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Racing roundup: IndyCar at St. Louis, NASCAR trucks at CTMP, F1 at Belgium

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

It is a fact of life that violence, or the potential for violence, fascinates people.

There’s a crash in the northbound lanes of some highway somewhere and the southbound lanes are just as backed up because people just have to look. Hockey is the only sport in the world – other than the true blood sports like Ultimate Fighting – that allows fighting. Why? Because the fans like it.

IndyCar racing is a small niche in the slightly bigger niche sport of auto racing. Not all that many people attend the races (except for the Indianapolis 500) and – except for Indy, again – not that many watch on television.  But, sad to say, the league will undoubtedly get a ratings bump on Saturday night when the series holds the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis.

The reason, of course, is Robbie Wickens’s devastating crash at Pocono  International Raceway last Sunday. It was the worst auto-racing accident seen live on TV since Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Speedway in 2011 in a scarily similar crash.

The Pocono race had a 0.34 rating – 542,000 viewers – which was down slightly from the 2017 number. It is safe to say that more people will tune in Saturday night to watch the Indy cars on the Gateway oval. I won’t say “in hopes” of something happening, but there’s no doubt there will be fascination with the potential.

NASCAR knows all about this. Throughout the 1990s, NASCAR  noticed a decline in TV viewership; it was a slight decline but it was there. Then Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona in 2001. NASCAR’s ratings shot up for the very next race at Rockingham and were consistently up thereafter. Legendary NASCAR promoter Humpy Wheeler said Earnhardt’s accident and subsequent demise was responsible for the increase.

The Gateway entry list will be down a car – Wickens’s. His employer, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, made the decision earlier this week to go with only one car, that of Wickens’s teammate – and best friend – James Hinchcliffe of Oakville. It was felt it wouldn’t be fair to the injured driver, who remains in hospital in Allentown, Pa., to put someone else into his car so quickly – although there has been no shortage of applicants for the job.

Said Sam Schmidt, half-owner of the team with Canadian Ric Peterson: “The phone’s been ringing off the hook with potential replacements.”

Meanwhile, Wickens, of Guelph, is recovering from the devastating accident that left him with both ankles broken, a broken arm, a bruised lung and a spinal injury.  He underwent several surgeries this week and Schmidt Peterson issued the following statement Friday:

“Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Robert Wickens continues to be treated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest for injuries sustained during the INDYCAR event at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, Aug. 19. Surgeries were performed late this week on his right arm and lower extremities without complication. The extent of the spinal cord injury remains indeterminate. Wickens also underwent a series of precautionary tests that found no indication of further injury.

“Future treatment for Wickens includes more corrective surgery and rehabilitation. Further updates will be provided when available.”

Discussion and debate since the crash happened has centred on finding an alternative to the catch-fencing that kept Wickens’s car from flying out of the speedway, but which undoubtedly contributed to the severity of his injuries, and improved protection for the drivers. A video recording of Wickens’s car just missing fellow driver Ryan Hunter-Reay’s head as it began its flight is disturbing.

All of what has been said, however, is reminiscent of exactly what was said following Wheldon’s accident in 2011 and absolutely nothing has happened in the seven years since. IndyCar has tested a canopy-type protective shield for the cockpit but that has been all. Catch-fencing remains in place at all speedways. In the end, talk is cheap; action costs money and there is not a lineup to spend any to make racing safer for the participants.

The IndyCar race from Gateway will be available in Canada Saturday night on Sportsnet 1 and Sportsnet360, starting at 8 p.m.

Here is what else is going on this weekend . . .

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is racing at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the annual Chevrolet Silverado 250. It is the first race in the truck series Chase for the Championship playoffs, the first time a Chase race has been held outside the borders of the United States. It will go to the post at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

The eight drivers in the running for the title include Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Noah Gragson, Ben Rhodes, Grant Enfinger, Justin Haley, Matt Crafton and Canadian hot-shoe Stewart Friesen, who’s from Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Other Canadians entered in the truck race include Alex Tagliani (photo above), D.J. Kennington and Jason White. Two of those three – Tagliani and Kennington – will be doing double-duty on Sunday as they will also be racing in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series stock car race in the morning.  That contest will go at 11:05 a.m.

In Belgium, Formula One returns from its annual summer vacation (does anybody in Europe work during August?) with the Grand Prix of Belgium at the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Prediction: either Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel will win the race that can be seen on TSN Sunday morning at 9:05 a.m.  Qualifying is available Saturday,  on TSN5, at 8:55 a.m.

TSN2 will have the NASCAR Xfinity race from Road America Saturday afternoon starting at 2:30 p.m.   A tape of the Pinty’s Series race at Riverside Speedway in Antigonish, N.S., will be shown at 6 p.m. on TSN.

Talking of TV and NASCAR, some of us are fortunate to have FOX Sports Racing as part of our cable package. I am a Rogers subscriber, so I can watch, as can Cogeco customers. But I also know that Bell and Shaw and a bunch of others don’t have it.

So FOX Sports Racing, which carries the full NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season live in Canada, is available on free preview this week to Canadian subscribers, highlighted by Sunday’s Truck Series race from Canadian Tire Motorsport Park at 2:30 eastern. Current FOX Sports Racing distributors are making it available to all subscribers during the preview period, which includes Sunday’s race. Sunday’s coverage begins at 2 p.m. with NASCAR Race Day – NCWTS.

Additionally, NASCAR.com is providing a free, unauthenticated live stream to all users in Canada.

So, there you go.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca