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Kligerman: Formula E is an Instagram hit, but attending a race is an out-of-focus experience

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NEW YORK — On a rare Sunday off (after a few days in the pits covering one of the oldest and most popular racing series in the world), I decided to spend my day attending one of the world’s newest racing series, Formula E.

If you haven’t heard, it’s an all-electric Formula car series (think F1 with electric cars).

The race was being held in, as the CEO of the new series called it, “The Capital of the World” — New York. Specifically, a picturesque setting near a landing area for cruise ships in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. This fittingly positioned NYC’s famous Manhattan skyline as the backdrop for many pictures of the cars and track.

Formula E is car racing’s first disrupt-the-status-quo tech startup built on a Silicon Valley vibe, social media buzzwords and celebrity endorsements. Like the provincial tech companies of the West Coast, it was born because a couple of people believed there was an insatiable appetite for something that didn’t exist.

Mitch Evans (NZL), Spark-Jaguar, Jaguar I-Type on track in front of the New York skyline during the New York City ePrix. (Photo by Andrew Ferraro/LAT Images)

An eco-friendly, bring-it-to-the-people, electric-car test bed.

And car manufacturers the likes of BMW, Audi, Citroen, Renault, and Jaguar agreed and all joined.

The world’s tabloid hogs have joined, too, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson and (in attendance at the Brooklyn event) Michael Douglas, and Chris Hemsworth. The only thing missing amongst the Instagram-friendly metrics are what most racing series tout first — fans.

But before I go any further, full disclosure: I attempted to race in this series a couple years ago. It was 2014, and my NASCAR Cup team had folded. It seemed through a friend who was a CMO at an energy company that there might be a way to swing getting into a Formula E car.

It wasn’t to be as it was too new, too foreign, and we quickly got distracted by other opportunities. But ever since, I have kept a keen eye on its development.

Bring on NYC.

I was excited to view the upstart series up close. But after a little too much caffeine in the form of a coffee, a bigger coffee and then an energy drink to get home from New Hampshire. I wouldn’t rest my overly caffeinated body until 2:30 a.m. that day. It was a struggle to awake.

Awaiting me was a media credential. But it was to lay dormant as I decided to bring my girlfriend and conned my best friend into joining us. Mostly because he lives in Brooklyn, and this event has zero parking. The official travel guide tells you, “Not to bring a car.”

Certainly odd for a car race but understandable being in NYC. So I parked at my friend’s apartment, and we Ubered.

The Arrival

As we approached the ride-share dropoff zone, I oddly felt devoid of that half-euphoric, half-anxious feeling of attending a new racing series.

I turned to my friend and Blondie to say I remembered attending my first F1 race in Montreal at 14 years old and being able to hear the cars from 2 miles away. The city was overflowing with Formula One fever.

Antonio Felix da Costa (PRT) and Amlin Andretti, Spark-Andretti, ATEC-02 race during the New York City ePrix in Brooklyn. (Photo by Alastair Staley/LAT Images)

I’ll never forget walking up to the corner just before the hairpin at the Montreal circuit, as practice just had started and an F1 car approached. It sounded like a fire-breathing, human-slaying alien spacecraft was rapidly coming our way, and it was not going to be pleasant.

Suddenly, the sound was all around us in a flash of yellow, an ear-piercing scream and a loud BOOM! The Jordan F1 car of Timo Glock streaked past where I was standing. As he shifted gears, the sound and explosion hit me in the chest so hard, I could barely breathe.

It, to this day, is one of my favorite memories in life.

This event was not going to provide that.

Obviously one of the biggest departures from traditional motor racing is the cars don’t make a lot of sound. That’s part of what allows them to race in The Capital of The World. There are no issues with deafening sound reverberating through NYC’s already overflowing boroughs.

As we told our Uber driver to stop, a few Formula E signs were plastered on the walls around us. He asked, “What is this?” and my friend said, “It’s like a Formula One race.” The Uber driver replied, “Who knew? That is cool.” Not exactly a good sign for the promotion of the event.

