SNOHOMISH, Wash. — A week before Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 and began drawing a bead on an unprecedented fifth, equally versatile veteran racer Willy T. Ribbs had a message for him.
“His name is no longer Helio Castroneves. It’s Fidel — Fidel Castroneves,” Ribbs told a handful of reporters.
Then he laughed that “I don’t care if it might not be politically correct” kind of laugh.
Paul Tracy chimed in and said, “I already warned Helio. I said, ‘Hey, listen, brother. I’m comin’ for you.’ First race, baby — you’re going to get some tire marks.’”
Ribbs warned Castroneves, “You’re in trouble, son. And it’s going to be fun. And that’s what people want to see. They want to see great racing — and we’re playing for marbles.”
They were talking about going head-to-head in Ray Evernham’s and Tony Stewart’s Superstar Racing Experience — the short-track series that showcases racers from most forms of motorsports — before it debuted June 12.
Ribbs said, “They’re going to be yuckin’ it up and oh Sweet Caroline and ‘Oh, man, we’re so Kum Ba Yah.’ Hah. It’s going to be Kum Ba Ass when that flag drops. I’m going to tell you — I can’t emphasize: I hope Evernham has built enough cars. Actually, damaged, they’ll be worth more money when they auction them off. So we’re going to try to drive the price up.”
Someone mentioned tire management and Ribbs nodded.
“Then you got to manage how many people you’re going to hit,” he said, “because there’s going to be some bangin’, baby. I can tell you that right now. Whoever’s watching this, they’re going to get a thrill.”
So what does this have to do with NHRA drag racing?
This was boisterous fun, friends mock-harassing each other and showing respect. Castroneves got a flood of respect as he won at Indianapolis in May and broke into a whole different stratosphere of auto-racing lore. This is a different kind of display of respect, but in a peculiar, macho manner of approval.
“Everybody has great mutual respect for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to get out there and try to run hard,” Tracy said, clearly recognizing racing can have a balance of camaraderie and competition.
And then he said something that does apply to NHRA drag racing (which was not his point at all): “One of the things that’s lost in today’s motorsports, I think, is the personalities and the guys like Willy and myself and the Tommy Kendalls and the guys who knew how to put on a show on and off the race track. Things are pretty sterile now. The group we have together with SRX and Tony, there’s a lot of personalities and lot of guys who like conflict. So I think it’s going to create a lot of excitement.”
Create excitement — now that’s something the elite level of drag racing could use.
NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps, Tracy’s choice if the SRX were to invite a drag racer, agreed that a little unfiltered fun might be a breath of fresh air. Fans say it all the time. And drag-racing legend Ed “The Ace” McCulloch lamented once that “it’s just getting so you can’t hit a guy anymore.”
Capps had the privilege of competing with McCulloch as his crew chief and he got a chuckle from that. But he knows why personalities have been “culture-canceled” from the sport.
“Everybody’s so, I wouldn’t say paranoid. You’re just so worried about all the sponsors that you represent. You got to be more careful now more than ever, especially with the culture today,” Capps said.
“I’ve said this before, I’d love to have a race where we could get out of the car and say what we want and what we’re thinking sometimes, rather than making sure you get a sponsor plug in and talking about what the car did that run — you know — say what’s going on in your brain. And you can’t always do that. If we all did that, we wouldn’t be on network television. I’m always a little more on the cautious side. You’ve got to walk that fine line.”
The NHRA is the runaway leader when it comes to diversity — and arguably when it comes to extreme, quick, fast, instant gratification, and sensory overload. But fun? No, it isn’t, not like these SRX drivers.
Pacific Raceways President Jason Fiorito said of a rather unfiltered former Funny Car driver who insulted his facility, “I miss Whit Bazemore. We need that guy. It’s why people watch NASCAR. It’s why people watch big-time wrestling. It’s why people hate other sports teams.”
What Ribbs and Tracy were engaging in was a little fun smack-talking.
Plenty of punching and snarky remarks take place in the NHRA pro pits. And Fiorito says no one should hide it.
“We need to be putting that front and center. There needs to be slaps on the wrist, because the sanctioning body needs to come in and get control over their drivers, but secretly, we need to be saying, ‘That was great! Did you see that?’ I think if you’re going to have the chance of being blown up every time you get in a car, you could probably handle some dust-ups.
“What’s good for motorsports,” he said, “is Jeff Gordon chasing Clint Bowyer through the pits, threatening to give him a knuckle sandwich.”