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Smiling Through The Rain II: US fans’ resolve shines on Saturday

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Earlier this year, I wrote a piece following the British Grand Prix entitled “Smiling Through The Rain” after a damp weekend at Silverstone that saw Formula 1’s diehard fans stick it out and be rewarded with a breathless race.

So after Saturday’s washout at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, it is time for “Smiling Through The Rain II” (no ‘electric boogaloo’), looking back on one of the most bizarre days in the recent history of F1.

Following FP2’s cancellation on Friday and with worse weather due to hit Austin on Saturday thanks to Hurricane Patricia, most expected the day to be called off without a wheel being turned.

The FIA confirmed that a decision would be taken at 7am CT regarding the day, leaving those waiting to make their way to the track checking emails and refreshing Twitter for updates before braving the roads.

No decision came, though, prompting most to venture to COTA. However, the circuit told fans to stay away, saying that the gates would not be opened until midday – with practice due to start at 10am CT, a decision appeared to have been made.

However, much to chagrin of many of the fans in Austin who had hoped to see cars on track, FP3 went ahead as planned in front of empty grandstands, with conditions only just allowing for the cars to get out and complete some laps, knowing that it could have set the grid if qualifying was also rained out.

With the cars having gone out, COTA told fans to begin making their way to the track as qualifying was expected to start as planned at 1pm CT – when the worst of the weather was due to hit.

So we were left with the situation of fans having been kept out for FP3, be then told to come to the track in torrential rain, only to then have no cars on track and qualifying ultimately be postponed until Sunday morning. Memories of Indy ’05 came flashing back: another disaster for F1 in the USA.

What then followed was a show of F1’s human side, often hidden behind visors and race suits, that rewarded the fans who braved the conditions and kept singing away in the main grandstand donned in raincoats, clinging onto umbrellas that the wind kept trying to tug away.

We had breakdancing Force India mechanics, a Sauber tub rowing down the pit lane, a dance between Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, and even Alexander Rossi throwing a football around. Nico Rosberg kicked a soccer ball around with Niki Lauda and the Mercedes mechanics. Jos Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Sr. donned Toro Rosso race suits and jumped in their sons’ cars.

All the while, the fans were still there, refusing to budge until qualifying was definitely cancelled.

And when the call eventually came through, in a gracious move from Bernie Ecclestone, circuit chairman Bobby Epstein and Mayor of Austin Steve Adler, they were invited to come into the pit lane to meet the drivers, pose for pictures and get something out of a soggy day.

Saturday had the potential to be another disaster for F1 in the USA, but it actually turned into a remarkably positive experience.

Think Americans don’t ‘get’ F1? Try telling the thousands of fans who stuck it out in the rain at COTA, knowing they may not see a car on track. Try telling those who cheered at every glimpse of a driver in the pit lane. Try telling those who will be back today for more.

Mother Nature is a cruel mistress, but even she couldn’t rain on the fans’ parade on Saturday, in spite of her best efforts.

For those not at COTA, you can watch qualifying for the United States Grand Prix live on CNBC from 10am ET. The US GP then follows at 2:30pm ET on NBC.

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”