Nonetheless, I felt good about being able to buy three tickets if our driver had no idea it was happening.

Except when we went inside, the ticket building was completely empty. We abruptly were told it was sold out and actually had been for months. Even though on Friday, Ticketmaster indicated (for $85, mind you), there were tickets available … odd.

G.H. Mumm champagne was served at the inaugural ePrix Race in Brooklyn. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for G.H. Mumm)

We were told we could have free general admission tickets and maybe could get in with them. And this was something I knew Formula E did in its first season as a way to get people to come. I’ve always thought this was brilliant.

From there we went into the stringent security lines, where I got my first glance at what I will refer to as “the clientele” and not “fans.”

Two young men in front of me were the embodiment of the clientele. Both almost identically dressed in expensive, perfectly pressed, white button-down shirts, light tan belts and navy blue linen chinos.

I must have missed the memo.

One wearing Oliver Peoples glasses (if you ever go to an Oliver Peoples store, they will remind you President Obama wears their glasses) turned to the other as they were going through the security scanner. He remarked, “This certainly isn’t like Monaco,” and his friend nodded. Aside from wanting to punch him square in the face, I knew I was in for an experience only the Europeans can provide.

Fans enjoy a champagne toast during the inaugural ePrix Race in Brooklyn. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for G.H. Mumm)

I call it, “European Exclusionary Events,” where they invite you to spend money to feel superior to the others around you. Hence our free ticket allowed us in, but Mr. Oliver Peoples took a very visible red carpet-lined hard left into the E-Motion club, and we were forced down a route past a port-a-potty.

The Europeans love this sort of thing, because it makes an event feel exclusive – as if you have done something to deserve the first-class version of race attendance.

But Americans do not. Sure we have courtside seats in basketball, but the guy who got a ticket from his company raffle can be sitting right behind Kim Kardashian. American events are put on to make everyone feel inclusive. Formula E missed that memo.

But I digress.

As we entered the general admission area known as “E-Village,” it was not overflowing but definitely not sparse. Scattered throughout were a few informational and promotional booths from car manufacturers and racing simulators. Par for the course at a race.

And here I bumped into a friend who lives in Brooklyn. He knew nothing about racing but had brought his wife and twin babies in a stroller. It was free and a block from their place, and the electric racing ensured their babies would be OK with the sound.

It definitely wasn’t something that would happen at a NASCAR race. I thought that was very cool.

The Race

The schedule listed a 1 p.m. start, and as 1 p.m. came, everyone in the E-Village excitedly was listening for a signal or sign that the race had started. And then suddenly at 1:05 a group of cars rounded the hairpin adjacent to the E-Village. There was no warning (not even a race announcer) and the only reason you knew was the chirping of the tires and smashing of bodywork.

Surely, they must have forgotten to turn up the race announcer. But as the laps continued, it became clear they had not put any speakers in the E-Village area. So here we were with what seemed a couple thousand people desperately wondering what the hell was going on.

The start of the New York City ePrix in Brooklyn. (Photo by Steven Tee/LAT Images)

This was incredibly perplexing because the whole selling point as an attendee of Formula E was that it was quiet enough to foster conversation. And to be able to hear the announcers so well they even could play team radios over the loudspeakers, so you could be immersed in the race.

Guess it didn’t apply to the free tickets and the people the series desperately should be trying to impress.

I became Formula E’s best friend as I informed people left and right about the rules and who was leading the damn race. At the other end of the E-Village was a nice lounge area with a big screen TV sponsored by VISA but with no volume. So once again, I was the on-the-ground Formula E informant, letting people know why they were pitting and what the energy percentage meant.

But the best part occurred as the race came to a close, as you only knew it was over because of the fans in the frontstretch grandstand that rose to give the winner a standing ovation. As the cars made their cooldown lap, a fan turned to me and said, “I think this is when they go pit and change cars.” To which I replied, “Uhh, no. It’s over. That was the winner.”

But then as the cars continued to trickle through the corner on the cooldown lap, another person asked, “Why are they going so slow?!?”

Winner Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing, Spark-Citroen, Virgin DSV-02, celebrates on the podium with Felix Rosenqvist (SWE), Mahindra Racing, Spark-Mahindra, Mahindra M3ELECTRO, and Nick Heidfeld (GER), Mahindra Racing, Spark-Mahindra, Mahindra M3ELECTRO after the New York City ePrix. (Photo by Sam Bloxham/LAT Images)

It was clear with no info whatsoever, these attendees might be there until Tuesday wondering what happened to the race.

Why was it like this?

I stood at one of the exit gates to survey the crowd as the attendees and clientele left the grandstands. I begged the event for a redeeming quality, something to make me want to come back, but to no avail.

It suddenly became clear as I looked at photos of the massive but mostly unfilled E-motion VIP club for Instagram “influencers” — celebrities, media, and marketing chiefs.

Was it that this event was not for you or me? That the series wasn’t aiming to impress a race fan such as myself? (A race fan who loved this form of racing so much, I responded “open wheel cars with little to no downforce and 1000 horsepower engines on city street tracks” when asked 10 years ago what my perfect race series would be.)

Everyone attending with me began to refuse to call it a race event and started using words such as “promotional display” and “a massive advertisement.”

It became clear that Formula E is for the sponsors, the car manufacturers and the series to have media outlets talking about how they have a presence in the future of the world.

So the CMOs, marketing managers and executives in linens and sports coats can walk into boardrooms with PowerPoint slides of their logos being called “eco-friendly” in the media. And use social media buzzwords such impressions, engagement and KPI (key performance indicator) while showing their logos with Instagram “influencers” drinking champagne and being eco-friendly.

Formula E is an event that has a purpose but to entertain you would be a stretch. It’s much like in school when the teacher tells you you’re watching a movie, and it turns out to be an instructional video. It’s a relief you’re watching a movie, but you still need to learn.

This is Formula E.

You’re provided a race and a damn good one at that. But it’s clear, the truth is it’s for show and not the kind that entertains.

Ryan: Now and Zen, NASCAR stars need to stay focused on the positives

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Hey, you don’t have a confirmed Cup ride for next season?

I know. Isn’t it great?

Uhh, but what about the precipitous decline of a steady seven-figure annual income?

Couldn’t be happier!

OK, but this is the end of your professional life as you’ve known it for at least a decade, right?

Well, I’m thinking of taking up croquet.

Zen, baby.

If you’re a veteran facing an uncertain future in stock-car racing, it’s become the mantra of an unsettling 2017 season.

Danica Patrick used the word to describe her state of mind in a recent story about her contract being up, and she has been preaching it well through social media postings (and on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast).

We heard echoes again after Matt Kenseth’s fourth-place finish Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver missed a chance to capture a playoff berth while also failing to outduel the upstart (Erik Jones) who will take his job next season.

Yet Kenseth, the stoic champion whose deadpan wit sorely will be missed if his 18th season on NASCAR’s premier circuit also is his last, was in a lighthearted mood afterward, joking with reporters and poking fun at Jones in a side-by-side news conference that was amusing instead of awkward.

Kenseth seemed to be in a state of … Zen.

“I don’t really have anything to be unhappy about,” he said. “Knock on wood, because things can turn on dime. But my life couldn’t be much better. I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. There’s more to life than racing.

“I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.”

It dovetailed with the feelings Kenseth had expressed when asked about the future a day earlier (“I’m not worried about it even really 1 percent, to be honest”) and mirrored the sanguine sentiments of peers who are facing similarly indeterminate outlooks.

Whether it’s Patrick, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch, several familiar names with disparate backgrounds and personalities have at least two things in common: 1) the lack of a contract for 2018; and 2) a sunny disposition about what is next despite the absence of certitude.

It’s made some media center interviews this year seem as if they are missing only a comfortable couch and the soothing voice of a therapist helping drivers manage the cognitive dissonance of being unwanted by a major Cup team but encouraged by the liberation of free agency.

