• Dixon and Gossage

Racing Roundup: Two stories from IndyCar opener – good TV ratings for not very good race  

Penske sees possible October date for 500, NASCAR presents moving tribute, and all the rest of the news.

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald June 8, 2020

Scott Dixon served notice on Saturday night that he will be the usual force to be reckoned with this season but that wasn’t the real story of the NTT IndyCar Series opener at Texas Motor Speedway, of which there were actually two.

First, there were the encouraging TV numbers that popped up fairly quickly after the race, in which Simon Pagenaud finished second and Josef Newagarden was third.  NBC reported that nearly 1.3 million viewers watched the race, which was the most watched non-Indy 500 IndyCar race since the second race at Detroit in 2016.

Those were overnight ratings, of course, and it will be a day or two before the final tally is in but they usually aren’t much different than the first set, which would be good news for IndyCar. With the exceptions of the 500 and occasional spikes, like that Detroit race, which was on a full network, the series is seen mostly in the U.S. and Canada on specialty cable channels and a half a million viewers is more the norm.

The race Saturday night was also on a full network and the number was about the same as the Detroit race, which was on ABC. But 1.3 million viewers is a solid audience and something for the series to build on.

Second, those 1.3 million people didn’t see all that good a race, unfortunately. Yes, there was some excellent driving (the timing of some of the passes was really exceptional) but because of the coating in the second and third lanes that the Texas Speedway had put down for NASCAR, the Indy cars were basically racing on a one-groove track.

Which was unfortunate. The Indy cars can put on as good a close-racing show as NASCAR but they just couldn’t do it Saturday night because of the track.

I was talking to Alex Tagliani Sunday afternoon and he said the Indy cars essentially couldn’t race in the second groove and if you went higher than that you’d be into the marbles, as happened to several racers but Felix Rosenqvist, in particular.  The Chip Ganassi driver was running second late in the race when he went to pass James Hinchcliffe (who’d been pushed up into the second groove a split second before by Marco Andretti) and lost control in the marbles, spinning and crashing into the wall.

But all-in-all, it was an okay show but it could have been better. Here are some notebook jottings:

We didn’t have to worry about the size of the crowd, because there wasn’t any. And there wasn’t for the weekend NASCAR races in Atlanta, either. And there won’t be a crowd July 4 when the Indy cars and the NASCAR Xfinity Series race a double header on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway nor the next day when the NASCAR Cup cars run the Brickyard 400. Roger Penske says the Indy 500, scheduled for Aug. 23, will have spectators or else it will be moved to October. I idolize Roger Penske but I wish he wouldn’t say things like that. If this deadly virus is still killing people in August, or October, I don’t think there will be an insurance company in the world that will issue a liability policy for what essentially be a petri dish..

I like the look of the new Indy car. The cockpit protection is probably better than F1’s halo because of the windshield that wraps around it. The pros looked like they didn’t have any trouble with it. One rookie, in particular (Rinus Veekay), could have used some more practice before being thrown to the wolves. He had two mishaps and cost his car owner some money, which did not make that owner, Ed Carpenter, all that happy. The second crackup Rinus experienced took out another rookie, Alex Palou. Now, it was unfortunate for Palou that he got caught up in Veekay’s screwup. But there would have been hell to pay if he’d taken out one or two of the leaders. One of the few faults IndyCar has is throwing some of these pay drivers out there with the big boys and one of these days there is going to be a big problem. I know I am inclined to analyze things the way they were in 1958 but in those days they had a committee of veteran drivers keeping an eye on the rookies and if someone didn’t like the way they were driving or whatever, they would not be allowed on the track. IndyCar has to do something like that – or have a proper test day in advance of a race – before somebody gets killed.

Okay, I have to say something about the masks. I have always understood that if you practice social distancing – two metres (or six feet) – you don’t have to wear one. If you are going to be closer than two metres (a subway, or walking in your neighbourhood where you might meet somebody on the sidewalk), then you should wear one. I bring this up because nobody was within six feet of Scott Dixon Saturday night when he was standing by himself in Victory Circle, holding up a trophy and one or two photographers were taking his picture. I think he could have taken down the mask. When the Speedway’s Eddie Gossage moved in, he could have slipped it up. More important, you can hear what people are saying clearly without one. Dixon has a tone of voice that works whether he has a mask on, or not. You couldn’t hear what Carpenter was saying half the time in a post-race interview because his voice is more mellow and the mask muffled it further. Ditto the interview at the Atlanta NASCAR Cup race Sunday. Daniel Suarez, who was standing by himself, was almost unintelligible while talking through the mask. Something to think about.

Do the guys at FOX Sports carry a fox around with them? When there was a Cup race at Darlington a couple of weeks ago, a fox ran across the track. Saturday, when the trucks were racing at Atlanta, a fox ran across the track. Coincidence? Maybe. There are groundhogs all over the place at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal. A couple of weeks before the Grand Prix, groundskeepers go out and round up most of them. They’re supposed to get them all but sometimes they miss. It seems that every year during Friday practice, one will get out on the track and some driver will have a close call.  Last year, then-Williams test driver Nicholas Latiffi of Toronto came this close to hitting one. The foxes haven’t interfered with the NASCAR racing yet but track operators should be on the lookout. An animal that size could do serious damage to a Cup car if it hit one and can you imagine the screams – and rightfully so – from animal lovers.

Okay, weekend results: NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway – Grant Enfinger, Austin Hill and Christian Eckes. Canadians: Stewart Friesen, 10th; Raphael Lessard, 18th. NASCAR Xfinity Series, also at Atlanta – A.J. Allmendinger (his first NASCAR victory on an oval), Noah Gragson and Justin Haley. NASCAR Cup Series, also at Atlanta – Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Ryan Blaney.

One thing about NASCAR. They presented a very moving acknowledgment of changes coming to society, with President Steve Phelps leading and drivers including the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson participating. The 40 cars entered in Sunday’s Cup race pulled up on the main straight and stopped their engines while Phelps spoke. Bubba Wallace donned a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” and Phelps said the governing body would do a better job of addressing racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the marches that followed. Well done and very timely.

Formula One is on hiatus until mid-July, when the season will start in earnest at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Meantime, the Grand Prix du Canada was originally on the schedule to be held on its traditional weekend date of June 12-14. That obviously isn’t going to happen so a virtual Canadian Grand Prix will be held next Sunday (TSN at noon) and many of the drivers who would normally race in the GP will be at their computers.

And that’s it for this week – except that Alex Tagliani and I will be talking about everything racing Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on 22 Racing’s Facebook page. Bets are being made as to which of us will be able to get a word in edgewise. . .