Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Terry Hoeppner: 1947-2007

Rest In Peace, Hep...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Race Versus Racing

(thanks to BBC.co.uk for the picture)

Today on the Ile-Notre-Dame, perched within the St. Lawrence river in beautiful Montréal, Quebec, history of the highest caliber has been made: A black man has won a major-league auto race. 22 year-old Lewis Hamilton, whose grandparents came to England from the Caribbean island of Granada, has become one of the most popular athletes in the world because of both his skin color and his amazing ability to get into any car and drive the wheels off of it. Today, he reached a new level on his meteoric rise through the ranks of the world's greatest form of motorsport by winning the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Canada.

Let's make one thing very clear before I continue. I usually don't give a hoot about the issue of race as it applies to sports. I grow very tired of basketball players complaining about discrimination from refs, baseball writers talking about the lack of African-Americans on MLB diamonds, et cetera. Given the amount of attention given to the subject by ESPN and many other news sources, it has become akin to beating a dead horse. Quite frankly, I'm sick of it.

However, the one form of sport that is decidedly in need of a shot of color: auto racing. Consider, if you will, the United States' most popular form of motorsport, NASCAR. This sport got its start in the southeastern United States, the core of American racism for nearly the entire history of our nation, and one look at the competitors drives that fact home. Forty-two drivers at the start of every NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race are white men and there is one Columbian. In most traditional NASCAR markets, some of the fans have yet to come to grips with the fact that a Californian (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson) is winning races. The best shot for a black person to make the series fizzled out a couple of years ago when Bill Lester's Truck Series career lost its steam.

International racers have been staples in other US-based racing series, most notably IndyCar and Champ Car. IndyCar has been dominated recently by Brazilians, a Briton, and a Scotsman, while Champ Car has been under the dynasty of Frenchman Sebastian Bourdais for the past three years. Both disciplines have also embraced the presence of women on the track (IndyCar: Sarah Fisher, Milka Duno, and Danica Patrick; Champ Car: Katherine Legge), while NASCAR has not had a female driver for several years. However, it has been a long time since a black man had a chance at American open-wheel racing, with Willy T. Ribbs qualifying for several Indianapolis 500s in the early 90s.

On the international level, there is still not much competition from drivers of African descent. You can look through the lineup for this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, which contains about 50 cars, each carrying at least three drivers, and you would be hard-pressed to find a black driver. Formula 1, the pinnacle of international motorsport, had not had a black driver in its history until Lewis Hamilton stepped into his McLaren at this year's Australian Grand Prix.

What makes Hamilton's presence so great for motorsports is that he is not just a publicity stunt. In the way that Tiger Woods was born with a natural ability to play golf, Lewis has a given ability to drive any vehicle to its max. The man could probably take a minivan and pound a great lap time out of it. When he was very young and still driving racing karts, he caught the eye of McLaren Formula 1 boss Ron Dennis, who became Hamilton's sponsor. Dennis' money turned out to be very well-spent, because Hamilton conquered every level of karting that he could before moving to real open-wheel cars. He then set about conquering a number of open-wheel series, culminating in his GP2 championship last year. That convinced Ron Dennis to put Lewis into the car vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya. Hamilton shocked the world by finishing third in his fist F1 race, and second in his next four races. Then, in his sixth Formula 1 outing, with veterans (relative to Lewis, at least) Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, and defending champion Fernando Alonso making key errors behind him, Lewis Hamilton drove a superb race to take the victory.

In his first Formula 1 season, Lewis hasn't finished lower than third, and is currently 8 points clear of teammate Alonso in the championship standings. It is possible that we are currently looking upon the greatest driver to ever step into a race car, and to have that driver be black will have a great effect on the social structure of motor racing. With the F1 circus coming to Indianapolis this Sunday, the United States will be exposed to the wonder that is Lewis Hamilton, and maybe this young man can raise a little interest in the sport amongst America's black community.

Notes: The Canadian Grand Prix was marred by several incidents. However, none of these were nearly as horrific as that involving BMW's Robert Kubica. Video can be found here. The nature of the accident (sweeping left hand turn, car going straight off and making hard contact) was eerily similar to Ayrton Senna's fatal crash at Imola in 1994. However, Kubica made it out with only an ankle sprain and a mild concussion. No details have been released as to whether or not he will be available for Sunday's US Grand Prix. A true testament to the safety that has been put into these racing machines.

In one of the stranger occurrences of the day, a beaver wandered onto the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. After dodging several race cars, the critter met its match in the Super Aguri of Anthony Davidson, who had to pit to get his car cleaned up and running properly.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Don Cherry for President...er, Commissioner

Now, being from the United States, I would normally cheer for a US team were it to play against a team from some other locale. The only exception for me, however, is NHL Hockey. Assuming the Washington Capitals are not in the Stanley Cup Finals (and let's face it: they won't get there again for a while), I will cheer for the team from the land that invented the sport.

Why? Why indeed? First of all, Canadians care about their sport even more than we care about sports like baseball or basketball. You can go to any game played on the ice in Montréal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, or Vancouver, and you will see an arena packed with some of the most knowledgeable and intense sports fans on the planet. The United States has only two cities that can come even close to the level of the Canadians: Detroit and Buffalo. Even then, the Ottawa fans knocked the fans in Buffalo dead. There is just such a passion for the game that is hard to find south of the border.

