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Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for Le Mans (and it isn’t Tony Stewart . . . yet)

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three-time champion, who retired from NASCAR’s premier series last year, still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new co-driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplane and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelievable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller last year.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Thursday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said an announcement of Bourdais’ replacement will be likely Thursday or Friday.

Tony Stewart pulled over by state trooper, but it’s not for speeding

Photo courtesy Damein Cunningham Twitter account
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Retired NASCAR Cup driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart was stopped by an Illinois State Trooper over the weekend near DeKalb, Ill., about 90 minutes west of Chicago.

But before you think Stewart was stopped for speeding by Trooper Damein Cunningham, he wasn’t.

Rather, Cunningham pulled Stewart over for improper lane usage, although exactly what the infraction was is unclear.

After getting a verbal warning, Stewart gladly posed with Cunningham for a selfie, which the trooper promptly tweeted out.

“Just pulled over NASCAR LEGEND Tony Stewart on I-88 in DeKalb, IL, what you think I got him for? #NASCAR #ISP”

But according to the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham’s bosses apparently didn’t have a sense of humor about the incident or realize the good PR it meant for the Illinois State Police.

That, or they’re not Stewart or NASCAR fans. They ordered Cunningham to delete the tweet, which he did.

It’s unclear what Stewart, who was stopped on his 46th birthday, was doing in the Land of Lincoln.

But his luck went from bad to worse a few hours later. According to USA Today, Stewart and others were stuck in an elevator in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel for about 20 minutes before being rescued by firefighters.

We can just imagine what the elevator riders talked about while trapped.

How much do you want to bet Stewart said, “Man, do I have a story about a cop that I have to tell you.”

Cunningham then posted another tweet on Sunday after attending church services.

 

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You’re No. 1! A brief oral history of obscene gestures in NASCAR

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While there is plenty to debate on what is NASCAR’s most famous number, whether it is the No. 3, No. 43 or some other, there’s no doubt what the sport’s most famous digit is.

The middle digit.

You know, the middle finger.

Unlike other sports where athletes are exposed to fans and cameras throughout an event, NASCAR drivers are hidden from view when they compete, often giving them the chance to express their feelings toward a competitor.

Sure, you’ve heard them cuss on the radio about a driver, but sometimes the message needs to be seen by a competitor immediately. So they stick their hand out the window and raise the middle finger at a person who wronged them.

“If you’re really mad and you want them to know it, that’s when you tell them they’re No. 1,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said.

Middle finger No. 1 that is.

A tradition passed down from generations, drivers aren’t shy in sharing their feelings. Champions, occasional winners and those who have yet to do so have practiced the art of the finger flip. Some, such as Aric Almirola, learned from masters — Tony Stewart.

“I can’t remember what race it was, but at one point … I think we rubbed a little bit and he shot me the bird,’’ Almirola said of Stewart. “And I was like, ‘Man that was odd, we were just racing.’ Later on in the race, I got back by him and just for the fun of it, I returned the one-finger salute.

“After the race, he made it known to me that the reason he was giving me the one-finger salute early on in the race was because it was early on in the race. I was a rookie in the sport. (Stewart said) that early in the race there’s no reason to race that hard. Just let me go, and later on if you’re faster than me, I’ll return the favor and let you go. So, I learned a valuable lesson that day, but it all stemmed from the one-finger salute.”

Stewart isn’t the only driver to deliver a message. Brad Keselowski did so to future teammate Joey Logano during Xfinity practice at Dover in 2008. It was Logano’s first time in the series after having just turned 18 years old and being eligible to compete.

“I’m going out to drive this thing for the first time,’’ Logano said. “It was probably two or three minutes since practice started. Brad is out there, and he’s making a couple of laps.

“It was my fault. I deserved to get the finger. I pulled up on the race track right in front of him, and he had to like slow down and go around me, and I screwed up his lap.

“He flipped me off down the back straightaway. I was still in third gear. This is my Xfinity debut, first time on the race track in practice, and I got flipped off before I got to fourth gear. Now look at us. Now we get along great. I apologized. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing.’’

How memorable was that moment for Keselowski?

“That was 10 years ago, and we’re still talking about it,’’ he said.

Some drivers have sought to make sure their message was understood and excelled driving with one hand while hanging their left hand out the window giving the bird.

Ty Dillon recalls such an experience with Kyle Busch a couple of years ago.

“I was running third or something,’’ Dillon said of the Xfinity race. “He had to come back through the field, and I was like racing him hard because I wanted my spot, I wanted to stay third.

“I think he hit me a couple of times and he went by me and for a whole lap, he gave me the bird all the way around the track. I am driving as hard as I can, and I can’t run him down. He’s got the bird out the window with one hand, running away from me and … it was one of those moments like, ‘OK I get it, I get it.’ ’’ 

Trevor Bayne almost got it when former driver Brian Scott delivered his salute in Bayne’s car after a race.

“Brian flipped me off and so after the race, I’m jacking him up, and he comes over and puts it in the car,’’ Bayne said of Scott’s salute. “I said, ‘If you flip me off one more time, I’ll break your finger off.’

“He put it in the car, and I grabbed it, and I started pulling on it. Like a bunch of high schoolers. I think somebody pulled him out. It was really silly, but that’s probably the most memorable, but I’ve been on the receiving end a lot. Sometimes deservingly so.’’

Kurt Busch notes that he received the bird from Dale Earnhardt Sr. in what was Earnhardt’s last race, the 2001 Daytona 500.

“I got one right away in my career as a rookie in Daytona,’’ Kurt Busch said. “This guy driving this black (No.) 3 car came cruising up the middle, and I was like, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ because he was definitely communicating to me that I was his hero for that moment.’’

That’s one area that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not like his father. At least now.

“I did it a lot when I was younger,’’ he said of displaying the bird. “After a while, it really ticks you off when someone does it to you, especially somebody young, so I think I realized over a period of time it’s best not to do that.

“Not just worrying about getting caught on TV or anything like that. I guess when it happens to you, it’s hard to control yourself, you get really upset and do something really stupid. I don’t want anybody to do something really stupid if I’m flipping them off. I try to communicate in different ways.’’

Earnhardt is correct. Flipping the bird can have consequences for the person who delivers the message.

“I’ve seen guys chase each other around the racetrack lap after lap trying to wreck each other,’’ Truex said. “I’ve seen somebody let somebody go past them so they could try to wreck them.’’

Not all middle fingers are seen by the person for whom they’re intended.

“When I try to flip people off, my arms aren’t very long so I only get half a finger out,’’ AJ Allmendinger joked. “So I don’t think anybody’s ever seen me flip them off.’’

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Talladega is Sweet Home Alabama for track chairman Grant Lynch

All photos courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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Grant Lynch has served as chairman of Talladega Superspeedway since 1994, the third-longest tenured track operator in NASCAR.

Yet in all that time, he has never found his way to victory lane after a race.

“I don’t have to be the guy that gives out accolades,” Lynch said. “I’m comfortable not being there, and I have other people that know how to do that.

“Also, I want the teams to spend time with the sponsors in Victory Lane because they’re the ones that pay a lot of money to put on these races. It’s just something I do.”

While winning drivers and teams are celebrating, Lynch is usually found directing operations to get race fans on their way out of the track as quickly as possible.

“Bill France Jr. once told me, ‘It’s your job to get these people out of here so they’ll come back.’ I believe Bill France Jr.,” Lynch said.

It’s one of many valuable lessons Lynch learned from France, his former boss. With France’s mentoring and leadership, Lynch has turned Talladega into a must-see track on any race fan’s bucket list.

NASCAR RETURNS TO ‘DEGA THIS WEEKEND

For the 47th time in his tenure, Lynch throws open the gates and doors to his second home, welcoming tens of thousands of fans to this weekend’s racing action for the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series.

During his time as head of Talladega, Lynch has elevated the fan experience with enhancements such as unlimited free camping, alcohol-free campgrounds (even though Talladega is still known for its parties) and Sunday morning church services.

Lynch is the third-longest serving track operator in NASCAR behind Martinsville Speedway’s Clay Campbell (assumed his role in 1988) and Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Ed Clark (1992) – who are also among his best friends.

But Lynch is more than just a track operator. For several years, he split that role with a role as a high-level operative for parent company International Speedway Corporation, which included overseeing the development of both Kansas and Chicagoland speedways.

