• Niki Lauda

Racing Roundup: Farewell, Niki Lauda

Somebody has to tell NASCAR about road courses, I have a better idea for Indianapolis 500 qualifying – and all the rest of the racing news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald May 21, 2019
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Last night, I heard that Niki Lauda had died, age 70. I got a lump in my throat.

Not because he’d passed. Happens to us all. But more because he was – as my friend Juliana Chiovitti wrote – a fighter. A fighter to go racing, a fighter to get into Formula One, a fighter to stay there, a fighter for life, a fighter in business, a fighter for good health, just a fighter. People like that impress me.

Yes, he was arrogant. You have to be to be a world champion in F1 and he won that title three times. But there’s arrogance and then there’s arrogance. The first arrogance is of the “my sh– -doesn’t-stink kind.” I can’t stand those people. You know the type because you can see it in their eyes. Lauda wasn’t like that. He was of the second arrogance, the kind in which you know your value but you don’t have to show it off. In short, he knew who he was. If you knew, great; if not, he couldn’t care less.

Here’s a link to a full story on the guy.

And here’s some anecdotal stuff.

Niki started his first airline, Lauda Air, in the late 1980s. He could fly all the planes and frequently would surprise passengers. Once, a friend of mine was on a Lauda Air Boeing 767 from London to Vienna when the unmistakable, monotone voice of the airline’s owner came on the intercom shortly after takeoff. According to my friend, this is what Niki said: “This is Captain Lauda. Yes. Me. Relax and enjoy the flight. Don’t forget to eat your Muesli. It’s good for you.” And that was that. Wouldn’t it be nice if all airline captain’s messages were that short and informal?

One time, at the Grand Prix of Canada in Montreal, I was a guest of BMW in their Paddock Club suite. It was when BMW was supplying engines to Williams and Juana Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher were driving. Lauda was cruising from suite-to-suite, wearing his familiar red Parmalat cap. One of the BMW hostesses went up to him and offered him a BMW-branded cap. “If you insist on staying here, sir,” she said, “you will have to take off that cap and wear this one.” Niki looked at her: “Are you crazy?” he said. Then he left.

Toronto Star Wheels had a reporter named Yvonne Marton. She wrote a popular feature called My First Car. Once, when the Grand Prix was in Montreal, she did one on Niki Lauda. Then, whenever he came to Canada to pick up another plane (he purchased airliners from Bombardier), she would manage to get an interview with him to talk about Mercedes, the state of F1, and so-on. One time I was in the paddock in Montreal, and he was sitting at a table by himself, so I went up to him and introduced myself as editor of Wheels (which I was at the time) and thanked him for being so welcoming to Yvonne. He frowned, as if he couldn’t place her. Then, his eyes widened and he broke into a big grin. “Oh, the lady,” he said. “The lady. Yes. Say hello to the lady for me.” Yvonne dropped me a line last night. “Niki was very funny and smart and so practical about everything. He was, of course, an amazing driver but he was so much more in Formula One. He will be hugely missed.”

Ron Howard, who I imagine is quite broken up by the news, presented the world with the first showing of Rush at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. Rush was Howard’s film about the 1976 F1 racing season when Lauda and James Hunt were neck-and-neck the entire season. Astoundingly, Lauda was critically injured in a crash and fire at the Nurburgring that summer and yet managed, despite receiving the last rites, to fight right to the end of the season before dropping out of the Japanese GP, the final race of the season, because of terrible weather and ultimately losing the title to Hunt, who finished the race, by a point. When the house lights came up after the screening, Howard introduced Lauda, who had flown to Toronto from Europe for the premiere. Wheels.ca published an interview that was conducted afterward in which Lauda said it hadn’t hit home how badly he’d been hurt until he saw the movie. Pretty revealing stuff. The author of that interview? Yvonne Marton, natch.

