Freshening a stagnant schedule
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
Tuesday, March 26
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR made the first significant changes to its schedule in years by shuffling the 2020 season into a freshened new sequence that tries to meet the wants of fans to the best of NASCAR’s current ability.
“The fans and the industry as a whole have been vocal about the desire for sweeping changes to the schedule, and the 2020 slate is a reflection of our efforts to execute against that feedback,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
The 2020 schedule was released Tuesday at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix, which got the season finale following a $175 million renovation to ISM Raceway.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway got July 5th to give the iconic track back-to-back summer holiday weekends; the event will follow the Indianapolis 500, a mere 42 days after that Memorial Day staple. IMS President Doug Boles said the Brickyard was the correct “venue to throw a massive party for our nation’s birthday.”
The July 4th holiday had belonged to Daytona International Speedway, but it gave up the traditional and often rain-wrecked event to claim the final race of the regular season, Aug. 29 when the championship field is finalized.
Daytona track President Chip Wile said the July race now created a chance at a “potential walk-off home run moment for a driver to solidify a playoff berth.”
Pocono Raceway will run both its 400-mile races on back-to-back June afternoons, Martinsville Speedway got a Mother’s Day race under the lights and also a slot in the playoffs — one of three short tracks featured in NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs. Even better for Martinsville, it got the penultimate race for the championship finale.
Bristol and Richmond short tracks both joined the playoffs, as did Darlington Raceway.
Martinsville in 2017 became the first major motorsports facility in the U.S. with a state-of-the-art LED Lighting system and will finally get to use them for a big-league event on the Saturday night before Mother’s Day. Speedway President Clay Campbell noted fans have asked “literally every single day since we installed the lights” when Martinsville would have a Cup race at night.
The season ends one week shorter than usual, but still includes 38 events that run from a Feb. 9 exhibition race at Daytona through the finale on Nov. 8 at renovated ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix. That includes consecutive weekends off for the first time in the modern era so that NBC Sports can focus on the Tokyo Olympics.
Charlotte Motor Speedway retained the All-Star race, but Speedway Motorsports chairman Marcus Smith told The Associated Press he was amenable to moving the event to Nashville in 2021.
Smith said IndyCar was also welcome to negotiate doubleheader weekends with a handful of SMI-owned tracks, among them Las Vegas during its new playoff date in late September that offers cooler temperatures than last year’s sun-roasted playoff opener. IndyCar has not raced at Las Vegas since Dan Wheldon’s fatal 2011 accident.
Smith also welcomed talks with IndyCar on the “Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway and as a NASCAR companion to Texas during its fall event. IndyCar aims each year to end its season earlier than any of Smith’s ideas for SMI-owned tracks.
Although he is open to doubleheaders with IndyCar as soon as next season, Smith was a firm ‘No’ on midweek races. Fans have asked more short tracks, road courses, and even dirt track Eldora Speedway to be added to the stagnant annual schedule, and industry stakeholders have asked for midweek racing during the summer in an attempt to shorten the length of the season.
NASCAR seemed open to the idea but was handcuffed by five-year sanction agreements with its existing track partners. The sanctioning body won’t have the flexibility to add new venues to the schedule until the contracts expire in time for the 2021 schedule.
It meant NASCAR could only swap its existing partners to the interests that suited all the parties involved. As for the midweek races, Smith was firm in that it was not a financial risk he was willing to make with one of the eight SMI venues with Cup races. He would have done a doubleheader, but said he believes it should be a unique event and special to Pocono.
“We did enough vetting of midweek events that it became clear what a difficult reality it would have been for not only the tracks, but the teams we spoke to said there would be a strain for them, too,” Smith said. “If someone else wants to do a midweek race, we wish them luck, but it is not for us.”
SMI scored victories in moving Atlanta into a weather-friendlier date in March, as well as the first visit to Texas moving a week after hunting season opens. Bristol is now the first elimination race of the playoffs, while the roval at Charlotte is the eliminating race of the second round of the playoffs. Las Vegas also follows the Feb. 16 Daytona 500 as the first race of NASCAR annual trip West.
International Speedway Corp., the company controlled by the NASCAR-owning France Family, moved the season finale to ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix. The company last year received a massive facelift and there simply hasn’t been enough of a buzz worth keeping the championship finale event at Homestead-Miami Speedway anymore. The track has hosted the final race since 2002 and the Cup series champion has been the race winner since the current format was introduced in 2014.
