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Racing advance: Fitzpatrick to drive for team he once fought

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

When I heard the news that stock car racer extraordinaire J.R. Fitzpatrick will drive the remaining four races of the 2020 NASCAR Pinty’s Series season for Scott Steckly’s 22 Racing Team, I was delighted.

But then I started laughing because I remember the last race of the 2012 season as if it was yesterday and J.R. Fitzpatrick and members of that 22 Racing team were not exactly Kissin’ Cousins when the checkers flew that evening at Kawartha Speedway.

And I wondered: are those members of Steckly’s pit crew still the same ones who exchanged, initially, insults with Fitzpatrick  and, later, fisticuffs? Or is it a brand new bunch?

Here’s a quick synopsis. The last race ended, driver D.J. Kennington was on a Victory Lap after winning the series championship and Steckly and Fitzpatrick were playing bumper cars because of something that had happened during the race.

Steckly, a gentleman who won four NASCAR Canada titles before retiring to become one of its most successful team owners, drove his car to the infield while his crew gathered by the pit wall to yell at Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick, a gentleman today now that he’s settled down, was younger and full of testosterone in those days, so stopped his car to enter into debate with his critics and one thing led to another and everybody started swinging.

NASCAR Canada announcer Adam Ross was in full flight while all this was going on, even going so far as to call what was happening trackside a “brouhaha.” When I announced at Oswego Speedway in New York, I used to call those little dustups a “contretemps,” but I liked “brouhaha” better, so borrowed it from then on.

In any event, I’m a lover (or was), not a fighter, so stayed in the press box till NASCAR officials broke up the fight, whereupon I sought out J.R. to ask after his health and for an explanation of the sequence of events. He greeted me by offering his left hand to shake, so – me being an investigative reporter and all – I asked if his right hand might have been a little tender.

It was – and wrapped in an ice pack.

Our conversation went like this.

NM: What happened, J.R.?

 

JRF: “Well, I got my car started (after the contact with Steckly’s) and I drove around and Scott’s crew was leaning over the wall, all yellin’ at me, so I stopped to have a discussion.

One guy was gettin’ really lippy so I took off my helmet and got out of the car and went over and I said, ‘Who wants to go?’ And this guy says, ‘Me,’ so I grabbed him and I got two really good shots in, wham! wham! – and that’s how I hurt my hand – and then by that time they were all over me and they got some good ones in on me too and then the officials arrived and broke it up.”

NM: So you got hit?

 JRF: “Yeah, I got hit on the side of the head and I got one on my ear but I don’t think anybody hit me as hard as I hit that first guy.”

NM: So do you think they’re going to fine you, or anything? I mean, you have a habit of getting into scraps at this track (several years previously, he was involved in a ‘brouhaha’ with Kerry Micks and his crew).”

 JRF: “Listen, I’m the only driver who brings any excitement to this series. Without me, it would be boring. Without me, all you’d have is D.J. Kennington winning seven races – and how exciting is that?”

And the whole time, he had the biggest grin on his face you’ve ever seen.

Fitzpatrick will be partnering Alex Tagliani on the 22 Team at the Hamilton-area Flamboro Speedway this Saturday where Twin-125 lap races will be held and then again at Jukasa Motor Speedway on Sept. 15.

Unfortunately, no spectators will be allowed. But the races will be recorded and shown on TSN shortly after they’re held.

INDY 500 POSTSCRIPT

Okay, moving right along, A couple of things about the Indianapolis 500, won last Sunday by Takuma Sato (photo above).

The TV ratings were not as good as they have been and some observers have suggested doom-and-gloom, as a result. Not me.

The Indy 500 is usually held in May, not August. That is when people expect it will be on TV. Its like the Kentucky Derby (which will be held soon, also without spectators). Both iconic events are held before summer and that is when people go looking for them.

The 500 and the Derby are watched by many people who don’t normally watch car racing or horse racing. That’s why they usually get extra-big ratings. I watch the Derby, for example, but other than the Preakness, Belmont and the Queen’s Plate, I don’t watch horse racing. Same with many people and the 500. They watch one race a year and Indy’s it and if it’s on in May, they watch; otherwise, no.

Also, people have been cooped up since March because of COVID-19. If the weather is nice, they’re going out. I’m not surprised that a whole lot of TV watchers were out and about last Sunday instead of being indoors watching a car race on TV.

So forget the 500 and the ratings – this year.

Now, there has been a debate since late last Sunday over whether the race should have been stopped after Spencer Pigott’s crash. I don’t want to get back into this particular incident again but I do want to discuss the future of racing.

I have been a fan of racing since I was a small child. I understand “tradition.” I understand it when people say (and I said this myself in my post-Indy 500 column) that the Indy 500 is 500 miles, not 502 or 505. I can understand a race sometimes having to finish under yellow.

But I am 100 years old. So are many of the writers covering this sport. The world is changing and if we want IndyCar racing to survive and grow, there has to at least be a discussion about where it’s going.

Take hockey. Regular-season games used to end in a tie. Forever and ever, it was that way. It was “tradition.” Then the NHL had polls and surveys taken that revealed people wanted a winner, that tie games were not satisfying any more. So the five-minute, 3-on-3, sudden-death overtime was introduced, followed by the shootout. It’s now part of the game and most people love it.

I believe that people want to see drivers racing to the finish, not cruising. I might very well be in the minority on this; maybe even wrong. But the world is changing, people have different expectations than they used to have, and IndyCar racing has to take that into consideration if it wants to survive.

I know there is a school of thought out there that if people were “educated,” they would come to enjoy the nuances of the sport. I don’t think that works any more. I am not a fan of cricket; I have had the game explained to me dozens of times and I still don’t understand it and I am not sufficiently interested to keep trying. So if people don’t like something, you can’t make them. Which means if racing wants to attract new fans, particularly young fans, it has at least consider making some changes.

RACING THIS WEEKEND

IndyCar will race twice this weekend at World Wide Technology Speedway near St. Louis. Both races,  on Saturday and Sunday, will start at 3 p.m.  and can be seen on Sportsnet360.  There are suggestions the double-header at Mid-Ohio, which was postponed earlier, will be held the weekend of Sept. 12-13. There are reports a street race will be held in Nashville next season.

Formula One, after a weekend off, will take to the track again this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps for the Grand Prix of Belgium. Lewis Hamilton will win. There, you don’t have to watch. If you really have to, however, you can watch second practice Friday morning at 8:45 a.m. on TSN 4 or 5, qualifying Saturday at 8:55 a.m. at TSN 1, 4 or 5 and the race itself Sunday at 9:05 a.m. at TSN 1, 4 and 5.

Two NASCAR Pinty’s Series stock car races were held on Aug. 15 at Sunset Speedway. You can watch the second race on Saturday at 2 p.m. on TSN 1, 3, 4 and 5.

Other NASCAR races this weekend, all at Daytona International Speedway: Xfinity, Friday, 7:30, TSN5; Cup, Saturday, 7 p.m., NBC/TSN5; Trucks, Sunday, 6 p.m., FOX Sports Racing.

IMSA is racing at Road Atlanta this weekend. The six-hour race replaces the 6 Hours at the Glen that was cancelled earlier this Sunday. If you get Discovery Velocity, the pre-race starts at 11:30 a.m. Saturday with the green flag flying at noon. Otherwise, try IMSA.com.