Aside from underscoring the importance of good mental health, the calm acceptance in the face of the great unknown represent the best (and perhaps only) option for reckoning with the possible career finality.

It’s easy to poke fun at the positive attitudes, but it also is the best outward stance for the hope of remaining gainfully employed in Cup. Kenseth, Patrick, Kahne and Busch have weathered enough as public figures to know the importance of public relations.

Also, things aren’t so bad anyway for those on the cusp of potentially needing work.

Patrick has launched a successful athletic leisure clothing line and released the first Cabernet Sauvignon from her new vineyard and has her first book scheduled for a January release.

Busch is tweeting photos from a happy marriage. Kahne constantly is doting on his 22-month-old son, Tanner. Kenseth is cycling a few hundred miles monthly to peak physical condition (and has three young daughters at home who seem the apple of his eye).

So, life is good regardless of the racing?

Yes. Either way, it’s just about going in circles while trying to keep a smile.

XXX

Though Logan Lucky missed box office expectations for its opening weekend, the Steven Soderbergh vehicle still put NASCAR in the middle of national movie reviews (most of which were overwhelmingly positive) – and without the stigma of being spoofed or worse in past presentations on celluloid.

“NASCAR was really critical to the movie,” Soderbergh, the director of Ocean’s 11, told the audience at the Charlotte premiere a few weeks ago. “We were wanting to do for the Coca-Cola 600 and NASCAR what we did in the first Ocean’s movie for the Bellagio. We wanted to make this seem like this was an event that you would attend and was fun, and I hope we accomplished that.”

Though there were a few fanciful elements (the proximity of West Virginia to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the wacky car owner subplot), Logan Lucky presented a narrow but attractive view of stock-car racing. Talladega Nights is a frequent target for its incessant lampooning, but NASCAR also wasn’t done many favors by the cartoon campiness of Days of Thunder or (the long-forgotten) Steel Chariots.

“I think we’ve learned from maybe our mistakes with other movies and how a nonfan perception of our sport could change from a movie to what we really are,” said Joey Logano, who has a cameo in Logan Lucky. “Talladega Nights is maybe the worst presentation or representative of what we are. I think we’ve learned a lot from that.

“I think Cars is one of the best things that has ever happened to our sport. It’s for kids to watch and really a lot of it makes sense. I just watched Cars 3 the other night and it’s like whoa, this really lines up with a lot of things that go on in our sport. That’s important when we select the movies we’re in; we don’t want to just be in any of them, you have to be aware of the brand of the sport when making these decisions.”

XXX

Last Saturday’s race was the best blend of the old and new at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has taken its lumps since a 2007 reconfiguration of the banking erased the bump and run and a 2012 makeover eliminated the bottom lane.

With the application of traction compound to the bottom lane that essentially lasted for 500 laps (after many predicted it would be gone within 100), the 0.533-mile oval featured the right amount of variation for frequent battles for the lead. While it didn’t have as many of the memorable clashes and contact that have defined vintage races at Bristol, it satisfied Kyle Larson, who was a vocal detractor in March when the track initially attempted to work in a lower line.

“I thought it was awesome,” Larson said Monday at a news conference to announce a new sponsorship. “I really liked how the lane changed a lot, not only throughout the race but throughout the run. It seemed like you could run the middle a couple of laps, get to the bottom, then 25 laps in the run, you could go where you wanted. It seemed like the top would be better a little bit, then you’d get back to the bottom. Then it changed. Each run was a little different. I think the racing is always good, but especially this time, it seemed really fun.”

XXX

Though his winning car at Michigan passed scrutiny at the NASCAR R&D Center, Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet needed four trips through inspection before qualifying at Bristol. After a two-race stretch of multiple run-ins with officials last month, Larson’s team recently had been out of the crosshairs, and car owner Chip Ganassi said Bristol was “a little bit of an anomaly” in its quest to push the limits of the rules without breaking them.

“It’s obviously been a challenge,” Ganassi said Monday. “I think we’ve shown NASCAR that it’s important we communicate with them and they communicate with us on a clear basis about what they want done, and we’re happy to do that.

“We’re working hard. Nobody wants anybody to break rules. We’re not known for that, OK? But any championship team or contender, they know you have to run right up to the edge of the rules. Anybody in racing knows that’s important to be competitive is to run up to the edge of the rules. Don’t go over the line but go up to the edge of the line. I’d hope they respect us for that, and I’m sure they do. And we have to respect what they do as well.”

XXX

It was hard to find flaws in Kyle Busch’s tripleheader sweep, but there were a few, and all were in the pits.

In the Xfinity and Truck series, it was about Busch going too fast, but more troubling was his crew being too slow on Saturday. At least twice, slower pit stops cost Busch the lead, and crew chief Adam Stevens said it wasn’t because of the No. 18 Toyota.

“We just missed a little something,” Stevens said. “One time we had an issue on the front, one time on the back.  I feel like we’re about half a step off there and we’re going to have to clean that up heading into the (playoffs) for sure.”

XXX

With NASCAR considering a way to police the manner in which the order of double-file restarts is determined, it’s raised discussion of the “cone rule” that is in place at many short tracks.

Under the procedure, drivers are allowed to choose the inside or outside lane on restarts, incentivizing the need to gain spots during yellow-flag pit stops (instead of decelerating to gain an even or odd position). A variation, known as “the choose rule,” actually was implemented more than a decade ago in the Summer Shootout series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It seems a simple fix, but something also rings hollow about applying a minor-league codicil to a major-league entity.

Hong Kong group to sponsor Richard Childress Racing Xfinity car at Darlington

Photo courtesy Richard Childress Racing
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Richard Childress Racing on Wednesday announced a new one-race sponsorship for the Sept. 2 Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200 Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

The unique sponsorship is with KCMG, a motorsports group based in Hong Kong, China. KCMG was established in 2007 and has become a major force in development of professional racing across the Asian Pacific region.

It is also currently expanding operations to Europe.

Brandon Jones will drive the No. 33 KCMG Chevrolet in the race.

Both RCR and KCMG are looking at a potential future full-time sponsorship in NASCAR, as well as develop additional racing opportunities in the Asia Pacific region.

“The opportunity arose to partner with Richard Childress Racing, one of the premier stock car racing teams, and we felt that a partnership for a Xfinity Series race would be the next best step in exploring opportunities in NASCAR,” KCMG founder Dr. Paul Ip said in a media release.

KCMG entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013 and claimed the LMP2 win in the French Endurance race in 2015.

One Cup crew chief, two others in Trucks, fined for Bristol penalties

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued three penalties from the past weekend of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was found to be in violation of Sections 10.9 and 10.4 of the NASCAR Rule Book: Tires and wheels (lug nuts not properly installed).

As a result, crew chief Scott Graves has been fined $10,000.

In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the No. 51 and No. 83 Trucks were also found to be in violation of Sections 10.9 and 10.4 (lug nuts not properly installed).

As a result, Kevin Manion, crew chief of the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, and Richard Mason, crew chief of the No. 83 DJ Copp Motorsports Chevrolet, were each fined $2,500.

All penalties were issued for safety level violations.

There were no penalties in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. There also were no suspensions or other penalties across all three series.

JR Motorsports mourns team member Adam Wright, killed in car crash

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JR Motorsports is mourning the passing of team member Adam Wright, who died Sunday night in a one-car crash near Statesville, North Carolina.

Wright, 33, was traveling on Flower House Loop around 10:50 p.m. Sunday “when he ran off the road twice and his vehicle became airborne,” according to Statesville.com, per North Carolina State Patrol Trooper J. S. Swagger.

Swagger added that Wright, who worked as a mechanic on Michael Annett’s JRM Xfinity Series team, was not wearing a seatbelt and was partially ejected from the wrecked vehicle.

Wright was pronounced dead at the scene. Troopers are still investigating the crash.

Wright is being remembered on social media by many in the NASCAR community: