Norris McDonald’s Top 10 Motor Sport Stories for 2020
As racing is finished for 2020 – and good riddance to this awful year, I say – here are the top 10 motor sport stories of 2020.
1. THERE WAS RACING:
The fact that there was racing at all, post-Rolex 24 at Daytona in January and the Daytona 500 in February, was a miracle in itself. Word of the coronavirus was around earlier than that but nobody got terribly excited about it, including the World Health Organization. When the pandemic was declared in mid-March, though, the world ground to a halt. Racing – all kinds, from Formula One to IndyCar, IMSA and NASCAR – was threatened. Pro racing drivers were playing video games, it was that bad. All sanctioning bodies were frantic to find a way to run because of television contracts and sponsorship money that depended on performance. NASCAR was the first to go, without spectators, and little by little the rest of the leagues followed suit. Spectators were allowed in at some venues but, for the most part, people got their racing fix via television. Even the Indy 500 was run without people present – in August, three months late. That’s the good news about racing in 2020. Here’s the bad news about 2021: it will probably be very much like 2020, even with the vaccine. Only when the numbers drift down to nearly zero will the doors of speedways and race tracks be thrown open and thousands of people let in. My crystal ball says, don’t hold your breath.
2. GROSJEAN’S GREAT ESCAPE:
There have been big accidents in motor sport since racing began but the crash in the Grand Prix of Bahrain involving Romain Grosjean of Haas F1 was, without doubt, one of the worst. His car, out of control, hit an ARMCO barrier while traveling about 135 miles an hour. The car sliced through the barrier and separated, with the engine and gearbox going one way and the halo-protected cockpit another. A fuel line leading from the pump near the cockpit to the tank at the back was exposed and continued pumping fuel that immediately ignited, enveloping the cockpit. The medical car that chases the field on the first lap of any Grand Prix pulled up and Dr. Ian Roberts jumped out, stopping momentarily to turn on a fire extinguisher held by a momentarily confused corner worker before heading toward the fire and the cockpit where Grosjean was trapped. And then, out of the fire, came what appeared to be a ghost. It was Romain Grosjean, who jumped over the barrier and hobbled away with an injured foot, some banged-up ribs and slight burns to the backs of his hands. It was a miracle. There is no other word for it.
3. SOCIAL ACTION:
When George Floyd died in police custody in June – a police officer knelt on his neck for 20 minutes – it set off a firestorm of rage felt around the world. Lewis Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula One, convinced the series and his fellow drivers to pause for a moment before each race to show respect. The series agreed to promote the slogan “We race as one,” while Hamilton himself wore a t-shirt that said, “Black lives matter.” Meantime, Bubba Wallace, who convinced NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag, was the target, apparently, of a noose left hanging in his NASCAR garage. Whether it was meant for him or not, it resulted in NASCAR, its owners, other drivers, engineers and mechanics walking behind Wallace as he and his crew pushed his car to the front of pit lane at the race in Talladega – an incredible sight. NASCAR star Kyle Larson, meantime, was overheard using a racial slur during an online racing game and was fired by his team and suspended by NASCAR for the 2020 season. And Roger Penske is mentoring a minority-owned Road to Indy entry in the USF2000 series with the aim of having a black driver qualify to race in the Indianapolis 500 in 2023. No other sport did as much.
4. SAUDI ARABIA:
Formula One showed – or tried to show – that it had a social conscience in its dealings with racial intolerance during the 2020 season. And then, inexplicably, it announced it would race in 2021 in Saudi Arabia. Of all the Middle East countries, from Iran to Syria to Bahrain and the UAE, Saudi Arabia is the epitome of a country ruled by a ruthless dictatorship. Kidnappings, murder, false imprisonment and torture are a way of life in that par of the world. Never mind that part of the world: the news now is that the ruling prince sent a hit squad to Canada to try to rub out a critic. Of course, the royals running those places aren’t stupid. They hire the world’s best public-relations firms to improve their image. They get Tiger Woods over there to play golf and Roger Federer to play tennis. WWE rasslin’? You bet. The European LPGA Tour just held a tournament there in that liberal, tolerant country where women have equal rights (that’s sarcasm, folks). The prince sits down to be interviewed by retired but still-well-known TV personalities who lob the softball questions and that tyrant comes off sounding like he has nothing but love and affection for his fellow men and women (unless they’re members of his family and he has them all in jail). And people around the world go on social media and see this stuff and say, “Hey, those folks aren’t so bad after all.” Liberty Media, the company that owns F1, is so hungry for money that they ignore all this. They pretend they don’t know they’re being used for propaganda. But they are and they should be ashamed. Lewis Hamilton took the lead in making the series stand up and acknowledge racial injustice. Now he has to say, “I’m not going to race there until all political prisoners, including all the women, are set free.” Unless that happens, if F1 carries on and goes to Saudi Arabia, it will be a black mark that may never be erased.
5. HAMILTON WINS SEVENTH TITLE:
Lewis Hamilton won his seventh world championship this season, tying Michael Schumacher. He will likely re-sign with Mercedes for at least a year and that will probably give him his eighth, making him the greatest of all time. Or does it? (Of course, he could retire, as some are suggesting, because of what happened to Romain Grosjean, and he would remain tied with Schumacher for all time. But I think that’s unlikely.) Now, there have been arguments since motorsport began as to who was the best driver: Vukovich, Fangio, Hawthorne, Nuvolari, Villeneuve, Clark, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Andretti, Gurney and on and on. I tend toward Schumacher because he, essentially, created the team that designed and engineered the car that he drove to five consecutive championships (of his seven in total). Others disagreed, as a Twitter debate showed. What I particularly admired about Schumacher was that when he won a race, he thanked each and Ferrari employee at the circuit individually. One year in Montreal, I watched as he emerged from the debriefing as the “roadies” were packing up for the flight back to Europe. He ran up to them, grinning and high-fiving with them all. He looked genuinely happy to be in their company. Schumacher never lost a championship to a teammate. Hamilton did. And George Russell proved just about anybody can drive that Mercedes. Despite what they might say about him going to the factory to visit, he’s a cold fish around the race track, not paying particular attention to anyone, never mind people on his team. Two years ago, in Montreal, people scattered as he bombed through the paddock on a scooter (the other drivers all walked). Seconds later, a big, overweight, man went running after him. It took a moment for the penny to drop: it was his bodyguard, struggling to keep up. Lewis might not see it, but Schumacher would never do that.
6. ELLIOTT NEW NASCAR CHAMP:
Seven years ago, in 2013, Chase Elliott won his first NASCAR race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park right here in Canada. Now he’s won his first NASCAR Cup championship and let there be no doubt, there’s plenty more where that came from. The 25-year-old son of NASCAR favourite Bill Elliott (Awesome Bill from Dawsonville), Chase Elliott went from the trucks the following year to win the 2014 Nationwide stock car series, the first rookie to win a NASCAR national title and the youngest champion in that league. He was the 2016 Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year and voted by the fans as the Cup series’ most popular driver. His first Cup win came on the road course at Watkins Glen in 2018, showing his versatility. He, of course, had a great tutor in his father. The late Dean McNulty told a story of that first trucks race at CTMP in 2013. “They were coming out of their trailer and Chase had his collar open. ‘Do it up,’ said his father. ‘There’s a sponsor logo there and you always have to promote your sponsors.’ The-then 18-year-old did it up. “The old man wasn’t leaving anything to chance,” Dean said. And the Dean of Speed was right: a credit to his sponsors and his sport, Chase Elliott is now a big-league champion at age 25, with a long career in front of him.
