Not a Good Day For Racing

One Formula 1 team folds. Another is crowd-sourcing a one-off entry just to keep their dim hopes of survival alive. Meanwhile, up the continent from where Formula 1 is racing this weekend, a former NASCAR Cup Series champion now faces some of the most damning charges of domestic violence ever levied against an active competitor.

It’s not a good day for racing. Let’s go in ascending order of seriousness.

Caterham F1 Team administrator Finbarr O’Connell (I reiterate, no relation) has set up a new crowd-funding project to help raise enough money in sponsorship to allow the team to travel to the final race of the Formula 1 World Championship at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Their goal is to raise £2,350,000 GBP over the next week, and so far, they have raised over £300,000 GBP in the first day, through over 600 backers. Crowd-sourcing sponsorship for a struggling team is actually not new at all. In fact the last notable case of it predates the mainstream global installment of the internet. In 1992, the March team, which had been spun off from former owners Leyton House, and had been struggling for money all season long in this, the last season of their Formula 1 existence, allowed local businesses in Montreal to sponsor the team for the Canadian Grand Prix. It made F1 Rejects’ list of the three most cynical sponsorship ploys in the sport’s history, sharing a podium with the time Tyrrell were sponsored by the show Xena: Warrior Princess in 1997, and the time Pacific Grand Prix hired Jean-Denis Deletraz and Giovanni Lavaggi to bring money to a team that was on its last legs.

Karl Wendlinger driving the crowd-funded March CG911 around Montreal to a 4th place finish.
Karl Wendlinger driving the crowd-funded March CG911 around Montreal to a 4th place finish.

The crazy thing about March selling advertising space to a cavalcade of smallish Canadian businesses is that it actually paid off. Both March-Ilmor cars qualified for the race, including that of the painfully slow Paul Belmondo. But lead driver Karl Wendlinger, who before his near-fatal crash at Monaco in 1994, before he returned to the cockpit in 1995 but reduced to a husk of the driver that was projecting to be the next in a long line of Austrian Formula One superstars succeeding Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, and Gerhard Berger – he qualified an astonishing 12th and finished a season-high 4th place to pick up his only points of 1992, and his team’s last points, in a drive that saw him outlast both of the dominant Williams-Renault FW14Bs and the McLaren of Ayrton Senna, and finish only behind Berger, his former Mercedes-Benz sports car teammate Michael Schumacher, and Jean Alesi of Ferrari.

Some will argue that it is unfair for Caterham to have raised more money than David Brabham’s Project Brabham campaign, which has raised £245,000 GBP dating back to September 24th, for Caterham to do a one-off in Abu Dhabi and collect prize money that may ultimately not be enough for them to keep their doors open into 2015. I agree with Rob Sinfield of Grand Prix Diary that it should be the responsibility of the FOM, CVC, and the highest-earning F1 teams to be helping Caterham instead of forcing them to resort to an extremely risky crowd-funding venture. There has to be a bit of context here, however – Project Brabham has almost reached their goal of only £250,000, and with weeks to go they may push into the “stretch goals” territory. They’re most likely going to run in the LMP2 class of the World Endurance Championship, which is nearly fifty times cheaper than running in Formula 1, where the budgets are absolutely ludicrous. Brabham can fund a full season in a recognized top global championship for endurance racing at almost one-tenth of the budget that Caterham is trying to get to drag themselves to one single Formula 1 race. And who knows who will drive for them if they get there? Marcus Ericsson has already committed to Sauber. Kamui Kobayashi may already be looking at a reluctant return to the WEC. And before the team went into administration, Caterham had reached a deal to drag Rubens Barrichello back into Formula 1 for the last three races, when the opportunity could have gone to a young reserve driver such as Roberto Merhi or Robin Frijns – assuming both of them haven’t skipped off to another organization in the dark of night the way that the Baltimore Colts did en route to Indianapolis on a Mayflower truck.

