Did You Notice? … The big moment for SRX Racing is here? The new series debuts Saturday night (June 12) with two heats, then a 100-lap main feature on the half-mile bullring of Stafford Motor Speedway. Former UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun will ride in the pace car, championship pedigree gearing up a sold-out crowd for an 8 ET, primetime debut on national television (CBS).
Here’s a closer look at some last-minute storylines I’m following with the green flag nearly upon us.
Driver skill takes center stage. If there’s one thing about SRX, its goal is simple, according to founder Ray Evernham: “We’re here to find out who’s the best driver.” Fans sick of the aero push in NASCAR or pit strategy dominating races will breathe a sigh of relief watching a series doing everything possible to put the outcome back in their drivers’ hands.
There’s no need for full pit crews or green-flag pit stops during these events. Drivers will share crew chiefs and only have a limited set of adjustments they can make. The cars themselves are prepared as equally as possible, built with the same Ilmor engines and overall horsepower.
No matter the outcome Saturday night, you can rest assured drivers settled it on the racetrack, not through fuel mileage, weird officiating calls or a caution for debris. Preaching that philosophy has done wonders to pique the interest of more casual or even disillusioned race fans from other series.
Can an Indy 500 win help Helio here? What a momentum boost for SRX when Helio Castroneves joined the four-win club at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was a masterful drive at age 46, outlasting drivers half his age at last month’s Indy 500 while pulling off a Tom Brady moment of his own at the biggest spectacle in racing. Spider-Man recreated his superhero antics in front of the largest crowd we’ve seen at any sporting event since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So Special…Thank you all the fans!!!
— Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) June 7, 2021
That’s one heck of an accomplishment to bring into a series billed as a new age International Race of Champions (IROC). Helio struggled during his time in IROC, never finishing better than fourth in the point standings. It was often tough for open-wheel racers then to break through against NASCAR talent; Al Unser, Jr. in 1988 was the last IndyCar driver to capture the IROC title.
But it’s a brand new series and Helio is more than capable of rewriting history. During his IndyCar career, Castroneves has scored victories on some of their smallest tracks: 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway and 3/4-mile Richmond Raceway, to name a few. He enters this weekend with a nothing-to-lose mentality and is eager to prove he’s deserving of a full-time IndyCar ride in 2022. SRX is a perfect platform to keep momentum high.
Don’t discount the mental advantage he brings into the cockpit.
Willy T. Ribbs. Ribbs is perhaps the biggest unknown in the field. Off-track, he’s developed a second wind in the public eye with the release of his Netflix documentary, Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story. It’s reminded people, during the height of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, just how hard it was for this Jackie Robinson of racing to break through. Long before there was Bubba Wallace … there was Ribbs.
The first African-American to race in the Indy 500 defied expectations and collected trophies during a long, illustrious career in multiple disciplines. But the oldest driver in the 12-man field could also be the most rusty. He last ran an open-wheel car (Indy Lights) in 2011, and his last full-time NASCAR season was way back in 2001.
In some ways, that takes the pressure completely off Ribbs, lured out of retirement to run the series. Any criticism will feed into a competitive spirit that has fueled on-track success; he’s got a chance to surprise a few people. The oldest driver in the field had the most energy of anyone bouncing around the garage on Friday.
— Camping World SRX Series (@SRXracing) June 11, 2021
Don’t discount the ringer. Never heard of the name Doug Coby? That’s about to change. The six-time Whelen Modified Series champion, a relative unknown outside of his Connecticut home, is a 29-time feature winner at Stafford. That gives Coby, the Week 1 ringer, a level of experience his 11 SRX competitors don’t have at this racetrack.
You run at a place that long, you know stuff the other drivers won’t. Simple things like where to get a little extra grip will make a difference, especially during a short race with limited windows to make adjustments. Tony Stewart made a good point during a Zoom call last week in that the other competitors will have a limited scouting report on Coby; no one’s really raced against him before.
We’ll quickly find out how much of an edge these ringers could have as Coby starts 10th during Heat 1. If he’s able to make it to the top three or better within 15 minutes? Watch out. Saturday night could start with a major upset.
Is Tony the man to beat? Ray Evernham created this series, but Stewart is its blood, sweat and tears in a driver’s suit. His willingness to help develop the concept has evolved into him becoming the face of it.
Can the final IROC series winner in 2006 pick up where he left off in 2021? Despite leaving NASCAR full-time five years ago, this three-time Cup champion remains active on short tracks all around the country. He’s tailor made for success in a series where past accomplishments make him a heavy favorite for the SRX title.
Stewart’s overall popularity also drives up the value of the series. But it also means he needs to perform. Anything less than a top-3 finish in the main event would be a disappointment for someone who spearheaded its development.
SRX Roster Breakdown: Stafford
Full-time drivers: Marco Andretti (IndyCar), Helio Castroneves (NASCAR), Bill Elliott (NASCAR), Ernie Francis Jr. (Trans-Am), Tony Kanaan (IndyCar), Bobby Labonte (NASCAR), Willy T. Ribbs (IndyCar/Trans-Am), Tony Stewart (NASCAR), Paul Tracy (IndyCar), Michael Waltrip (NASCAR)
Part-timer: Greg Biffle (NASCAR)
Local ringer: Doug Coby (six-time Whelen Modified champ)