On a weekend literally jam-packed with auto racing and classic car auction-related programming, a newcomer tried muscling its way up to the Formica McBar and grabbing some attention, or at least a free drink. Open-wheel racing had a scheduled doubleheader at Belle Isle as well as companion sports car racing. NHRA was hosting an event in New Hampshire. NASCAR ran a Truck Series race and an Xfinity race on Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, as well as what might turn out to be the final NASCAR All-Star Race Sunday evening.
And on Saturday night, the fledgling Superstar Racing Experience hosted its first ever event at a half-mile bullring, in Connecticut of all places. Meanwhile over on NBCSN, they were presenting bits and pieces of the first ever Mecum car auction from Tulsa OK. (The weekend got off to a rough start for NBCSN with an over two-hour delay to the auction caused by the French Open going absurdly overtime. That despite a curfew currently imposed in France that should have caused the event to be shut down at 11 p.m. local time. Somehow the curfew was ignored.) With NBCSN already having announced it will be shutting down operations at the end of 2021, I fear they are just riding the string out for the rest of the year.
Like most people who tuned in Saturday to the inaugural SRX event, I didn’t know what to expect. It was more curiosity than anticipation that caused me to tune in Saturday night to see how things turned out.
Billed as the brainchild of three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and championship crew chief Ray Evernham, the first of six races was run on a medium-banked half-mile oval where they began holding horse racing way back in 1870.
Some thoughts on what I saw Saturday …
First off, it was clear local fans were highly anticipating the race. They began lining up to be hours before tickets went on sale. The track only seats 10,000 fans, but every seat and standing room only spot was taken by eager and enthusiastic viewers. Texas Motor Speedway has a lot more seats than Stafford, so it was at least partially an optical illusion, but by contrast, the stands looked like ghost town Saturday at the Truck and NXS races.
The Stafford race had a charming ambience, sort of like when a member of the Little Rascals used to call out, “Hey gang, let’s put on a show!” And put on a show they did.
It began behind what may be the coolest pace car ever, a red 1934 Ford street rod. Male fans of my age group (damnably old) were just waiting for three stunning models with ’80s high hair to emerge from the Ford and toss the keys to a guy with a hip length beard.
Low car counts have become the scourge of many local short tracks during the pandemic, even at ones that were allowed to host events currently. Only having 12 cars out on the track for the race was a bit off-putting, even on a half-mile track. Other than paint schemes, all the cars looked alike with no attempts made to disguise them as any particular model of street car. I think that’s a mistake. Even at the short tracks, Ford and Chevy partisans like to trash talk each other’s brands. As for Toyota fans, I doubt you’ll find many at local short tracks.
The two heat races were 15-minute timed races that lasted about 35 laps each, After the first heat, the field was inverted for the second. Sorry but the word “invert” makes me grind my teeth to calcium powder when used in the context of car racing. I can’t say for sure, but it certainly did appear that some drivers decided to cruise out back in that first heat knowing that would allow them to start the second heat toward the front.
There wasn’t a whole lot of passing going on. But neither was there a whole lot of wrecking happening. (Michael Waltrip did eventually start some fireworks. I think that boy could breaks an anvil within five minutes of starting to play with it.) Keep in mind 11 of the drivers had never even seen the track prior to the weekend. (The 12th driver, who went on to win the event, Doug Coby, is a multi-time track champion at Stafford and a six-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champ.)
None of the drivers had much more than a handful of practice laps in the cars they were racing Saturday night. With more familiarity and practice, there will likely be more competitive racing and passing in future SRX events.
Given how new everything right down to the concept for the racing series was, CBS did a credible job presenting the race. Allen Bestwick is a seasoned pro who has forgotten more about the art of race broadcasting than Clint Bowyer will likely ever know.
I’m not sure what Danica Patrick’s assigned role was. Just sit there and look pretty, I suppose, much like her driving career. She did, after all, admit she never drove a single practice lap in the lead-up to her first run at her then-boss’s Eldora Speedway dirt track, preferring that people believed her poor showing was due to a lack of practice, not a grievous lack of talent. At another point, Patrick asked aloud if “Awesome Bill From Dawsonville” was really Bill Elliott’s nickname back in the day. Wow. Skipped some pre-broadcast research too? If you hear someone mention “The Intimidator” they’re talking about Dale Earnhardt — Senior, in this case.
Overall, though, the broadcast went well despite a few bumps in the road not to be unexpected in a first time effort.
There was considerable confusion in the main event. At one point, Bill Elliott’s car simply stalled out. Frantic repairs were made to the fuel pump and attendant wiring. It was reported that Elliott would retain his fourth-place starting position. He did not. And when the hurried repairs failed shortly after Elliott returned to the track, no apparent effort was made to return him to action via backup car or some other emergency fix. By that point, Bestwick had noted in SRX racing drivers cannot lose a lap under caution. If that is, in fact, the case, that’s about the most bizarre rule I’ve ever heard in auto racing.
But give them credit where credit is due: Auto racing, and, in fact, all sports, are a combination of sports and entertainment. And CBS is up front about its willingness to err toward the side of entertainment, a decision I fear will severely undermine the series.
It was mentioned that if a race gets boring, the SRX maintains its right to throw a caution at random — not for a hazard on the track, but to spice up the action. Imagine if such a caution is thrown at Eldora and erases a 10-second lead by another driver allowing Tony Stewart (who owns the joint, not to mention the series) to win. What a fine hullaballoo that would cause. But give CBS and the SRX props for being willing to admit such a thing is possible.
For my part, one of the earliest and most valuable things I ever learned about the sport is “there are no do-overs in auto racing. “ I don’t recall race fans as embracing NASCAR’s old era of “mystery debris cautions,” but I also won’t deny those yellows flew quite frequently back in the day. Sports, by nature, are supposed to be entertaining. Entertainment is not always sporting. Compare and contrast Olympic wrestling and the WWE. CBS even asked fans what they’d like the mystery debris cautions called. My nomination is for “faux-tion” flag.
As with any form of live sports, there’s always a danger the event will run long. CBS shot for an ambitious two hours for their first SRX race and ended up running about 15 minutes overtime. Compared to the French Open, that’s a relatively slim error. Whether starting the races a half-hour earlier would be possible in the future, I don’t know. At least in my market, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays tends toward “To Be Announced” programming sold by the local affiliate, a nice way of saying “infomercial.” There wasn’t a lot of fat to be trimmed from the finished product. The weather was perfect and there weren’t a lot of commercials during green flag racing compared to Cup Series racing.
One request I’d make, and I’ve heard the same from others, has to do with the graphics. With only 12 drivers competing, CBS used a screen crawl at the top of the screen, which I prefer. But even though I have a large screen TV, there were several times I had to stand up and move closer to the screen to read the available information. The white letters on an orange background were less than crisp (though I was craving a Cream-sicle by the end of the broadcast). I’d suggest changing the color of the graphics to more accurately reflect the driver and car he was wheeling rather than a standard set of colors.
Overall, I was entertained Saturday night. I am glad that the local driver stunned the All-Star series regulars. It was unfortunate that during what was likely the biggest moment of his racing career, and live on network TV no less, Coby managed to slip exiting his car and landed on his ass. Oh well. As mentioned, he and the other drivers had no experience with these cars, much less how to get in or out of one.
If I am free next Saturday night, I intend to watch the next SRX race as well. If you’re headed to that race, it’s in Knoxville, but Knoxville in Iowa, not Tennessee, in this case. Next week’s event is on a half-mile dirt track, which will throw the drivers, especially those from an open-wheel background, another curveball.
The annual NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race took place in Texas Sunday night. Given the gimmicky and convoluted format, I wasn’t expecting much of the event, and that’s what we got. The race simply solidified the notion that as NASCAR heads into the summer of 2021, it is Kyle Larson’s world. We just live here. The tough-to-understand format seemed based on a truism in modern stock car racing: The only time there’s action worth a lick is in the first three or four laps after a restart, when the field is bunched tightly together.
Once the field gets strung out, the “racing” tends to be mediocre. Thus a format that allowed for multiple tightly packed restarts seemed to be a prescription for what ails stock car racing, and if you caught the final restart in the race Saturday night, you saw everything that needed seeing.
With his previous wins at Charlotte and Sonoma, Larson now has three consecutive Cup Series event wins. This in a season that started off with seven different winners in the first seven races.
It seems, as of late, that the Ford camp has furled their flags and are just hoping for better things with the introduction of the new cars in 2022. NASCAR’s track record on major overhauls to the race cars is less than stellar. Remember the “Car of Tomorrow”? Eventually it was redubbed the “Car of Horror.”
Remember the new downsized cars in 1981 when the Buick Regals ran roughshod over the field for two straight years? Hell, the current generation of low horsepower/ high downforce entrants is ready to be taken behind the garage and dispatched with a single shot to their misshapen little heads.
Cup racing resumes next week in Nashville, Tennessee. To clear up some confusion, that event is being hosted at the Nashville Superspeedway outside of town, not the storied Nashville Fairgrounds short track where Darrell Waltrip once reigned supreme. NASCAR packed up their rocks and rolled out of the fairgrounds for the final time in 1984.