Plus, even if Caterham shut it’s doors tomorrow, burned all the funds they’d raised out of spite, and then e-mailed every backer with a picture of Finbarr O’Connell flipping them off, this would still a more admirable cause than the disgusting crowd-funding campaign benefitting disgraced police officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri, the officer who gunned down 17-year-old Mike Brown in August in the most visible and heinous act of police brutality in the United States in over a decade. But I digress.

For a minimum pledge of one GBP, you too can be a sponsor of a Formula One team!
For a minimum pledge of one GBP, you too can be a sponsor of a Formula One team!

Caterham is in a desperate scramble to claim newly-available prize money allocated in the wake of the frustrating and saddening closure of Marussia F1 Team this morning, when it was announced at 9:00 AM EST that the team’s administrators had stopped trading, and the team’s headquarters in Banbury, England had been shut down, leaving all 200 of its employees out of work, and forfeiting all of the prize money they would have recieved for finishing a hard-fought and well-earned 9th in the World Constructors’ Championship. Staff who have been with the team for all five years will recieve a meager redundancy check of £2,000 GBP – not even close to enough to reimburse them for their services. According to Adam Cooper, one long-term backer of the team may lose their home in the wake of this closure. Marussia are the latest team to fold since the Hispania Racing Team after the 2012 season, the first to fold mid-season since Super Aguri in 2008. When it seemed as if Caterham were sliding into oblivion, while Marussia seemed to be doing everything right and seemed to have secured a long-term future in Formula 1, ironically it is Marussia who shut down before Caterham, leaving the Leafield squad as the last new team from 2010 left standing, even if it turns out to be by a margin of days or weeks.

200 employees who had not been paid for months will now look to find other work in racing, assuming that potential employers will not snub them for their association with a team that went bust after five seasons and deem that as a reflection of their individual talents, and assuming that this whole saga has not burned their passion for motorsport completely dry. Of the most visible employees, Graeme Lowdon, the team’s CEO and principal, is rumored to be heading back to the lower formula series where Manor Motorsport, the team that spawned Marussia, were successful, mainly in Formula 3. Max Chilton, the likeable paying driver from Marussia whose family fortunes weren’t even close to enough to keep the team around in 2015, will likely take his fortunes elsewhere if he doesn’t opt to retire from racing altogether. Alexander Rossi, the top American F1 prospect for years, who had been denied three different chances to make a Formula 1 debut since coming to the team in August, is now out of a job for the second time in half of a calendar year. He may end up with Haas F1 Team in 2016, but as the time ticks away, his potential for just being able to start a Formula 1 race, let alone being a successful driver, rapidly diminishes. He’ll be 24 by the time Haas F1 starts operating. If he’s signed to race for them. If they make it to the grid.

And of course, Jules Bianchi, still in a state of sleep, his chances of making any sort of recovery fading with every passing week, the young driver who became the star player and the catalyst for Marussia’s success in 2014 – he’s now just like all the other Marussia employees today, being made redundant by way of administrative collapse. And a token check of £2,000 won’t be nearly enough to fund his recovery efforts.

Marussia are the second of three teams established in 2010 to close down.
Marussia are the second of three teams established in 2010 to close down.

I really don’t have any words for how upsetting the situation at Marussia is. Sort of how I don’t really know how to feel about the domestic violence charges brought up against NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitor Kurt Busch. Other than angry and frustrated.

The afterglow of the dramatic post-race brawl between championship contenders Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski has now fully receded into the backdrop of what should be a major scandal involving one of NASCAR’s top drivers. The elder of the Busch brothers, a former Sprint Cup series champion in 2004, is being charged with domestic assault by former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, stemming from an incident that took place on September 26th, a week after the couple had separated. The Associated Press were able to obtain horrifying details of the suit:

According to the documents, the alleged incident took place on Sept. 26 inside Busch’s motorhome at Dover International Speedway – about one week after he and Driscoll had decided to end their relationship.

