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Tuesday Update: IndyCar doesn’t get it; Ecclestone off the hook?

Published August 3, 2014

TUESDAY MORNING ROUNDUP

It’s been a long August holiday weekend, with lots to report and examine.

The major races of the weekend took place Sunday – Scott Dixon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the winners in IndyCar and NASCAR Sprint Cup, respectively - and Bernie Ecclestone appears to have wormed his way out of that bribery trial in Germany (see Sunday Evening Update comments, below).

So that would appear to have been it – until ESPN Indy car racing reporter John Oreovicz posted some intriguing stuff about IndyCar on his Facebook page.

Oreovicz was apparently reading the Elmira (N.Y.) Star-Gazette (or just Googling for news on IndyCar) and came across an interview that sports editor Andrew Legare did with Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International. Legare was talking to Printup in advance of this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Glen when he asked the following question:

Q: Watkins Glen has hosted IndyCar and the Truck Series? Any thoughts on potential future additions to the track’s schedule?

Printup started his reply in a most diplomatic manner:

“We have our hands full right now,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t take on too much because we’re going to make everything else slow down. We put a lot of passion into the events we have. If we’re going to do something new, it might be to the detriment of something that’s already here.”

And then he dropped this bombshell:

“But I haven’t talked to IndyCar in two and a half years. I don’t even think they’re ready to talk to us, to be candid. We don’t have any desire with their current business model to run here. Their business model is insane. They’re asking way too much money for a product that you can’t sell enough tickets to and obviously that puts you in red ink land. And there’s no TV; corporate sponsors aren’t following them. If your corporate sponsors and TV won’t follow, it’s very difficult to host one of these races. I love IndyCar, as you well might remember, and I’d love to have them back. From a business model point of view, I can’t see doing it.”

Wow. “Their business model is insane.” Double wow.

Now, as in everything, there are politics at work here. Watkins Glen International is owned and operated by International Speedway Corp., which is owned by NASCAR’s France family. The France family would like nothing more than to crush IndyCar, which in turn would crush the Hulman-George family, which owns the Indianapolis Speedway and IndyCar. So it is not surprising to hear this guy dump all over IndyCar.

But what he says has a ring of truth to it. There are not enough fans interested enough in the races to show up and buy tickets, their television presence is nothing compared with NASCAR’s and other major-league sports and the really big corporations (other than Verizon) aren’t interested in getting involved.

Why is this? If you talk to IndyCar insiders – the journalists and the PR people – the series is on a roll and happy days are just around the corner. They have the best racing; all that needs to be done is expose more people to it.

You hear that all the time: IndyCar has the best racing but more people have to be exposed to it.

You know, unless you’re living under a rock, any sports fan anywhere on this continent is aware that Indy car racing exists. But here is the cold, hard fact of the matter: they don’t care about it. It might be the best racing, but they simply don’t care.

I hear, time and again, that the U.S. network ESPN doesn’t even run the results of the races on the “crawl,” the stream of scores and other results that runs across the bottom of the screen when there’s a sports news broadcast on the air (we have the same thing on TSN and Sportsnet).

It’s as if the people who are moaning about this expect that somebody is going to see, on that crawl, “Scott Dixon wins IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio,” and have an epiphany. “My God, Martha! I didn’t know there was Indy car racing! We must find out where it’s taking place and make plans to go!”

No, people don’t care. They care about a lot of sports, but Indy car racing is not one of them. They like the Indianapolis 500, apparently, but other than that one race they could care less.

I sympathize with IndyCar and the people who like it. I work in a business that is having similar difficulties. Day in and week out, 24/7 and 52 weeks a year, most of us do really incredible journalism. The Toronto Star’s coverage of the Rob Ford scandal is a prime example.

But fewer and fewer people are buying newspapers, And the New York Times (among others) is developing ulcers because their digital audience has peaked and is falling. What’s going on?

There is a school of thought that suggests a growing number of people don’t care much about good journalism any more. The message is that news media have to come up with something else to carve out market share.

Which brings me back to the IndyCar conundrum. Perhaps people don’t care about good racing. Perhaps IndyCar, if it is going to survive, has to come up with something other than good racing to get people interested again.

I know it sounds silly, but if excellent quality journalism isn’t doing it for the news media, it’s possible that good racing isn’t enough to get people to attend IndyCar races either. 

It’s up to IndyCar to figure out the answer. Far be it from me to be Mr. Know-it-All. I mean, if I can’t figure out how to sell more newspapers and/or attract more people to read my stuff online, I don’t have any business telling anybody else how to solve their problems.

But as is the case with media, IndyCar really is missing something. And they’d better come up with an answer, fast, because when Michael Printup’s highly critical – nay, devastating – words get around, and they will, IndyCar is going to have to do some fast talking.

SUNDAY EVENING UPDATE

As mentioned up top, Scott Dixon won the IndyCar Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Sunday – from the back of the pack, yet (click here for full story) – and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania (click here for all the details).

Robert Wickens of Guelph was winning the German Touring Car Series race at Spielberg in Austria but was penalized for an unsafe release during a pit stop and wound up being black-flagged. More about all this in a later posting but first, the most important news of the weekend.

Although the sums are different and varied, reports from Europe suggest a deal appears to have been reached in the bribery trial in Germany of F1 ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone.

Apparently, in return for a donation to either the bank that felt it was ripped off, a charity, or the German government, all charges against Ecclestone will be dropped. 

The London Express is reporting that Ecclestone will cough up $50 million while Agence France-Presse says it will be $100 million.

Whatever, Ecclestone will be off the hook. He faced up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

I don’t understand European court systems. In Canada, for instance, Ecclestone would have had to plead guilty and then been fined a certain amount of money agreed to by the prosecution and defence as part of a plea bargain. The deal would have included no jail time and the court would have had to accept the recommendation of the Crown and defence. But there would have been a plea entered and a conviction registered. Not, apparently, in Germany.

Over there, if the prosecution and  defence agree to a financial settlement, all charges are then withdrawn. It’s as if nothing happened.

Which sure sounds like a bribe to me.

In any event, Ecclestone – who has maintained all along that he would not go to jail – can now continue to run Formula One as he always has.

Some reports from Europe suggest that his bosses at CVC Capital Partners have a big problem because they are on record as saying they would fire him if he was found guilty of a crime but since the charges will be withdrawn and no judgment or plea entered, they have no grounds on which to act.

Of course, CVC Capital Partners could very well have been soured by this whole business. They will have been exposed to the underbelly of F1 that they might have heard about but not actually seen previously.

They might seriously be considering getting out – even though F1 has turned out to be a terrific investment for them.

It’s interesting that Ecclestone – several weeks ago now – said if F1 was put up for sale again that he would consider buying it back. Now, where would he have have gotten that idea?

At end of day, then, the one guy who seems to be paying a big price for this bit of high-stakes poker has been German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is serving a sentence of more than eight years for accepting a bribe from – who?

Gribkowsky, of course, goes back to the early 1980s with Ecclestone and this is not the first time they have done business together. That Gribkowsky has taken the fall this time will undoubtedly be made up to him at some point going forward – just as Bernie seems to be taking care of another of his old cronies, Flavio Briatore.

There are the Bernie haters out there who will be appalled at this turn of events. And then there will be the old guard in Formula One who will all be heaving a big sigh of relief.

He might be a scoundrel, he might be a liar and he might be a thief. He might be everything else that people have said about him, too. But he is  Formula One and without him the business and the sport would be in trouble.

Yes, at some point they will have to get along without him because he will die. But they will cross that bridge when they come to it. Right now, today, they are all breathing easy

FRIDAY EVENING UPDATE

A couple of things have come up, so I felt it necessary to pop in and bring everybody up to date.

There is a suggestion in the Indianapolis Star tonight that next year’s Honda Indy Toronto race will be held on the weekend of June 5-7.

I’d heard those dates as well but a check with City Hall this week revealed that, so far as the City of Toronto’s transportation department is concerned (they’re the people who determine what roads will be closed, and when), there still needs to be a report submitted regarding a proposal for the next three years of the event.

In other words, right now, today, there isn’t even an agreement in place for a Honda Indy Toronto at any time next year, never mind June 5-7.

Maybe this was suggested to the Indy Star to put some pressure on the IndyCar series to confirm a date in June. I reported in the Toronto Star on the Friday of this year’s Honda Indy that the race has to be moved back into June in 2015 because the Pan Am Games are being held in July.

But June 5-7 raises all sorts of questions.

1. That is the traditional weekend that the F1 Grand Prix du Canada is held in Montreal. Does the Honda Indy really want to go up against F1? And can it? Will the FIA approve two major international events in one country on the same day? I don’t know about that. And will Bernie Ecclestone approve? Don’t kid yourself, Bernie has way more influence with the FIA than IndyCar does and when F1 is in a country, Bernie doesn’t want any competition, period.

2. Does this mean IndyCar has decided to keep a race in Houston in June? It’s been my understanding that the situation there is still very fluid, in that the Houston promoter is – or has been - hoping for a date at a time of year when it isn’t as warm in that Texas city.

3. Of course, going back to No. 1, maybe there won’t be a Grand Prix in Canada next year and the Honda Indy Toronto can have those dates all to itself. You’ll remember that the mayor of Montreal, the province of Quebec and the government of Canada held a media conference this past June to announce a 10-year extension of the contact with F1 for a Grand Prix. Except nobody from F1 or the FIA attended and, at the end of the day, no contract with F1 had been signed. So we shall see.

4. Of course, something else could be at play here. This could be a very cynical move on the part of somebody to have a third party block the holding of the Toronto race in June. There are rumours . . . 

Meantime, for those of you Indy car racing fans out there who can’t wait till 3 p.m. Sunday to get your fix, Indycar.com is live-streaming practice sessions and qualifying Saturday as well as the Sunday morning warmup.

Here is the schedule:

Saturday, Aug. 2 – 9 a.m. Indy Lights qualifications
                            10-10:45 a.m. Verizon IndyCar Series practice 
                             2 p.m. Verizon IndyCar Series qualifications

Sunday, Aug. 3 –    10-10:30 a.m. Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up 

More TV guide information further down.

Finally, Kyle Larson, who should really be racing in the IndyCar series, won the pole for the Sprint Cup race at Pocono on Sunday. He set a new track record, too.

Okay, there must be something in the Canadian water that suits sprint car racing star Donny Schatz.

The five-time World of Outlaws points champion from Fargo, N.D., who’s got 158 wins to his credit, including seven Knoxville Nationals titles (the Indy and Daytona 500s of sprint car racing), crossed into Canada late last week and proceeded to clean up in the three Outlaws tour races that were then held over four days.

He won the feature Saturday night at Drummondville, Que., repeated his trip to Victory Lane Sunday night at Cornwall Motor Speedway in eastern Ontario and then Tuesday night at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, he won yet again.

Schatz and the rest of the Outlaws (King Steve Kinser, Joey Saldana, Jason Sides) are at I-55 Speedway in Pevely, Mo., this weekend (there’s $28,000 on the line for the winner of the two races on tap there) and then they will haul off to Knoxville, Iowa, for the annual Nationals there next week.

It’s a tough grind for the drivers – and families – on tour. They race up to 85 times a year between February and November and it’s tough to eat properly and to get the proper amount of exercise. In fact, Schatz looked this year as if he’d dropped some pounds. A swarthy-looking, stocky fellow in previous years, he looked positively streamlined the other night at Ohsweken (see photo below)

Donny Schatz

I approached him to talk about his life but he waved me off. The Outlaws are great with the fans, and will give people all the time in the world after the races, but before any race they are preoccupied and focused and not in the mood for conversation. As it turned out, I had to vamoose before the feature because things were running late and I had work early the next day, so I didn’t get a chance to chat with him.

