“Ain’t nothin’ stock about a Stock Car’

This Sunday, after the drama of the Le Mans 24 Hours had left us in a stupor, the S&G snug went in to full recovery mode by diving in to an evening of entertainment from the gentlemen and lady of NASCAR.

It is widely regarded as a perversion to harbour any enthusiasm for American stock cars on this side of the Pond… but if that is the case then we are serial offenders. For this particular scribe, the journey towards fandom was completed within the space of an hour – this being the highlights of the 2004 Winn Dixie 250 from Daytona.

After a stonking race, the last lap began with any one of top 14 cars looking like a potential winner. After his team-mate spun out, and accompanied by a primal roar from the stands, the number 81 KFC-sponsored Chevrolet of America’s sweetheart, Dale Earnhardt Jr, came thumping around the top of the banking seemingly intent on taking the win.

This seemed to annoy the 00 Chevrolet of Jason Leffler, who simply moved up and put Junior in the wall close to where his seven-time Winston Cup champion father had been killed three years earlier. As a result of Leffler’s antics, it was perennial hard luck story Mike Wallace who came through to take an emotional win. Meanwhile, Dale Jr was interviewed at the scene of the crime where he reflected: ‘Did you ever get so mad you didn’t care if you won the fight or not?’

The meat of the racing footage can be found here:

Ever since that night, NASCAR has been a passion at the S&G – and one that has brought rich rewards. In an era when sports stars are coached out of any possible personality trait, NASCAR has thrived upon rivalries between drivers, teams and officials that promotes a deluge of incidents and a whole notebook full of quotes at every single race.

Even the fans have a gift for one-liners that many comedians would kill for. Recently Dale Jr’s team decided to make a last gasp tyre change which resulted in yet another disastrous tail-end result. Whoever made the call, one fan said, was ‘like a hog looking at a wristwatch’.

Then there’s the imposing figure of recently-retired triple champion Tony Stewart, who is never at a loss for words… some of them printable and all of them coated with a unique mix of wisdom, enthusiasm and battery acid. Unsurprisingly, Stewart is one of the few veterans yet to be offered a big paycheque for critiquing the races from the commentary booth.

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Tony Stewart spent nearly 20 years lambasting NASCAR, the press, his rivals, his friends… and won an army of fans for his trouble.

This week sees the 68th anniversary of the first ever NASCAR Stock Car race. The venue was the now-defunct dirt track of Charlotte Speedway, and it saw the debut of an idea dreamed up by NASCAR chairman Bill France to make the cars that raced under his banner truly representative of the cars you could buy in your local showroom.

Many of the drivers drove to the track in the cars that they intended to race. Other hotshoes turned up in the hope of wrangling a ride. Everyone was curious to see how it was all going to play out – and the result was a sensation.

One of the drivers who had arrived with helmet in hand and looking for a ride was Glenn Dunnaway, who ended up driving a Lincoln owned by a gentleman called Hubert Westmoreland. Dunaway crossed the line first and was all set to take away all the glory when it became clear that Westmoreland’s car wasn’t all that stock – having been fitted with stiffer springs for the purpose of running moonshine.

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This Lincoln was NASCAR’s first winner – and the first car found to be outside the rules.

Arguably this was the birth of that great tradition of ‘cheatin’ up’ a stock car to get the best results possible: an art for which the greatest exponents are celebrated as long and loud as any of the drivers. King of the hill in this respect is Smokey Yunick, whose black and gold cars showed a clean pair of heels to the opposition in the Sixties and early Seventies – whenever they got passed by the scrutineers, anyway.

One of Yunick’s signature moves was to build an oversize fuel tank and place a basketball in it. With the basketball inflated for inspection, the tank held the maximum permitted amount of fuel. With the basketball deflated it could carry an extra lap’s-worth.

Once, NASCAR officials pulled the fuel tank out completely during an inspection that ended up with a total of nine infringements. Yunick got in and started the car (still with no tank in it) and said: ‘Better make it ten.’ Then he cheerfully drove it back to the pits. For a detailed look at one of Yunick’s greatest cars, go here at Dailysportscar.

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Touring car racing in Europe is a direct descendent of NASCAR

Stock car racing is often depicted as a hayseed sport from the Deep South, but it inspired a similar movement in Europe: touring cars. Although the images of Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss in their Jaguars may seem far removed from contemporary NASCAR, as do today’s F3 cars with roofs, many of the NASCAR cheats have made their way across the water as well – including Smokey Yunick’s basketball and a hatchback whose loose rear windscreen acted as an early form of DRS.

More than anything, it’s the cheating that shaped NASCAR. From the ‘stock’ races of 1948-66 through two separate eras when space frame chassis were mated to stock body panels between 1967 and 1991, there was a world of invention in the workshops matched to the heroics at the wheel.

This era peaked when the movie Days of Thunder was produced by the dynamic duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who had previously brought the world Top Gun. It’s from this film – quite simply the best motor racing movie of all time – that the title of this piece is taken, which the film’s Yunick-inspired car builder Harry Hogge (played by Robert Duvall), growls at the Californian hot-shot (Tom Cruise, of course) who thinks he can walk it in Stock Cars.

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Days of Thunder saw Duvall and Cruise bring NASCAR to the masses

Days of Thunder is not high art. Nor does it have the authentic petrolhead credentials of Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix or McQueen’s Le Mans. There are no iconic tee-shirts or posters to be found, but as a piece of raw entertainment it’s from another galaxy to any other racing movie.

In real life, Days of Thunder coincided with the official abandonment of original factory-built body parts. The teams had long-since done so anyway, and the era of bullet-shaped ‘aero cars’ came to the fore from 1992 onwards.

These cars were the equivalent of Group B in rallying and the ‘gizmo’ Formula 1 cars of the early 1990s. The racing was sensational (such as the Winn Dixie 250 above), and it was only after years of soul-searching that followed the deaths of drivers such as Kenny Irwin Jr, Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt, that the safety-conscious Cars of Tomorrow appeared in 2006.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, while no effort had been spared for safety, the new cars looked awful. What’s more, the show was worse still and the fans voted with their feet. Those fans are yet to return completely, although the CoT was given its marching orders in 2013 and the current sixth generation cars have successfully combined much of the look and race-ability of the ‘aero cars’ with the best modern safety features available.

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The Generation 6 NASCAR has got the series’ mojo back

All of that rich history stemmed from a low-key race on a three-quarter mile dirt track on 19 June 1949. The endlessly quotable, rambunctious and downright spectacular world of NASCAR has gone on to create a bucket load of heroes – and anti-heroes – for millions around the world. At the S&G, it’s the best way to start a new week for 39 weeks of the year.

Quality versus clamour: why Le Mans and Indy remain as giants

Last week, The Guardian newspaper ran an interesting bit of speculation – a week-long series entitled ‘Sport 2.0’ based upon the premise that, across the board, major sports are dying.

This rather dramatic prognosis was based upon evidence that TV figures are falling, revenues are down and crowd sizes have dwindled.

It’s a universal problem, it would seem. If the editorial of ‘Sport 2.0′ is to be believed, the only cure is to reduce the length of any event down to a maximum of five minutes and to surrender one’s soul to the great new god of ‘shareable content’.

According to one of these stories, international football matches will soon be played within a grid of some 200 cameras capturing every detail of the scene that can immediately be reproduced as a hologram in other stadia. So if a game is being played in Rio, for example, you can pop into your local stadium in Dundee to see an exact 3D version of the match on your home pitch.

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No holograms or gimmicks: just a thumping crowd and a traditional spectacle that lasts a week

Nobody’s yet asked: ‘why?’

If people aren’t going to watch their own teams playing in their own stadia, will they really turn up in droves to watch a hologram of Norway vs. South Korea?

Apparently, the Japanese bid for the 2022 World Cup included using exactly this technology. The problem was that they could have promised a genuine alien invasion and a comeback concert by Elvis Presley because nothing was ever going to keep the gentlemen of FIFA away from Qatar’s billions.

Another point missed by The Guardian: even if there was a way for sports to break new ground and touch new hearts, it is pretty well guaranteed that an immediate influx of dollars will win the day. Have they not heard of Formula 1?

