Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull GRC: Lites champ Cabot Bigham steps up with Herta

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Californian driver Cabot Bigham’s social media channels branded him a year ago with the moniker of “Follow the Ham,” which is both clever and accurate at the same time.

For one, it makes a fun play on words of his surname – Bigham immediately makes one break the word down into “Big Ham,” which then leads to thinking about bacon, which then leads to the logo that has developed for his driver identity.

And second, perhaps more importantly, it’s a perfect double meaning for what “Following” the Ham actually means. From a social media context, it means following him via his various posts. But on the race track, it means others were following him on track.

Bigham scored a surprise but well-judged GRC Lites championship in his debut season, defeating 2015 champion Oliver Eriksson, talented veterans Alex Keyes and Alejo Fernandez, and a host of notable rookies including Miki Weckstrom in the process.

Bigham, 20, will now step up into Supercars for 2017 with Bryan Herta Rallysport, as the replacement for Patrik Sandell in the team’s No. 2 MSport Ford Fiesta. Nick Franzosi is the team manager. Bigham carries support from Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Oral IV and Fuel Clothing, with team partners to be announced later.

With the Swede moving to Subaru’s program, the door opened for Bigham to graduate as the first Lites champion to do so since 2014 champ Mitchell DeJong, who only made his Supercars debut at last year’s season finale in Los Angeles in a wild card third entry for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE.

The Mill Valley, Calif. resident who drove the Paratek Pharmaceuticals entry for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last year won twice, scored five podiums and eight top-five finishes in 11 starts. But down to both Eriksson and Weckstrom going into the final race of the season in L.A., Bigham needed a minor miracle to pull off a championship victory.

He got it when after starting 10th and last in the final, an accordion effect accident that happened in front of him was akin to his personal “parting of the red sea” as he made into second behind DRR teammate Keyes merely several turns into the 10-lap race.

“It’s exactly that – everything fell into place!” Bigham told NBC Sports. “We couldn’t have predicted a more ideal scenario for where we were starting. I got inside of Alejo into Turn 2. That gave me the proper positioning to get inside the wreck, avoid it all, and slot in behind Alex.

“But at the checkered, I couldn’t really comprehend the emotions! So much is going through your head. Prior to the race start, I said, ‘There’s a pretty slim chance I could battle for second.’ It didn’t occur to me I could win it, but I never said I couldn’t win it. That was a huge learning experience to tech me to never give up, no matter the situation.”

Bigham then had the option of returning for a GRC Lites title defense or instead moving up to Supercars.

Once Sandell announced his departure after two solid seasons with Herta’s rally team, suddenly the two-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner had a void to fill in the team that still has his name.

“We looked at all our options. I talked to a great number of drivers – GRC veterans and other racing championships – and also rookies to rallycross,” Herta told NBC Sports. “There wasn’t a particular mould but someone we could fit.

Photo: Tony DiZinno
Photo: Tony DiZinno

“But with Cabot, I saw he won the championship. I was able to watch. I tend to watch the Lites stuff when I can. But I hadn’t met him much in person. He’s young and doesn’t have a lot of racing experience yet. Traditionally it’s a two-to-three year process for most people. But he sort of mastered it in his first year.”

Bigham had become aware of Herta via a Skip Barber shootout and also through Herta’s own son, Colton’s, burgeoning racing career. Bigham called the meeting and now subsequent opportunity with Herta a “full circle” moment.

Putting together the deal took a couple months before today’s confirmation.

“Moving up as a rookie, you need to secure the time with team owners to talk, and secondly to find the finding,” Bigham explained. “Everything slots into place usually from December to February. That’s when the driver releases and contracts get signed. We try to get signed as quickly as possible, but without rushing.”

The single-car Ford team is the second confirmed Ford entry for the season, along with the two-car Loenbro Motorsports effort. For Bigham, he’ll have the team’s singular focus while for Herta, the opportunity to expand to a two-car team in Red Bull GRC would only come with the right manufacturer opportunity.

“This should ensure we have everything at our disposal for great results,” Bigham said. “It’ll be the same car as they’ve had the last two years (Ford), which is an appealing aspect. There’s always a couple years of R&D. I’m glad there’s a consistency there.”

Herta added, “Red Bull Global Rallycross gets a lot of looks from new manufacturers and it’s been a goal/business plan to position ourselves as a one-car team. Expanding to multiple cars is something we’d only do with a manufacturer partner involved with us.”

Bigham said the series’ trip to Canada in June for a doubleheader is the race weekend he’s looking forward to most, as it will mark the first time he’s raced outside the United States.

Matched up against some of the more experienced names in Red Bull GRC, this is quite an opportunity for Bigham and a shot to impress in the championship.

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American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida