O Opinions & Commentary

George’s News and Notes – January 26, 2019

George’s News and Notes – January 26, 2019

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be retired from NASCAR racing but he still is a big name in racing. This week he is part of the television commentary team at the IMSA Rolex 24 in Daytona and he piqued reporters interest when he suggested that he might be interested in another run at the 24-hour race, perhaps with drivers like Ron Fellows and Boris Said. Earnhardt has driven in the 24-hour race twice before. I was there for the 2001 race in which Dale and his father co-drove a Corvette with Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins and I stayed up for the whole 24 hours. They finished fourth overall and second in class to the sister car driven by Fellows and others. Of course, the fans loved it that the Earnhardts were racing here.

Earnhardt Senior died a few days later at the end of that year’s Daytona 500 so there was never another chance for the father-son duo to race together again.

This week Earnhardt’s race team, JR Motorsport, formalized its plans to work with the GMS team to expand a driver development program to be called the Drivers Edge Development. This combination of the two Chevrolet teams is a good idea because JRM has been a strong presence in the Xfinity series while GMS has been strong in the truck series – and between them they have run entires in the ARCA series, K&N and late model. Hence the combo can offer aspiring drivers experience across these five different types of race series. While this program has been declared as open between the two teams to aspiring young drivers, already they have identified six drivers who are part of the combined race program. They are Noah Gragson, John Hunter Nemechek, Zane Smith, Sheldon Creed, Sam Mayer and Adam Lemke.

JR Motorsport has also reshuffled its car number lineup for 2019. The most significant move is for the team to adopt the No. 8 for one of its race cars. The other team cars will carry the numbers 1, 7, and 9 and they will not use the No. 5. Of course, the No. 8 was Dale Jr.’s number when he raced for his father’s team DEI. I am surprised that they will be putting this No. 8 on a car to be shared by a number of aspiring drivers instead of assigning the No. 8 to the driver most likely to win the Xfinity series this year.

Back in the day, Budweiser ran a series of television ads based on the fan loyalty to Dale and to his No. 8 – and how it was unthinkable that he would even not race under any other number. Of course, shortly after that Earnhardt came in conflict with his step mother Theresa Earnhardt and demanded that she give him control of the race team that had once been his father’s. She refused and he left the team and joined Rick Hendrick. DEI kept the No. 8 so Earnhardt had to choose another number – the No. 88.

DEI did not last long after that as a separate race team – soon being absorbed into the Ganassi team and the No. 8 fell into disuse. Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt Senior had raced, has used the number a few times on his cars and this year he will use it full time on the Daniel Hemric Cup car. It looks like the tug-of-war over who should have exclusive use of this famous number which dates back to Dale Junior’s grandfather Ralph Earnhardt will continue.

Had Earnhardt Junior been able to gain control of DEI back then I have no doubt that this team – managed by his sister, Kelly Miller – wold have continued to be a strong Cup team right up to now. I have to wonder if, with these moves to ally with GMS, we may see the already strong JRM team move up to the Cup series as soon as next year. I would not be surprised to see them enter a car into a few Cup races this year as part of their ‘development ‘ program.

Formula One management (Liberty) has reported an increase in its television and online audience figures for 2018. It puts the global cumulative television audience at 1.8 billion of which 1.6 billion were in their top 20 markets, this is up by three percent over 2017. They claim that China is the second largest TV audience while the USA is the largest. Who would have thought that the US, which seems to exhibit more interest in other racing disciplines, wold be number one in F1 television viewing?

I’m always a bit sceptical about the audience numbers that get thrown around but, on the face of it, it seems like Formula 1 under the new Liberty management is doing well.

By contrast I saw a story written by Christian Sylt on Forbes/Sports Money which raises some questions about the actual size of the audience at the Canadian Grand Prix. Apparently the F1 organization has revised its attendance number for the 2017 running of the event saying that the crowd in attendance (cumulative over the three days?) Was 179,533, not the 360,000 figure that had been previously published. I was there in 2017 and, to my usually sceptical eye, the event seemed to be a sellout on both days I was there. In addition, Formula One’s attendance report for 2018 said that the crowd at the Canadian GP was down by over 11 percent

I usually argue that, as race fans, these bean-counting exercises are peripheral to our interest – and interest is in the racing, not the financial/business aspects of it. However, we all realize that car racing is an expensive operation and it must generate massive funding to support the venues and the race teams. Sylt points out that the Canadian GP receives, over the ten-year contract of the race, some $140 million dollars in government subsidy from all three levels of government (city, provincial and federal) or on average about $14 million a year (I think that it may actually be more than that). He quotes the Globe and Mail as saying that in 2015 the economic impact of the race was about $42 million which was lower than previous estimates. He concludes “If the attendance in later years was actually far lower that the figure released by F1 it could dent the economic impact even further.”

We need to keep in mind that Sylt was not actually at these recent Grands Prix in Montreal and that most of us long-time race fans take as a given that race promoters massage their attendance figures. To my eye, all the seats were filled on race day in 2017 and in 2018. And I have no evidence to suggest that these seats were ‘papered’. Perhaps the Formula One management got themselves a bit muddled when they were reporting attendance numbers from different sources – and that even if someone like Sylt can find apparent negative trends in the reported attendance figures, we need to remember that most of us have never taken these numbers too seriously – for good or for bad. I have more trust in the number of empty seats I can see - and I haven’t been seeing them at Montreal. At any rate, it seems to me that the decisions by the various levels of government to subsidize the Canadian GP are based on political considerations as much, if not more, that on strict balance-sheet economics. This government support of the Canadian GP has survived the ‘sponsorship scandal’ and the change of federal government which followed. I don’t expect anything to change much in the near future.

Congratulation to the Joe Gibbs Xfinity driver Christopher Bell for winning the Chili bowl Midget Nationals for the third time in a row. There were several other NASCAR drivers competing here, notably Kyle Larson, who Bell beat with a last-lap pass in the finale. This renewed interest in competing in other racing series has to be a good thing for the sport. When race fans become too firmly entrenched in following only one race series, it fragments the audience, while having drivers competing in variety of different series has to introduce them and the various racing disciplines to a wider audience.

Ross Chastain won the Las Vegas Xfinity race last year driving the No. 42 car for Ganassi. Primarily on the strength of that performance, Chastain was signed to a full-time ride in the Ganassi Xfinity entry for 2019. Now that Ganassi has closed down that team – probably because of financial problems on the part of its sponsor – Chastain found himself out of the ride that he had been counting on as his big breakthrough. For now, he has been able to fall back on a part-time deal to drive for Niece Motorsports in the truck series. In addition he is expected to drive the full Cup season in the No. 15 Premium Motorsports car. As Ryan Preece has demonstrated with his Kyle Busch rides, an aspiring driver needs to race at least a few races in top notch equipment to prove that they have the ability to win races. However these good rides are hard to come by and with Ganassi shutting down his Xfinity team, Chastain is going to have a tough time getting another chance as good at that again.

Courtney Force, the wife of Graham Rahal and the daughter of drag-racing legend John Force – and the winningest female driver in Funny Car history – has decided to end her driving duties. “I feel I’m ready to see what the next chapter in my life has in store for me, while spending more time with family,” said Force. Some think this signals a decision for her to start a family – something we would not be discussing if here husband were to make a similar decision. Her current sponsor, Advance Auto Parts, has said that they will switch their sponsorship to her sister, Brittany Force.

At Daytona this weekend, Christian Fittipaldi will be driving his last race. Fittipaldi is the son of Wilson Fittipaldi, Emerson Fittipaldi’s brother. All three of them have had careers driving in Formula One. In addition, he raced in many other series, including eight years in the CART series and for 14 years in the various North American sports cars series – Grand-Am, ALMS and IMSA. And I remember when his uncle Emerson was the youngest ever driver to win the F1 world championship ...

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