The Olympics once again provided cause for depression. When one thinks back upon the money lavished upon each and every Games, let alone the social changes enforced upon the host populations in order to sell Big Macs and fizzy drinks, it was galling indeed to read the architect and cheerleader for London 2012, Sebastian Coe, admit that athletics will never rank among the top three or four sports in Britain.

Elsewhere throughout the week, there was a fixation upon all of the ‘urban’ sports like BMX, Parkour, Skateboarding, Quidditch and the like, which the experts in sports marketing tell us have a greater appeal among the under-25s. Adapt or die was the message, or else all will be doom and gloom.

But throughout the period in which these stories were being put out, the Le Mans 24 Hours was taking place. Rather than a five-minute blast, we had practice on Tuesday, Qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday, a day of public jamboree on Friday and then the race from Saturday through to Sunday.

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The battle for GT glory went down to the last lap

More than a quarter of a million people were at the track to see the start and the Internet was groaning with traffic as what seemed like every sports fan from Scandinavia to the Outback started talking about the race. An event lasting a week held us in its thrall right up to the last lap battle for GT honours was resolved in Aston Martin’s favour.

There is a reason why this level of fervour takes place every year: Le Mans is the world’s greatest motor sport event. In fact, according to no less an organ than National Geographic magazine, Le Mans is the greatest sporting event of any kind anywhere in the world based upon such factors as the scale of the challenge, the number and diversity of its participants, the size of the crowd and the heritage of the event.

In motor racing terms, only the Indianapolis 500 compares to Le Mans – and it compares very well indeed. Again, Indy brings no ‘urban sports’ element, it would be recognisable to competitors of a century ago and, where Le Mans lasts a week, Indy consumes an entire month!

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Indianapolis pitches heroism and tradition that can be seen, heard and smelt

The Guardian offered no recognition that the only people who are truly obsessed by sports seven days a week are the people trying to rinse every available penny from those sports: the promoters trying to sell their pay-TV subscriptions, the venues trying to sell tickets and billboard space, the newspapers trying to sell advertising space around their reports and the creative agencies trying to sell ideas to the sponsors and the advertisers that make them stand out from the crowd.

Society has other things to worry about. We have less time and less money with every passing year, so when we want to pay attention to something, it has to be special. And if the past few weeks of fervour around Indianapolis and Le Mans have taught us anything, it’s that we, as an audience, can be optimistic. Because these events truly do remain special.

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Human drama is served by the bucketload in 24 fraught hours at Le MansScreenshot 2017-06-20 12.15.08

It’s not something that can be synthesised. It’s not the result of some tremendous promotional idea. It’s simply recognition of all those reasons listed by the National Geographic – and none of the frankly Orwellian language from The Guardian.

If one could bottle and sell what makes these events special, the status of a minor god might be accorded (although the thought occurs that perhaps Lord March has got closest to doing so at the Festival of Speed). But nobody has or will, and a hologram won’t do much better. Let’s allow the over-hyped, over-worked and over-valued clamour for our attention drift away on the tide, and savour what has always been right in the first place.

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Long may the great races continue their fine traditions – and long may the wider world enjoy them

Chap Hop – musical entertainment

Apparently the S&G is a regular haunt for Chaps – these being the sort of gentlemen for whom large beards and waxed moustaches are a must-have. They ride vintage bicycles and drink real beer, they have tweed onesies and fancy Jean Rogers and flappers rather than tangerine-hued reality TV women. Splendid! We’ll take ’em all.

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One for the Chaps: Jean Rogers prepares to save Flash Gordon. Again.

Being introduced to this type of retro-ism – and the many diverse subcultures within – has been enlightening and entertaining. All the more so because of the discovery of a certain kind of music, mixing modern urban style with high camp Englishness – known as Chap Hop. One of the leading lights in this scene is Mr. B, who was even so kind as to mention the S&G’s home turf in one ditty:

“…Chappy number one in Compton
That’s Compton village near Godalming you see…”

We do see, my dear chap, simply by looking out of the window. Thanks awfully for the tag.

