The red mist is hitting heavy and hard.
INDIANAPOLIS – Most racing series are entering a second half pretty quick, which means it’s about time for “silly season”, when driver and team contracts are up for renewal. With so few available seats and so many drivers wanting to fill them, it’s easy to see why tempers are growing short and lines to the fabrication shops are getting longer.
This past weekend, the NASCAR Nextel Cup and the Champ Car World Series both had quite a few examples of tantrums on and off the track.
In Cup competition, everybody’s favorite whipping boy Tony Stewart earned the wrath of team owner Ray Evernham and his driver Kasey Kahne when Stewart, possessor of the fastest car at Chicagoland Speedway outside the Windy City mashed Kahne into the wall and out of the race.
Kahne was leading at the time and his team wasn’t particularly pleased with the manner in which their rookie driver was used for target practice. They stormed to Stewart’s pit and proceeded to have a Chicagoland brawl. Ah, NASCAR the way it used to be.
NASCAR deemed the punt a “racing incident” and Stewart, already on probation for conduct unbecoming a sponsor’s lackey escaped without further penalty.
Kahne’s crew chief Tommy Baldwin, on the other hand got $10 grand in fines: half for “actions detrimental to NASCAR” and the balance for being the final link in chain of command. He’s on probation until New Year’s Eve.
By the time everyone arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for two days of testing in preparation for the Brickyard 400 (and before Baldwin got fined), Kahne and his crew had “put this behind us and we’ll use it for motivation” at the next race on the bullring in Loudon, New Hampshire.
NASCAR chat rooms are lit up like firecrackers over this altercation and Stewart, who went on to win a race he was destined to own is at the core of dissent. Apparently, NASCAR fans are not taking well to the fact that racing is rubbing; they never saw the glory days of Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison’s ten-rounders.
It is all news to current fans that NASCAR was built on moonshine and night running to avoid the cops. These days, fans want to see sanitized motorsports and when one of their favorites gets punted, they are pretty vociferous in complaint. Bear witness to beer cans on the racing surface in Talladega this spring when Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win.
Things in Champ Car are different, but equally controversial. The 2003 champion who spent last season being Mr. Nice Guy so he could earn that title, Paul Tracy has returned to his old habits and, while he is the most competitive guy on any track, if not in front PT will find a way to get there and if you are using his spot of roadway, too darn bad.
Paul has used his “chrome horn” to steam past anyone who makes a mistake and to spear anyone keeping him from his ultimate position: P1. In the most recent races, Paul’s actions have aroused the ire of Champ Car officials, who just don’t think he’s racing fairly against the competition.
Citing difficulties with Justin Wilson – at Cleveland and in Toronto last weekend – Paul Tracy has received drive-through penalties for misconduct on the race track. He’s been penalized money for criticizing Champ Car officiating. He’s on probation.
But penalties, probations and pooh-bahs in Race Control are not stopping Paul Tracy from storming through fields after his transgressions have been punished. Unfortunately, the final thing PT did in Toronto last Sunday was an error on his part and on his team, who need to let Tracy know what traffic is like when he exits the pits.
Paul came out from his final green flag pit stop at warp speed just as Michel Jourdain Jr. arrived at Turn 1. Tracy barreled into his good friend and left him in the wall at Princes Gate, site of most Toronto incidents. Jourdain let Tracy know how disappointed he was; the gestures made every front page in the Canadian national press and are now fodder for the web.
My own e-mail has seen more than a few concerned comments. A friend thought the Toronto race looked more like the old “Destruction Derby” television show where the last guy running was the winner. “I was real surprised to see they brought back those great days today in Toronto,” he said. “Some French guy (Sebastien Bourdais) won the actual race but the ‘Destruction Derby’ part was won by a guy named Tracy.”
At one point during the race telecast in Toronto, pit reporter Derek Daly actually noted “Tracy hit everything but the helicopter,” tough to do when it’s whirling several hundred feet off the ground. But he woulda if he coulda.
Another comment: “Paul Tracy is driving like a refugee from a figure-8 race. If there is one driver in all professional series who should be permanently blacklisted and sentenced to driving cabs in Beirut or Cairo, it’s Tracy.” Hmmm, there’s an idea.
So the question remains: are we watching racing, fighting or a combination of both?
In the instance of Stewart vs. Kahne, I go with NASCAR and absolve Tony Stewart of a racing crime. Yes, bridesmaid Kahne – he’s gonna get that first win soon enough – and his team led by Baldwin have every right to be angry because Kasey lost a bundle of points in the process and a good race car, but to go barreling off to Stewart’s pit and take it up with Greg Zippadelli and Stewart’s crew isn’t good for business.
As for PT, well, much as I love the way he drives and adore his fiery spirit, I just can’t grant Tracy absolution on the Jourdain punt. The first rule in racing – after always use the restroom before you get in the car – states it’s the responsibility of an overtaking driver to make a safe pass.
I have to agree with my friend who said, “I thought I was going to see real racing cars at the highest level here in America, but of course I didn’t. I did see a pretty good race this morning, an F1 race which IS the highest level of open wheel racing, so the day wasn’t a complete loss.
“For the last month this guy Tracy has been trashing everybody. Now what will he say? A stop & go penalty is not enough. He is out of control and has to be stopped.”
Somehow I think my friend, who has worked in the racing trade most of his [adolescent] life is correct. Does anyone have the number of Tony Stewart’s anger management counselor?
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit