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Hello America

Jim Bamber on the United States Grand Prix at Indy

May 25, 2004 SHARE
0407ec_bamber01_z Photo 1/5   |   Hello America

If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that nothing changes.

Those words could have been written by Journalist Gordon Kirby but instead he chose to write the following in the 1976 edition of the Grand Prix annual Autocourse;

"Speedway racing is the thing in America. You can do all the road racing you like, maybe even win a World Championship, but if you haven't seen success on the ovals you simply won't be reckoned as a real racing driver. In fact, the wide majority of American motor racing fans probably won't even know your name! If you haven't done the job at Indy or Daytona, well, you really haven't done anything."

0407ec_bamber02_z Photo 2/5   |   Hello America

Well the guy was right in 1976 and his words still ring true today. Michael Schumacher the present Formula One World Champion has won more Grand Prix than there are stars on the star spangled banner but he was able to walk through the lobby of the wonderful Westin hotel in downtown Indianapolis unnoticed by Hal and sundry. Hal suddenly being told that this was the Michael Schumacher ran out to get his autograph while sundry, that's me folks, thought, what the hell I don't even like the guy anyway, stayed glued to my Starbucks and blueberry muffin.

0407ec_bamber03_z Photo 3/5   |   Hello America

This was on the Friday before the race and it was my very first day in the United States of America. Yes, my very first day. I am 54 years of age and despite my children's pleas to take them to Disneyland over the years, I have never before stepped foot in the land of the tree. Did I say tree? Well looking down from my business seat on Delta Airlines I couldn't fail to notice you have a hell of a lot of trees here. But I digress. I was here in the land of the free thanks to BMW North America, who thought it would be hip to bring over 'Formula One's leading cartoonist' from the UK and show him the sights and sounds of the Indianapolis Speedway. F1 team owner Eddie Jordan once said that I was a 'legend in my own lunchtime' which knowing the length of Eddie's lunches is some feat I can tell you. Beats Andy Warhols 'famous for fifteen minutes' into a cocked hat. Of course the truth is a lot more complicated. BMW had originally planned to invite a famous American journalist based in LA but a scandal involving said journo plus two cow girls, a hot tub and a horse sort of ruined those plans! (sorry Kerry)

0407ec_bamber04_z Photo 4/5   |   Hello America

I know that you are dying to know what my first impressions of America were. Well for me it was the nice lady waiting outside Immigration at Cincinnati Airport dressed in what looked like golfing clothes. She wasn't brusque or aggressive, which is what I had been half-expecting an American Immigration official to be. In fact she looked a lot like Ethel Merman, the famous musical star. Maybe she was Ethel Merman. I know I should have asked the question but hey its my first minute on US soil I'm not going to spoil it by asking if she was the star of Gypsy. What if it turned out she was actually Angela Lansbury instead? God I would have been so embarrassed!

0407ec_bamber05_z Photo 5/5   |   Hello America

No, she was just a nice lady dressed in bright golfing gear. She smiled and said nice to see you and can I have a quick look at the forms you've had to fill out on the plane. She also spotted that my itinerary from BMW Williams included an interview with Juan Pablo Montoya. "Hey you goin' meet Montoya? Funny guy. He was on Letterman last night. You're goin' have fun, that guy's got big balls" I suppressed the thought that a guy with big balls was going to make me happy and realised that Montoya unlike Schumacher was a known item in the USA as he's an ex CART champion and previous winner of the Indy 500.

The very next day I was, like the lady said, having fun with Montoya. Our team of US media were to interview the Colombian behind the pits and some seats had been arranged for the larger members of our squad. Hi Dennis. Montoya duly appeared and as this was supposed to be US Media only I was requested to keep my big limey mouth shut. Naturally I ignored this, figuring that with my thick northern British accent they'd all think I was a Canadian anyway. I asked him if he flossed before a race something I know the readers of this magazine would have a right to know. Montoya said no he preferred to use an electric toothbrush personally designed for him by design genius Adrian Van Hooydonk of BMW Group Designworks USA, the super cool dude who designed the BMW 7 series. I could see in his eyes he thought I was a schmuk. The other journos all asked more relevant questions and I could see in their eyes that they loved the guy. Sycophants! Then there was the question of helmet technology, which BMW had listed on our itinerary.

Also on the first day I went and got my FIA accredited pass from the lovely ladies at the main office. The pass itself was just a small piece of green plastic, which in some circles of the world is worth its weight in gold. On the back was a small black and white picture of yours truly and the words, valid all days, zone F1 paddock and media centre. I was in!

I wore it round my neck with pride until I saw the two top pros in our team, Dennis Simanaitis and Peter Brock wearing their passes tucked away in their top pockets. Not wanting to be thought an amateur I tucked mine into my top pocket as well. It seemed the cool thing to do.

I duly turned up at the media centre as it's a condition of getting a Press pass that you have to behave like a real journalist and go see the Pressroom. Now a Pressroom for those of you have never been in one before resembles a large open plan office without the sexy secretaries and potted plants. The one at Indianapolis is no different except that it's a lot bigger than most. It was also full to overflowing with very keen and very earnest males who all love their motorsport. There's also a balcony that gives a great view of the start finish line. In the room were rows and rows of desks and above each desk TV screens showing the times and the cars out on the track. You could if you wished watch the whole race from your desk in the Pressroom and on race day many journalists do. When I walked in I was told I could have my own desk but gee what does a cartoonist do in a Press room especially a cartoonist who hasn't got an impressive black laptop and who has just bought his first mobile phone and doesn't know how to work it yet? It might be cool to keep your pass out of sight but it wouldn't look good whipping out your Orange guide on how to use your new Sony Ericsson T68i while chatting to the likes of top British motorsport journalists Nigel Roebuck and Maurice Hamilton. I'd also left my pens back at the hotel and my creativity couldn't kick in without a beer. So I just sat next to Alan Henry, Grand Prix correspondent to the stars, who grunted out the sort of greeting that is English for "F*** off I'm working" I made my excuses and headed back to the Paddock Club. At least it had a bar.

Let's skip the next day, Morse can fill in the blanks about Montoya needing to win and having his own team mate end his chances right at the start. Let's get to the end of the race. Like most races in 2002 it was as boring as watching paint dry but F1 was about to do what it does best. Shoot itself in the foot! I had been watching the 'race' from a grandstand opposite the first corner. Schumacher leads Barrichello. Yawn! Twenty laps from the end I decided to head back to the media centre and watch the finish from there. The Indianapolis Speedway is a hell of a big place so by the time I arrived there were only a couple of laps left. Hey I thought, what can happen? Bush was out in front and Blair, his faithful poodle was tucked right up his arse! I was dying for a leek so I popped into the media bog for a pee. I think you call it a John. There I was holding my best friend when it all went quiet outside! Like an idiot I had missed the finish. I went out and from the media balcony I found I was looking down onto the back of the podium. There was a guy slotting national flags into a device so that when the winner stood on the top step of the podium it would be raised above him. I did a double take. The idiot had put the Brazilian flag in the top spot. I mentioned this to a guy next to me who laughed and asked if I had missed the end. It was explained to me that Schumacher had handed the race to his team mate right on the finish line itself. I couldn't believe it. No not in America, please. They had done it in Austria a few months before but please no not in America. How could they treat this race with so little respect? Men had died here competing to be the first across those hallowed bricks and now Ferrari had staged the finish. I went back into the media room to grab a coffee. The place was full of professionals tapping away at their laptops. They were happy. They now had something to write about.

PS.
Okay, lets skip to this years race. I would love to tell you it was boring but it was anything but. The three main contenders for the drivers championship, which is the only one the fans care about, are Schumacher, Montoya and young Raikkonen.

The young Finn starts on pole with Montoya fourth and Schumacher a lowly seventh. The odds were on the Williams man to win so that we could all head to Japan, the last race of the year with all three contenders in with a chance. It was not to be. Montoya has a poor start and three laps in whacks Barrichello. This is a Godsend for the powers that be as they've been dying to clobber him all year. He gets a drive through penalty just as the rain comes down followed by one of his teams annual pit lane cock ups. He struggles home sixth his championship hopes shattered. Raikkonen starts well but drops back when the rain comes. His Michelin tyres no match for the Bridgstones that the Ferrari is running on. He comes in second. Schumacher though is blessed. He has everybody on his side today including the weather , his tyres and the stewards. He finishes on the top step and the championship is effectively over.

Nothing changes.

Jim Bamber
Somewhere in Surrey, UK

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