Despite the scars of racing, Lauda was a better looking man later in life than he’d been in his youth. When I first saw him at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 1971 (a.k.a. Mosport), he was scrawny, had a receding hairline (despite the long hair of the times) and had a severe overbite. Following the crash in 1976, he’d had plastic surgery. It was minimal but it worked well for him as he went through life.

It was Canada, of course, that played a pivotal role in Lauda’s decision to quit Ferrari after winning his second world championship in 1977. Enzo Ferrari had decided he would not continue to employ Lauda past that season, and had come to terms to run Gilles Villeneuve. Lauda didn’t agree with the choice of Villeneuve. At the ’77 Grand Prix at CTMP, Ferrari had three cars in its pit, one for Villeneuve, another for Carlos Reutemann and one for Lauda. Ferrari knew that Lauda had returned to Europe following the U.S. GP, having clinched the world championship, but – allegedly out of respect – had a car ready in case he decided to return to race. He didn’t, of course, and the car sat in pit road under a tarpaulin all race weekend. Lauda never sat in an F1 Ferrari again. We all know what happened with Gilles.

This is a really sad day.

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The Clarington 200, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series opening race of the 2019 season, which was held at CTMP on Sunday, bordered on boring. It was saved by some excellent last-laps racing involving the first three finishers – winner Kevin Lacroix, second-place Andrew Ranger, and third-place Gary Klutt – but other than that, it was not exciting. At all.

Why?

Niki Lauda

Because NASCAR still doesn’t know how to officiate a road-course race. Stuck in the ovals of 1956, somebody has got to explain to that sanctioning body that full-course caution periods on road courses are deadly unless there is a damn good reason for them. This was a 51-lap contest and nearly half – 23 laps, to be exact – were run under caution. Crazy, considering that two of the five caution periods were called simply because cars had stalled out on the track. One lengthy caution was legitimate – a tire wall had to be repaired – but other than that, there was really no reason why green flags weren’t waving.

The first yellow came toward the end of Lap 3 when Alex Tagliani shredded a tire while on the back straight. The pace car picked up the field in Turn One at the start of Lap 4. Spectators then had to watch as the field followed that pace car around at 40 miles an hour for Lap 4, Lap 5, Lap 6 and Lap 7 before the green came out at the beginning of Lap 8. CTMP is 2.459 miles around. At 40 mph, it takes about 3 minutes and 45 seconds (or so) to do a lap. Four laps takes nearly 15 minutes. What am I, a spectator, supposed to do? Take a nap?

Okay, so they had to sweep up some stuff. Get cracking. Remember, I worked for years with the finest safety crew in U.S. short-oval racing, the Oswego Speedway safety crew, and I know how long it takes to make things right. It doesn’t take half a race, which was the case at CTMP Sunday.  I could go on about the two cars that stalled, but I won’t. You get the drift.

I asked the podium drivers about this at the media conference later. Winner Lacroix disagreed that the race had been boring. He said lots of yellows made for a more interesting race. Maybe for him, perhaps, but not for the thousands of spectators on hand, most of whom were looking at their watches. Ranger and Klutt, though, were quick to pick up on my theme and agreed that the green flag could have been thrown earlier on at least some of the cautions.

Look, I want nothing but the best for the racers and the racing. But I worry about the spectators and their ability to handle the boredom. They might not come back because of something like this. And where would racing – and the racers – be if it ever came to that?

Defending series champion L.P. Dumoulin finished fourth and Jason Hathaway, making his return to the series after a season’s absence, was fifth.

It took an hour and 45 minutes to run the 51 laps at an average speed of 71.413 mph. I went faster than that driving over there. The pole speed was 108.006 mph, which proves those stock cars can motor if given the opportunity, which last Sunday they weren’t.

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The Indianapolis Motor Speedway keeps changing the qualifying procedure for the 500-mile race. It still doesn’t have it right.

Once, qualifying was spread over two weekends leading up to the race. And every car entered got a shot at the pole. Then, the fastest car on the first day of qualifications was the pole-winner. Then everybody who qualified on the first day was locked into the field. They changed that because often – and I mean often – cars locked in on the first day weren’t as fast as cars that came after them to fill out the field.

