Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa — How many NASCAR fans have said to themselves or friends, “Man, if I only had the chance, I’d love to bang fenders with my favorite driver?”

Or, “Man, I’d love to take (fill in driver’s name) out in a race.”

Well, on Wednesday at Slideways Karting Center in Knoxville, Iowa, nearly 60 lucky fans had the chance to do one of the rarest things in pro sports: to race with their heroes, four of the biggest names in NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took on the lucky fans in the second annual Kick-It/Weld Racing Go-Kart Spectacular to benefit pediatric cancer.

“This is really going to change the lives for children out there with pediatric cancer, so thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gordon told the crowd of about 2,500 fans that turned out to watch. “When I looked at the parking lot today and saw the line of cars down the road, I knew it was going to be a good day.

“I don’t know of anywhere in the world where you’re going to go to a go-kart track and see Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and myself together – or have as much fun.”

Each of the nearly 60 fans that raced paid at least $300 for the chance to do some rubbin’ and racin’ on the slippery oval, a track that was made even more slick with periodic rain sprinkles throughout the afternoon.

“We’re all passionate about this week, this event and we’re all passionate about Jeff’s efforts,” Stewart said. “We do it because of Jeff and because of the kids that he supports. That’s what racers do. It’s not about being a stock car driver. That’s the breed of drivers we are and the background we come from.”

There even was a special guest in the house, Gordon’s former crew chief and NASCAR team owner and broadcaster, Ray Evernham.

Evernham and the four drivers were all in town for the Daytona 500 of the sprint car world, the Knoxville Nationals, which began later Wednesday evening.

Before one of the heats, Evernham looked like he was trying to improve Gordon’s go-kart, prompting Tony Stewart to quip with a laugh, “No fair, no working on the car. You’re cheating just like you used to.”

“It’s great to see Jeff, Tony, Kasey and Kyle supporting what they’ve got going on out here,” Evernham said. “To me, (sprint car) is really grassroots racing. It’s where a lot of us grew up and it’s really neat to see a lot of people doing it and all the support that they have.”

When I asked Evernham why he wasn’t in the go-kart race, he replied with a laugh, “My problem is I’ve always been a much better mechanic than driver.”

The event raised nearly $25,000 for charity, including Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.

“Oh my gosh, it was so much fun,” Gordon said. “This place is so much fun to go out there in (simulated) sprint cars and slide ’em around. A little bit of sprinkle making for a lot of fun conditions. And there’s some guys out there with some real skills. We all have big smiles on our face, having a lot of fun.”

“Those of us with Kick-It, for kids cancer, this is a real treat for us to be able to come here, be a part of this event, raise money for a great cause – pediatric cancer – have a go-kart event like this and to have the fans come out and support the way they did this year is amazing. It’s a huge crowd. When you get this kind of a driver lineup out here in Knoxville, the fans are going to come. I hope they enjoyed it, because we certainly did.”

Added Kahne, “It’s neat to see, all the money goes to a great cause, and we get to race a lot of people that are out here having fun like we are. It’s a cool, cool event.”

There were eight heat races leading up to the main event. The winners of each heat advanced to race all four pro drivers, who understood and took it good-naturedly that some of their fellow drivers were looking for bragging rights that they spun out a NASCAR star.

“It’s fun racing with the fans because this is like the biggest thing they’ve ever done, racing with us,” Larson said. “They take it really serious, you can see it on their faces. It makes it fun for us to see how focused they are. And when we beat them, they grip the steering wheel even harder.

“You can see it happen, too. You see them like focus on your rear bumper and just turn toward you. We understand it, though, and it’s funny.”

Not surprisingly, much like the way Sprint Cup drivers typically dominate when they race in the Nationwide Series, the Cup drivers were the stars in Wednesday’s main event.

Gordon won the race, Kahne was a close second, and Anthony Corini, a 20-year-old college student from Rockville, Md., was the top-finishing fan, taking home a trophy and the experience of a lifetime.

“That was pretty fun,” Corini said. “The rain made it real interesting. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget it. It was a great moment. There was a lot of money raised for a good cause.

“I did it last year, but I ran around the back in the main. I made it, but I didn’t do as well as I did this year. I finished behind Jeff and Kasey, but not too bad of company, I guess. I think I was flying under the radar.”

Stewart and Larson finished further back in the 12-driver pack.

“I think (sprint car driver) Brad Doty put it best when he said, ‘Think about what this means to people and being able to do this,'” Stewart said. “But at the same time, think about how much it means to us to be able to do it. It’s fun for us. Nobody’s out there trying to wreck you and put you in the wall. Everybody’s racing and having fun. It makes stuff like this a lot of fun.

