had a 3.71 household rating and 6.3 million viewers. Unfortunately, the Daytona 500 in February drew a 4.4 rating and 7.3 million viewers.

Whatever, there are 400 million people living in the United States and the fact that the biggest auto racing league in the country can’t pull at least 10 million viewers at the best of times, and particularly during a pandemic, shows there’s still plenty of work to do.

Or maybe it’s a lost cause. When NASCAR wooed Madison Avenue and held its Awards Banquet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, it was goin’ uptown. But now they aren’t in New York anymore, the big corporations, for the most part, are no longer supporting the teams and cars and fisticuffs, or the potential for same, are now – once again – the focus of attention.

Kyle Busch clearly made a mistake at Darlington last Wednesday and, in so doing, put Chase Elliott out of the race. It was no big deal. But NASCAR’s announcers were still talking about it before Sunday night’s race and . . . Norris to NASCAR: fighting is not attractive to the mainstream any longer. There is no fighting in the NFL, NBA, soon won’t be in the NHL, or the PGA. They are more popular than NASCAR. Even the UFC isn’t pulling the numbers it once did.

So knock it off, please.

(Before leaving this topic, though, I must say Chase Elliott came up with a great line. Asked if he’d fight Busch, Elliott said he’d like to, “but with social distancing, my arms aren’t long enough to fight.”)

Oh, something else to knock off. For years, NASCAR’s favourite word was “awesome.” As far as the drivers were concerned, everything was “awesome” – the race, the car, the track, the day, the crowd, the sandwich they were eating, and so-on. Now we have a new word and I’m tired of it already. It’s “journey.” Drivers are thanking sponsors for sticking with them while they go along on their journey. Sunday night, Brad Keselowski thanked the family of a veteran for (paraphrase) “allowing me to be part of their journey.”

Please.

Kyle Larson won a World of Outlaws sprint car series tour race the other night. He’s feeling better after being kicked out of NASCAR for a racial slur uttered during a sim race. He’ll be back in NASCAR next year.

Because of Johnson’s disqualification, Ryan Blaney moved up to third in the Coke 600, Kyle Busch was fourth and Kevin Harvick finished fifth. The race featured an hour and 20-minute rain delay. The NASCAR trucks will be on Fox Sports Racing tonight (if FSR is part of your cable package). TSN will televise the Xfinity race Tuesday night and the second Cup series race from Charlotte will be on TSN Wednesday night.

Okay, I now want to congratulate the jerks, knuckleheads and knuckle draggers who made fools of themselves at Cayuga, a.k.a. Toronto Motorsports Park, last week when the facility opened for a Test ‘n Tune and a Corvette in the parking lot was burned to the ground, fistfights broke out and cars crashed into each other on the drag strip. The people involved obviously don’t have the intelligence to realize that when they do things like that, they wreck things for the rest of us.

Racing is a niche sport. Most people don’t know anything about it. What’s more, they don’t care. They hear the words “auto racing” or “motor sport” and they think dirty, polluting nitwits who have no chance of ever understanding what “Mensa” means, never mind joining. They hear or read about what happened at Cayuga and they are not surprised because that is what they expect. We have a world driving champion – a world champion – and Jacques Villeneuve’s accomplishment did exactly nothing to overcome the stigma.

Memo to management at TMP: the next time any of these morons show up, don’t let them in. And if they kick up a fuss, call the police.

I hear Canadian Tire Motorsport Park is trying to arrange a NASCAR PInty’s Series race for the July 3-5 weekend. Wouldn’t that be nice?

NBC showed an Indianapolis 500 Sunday but it was last year’s race, which was won by Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud was driving for Roger Penske and the word was around that the Captain wanted to dump him. Simon got to Indy and couldn’t be beaten. He won the road-course Grand Prix held two weeks before the big race on the oval and he followed that up by winning the pole and scoring a decisive victory in the 500.

Coca-Cola 600

After the race, Penske went to the press room and was sitting at the head table before either the winning driver or Team Penske president Tim Cindric got there. Usually, everybody waits for an MC from IndyCar to kick things off but not this time. A reporter started right in, suggesting Penske had to rehire Pagenaud for 2020. Penske hummed and hawed and wouldn’t commit. The reporter then went for the jugular. (This is a paraphrase, but it’s close): “He has just won the two biggest races of the year for you and your team; surely you have to give him a new contract.” Penske finally replied: “I guess so.” The reporter continued: “Is that a ‘Yes?’” “Yes,” said Penske. So that’s how Roger Penske was bullied into re-signing Simon Pagenaud for 2020. A surprise, for sure. But it happened.

I’ve wondered since whether the reporter in question might have had an ulterior motive. It was a reasonable question to ask – at first. But when the guy kept hammering away, I got suspicious. There are reporters in all three big-league racing series – F1, Indycar, NASCAR – who have conflicts of interest. I’m not talking about the reporters assigned by newspapers, TV stations or networks, magazines, and other so-called legitimate media. I’m talking about independent websites. People working for them don’t make much money. They have to find ways to supplement their incomes and one way is to write releases and media-train drivers.

You have to wonder whether something like that was at play in that Indianapolis Speedway press room one year ago. A guy hounded Penske into renewing Pagenaud’s contract and might have renewed his own contract at the same time.

