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Monday Morning Racing Roundup: Memo to IndyCar – beware ISC; Roughrider Rossi; farewell to Jason Johnson; all the other racing news

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

IndyCar will not be returning to Phoenix in 2019 and there are reports that the league’s officials are talking to International Speedway Corp. officials about opportunities at other ISC tracks and I have just one question:
Why, oh why, oh why, would IndyCar be even thinking about talking to the International Speedway Corp. about anything?
International Speedway Corp. is the France family and the France family is NASCAR, That should pretty much tell you everything you have to know.
Once upon a time, IndyCar – back when it was called CART – used to do really well attendance-wise at the Phoenix International Raceway (now called ISM Speedway). There were three reasons for this: a) Indy cars had raced there going back to the track’s beginnings in the 1960s and all the great American short-track stars of the day ran in the series – Andretti, the Unsers, Rutherford, Foyt and on and on – so they had a great following; b) NASCAR had yet to hit its stride; c) International Speedway Corp. didn’t own the place; a guy named Buddy Jobe did. ISC only bought it in 1997.
CART raced there till 1995 and then Jobe opted to go with the breakaway Indy Racing League, which was then asked to leave following the race in 2005 because of lack of interest.
So after the Indy car war was settled, some of the Indianapolis-based journalists started beating the drums for the series to get back to Phoenix. Everything would be beautiful, they all wrote. Phoenix will be the answer to many of our prayers.
So in 2016, back the series went to Phoenix and despite everybody inside the IndyCar community saying what a wonderful success everything had been, in reality it was close to being a disaster. Why? The pretty-much spec Indy cars are now too fast for short ovals and the drivers are too equal so the races are follow-the-leader boring. And there was apparently pretty much zero interest among the general population.
And why was there zero interest? This does not take a rocket scientist to explain. It is because the track is owned by ISC (which is code for NASCAR) and there was NO promotion.
NASCAR is a racing organization. It is in competition with IndyCar, which is another racing organization. Who in their right mind thinks for a second that NASCAR is going to lift a finger to help IndyCar?
In fact, NASCAR would like nothing more than for IndyCar to go out of business.
Look at what has happened recently. The proposed Boston street race blew up and IndyCar had to find a place to race. Instead of doing the logical thing – which I wrote columns about at the time – and going to Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal (the NASCAR Xfinity Series had left, so there was an opening for a second race after the F1 Grand Prix du Canada), IndyCar opted to go to Watkins Glen instead. Watkins Glen, a NASCAR track, did next-to-nothing to promote that race and it is now history.
Now we have the Phoenix disaster. When the IRL ran there back in the late-nineties, early 2000s, I used to fly out for the races in March because Manzanita Speedway was still in business at the time and I loved the CRA/USAC sprint car races they used to hold there.
So I would get off a plane at the Sky Harbour Airport and this is what I would see: advertising for Cactus League Baseball, U.S. College Final Four basketball, Phoenix Coyotes hockey, Phoenix Suns pro basketball, an upcoming LPGA golf tournament and college football spring exhibition games. There was not one sign that there was an Indy car race on. Not one. There were no billboards or ads in the paper. If you turned on the radio, you heard commercials (I’m not making this up) for a NASCAR race that was upcoming but nothing about the Indy cars.
That is how NASCAR promotes IndyCar. By doing nothing. Oh, along with local sponsorship, enough people would usually turn out to spend enough money on admissions and concessions to cover the cost of the sanctioning fee the speedway had to pay IndyCar but they didn’t care about turning a profit because that wasn’t the point of the exercise, which was/is to devalue the racing and embarrass IndyCar.
Which is why IndyCar no longer races at ISC-owned speedways like New Hampshire, or Homestead-Miami, or Richmond, Va.. And the story with those three – plus Phoenix – was always the same: no promotion equals no interest equals failure.
So here is my suggestion to IndyCar today: don’t race at any more ovals than the ones you currently have and stay away – miles away – from the ISC (NASCAR). They will smile at you and then do something else to you simultaneously.
Go race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin (if Eddie Gossage says he’ll cancel Texas, call his bluff because you’ll get a much bigger crowd at COTA), Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal and in Calgary. You will not regret it.
And if someone calls from ISC, don’t answer.

