Let’s connect a few dots and see where they take us.
In 2003, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya “traded” his Williams F1 car to NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, in return for his Winston Cup stock car. Two things happened as a result of that “exhibition.”
Sir Frank Williams revealed several years later that Gordon had really been given a test in the F1 car, which he passed with flying colours, but that they had not been able to agree terms. Four years after that test, Montoya left F1 to drive in NASCAR for old friend Chip Ganassi.
So that “Tradin” Paint” exercise proved to be much more significant than advertised.
Now we are told that Fernando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson are going to do something similar on the day after the last F1 race of the season in Abu Dhabi. The drivers will travel to Bahrain, where they will each drive the other’s car.
Johnson is doing this for a giggle. I’m not so sure there isn’t something going on with Alonso and I think NASCAR is behind at least some of it.
NASCAR is hearing footsteps. Their TV numbers are way down, as is attendance at race tracks. As I suggested in my column in Toronto Star Wheels on Saturday, there are two primary reasons for this sad state of affairs – the franchise system that turned NASCAR into a closed shop and the new generation of drivers, which is mainly made up of ride-buyers, rather than small-town, small-speedway race drivers who worked their way up the ladder, as was the case in the past.
There is a third variable, as well. IndyCar is coming on strong. That F1 driver Marcus Ericsson would choose to join Schmidt Peterson Motorsport for 2019 after losing his F1 ride – instead of doing what most do when they get dumped, which is to hang on as a test driver or just sit out for a year or two – shows that the Indy league is regarded – by some, at least – of being on the same level as, or close to, the No. 1 European-based series. And the scuttlebutt that had Alonso joining the IndyCar Series for 2019 meant NASCAR would soon have a serious fight on its hands.
So, what to do?
If I’m NASCAR, two things: I start – baby steps in the beginning – to take the Monster Energy Series international. And, in concert, I go after famous international racing drivers to drive in those offshore races.
Let’s take a closer look at that last paragraph.
For years, CART ran an annual race in Australia, on the Gold Coast. It started in 1991 as a CART race, then became a Champ Car World Series race and then, when the Indy car civil war ended with the IRL the victor, it was dropped from the schedule. The last Gold Coast race was held in 2008.
In August, this year, several NASCAR executives went to Australia to meet with the people who promote the Australian Supercars Championship (Roger Penske, who has a foot in both the NASCAR and IndyCar camps, has been running a team in the Supercars Series) and, in recent days, word has emerged that plans are in the works to run a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race in Queensland, where the Indy car race used to be held. No timeline as of yet, but NASCAR is clearly on the move.
And Alonso, after stringing the IndyCar community along for most of the summer (while he didn’t say he wouldn’t run the IndyCar schedule in 2019, he sure didn’t say he wouldeither), finally let it be known that it ain’t gonna happen. While he seemed to leave the door open for an Indy 500 return, he didn’t really sound all that enthusiastic about that, either.
But he has, on several occasions, talked about a new and exciting period of his life and racing career and I don’t think leaving one open-wheel, open-cockpit series for another could be defined as “new,” or particularly “exciting.”
But stock car racing would fit, wouldn’t it?
Alonso is still a Formula One driver and every time there is an F1 race meeting, who else is also in the paddock? A NASCAR team owner, Gene Haas, that’s who.
Haas has a partner, Tony Stewart. Stewart started his career in Indy cars, is an Indianapolis 500 veteran, and has talked frequently in recent years, as his NASCAR career has wound down, about going back to run Indy. Penske has made no bones that if Stewart said he was in, he – Roger – would enter a car for him. And yet, out of the blue, just last week, Stewart told reporters that in light of Robert Wickens’s terrible accident at Pocono in August that left him paralyzed from the chest down, he – Tony Stewart – now doesn’t think racing in the 500 is such a good idea.
Where did that come from? It’s November! Unless, of course, it’s part of the campaign to convince Alonso to forego IndyCar and consider NASCAR.
So, add all this up. You have NASCAR fighting for its corporate life and moving to save the business by scheduling races offshore. Another aspect in their campaign for legitimacy in countries other than the United States is to sign internationally recognized race drivers and you can’t do worse than a two-time world champion. You stick it to IndyCar by poaching a race from right under their noses and you schedule – and probably pay for – a test in a Monster Cup car at a neutral site like Bahrain for Fernando Alonso.
The parallels with the 2003 Tradin’ Paint “exhibition” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are remarkable, except that instead of F1 trying to sign Gordon, you have NASCAR going after Montoya.
How could they afford him, you ask? NASCAR is not going broke and would top up anything required after Gene Haas, who is worth billions, comes to terms with him. And why Johnson and his car and not one of the current Stewart-Haas NASCAR team drivers? Because NASCAR owes a thrill to a seven-time champion and, more important, Rick Hendrick (Johnson’s employer) is believed to be involved in the promotion of that proposed Gold Coast NASCAR race.