But a bunch of years ago, I had a great interview with him and he had some interesting things to say then about life on the road. Here are some paragraphs taken from a feature published in Toronto Star Wheels in July, 2007:

McDonald: How do you handle the World of Outlaws tour, physically and mentally?

Schatz: “Mentally and emotionally, I don’t do too bad because I can fly home. I’m on airplanes a lot, but I can get home between races and do some relaxing.

“Physically, you just have to watch yourself so that you don’t eat or drink too much. Sure, I’ve had my share of beer and liquor but you have to be careful. It’s usually in the off-season that I can get into a gym.”

McDonald: And what’s it like to win a big race, like the Knoxville Nationals, as compared to a smaller show like the one at Ohsweken?

Schatz: “Look, I’m a professional race-car driver. I’m paid to win races. I don’t think that one’s (the Nationals) more important than another. Every win is special, every win is precious.

“You enjoy it for 15 or 20 minutes and then you head on down the road to the next one. That’s the way I look at it.”

The photo at the top of this column is of Jessica Zemken, a sprint car driver from the Syracuse, N.Y. , area. I snapped it at Ohsweken the other night during the drivers meeting. She races in local sprint car shows and runs with the Outlaws when they’re in the neighbourhood. She had her first Outlaws podium last week, in Fulton, N.Y., when she finished third.

She’s also been driving a supermodified this year at Oswego Speedway and, from all reports, is more than holding her own. There have only been four or five women who’ve raced at Oswego and only one, Star Matteson, won a feature there (in the limited supers).

As well as her racing exploits, Zemken is also known for her romance with NASCAR Sprint Cup star Tony Stewart. That came to an end several years ago – she’s now keeping time with Canadian DIRT modified star Stewart Friesen – but it was always fun when she would show up to race against him when he would make one of his sprint car starts.

Look for a feature article on Zemken by motorsport writer Tim Miller in Toronto Star Wheels in the coming weeks.

Okay, I have to say it. They start special shows at places like Ohsweken Speedway too late for many people. I was there the other night and there was a ton of kids, which was great to see, but you knew that as the evening wore on the parents would start worrying about having them out too late.

I know it’s summer holidays but it really doesn’t matter: kids stay up too late and get up at their regular time for camp or day care or whatever and they are a handful because they’re overtired.

The Outlaws didn’t start their time trials the other night till 7:30. Yes, it then rained a bit to put the program on hold but even without the rain it was too late. There’s no reason why the show can’t start earlier. The racers are all there and the crowd would come in earlier if they knew the start time had been rolled back.

Start the racing at 6 p.m. on weeknights. Or 6:30. Then, a four-hour show will get people out the door by 10 or 10:30. The feature the other night didn’t end till between 11 and midnight. Too late.

Okay, NASCAR, IndyCar and the NHRA are in action this weekend, with Formula One on summer vacation. Here is what you can see on TV, and when. Thanks to TSN and George Webster for this information:

NASCAR:

Sat., Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m. ET – NASCAR Nationwide Series: U.S. Cellular 250 from Iowa Speedway on TSN2

Sun., Aug. 3,  11 a.m. ET – NASCAR Canadian Tire Series: National 250 from Ste Eustache, Que., on TSN (tape)

12 p.m. ET – NASCAR Sprint Cup: GoBowling.com 400 from Pocono Raceway on TSN

11 p.m. ET – (ENCORE, tape) NASCAR Canadian Tire Series: National 250 on TSN2

IndyCar:

Sun, Aug. 3, 3 p.m. ET – Verizon IndyCar Series: Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio from Mid-Ohio Sports Car
Course on Sportsnet One.

NHRA Drag Racing:

Mon., April 4, 1 p. m. ET – NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing:  O’Reilly Auto Parts Northwest
Nationals from Pacific Raceway on TSN.

Enjoy the racing, everyone! And I’ll see you next week.

Norris McDonald – nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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