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F1 champ Niki Lauda mourned on motor sports’ biggest weekend

Updated May 25, 2019 - 5:09 pm

Memorial Day weekend is like Christmas for auto racing fans, with drivers starting engines at the Indianapolis 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Monaco Grand Prix — three of motor sports’ most iconic events.

The grid at Monte Carlo will seem a little less festive with the death of Niki Lauda.

The revered Formula One champion, who won at Monaco in 1975 and 1976, died Monday at age 70. He raced in the Caesars Palace Grand Prix after launching a comeback that produced his third world driving title and also made transoceanic sprints from Vienna to Las Vegas on Lauda Air, the commercial airline he founded.

Known more for circumspection than bravado behind the wheel, the Austrian-born Lauda could be aloof. He was more engaging during Las Vegas interviews in which he beat the drum for another U.S. F1 race.

His fierce battle with charismatic James Hunt for the 1976 F1 title during which Lauda suffered disfiguring facial burns was the subject of Ron Howard’s 2013 movie “Rush.” Despite losing most of his right ear and suffering near fatal lung damage in a fiery crash at the diabolical Nurburgring in Germany, the courageous Lauda was back in his Ferrari after missing only two races.

He would lose the championship to Hunt by one point.

A YouTube video of the 1982 Caesars race shows Lauda battling a driver named Andrea de Cesaris on the temporary circuit upon which the Forum Shops were built. The duel lasted multiple laps, mostly because de Cesaris stubbornly blocked Lauda. Another driver might have tried to bump the Italian out of the way, but that wasn’t Lauda’s style.

“You could run wheel to wheel (with him) ’til the cows came home,” Mario Andretti said from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We lost a good one, I tell you.”

Clowning with Cubs

When the Chicago Cubs briefly were courting Bryce Harper, it was revealed the Las Vegas slugger had named his dog Wrigley. After Monday’s game between the Cubs and his new team, the Phillies, Harper might start calling his dog Rooftop instead.

After Cubs fans booed him, Harper tossed a souvenir baseball onto the Wrigley Field rooftops instead of into the bleachers as most outfielders do after catching the third out of an inning.

“They were really nice last year because they wanted me,” Harper told the Philadelphia Enquirer. “But now they’re back to not.”

The website Deadspin had a different take: “If there’s a way to keep Philly fans from noticing (Harper’s) .224 batting average and .814 OPS, it’s by being a (expletive) to opposing fan bases whenever possible.”

Triple coverage

Although home runs are flying out of Pacific Coast League ballparks in record numbers, the Aviators also are tripling down like never before.

Las Vegas leads the PCL in triples with 24, including four in one inning (and five overall) at Las Vegas Ballpark on April 11. That was one shy of the major league record of five triples in an inning, set by the Chicago White Sox in 1901.

It has been said the triple is the most thrilling play in baseball. If that’s the case, the thrill is gone for fans in Cleveland and Miami — nary an Indian or Marlin had hit a triple through Friday’s games.

Masters champ

In a story last week on the new bar and grill in downtown Henderson named for UNLV’s first Final Four team, it was written that at age 64, it appeared the Hardway Eight’s former point guard Robert Smith still was fit enough to play.

Turns out he still can.

Smith averaged 13.4 points for the Harlem USA team that won the Masters Basketball Association 60-over division national championship in Coral Springs, Florida. He said he also was the first man back on defense, at least every now and then.

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Humphrey Bogart famously said a hot dog at the ballpark is better than steak at The Ritz. Former RJ baseball writer Betsy Helfand, a vegetarian who now covers the Minnesota Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, begs to disagree.

“They sell gluten-free avocado toast and kombucha at T-Mobile Park. Finally, ballpark food I can get behind,” she wrote on her Twitter account during a recent visit to Seattle.

Kombucha is a fermented sweetened tea that is said to have health benefits.

It is rarely served in a plastic batting helmet with jalapenos and gobs of melted cheese.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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