There is one man in the world of professional hockey who best personifies the spirit of Canadian hockey (despite, ironically, playing and coaching for a team called the Rochester Americans). His name is Don Cherry (the one on the left...the other guy is Brett Hull), and he puts even the most ridiculous of American sports commentators to shame. His wardrobe includes everything but the kitchen sink (and if they could find a way to make that into a suit, he'd wear it). He goes on red-faced rants that would make even Rush Limbaugh look like a school librarian. He is the epitome of the "old school" hockey fan -- all about the big hits, the fighting, and, most of all, giving the fans a great show. Ever heard of the Philadelphia Flyers of the late 70s that were known as the "Broad Street Bullies"? Cherry's Boston Bruins took them out of the playoffs. Twice.

Nowadays, as an iconic member of the Canadian Broadcasting Company's "Hockey Night in Canada", Cherry has become one of the most outspoken men on television. Unfortunately, since the NHL's offices are in the US, the rantings of this loud-mouthed, opinionated Canadian fall on the deaf ears of loud-mouthed, opinionated Americans (and commissioner Gary Bettman). According to old Don, fighting is an integral part of NHL hockey and is the part of the sport that brings in the fans. Don't believe him? Go back to the single most publicised event from the NHL's regular season: Ottawa and Buffalo dropping the game for about 10 minutes and beating the snot out of each other. What gets the home fans back into the game when all might seem lost? How about the enforcer from the home team taking the hated bully from the away team by the jersey and tossing him to the ice. Bettman is in the process of trying to take out one of the oldest (and, in my opinion, coolest) institutions in all of sports, and our well-dressed Canadian friend says that is a travesty.

That, my friends, is just one of the many logical and sensible arguments that Don Cherry comes onto Canadian television and yells about. Since, despite his fashion choices, the man makes a ton of sense, why shouldn't he be the commissioner of the NHL?

Let's face it: Gary Bettman is a spineless bum who has overseen one of the worst eras faced by any sport. At the beginning of his tenure, the league took off on the shoulders of guys named Gretzky, Messier, and Lemieux. Then, all of the sudden, those names disappeared and the league fell hard. The owners, backed by Bettman, realized that they were running out of money and took it out on the players. The players, knowing that the man at the other end of the table had no backbone, wouldn't accept his terms, but still wanted to play the game. So when the owners and Bettman locked the doors, the players ran off and kept making money. Bettman, realizing his mistake, caved in to a fair portion of the players' demands, thus shafting the owners that he originally backed.

Don Cherry, being the oh-so-pleasant man that he is, definitely would not have stood for the events leading up to the lockout, had those events even transpired in the first place. If the players had even decided to strike, you can guarantee there would have been replacement players, just like the NFL did in 1987. Also, you can guarantee that the replacement games would've been some of the roughest, toughest games you've ever seen. The man knows what's good for the sport, and he would be perfect in the league's driver's seat. Oh, and one other thing that makes him perfect: he's Canadian.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Free Lou!

The cheap seats would be in Wrigley Field, but I'm too afraid of getting hit by a flying travel mug. Now, let me preface this entry by making sure everyone knows that I don't like the Cubs. Their fans are spoiled, snobby fools who make Alabama NASCAR fans look like a golf gallery. They still give grief about that Sox fan who leapt out of the stands and attacked an umpire, then they turn around and chuck hard plastic travel mugs onto the field, endangering not only the umps, but their OWN PLAYERS AND COACHES. The team itself is a mess of errors and diva-like behavior that even Alex Rodriguez would struggle to match. Their star pitcher sent their top catcher to the hospital after said pitcher threw a ball that makes knuckleballers say "what the hell?" They spend ridiculous amounts of money to bring in star players that underachieve every season, and the media and fans blame it on some curse or another. Plain and simple, the Cubs are terrible.

However, I am about to defend their manager, Lou Piniella. "Why," you might ask? Because the one entity in baseball that is more inept than the Cubs has wrongfully placed Lou on an indefinite suspension for nothing more than kicking dirt on an umpire. If you took the league office's word on the situation, you would think Lou took a baseball bat out of the dugout and hit each ump over the head with it before doing the same to Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. The official language says that Piniella "made contact with umpire Mark Wegner."

Are you kidding me? I've seen the replay a hundred times in the past 24 hours, and Wegner's pant leg doesn't even ruffle at the point where all the officials are saying that Piniella kicked Wegner. In fact, the only direct contact made between an umpire and Piniella (apart from his substantial midsection bumping the umpire's) came when crew chief Bruce Froeomming starts trying to push Piniella away.

Let's get one thing straight. Piniella has had enough tirades directed towards umpires that he knows what's really out of bounds in this situation. He'll kick dirt, he'll throw hats, buckets of baseballs, bases, and anything else he can get his hands on, but you will never, EVER see Lou Piniella make physical contact with the ump. In fact, you will almost never see ANY manager make physical contact with an ump because, despite the rage that they are flying into, they know the rules. Even though some players may not get it (cough...Josh Bard), managers and coaches know the score.

What we're seeing here is a bunch of umpires defending one of their own by trying to knock down the guy who torments them the most (visibly, at least). Because one or two guys think they saw Piniella kick Wegner, the whole fraternity of umps has manipulated the pictures in their head to give them the outcome they want. Sure, they won't say it outwardly, but you know that every umpire who is assigned a Cubs game says to himself, "Crap, i have to deal with Piniella." They don't like him and he doesn't like them. But since they're the ones being backed by the league office, Lou is the one who gets screwed in this situation.

My version of the penalties that should've been given out over the past two days: Carlos Zambrano suspended by the Cubs for one start and Michael Barrett given no penalty, Lou Piniella given a small fine and a one-day suspension for the dirt-kicking, and the entire Cubs organization fined $500,000 for their drunken, moronic fans causing a dangerous situation on the field. The league office needs to get their act together and start making their penalties sensible and fair.