“Look at everybody that’s out here, and in the rain, no less. That’s the kind of fans you see at sprint car races. Everybody’s having fun and enjoying it.”

As for a certain MotorSportsTalk writer who also competed in the event, well … let’s just say he finished and leave it at that.

And we won’t get into that he got spun twice by a certain NASCAR star whose last name rhymes with “pain,” or about the flat tire – his third in five days – said writer had on the way to Iowa.

But that’s another story for another time.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Azerbaijan GP red flagged after 22 laps following chaotic sequence

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The Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been red flagged for debris following a chaotic sequence of laps that saw three safety cars be deployed following multiple incidents, leaving the track covered in debris.

The first safety car was called after Daniil Kvyat stopped out on-track, with the marshals able to recover it with relative ease, but the bunched field on the restart soon descended into chaos.

Debris from Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari caused a second safety car period to be called within a lap, but the marshals were again able to clear this easily, allowing Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to lead the field away for the second restart.

Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel made contact twice behind the safety car, leaving debris on-track at Turn 15, with both drivers blaming each other for the incident.

The greater clashes came on the first lap of green flag running as Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon clashes at Turn 3, the latter bumping Perez into the wall. Both were required to pit for repairs, and while Ocon could get back out, Perez was less fortunate, retiring from the race.

A third safety car was called, with the stewards then deciding to throw a red flag to allow the debris on the track to be cleared.

More to follow…

Hunter-Reay leads warmup at Road America

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A weekend that has been dominated by Chevrolet and Team Penske so far saw Honda jump to the top during morning warmup. Ryan Hunter-Reay was fastest for Andretti Autosport, followed by Max Chilton for Chip Ganassi Racing. Hunter-Reay’s teammate Alexander Rossi ended the session third, making it a Honda 1-2-3 in the morning warmup.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was the quickest of the Chevrolet camp in fourth, followed by A.J. Foyt Racing’s Carlos Munoz in fifth.

Only 19 of the 21 drivers turned laps during the session, with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato failing to put laps in. Dixon’s No. 9 NTT Data Honda was suffering from fuel pressure problems that kept it in the garage, while Sato was feeling under the weather during the morning, and the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda team elected not to go out.

Coverage of the Kohler Grand Prix begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

 

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Nato takes F2 sprint win in Baku after Leclerc penalty

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Norman Nato picked up his first win of the 2017 FIA Formula 2 season on Sunday after a post-race penalty denied Charles Leclerc a weekend double in Baku.

Ferrari junior Leclerc took an emotional victory on Saturday just days after the death of his father, and charged from P8 on the reverse grid to take the lead from Nato late on.

However, the Monegasque driver was denied the first perfect weekend in the category (including GP2) in eight years when he was hit with a 10-second time penalty for failing to slow under yellow flags.

Despite the penalty, Leclerc was still classified second behind Nato, with Nicholas Latifi completing the podium for DAMS.

Jordan King took fourth place for MP Motorsport, while Sergey Sirotkin was fifth on his stand-in weekend at ART Grand Prix ahead of fellow Russian Artem Markelov.

Nobuharu Matsushita took seventh ahead of Luca Ghiotto, while Ralph Boschung and Sergio Sette Camara rounded out the top 10.

With second place, Leclerc extended his F2 championship lead to 42 points after chief title rival Oliver Rowland retired after leading the early part of the race.

The F2 season resumes in two weeks’ time in support of the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg.

Lauda on Hamilton’s Baku pole lap: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

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Formula 1 legend and Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda was quick to heap praise on Lewis Hamilton after qualifying in Azerbaijan on Saturday, saying he had “never seen anything like” the Briton’s Q3 pole lap.

Hamilton charged to the 66th pole of his F1 career at the Baku City Circuit on Saturday after a last-ditch effort took his four-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton was overjoyed by the lap, having struggled to tame the Baku circuit during its inaugural race in 2016, and three-time world champion Lauda was equally as impressed.

“We had some problems on Friday, but the team really did a fantastic job to set the car up in the right way. And Lewis with his lap today… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lauda said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It was not plain sailing at all, but a lot of thinking, digging, back to the factory, and in the end the improvement the engineers and mechanics did to the car is outstanding.

“And then Lewis, what he did today, no one else I think can do that.

“He’s fantastic, especially thinking about his lap time here, because the difference he makes to everybody – it’s only Lewis.”

Hamilton will go in search of his fifth win of the season in Baku on Sunday, with coverage of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET.