Out and about in American Racing

| Photographer Credit: Chris Owen

I went into lockdown in the USA on March 9th 2020. 107 days later after a lot of TV time watching NASCAR, Indy and F,1 I finally got out and about into the new World of motor racing under a global pandemic.

I’m commentating on Trans Am, SVRA Vintage, F3 and F4 in the USA. It has, shall I say, been enlightening for lots of different reasons though at times I admit it’s pretty scary out there.

America is not dealing with the crisis very well, but that is a whole “nuther ball of Bees wax” as they say here in Texas. Suffice to say, flying and traveling again feels a bit like running the gauntlet in the real Hunger Games.

Luckily I work in a sport that reacts well to change and adapts well to problems that need to be overcome to “Keep calm and race on”.

In fact, the examples that first NASCAR, then Indy and now Formula One have set, are showing the world a really exemplary lesson, both to other sports and society as a whole.

Motor racing has shown that with a plan, a strategy and adherence by all involved, racing has been able to come back and put on a good show and in some cases put on a better one than normal.

While locked down I was able to watch as NASCAR really set a high benchmark for safety, organization and innovation. I also took part in my first ever E-sport Trans Am series and did it well enough to get a gig in cyberspace to commentate on the E Le Mans 24 hours.  

I was a bit dubious about Sim racing at first, but as we have seen from all the E racing during the pandemic, it certainly works especially when household the names of racing get involved.

I like the idea of drivers swapping disciplines and also racing at venues they wouldn’t normally race at. In Trans Am, we brought back to life tracks that no longer exist but were formative in the golden days of the category, in the 60’s and 70’s. We raced at Riverside in California where Gurney and Donahue cut their teeth and then at Bridgehampton on Long Island, New York, where back in the 60’s the best of the USA would meet their counterparts from across the border in Canada at a venue that would see 80-100,000 each weekend .

There were other stories making firsts too. Juan Manuel Correa from the USA ,who raced in TRS a few years ago, joined the E Trans AM series using only one leg.

If you remember he was involved in the fatal accident of Antoine Hubert in Formula 2, 18 months ago.  He shattered his left leg in the incident and almost had it amputated. Luckily doctors saved it and he remains in rehab with pins holding his leg and ankle together. Sim racing, as it has for Robert Wickens, has given these drivers a new lease on life and racing as they recover.

In fact Juan Manuel was brave enough to race at Spa on the sim, the venue that almost ended his career and he made it through with flying colours using his right foot to both accelerate and brake. gaining a top ten finish.

All in all, I enjoyed the experience of Sim Racing and was pleasantly surprised and very impressed how the series organisers are able to put these events on with virtual stewards and race directors and individual liveries allowing the cars and teams to show off their real world sponsors.

For the sports  promoters it is also a chance to parade their signage and sponsorship better than they can in the actual world.

During this very scary pandemic, motor racing is really innovating and not just in cyberspace.

NASCAR and Indy’s one day events are, in my mind, revolutionary and proof that three-day events may be a thing of the past.

The first stage of a NASCAR event, or the first 30 laps of an Indy race, are awesome as the drivers and engineers have no time to set up the car to their liking and therefore their communication in the first stint is crucial. The pit stops a lot more crucial for adjusting the set up to improve the car for the next stint.

NASCAR are racing within a smaller geographical area in order to keep costs down. Which means racing at the same venue on a Sunday and then on a Wednesday night.  There’s no question that two races a week, when there is no other live Sport on TV, has really brought NASCAR to the fore in a sport crazy nation always competing for eyeballs.

TV companies have also dealt with social distancing well and innovated for the new circumstances. Branded masks with mics on poles and remote cameras are all now part of the new norm for motor racing in the USA.

And their efforts are paying dividends.

The NASCAR Cup Series race at Kentucky got a 1.57 rating and 2.58 million viewers on Fox Sports in the USA . That’s up from a 1.21 rating or 2.1m for the same race run on the  weekend last year on NBCSN.

Unusually the Truck Series race at Kentucky outscored the Xfinity Series. Although the trucks had the benefit of a Saturday race, they averaged 0.42 rating, that’s 699,000 viewers on Fox Sports 1, doubling the audience for last year’s race here run on a Thursday on the same network.

IndyCar took note from NASCAR and while they came back racing later, they too innovated. They, as well, have had one day events doing away with free practice and qualifying. 

Again the racing was as good as ever. In fact there’s this kid from New Zealand romping away with it by the name of Scott Dixon. I hear he doesn’t get much coverage on TV in his home country,  but here in the States he walks on water and is now talked about in the same rarefied air as the greats AJ FOYT and the UNSERS.

Indy were also brave enough to  run at the same venue on the same day with NASCAR at the Indianapolis Motor speedway and plan to do it again. It too was a big success and shows that in the “new norm” we may well see the two disciplines sharing venues and costs with even bigger crowds and TV audiences.  

The IndyCar doubleheader at Road America averaged 0.72 rating, that’s 1.04 million for Sunday’s race on NBC, and 299,000 viewers for Saturday’s race on NBCSN. The Sunday numbers were a slight decrease from last year’s single race on NBC of 0.77 rating at 1.1million.

And while it’s the first time Indy cars and stock cars have competed together at the same track on the same day/weekend, back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace to have some of the biggest names of USAC and NASCAR try their hand at each other’s discipline.

