• Stewart Friesen

Racing Roundup: Canadian drivers rule, NASCAR inconsistencies and has Targa Newfoundland been rescued?

Gene Haas ponders F1 future and all the rest of the weekend racing news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald November 11, 2019
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I’m confused.

I know there are people out there who will nod their heads and say they had suspected as much all along but I am not kidding, I’m not sure I know which was is up any more.

Friday night, I watched Stewart Friesen, who’s originally from Niagara-on-the-Lake but lives in Sprakers, N.Y., now (the better to be near Utica-Rome Speedway where he dominates the big-block modified racing class), win the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series race at Phoenix International Raceway (or whatever they’re calling it these days). In so doing, he raced his way into the championship round that will be given the green flag next Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida (and be seen on some Canadian cable systems on FOX Sports Racing). Although there will be 30-plus pickup trucks racing in the final race of the season, only four drivers are eligible to win the championship – Friesen, veteran Matt Crafton, defending trucks champion Brett Moffitt and Ross Chastain. And Friesen did it the hard way last Friday night: he was sent to the back of the pack for jumping the start and had to fight his way up through the field from 32nd spot to be first at the checkers.

But that wasn’t what had me confused. This is what got my head spinning.

I don’t know all the NASCAR rules to the znnth degree. But there is one that I have seen enforced time and again and that is the yellow line rule. That is the rule that says you can’t go below the yellow line to pass somebody or force somebody else below the yellow line to keep them from passing you or from winning the race. It is meant only for Daytona and Talladega but if it’s in the rulebook and enforced there, it should be enforced at other tracks too, particularly the one in Phoenix,

Friday night (and it happened Saturday during the Xfinity race and Sunday during the Monster Energy Cup race too), drivers were taking their trucks below the yellow line All. The. Time. Drivers were passing other drivers, and blocking them and doing all sorts of things below that line. They were cutting corners on every lap and I’m thinking to myself: ‘Why do they even have a yellow line around that speedway?’

I suppose it’s a testament to the skill of the drivers that there aren’t collisions but if you have a guy who’s driving around the speedway above the yellow line and some guy cuts the corner and essentially goes out of bounds and then comes back onto the track right in front of you, I would think that would be a little disconcerting, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, this is my confusion: you have a yellow line or you don’t. The rules shouldn’t change from track-to-track.

Okay, moving right along. I thought (silly me) that NASCAR had put a stop to drivers intentionally spinning their cars during races to help either their teams or themselves. This was after the embarrassment of the 2013 Federated Auto Parts 400 in which Michael Waltrip’s team was handed the biggest penalty in the history of NASCAR. It started with Clint Bowyer deliberately spinning out with seven laps remaining and went from there.

I remember being confused at the time because there was evidence that another team had done exactly the same thing but was not singled out, for some reason. But it gets better: the owner of another team who had also noticed this inconsistency and whose driver had missed “the Chase” as a result of this manipulation, threatened to sue, so NASCAR willy nilly added that team’s driver to the Chase without explanation. It was not one of NASCAR’s finest moments.

Anyway, because NASCAR had come down like a ton of bricks on Waltrip’s team (which eventually went out of business), I figured that deliberately spinning out was history. Apparently not.

Following last weekend’s Monster Energy Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (that was the one where nobody came because they were all at Circuit of the Americas watching Formula One – although more people watched the NASCAR race on TV, by a long shot), in which Darrell Wallace Jr. (a.k.a. Bubba Wallace) spun out, an interviewer doing a story in advance of the Phoenix round asked him about it and Wallace said he’d done it on purpose to keep from going laps down. And as it had happened during green flag pit stops, it had affected, in particular, Kyle Larson, who was still in playoff contention but went a lap down, as a result. To make matters worse, Wallace said he’d learned to spin-on-purpose from Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

NASCAR, which had not been suspicious of the spin when it happened, heard about this and promptly fined Wallace $50,000 and docked him 50 driver points. Fine. But they couldn’t do anything about Keselowski or Logano, because Wallace’s pointing of the finger at those two would have to be considered hearsay.

