iRACE Sparky Plug 10-13-97

Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa -- NOT! (Oct. 13, 1997) -- Oh, for the bygone days of old, when drivers who refused to take personal responsibility for incidents on the race track did so merely because they were jerks, not because they were...

Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa -- NOT!

(Oct. 13, 1997) -- Oh, for the bygone days of old, when drivers who refused to take personal responsibility for incidents on the race track did so merely because they were jerks, not because they were paranoid about tarnishing the corporate image (their sponsor's, or their own).

Aw, maybe Sparky is only fooling himself. Maybe the good ol' days weren't that good, after all. Maybe we're just getting old and cranky, and our porcelain is cracked and our electrode corroded. But we sure have minimal tolerance when it comes to today's marquee drivers who are just as quick with an excuse as they are with an impressive driving maneuver.

We'll single out some of our favorite targets -- Jacques Villeneuve and Jeff Gordon. We'll deal with Jacques first, since his problem occurred before Gordon's did.

Fans of F1 and Jacques know well about the practice-session incident in Japan in which the would-be World Champion was busted for failing to slow down for a caution flag. He was already on probation for doing the same thing earlier in the season.

Never mind that red Ferrari and the Schumacher guy; it seems as if Jacques is bound and determined to ace himself right out of the driving title. He's already been called on the carpet for remarks he has made about impending rules changes; he's a repeat offender in the yellow-flag matter. He's his own worst enemy.

Jacques' response was kind of an F1 driver's version of, "But, Mom, all the other kids are doing it!"

Said the victimized (or, as our pal Mike Doodson would say, "victimised") Villeneuve in Suzuka, "When it happened, seven other drivers did the same thing, of nine that were on the track, at the same time, so we believe we have due reasons to appeal." This shows two things: (1) Jacques does not believe he has done anything wrong, and (B) he and his team are surprisingly clueless with regard to the likelihood of their appeal getting them anything except maybe a stiffer penalty.

Now, before all the Jeff Gordon fans turn blue with rage, let us emphasize that the first thing we thought when the big wreck started at Talladega on Sunday was that Jeffy had probably been tapped by somebody in that tightly-bunched thousand-car freight train rumbling down the 'Dega backstretch. We have tremendous respect for Gordon's driving ability (and, for that matter, for Villeneuve's -- not that any of his fans will remember we said that!).

However, TV replays clearly showed Gordon was not bumped (and also made CBS's Mike Joy look pretty silly for inexplicably speculating that John Andretti moved up and hit Gordon). Still, we thought, something might have gone wrong in the DuPont Chevy. Gordon is not perfect, but he's about as good as we've ever seen, and he doesn't make very many mistakes.

We were aggravated to no end, though, when Gordon was so quick to blame a flat left rear tire -- and became so defensive about it, inviting media members to come and take a look at the tire, it's shredded, it's obvious that it failed, etc., etc.

First of all, if Gordon did have a cut-down tire, it's just not necessary to trot out the quick and emphatically-stated excuse. His evidence is shaky at best; the left rear tire he wanted all the reporters to look at was probably one of about -- oh, maybe 80 Goodyear Eagles which were pretty much torn to hell at that point in time. Secondly, if he did not in fact have a tire problem, we wouldn't think a bit less of his driving ability. And we'd think a whole lot more of him as a person if he admitted that it's remotely possible that he made a rare mistake, rather than look for something to blame.

We like racers who make fun of themselves in "blaming" something for a wreck -- guys who say things like, "Just a loose nut behind the steering wheel, I guess." If today's corporate-conscious driver says something like that, he's accusing a crew member of incompetence in assembling the race car's steering components.

We haven't completely given up, yet. We still know some drivers who are big enough to say (even in the big leagues, and when a TV camera is rolling), "Well, dadgummit, I just lost it."

* * *

While we're ruffling feathers, let's ruffle a few more. We comdemn the blatant tag-team tactics that Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine pulled in the Japanese Grand Prix, where Irvine pulled over and allowed Schuey to take the lead, then blocked all challengers -- including Williams-Renault's Villeneuve -- who might have sought to overtake the eventual winner. We know that's a long-accepted part of some forms of racing, but we think it stinks.

We offer as a stark contrast the attitude of multi-car team owner A.J. Foyt in Las Vegas during the same weekend. Foyt had one driver (Davey Hamilton) in a battle for the Indy Racing League championship, and the provisional pole sitter. Foyt could have sent his second driver, Billy Boat, out to qualify with instructions to "be a team player," and not run fast enough to bump Hamilton and take away the two points that are awarded to the pole winner. Instead, Foyt told Boat to go out and take his best shot. Boat won the pole and the two points; Hamilton later lost the title to Tony Stewart.

Ol' Super Tex is far from a perfect specimen of a human being, and we know both he and the IRL have plenty of critics. But in our humble opinion, what Foyt and his drivers did in Vegas is what real racing is all about. You guys can take your team racing crap and shove it.

* * *

The IRL has announced its 1998 schedule and it looks like Bruton Smith and the folks at Charlotte Motor Speedway are less than tickled with the date they've received to host their second IRL race.

Boo hoo. Dover Downs received their IRL date for the weekend of July 19, an off weekend for Winston Cup. Charlotte's IRL date, July 25, is the same weekend as the Cup race in Pocono.

Bruton's miffed at the IRL for giving Dover an IRL race on an open weekend for Cup while Charlotte has to compete for fans and media attention with the Cup race in Pocono. Which makes more sense? Having the Dover IRL race compete with Pocono just up the road, ensuring lower attendance figures than the IRL races at Loudon or Vegas, or having Charlotte, the king of motorsports promotions, host a race THE DAY BEFORE a Cup race that's running several hours away?

Methinks Bruton doth protest too much.

Charlotte took a risk by hosting an IRL race this year, but the IRL is smart to award Dover the off weekend. Dover needs the same shot that Charlotte received this year and that's a weekend that doesn't compete with a Cup race. Bruton's a smart man. We're sure he can think of a few ways to entice fans to his race track.

* * *

Finally, while we're on the matter of upstart racing series, let's talk more about the lightning-rod Indy Racing League. Tony George's series has made considerable strides since its beginning. The 31-car field at Las Vegas is the latest evidence that the IRL is becoming a viable series.

We're not sure what to make of the nearly-empty grandstands at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, especially in contrast to the packed houses that watched highly-entertaining races in places such as Fort Worth and Charlotte.

The paying customers in Vegas didn't exactly embrace the IRL season finale on Saturday night. Guesstimates for the crowd ranged from 16,000 to 30,000. Some folks have blamed the potential for bad weather and the cold temperatures for holding down walk-up ticket sales. Well, if the weather kept away thousands of fans, what does this say about pre-race sales?

The IRL seems to rely too heavily on local track promoters to sell tickets. Texas and Charlotte both had good numbers, but Loudon, Phoenix, PPIR and Vegas need some serious help in filling the seats.

Speaking of attendance figures, we're a bit puzzled when some people criticize NASCAR racing (the upcoming Winston Cup race at Vegas sold out in 30 hours, you remember) and assert that just because something is a commercial success does not mean it's better than another form of racing. On the other hand, some of the same people will point to the mostly-vacant grandstands at Las Vegas as evidence that, since it doesn't sell a lot of tickets, the IRL is a failure. Is that a double standard, or is it just Sparky who feels that way?

Let Sparky know your opinions. Email him at

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Series General
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Michael Schumacher , Jacques Villeneuve , Davey Hamilton , Billy Boat , Tony George , A.J. Foyt
Teams Williams