Featured Story Motorsports

F1, NASCAR and IndyCar need some PR help

Written by Norris McDonald

Note to readers: Toronto Star Wheels is a preprint. The section goes to press Thursday and is then inserted into the Saturday Star. I have two stories/columns in Wheels this week – one on IndyCar and the second on F1 (my annual conversation with Gerald Donaldson). As you know, races in those two series were cancelled after Wheels went to press. A notice was to have been published on the front page of Wheels saying this was a possibility. Somehow, it wasn’t. Links to the two stories are in my column below.

If I was king of the world, I would not have allowed big-league motorsport to make the fool of itself that it did the last three days of this week.

Formula One was intent on holding the Grand Prix of Australia, despite every other major-league sport in the word postponing their seasons. No basketball, no soccer, no hockey, no baseball, no electric car (Formula E) racing, no IMSA sports car racing. No Masters golf tournament. No nothing. But F1 would carry on, regardless. Apparently, a positive test registered by one member of Team McLaren wasn’t enough for them to see the light despite the NBA’s decisive action following one of the league’s 360-odd players testing positive.

It took a rebellion by some team owners, who said they wouldn’t race, and the exit of several drivers – notably Sebastien Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, who flew home in their private jets – to bring the FIA and Australian race organizers to their senses.

And it’s a good thing other Grands Prix have been cancelled or postponed in the weeks ahead because their biggest star, Lewis Hamilton, will likely have to self-isolate for two weeks after posing for a photo in the U.K. (see above) with Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau (left), the PM’s missus, who’s now reportedly suffering from the virus.

NASCAR and IndyCar were equally empty-headed. NASCAR first said it would race in Atlanta, but without spectators. Then it said it wouldn’t race, period, and that it wouldn’t race in Miami next week either. So three series – Cup, Xfinity, trucks – had to pack up and leave Atlanta for home. If management had been more assertive, all those truckers and race drivers and support staff (engineers, mechanics) could have saved themselves the trip. Some of those teams are hand-to-mouth and wastes-of-time like this could sink them like a stone.

IndyCar and Green-Savoree Promotions, promoters of the St. Petersburg race (Green-Savoree own and promote the Honda Indy Toronto, by the way), issued a statement that dropped into my mailbox at 3:19 p.m. Thursday saying everything was a go – IndyCar, Road to Indy series races, Porsche GT3 Cup, etc. – with IndyCar running only on Saturday and Sunday and there would be no spectators allowed into the course. Thursday night at 9:13 p.m., IndyCar announced on its own that all Friday activities had been cancelled. Then, Friday morning at 11:37 a.m., IndyCar announced on its own, again, that everything was cancelled through the end of April.

What a mess. And yet, despite all those critics out there who are lambasting everybody from the president of the United States to the president of Italy for not being faster off the coronavirus mark, I’m not sure anybody (including me, who really isn’t king of the world) could have done any better. Hindsight is always 20-20; Monday Morning quarterbacks are always brilliant. But they should be careful what they wish for: responsibility. Everything always turns out to be harder than it seems.

Actually, now that I think about it, my old pal Sid Priddle, the finest auto racing PR practitioner I’ve ever known, should come out of retirement and give these people a hand. At least he knows how to make a decision.

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Mark Miles, President and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which runs the IndyCar series, talked to reporters later on Friday and said the series hopes to be able to hold as many of this season’s scheduled races as possible. Long Beach has already announced it won’t be able to hold its annual GP. The other races cancelled before May – Circuit of the Americas, Barber Motorsport Park and St. Petersburg – may possibly be rescheduled.

Worst case scenario: they can’t race before September. Indianapolis is no problem – they can run the 500 any day of the year. The Speedway is always there. But Toronto? It would be tough to build a track before Thanksgiving – if the promoters could get permits to close Lake Shore Blvd. West at that time of year. Kevin Savoree had talked to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park about moving the IndyCar race to old Mosport back in 2015 when the Pan-Am games threatened to interfere with it but things were worked out to stay in T.O. So is CTMP a possibility this year? If there is force majeur?

Said track co-owner Ron Fellows on Friday: “Anything is possible, but we have not been contacted by anyone at IndyCar.”

Dalton Kellett of Toronto is entering his rookie season in the IndyCar series this year – he’s driving select street- and road-course races, plus the Indy 500, for A.J. Foyt Racing – and was disappointed at the turn of events. But since his first race now will be the Indianapolis Grand Prix on the road course at the Speedway, the situation wasn’t all that bad.

And if that race happens, the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will be looming. How confident is he about driving in the 500?

“I’m confident in my abilities to help develop the car, and be calm and comfortable getting it up to speed,” he said Friday. “As a rookie, it’s hard to say (how he’ll do – although he won the pole for the Indy Lights race at the Speedway several years ago). I’m 100 per cent certain that I’m ready and that we can do a good job there.”

More about Dalton Kellett and more about motorsport generally when the world gets a handle on COVID-19, whenever that is.