GLOBETROTTER

How to hijack history and other evil deeds

If I was Bernie Ecclestone - and I am not half clever enough to be that - I would not waste my time with a Grand Prix in Albert Park. I would go along to the Secretary of Tourism of New South Wales and tell him that after the Olympics Games is over the state is going to need something else to think about to draw in zillions of tourist dollars. I would campaign for a new airport out to the west of the city (where there is space) and I would suggest building better roads up into the Blue Mountains where there are lots of beauty spots. You would need new hotels, of course, and maybe a casino or two.

And then I would send the bulldozers up to Mount Panorama and make the racing circuit safe for Formula 1 cars. This would destroy the place completely but if I was Bernie I would not care because by moving the Grand Prix to Bathurst, one could hijack the history of Australia's "Great Race".

As with many great sporting events around the world, Bathurst is more than a race. It is an national institution. Like the Superbowl in the United States or the Grand National in Britain. It is not about cars going up and down a mountain it is about The Event which one should take to mean that it is a great excuse to have a party.

The Australian Grand Prix is an event (with a small e) in Melbourne but it's not quite the same because for many years Australia has been a country ruled by the touring car. Since Jack Brabham retired and the old Tasman winter F1 series faded away, the touring car boys have dominated the racing scene. Bathurst is so famous and so well-established in Australia that when it happens the whole country stops. The locals drink beer, throw another prawn on the barbie and watch the race on TV. If you were an Asian President with expansionist aspirations - and could afford it - this would be a good time to invade the Lucky Country.

Sport and war are much the same - a concept we have established in recent years - and thus one must conclude that the Great Powers of Motor Sport will ultimately have to go to war. Right now there are two great powers in the motor sport world: Formula 1 and cars with lids on.

The tin top racers have failed to get together on a global basis. Australian touring car racing is huge in Australia but you don't hear much about it on Tokyo High Street or Zanzibar. It is not dissimilar - on smaller scale - to NASCAR stock car racing dominates the American racing scene, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon Line (the old dividing line between the southern slave states and the northern free states).

Down there in NASCAR country they don't give a day-hem about those li'l ol' open-wheeler cooors. That's for folk that don't understand about life without a beer gut, a pick-up truck and only two kinds of music: Country AND Western.

One can make fun of NASCAR but there is no getting away from the fact that the series is one of the great successes of motor racing history and now that the single-seater fraternity in the United States of America has split itself down the middle and neither the Championship Auto Racing Teams nor the Indy Racing League has emerged the winner of the civil war, NASCAR is having a wonderful time. They have even managed to get themselves a race at the world's most famous racing circuit - Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Formula 1 racing is currently trying the same trick while the CART bosses sit around and say it will never happen. They do not know Bernie Ecclestone very well. Bernie is an ambitious soul and he doesn't just want a race at Indy. He wants the Indianapolis 500 date as well. This is outrageous, of course. The race has been held on the same date since 1910 but when you stop to think about it makes a lot of sense for Indianapolis and IRL boss Tony George.

It makes sense for Indianapolis because right now the race is foundering in the middle of the IRL season. The entries are poor and the crowds for The Event in May, although still huge, are dwindling. A Grand Prix would give The Event back its buzz and the Indianapolis 500 transplanted to September could act as the finale for the Indy Racing League. The move would also do untold damage to CART because - although no-one wants to admit it - CART without Indianapolis is a headless chicken, running around but doomed...

Tradition is the important thing and one of the greatest strengths of NASCAR and Formula 1 is that each has important traditions which survive. Formula 1 has Monaco, Monza and Ferrari. Grand Prix racing can trace its roots back to before the First World War. Race fans may not know the details but they know that they are watching "traditional" racing.

