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On Jimmie Johnson, rallying and no-name F1 drivers

Published February 4, 2013

Jimmie Johnson is the latest Sprint Cup driver to sign up to race a round, or rounds, of the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2013.

He’ll be driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team at Phoenix on March 2.

What is supposed to be a major-league-level development series for the Sprint Cup series is turning, once again, into Sprint Cup lite.

The reason, of course, is that the sponsor situation is so tight now that one of the few ways a Nationwide team or car owner can attract the money needed to run those cars is to have a “name” driver in the seat.

And it’s not just the race itself that’s important to a sponsor. In return for signing a cheque for – at the absolute, bare bones, minimum – $500,000, a sponsor wants the driver to appear at his place of business, or at a cocktail reception, or at a barbecue for clients, as well as in the race car.

No longer are corporations or companies willing to take a chance on an up-and-comer. They want to introduce Jimmie Johnson, or Brad Keselowski, or Kyle Busch to their customers. Not Jimmy or Janet Maybesomeday.

Is it good for the sport? Of course not.

But there’s really nothing NASCAR can do about it. They tried to, a few years ago, when they ruled that a driver could only score points in one division. They made it so that Sprint Cup drivers couldn’t score points in Nationwide, too. And that did help – for maybe a season. But now we’re back to same old, same old.

Of course, if something happened to one of those guys while racing at a lower level, that then prevented them from fulfilling their racing and sponsorship obligations in the big league, then we might see an end to it.

But until that happens, and Sprint Cup team owners forbid it from happening in contracts they have with their star drivers – as has happened in other leagues, such as Formula One – you can fuggedaboutit.

Speaking of Formula One, the rollout of the new cars continues apace, as does the naming of racing drivers most of us have never heard of to rides in the World Championship of Drivers this year (Giedo van der Garde, COME ON DOWN!!!).

Thank goodness for Sebastien Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton or my interest in what is supposed to be the top level of the sport featuring the best cars (they have those) and best drivers in the world (hmmmmm) might start to diminish.

But as long as those top four guys are around, plus Felipe Massa, Jenson Button and Mark Webber, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, as usual.

(My personal jury is still out on Romaine Grosjean. And is Sergio Perez really a McLaren driver? As in, is he good enough? We’ll find out, won’t we?)

Speaking of McLaren, it’s the marque’s 50th anniversary and we’ll undoubtedly be hearing lots and lots about the team, and Bruce McLaren, over the next 10 or 11 months.

It’s hard to believe, but Bruce founded his own racing team 50 years ago. Then, at age 32 in 1970, he died when he crashed while testing one of his Can-Am Series cars at Goodwood in England.

I remember that day vividly. I was shaving to go to work and listening to Wally Crouter on CFRB – he had the top morning radio show in Toronto at the time – and he made the announcement of the accident and then ad-libbed a most magnificent tribute to McLaren.

In any event, a friend sent me this link the other day to the first of what I understand will be a three-video tribute to the history of the company. The other two videos will be released later this year. Click here for the video.

Here is big news. Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard did NOT win the first event of the 2013 Canadian Rally Championship, the Perce-Neige Maniwaki Rally, in Quebec at the weekend. The perennial champions (I mean, they win everything, don’t they?) were forced out by mechanical gremlins. The rally was won by Patrick Richard of Squamish, B.C., with Rob Fagg of the U.K. co-driving.

Here’s some short-track news. Mike Lichty of Kitchener finished fifth Saturday night in the Gambler Classic for TQ midgets at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. Along with the Rumble at Fort Waye and the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, the Gambler is one of the “don’t-miss” indoor racing events that are held each winter.

It’s too bad there isn’t something closer to southern Ontario. We were lucky that, for years, the TQs would hold an indoor event in Niagara Falls, N.Y., at the old Niagara Falls Convention Centre, which was eventually blown away to build a parking garage for the Seneca Casino. And promoters in London, Ont., tried for a couple of years at the arena there but weren’t successful.

My old pal Nate Salter held discussions for a TQ race with officials at the Direct Energy Centre at the CNE but I understand they didn’t want to share in the risk in case something like a snowstorm put the kibosh on a turnout, so Nate – correctly – decided he didn’t want to gamble his children’s inheritance and nothing came of it.

Oh, before I forget, Lou Cicconi Jr. won the Friday night pre-Gambler race at Atlantic City while Anthony Sesely won the Gambler feature Saturday night.

Drag racer Spencer Massey will return to Don Schumacher Racing for the 2013 NHRA Top Fuel season.

Massey is a top gun. I also was impressed when – during an interview I did with him several years ago as he prepared to haul his dragster from Castrol Raceway outside Edmonton to Toronto Motorsports Park outside Cayuga – he talked about how excited he was at the prospect of driving across Canada and seeing the country.

“I’ve heard about Canada all my life and I’m really excited about being able to see it and enjoy it,” he said.

That’s boy’s No. 1 in my book.

Speaking of Toronto Motorsports Park (we weren’t – but you know how my brain works), they’ve got a lot of special road course and dragway gift certificate and special promotions on offer that they’re touting under the heading, “Make Their Heart Race This Valentine’s Day.”

I suggest you check everything out at TMP’s website (click here), considering that Valentine’s Day is on Tuesday. . .

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