Then, instead of two weekends, they went to one. And the fastest nine cars on the first day would then run again on the second, with the fastest winning the pole and the rest falling in behind, according to speed.

Last year, they filled the field and our James Hinchcliffe didn’t qualify. This year, they changed that to allow for one last gasp shot on the final day of qualifying to fill positions 31, 32 and 33 – the last row of the 11 rows of three that will start the race. Hinch made it in this year – despite a devastating crash last Saturday – and Fernando Alonso was bumped out.

Niki Lauda

So Indy is a crap shoot. Don’t say it isn‘t. With due respect, Kyle Kaiser, who bumped Alonso, can’t carry the two-time Formua One World Champion’s lunch. He is not in the same league. But he’s in and Alonso is out because of the Indy 500 qualifying format.

So because it’s a crap shoot, here’s a suggestion. (NBC, the IndyCar TV partner, will love this).

Cut qualifying to one day. Plan for Saturday but if it rains you just move it all to Sunday. Send everybody out for a two-hour practice at 11 a.m. At 1 p.m., give everybody an hour off to do things like tweak the setup, change their tires, and hold the draw for qualifying order (just for the 35 or 36 cars entered). At 2 p.m., start ‘em up and send ‘em out. One at a time. Two laps to warm up and four flyers. No wave-offs, no nothing. Foot to the floor and let the trial’s time stand. Fastest wins the pole and on back. Fill the first 30 positions. That should take till about 5. From 5 till 6, hold the Last Row Shootout. Unqualified cars can go whenever they want but it’s a one-shot and one-shot only deal. The first three are in but then can be bumped out. NBC (or whomever) would be on the air from – say – 1:30 till 6 p.m. It’s one and done. No muss, no fuss. Speed, drama – this would have it all. Fair, too. Everybody gets the same chance. And no wasted time
My friend, fellow motorsport journalist John Oreovicz, sent out a Tweet on Sunday after the Last Row and Fast Nine shootouts were held and said this: “Fifteen cars ran today with barely more than an hour of track time. Yet it was the most compelling qualifying day at IMS since Penske failed to make the show 24 years ago.”
I would suggest he’s not talking about the fast nine. They’re in. Worst they can start is ninth. He’s talking about the Last Row. Getting in and getting bumped out.
And isn’t that what Indy is supposed to be about? Fast and compelling. This is entertainment, folks, and a fight for eyeballs. Give people a reason to watch. Make it a tight show. And exciting. Throw in some drama. By May 2020, even two days will be too much. One day, one shot. That would do it.

You’re welcome.

Niki Lauda

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Zak Brown, who runs McLaren, told Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press that he takes full responsibility for the mess at Indianapolis that left McLaren out of the big race and embarrassed Fernando Alonso. Except he didn’t take full responsibility. He fired a guy, which meant he blamed that guy. If you take full responsibility, you fire yourself. You resign. Brown didn’t. He told Fryer that he knew things were on the wrong track a month ago in Texas. He did nothing then, either. Except bitch about it later. People who are IN charge don’t sit back and watch a train wreck. They TAKE charge. Zak Brown didn’t. I am waiting to see what happens to him.

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Al Unser Jr. has been arrested again for drinking and driving. It’s his fourth. This time it will be jail. Does that help? Maybe. A very well-known actor in futuristic action films today couldn’t stay away from the drugs till he was sent away to prison and his career has skyrocketed since he got out. And that was years ago. Alcoholism, or drug addiction, is a disease and deserves sympathy and support. I’m already seeing on social media the trite “Well, you’d think he’d have learned his lesson by now” cheap shots. Does anybody say that to someone suffering from cancer who relapses? Of course not. Having said that, there are things alcoholics like Unser can do to treat their disease. Al Jr. has got to get back to those meetings and stay there.