ISC shoved a race there in March, a month few track operators want because of weather concerns that shouldn’t be as big an issue in the Miami area.
Martinsville is perhaps the big winner with not only a race under its new lights system, but a race that will decide the championship field of four.
The playoffs now begin at Darlington on Sept. 6, go to Richmond, Bristol, Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas, Martinsville then finally ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP
Rookie Herta wins IndyCar Classic at 18 years old
By JIM VERTUNO
AP Sports Writer
Sunday, March 24
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Everything went Colton Herta’s way on Sunday, from the victory on the race track to the sparkling wine on the podium instead of apple cider.
The 18-year American rookie became the youngest winner in IndyCar history when he captured the IndyCar Classic after a late-race crash near the entry to pit row helped him steal past the leaders to the checkered flag.
Flanked on the podium by 28-year-old Josef Newgarden and 38-year-old Ryan Hunter-Reay, Herta was handed a bottle of sparkling wine for the victory celebration while someone handed Newgarden the cider.
Glug! Herta, still well under the legal drinking age of 21, took a big drink.
“I didn’t switch back,” Herta said. “I took a swig and said, ‘This is real!”
Newgarden was impressed.
“They gave me his drink, and gave him mine. Which is very cool of Texas,” Newgarden said.
Herta’s win also delivered the first victory for Harding Steinbrenner Racing , where George Steinbrenner IV — yes, of the Steinbrenner baseball family — is the youngest co-owner in series history and the youngest owner of a race-winning car at age 22. After the victory, the New York Yankees tweeted congratulations to the victors.
“In this sport it takes perfect execution and a little bit of luck,” Steinbrenner said. “We caught the little bit of luck … and Colton did the rest.”
Herta was running a distant third behind Team Penske’s Will Power and Andretti Autosports’ Alexander Rossi until James Hinchcliffe bumped rookie Felix Rosenqvist into a spin and then the wall near the entry to pit lane.
Power, who started from pole position and dominated through 45 laps, lost his big lead when the caution flag came out, and then had his race end with a driveshaft failure during his last pit stop for a late tire change. Rossi finished ninth.
Power started from pole position and could have earned a $100,000 bonus if he had won the race.
“Massively disappointed man. (To) lead so many laps,” Power said. “The yellow didn’t get us, the drive shaft did.”
Herta still had work to do to stay ahead of Newgarden and Hunter-Reay, both former IndyCar champions. Herta dialed up the speed that made him so quick on the track in preseason testing.
“He’s been quick since he hit the track,” Hunter-Reay said. “At first sight I wouldn’t trust that guy with my Honda Civic, but he’s very talented. This is the big league and he just won an IndyCar race.”
The previous youngest race winner was Graham Rahal in 2008 at age 19. Herta turns 19 on Saturday.
“One race win isn’t enough. I want to get another,” Herta said.
IndyCar didn’t enforce track rules that apply to the Formula One cars the Circuit of the Americas was built for. That led to some wide racing and ultimately the crackup that cost Power his chance to win.
The cars were allowed sweeping runoffs through turns and Rosenqvist and Hinchcliffe touched as they were coming out of a wide run on Turn 19 near pit lane. Two days earlier, Rosenqvist said he likes the open racing without track limits and Power said they should be enforced.
Hunter-Reay and Newgarden said the issue will have to be addressed before next year’s race.
“I’ll be happy not to see Turn 19 again for a couple of weeks,” Hunter-Reay said. “You are rolling the dice a little bit in there.”
Rosenqvist had a tough day even before his crash. After an impressive fourth-place finish in his debut at St. Petersburg, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver started fifth and promptly lost three positions at the start. He had a spin midway through the race and then the crash to end his Texas weekend.
After a first and second in the first two races, Newgarden leads the driver’s standings with 93 points and Herta is second with 75.
“Colton drove flawlessly. It’s big to win your first IndyCar race,” Newgarden said. “We have to have podiums when we’re not winning races to win the championship.”
More AP IndyCar coverage: https://apnews.com/IndyCar
Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno
IndyCar Classic a “home” race for Foyt family
By JIM VERTUNO
AP Sports Writer
Friday, March 22
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Larry Foyt’s memories of the Austin area mostly involve water skiing and packs of adolescent boys sneaking a peek at the nudist beach in an area called Hippie Hollow.