7. DIXON WINS SIXTH INDYCAR CHAMPIONSHIP:
I was lucky enough, in 2001, to be in Nazareth, Pa., for a CART race that was won by Scott Dixon, who was driving for PacWest Racing at the time. Roger Penske was the Grand Marshal for that race – his Penske Logistics and Penske Truck Rental companies are headquartered in nearby Reading, Pa. and the grandstands at the now-demolished Nazareth Speedway were full of people wearing souvenir red-and-white Penske dress shirts – and he was asked to say, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.” But the microphone cut out after the word, “Gentlemen,” which was a bit of a letdown for everybody. That victory, by the way, was Dixon’s first in Indy car racing and in 2003 he moved to Chip Ganassi Racing, where he’s been ever since and where he’s won all his championships, starting that same year and continuing through 2008, ’13, ’15, ’18 and this year, 2020. Of course, in 2008, he also won the Indianapolis 500. Dixon is a regular participant in long-distance sports car races and has announced plans to run in next January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. He is one of the finest racing drivers and one of the finest family men in racing.
8. JOHN FORCE TAKES A YEAR OFF:
The NHRA lost its biggest star and his entire Top Fuel and Funny Car teams in 2020 when John Force announced before the season started that he would not be competing. Neither did Funny Car champion Robert Height or former Top Fuel champion Brittany Force. Force kept his situation close to the vest but finally had to explain his decision. He simply didn’t feel he could give the value his sponsors expected with COVID-19 around. And there was something else that was unsaid: the 16-time drag-racing champion is 71-years-old. People over 65 are statistically more vulnerable and the last thing a senior needs is to come down with the virus. Good for John Force. It’s better to not race in order to race another day. Hopefully, we’ll see Force and his teams back on the straight line in 2021.
9: JIMMIE JOHNSON MAKES A MID-CAREER CORRECTION:
I think Jimmie Johnson is having a mid-life crisis. I think he thinks he’s 21 again. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, including five in a row (and don’t kid yourself; he had a much tougher road to hoe than Michael Schumacher ever did) is no longer competitive in Cup, so has decided to go IndyCar racing. In his prime, nobody was better in NASCAR than Jimmie Johnson. Working with his legendary crew chief Chad Knauss, he was just about unbeatable. But that pairing hasn’t been together for a few years now and Johnson hasn’t been very competitive. At 44, he was close at times, but no cigar. He didn’t even make the playoffs this season and almost half the field qualifies for the playoffs. So rather than bow out gracefully, Johnson struck a deal with Chip Ganassi and he will race the IndyCar road and street courses next year with Tony Kanaan running the ovals. He will also race in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The 24 is a marathon and Johnson could conceivably do okay but the IndyCar Series is something else. As is the case with NASCAR, IndyCar is undergoing a changing of the guard and the new drivers are all young and hungry. I wish Johnson the best of luck but I hope he doesn’t get run over.
10: JASON HATHAWAY, ED HAKONSON WIN FIRST NASCAR CANADA CHAMPIONSHIPS:
Now, I know there are going to be people who will say that there should be an asterisk, or something, beside the names of Hathaway and Hakonson but I don’t care if it was three races or six or two dozen: NASCAR Canada promoted a shortened Pinty’s Series season because of the coronavirus and when the races were over, Hathaway, the driver, and Hakonson, the owner, were the champs. And the really nice thing is that it was the first championship either has won. Hathaway came ciose to the title in 2015, finishing second. He decided to step back from running full-time in the series in 2016, starting select races in Ontario and the Maritimes. He returned full-time in 2019 and won three of six races to win the 2020 championship. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. His car owner, Ed Hakonson, was stricken with polio as a child but never considered it a handicap. He went snowmobile racing and was involved in motorcycle racing. He started sponsoring cars in the CASCAR Super Series in the 1980s and continued to this very day, finally winning a championship in 2020. Well done, Ed. You are a credit to the sport. Oh, and you’re a nice guy too.
Norris McDonald / Special to Wheels.ca