A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue and Dan Gurney ventured down to Daytona or out to Riverside while Cale Yarborough, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby & Donnie Allison and Paul Goldsmith strapped and raced in the Indianapolis 500.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the entire paddock and how we executed this plan,” Jay Frye told RACER Magazine in USA. “Everybody was part of the plan, part of the process to get it to what we had. It’s that saying of ‘strategy is a commodity, and execution is an art.’ This group executed in a big way, and I came away with five pages of notes of things that we could go back and do better.”

Indy had  760 people on the ground in total between the paddock, NBC, and IMS Productions and the track staff.

“We had multiple [coronavirus] screenings, assets were right on the ground, with enough people, enough lines to get through the whole process. You go back through it. There were some things that we looked at with social distancing and some things we would have maybe done a little different, but it did all work as it was supposed to. So that was good.”

“The biggest stuff that I learned, and again, part of this is you’re learning for the future, is how can you do one-day shows more often?”

Then came Formula One in July. Back to back events in Austria. Completely different weekends with both events a great success and great way for the world’s premier series to make a return. The worry that the weekends would be too similar was never an issue with a high attrition  rate in the first weekend and torrential rain in the second.

Formula One are kings of the social distancing protocol and have the finances to implement it including the use of podium robots.

By the start of the Styrian Grand Prix on week two, the sport had carried out more than 10,000 COVID tests on drivers, teams and personnel, as part of the racing restart, and the first two rounds returned zero positive results.

The FIA and F1 will make the results of its testing public every seven days, and F1 managing director of motor sport Ross Brawn said he expects there to be occasions when personnel test positive, but that the sport is well-placed to react.

While F1 has set its own guidelines to ensure racing could restart safely, the sport had to adhere to strict regulations for round 3 in Hungary.  All UK and non-EU citizens were confined solely to their hotels or the track throughout their stay in the country and faced huge fines and potential imprisonment if they broke protocol.

ESPN’s coverage in the USA of Formula One averaged a strong 752,000 viewers from 09:05am (EST),  peaking with 890,000 viewers as the race concluded. It’s the highest ever for the event, and an increase of 16 percent year-on-year.

The Styrian race got 632,000 viewers on ESPN. That was a significant drop from the previous week’s Austrian GP, but comparable to the audience that watched last year’s British GP on this date last year which was 591,000 on ESPN2.

Innovation is also part of Formula One’s new world. Hospitality for example is traditionally one of F1’s big earners. The Paddock Club providing $358m dollars of its $2bn in revenue for 2019.

So F1 has taken the Paddock club virtual making deal with Zoom Video communications and having zoom experiences with drivers and teams in fans suites.  .

For now, journalists are also not allowed in the paddock or pitlane, so there will be no secret chats with team people for the latest gossip. WhatsApp will be the place for that as F1 has to have its traditional ” gossip” as that’s as important as the race in for the paddock dwellers.  

So it’s been an interesting 100 or so days in these strange times. One day racing and sharing venues. A “noose” found in Bubba Wallace’s garage brought in the FBI and ironically it made  Bubba a major spokesperson for “Black Lives Matter.”

Lando Norris not only got a podium for McLaren in Austria he’s also become a high  earning superstar on the internet on “Twitch” where his social status is about the same as two and half Kardashians.

Jimmy Johnson the King of Nascar got COVID19 , but would not have his last season be denied and returned to Kentucky Speedway after getting the go ahead from doctors after getting two negative tests.

Leclerc and Bottas got caught going out in Monaco and Hamilton took a knee and led Mercedes and Formula One in a diversity initiative.

Dixon is racing like he’s 19 again with his new race engineer and Scott McLauglin won in Indy (Esports) after just a few tests in the real world.

Kyle Larsen and Danial Abt lost their jobs in motor sport while in cyberspace proving sim games can truly have big real world consequences.

All in all interesting times, but my biggest takeaway from these last few months is that Motor Racing is willing to adapt. It’s willing to innovate and work around  the seemingly insurmountable pressures of racing in a pandemic.

I really believe that in the next few years the world’s most expensive sport will continue to implement these time saving and money saving prerogatives in order to survive in the new world of motor sport with COVID and post COVID.  

For those of you who don’t like change  and long traditions there’s something for you to.

Roger Penske is resolute when it comes to the Indy 500. Already postponed once until August.

The Captain can’t cure the pandemic that’s crippled the day-to-day normalcy of America. However, with a little bit of assistance from the health gods and government, he can control the destiny of the 104th Indianapolis 500 and he’s making a guarantee to fans whether the race runs Aug. 23 as scheduled or has to be moved back to October. It will have fans.

“Trust me, we are going to run it with fans. We’re on for fans in August and planning on it and we feel good. It’s still almost three months from now and I think we’ll be OK. But we will run it only with fans.”

So good news for race fans and who knows by October Dixon may well be on the cusp of breaking all the historic IndyCar records as he goes for his sixth title and second Indy 500 win. I’m glad some things don’t change.

Stay safe – Keep calm and Race On. 

Jonathan Green

Known in New Zealand for being the voice of the Toyota Racing Series TV coverage, Jonathan Green is also a co-host at Speed City Broadcast. Speed City is a US national radio show broadcasting F1,Indy Car and Moto GP and Jonathan is the voice of the Circuit of the Americas. Based in Austin Texas, Jonathan is one of the world’s leading motor sports broadcasters with more than 20 years at the sharp end of the sport as producer, presenter, reporter and commentator and is one of a handful in his field that he covers both two and four wheel motor sport from Formula One to Moto GP and World Superbikes.


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