The president of A.J. Foyt Racing would like to add something new to the mix: a checkered flag or at least a more realistic push for a top 10 finish at the inaugural IndyCar Classic at the Circuit of the Americas this weekend.
Being back in Central Texas makes the newest stop on the IndyCar circuit a “home race” for the Foyt family, just a couple of hours from their home base near Houston. Larry’s brother went to the University of Texas and the family spent all summer on nearby Lake Travis when Larry was growing up.
“Mom always loved the lake,” Larry Foyt said. “We’d spend all summer there jet skiing, knee boarding, all the good stuff.”
That included IndyCar great A.J. Foyt taking his turns on the skis and sometimes taking someone’s money. The story goes that A.J. Foyt would pretend he couldn’t ski and make a bet he could be a quick learner. After a few falls, he’d be out of the water and slaloming on one ski.
“Always competitive,” Larry Foyt said.
And then there was Hippie Hollow, the “clothes optional” area of the lake that would draw more than a few giggles from Larry and his friends. And it wasn’t just the kids. A.J. made a point of driving his guests over on the boat to get a look and a laugh.
“It was ‘C’mon, you gotta see this,’” Larry Foyt said. “I remember being a little kid and my brother messing with, pretending they were going to throw me overboard at Hippie Hollow. I was little and was like ‘No!’”
Larry Foyt’s first visit to the Circuit of the Americas was in 2012 for the track’s first Formula One U.S. Grand Prix. He has been waiting for IndyCar to drive here ever since.
“When you saw what they were doing, and doing it first class, immediately for me it was ‘When is IndyCar coming here?’” he said. “We’re the premiere open wheel series in the United States and we need to be here.’”
The 3.41-mile circuit might not be the best course for team drivers Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist. Kanaan was 15th in the season opener at St. Petersburg and Leist completed just 25 laps after hitting Ed Jones, who had stopped after hitting the wall.
Leist was 13th in Friday’s morning practice, well off the pace of session leader Josef Newgarden. Kanaan was 21st. A top 10 finish Sunday will be the goal, Larry Foyt said.
“This type of track has been kind of our Achilles heel the last year or two,” Larry Foyt said. “We just need to start building momentum going into Indy. We still have a lot of focus on Indianapolis and feel we have a shot to win it.”
Despite being close to home, A.J. Foyt won’t be at this week’s race after attending the season-opener two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, Florida, and NASCAR’s Daytona 500 last month. The 84-year-old four-time Indianapolis 500 winner had back surgery in July and then a staph infection, but Larry Foyt said he’s not at the race this week because he’s trying to get some property ready to sell.
Leist said the team will miss having A.J. around the garage.
“It’s always good when he’s at a race,” Leist said. “It was nice to have him around getting tips from him about the car. It was a great time.”
With A.J. Foyt’s history of tractor accidents and encounters with bees — a 2005 bee attack left him with more than 200 stingers in his head — Larry Foyt can’t help but wonder what message will be on the other end if the phone rings from back home.
“At this point, he’s lived through it all,” Larry Foyt said. “You wait for the story. It’s bound to be good.”
More AP IndyCar coverage: https://apnews.com/IndyCar
Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno
Iditarod competitor whose dogs quit says they got spooked
By MARK THIESSEN
Saturday, March 23
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Iditarod musher who was hours ahead in the Alaska wilderness race when his dogs refused to keep running dismissed critics who say he ran them too hard and chalked it up to a bad memory that spooked them.
The team stopped last week after Frenchman Nicolas Petit yelled at a dog that was bullying another, but they “did not slow down like a tired team would,” he said.
It came a year after they got lost in a blizzard near the same spot along the Bering Sea coast — close to the finish line of the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that takes global competitors across mountain ranges and wind-swept ice.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a curse for me, I just had a bad time last year and lingering effects of the bad time this year,” Petit said.
It was pure coincidence that it happened at the same point in the race, he said.
“They remember that we didn’t have a fun run,” going through the snow the wrong way, Petit said Wednesday, sprawling out on a friend’s sofa in Anchorage.
Dogs from his team piled on top of him and licked his face. Also nosing their way in for attention were Joey, who was the bully on the trail, and Danny, the younger male dog who was bullied.
When Petit withdrew from the race this year, he said it was a “head thing” for the dogs.
