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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 Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

Ryan Newman
Roush Fenway Racing
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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

Atlanta Motor Speedway
Getty Images
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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.