Sunday, December 29, 2013

Auto Racing’s Top Winners of 2013

Despite seven wins, Kenseth came up short in comparison
Sebastian Vettel.  Won 13 of 19 Formula One races, nine in a row and his 4th straight world championship.  Easily racer of the year.

Jimmie Johnson.  Won six races, including the Daytona 500, on the way to his sixth Sprint Cup championship.  A “best of” type year, if it wasn’t for Vettel.

Scott Dixon.  Four wins and the IndyCar championship.

Tony Kanaan.  By winning the Indy 500, he won the biggest race of the year.  Also landed him a pretty good ride for next year.

Matt Kenseth.  His seven Cup race wins was tops.  But he couldn’t win the the biggest prizes.

Dario Franchitti.  He didn’t win a single race during 2013, but Franchitti’s still a winner.  His Houston crash and subsequent retirement ranks as one of the top stories of the year.  His four IndyCar titles, three Indy 500 wins, 21 total victories and his star power will be tough for IndyCar to replace.

Chase Elliott.  By winning the All-American 400 at Nashville, the son of Bill Elliott became the first driver to win the Grand Slam of short track racing.  Elliott is 18.

Bubba Wallace.  It’s not just that he was the first African American to win a NASCAR race in nearly 50 years and only the second ever.  At 20, he ranks along with Elliott as one of the future stars of the sport.

Allan McNish.  Won his third 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Others have more Le Mans wins, but no one has been faster, year in and year out, than McNish,who retired at the end of the season.

Max Angelelli and Jordan Taylor.  “Mad” Max, 47, proved an able mentor for Taylor, 22, as the pair teamed to win five of the 12 GrandAm races and the final three events of the season to capture the series’ last title. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What's Right With Racing

Mike Helton, part of what's right about racing
I recently wrote about racing being at a crossroads.  How anybody who loves the sport has to be concerned about the current state of affairs.  I asked if all was lost.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, there’s so much that is right about racing.  Mostly it’s the people.   Some of the things right about racing includes: 

Jimmie Johnson and Sebestian Vettel.  Some people think Johnson and Vettel are an example of what’s wrong with racing.  Not me.  How can being the best be wrong?  I already devoted a column (Nov. 20) to these two, so there’s no need for a rehash, other than to say they set a standard of excellence on a par with names like Petty, Earnhardt, Fangio and Clark.

Mike Helton.   Can’t help but believe if NASCAR just turned things over to Helton and his team and let them run the sport, it would be much better off.  One of the remaining holdovers from the Bill France (Big and Little) eras, he has the respect of all those involved to do what’s right for the sport.   Probably not gonna happen.  In fact, NASCAR has just brought in a new Chief Operating Officer from outside the organization.  The new guy is a consultant who worked at GM and takes an “analytical approach” to the business.  Great.  I just hope Helton doesn’t decide to cash in his chips and retire.  I worry about NASCAR with Helton.  I really worry about NASCAR without Helton. 

Derrick Walker.  As much as Helton provides hope for NASCAR, Walker, the IndyCar president of competition, provides hope for open wheel racing.  He’s a racer surrounded by businessmen (the third management team in five years) and if the sport is to succeed, those businessmen need to listen to him.  He took over in the middle of last year and so far it has been an uphill battle for him.  The Houston race was a debacle and he took much of the blame.  But he deserves a full season at the helm.  Like Helton, not sure if he can pull it off, but there still is hope.

Brad Keselowski.  Despite his nonsensical objection to concussion baseline testing, Keselowski is one of the keys to the future of NASCAR.  He’s still a new face, not afraid to speak his mind and most of all, he’s fast.

Kimi Raikkonen.  Word is he raced for free last year at Lotus.  Gotta appreciate that.  One of the few drivers to have challenged Vettel, he’ll be at Ferrari in 2014.  If anyone can stop Vettel from winning a fifth straight world championship, it’s Raikkonen.

Jeff Burton.  I wrote early in the year that it was time for Burton to retire.  Although it wasn’t exactly his idea, and he will be running some races for Michael Waltrip Racing next year, I’m happy he’s pretty much retired from driving.  I’m even happier NBC has announced he’ll be an analyst when the network begins broadcasting races in 2015.  NASCAR’s television broadcasts are in need of new life and I hope NBC and Burton can provide it.

Kyle Petty.  I wrote it several times during the season.  NASCAR television broadcasts need more of Kyle Petty.

Dario Franchitti.  Losing Dario as a driver is a serious blow to IndyCar racing.  Hopefully they can find a role for him on the television broadcasts.  Always found him a good interview with interesting insights and forthright answers.  And who can resist that Scottish accent.

NASCAR’s Young Guns.  The Sprint Cup series is in need of an influx of new talent and they’re waiting in the wings, perhaps more than at any other time in NASCAR history.  Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte have been gently moved aside.  The future hopes rides with the likes of Ricky Stenhouse, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillion, Jeb Burton, Ryan Blaney, Parker Kligerman, Ross Kenseth, Dakoda Armstrong, Ty Dillion and Ross Chastain.  Then there’s the “Kiddie Korp,” drivers so young they’re not old enough to go to the prom, let alone drive a Cup car.  Led by Chase Elliott and Erik Jones.  You could probably add a dozen more to the list. 

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.  Wallace gets a shout out all his own.  His popular win at Martinsville this year was the first for an African American since Wendell Scott nearly 50 years ago.  At 20, Wallace certainly qualifies as a young gun, and as a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll have all the backing he needs to continue moving up the ladder.  

New F1 One Engine Formula.  There’s a host of new F1 regulations for 2014, none more important than the switch from V8 engines to turbocharged V6 engines.  There a new emphasis on innovation.  The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and several new similar systems are a link to passenger car hybrid systems many fans can relate to.  The cars also will look different, with new rules requiring a lower nose.

New NASCAR Engine Regulations.  NASCAR says it is looking at new engine configurations, a sort of engine of tomorrow.  It needs to take a big swing at it, just as F1 has.  Make it relevant.  Sure the costs will be high initially, but what the heck, the series has $8.2 billion in the bank.  Invest a little in making the series relevant again before it’s too late. 

Short Track Racing.  One thing that seems to resonate with readers is the strength of short track racing.   The Eldora truck race was certainly the most visible, but short tracks across the country are experiencing a renaissance as race fans return appear to be returning to their roots. 

NASCAR road races.  Who would have thunk two of the most exciting Sprint Cup races of the year would take place on road courses?  After rumors that NASCAR would add a third road course to the schedule and move one to the Chase for 2014 proved groundless, we can only hope they’ll make the move for 2015.

Tudor United SportsCar Championship.  It remains to be seen if the series can work out its rules package to balance the competition between the LMP2 cars of the old American Le Mans series and the DP cars of GrandAm.  That’s a HUGE question mark.  The initial tests saw DP cars started flying through the air, a good indication of the challenge.  But let’s hope so, because you gotta love the schedule they’ve put together for 2014.   Daytona, Sebring, Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Mostport, Indianapolis, Road America, VIR, Circuit of the Americas and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.  It’s the golden age of road racing all over again. 

WEC.  Big brother to the Tudor series is the World Endurance Championship that will feature LMP1 entries from Audi and Toyota again in 2014 and along with newcomer Porsche.  Ferrari has hinted it might be interested in the series in a year too, along with another old name in the sport, Ligier.

Formula E.  I’m intrigued by this new FIA series for electric open wheel cars.  I’m not all that excited about what will virtually be spec cars (at least initially) streaking silently around city streets.  I tend to agree with Vettel who says, “Formula One needs to scream, needs to be loud, there needs to be the vibration."  But I am excited about the potential and the attempt to bring innovation back into the sport.  The first race won’t be until September of 2014 and the “season” will run through the middle of 2015.  The events will be held in major cities including Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Miami, Monte Carol, Berlin and London.  Already saying they will compete in the series are Andretti Autosport and Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing from the U.S.; Audi Sport from Germany; Super Aguri from Japan; China Racing; e.dams, a French team that includes four-time world champ Alain Prost; Virgin Racing from the UK with the backing of Richard Branson; and Venturi Grand Prix from Monaco with backing from Leonardo DiCaprio.  Huge questions remain, but as I said, I’m intrigued.   

That’s just a little bit about what’s right with racing and something to look forward.

Happy Holidays , everyone.  I’ll be back in 2014.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Seth Meyers on Patrick, Gordon and Mohr

Jeff Gordon on Saturday Night Live
It seems to be open season for comedians on Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon.  It's not just Jay Mohr.  Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers, appearing on Monday's Dan Patrick Show, was asked about athletes who have hosted SNL. 

“We had Andy Roddick and Jeff Gordon," Meyers said.  "I would describe them as an excellent tennis player and an excellent race car driver.   I played celebrity poker with Jeff Gordon.  He bluffed and I called him.  He asked ‘how did you know I was bluffing?’  I said I spent a week with you, watching you try to be an actor.  I know when you’re faking it.” 

Personally, I thought Gordon was pretty good on the show.

Meyers was then asked about Mohr's "up front" Patrick (Danica) joke at the NASCAR banquet, which was played several times on the Patrick (Dan) show, to increasing snickers. 

“It’s not a terrible joke, but you have to weigh whether or not it’s worth telling,"  said Meyers, who has hosted the ESPYs and the notorious White House Correspondent’s Dinner .  

He warmed to the joke after he heard it several times.  "It seemed like Jay knew that was going to get a groan, 'cause he had ‘it’s a comedy show’ ready.  So then it’s fine.  I like having a few groaners whenever I do anything.  Those are the most fun.  You always go in with two or three (jokes) that are for you.  Jokes I’m really happy I told.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Auto Racing At A Crossroads

Stewart's dirt race was one of the few success stories of 2013
Our sport of auto racing is at a crossroads.

