Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Back to Basics

The other weekend, I happened to find myself in conversation with an American who had come over to Scotland on the subject of sport. I mentioned that a local boy (Dario Franchitti) had won the Indy 500 last year and, for all that he was an expert on baseball, American football, ice hockey and basketball, the name meant nothing to him. As he explained "In the US, these days, motor racing is NASCAR." He wasn't a fan. "It just seems to be this weird thing that's inexplicably popular in the Southern States. White trash with pick-up trucks and huge beer guts love it. The rest of us try to ignore it." On balance, I should therefore probably take it as a compliment when he added "You don't strike me as a typical kind of motorsport fan."

I have to admit I rather share his view of NASCAR. In the end, I just can't get all that excited by oval racing, and even less so by the safety-car infested crash-and-bash version that is represented by NASCAR. It's a series that hasn't really taken off anywhere else in the world, but the other day I happened to catch the Speedcar World Series for the first time. The Speedcar Series involves cars with tubular spaceframe chassis and big primitive 600BHP V8 engines and 4-speed H-Pattern gearboxes. Make no mistake, these are essentially NASCAR stock cars in disguise. What piqued my curiosity is that unlike in NASCAR, they are racing on road courses.

And as it happens, they're not bad to watch either. The cars are softly sprung, have huge amounts of power and little in the way of aerodynamic downforce. As a consequences, they slide around a lot more than one is used to seeing in modern circuit racing. I can't help thinking that this is probably as close as modern racing gets to the spectacle of 60s touring car racing, where the likes of Brian Muir and Jackie Oliver used to manhandle huge American V8 muscle cars like the Ford Galaxie and Mustang around the twisting undulations of British circuits like Brands Hatch and Oulton Park. The organisers also have the right idea when it comes to the format of the races. No refueling, no 'compulsory tyre stops', no unnecessary use of the safety car - just 45 minutes of old fashioned wheel-to-wheel racing.

The field consisted of a rather strange combination of washed up Grand Prix drivers and middling mainly European touring car drivers. In fact, a line-up which included such as Christian Danner, Gianni Morbidelli, Ukyo Katayama and Stefan Johansson made me wonder if I was watching Grand Prix Masters with a roof. Then you realise that the Lauda in the field is not Niki but his mediocre son Matthias. And you ponder for a while over who exactly Fabien Giroix, David Terrien or Nicolas Navarro are (they're French GT and Touring Car drivers of little consequence). As for what Hasher Al Maktoum is doing there, apart from being well connected with the Bahraini ruling family, whose money is almost certainly involved somewhere along the line, it is hard to say.

We were treated to a proper race at the front though. Appropriately enough, it was the two Grand Prix winners in the field who dominated proceedings. Former Sauber team mates Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert occupied the front row and ran away into the distance. Alesi led the early stages, only for Herbert to sneak ahead under braking at around half distance. The mercurial French-Sicilian was not done though with Herbert, though, and on the last lap he dived back into the lead under braking for turn 9. Herbert, too, was not inclined to give up easily, and ran side-by-side with Alesi through the long, tricky turn 13/14 complex, emerging alongside Alesi on the run down to the final hairpin. Only Alesi's superior track position into the last turn finally settled the matter. For those familiar with racing lore, it was just a little reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve's epic dice with Rene Arnoux in the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix.

Somehow, Speedcar seems the natural home for these two aging former GP stars. Both Alesi and Herbert were drivers of the old school, whom one suspects might have been more successful in an earlier, less technocratic era. They were not known for their encyclopaedic technical knowledge and Alesi, in particular, was always a man who relied on his seat-of-the-pants feel for the car rather than being a thinking driver. Anyone who has ever seen Johnny Herbert throwing historic Jaguars around will know that he too is well at home with more primitive cars - perhaps more so than he ever was with complex modern F1 cars.

If I have reservations about it all, it is over the question of how much any of it really matters. The field is made up of drivers whose real glory days are long gone, and others who are not professional racing drivers in the real sense at all, and who have almost certainly paid through the nose for the privilege of going up against names from F1's past. How much, really, did either Jean Alesi or Johnny Herbert really care who won that seemingly nail-biting race to the finish in Malaysia? Either way, they would doubtless cash their appearance money and head on to the next venue. The nagging thought occurred to me as I watched the race's dramatic denouement - maybe this is just a show. Maybe they're just putting it on for the crowd. Perhaps, though, that it too cynical. In the end, they're racing drivers - competitive people. Give people like that half an opportunity and they'll race. I like to think so. It certainly looked like it. Much more so than those big old stock cars ever do when they're going round in circles. I like to think even the American baseball fan I was speaking to might have understood.

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Blogger Pee Wee said...

It's too bad you were talking to a Yank that knew nothing of Dario. It's also too bad that Dario has undertaken the squirrel cage that is NASCAR.

I live only a few miles from Dario and he's been in my motorbike shop as a customer and I can only say that he's way cooler than I could have hoped.

But for him to be in the NASCAR environment for me is weird. Way weird.

It sounds like the Speedcar thing is a hoot to watch.....

6:29 PM  

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