Saudi Arabia announces a Formula One night race next season in Jeddah

Formula One Saudi Arabia
AMER HILABI/AFP via Getty Images
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia will play host to a Formula One race next year, a move aimed at attracting well-heeled globe-trotting visitors and raising the kingdom’s profile internationally as a tourist destination.

The kingdom said Thursday it will be the host for a night race in November 2021 in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, using scenic roads along the coast.

Gulf locales including Manama, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, already play host to F1 races, which see A-list Hollywood stars, royals, billionaires, ministers and social media influencers gather for days of partying, discreet talks and deal-making.

Last year, 21 cities hosted races, but that has been scaled back this year because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Some cities in 2020 have hosted multiple races. Concerns about large crowds amid the pandemic have also caused most races to be held without fans.

“Motorsports for us is very important,” Prince Khalid bin Sultan al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “We would like to host these events as long as we can because our local people here in Saudi Arabia like to attend these events and be entertained and meet people from all around the world.”

The kingdom did not say how long its contract with F1 will last, but the country has plans to build a race track in the capital, Riyadh, by 2030. Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s oil and gas giant, is already a global sponsor of the heavily sponsored race.

The cost of hosting the F1 could exceed $100 million, though Prince Khalid said he also expects it will generate revenue for Saudi Arabia as the country races to diversify its economy away from dependence on the export of oil, which has plunged to less than $38 a barrel amid weaker global demand.

One standout feature of the Saudi race will be the absence of champagne popping by the winners and alcoholic beverages flowing in the stands and at the afterparties. Consumption of any alcohol in the Muslim kingdom is outlawed.

“The priority is for our own people. We assure that we’re going to throw a lovely event, a nice event. People will not be concerned about if there is alcohol or not, they will come for the event – not for the alcohol,” Prince Khalid said. “We are proud of who we are and how we do things in Saudi Arabia.”

The kingdom has experience hosting the electric Formula E series, which was held on the outskirts of Riyadh. Prince Khalid said international visitors then have respected the cultural differences.

By hosting major sporting events, Saudi Arabia aims to draw attention to the sweeping social changes underway in the country and encourage Saudis to turn their attention to sports. Yet some big-name athletes have stayed away amid criticism the events are also an effort at “sportswashing” by diverting attention from the kingdom’s human rights record.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation took a hit following international outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018.

Human Rights Watch launched a campaign in October to counter what it says has been an effort by the Saudi government to spend billions of dollars hosting major events as “a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator.”

“If we wanted to cover anything up, we wouldn’t open up our country so people can come and see our country and meet our people and talk freely with them,” Prince Khalid said when asked about such criticisms. “Maybe we do some things differently than others in the world, but for us we are improving, we are opening up, we have nothing to hide so there’s nothing to wash.”

Hours before the Saudi announcement, the U.N. women’s rights committee issued a statement calling for the immediate release of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned for two-and-a-half years on vague national security charges related to her calls for greater freedoms for women. The 31-year-old al-Hathloul planned to start a hunger strike from prison last week amid multiple postponements of her trial.

She is among several activists, writers, economists and moderate clerics detained in recent years – part of a far-reaching crackdown on dissent overseen by Prince Mohammed as he consolidates power and pushes through an ambitious overhaul of the kingdom.

How IndyCar rookie Sting Ray Robb got that name (and some more of his backstory)

IndyCar Sting Ray Robb
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Every NTT IndyCar Series season brings a new round of getting to know the rookies, and it’s fairly obvious where the story starts with Sting Ray Robb.

Just for clarification, “Robb” is the last name. His given name indeed is “String Ray” on the birth certificate.

Why, yes, he does come from performance-car parentage.

And yes, the IndyCar rookie named “Sting Ray” will be driving the No. 51 Dallara-Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware.

How did that go over with a mom and dad who clearly prefer American automotive brands?

“That’s a tricky question,” Robb said with a laugh Tuesday during the IndyCar Preseason Content Days. “Yeah, my parents are big Corvette fans, and I think that they ruled out criticizing me too badly because they know the dream is IndyCar.”

“I’ll be in a Honda car and I’m assuming it’ll go pretty quick, so I’m OK with all of that.”

“They’re not going to rename you ‘NSX’ or something?” asked Motorsport.com’s David Malsher-Lopez (whose bitingly sardonic wit is regularly heard in IndyCar media centers).

“No. I hope not,” Robb said. “My name is my name. I don’t need a rename, thank you.”

Robb, 21, has been making a name for himself lately, finishing second in last year’s Indy NXT standings with 11 top-five finishes, eight podiums and two pole positions.

But the Payette, Idaho, native also has an intriguing backstory beyond his successful four years in the Road to Indy ladder system (that also included the 2020 Indy Pro title).

He hails from the same small town (northwest of Boise on the Oregon border) that produced Minnesota Twins slugger and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.

Robb, whose graduating class was less than 100, recently found that Wikipedia listed him and Killebrew as the “notable alumni” from Payette High School.

“It’s nice to be see and appreciate all the things that I’ve learned and been through,” said Robb, who also played some baseball in his day, adding that “I’m more of a consistent singles hitter, slap hitter if you want to call it. No home runs, just doubles or triples here and there.”

Some other facts on the newest memorable name of IndyCar:

–He’s managed by Pieter Rossi (father of Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner), but he also gets a lot of help from his mother, Kimmie.

“We call her my ‘momager’ because she’s my mom and my manager,” Robb said. “She has been a huge role in my career because she does things that I’m unable to do as a driver.

“She’s able to play hardball with the contracts, etc., and have my best interest in mind when it comes to negotiating, along with Pieter. He may be someone that has a lot of experience in the series with Alexander, but he may not know what’s best for me. It’s good to have them both on my side, and I can learn a lot from them.”

–His family have been lifelong supporters since go-karting. “It was my mom, my dad, my grandparents on the road every weekend,” he said. “My dad has missed one race in my entire life, and it was because he was in the hospital. So we let him have a pass, and he was still on the phone every 30 minutes making sure that tire pressure was right, engine temp was right, we had the right gear on the car, etc.”

–Robb graduated high school a year early to focus on racing after being home-schooled as a child. “I went to someone’s house actually, and she taught me from the time I was in pre-K through sixth grade,” Robb said. “So in seventh grade I started going to public school, and I hate to say it, but I feel like I stopped learning after that point. But it was OK. I got some social skills, lucky for you guys.”

–He also has a wild story about how he landed his current ride during a random encounter in a trip to the gym (which you can read about here).