As enthusiastic a reception as Mr B has enjoyed in these parts, however, his counterpart (and one-time rival) from the world of Steampunk, Professor Elemental, is equally on the money. Who could fail to love a rapper in a pith helmet with a gorilla for a butler?

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A Steampunk, yesterday. Splendid choice in goggles, Madam.

Where Chap-ism is something of a pastiche of times past, Steampunk is dedicated to taking the look and feel of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. It creates new and interesting things: science fiction with brass bevels, steam-powered Zeppelins travelling through time and a huge array of goggles for both sexes. Why the heck not:

These gentlemen have helped open the S&G’s eyes to many new alternatives in music that is happening now, today. It’s been many years when there has been any cause for enthusiasm in an industry that’s become dominated by histrionic, warbling karaoke TV shows and factory-produced plastic pop for the internet age. This is madness, it’s patchy, it’s brilliant and it goes straight on to the S&G juke box. Well done, you fellows.

Classic buildings in miniature

After cornering the market in ultra-refined models of classic GT racers to go on your 1/32 slot racing track, Graham Poulton has done it again with a collection of iconic trackside buildings.

There are many schools of thought when it comes to decorating a slot car track, from minimalist to full-on scale model venue. It’s always nice to have something dressed to fit the era or type of cars that you particularly like to run – and for historic fans, Graham has produced just the sort of set dressing that is going to go down a storm.

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Scenic slot tracks can vary in scale of ambition

Reims, Goodwood and the earliest post-war Silverstone buildings feature large in the collection, which come as flat pack assembly kits with all the hard work of decorating them done for you.

Compared to the price of cars these days, the buildings look extraordinary value and can be ordered direct from Graham or via Pendle Slot Racing. Here’s some of the loveliness that Pendle has on sale:

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Reims pit boxes (could double for Brooklands)

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Bumper box set of Goodwood timing tower and pit boxes plus the grandstand

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Another Goodwood icon: the SuperShell building

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Typical of the wartime buildings at Silverstone for its first 40 years: the original timekeepers’ hut

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The original press box from Silverstone faithfully recreated…

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…along with the press box from Reims

We’re sure that there will be many similar additions – Le Mans is always a favourite, maybe some pit scenery from Monza or Spa would be fun too. Well done, Graham – keep up the good work.

A velocipede for the Revival set

It happens very rarely that the S&G gets to review a product, so here is rather a special one: the MBM Honolulu bicycle.

Britain has gone somewhat dotty for velocipedes in recent years. There were the ‘Boris bikes’ introduced to get people around London in an environmentally-friendly fashion, of course, and also a vast surge in interest that followed Bradley Wiggins’s victory in the Tour de France. Throw in the heroics of Team GB in the Olympic Games of London 2012 and Rio 2016 for good measure and cycling has become big business for Britain.

To digress for a moment, this latter success has given rise to a rather troubling phenomenon: the Saturday cyclists. Round our way you will find many stockbrokers and similar who believe that no other road user’s weekend is complete without staring at an untidy peloton of their lycra-clad bottoms lined up three- or four-abreast. The Highway Code is a wonderful thing…

Be that as it may, there are many different schools of cycling these days. There are the road racers, the uphill mountain bikers (front suspension only), the downhill mountain bikers (suspension here, there and everywhere), the BMXers and the commuters on their hybrids. But retro cyclists? Really?

Why, yes! Welcome to the world of the Beach Cruiser. As you can see in the picture above, these things are to pedal cycles what café racers are to motorbikes.

The design of Beach Cruisers harks back to the designs of the Schwinn company in the early 1930s. After the onset of the Great Depression, the booming market for motorcycles and bicycles dried up and Schwinn decided to try and graft the sexiness of a motorbike onto its pedal-powered brethren – resulting in an affordable bicycle designed for the youth market – the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike.

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Today, Schwinn bikes are still available in America’s big discount stores like Wal-Mart. They have balloon tyres, single speed gears, an upright riding position and all-metal construction. Their style is their winning feature – and that style is now available on this side of the Atlantic, too.

The example above is from a relatively recent name in cycling: MBM Cicli of Italy. Across its range of bikes, MBM caters to retro tastes and various budgets – the Honolulu model tested here being in the sub-£200 bracket.

Bicycle magazines and websites tend to steer clear of this sort of bike, which is undeniably cheap and generally only available by mail order. Writing an MBM off as tat would be a mistake, however.

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The MBM Maxilux is a more modern Beach Cruiser in the range

Perhaps they are a bit basic, but the example tested was very comfortably sprung on the posterior. That counts for a lot. It’s been 30 years since the S&G covered any distance under pedal power, but the five miles in this test passed very easily – and with more than a few admiring glances.

“What a pretty bicycle!” said a lady walking past as the S&G was busily wrestling with a puncture at the roadside. One forgets just how often that delays of this sort can happen. Such delays are less fun now than I remembered from 30 years ago… although the admiring lady found it amusing.

“My friend’s got one like that,” said the helpful chap in Halfords who sold me a new inner tube. “He puts it in his VW Camper.” That made sense as a use for one of these things.

When it was vertical and had air in its tyres, the Italian origins of the MBM percolate through loud and clear. For one thing it has gears – Beach Cruisers generally don’t, but this one was intended to pedal around on the streets of Perugia rather than the seafront at Santa Monica.

The 6-speed gear set is operated, rather sweetly, from a twisting mechanism on the handlebars like an old Raleigh Grifter from the 1970s that will doubtless be familiar to many readers. For novices and amateurs, in which your scribe is included, this minimises the chance of throwing the chain off with inaccurate gear selection – very wise.

It is not by any means a racy bike by modern standards. It’s all metal and weighs a thumping 18kg – two hands and a bit of heaving are needed to lift both wheels off the ground. That weight can have its advantages, though. For one thing, if any motorist throws their door open without looking, it is probably the door and not the cyclist that will suffer more damage. Also, it’s too slow to encourage any peloton piracy!

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A vintage Indian board racer – an undoubted source of inspiration for the MBM bike

For pottering around at a period-flavoured event like the Brooklands Reunion or the Goodwood Revival it is just the ticket. After all, an XK120 or a Bugatti T35 tends to put a bit more of a dent in one’s budget than a mail-order bicycle – and a VW Camper does too – so this might get you into the paddock for a more reasonable outlay.

Away from the big retro ‘meets’ of the year, bikes like the MBM can still make a fine companion… provided, that is, not too many hills are involved,

For all its chic appeal there’s no obvious reason not to use a bike like this every day. The wheels were a bit out of shape (easily fixed by altering the tension on the spokes) and you’ll need to fit lights and a luggage rack to make it a regular ride.

But a bike like this means parking one’s bottom on smoothing that comes with more than a whiff of heroic racers from the past. It might even become this season’s must-have accessory – and deservedly so too.

The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

Gordon Bennett! It’s Zalonso!

The S&G has infinite enthusiasm for the Indianapolis 500 and its admiration for Fernando Alonso is similarly effusive – your scribe interviewed him in Minardi overalls a lifetime ago, and he was later very helpful on a book project – so perhaps a few more S&G stories might have been expected during the past month.

In fact, the whole circus that sprang up around Alonso’s mission to Indy rather precluded writing about it. The spirits of Jimmy Murphy, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and all the other transatlantic travellers have been endlessly summoned, so it was better to watch the rodeo and provide something from the S&G’s perspective when the dust settled: so here it is.

Of all the apparitions from motor sport’s past who may have appeared around the Alonso 500 it was James Gordon Bennett Jr. who most often sprang to mind. For it was he, as the owner of the New York Herald, who lavished funds upon a race from Paris to Lyon for the cream of motor manufacturers from Europe and the USA.

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James Gordon Bennett Jr. – the first promoter of global motor racing for profit

Starting in 1900, the three fastest cars from each competing nation would be entered for the Gordon Bennett Cup – with Gordon Bennett’s newspaper getting all the exclusives throughout the build-up and raceday.

This was enormous news – a circulation blockbuster.

For nearly a decade, motor racing had whipped the public’s imagination into a frenzy of daredevils breaking new technological boundaries. By insisting that the Gordon Bennett Cup cars were painted in national racing colours, the press magnate’s race also tapped in to the zeal and fervour which would ultimately fuel World War 1.

