• Doug Coby

Weekend Racing: Short-track series surprises with solid TV ratings 

F1 in France, IndyCar at Road America, NASCAR at Nashville this weekend.

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald June 18, 2021
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The most popular auto racing spectator sport in the United States is short-track speedway racing. No, it is not one-day Goliaths like the Indianapolis 500 or the Talladega 500 or the Grand Prix of the United States at Austin. It is weekly racing (or twice weekly) at the Hales Corner Speedway in Wisconsin, Jennerstown Speedway in Pennsylvania and Star Speedway in Epping, N.H., a Boston suburb, to name three of hundreds.

Ever since the mid-1980s, when big-league foreign ride-buyers started to take Indy car jobs away from Americans, there has been non-stop complaining by short-track fans and racers about the drivers never being given a chance to “go to Indy.” Most racers know the name of the game and will make references at press conferences about not having “a rich uncle,” but will also point to offshore drivers as examples of athletes who don’t have to “bring money” to get a seat, Australian Scott McLaughlin being the latest.

So when Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham announced their (IROC-style) Superstar Racing Series made up of six short-track showdowns featuring eleven legends of the sport (Stewart, Paul Tracy, Willy T. Ribbs, Greg Biffle, Bill Elliott, Helio Castroneves and so-on) as well as a local “ringer,” the world went around really quickly that this could be a way to show all those big-league owners that they were making a mistake by turning their noses up at the idea of putting an American in one of their cars. The fact that prior to 1986, the short tracks are exactly where the Foyts, Andrettis, Rutherfords, and Johncocks and the rest of the legends were racing hasn’t seemed to cross the minds of the current owners.

So last Saturday night at Stafford Speedway in Connecticut – the tour will also race on the next five Saturday nights at 8 p.m. on the CBS Television Network and visit places like Knoxville Raceway in Iowa (this week), Eldora Speedway in Ohio, Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Slinger Speedway in Wisconsin and the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway – the “ringer,” NASCAR modified driver Doug Coby, came out on top. He beat those named earlier but also Michael Waltrip and Tony Kanaan, among others.

And how did the Superstar series do, ratings-wise? How about a total viewership of 1.3 million? The NASCAR All-Star Race from Texas drew 2.7 million and the Xfinity, also from Texas, came in at 957,000. IndyCar did okay but . . . The Saturday afternoon race from Detroit drew 845,000 and the big number came Sunday (after tennis) and that was 1.38 million.

Face it, friends: things were a little quiet in the IndyCar booth at Detroit without Paul Tracy. NBC, after changing its mind about having three people in the announcing booth and adding Tracy for the rest of the season, had a re-think and didn’t want Townsend Bell and Tracy jawing about Paul driving in a short-track series on another network. At least, that’s what I figure to be the reason; newspapers, which I know better, used to be sensitive about things like that. Anyway, when the Superstar series is racing Saturday night and IndyCar is also racing the same weekend, don’t expect to hear Tracy adding some life to the proceedings.

Doug Coby, meantime, turned a few heads last Saturday night and you can look for the other short-track ringers to do the same over the next five weeks.

Said the winner, Coby: “What a special night for short-track racing in America. This is a special night for Stafford Motor Speedway and everybody who is short-track racer around the country, either dirt or asphalt. Just to have all these fans here (the place was a sellout) and all these drivers – the guy who won the Indy 500 two weeks ago, NASCAR Hall-of-Famers, Daytona 500 champions and here I am, a Modified tour guy and homegrown Stafford Speedway guy. It just goes to show there are a lot of good short-track racers out there.”

He then went on to wish the best of luck to Bobby Santos III and Cody Swanson and some of the other “ringers” who will be taking on the pros. And maybe catching the eye of an owner who might take them to the next level.

INDYCAR TELECASTS SHOW DISRESPECT 

If you are a Canadian fan of IndyCar racing, it is imperative you have the patience of Job. NBC’s schedule last Sunday featured the French Open Tennis Tournament (tennis has to be the most boring spectator sport in the history of the universe) the second IndyCar race from Detroit and hockey.

It was bad enough that tennis ran long, but NBC, after moving to the race (with five minutes of commercials before and after), then returned to tennis for the trophy presentation, which was entirely in French. I mean, really? They couldn’t wait to ditch the Saturday IndyCar race; they barely had time to mention the name of the winner.

Anyway, they threw to the Sunday race again (this time saying, “we’re really going this time”) and we then had to live through yet another five minutes of commercials. At least the last half of the race that we did see was exciting. (Excuse me, those of us watching on NBC found it exciting; Sportsnet360 left early, as it did on Saturday.) Pato O’Ward won on Sunday and Marcus Ericsson was first Saturday.

An aside: it was 24 years ago when the late Canadian, Greg Moore, won this race. Oh, what might have been.

Okay, listen up: I am old enough to remember when we didn’t get any live racing on TV. The most popular sports show was Saturday afternoon’s ABC Wide World of Sports where, if we were lucky, we got to see highlights of F1 and Indy car races a week late (nobody cared about NASCAR). Then, CBC-TV started showing F1 races the same day but after late-night sports. Which meant you swore everybody to secrecy in case they heard who won. You would want to clobber them if they let slip the winner.

Then we started to get live-and-in-person coverage. What’s spoiled it is that whoever has the IndyCar contract – TSN, Sportsnet – hasn’t cared and races were either delayed or not shown at all (TSN, in the early days). What we have now with Sportsnet is unbelievable. Totally unbelievable.

The problem is that the only people who care about this sad state of affairs are the fans. Sportsnet doesn’t care. That’s obvious. And neither does IndyCar. I have talked on several occasions with Mark Miles, Penske Entertainment Corp. president and CEO and he has expressed surprise at the state of affairs. But nothing has changed..

At the end of the day, NBC in the U.S. and its streaming affiliate Peacock are more important to IndyCar than Canada and other than an “how’s it goin’ up there anyway?” query, IndyCar really doesn’t have much interest.

So enjoy what we have, which is something; always remembering that once upon a time, we had nothing.

AJ Foyt

OTHER NEWS 

Canadian F1 driver Nicholas Latifi, in conversation with Canadian reporters Thursday, noted that F1 has the longest schedule of any professional sport in the world and it could get longer next year. He said, as a driver, he can’t get enough but that it could be rough on team members. The Grand Prix of France goes to the post this Sunday morning at 8:55 a.m. Qualifying is Saturday at the same time. Both qualifying and racing can be seen on TSN. . . . . . While we’re at it, here are the other TV times this weekend. NASCAR trucks, Friday night at 8 on FOX Sports Racing; NASCAR Xfinity, Saturday afternoon at 3:30 on TSN; SuperStar Racing Experience (see story, above) at 8 p.m. Saturday on CBS; NTT IndyCar Series, noon till 3 on Sunday on Sportsnet360; NASCAR Cup Series from Nashville at 3:30 Sunday on TSN. Happy Father’s Day – F1 in the a.m., IndyCar at noon and NASCAR Cup in the afternoon. Who could ask for more?

The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame held a double induction ceremony in Knoxville, Iowa, after waiting out the pandemic. Bill Cummings, Paul Leffler and Jeff Swindell were among those inducted. . . . The Flamboro Speedway home opener June 19 – no spectators allowed, yet – will be televised on GForceTV.net . . . . O’Neil Electric will be Larry Jackson’s primary sponsor on the NASCAR Pinty’s Series championship trail come August. . . . . . NASCAR plans to cut the speeds of its Cup cars between 7 and 10 mph at Daytona and Talladega Speedways next season. . . . . . Green Savoree Racing Promotions have extended their contract with St. Petersburg, Fla., through 2026. The IndyCar season opener is usually held there. . . . . . Kevin Magnussen (subbing in IndyCar this weekend for Felix Rosenqvist) and Renger van der Zande won the IMSA SportsCar Championship race in Detroit last weekend. Talk about a program – IMSA and IndyCar. We should be so lucky. . . . .

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