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Sherry Gravett MacDonald, widow of Dave MacDonald, killed with Eddie Sachs in the 1964 Indianapolis 500, has passed. Her son Rich posted on Facebook: “She and Dave are reunited, now, and their great love story continues forevermore.” R.I.P.

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A new documentary about the Formula Electric racing series, “And We Go Green,” will debut at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday. It documents how the championship is a proving ground for electric technologies used to combat climate change and air pollution. Gee. Sounds exciting. . . . . .

The wet spring has created havoc with racing schedules and race tracks. The OSCAAR Hot Rods and Modifieds ran some heats last Saturday night but couldn’t get their features in at Sunset Speedway up near Barrie. The Southern Ontario Sprints season-opener at Brighton Speedway was cancelled because high water from Lake Ontario flooded the SOS pit area. They’ll try again next weekend. Ditto Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve. Merrittville got their races in – Mat Williamson won the modified feature and Josh Sliter was first in Mod Lites.

Across the border, Oswego Speedway, the home of the supermodifieds in northern New York, will kick off its season with the Jim Shampine Twin 50s for supers, the Tony White Memorial for the Small Block Supers plus a U.S. Memorial Day Weekend special for 350 supermods. In my day (the ‘80s, before I started announcing there), Memorial Day weekend featured the Port City 150 – 75-lap races for the supers and the NASCAR modifieds (Richie Evans, George Kent, Maynard Troyer, Jerry Cook, Jimmy Spencer, Reggie Ruggiero, Bob Shannon and all those guys) which I always found to be terribly exciting and romantic. . . . .

Hey, guess who won the NASCAR trucks race at Charlotte Motor Speedway Friday night? Why, none other than Kyle Busch, who must really need the money. . . . .

Other action at CTMP at the weekend: Parker Thompson of Red Deer, Alta., won the first Canadian Touring Car Championship race of the season with Matthew Taskine second and Gary Kwok third. Thompson and Taskine drove Audis while Kwok was in his familiar Honda Civic. Thompson and Taskine repeated in race two but third place went to Travis Hill in an Audi. . . . . In Nissan Micra Cup action, Olivier Bedard won both races Saturday and Sunday. The star of the show, though, was the all-electric Nissan LEAF NISMO RC, which paced the Micra Cup field. It marked the first time in North America than an all-electric racing car took to the track. Marco Signoretti was second Saturday and Kevin King was third. Sunday, Signoretti was second again but Valeri Limoges came out of the pack to finish third. . . . . At Shannonville Motorsport Park, Ben Young won both races in the opening rounds of the 2019 MOPAR Canadian Superbike Championship season. Hard to believe that the winner’s name isn’t Jordan Szoke but maybe the torch is about to be passed . . . . Back at CTMP, the Sunday race in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama was won by Roman De Angelis with Jeff Kingsley second and Parker Thompson third. Saturday, Kingsley was the winner, with Thompson second and Marco Cirone third . . . . . Over in England, at Snetterton, Scott Maxwell won the pole for the first GT4 race Saturday but the result wasn’t good. In the second race, the Toronto champion managed to move from 12th to sixth at the checkers. Multimatic Mustangs have had better weekends . . . . .

Megan Gilkes, the lone Canadian woman running in the inaugural season of the W Racing Series, an all-female championship designed to get a woman into Formula One, finished 16th Sunday in the race at Zolder in Belgium. Gilkes, of Richmond Hill, Ont., had crashed out of the first race and opted to take her time this time out to learn more about the competition, the competitors and the Formula 3 cars the series is using. British driver Jamie Chadwick was the winner; 19 cars started the race.

The W Series races are run in conjunction with the German Touring Car Championship and since this is a roundup, it’s imperative to record the winners of the two weekend races in the DTM. Audi’s Rene Rast won Sunday with BMW’s Phillipp Eng the winner Saturday. The lone Canadian in the series, Bruno Spengler, brought his BMW home seventh Sunday and 10th in the first race Saturday.

And that’s it for this week.

 

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