NASCAR goes back to the 1920s when the moonshiners built souped-up automobiles to outrun the law in the days of Prohibition. When the alcohol ban went away the rum-runners turned to racing one another on quarter mile dirt ovals. That went on until 1950 when a bulldozer baron from South Carolina called Harld Brasington went to Indianapolis and went home to Darlington wondering why stock cars should not race on big paved ovals. He was a great salesman and when he wasn't out building his 1.5-mile paved oval he was wandering the streets of the town, selling stock in the speedway. Everyone thought he was crazy but at the first Southern 500 in 1950 Brasington expected 5000 spectators and he got 25,000. In those days racing was more of a participation sport. Half the crowd cheered for one driver and the rest cheered for his rival. Everyone had a good time although some races ended up with slugging matches in the grandstands. When Fonty Flock won the Southern 500 in 1952 - wearing Bermuda Shorts - he ended the day leading the 30,000 crowd in a rousing rendition of "Dixie". This is the stuff of which legends are made.

In those days the stars were Ralph Earnhardt, Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Ned Jarrett. Their sons and grandsons - and in Petty's case great-grandsons - are racing today.

The opening of Darlington was the start of the NASCAR revolution and just as Formula 1 found its Bernie Ecclestone so NASCAR had Bill France to lead it to prosperity.

They are making fortunes down there in NASCAR country these days, racing every weekend and filling the grandstands wherever they go. But while the series is on top in America it has achieved precious little penetration outside the United States although it is spreading with events at Pocono and Michigan being joined by relatively new races at Watkins Glen, New Hampshire and, of course, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Expansion west has brought in successful events in Sears Point, Phoenix, Las Vegas and at California Speedway.

For some years there have been hints of international expansion - there is an exhibition race at Twin Ring Motegi shortly - but there is nothing to worry F1 bosses at the moment.

There is, of course, no reason why NASCAR and Formula 1 cannot live side by side but there are signs that they will eventually come into conflict. In some countries if you want to buy the rights to Formula 1 you have to agree not to air NASCAR races. NASCAR is well aware that Formula 1 has designs on America and the fact that a couple of Grand Prix teams have been sniffing around NASCAR's biggest current star Jeff Gordon, suggests that the stock car boys are right to worry. He says he is not going to abandon NASCAR but at 27 he has won the title three times in four years and is saying that F1 is "neat" because "they travel all around the world". I have a feeling that Robbie Gordon is heading for F1 one day soon.

It will not be for the money but for the challenge. He's beaten the Good Old Boys and there is no young driver out there who does not have the ambition to try to be an international star.

The Formula 1 circus has been smart enough to realize that in order to get the attention of the fans in North America you have to have names they know. Ever since Mario Andretti quit Formula 1 the sport has lacked names in America. As long ago as 1983 - just after Mario quit Europe - Bernie Ecclestone offered Al Unser Jr. a ride with the Brabham team. F1 largely turned its back on America in the 1980s although rising star Scott Pruett did test for Larrousse in 1987 - remember that? - and in 1990 Michael Andretti turned down an offer to drive for Benetton. The following year he tested for McLaren and Unser Jr. appeared in a Williams.

Andretti Jr. finally came to F1 in 1993 and it was a disaster. It did not matter to the F1 bosses because if he had been successful it would have helped re-establish F1 in the United States and the fact that he failed was used to underline the belief that CART drivers are not as good as those in F1. The same year Nigel Mansell went to America and won the CART series which helped F1's case considerably.

F1's next move was to lure Jacques Villeneuve over in 1996. You can accuse Frank Williams of many things, but taking risks with drivers has never been his strong point. Bernie Ecclestone convinced him to give Villeneuve a test and the French-Canadian did the rest. It was a triumph for Bernie. The CART Champion had beaten the boys in Europe. Next year Villeneuve will be joined in F1 by another CART Champion Alex Zanardi and a betting man would put money on whoever wins the CART title in 1999 being in F1 in the year 2000. A F1 race with known "American" stars like Villeneuve and Zanardi will be a success.

I guess what I am trying to say is that before long F1 will be going to Le Mans in mid-June and that if Australia wants World Champions in the future bulldozing Bathurst - using government money - might be a good way to start...

(Joe Saward will be available to be shot at dawn in Melbourne in March next year.)

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