Busch was apparently upset about a poor qualifying showing that day (he qualified 22nd), and proceeded to verbally abuse Driscoll and say that he wished he had a gun to kill himself.

After calling Driscoll multiple names and accusing her of “having spies everywhere and having a camera on the bus to watch him,” the documents say that Busch jumped up, grabbed her face, and smashed her head three times against the wall next to his bed.

Driscoll then states that she pushed Busch away and ran from the bedroom to a nearby bus, where she got an ice pack for her head and neck. She says the incident left her with severe pain, breathing difficulties, and bruising on her neck.

The Dover, Delaware Police Department is conducting an investigation, however, even though the legal process has not yet played out, NASCAR and/or Stewart-Haas Racing cannot, in good faith, allow Kurt Busch to drive the remainder of the season. The details of this charge are too graphic and too appalling, especially now in an era where even most of the men and women who would shrug their shoulders at issues of domestic violence involving professional athletes no less than a year ago are now far more sensitive to incidents such as this. In an era where the National Football League’s public reputation has come under fire due to the league’s inability to act appropriately in the cases involving high-profile players including Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Greg Hardy among others, NASCAR cannot afford to sit back and wait for this to blow over. Not when it too is only a year removed from the domestic assault case involving journeyman driver Travis Kvapil.

Stewart-Haas Racing, or NASCAR, must do what Jack Roush did in 2005 and park Busch for the balance of the season after being arrested on suspicion of drunken and reckless driving – that too coming on the eve of a race at Phoenix International Raceway, where they’ll race this weekend. They also have the option to do what Roger Penske did after the 2011 and cut ties with Busch entirely after Busch verbally assaulted both ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch and an ESPN cameraman. And then you realize, not even including the numerous incidents that did not see him fired , that the 14th-year veteran of NASCAR’s top division has now compiled a track record of shameful behavior that may be too much to burden for any team in the future, and the charges brought against him this weekend could very well be the final straw. Stewart-Haas Racing has already had its organization tarnished by the fatal accident in New York involving team owner/driver Tony Stewart that claimed the life of Kevin Ward, Jr. in August. Allowing Busch to race this weekend and next would be nothing short of an ignorant and socially unaware mis-step and a public relations nightmare for all parties.

More of a hellstorm than the one Marco Andretti will face for Twitter commentary on the Busch/Driscoll case that would rival that of your garden-variety internet entertainer shoving their foot in their mouth over social media.

Kurt Busch's career is in jeopardy after the latest allegations of domestic assault.
Kurt Busch’s career is in jeopardy after the latest allegations of domestic assault.

I’m not stupid. I know that if motor racing was fair, Robert Kubica wouldn’t be forced to re-invent himself driving rally cars. Shane Hmiel would not have battled through drug addictions that saw him banned from NASCAR for life, re-invented himself as a sprint car ace, only to break his neck and wind up a quadriplegic at the cusp of his redemption. Luca Badoer would not have been made the laughingstock of the motor racing community on what should have been the moment his career was validated. Countless promising drivers under the age of 35 would not have been killed or maimed at the wheel of a race car. But how fair is this? Alexander Rossi will have worked for four years to reach his dream, only to have the door slammed in his face, possibly for good. Jules Bianchi will likely never drive a car again, let alone race a Formula One car in anger. A good percentage of 200 former Formula One employees will likely never work in the sport again. If Caterham doesn’t raise two and a half million British Pounds in a week, hundreds more will join them in motor racing purgatory.

But Kurt Busch? A driver who has burned more bridges out of NASCAR than he’s won championships and now looks set to have nuked his last bridge Terminator 2 style? He’ll almost surely race on Sunday as if nothing happened. Unless his team or the sanctioning body he races in suddenly realizes it’s a terrible idea.

Formula 1 is returning to one of its most beloved circuits in the midst of a great championship battle. NASCAR has two must-win races left to go in the most intriguing championship showdown in at least three years. But the weekend isn’t starting off good. No, not at all.

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