Then the blowback began — in press releases, on blogs and on social media. The most vocal critic of the race, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said it wasn’t the dogs that needed their heads examined, it was anyone who supports “the merciless race.”
Others speculated that Petit overexerted the dogs, they were mistreated or were mentally unfit to run. Petit denies it all.
“This isn’t any type of a reason to get rid of what I consider my children — the dogs I raised,” Petit said. “No, I won’t get rid of them. They are the most important thing in my life.”
He also said he’s “stopping plenty” along the grueling route, preferring to rest outside checkpoints and along the trail when possible, where he says it’s quieter and the dogs get more sleep.
Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985, said the sport requires a fine balance between being competitive and keeping the dogs happy — something she said Petit excels at.
“People have this idea that you can force these dogs” to the finish line, Riddles said last week. “It’s not like that at all.”
In 2018, Petit rested his dogs at a cabin between checkpoints before the disastrous run in the blizzard. He planned to stay at the cabin again this year but leave it with a well-rested team.
Video shows an energetic and eager dog team entering and leaving the first checkpoint.
Within a mile of the cabin, the dog dustup happened. Joey, a 2-year-old and the only non-neutered male on the team, was behind Danny, a 16-month-old pup. Every time Danny slowed down, Joey would pick on him.
Finally, Petit yelled, “Joey, that’s enough!”
“I raise my voice a little bit and they are all like, ‘Oh, boy, that’s not normal,’” Petit said. “I try to be as calming and collected with my dogs as possible all the time, so they heard an upset daddy.”
The team refused to keep going. He tried walking ahead of them to see if they would follow and putting different dogs in the lead. Other mushers came by, but even that didn’t rouse the dogs.
They finally got the mile to the cabin. Fourteen hours after the dogs stopped, they took off but didn’t make it far. Petit took them back and pushed the panic button on his GPS unit, effectively withdrawing from the race.
A snowmobile brought food and then carted the dogs off the trail.
Petit still expects to compete in next year’s Iditarod. He’s said he’s planning to take his dogs next week to the problem area — the Bering Sea coast — to show them the fun they can have on that stretch of the trail.
“And that it’s not always blowing, and we don’t always get lost, and it can be a very positive experience as opposed to the last two years,” he said.
Kentucky governor says he exposed his children to chickenpox
By BRUCE SCHREINER
Wednesday, March 20
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said in a radio interview that he deliberately exposed his children to chickenpox so they would catch the highly contagious disease and become immune.
During a Tuesday interview on Bowling Green radio station WKCT, Bevin said his children were “miserable for a few days” after contracting chickenpox but said “they all turned out fine.”
“Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox,” Bevin said in the interview. “They got the chickenpox on purpose because we found a neighbor that had it and I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it, and they got it. They had it as children.”
Bevin and his wife, Glenna, have nine children, four adopted.
Public health authorities strongly discourage the practice of deliberately exposing children to chickenpox, a medical expert said Wednesday.
“It’s unfortunate and not an example for any of us,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
“We should vaccinate all our children. It’s a great triumph of public health in the United States. Let’s not take a step backward,” he added in a phone interview.
Bevin’s office did not immediately respond to an email request for additional comment Wednesday. Bevin is seeking a second term as governor in this year’s statewide elections in Kentucky.
The Republican governor said Tuesday that parents worried about chickenpox should have their children vaccinated. But he suggested that government shouldn’t mandate the vaccination.
“Why are we forcing kids to get it?” Bevin said in the interview. “If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child. … And in many instances, those vaccinations make great sense. But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise.”
Kentucky requires that children entering kindergarten be vaccinated for chickenpox, but parents may seek religious exemptions or provide proof that a child already had the disease.
Bevin’s comments followed reports this week of a chickenpox outbreak at a Kentucky Catholic school.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two doses of chickenpox vaccine for children, adolescents and adults who have never had chickenpox and were never vaccinated, according to its website. Children are routinely recommended to receive the first dose at 12 through 15 months old and a second dose at 4 to 6 years old, it said.
“What the governor and other like-minded folks are unaware of is that there are potentially serious complications of chickenpox,” Schaffner said.
Complications from chickenpox can include bacterial infections, pneumonia and encephalitis — inflammation of the brain, according to the CDC. Complications aren’t common in healthy people with the disease, it says, but high risk groups for complications due to a serious case of chickenpox can include infants, adolescents, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.