Monday, October 1, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Forty Years Later - USAC in the UK

Team orders were the name of the game in Russia. A championship record was matched in France while another rider made history with her championship. NASCAR ran the roval and it provided for some eventful practice sessions and an absurd finish. There were touring cars racing in China and an endurance race in Spain, which has seen a disqualification and an appeal leaves the race victory and a championship provisionally awarded. IndyCar released testing regulations. Felix Rosenqvist was confirmed at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2019. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Forty Years Later - USAC in the UK
Before the heydays of CART and the burst of international flavor into IndyCar that we will still have today but many years after the likes of Lotus and Lola came to Indianapolis and the heights of the 1960s that brought world champions Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme and Jochen Rindt to the 2.5-mile racetrack in the Hoosier State, USAC crossed the Atlantic. It was called an invasion.

Forty years ago today, the USAC Championship Cars raced its first of two races in the United Kingdom. It wasn't the series first trip off the North American continent. An exhibition race was held at Fuji Speedway in 1966 and won by Jackie Stewart. A 2.873-mile oval in Rafaela, Argentina hosted the first two races of the 1971 season, which Al Unser swept. It wasn't the first time the series had raced in Europe. The series was apart of the exhibition Race of Two Worlds two decades earlier on the Monza oval but unlike the event held in the early Italian summer, these races counted toward the championship and all of USAC's best were there.

Silverstone and Brands Hatch were the circuits of choice. Motor Circuit Developments, which owned Brands Hatch, was responsible for USAC's trip to the United Kingdom. It was a chance to show the British public another form of motorsport, one that was not Formula One, one known for impressive speeds on high-speed ovals. MCD covered the cost and had £400,000 of prize money for the two races.

Only 16 teams were going to head to the United Kingdom and a qualifying session was held at Michigan Speedway in July to determine the teams that would get to go. The notably names all made it. Tom Sneva and Al Unser were in the middle of a championship fight with Sneva holding the advantage over Unser despite not winning a race and Unser having captured the Triple Crown that season.

A.J. Foyt made the trip. A young Rick Mears, who was splitting a Team Penske entry with Mario Andretti when Andretti was not busy with Formula One commitments, was on the plane. Danny Ongais had won five races that season and the Hawaiian went to the UK. Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser are just some of the other notable names that went. This trip wasn't only a chance for the names we now call legends to show off on foreign soil. The British got to see those who have become more folk heroes in IndyCar as well: Dick Simon, Salt Walther, George Snider and Joe Saldana to name a few.

USAC was not road racing heavy at that point in time. The only other road course race that season was at Mosport. From 1971-1976, USAC Championship Cars did not run a road course race. This was the first season with multiple road course events since 1970 when the series raced at Sonoma, Continental Divide and the Indianapolis Raceway Park road course. The series didn't have rain tires. That would prove to be a problem in England.

The Silverstone led off the two-week affair but the race was scheduled to run Saturday September 30th. Rain washed out the practice and qualifying sessions and the race was pushed to Sunday October 1st. The flip of the calendar did not bring any better weather and the event was hampered by storms. It was a dry start and Danny Ongais took an early lead but would retire due a broken half shaft. Al Unser took the lead but would run out of fuel on lap 22 and five laps later a rain shower caused a 30-minute delay.

At the restart it was Rick Mears vs. A.J. Foyt and within two laps Foyt took the lead. The rains did not hold off and the race was called after 38 of 52 scheduled laps. Foyt took the victory, the 61st of his career. Mears and Sneva rounded out the podium.

The following Saturday had sunny conditions at Brands Hatch. The race took place on the shorter 1.2-mile configuration and not the grand prix circuit. This smaller Brands Hatch track has affectionately become known as the "Indy circuit." Unser started on pole position but his race was over before turn one when he lost the clutch. Ongais took an early again, this time from third on the grid. The Hawaiian dominated the race and at one point had lapped the field. He led the first 83 laps but a broken gearbox ended his day.

Mears inherited the lead and took a comfortable victory, the third of his abbreviated season. Sneva made it a Penske 1-2 and the result essentially assured him the championship. The season finale at Phoenix would take place 21 days later at Phoenix and Sneva held a 264-point lead over Unser. The only way Unser could win the title was by winning Phoenix and having Sneva finish outside the top ten. Rutherford was the final driver on the podium, one-lap down.

Despite being welcomed and celebrated by the fans for the openness of the American teams compared to the secluded nature of the Formula One paddock, USAC did not return. A crowd of 6,000 spectators reportedly showed up for the Saturday at Silverstone and only 4,000 returned on Sunday. Though reports of 15,000 spectators for the Brands Hatch event were dismissed as a disappointment, after watching the race it looked like a really good crowd.

Leading up to the event, there were split expectations over what would be seen. Initially it was thought USAC would run competitive lap times compared to Formula One cars but after Mears and Sneva tested at Brands Hatch in August it was thought the laps would be "less spectacular." Danny Ongais would set the Silverstone lap record and he set the Brands Hatch Indy circuit record as well.

