Penalties deliver another black eye for Michael Waltrip Racing

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As the racing world continues to buzz about NASCAR’s massive penalties against Michael Waltrip Racing following the late-race events of last Saturday night, one can’t help but realize that this is the second time in seven seasons that the sanctioning body has lowered the boom on the MWR franchise.

Tonight’s penalties had an impact on the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with MWR pilot Martin Truex, Jr. getting knocked out of the Chase thanks to a 50-point penalty and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman subsequently elevated to the second Wild Card position.

But in 2007, MWR ran afoul of NASCAR on an equally big stage: The Daytona 500. Some of you may know it as the “jet fuel” saga.

Three days following the first round of qualifying for that year’s “Great American Race,” NASCAR ejected Waltrip’s crew chief, David Hyder, and MWR competition director Bobby Kennedy. That occurred after the intake manifold from Waltrip’s car had been confiscated when NASCAR officials found an illegal fuel additive inside of it during post-qualifying inspection.

After impounding the car, NASCAR gave its judgment and it was not a good one for MWR. Hyder and Kennedy were suspended indefinitely, with Hyder suffering an additional fine of $100,000. Just as big, Waltrip lost 100 driver points and his team lost 100 owner’s points.

Waltrip would ultimately qualify for that year’s Daytona 500 in a backup car, but not before his team had brought considerable embarrassment to themselves, to NASCAR, and to its car manufacturer, Toyota, which was making its then-Nextel Cup debut at that particular event.

“I don’t think we’ll ever put this behind us, but we’ll try to do better in the future,” a somber Waltrip said at the time according to The Associated Press.

Unfortunately for Waltrip, his team’s reputation appears certain to take a major hit again after NASCAR found MWR to have, in the words of vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, “attempted to manipulate the outcome” of Saturday’s Chase-deciding event at Richmond International Raceway.

“As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that,” Pemberton said in a NASCAR statement issued tonight.

Chimed in NASCAR president Mike Helton: “Our conversations about it were deep and we feel like we researched it very well. We talked at great length with the folks at Michael Waltrip Racing to try and get to the right spot and make the correct decision, and that’s what we feel like we have done.”

One day ago, we were pondering what NASCAR could do against such a controversy like the one that played out in Richmond. But with their swift and decisive reaction, NASCAR has made MWR an example for a second time in delivering a message to the rest of the garage: Maintain the integrity of the sport or suffer the consequences.

Rest assured, that message is ringing loud and clear this evening. And once more, MWR is paying a hefty price.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.