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October 21, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

It’s a time for heroes in Spain

Image

Erica Vanlee / Special to the Sun

Las Vegas Wranglers President Billy Johnson poses with a cutout of Formula One ace Fernando Alonso and the guy that carries him around.

Spanish Grand Prix

Turn 1 at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix. Launch slideshow »

"Senna" is the remarkable documentary that chronicles the evocative crossroads of an incomparable athlete and man of faith, and his country, Brazil. It's a story of national pride, and a national tragedy. If automobile racing isn't your thing, you are in luck. The film tells a human tale on behalf of millions. So, if fly fishing is better suited for your tea kettle, just change the film's setting. It still works.

Of course, I come at this from the standpoint of an avid Formula One fan. So it's not surprising that when given a chance to see the Spanish Grand Prix last Sunday, the biggest challenge was finding a position on the airplane that didn't put my knees in the armpits of the chap reclining into my lap.

I was shrunken down and dropped between a series of apexes of the one of the world's greatest slot car tracks — the Circuit de Catalunya just a few kilometers outside Barcelona. If this track were under your little boy's Christmas tree, don't forget to pay the extra $1.99 for a miniature plastic, single-posed, 1:24 scale figure of me to place just outside turn two. And make sure he is wearing a Kimi Räikkönen cap.

Catalunya is a region of Spain that boasts the dramatic Costa Brava (which is where I sit as I write this, beneath Tossa de Mar's seafront 14th century fortified medieval town of "Vila Vella enceinte" and its turrets and towers) and the remarkable city of Barcelona. Though not entirely native to this specific part of Spain, paella and Flamenco can be found here, too. As well as sangria (a pitcher of which also sits beneath all of those old towers and things).

Catalunya has also produced Salvador Dali and Joan Miró, as well as Antoni Gaudí.

But on this weekend, Formula One ace Fernando Alonso is the region's favorite son. Alonso is a two-time world champion and the No. 1 driver for Earth's most prestigious automobile racing team of all time, Scuderia Ferrari.

Here at the circuit — and when here, be sure to pronounce it "SIR-kwee" — the field of scarlet that traditionally backs the Ferrari logo is often replaced with Cataluyan blue. It's a light blue, and when fronted by the stoic prancing Ferrari horse is a symbol of overwhelming national pride.

It matters no more than who finishes behind Alonso in any Grand Prix that all of Spain may not share a sense of prideful nationalism when it comes to Ferrari's No. 1. For in the minds of Cataluyans, this region of Spain is its own nation, and efforts to make it so officially are always brewing. They have their own language, they have their own football team in FC Barcelona, and they have their own F1 champion.

It's a part of the world that many identify with the economic catch phrase of the times: "austerity measures." Unemployment here has skyrocketed to 25 percent. And the tourism offseason does not move that number downward.

So when Alonso comes home for the annual Spanish Grand Prix, shoulders that were often burdened by a state of the economy become saddled by the weight of excited children. There is joyful anticipation that the summer will bring tourists and jobs, and Alonso's only home game of the season will result in a connection to a passionate people, and a victory a reminder of what could be for any Cataluyan.

My wife, Erica, and I take our seats that overlook Turns 1 and 2 to our right. The circuit then circles behind us, and then these screaming rockets will barrel towards us out of Turn 4, until they drive into Turn 5 and then away from us. In less than 1 minute, we will see them, through the trees, streaking down hill toward Turn 1 again.

Räikkönen starts — from the customary standing launch — in fourth position this day, and Alonso in fifth. Ahead of Alonso sit two former world champions, Räikkönen and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton.

The race nears, and from beyond a hillside of blue, perhaps a half mile as the crow flies, engines rev. The clouds are nudged away by the cheers of thousands.

The race begins and cars sprint toward the funnel that is Turn 1. Flags wave in the crowd, and people shout "Fernando!" above a scream that belongs to a couple dozen Formula One cars, doing zero-to-180 in about 8 seconds.

Alonso enters Turn 1 holding his place, then they all take a left turn and drive behind us. Every head in our grandstand snaps left toward Turn 4, where just seconds after we lost view, we see that Alonso has gained two positions behind our backs.

"Fernando! Fernando! Fernando! Fernando!" screams the man to my right, literally unable to decide between standing, sitting or standing while sitting.

Catalunya has banned the brutal sport of bullfighting, and its people have taken to rooting for the bull, and in this case the bull drives a Ferrari.

Alonso's remarkable charge earned him his home-race victory. People sang and waved flags. They bounced their children on there shoulders. Summer is coming.

Erica and I trekked through the emotion to head back to our Barcelona hotel after a Sunday of seeing the wonderful uplifting of a people through sports. "To be able to see this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," I told her.

On Monday, we unwittingly stumbled across the parade route where FC Barcelona players and their city were celebrating its Spanish League championship. Stepping over swirling red, blue and gold confetti, I realized I was wrong. We can see it twice.



Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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