If you’re an auto racing fan – and if you’re reading this blog you must be – you’ve got to be concerned about the future of our sport.  You probably have been for the past couple of years.   

NASCAR, IndyCar, sports car racing, drag racing, Formula One; take your pick.  There is not a major racing series in the world that is in a good place right now.  Attendance is down.  Television viewership is down.  Sponsorship is down.  IndyCar and is looking for a title sponsor for the 2014 season and Nationwide has already informed NASCAR if won't be back as sponsor of the secondary series when its contract is up at the end of next year.

The NASCAR season was dogged with controversy from start to finish.  A smoldering engine sitting in the grandstands alongside fans after the Daytona Nationwide race had people asking if the Daytona 500 should go on.  A racer was fined for saying there wasn’t enough racing.  Then Spingate took attention away from the Chase.  The most successful NASCAR race of the year was a throwback event on a dirt track.  Daytona and Talladega, once the crown jewels of the series, are in danger of becoming a family embarrassment.

IndyCar may be staging the best races right now, but has so alienated fans, no one sees them.  The series is being led by its third management team in five years.  At the moment, that team is circling the wagons around its most valuable component, the Indianapolis 500.  The reality is, outside of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which is more of an event than a race, there is no IndyCar series, at least as far as fans are concerned.  The IndyCar “series” is in danger of becoming an irrelevant, made for (cable) television, sideshow.

The 2014 IndyCar schedule jams 18 races (including three doubleheader weekends) into a five month period, designed to wrap up by the end of August to avoid conflict with football.  Mario Andretti has vowed to fight the new leadership over the schedule, saying “it’s not plausible” and that the attempt to avoid football is “diminishing the series.”  Losing Dario Franchitti, one of the biggest names in IndyCar racing, isn’t going to help. 

In drag racing, there is no bigger name than John Force.  Joined in recent years by his daughters, the family has dominated the NHRA and he captured his 16th championship this past year.  Yet the team’s two biggest supporters, Ford and Castrol, have both announced they won’t be back next year.  Ford is pulling out of drag racing altogether.

In American road racing, a peace treaty has been signed, uniting previously competing series under the control of NASCAR, bringing an end to the civil war.  But it remains to be seen if reconstruction will be successful.  With less than two months until the first race at Daytona, new regulations designed to level the playing field for DP and LMP2 cars are still being written in pencil.  Only a handful of entries turned out for pre-season practice sessions, which had to be curtailed when two DP cars went flying through the air at Daytona.

In Formula One, the corruption trial of czar Bernie Ecelstone continues.  McLaren, long one of the sport’s premier teams, lost $5 million last year and has lost both its engine supplier and primary sponsor for next season.  At least two drivers drove without pay last season and a 19-year Russian is making the jump from GP3 to F1 thanks to petro-dollar sponsorship.  "There are only five teams which are financially secure and the rest of them are all struggling,” said former driver and current TV commentator Martin Brundle.  “So they are following the money and not the talent.”

Are you beginning to see a trend here?  The root of the problem with racing right now is – not surprisingly – money.  But it goes deeper than that.

Many in racing’s leadership circles blame the Great Recession for the problems the sport is facing.  If they really believe that, they're fooling themselves.  It started before recession, back when racing, led by NASCAR, was literally the Golden Sport.  In an effort to make even more money and protect what they had, however, major racing series and car owners banded together to write rules so narrow, innovation was all but eliminated.  The COT and rules establishing team franchises and protecting starting positions were designed to limit outside competition and put in place well before the recession.  NASCAR (and GrandAm) was the first to go down that road.   IndyCar quickly followed suit.  After all, if it was good for NASCAR, it had to be good for IndyCar – right?  Meanwhile, the cost for fans to attend races skyrocketed.

This lack of innovation and competition, along with the high cost of going to a race, began driving fans away from the sport before the recession.  The recession only exasperated the situation.  Five years later, with the economy ever so slowly beginning to show some improvement, many fans have found other things to do with their money.

There’s still plenty of money to be made in the sport, however.  Lots of it.  NASCAR’s staggering, 10-year, $8.2 billion television deal is just the latest example.  Most series, tracks, drivers and team owners are making good money.  NASCAR races are still cash cows for hotels and restaurants in places like Bristol and elsewhere.

I wrote before that NASCAR and its partners (drivers, owners, tracks) should reinvest some of its newfound billions back into the sport.  So far, there is no indication of a willingness to do so.  NASCAR has already resisted major changes for next year.  IndyCar owners have successfully delayed the use aero kits in the series, designed to introduce some innovation into the series and give the cars a distinctive and varied look, until 2015 at the earliest. They say it's too expensive.  Meanwhile, grandstands sit empty.

So all is lost?

No way, not by a long shot.  There is hope.  There is much about racing that is right.  There’s a reason we still tune in every weekend and search for those elusive cable channels that are showing whatever the race of the day is.

Next week I’ll look at what I see as right in racing and why there is still hope for the sport we love.