IndyCar has had mixed results when it comes to flyaway events. In forty years since USAC headed to the UK, IndyCar has made other trips abroad. For 18 years IndyCar went to Surfers Paradise. Mexico has hosted 14 races, Twin Ring Motegi was a stop on the calendar for 13 consecutive years and two different Brazilian circuits held a total of nine races.

IndyCar would return to Europe in 2001 with CART running races at EuroSpeedway Lausitz and Rockingham Motor Speedway. CART returned to Rockingham in 2002 but in 2003 the series made a return to Brands Hatch 25 years after the first invasion and Lausitz held a race the following weekend. The 2007 season was the most recent trip to Europe for an American open-wheel series with Champ Car races at Zolder and Assen.

The appeal for flyaway races still exists in IndyCar. The series has not packed an airplane and left the North American continent since the 2013 trip to São Paulo. In the 21st century, most international events fail to get off the ground. Champ Car tried multiple times to have races in China and South Korea and the series never made it. IndyCar had a race in Qingdao, China on the 2012 schedule and that died two months before the scheduled date. Brasilia was going to host the 2015 season opener and was cancelled six weeks before the scheduled date. (Notice a pattern?) A trip to Qatar and a return to Mexico City is a pair of international races highly talked about but that have not become a reality in recent years.

We have reached a point where these international races are less likely to happen. The costs are too apparent and in a way wayward spending of the 1970s and 1980s when someone could enter a boardroom and have a pitch based on pure emotion of having the next big thing and walk out with hundreds of thousands of dollars are over. That isn't a bad thing. It is a bit more boring but it is better to have a properly promoted event with research done to assure a race succeeds then just winging it and hoping it turns a profit.

There doesn't seem to be much clamor from Europe for an IndyCar race. There are many hurdles beyond that of money. When would it take place? IndyCar is packed from May to September and any time outside of that window doesn't fit in terms of climate. Where would they go? Road courses are a large part of IndyCar now. They even race in the rain. Who would show up and would it be enough for a promoter to make its money back? That seems to be the largest of hurdles. IndyCar is niche in the United States, how much smaller is it in Europe?

Any future flyaway endeavor for IndyCar will likely not be to a historic track in Europe but it will be based on a large cheque likely from an oil-rich nation with a questionable human's right record for a street race in a largely unvisited and underwhelming part of a city.

All we have are pipe dreams but if there is one thing IndyCar's spotty international history has taught us is it is a bit of a cycle. There were the two British races in 1978 and there was a 13-year gap before the series first went to Surfers Paradise but the events returned. Interests can change and in five years IndyCar might be large enough in Spain or Sweden or maybe even Japan to justify someone to pay a sanctioning fee, cover travel costs for the teams, draw a respectable crowd and host a race that fits the current IndyCar schedule.

For now, IndyCar is re-finding its footing in the United States and the 2019 schedule is one that is suitable for the series. It may not be a world tour but it provides plenty of excitement.

Champions From the Weekend
Jonathan Rea clinched the World Superbike championship with his victory in the first race at Magny-Cours. It is Rea's fourth consecutive championship. Rea would close the weekend with a victory in race two, his four consecutive weekend sweep.

Ana Carrasco clinched the World Supersport 300 with a 13th place finish at Magny-Cours. She won the title by one point. Carrasco is the first woman to win a motorcycle road racing world championship.

Raffaele Marciello has provisionally won the Blancpain GT Series championship and the Blancpain Endurance Series championship.

The #4 Mercedes-AMG Team Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG of Maro Engel, Yelmer Buurman and Luca Stolz finished first in the 3 Hours of Barcelona and that won the team the Blancpain Endurance Series championship after Maricello finished second in the #88 AKKA ASP Racing Mercedes-AMG with Tristan Vautier and Daniel Juncadella.

The #4 Mercedes-AMG was disqualified after tape was found in an inlet tract, violating a sporting regulation. Team Black Falcon has filed an appeal. The #88 Mercedes-AMG has provisionally won the 3 Hours of Barcelona.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jonathan Rea, Ana Carrasco and what happened at Barcelona but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix, his third consecutive victory.

Ryan Blaney won the NASCAR Cup race from Charlotte. Chase Briscoe won the Grand National Series race, his first career victory.

Alexander Albon and George Russell split the Formula Two races from Sochi. Leonardo Pulcini and David Beckmann split the GP3 Series races.

Jules Cluzel won the World Supersport race from Magny-Cours.

Thed Björk won the first and third World Touring Car Cup races from Ningbo with Yvan Muller taking the second race.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One is head to Suzuka.
Supercars has the 61st Bathurst 1000.
MotoGP makes its first trip to Buriram, Thailand.
NASCAR is back at Dover.
The World Rally Championship has the Wales Rally GB.
Motocross des Nations takes place in Red Bud, Michigan.