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The zeal which greeted motor racing was given a nationalistic fervour by Gordon Bennett

This was no longer a contest between athletes or even motor cars, but rather a measure of the virility and might of the world’s proudest nations. The 1900 race saw competing cars line up painted blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white for Germany, and red for the USA. Fernand Charon crossed the line in Lyon first on a Panhard, to a volcanic roar of approval across la République.

In 1901 the French had the race to themselves and a Panhard headed the charge from Paris to Rouen. In 1902 the Gordon Bennett Cup moved from France to Austria and the British challenged the French with some lightweight, less powerful cars from Wolselely and Napier – with Selwyn Edge taking the honours for Napier.

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On that occasion the British cars had been painted red, but with the return of all nations for the 1903 race this meant that a permanent colour needed to be ascribed to British motor racing. In the end green was chosen, as a tribute to the race’s hosts in Ireland (then a part of the United Kingdom). It was a white Mercedes driven by Camille Jenatzy that won, however.

French honour was restored by victory on German soil in 1904. As a result the 1905 race moved back to France where, with more motor manufacturers than anyone else, the hosts chafed at being pegged back to only three manufacturers. Having failed to win concessions to enter more cars, the French celebrated one final triumph before they pulled up the stumps and planned to stage their own race instead for 1906 – it would be called the Grand Prix.

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French national interests ended the Gordon Bennett Cup races – and created the Grand Prix

So what was it about Fernando Alonso’s enterprise in 2017 that reminded the S&G of that enterprising old rogue Gordon Bennett? Well, much has been made of the media hoo-ha that has accompanied Alonso’s month of May in the USA and, most of all, in the UK.

We have been treated to daily, hourly and minute-by-minute reportage from the moment that the project was announced until Alonso’s pitch-perfect acceptance speech for his Rookie of the Year award. Access all areas – and then some. Technical diagrams, race histories, videos – all the fun of the fair.

And all of it has done a fine job of blotting news from elsewhere in the motor sport world – particularly McLaren-Honda’s ongoing woes. Well, right up to the moment when Alonso’s Indy engine went ‘pop’ at least.

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What many observers have forgotten is who now owns the news. Because, in a move of which his countryman James Gordon Bennett Jr would wholeheartedly approve, it is none other than Zak Brown, the Executive Director of McLaren, who sits as CEO of the Motorsport Network, which owns pretty well everything these days.

Zak’s media empire, funded by Miami-based Russian billionaire Mike Zoi, embraces the Motorsport.com global portal, the former Haymarket publications Autosport, Motorsport News and F1 Racing together with Motors TV (rebranded as Motorsport TV), as the only non-subscription channel for motor sport. It also picked up the Amalgam brand of high end scale model racing cars.

So, with his McLaren hat on, Zak was confronted with the problem of a slow and unreliable car together with Alonso, still widely regarded as the finest racing driver on Earth today. In other words: a potential PR disaster, given Fernando’s habit of speaking his mind and playing up to the camera when things go awry.

But when one owns the news, PR disasters can much more easily be avoided. Thus sticking Fernando in an Indycar was strategically very sound. It also must have done the ratings across Zak’s network a power of good, with American racing fans trying to find out more about Alonso and F1 fans trying to find out more about Indy.

Zak had a one-stop shop for all and he worked it well. Having placed a number of stories to McLaren’s benefit since buying the media outlets, the Alonso-to-Indy showstopper has broken all previous boundaries between news and PR.

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The ‘Zalonso’ show starring Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown has enjoyed a successful run on both sides of the Pond

Of course the difference between the past month’s mania for ‘Zalonso’ and the days of James Gordon Bennett Jr is that the Gordon Bennett Cup was effectively owned and administrated by the mogul himself. That might be an investment too far for Zak – in the immediate future at least – but he might not be too far off.

With the sea of New Zealand racing orange across the motor sport coverage this last month, James Gordon Bennett Jr would doubtless be chuckling. If in the back of his mind Zak Brown had wanted to serve notice upon the sport’s owners, he picked the hell of a way to do it.

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