He also flew to Washington State 70 times within a two-year period to seek legislative support to build a new racetrack in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’m not known for doing that because y’all see me two times a year at the races,” Lynch said. “Most people assume I’ve been here all the time, but I haven’t been here as long as people would think.”

IT ALL BEGAN BY DRIVING A SHOW CAR

Lynch has had a long career in motorsports. He began as a show car driver for RJ Reynolds, rising to that company’s Senior Manager of Operations and Public Relations during its tenure as NASCAR’s primary sponsor, before moving to Talladega in 1993 as general manager.

He learned his duties at the track from – and succeeded – a most familiar name in the sport: NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton, who was Talladega Superspeedway’s president before handing the reins to Lynch.

“Mike brought me into the fold very quickly and said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’m going to run May (1993), and you follow me around. And then you’re going to run July (1993) and I’ll see how you do. And if you do good, then I’ll plan to get out of your way.’

“He mentored me and showed me what to do and then he got out of my way. Once I took over, the sport was just blowing up and we grabbed a hold of it, rode it as hard as anybody did and built the place to what we built it to.”

A NEW ERA FOR NASCAR — AND TALLADEGA

Like pretty much every other NASCAR track today, Talladega has gone through an evolution due to the downturn in the economy, less demand for tickets and fewer fans attending races.

Lynch remains optimistic that things are turning around for both his track and the sport.

“Of course, we’re in a little downturn now and now we’re refining it,” he said. “We’re taking the seats that used to be uncomfortable, the little 18-inch chair back seats – I know I can’t fit into an 18-inch seat – and now they’re 22 inches wide in the towers and 21 inches wide elsewhere.

“We’ve spent money wisely here and continue to do things for the fans to tell them we don’t just want you here for the races, we want you here for the concerts, for the Big One on the Boulevard party, and we want you to have a good time.”

Even though he’s been at Talladega for nearly a quarter century, Lynch credits his development as an administrator to the late Bill France Jr. and ISC chairwoman Lesa France Kennedy, who both hired him.

Lynch with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who still holds the NASCAR speed record, set at Talladega nearly 30 years ago.

At the time, ISC only owned only Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and half of Watkins Glen. Since then, with Lynch at the helm of much of its development, ISC has grown to own 12 tracks from Watkins Glen in New York to Auto Club Speedway in California.

“To have had the attention that I got from Bill France Jr. when I was learning how to run this place, it’s hard for people to understand in the fast-paced environment we have today, how many phone calls I got from Bill saying ‘What are you doing about so-and-so?’” Lynch said. “I became a much better track operator because of the attention Bill and Lesa gave me as I was coming up.”

ALABAMA HAS BEEN A GREAT HOME

Even though he grew up in North Carolina, it’s been Sweet Home Alabama for Lynch and his family for nearly 25 years.

“It’s a place I love,” he said. “The state of Alabama, when we moved here, I’m a big outdoorsman, and it offers so much in natural resources throughout the state to experience. Plus, my girls went through school here, then both went to college at Auburn and both are now in Birmingham, so that anchors us down to the area as well. It’s our home.”

Lynch is active in the community, serving on a various board of directors, and is involved in a number of charitable endeavors, including the Alabama Institute for the Blind and Deaf.

Sitting on a site of more than 400 acres, Talladega’s overall footprint is larger than that of sister track in Daytona. Its infield is so large that some have joked you could fit a small third-world country in it.

Or, as Lynch likes to say – especially since he’s deep in football country: “We can put every SEC football stadium inside Talladega … it’ll hold all 14 stadiums. Now that’s big!”

Lynch and Kurt Busch in 2010

But like Dale Earnhardt Jr.Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the checkered flag is slowly coming into view as Lynch eyes his own eventual retirement.

“I’m in my early 60s and I don’t want to work forever, but at the same time, people are living a lot longer,” he said. “I plan on working some more years. We’re obviously going to be going through something with Dale Jr. retiring, which is another challenge we’ll face going forward as a speedway, and I’d hate to just bail on something like that coming down the pike.

“I want to continue to work. I don’t know if I want to work 10 more years, but I’m probably going to work more than one or two and then see when it’s time for me to leave.

“At some point, everybody is going to ride off into the sunset and I hope to be smart about making that decision and stay long enough that I don’t want to be un-useful or wear out my welcome, either.”

WHAT WILL NASCAR AND TALLADEGA DO WITHOUT DALE JR?

This will be a rather unique weekend at ‘Dega, as it will be Earnhardt’s next-to-last scheduled race at his most successful racetrack (six wins). While Lynch admits he’ll miss Junior after he retires from racing, he’s bullish on NASCAR’s next generation.

“The greatest thing we have going for us is the names we have coming up right now and how good these young people are,” Lynch said. “You see what an Erik Jones and Chase Elliott and others are doing right now.

“The teams are very strong right now, the finances are working for everybody right now, the sport is strong, we’re not what we were but we’re still very important in the motorsports world in the United States without a doubt. I think we’re going to have a time where we’re going to find some new fans that are going to attach to some new drivers and go on.

“I’m positive on the fact that we don’t need to quit what we’re doing here at Talladega because it’s generating good interest with the race fans, we’re beating most of our peers in a lot of the things we sell, and I think we have a bright future here just because of what we can do here that other people can’t.”

Come Saturday and Sunday, Lynch won’t be in victory lane once again. But that’s the way he likes it. It’s not about him, it’s about the drivers and the fans – and that’s the way he wants it to continue.

“I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve gotten to do,” he said. “I don’t know what I would trade it for. I’ve gotten to see a lot of places and go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people and worked with a lot of great people at the track and have been involved with some of the greatest fans in the world, so that’s a pretty blessed life.”

TALLADEGA — HOME OF SPEED AND RECORDS

Talladega Superspeedway has seen a number of NASCAR records set there, most during Grant Lynch’s tenure.

Here’s some of ‘Dega’s most notable racing achievements:

* All-Time qualifying speed record: 212.809 mph – Bill Elliott (1987).

* Elliott also holds the record for most poles at TSS (8).

* All-Time race speed record at TSS: 188.354 mph – Mark Martin (1997, which was also the first caution-free race ever contested there).

* Closest NASCAR Cup series finish: 2011 – Jimmie Johnson over Clint Bowyer (.002 seconds).

* Closest NASCAR Xfinity Series finish: .1999 – Terry Labonte over Joe Nemechek (.002 seconds)

* Closest NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finish: 2010 – Kyle Busch over Aric Almirola (.002 seconds)

* Most lead changes in a NASCAR Cup race: 88 – April 25, 2010 and April 17, 2011

* Most Leaders in a single NASCAR Cup race at TSS: 29 – April 25, 2010

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NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 76: Brian Keselowski on Brad’s (awkward) meeting with Tony Stewart

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Brian Keselowski was the guest on the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his journeyman racing career as driver and mechanic.

Keselowski, who recently opened his own business to help Xfinity, ARCA and other racing teams with preparing their cars, is the older brother of 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who helped push Brian into the field of the 2011 Daytona 500.

Brian and Brad Keselowski began racing a go-kart together on a makeshift dirt track (really a field) across from their father’s race shop. They both raced Late Models and other cars around the Midwest, and Brian recalled a humorous story about Brad’s first encounter with Tony Stewart on Berlin Speedway near Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“(Brad) was there for a big show, and Tony was there as the big NASCAR driver,” Brian said on the podcast. “Brad had to make the field through a qualifying race. The top 12 transfer in, and he’s running 13th.

“Tony took the lead at the same time Brad was going to (get lapped), and they got together, and Tony spun out, Brad didn’t. Tony got so mad, he parked the car, and it just so happened that Brad was on the lead lap, so Brad got into the race because Tony spun out. It was interesting that was his first experience with Tony Stewart.”

Did it underscore that Brad Keselowski always had a penchant for challenging the establishment?

“Well, that wasn’t even on purpose,” Brian said with a laugh. “But yeah, it kind of looked that way, didn’t it?

“It’s funny. Brad’s always been looked at different at the track. He’s always looked younger than he is, so when he started as a 16-year-old in factory stocks, those guys didn’t like him then, either. He won eight to nine times that year, and they didn’t like getting beat by this little kid coming in and whipping up on them.”

Among other topics discussed on the podcast:

–The origins of the Keselowski family’s race teams and why being based outside North Carolina had its advantages.

–How Brian Keselowski won his first race as a jack man (making his debut in a Camping World Truck Series race at Bakersfield as a teenager).

–Why there was a “Keselowski for President 2016” car.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.