• Zach Robichon

Racing Roundup: Zach Robichon Has Weekend to Remember

Thoughts on IndyCar and all the racing news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald August 7, 2018
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Headlines: 

Ottawa’s Zach Robichon gets emergency call-up to race at Road America and wins everything in sight

Soon-to-be-90-year-old woman goes for  ride in racing car at CTMP and proclaims it to have been “wonderful”

Plus McLaren to IndyCar, NASCAR CEO arrested and Ohsweken, Merrittville results.

But first . . .

My friend and sometimes-colleague, Jeff Pappone, has written an interesting article for the IndyCar website in which he asked five champions what changes they would make to the series if they had the chance. Please click here, because I don’t want to repeat their answers, but not one of them talked about the most important challenge facing IndyCar, which is how to increase its profile and make it more popular. Scott Dixon came closest by musing about taking the racing to other parts of the world but the real test for IndyCar is how to do it in North America first.

Years ago, and by that I mean many years ago, NASCAR had one race that mattered: the Daytona 500. Since then, NASCAR, with the help and cooperation of its business partners (tracks and promoters, teams and drivers), worked to help many of its races attain iconic status. You might not be a NASCAR fan but, if you are a racing fan, you would recognize “Talladega 500,” and “Brickyard 400,” and “Coca-Cola 600.” And the introduction of the “Chase” served to refocus attention on its season-long championship.

Today, the IndyCar series has one race that matters: the Indianapolis 500. Quick now: name another race (the Honda Indy Toronto doesn’t count). I betcha you couldn’t go beyond three or four. Maybe not even that many. Quick now: who’s the champion? Had to think about it, didn’t you? And some of you are Googling the answer, even as we speak,

So the most important thing for IndyCar is to grow the awareness beyond the Indianapolis 500. How to do it? We already know that IndyCar has the best racing, That is a given. But it is obviously not enough because they’ve had the best racing for years now and the needle still hasn’t moved. And trying to capitalize on the non-racing popularity of people like James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves (Dancing with the Stars) hasn’t worked either.

So, what to do?

First, and most important: the people behind IndyCar have to want to do it. That is not a glib statement. Because of the corporate setup, it makes it difficult.

The people who own the series, the Hulman-George family of Indianapolis and Terre Haute, Ind., also own the biggest baking powder company in the United States, Clabber Girl, as well as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The CEO of IndyCar, Mark Myles, is also the CEO of the family business, Hulman & Co. I don’t think I’m going to be out of line if I say that if you put Clabber Girl baking powder, the Indianapolis Speedway and the IndyCar series down on a sheet of paper in order of importance, that IndyCar would be No. 3.

There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. It is what it is. When there are other priorities, the racing series will lose out. That’s just a fact of life.

But let’s, for a moment, say that Hulman & Co. decides it wants a full court press to raise the profile of the IndyCar Series. So, there is a commitment. What next?

The promoters have got to step up. With the exception of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, (a promotion of the Toyota dealers of Southern California and not the car company), Roger Penske’s two races in Detroit and the Indy 500 itself, there is not a lot of promoting going on because if there was, there would be a whole lot more people attending IndyCar races than there are and more people would be watching on television. So IndyCar will have to either help, or threaten, the people who promote their races to pick up the pace.

And while I can understand that NASCAR owns many of the race tracks in the United States, making it difficult to find places to race, it is the kiss of death to go to any of those circuits or speedways because there will be no promotion of IndyCar races there, period.

IndyCar went back to Phoenix and three years later had to leave, not because the product wasn’t any good but because the NASCAR-owned facility didn’t promote. Ditto with another NASCAR-owned facility, Watkins Glen. (Now I hear IndyCar is thinking of going back to the Glen and I think: how many times do you have to be kicked in the teeth before you get the message?)

Which brings up another point: IndyCar seems to want to force itself into places where it’s already been shown it isn’t wanted. Like Phoenix and Watkins Glen. Why not go to places where the racing and racers would be welcomed with open arms?

Why not race at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal? James Hinchcliffe and Ric Peterson have started the ball rolling in Calgary and should be given the green light to close that deal. How about Halifax? I think John Graham, who’s a pretty good promoter, would salivate at that opportunity. How about giving Australia another look?

