World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series

From the Cushion: Outlaws director describes the day racing paused

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Ed. note: Dan Beaver will be rounding up happenings in dirt racing around the country this season for Motorsports Talk in his weekly “From the Cushion.”

The world of motorsports came to a screeching halt on March 13.

As the sun rose that Friday morning, IndyCar and NASCAR still planned to race their scheduled events in Atlanta, Georgia, and St. Petersburg, Florida, respectively, only without fans in attendance in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Dozens of World of Outlaws Sprint Car series haulers were converging on Cotton Bowl Speedway in Paige, Texas. Teams were heading to the fifth race of a grueling schedule featuring more than 80 races. A few teams were already there.

Back in Concord, N.C., World of Outlaws chief marketing officer Ben Geisler heard that President Donald Trump would declare a state of emergency later in the day. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles later referenced Trump’s impending announcement as part of the reason for the St. Petersburg Grand Prix cancellation.

Geisler tracked down CEO Brian Carter, who was busy monitoring an appeal resulting from a disqualification in a late model race at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida. The two executives called Sprint Car Series director Carlton Reimers.

“On Thursday, they already canceled the South by Southwest Festival just down the road (in Austin), which is huge,” Reimers said in a release. “You know, it appeared things were shutting down across the country. And Houston was starting to shut down other things, too. Then, of course, most of the major stick and ball sports were delaying or postponing everything, but F1, NASCAR and IndyCar were all racing with various restrictions.

“We had a plan to do something of our own but similar.”

There was a clicking sound in the background. Dominoes were starting to fall. That morning, NASCAR and IndyCar made the decision to send their drivers home. And then, there was that call looming that would shine a spotlight on any decision they made.

“The World of Outlaws aren’t really known for backing down, but the idea of thousands of fans walking through the gates and likely having our driver meeting at the same time President Trump was holding a press conference that we were not totally up to speed on, just didn’t feel like the right thing to do,” Reimers said.

Ultimately, the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series decided to postpone its events through April 9.

MORE: Carson Macedo wins as Williams Grove stays open

MORE: Dirt tracks reverse course, cancel weekend programs

Following the two-day show in Texas, the World of Outlaw sprints were scheduled to continue west to Arizona and California. The situation was fluid. Local and state officials were issuing proclamations limiting the size of gatherings. Fairground facilities and tracks were making decisions about whether to race.

And the phones wouldn’t stop ringing. It was not uncommon to get three answers from three different sources.

“Things were moving so fast it was hard to keep up with all of it,” Reimers said. “You’d think we’re good then I’d get another call or text from Carter and another governor or county would have put something else out. We had a race in California partnered up with USAC, and they almost canceled it from their side before we had all of our ducks in a row. Fairgrounds were announcing facility closings before anyone had considered upcoming races.”

The situation in California was particularly volatile.

Four events were scheduled there from March 28-April 4. But no one knew whether they would be allowed to race after making the long haul.

In 2018, the series was forced to cancel or reschedule 18 of the first 23 races because of rain. Then, as now, many of the opening events were scheduled in California. The high cost of transporting the cars there only to sit idle was a factor in the decision to postpone the season.

“Everyone has to deal with the pain of this,” Reimers said. “Everybody has got to do their part, no matter how small it is. You can argue all day that we could have raced at Cotton Bowl, and it wouldn’t have affected anything. But the reality is, as well thought out as the final plan was, it was done quickly in just a couple of days and with a limited amount of information. We decided the best thing at the time was to step back and better understand where this was all headed.”

If the situation stabilizes, the World of Outlaws still might salvage part of their West Coast swing. Another four California races are on tap beginning April 10 at Merced (California) Speedway. If they are not able to race in April, the season will resume when it is safe to do so.

“This is a worldwide thing, and we have to figure out how to return to racing in the safest way possible,” Reimers said. “The White House asked for another 15 days to help fight the coronavirus earlier this week, and we’re going to honor that while we work on rescheduling races and come up with a plan to go back racing very soon.”

As other series consider the impact of suspending races for a month or more, the Outlaws have the experience of the sodden start to 2018.

When asked if they could survive the hiatus, Reimers replied, “We’ve done it before.”

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994