Jason Johnson celebrates after winning the 2017 Knoxville Nationals

It’s starting out as if it could be one of those years.
Last weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, we lost gentleman racer Jeff Green. This weekend, World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series tour regular Jason Johnson died after crashing at a dirt-track speedway in Wisconsin.
You can be a fan of auto racing and be very easily lulled into a false sense of security. Auto racing is now so safe as compared to the way it once was, we think. I have a biography of Eddie Sachs, the oval midget, sprint and Indy car racer who started out in the late 1940s and survived the ‘50s, only to die at Indy in 1964, and somebody is killed on every second page. You think it’s not like that anymore, and then the world comes crashing down.
Johnson, who raced in Ontario last summer at Ohsweken Speedway when the Outlaws came calling, was fifth in points behind Donny Schatz, Brad Sweet, David Gravel and Daryn Pittman. He was among a dozen WoO regulars who ran every race on the schedule. So far in 2018, he had two victories, 10 top five finishes and 19 top tens. He was a steady runner who was also a hard, competitive racer.
Johnson, who was 41 when he passed Sunday morning from injuries suffered in the Saturday night crash at the 1/3-mile Beaver Dam (Wisc.) Raceway, was battling Pittman for the lead on Lap 18 of the 40-lap feature when fate intervened.
Johnson’s car somehow got out of shape heading into Turn 3 and and flipped violently, smashing through billboards (there was reportedly no catch fencing in the area) before crashing to earth outside the track.
“With the same courage, passion and vigor that he raced with each night, he fought valiantly to the end,” Jason Johnson Racing said in a statement.
“His love of life and sprint car racing was only surpassed by his deep and authentic love for his family, friends, competitors and fans. He never met a stranger, and certainly never met anyone that he was not willing to help or provide guidance. It is that giving and caring spirit that we will all forever miss.”
Known as the “Ragin’ Cajun,” the native of Eunice, La., won five championships in the ASCS 361 c.i. Sprint Car Dirt Series. Then, in 2016, he won the prestigious 410 c.i. Knoxville Nationals, the Indianapolis 500 of sprint car racing. He was partners with NASCAR Monster Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  in a sprint car operation in 2010.

He joined the WoO tour as a full-time driver in 2015 and explained his decision to go full-time this way:

“The real reason we wanted to race with the Outlaws is because it’s the best in the industry. The teams and drivers are so strong and are able to adapt to every track and its conditions we go to. We go to places that some guys race at every week, and then the Outlaws come in and break the track record and dominate. To qualify myself as an Outlaw, I want to be consistently up front and win our fair share of races to carry that banner.”

Stenhouse said Johnson was the toughest competitor he ever knew. “He was the true car owner (and) driver, and it’s tough to do that these days. A lot of people respected him being able to do that.”
Johnson’s family was heavily involved in his racing, with his cousin as crew chief and wife, Bobbi, as team manager. They have a young son, Jaxx.
Bobbi Johnson had endured racing tragedy previously, as she had been engaged to Kevin Gobrecht, who was killed in 1999. The World of Outlaws rookie award is named for him and Johnson won it in 2015.

When the race was restarted, Pittman went on for the win.
R.I.P., Jason Johnson. And Godspeed.

It was another type of accident, or negligence, but popular Oswego (N.Y.) fireman Bobby Smith went into hospital a week ago for a back operation and there were complications and he passed away last Thursday evening. “Smitty” was 57 and leaves his son, Cole. Back in the day, Bobby qualified my supermodified for the Budweiser International Classic on Labour Day at Oswego Speedway and also drove a super owned by his pal, Rocky Crucitti. “Smitty” also raced a modified a time or two that was owned by modified legend Tony Hirschman. We had our differences, as happens, but he was a nice guy and we had some good times.

R.I.P., “Smitty.” We’ll meet again.

Paul Tracy was going on and on during the Verizon IndyCar Series telecast Sunday about the good, hard, racing that was going on at the Road America road course. This was after Alexander Rossi had pushed not one but two other drivers – Robbie Wickens and Takuma Sato – off the track.
I’m a fan of good, hard, racing myself – when it’s legal. I don’t think pushing someone off the racing surface is legal. I thought the race was supposed to take place on the track. What if there had been a wall there?
And it’s not that I’m down on Rossi, although he does this sort of thing way more than any of the other drivers in the IndyCar series. This is the sort of thing they do in Formula One – Bottas did it to Grosjean in France Sunday – and I don’t like it there, either. I really don’t think there’s any reason for it.
Rossi said in an interview afterward that the turns in question were his corners and that the others should have backed off. What are they supposed to do? Slam on the brakes? It would be the only way to stay on the track.
The stewards didn’t do anything in both instances, which was a mistake. Why was it a mistake? Because somebody is going to get Rossi back. It’s the old business of evening the score: do that to me and get ready because I am going to do that back to you.
Sunday at Road America, there was enough room that when Rossi did what he did, there were no consequences. Maybe when the inevitable payback comes, the circumstances won’t be quite as favourable.
For a full report on the IndyCar race, which was won by Josef Newgarden, with Ryan Hunter-Reay second and Scott Dixon third, please click here.