Those additional races would mean there would have to be a longer season, one that might even be close to matching the length of the NASCAR and F1 seasons because if those other two entities are racing, so must IndyCar. I understand fear of the NFL; even NASCAR has suffered. But since when must there always be car races on Sunday? Race when the NFL isn’t playing.
I know that the new (in the U.S.) television contract with the NBC Sports Network and the full NBC Network has got everybody in the IndyCar front office excited. But as I’ve written previously, they have gone down that “new TV network” road before and they’ve always been disappointed. Hopefully, that won’t happen again but a TV deal is only part of the solution.
To review: renewed commitment on the part of ownership; no NASCAR tracks; all-out promotion of every race, not just the Indy 500; a longer season; three more Canadian races plus one in Australia; and the new TV contract with NBC might – together – go a long way to making a racing league that already is No. 1 in on-track action No. 1 in overall popularity.

ROBICHON HAS WEEKEND TO REMEMBER

Zach Robichon of Ottawa, one of more than 40 volunteer drivers at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park Monday for the “Celebration of Speed” fundraiser in support of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, was a few hours late getting there after being called away on urgent business.

That “urgent business” was to drive a Porsche 911 at Road America outside Elkhart Lake, Wisc., at the weekend in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama series for American-based Moorespeed Racing, whose regular team driver, Will Hardeman, was unavailable because of a family emergency.

Robichon, a former open-wheel driver who is currently leading the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada series standings, had never been to Road American before but that didn’t stop him from not only winning the pole and the first race on Saturday but the pole and the second race on Sunday – a weekend clean sweep.

“I can’t say enough about the guys from Moorespeed,” said Robichon. “The car, as we saw this weekend, has been just unbelievable. For me to be able to jump in with a new team and a car I’ve never driven, their setup was super easy to drive from the get-go. I think from the second practice session, we had the fastest lap times. Since then, we’ve been refining it a little bit and getting better and better. I actually think the car was better today than yesterday. I can’t say enough about the job they did. All I had to do was turn the wheel and push the gas pedal. They did all the rest.”

While it is almost obligatory for race drivers to thank their team, in the end it’s pretty much a solitary sport and Robichon was the one who had to drive the car. That he was so fast out of the box, pole winner twice and race winner twice, suggests that this guy has got a ton of talent and is one to watch as his career evolves.

We interrupt this column to bring you this important message: The Celebration of Speed that Robichon almost missed was a major success. Media covering the day included Brad Diamond’s Motoring program (TSN) and CBC and CTV (CFTO)  television. Volunteer race drivers included Canadian legend Scott Goodyear, who drove up from Indianapolis for the event.
The star of the day Monday was Maire Hollo of Toronto, who is in her 90th year and busy crossing items off her bucket list. She has parachuted out of a plane, done the CN Tower outside “edgewalk,” plans to ride behind sled dogs next winter and Sunday went for a ride in a racing car around Old Mosport, which has been something she’s wanted to do for years. “It was wonderful,” she gushed after being taken around the circuit at speed with Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame inductee Peter Lockhart behind the wheel.

Maire, who says she’s given up driving because she doesn’t want to be one of those “old lady drivers” people talk about, had a heavy right foot when she was younger. “I used to drive quite quickly when I knew the police weren’t around,” she said.

Zach Robichon

We now return you to our regularly scheduled column.

In other news from Elkhart Lake:

– No. 54 CORE autosport Oreca LMP2 co-drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun picked up their second consecutive WeatherTech Championship Prototype race victory Sunday.

– Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook gave Ford its fourth consecutive IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship win Sunday in the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase at Road America, putting the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT back atop the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class standings in the process.

– Christian Fittipaldi, who raced in IndyCar and sports cars, announced this weekend that he will retire following next January’s 24 Hours of Daytona, a.k.a. the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
– You know, the more professional and high profile IMSA gets, the more it feels like small-time club racing. There was a flurry of media releases sent out this past week about a return to four classes of cars during races and that two of them have to be Pro-Am classes and they have to feature bronze- and silver-rated drivers and I have two things to say about all that: 1, who cares? and 2, these are just more reasons why auto racing will always stay a niche sport rather than become mainstream. You can explain hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball and even pro football in seconds – or maybe minutes. Try explaining auto racing to anybody in under an hour. Seriously.

– IMSA, meantime, turns 50 next year. All sorts of things are being planned to celebrate. Sure hope there aren’t two celebrations to choose from – bronze or silver.
– At Watkins Glen Sunday, Chase Elliott, son of Bill Elliott (Awesome Bill from, etc.) won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race. It was an exciting race, with Elliott at or near the front the entire time.

