Another questionable racing finish | NevadaAppeal.com

Another questionable racing finish

Motorsports Column for May 19, 2002

NASCAR fans may not have noticed it, but there was another major controversy in Formula 1 last weekend, when Rubens Barrichello, whose Ferrari had easily led the entire Austrian Grand Prix to that point, slowed dramatically just before the finish line.

This allowed Michael Schumacher to win his approximately 947th (I’ve lost count) Formula 1 race, and raised howls of anger from race fans at the track and all over the world.

Of course, this was only the latest in a long series of races affected by so-called “team orders,” in which the number two driver on a team is directed to pull over and let his teammate take the win. The most recent previous incident I can recall was at the Australian Grand Prix a couple of years ago, when David Coulthard made the sacrifice for teammate Mika Hakkinen.

That situation resulted in lawsuits from Australian bookmakers (who are a little more flamboyant than Nevada’s casino sports books), and a worldwide storm of protest. Usually the rationale is to move the winning driver higher up in the championship point standings, as was the case in Austria this weekend.

At least Schumacher had the good grace to push his teammate to the top step of the podium and give him the winner’s trophy after the race. Of course, Schumacher already had a points lead that was almost unassailable, so it probably wouldn’t have hurt Ferrari to let Barrichello win one.

However, as motorsports guru Brock Yates pointed out, Formula 1 (like most other major racing series) is no longer motor sport, but motor business. And to take even the slightest chance of leaving points on the table and possibly missing out on a championship would be unacceptable to sponsor Marlboro and Ferrari parent company Fiat — not to mention the Italian national economy, to which Ferrari is a major contributor.

I find the situation somewhat analogous to NASCAR’s recent meddling with race results through use (or non-use, depending) of the red flag late in the race in order to engineer a green-flag finish. The stock car sanctioning body has long been a proponent of the “cosmetic yellow flag” to prevent a runaway race win, but this latest twist is pure show business and has nothing to do with sport. At least the Austrian situation was a decision of one race team, not the entire sanctioning body. Of course, race teams have been engineering finishes for at least 50 years, harking back to post-war Grand Prix races.

In fact, I personally recall a late-season Can-Am race at Laguna Seca in 1972 when the fabled Mark Donohue pulled over on the last lap to allow teammate George Follmer to sew up the season championship. I spoke to Mark after the race, and he maintained, with his usual mischievous grin, that George just outpowered him at the end. Right!

NASCAR fans, pay attention! Last week I received in the mail a copy of Bob Latford’s “Built for Speed: The Ultimate Guide to Stock Car Racetracks: A Behind-the-Wheel View of the Winston Cup Circuit.” I highly recommend this volume to any NASCAR fan. The photographs are great, the insights into the various NASCAR tracks and their peculiarities are fascinating, and the historical trivia about NASCAR is amazing. There are some things in the book even I didn’t know! For instance, a Jaguar sports car once won a NASCAR race.

It occurred in 1954, at a temporary road course set up on the runways and taxiways at the Linden, New Jersey Airport. NASCAR allowed European makes to enter, in order to attract sports car fans, and Al Keller’s Jaguar beat polesitter Buck Baker’s Oldsmobile and the rest of the field. It was the only time in history that a foreign manufactured car won a race in NASCAR’s top division.

Author Bob Latford served as chief statistician for CBS-TV’s NASCAR coverage from 1979 to 2000, and from what I can tell the information in the book is detailed and accurate. The only slips I could detect were probably the result of NASCAR-required hype — such as the statement that Winston Cup drivers are the most versatile in the world, running on short ovals, superspeedways, and road courses. Apparently Latford has never heard of CART, which does all that and street courses, too.

That notwithstanding, I highly recommend the book to NASCAR fans. It’s $18.95, and is probably available through Amazon.com. If you can’t find it, call 215-567-5080, or email jdisanto@runningpress.com.

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist.