Passion in racing is powerful, good, and needed more in 2014

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As a generally good gauge of the public consciousness at any particular moment, Twitter tends to erupt in moments of controversy, outrage or shock value. In the racing world, that’s usually after a big crash, a questionable team order issued on track or a jaw-dropping “Did you see that?!?” pass.

But back outside the racing bubble, the thing that made Twitter blow up yesterday was Richard Sherman’s now-infamous post-game interview following the Seattle Seahawks’ win in the NFC Championship Game. Sherman was, as you’d expect, purely jacked up on adrenaline after a game in which he’d made a game-saving defense of a Colin Kaepernick pass, which caused an interception. And he exploded.

Still, the man has a Master’s degree from Stanford and writes a weekly column for Peter King’s TheMMQB.com, so he’s clearly no dummy. He’s a bright individual, a talented player and able to enter into a state during the game where he can be so intense after the game, that it all came flying out in the immediate moments after it finished.

Motorsports has those moments, but they’re rarer. The immediate post-crash interview comes to mind, if a driver has only just got back to his pit and speaks to a pit reporter.

In IndyCar for example, I don’t remember the specifics of most 2013 victory lane interviews, but I do remember Will Power saying of Sebastien Bourdais, “He once was a champ, now he’s a chump” after the two collided at Detroit back in June. I remember when Scott Dixon went off at IndyCar Race Control in succession at Sonoma and Baltimore, which was even crazier because the Kiwi is so calm and collected.

Sadly, both Power and Dixon were penalized for their emotional outbursts. Power’s this past year was probation while Dixon got probation and earned a $30,000 fine. Power got the same fine in 2011 after his infamous – but legendary – “double-bird salute” to former Race Director Brian Barnhart at the series’ race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

If IndyCar is going to be in the headlines beyond the bubble which it currently exists, it needs that emotional moment – likely more than one – and it needs to not carry a penalty for expressing it in the heat of battle. I have to admit I’ve changed my stance on this. For consistency’s sake, enforcing the same penalty year-on-year made sense, and as Power and others had been docked for previous infractions, Dixon was justifiably fined last year to match. It’s a new year though, and with it comes a fresh opportunity to right this in the rulebook.

Emotion in other series is also hard to find. We often think of modern-day Formula One drivers as corporate, emotionless automatons devoid of the lady-killing charisma of James Hunt or the “don’t care what we say” attitudes of a Jacques Villeneuve or Eddie Irvine – two drivers I grew up with in my F1 fandom infancy in the ’90s. Truth of the matter is they aren’t, but that can be the stereotype from the outside.

Still, when Kimi Raikkonen answers a question in the old school, “don’t care” mentality with six or seven words or when Sebastian Vettel does donuts after winning, we dig it because it allows them to be them and it’s freeing from the shackles of being reined in by their corporate overlords.

NASCAR interviews are probably the worst for this. You often can’t get through a victory lane interview – which usually occurs after a TV ad break and delays the spontaneity to begin with – without the first half of the quote being some variation of “Oh man, I just want to thank Pepsi, Doritos, Taco Bell, KFC, Chevrolet, Mr. Owner, ‘Slugger’ and the crew,” before you get to any tangible sound that actually describes how you won the race. Or, more importantly, how it feels to win the race.

I get that the sponsor parade is a necessary evil of the victory lane interview, but I’d love to see more erupting in pure emotion first, then getting to your sponsors second. Want to talk about how to do a NASCAR victory lane interview? Watch Kurt Busch, in an unsponsored car, winning the July 2012 Nationwide Series race at Daytona for the underdog James Finch team. And take notes. (Wait, maybe being unsponsored is the key to this victory lane thing…)

Or, alternatively, just watch any John Force interview over the last two decades. Yes, the man is one of the greatest drag racers who has ever lived with 16 NHRA Funny Car championships. But he’s as widely revered as he is within the motorsports world as much for his mouth as his 4-second blasts at 300-plus mph.

There’s a reason Talladega Nights is as funny as it is, because Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby lampoons the sponsor-laden culture of NASCAR and comes up with a pair of catchphrases in Victory Lane: “Shake ‘n Bake,” and “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” To this day, those two are still part of the lexicon.

In today’s entertainment-over-populated, soundbite-heavy world, the simple fact is competition itself is not going to get racing back into the public sphere beyond the series’ bubbles. If it did, IndyCar would be the most popular and widely watched form of motorsports in North America.

It’s going to take a series of moments throughout 2014 of passion … of pure joy … of anger … of “What the hell did they just say?!?” to help propel any of the racing disciplines to greater heights.

Because if racing has moments in 2014 that catch on like Richard Sherman’s last night, that will only help to collectively grow the sport.

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.