But here’s why I’m confused. Larson was asked about it and told reporters at a press conference that he’d done it himself. So, if NASCAR penalized Wallace for ‘fessing up, why didn’t they also fine/dock points from Larson? Wallace told one reporter and got nailed; Larson told a roomful and got nothing.

I don’t get it.

Okay, so how’s this one? Gene Haas, who we know primarily from his partnership with Tony Stewart in their Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR team, owns Haas Automation, which is the biggest machine-tool manufacturer in the U.S. and one of the biggest in the world. He went Formula One racing – Haas F1 – to increase exposure of his brand, to do some business-to-business, and make money. Now he’s having second thoughts.

Gunther Steiner, his main man in F1 and the fellow who spends his money and runs the team, suggested in a news story published at the weekend that he had to take his time explaining to Haas all the upcoming changes in the sport coming in 2021. The quotes in the story sounded very patronizing. “I gave him all the information and talked him through everything so now he needs to digest everything,” Steiner said. “Because when I speak for a long time, we get confused.”

I’m not sure I’d talk about my boss like that, but maybe that’s just me.

In any event, Gene Haas will likely leave F1 after 2020. This is just a hunch on my part. He might be in for the long haul, but I doubt it. He is just like a whole bunch of other rich businessmen who have looked at F1 and figured it was easy. I did a list once of individuals and teams that have entered F1 since the mid-1970s and it was dozens. I should do an update one of these days and add to the list. He will likely be able to sell Haas F1 to somebody (although Bernie isn’t around anymore to find another sucker) but he’s a sharp business guy and unless he gets the price he wants, and the money in the bank (no loans, or promissory notes), I suspect he would just shut it down.

Now, whether it was Haas or Steiner who made the decision, it doesn’t really matter, but the driver lineup has been less than impressive. No colour, no results = no attention. I wrote a column once suggesting Jenson Button and Danica Patrick would be the ideal two drivers for a team right out of the box. Button was a world champion who still had the chops and Danica would attract the publicity. It would show that Haas was a gutsy guy who was arriving on the scene and ready to make some waves.

But Steiner convinced him that the ideal pairing would be Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen (yawn). You want a couple of boring drivers and I’ll show you those two. There are drivers in Formula 2 and IndyCar right now, today, who are better than those guys and have more charisma. And yet when they had a chance to replace Grosjean, they didn’t. Steiner says one of the things bothering him about the F1 team is the lack of results and I suggest part of the blame has to rest with the guys in the cockpits and the rest of the blame on the guy (or guys, but probably guy) who did the hiring.

I could go on.

But I’m confused that Gene Haas has seen fit to stick with the same drivers and the same management team. Surely, if you own a team in F1, you get to know people in the sport, invite them out to dinner, have a glass of wine or two, and see what they have to say. There are people around who are capable. If Haas, at end of day, decides to stay on in F1, he would be wise to get more involved in everything having to do with that team.

Okay, I have to make a correction. In several of the stories I wrote last week about Roger Penske purchasing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I wrote that the deal included the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Not so. The Museum is not part of the deal and will continue to rely on grants, donations, gate receipts and so-on to continue doing its very important work.

This is not a correction but an acknowledgment that I might have been a little quick on the trigger several months ago when I wrote that the Targa Newfoundland was likely dead. Hold on. The news this week is that it’s been sold to Wes Thompson of Blenheim, Ont., and he plans to run it again next September.

Stewart Friesen

I got a note from ace PR man Doug Mepham last week and he sent me the following release, plus the photo.

Wes Thompson has steered a vast family business for more than three decades. He has an enduring interest in classic cars and has a fleet of vintage fire trucks. He’s dipped a toe into rally competition and liked it. Now, he gets to bring his business experience and passion for cars to a new challenge as new owner of the Targa Newfoundland rally.

Thompson, 60, of Blenheim, heads the company that purchased Targa Newfoundland Motorsports Club Inc., owner of the event, and Newfoundland International Motorsports Limited, the rally’s organizer. And while reviving an iconic Canadian motorsport event seems a departure from running a powerhouse in the agriculture business, Thompson is comfortable with the decision.