Speaking of Indy, I watched that 2019 race and the grandstands crammed with 200,000-plus spectators and I thought there is no way they can run the Indianapolis 500 in August. Every time people get out of the house, the COVID-19 numbers go up. I suppose if they limited attendance to 20,000, or something, with 10 seats between everybody, they could do it, but what would be the point? Better to do it with no fans, like NASCAR, than to go half-measure.

And the scary part is, it could be years before 200,000 will be able to show up at the same time to watch the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Or any of the big sports, for that matter. Let’s cross our fingers, not for a vaccine (highly unlikely), but for something akin to penicillin, which started, in 1942, saving the lives of people who probably would have died previously. I know: my father was in the service during the Second World War and came down with pneumonia. He was doomed until they pumped him full of penicillin and it saved him. If medical science can come up with a wonder drug like penicillin that can knock COVID-19 out of people, then we’ll be able to relax. Until then? Who knows.

Sunday was a very strange day for me. With a couple of exceptions in the 1980s, when I’d either gone racing with my own car or announcing, I’ve been in Indianapolis for the 500. I woke up at 4 o’clock Sunday morning and I thought, “Well, my body clock knows this is normal for Indy 500 day and that explains why I’m ready to get up.”

If you know what’s good for you when you’re in Indy, the best thing to do is to get to the track early, so you leave your hotel at 5 or 5:30. When ABC had the TV contract in the States, Scott Goodyear worked on colour and analysis with Eddie Cheever. One morning four or five years ago, my colleague and friend Jeff Pappone and I were standing outside the Westin Downtown and Scott saw us. The ESPN/ABC broadcast team was about to leave in a motorcade to the Speedway, escorted by some of Indy’s finest motorcycle officers, and Scott arranged for us to join the motorcade. This is the way we went from just about then on and trust me: it is the only way to go.

Last year, NBC had the contract, so no motorcade for me (Jeff was home in Ottawa for his son’s birthday). So I took an Uber to the Main Street of Speedway, the Indianapolis suburb where the big track is located, and walked over. Not as much fun as having a motorcycle escort, I can tell you.

The last half-dozen years, or so, on the Friday night before the race, I’ve had dinner with Doug Caruso, one of the three Caruso brothers who formerly owned Oswego Speedway in New York, and Steve Barrick of Area Auto Racing News, which is headquartered in Trenton, N.J. I would talk to them about what was happening with IndyCar and Formula One and they kept me up to date on who was hot on the short-track scene. Like them, I’ve looked on those dinners as being one of the highlights of 500 weekend.

No room here to go over all the races and all the weekends (I wrote last year about my first 500 as a reporter being the first – and only – Indy 500 that Mario Andretti won), but there were Night Before the 500 races at Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Indiana State Fairgrounds (see picture) and sitting with Indy driver Eldon Rasmussen and the rest of the Edmonton motor racing mafia (drag racers Gary Beck, Bernie Fedderly, and Terry Capp) and watching Mel Kenyon, Tom Bigelow and John Andretti race, and Kenyon and Tommy Astone crashing and I thought they were both dead (I was with a girl friend who burst into tears when it happened, which tells you it was bad), and telling then-Toronto Star sportswriter Cathal Kelly it was okay to park at a place in the Speedway infield and coming out hours after the race to find the car gone. Great times.

TSN replayed a couple of year-old Formula One races Sunday, Monaco and Germany, before showing the Coca-Cola 600, “live and in colour” from Charlotte Motor Speedway. Here are a couple of observations.

Two things surprised me about Monaco (although they shouldn’t have – but they did). The famous tunnel under what is now the Fairmont Monte Carlo Hotel (previously the Loews Hotel), is actually a two-way street when the race isn’t on. Who knew?

Coca-Cola 600

And in Monaco, after the drivers scoot through Casino Square, they go along a short chute (Avenue des Beaux Arts) before reaching Mirabeau corner, which turns downhill to the hairpin. Halfway along that chute, they all swerve around something in the road. A big bump. I understood there was something in the road there but I never really knew what it was.

When I was in Monte Carlo last year to drive the new Bentley Silver Spur (well, somebody has to do it), I walked around the race course. I found that the pavement on Avenue des Beaux Arts has been built up there for the famous Tip Top Bar’s outdoor patio. There are no sidewalks on the road, so you walk right into the bar. And the only way there can be a patio is to extend it out into the street. So that explains why the drivers have to take a detour. (Yes, they take down the patio during the race.)

Coca-Cola 600

TSN also showed the 2019 German Grand Prix, in which our  finished fourth. Although Lance has taken his lumps for having a father who’s a gazilionaire (and that’s what will happen to our Nicholas Latifi after the F1 season gets going, you can bet), the fact is that anybody in Formula One is a great driver. I remember Patrick Bedard, who was a columnist at Car & Driver magazine, pointing out when he made it to Indy that “you still have to be able to drive the damn thing.” I think if you gave Lance a shot in a Ferrari that he’d be as quick as the guys who are on that team now. And give Latifi a year in F1 and he’d be able to go fast in a Ferrari too.

Which reminds me, re-watching those two races has convinced me that my initial impression of Charles Leclerc remains correct: he might be fast but he’s not a good racer. The Scuderia will find that out, if the season ever gets going.

But I have changed my mind about something else. After all these years, I think F1 – or any open-wheel class, for that matter – is crazy to race in the rain.

And there you have it, the Racing Roundup for May 25. See you next week.

By Norris McDonald / Special to wheels.ca

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