So, there you have it. Whether Alonso would drive the full season, or a partial one, remains to be seen. But when you add everything up, the conclusion that something concrete is happening between Fernando Alonso and NASCAR is inescapable.
Fernando Alonso (above) and Jimmie Johnson are going to trade racing cars in Bahrain later this month and wheels.ca columnist Norris McDonald thinks NASCAR and Alonso are up to something.
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Mari Hulman George died on Saturday. The State of Indiana and many in the motorsport community are in mourning. For the complete obituary, please click here.
She was the mother of Tony George, the chairman of the board of the company that owns and operates the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as three daughters and a stepdaughter.
She was the daughter of Anton Hulman, Jr., better known as Tony Hulman, the Terre Haute, Ind., businessman who rescued the Speedway in 1946 after it was abandoned during the Second World War and fell into disrepair. A racing fan, she owned the still-remembered HOW sprint car team that she built around her race-driving husband, Elmer George. She never remarried following his death in 1976.
She was involved in charity work and animal welfare. Everybody knew her and admired her. I was always amazed when, during the annual 500 Festival Parade held the day before the Indy 500, she would ride along in a classic car convertible and the crowd would greet her as if she was the Queen of England.
Mari Hulman George, who loved auto racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, her family and all animals, not necessarily in that order, has died at age 83.
One year, just a few years ago, the parade was backed up because a float ahead broke down, or something, so she got out of her car and went along the fringes of the crowd, shaking hands and posing for pictures and thanking people for coming. She was just a nice, down-to-earth, lady.
When she said, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” before the 500, I always felt her monotone needed a little work but nobody else seemed to mind.
I truly believe her greatest contribution to the City of Indianapolis and the State of Indiana was her steady hand on the tiller 10 or 15 years ago when there was a family crisis over finances and some members wanted to sell the Speedway. She would not hear of it and, with the help of a trusted family friend, opened the board of Hulman & Co. to non-family members, thus ensuring that the fabled facility would remain in Hulman hands unless the reasons for selling were based on sound business decisions and not knee-jerk, emotional, reactions.
Yes, they could all have walked away with a fortune but, as anybody who knows how these things can go, and particularly her, who was aware as a child of what had happened once before, she was not prepared to watch any new owner or owners, for the sake of profit, start to cut corners. The Speedway was a sacred trust, and she made sure it would be preserved.
R.I.P, Mari George. You did well.
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WEEKEND RACING: Paul Tracy of West Hill (Scarborough) is in hot water over an entry on his Facebook page. Following at least one complaint, his employer, NBC, is investigating. Tracy says his Facebook account was hacked. Let’s hope so. In the current political climate in the United States, one slip of the finger or tongue can have far-reaching consequences. . . . . .Kevin Harvick sewed up a spot in the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks on Sunday when he won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was a boring race. Can’t call it any other way. Click here for details.
Canada’s Paul Tracy is under investigation by his employer, NBC, over Facebook postings he said he didn’t make.
Cole Custer won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Texas. He’s one of four drivers who will go for the championship at Homestead. Full report here.
Justin Haley, who won the NASCAR Camping World Trucks race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in August, won the playoff race at Texas Friday night and will be one of four in contention for the title in two weeks at Homestead. He won the race Friday when Todd Gilliland ran out of fuel on the last lap. . . . . . Fuzzy’s Vodka, which has been Ed Carpenter Racing’s title sponsor since the team was formed seven year ago, is withdrawing from that team and auto racing in general. It was always fun to see Fuzzy Zoeller, the golfer who is associated with the beverage alcohol business, at the Indianapolis 500. And one year, those of us in the media room received a premium bottle of that booze in a wooden souvenir container. It sits in my Family Room bookcase beside a couple of cans of James Hinchcliffe’s beer. . . . . Tom Blattler is one of the great PR people. He mostly focuses on auto racing but he can do anything. Anyway, one year he had the Ed Carpenter Racing account so I hit him up for a bottle of the sponsor’s product. I’ll see what I can do, says Tom. So he got me a bottle of Fuzzy’s Vodka all right – one of those little 1-oz. airline bottles. I have that one on my shelf, too. My friends say that if I should ever fall off the wagon, I’ve got enough on hand for a helluva party. . . . . Marc Marquez aboard a Honda won his 70th MotoGP race Sunday in the Shell Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix. Alex Rins on a Suzuki and Yamaha rider Johann Zarco were second and third. Valentino Rossi lost the front end of his Yamaha in the closing lap and fell off the bike. He wasn’t injured but it put a damper on the finish. . . . . . Finally, Donny Schatz won his 22nd World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series feature Saturday night on the Dirt Track at Charlotte to capture his tenth WoO series championship. Wow.
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