“This (transaction) was driven by a lot of things,” he explains. “It fit the profile for a new enterprise for me, something to sink my teeth into. It’s certainly a unique event in North America. But most of all, it was a desire to keep this remarkable, one-of-a-kind Canadian motorsport alive in its birthplace. Targa is too important to let slip away.”

Indeed, Wes Thompson knows a thing or two about heritage and legacy. For 34 years he steered Thompsons Ltd., the third-generation family-owned company that bears his name. Started in 1924 by his grandfather as W.G. Thompson and Sons, Thompsons handles and distributes grain crops and supplies farm products and services to growers in Ontario, Minnesota and North Dakota and to food processing customers around the world. It owns and operates 12 elevators and 11 retail farm centres. The business also includes two seed processing plants and five food processing plants.

Thompsons Ltd. was sold in 2013.

Targa Newfoundland came to his attention earlier this year when his daughter took part in the annual Targa Bambina rally event, a small-scale version of the six-day marathon motoring adventure that has been a fixture on Canada’s sporting calendar since its inception in 2002. The senior Thompson had already experienced classic rally competition, most recently completing the Great Race event in a 1939 Ford coupe.

Thompson told Mepham that he wants to grow the event and will be talking to potential sponsors.

And I say good luck to him because he faces some challenges. Yes, he’s got to get the sponsorship but he’s also got to get major Canadian media to cover the event. With the exception of Jim Kenzie entering and Toronto Star Wheels covering, the Targa has been pretty much ignored by Canada’s major media. The CBC, CTV, Global and the national newspapers have to be brought onside. They can probably be convinced but it will take a lot of work.

RESULTS

Stewart Friesen

Denny Hamlin had to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix Sunday and he did, joining Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch in next Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing will be the fourth contender for the championship. For details, please click here.

Justin Algaier won Saturday’s Infinity Series race at Phoenix and goes to the final in Florida next week against Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick. For details, please click here.

In the trucks race Friday night, winner Friesen was asked how he’d managed to recover from the penalty to come back to win: “Great race team, great spotter, what a great race car (then he thanked Chevrolet and other sponsors). We have the momentum (going into next week), we were able to pass ‘em all, pass ‘em all clean.” Then he told his wife, sprint-car driver Jessica Zemken and their son Parker that he’d be home in the morning and for them to get ready to “party this one up.” For details of the trucks race, please click here.

Friesen wasn’t the only Canadian racer turning heads this weekend. Niagara-area driver Matt Williamson won the 2019 Super D.I.R.T Track Big Block Modified Championship. Congratulations!! Canadian race-drivers rule!

And the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series has a new champion. No, it’s not Donny Schatz, the 10-time and reigning champion. It’s Brad Sweet, who beat Schatz by a mere four points after about 85 races that make up the WoO schedule. David Gravel won the final race of the season Saturday night at the dirt track just outside Charlotte Motor Speedway with Sweet second and Schatz third. Hopefully, those guys will be back at Ohsweken Speedway near Brantford next summer.

Stewart Friesen

PASSINGS

Dr. Tim George, 59, of Austin, Tex., a neurosurgeon active in children’s care who was known for frequently not billing people who couldn’t afford his services, suffered a medical emergency during the Michelin IMSA SportsCar Encore at Sebring Sunday and died in hospital. George was driving the No. 2 Ansa Motorsports LLC prototype race car and was able to drive the car back to the pits after being stricken and was attended to by track medical personnel. . . . .

Dr. Michael Olinger, former medical director of the IndyCar Series after starting as a trackside physician with the Indy Racing League in 1996, has died at age 69. After becoming a pilot while enlisted in the U.S. Army, Olinger finished up his medical degree and dedicated himself to working in emergency and rescue situations, including the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City and on the ground following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. . . . .

And Mike Streicher, the 1991 U.S. Auto Club national midget driving champion and 2018 National Midget Hall of Fame inductee who also won titles as a mechanic and car builder, died at age 62 of a heart attack.

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