He showed his maturity in the last 10 laps or so when Martin Truex Jr., who’d won the other two road course races that NASCAR ran this year, started breathing down his neck. He did run wide on the first turn of the last lap but was able to recover in time to keep Truex behind him and then the defending Cup champion ran out of gas while approaching the final corner before the pit straight and Elliott was home-free.

Of course, he then ran out of gas on his cooldown lap and finally came to a stop. In a scene reminiscent of Nigel Mansell giving Ayrton Senna a lift, Jimmie Johnson backed up his car and pulled in behind Elliott’s and gave him a push home. Great stuff.

Now, when Elliott won his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park a few years ago (he knocked Ty Dillon out of the way at the last corner), Dad Bill was there with him. When Chase won on Sunday, there was Bill again and you would hope that, at some point, Father will let Son go to work without supervision.
For those still interested, here is a link to a complete story on the Cup race.

Zach Robichon

– Joey Logano, who is a Monster Energy Cup NASCAR driver (although he’s had better days than he did Sunday at Watkins Glen in the Cup race), dropped down a division and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the Glen. This is like Will Power or James Hinchcliffe driving in Indy Lights on IndyCar weekends. Because of Right to Work legislation in the United States, there’s nothing stopping those guys from doing it. NASCAR tried a few years ago to force drivers like Logano to stay in the Big League by only allowing them to accumulate points in one division but those guys don’t appear to care about the points – they like the money they can win and the extra practice they get.

– I love the Twitter storm about McLaren joining the IndyCar Series – as, I’m sure, McLaren does too. They stink as an F1 team at the moment and anything to take everybody’s attention away from that is welcomed.

– Other than reporting it here, I will not comment on Brian France and his future. (Having said that, I can’t believe the vitriol being spewed about this man, not only on social media but by wire services and U.S. daily newspapers who – frankly – should all know better.) The CEO and Chairman of NASCAR was arrested on Long Island Sunday night with more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system and some pretty addicting drugs in the car. Let’s hope he gets the help he needs.

– When Bernie was running F1, he looked around (it was just post-Mansell) and decided F1 needed a star and he moved heaven and earth to get Jacques Villeneuve. So now Chase Carey says he hopes Mick Schumacher makes it to F1. Not much has changed, has it?

– Niki Lauda is recovering from a lung transplant. It will take awhile.

– Jeff Gordon and his family are vacationing in Greece. Guess who they bumped into the other day? None other than Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton, you will recall, showed up at Homestead-Miami Speedway for Gordon’s “last ride.”

GTA-AREA RACING

– At Ohsweken Speedway last Friday night, 131 cars signed in across four divisions, including 25 Late Models, for Bradshaw Brothers Emergency Services night, which honoured all first responders and emergency services workers for their bravery in the community with free admission.

After the final checkered flag had waved, it was Jacob Dykstra who grabbed his second straight Action Sprint Tour win. For the stock cars, Rob Pietz claimed a thrilling win in the Open Late Model main event, while Christopher Hale won his first career Middleport Mechanical Thunder Stock Feature. Matt Nuell and Kyle Wert collected checkered flags in a pair of HRW Automotive Mini Stock Features.

– At Merrittville Speedway near Thorold, Steven Petty reports that Tim Hortons Night on Saturday saw two St. Catharines drivers RRRoll to their 7th wins of 2018 – Mat Williamson and Rob Murray in the S&W Service Centre 358 Modified and Hoosier Stock Divisions. Williamson’s win was his first career Jerry Winger Memorial – an annual race hosted by the Speedway’s Reunion Committee.

Two drivers would also take home their third wins of the season – James Friesen also of St. Catharines in the David Chevrolet Sportsman and John Couture from Niagara Falls in the Dave’s Auto & Speed Centre V6 Divisions respectively.

Jeffery May from Mt. Hope won his first Vansickle Pet Valu & Groomingsdale’s Mod Lite feature of the season.

The rain-delayed 67th Anniversary Celebration also included the Thunder on the Dirt Vintage Racing Series with Steve Billings of Merrickville  and Mark Shadwell of Hamilton winning the features for the Sportsman and Modified Divisions.

Prior to race time, long-time starters and racers Steve DeVos and Barry Davidson became the newest inductees into the CAA Niagara Merrittville Speedway Wall of Fame. The CAA Dedication to Racing Award went to Art Bicknell and Jim Irvine.

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