OTHER RACING

Lewis Hamilton celebrates his French Grand Prix victory

Many Southern Ontario speedways had their programs washed out this weekend – Ohsweken, Jucasa and Merrittville, to name a few. It’s not that the precipitation created problems on the tracks but that the parking lots got so soaked that cars driven by spectators would likely have bogge down and gotten stuck, hence the cancellations. Let’s cross our fingers that the upcoming Canada Day weekend is sunny and everybody can get their big early summer shows in . . . . . Was Lewis Hamilton even in the French Grand Prix Sunday? I mean, he started from pole but then was so far gone (after the inevitable first-corner crash was cleaned up and the race restarted) that the announcers didn’t mention his name again till the checkers. For a full report on the F1 race, please click here. . . . . . Okay, how can you give a guy a five-second penalty for going too slowly? That was what the Williams driver, Sergey Sirotkin, got early in the race. Was the safety car lapping him? I mean, isn’t that about the only way you could really determine if the guy was going too slowly? And Sebastian Vettel misjudges his speed and then can’t stop in time to avoid hitting Valtteri Bottas and essentially ruins both their races and he gets a five-second penalty too. Huh? That’s the difference between the stewards in F1 and the ones in IndyCar: one group does too much, the other, too little. . . . . How did you like the Rocket Man demo just before the F1 race? Was that cool, or what? And the Patrouille Acrobatique de France flypast? With their national colours of red, white and blue trailing? Great stuff. I could have done without the red, white and blue striping all around the circuit, though. I thought I was hallucinating a couple of times. . . . . . I never believe F1 rumours. Kimi Raikkonen will be replaced in 2019 by Charles Leclerc, they say. Kimi is still trucking along pretty well, isn’t he? Did you see him make that outside pass on Ricciardo? And a third-place finish in the French Grand Prix? That’s enough to get him fired, for sure. If true, though, why wait? Ferrari have enough money to pay off both Kimi and Sauber. . . . . .  Nicholas Latifi of Toronto finished seventh in the Formula 2 race Saturday at Circuit Paul Ricard, which got him a front-row starting spot in Sunday’s sprint race. Try as he might, though, “Nick” could only manage an eighth-place finish. . . . . . I love the name of the Formula 2 leader, Lando Norris. I print out the headlines and put them up around my house. “Norris wins again,” or, “Norris fights back” – that sort of thing. . . . . . Martin Truex Jr. won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup road race at Sonoma Sunday, with Kevin Harvick second and Clint Bowyer third. I should say, though, that a strategy call by Canada’s Cole Pearn won that race for Truex. In any event, please click here for details. . . . . . Wendy Venturini, a popular figure in the NASCAR media and the first woman to co-anchor a NASCAR Cup race in 2014, was struck by a car while out jogging Saturday morning near Sonoma, Calif., autoweek.com reports. Venturini, who suffered a skull fracture but is expected to recover, now works for the Performance Racing Network and was in California to assist in the NASCAR coverage at Sonoma. . . . . . Blake Alexander became the 105th different Top Fuel winner in NHRA history Sunday afternoon at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were also winners in their respective categories at the 12th of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.  Please click here for details. . . . . In Mazda Road to Indy action, Parker Thompson of Red Deer, Alta., finished fourth both days in Pro Mazda races at Road America. In Indy Lights, Dalton Kellett of Toronto was sixth on Sunday and seventh Saturday. . . . . . Romain Dumas and the Volkswagen I.D. R electric-powered car won the the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb presented by Gran Turismo (say that five times, fast) on Sunday, setting a record in the process. The VW electric became the first car to finish under eight minutes, coming in at 7:57.148. The previous record was 8:13.878 set by Sébastien Loeb in a Peugeot 208 T16 in 2013 and the electric record was previously held by Rhys Millen, who got to the peak in 2016 with a time of 8:57.118. . . . . . On Saturday at midnight, women in Saudi Arabia were able to take to the roads, ending the world’s last ban on women drivers, long seen as an emblem of women’s repression in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom. To mark the occasion, Aseel Al Hamad, the first woman member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation and a member of the Women in Motorsport Commission (WMC) set up by Formula One’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), took the first drive in a Jaguar F-Type. Later in the day Sunday, she drove a Renault-powered Formula One car around Circuit Paul Ricard in advance of the French Grand Prix as part of a parade of the French manufacturer’s vehicles to mark the return of the race after a 10-year absence. The lifting of the ban, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his powerful young son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a bid to transform the economy of the world’s top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society. The Crown Prince launched his liberal revolution by having most of his relatives arrested and imprisoned.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca