Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chaos versus Stability: Racing in the Headlines for All the Wrong Reasons

In racing, it’s almost never a good thing to be in the news. Maybe your series generating a sports headline isn’t so bad, but to be at the top of the mainstream news? In motorsports, that can only mean disaster.

Such was the case this morning when the banner headline read “Body found as Bahrain Grand Prix tensions mount.”

It's been said there is no such thing as bad publicity. Many involved with F1 this weekend might beg to differ...

While the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign rolls relatively quietly into Kansas, on the other side of the world the drivers and crews of Formula 1 are likely more concerned about their personal safety than any worries about how they’ll perform in the next race. This weekend in Bahrain, those in the trenches of F1 find themselves immersed in volatile and dangerous waters of political conflict and national unrest.

Amidst protests over the country’s rulers, the Bahraini government has responded with violent crackdowns that have focused critical international attention on the small island nation located in the Gulf of Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

The conflict has had an impact on Formula 1 long before this weekend. Pre-season testing scheduled for the Bahrain track before the 2011 season was cancelled, and the 2011 season itself was scheduled to open with the Bahrain Grand Prix. The conflicts drove a postponement of the race to October, and eventually its cancellation.

The dubious decision to return to Bahrain in 2012 is playing out just as many within the F1 realm had feared: the sport is now the focus of countless “why are they racing there?” editorials. Unfortunately, there is no good answer.

For the race teams that are obligated to compete, it is an extremely uncomfortable situation. The Force India team completely skipped the second pre-race practice sessions, with rumors whispered that the team felt it was safer to be ensconced in the security of their lodging than to be at the track.

For NASCAR fans, such chaos is unimaginable. Each year the stock car schedule is released with a stable predictability that seldom yields a surprise. And disruptions at NASCAR events are generally limited to rain. In fact, the most exotic aberration on the Sprint Cup Series schedule came in 1998 with a summer Daytona race postponement to October 17 due to smoke from wildfires that were raging in central Florida.

The simple postponement of a night race due to wildfire smoke is a major disruption in NASCAR's book. This weekend F1 is rewriting the book on racing upheavals.

The fact that NASCAR racing is a domestic US product certainly works in that entity’s favor as far as being able to maintain control. For Formula 1, treading on the world stage sometimes places the series into logistical and cultural upheavals.

But in the case of the Bahrain situation and the entirely dubious decision to proceed with the event this weekend, Formula 1’s leaders appear to have recklessly - and foolishly - placed their teams and the sport’s very reputation into jeopardy. Instead of a glamorous grand prix held in an impossibly rich environment, the Bahrain Grand Prix has morphed into a conundrum with no positive outcome imaginable.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As the field swept under the white flag early Tuesday morning – nearly seven hours after the drivers in the 54th Daytona 500 took the green flag to begin The Greatly Delayed American Race – Greg Biffle’s mind must have been racing nearly as fast as his Ford Fusion.

What to do, what to do?

As the field takes the final green flag of the 2012 Daytona 500, Kenseth in the 17 is about to move high, pick up Biffle's 16, and drop back to the inside lane. Dale Jr. in the 88 would tag along, offering Biffle tempation. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

A decision was required, and there was not much time to make it. In the time it took to read that last sentence, Matt Kenseth, Biffle, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – cars 17, 16, and 88 - had already entered turn one, arcing toward turn two as the three cars led the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Biffle’s teammate, Kenseth, had already won the 2009 Daytona 500, the event every driver wants to win. To come close but to fall short in the 500 – that can haunt a driver for the rest of his life. Victory just might be within Biffle’s grasp, but there were serious consequences to be considered.

What if he pulled out with Jr. closed up on his tail, passed Kenseth, and won the 500? Kenseth might not be too thrilled, but team owner Jack Roush might be forgiving… But what if he pulled out, and made the pass – only to see Jr. sweep by, to claim his own first 500 win, putting a Chevrolet in victory lane at the expense of Ford? Biffle might need one of Roush’s P-51 warbirds to escape his owner’s wrath. Not a very good scenario to begin the 2012 season.

Tough choices, indeed, and now the trio had consumed the second turn, rocketing into the backstretch and toward the jet-fuel-charred turn three. Time was running out.

Down the straightaway Biffle made a slight move to his right – maybe three feet – and swung back behind Kenseth. Another swing to the right, perhaps just one foot… And that was it. Biffle was back behind the 17, his left tires maintaining a consistent distance from the yellow lines through turns three and four. Exiting four Dale had no choice but to make his move if he wanted anything other than third place. He passed Biffle but was unable to close on Kenseth before the cars hit the finish line in the tri-oval.

It was over.

Kenseth cruises, Dale Jr. makes a move for second, Biffle settles for third. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

A disappointed Earnhardt climbed from his car, runner-up in the Daytona 500.

"He's trying to do what he could do,” Earnhardt surmised of Biffle’s motives afterward. “If I were him, I can't imagine what his game plan was in his head, but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the 88 for the dogs."

Biffle himself put on a brave face, insisting everything had gone according to plan and he’d done all he could do.

"When I moved over, Matt just moved over real easy, and Junior is against my back bumper, so I'm trying not to wreck because he's shoving on me,” Biffle said. “And I'm like, 'I'm not going to be able to get a run at him.'"

So those are the comments for the record. What’s unknown is what would have happened if Biffle had pulled out and made the move. Would he have sailed by Kenseth, dropped in front of his teammate, leaving the 88 car in his wake, just as Jr. speculated? Or would the move have played directly into Dale’s hands, the 16 and 88 taking the 17 but leaving Jr. just enough time to pass Biffle, his benefactor? It wasn’t out of the question, especially in light of Kyle Busch’s winning pass in the Budweiser Shootout…

We’ll never know.

In Formula 1 racing, the topic of “team orders” often engenders controversy. A driver being order to hold his position or yield to his teammate has long been part of the game in a form of motorsports where glory for the team supplants individual accomplishment.

In NASCAR, teams and drivers have historically been left to police themselves. But on this early February morning, it’s within the realm of possibility that team realities trumped any potential outcomes.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Welcoming Change

Early on a cold January morning in 1992, Richard Petty and I were sitting in a quiet lounge area at Philadelphia International Airport talking about the glacial pace of change in NASCAR. The King thought for moment, and began to speak.

King Richard in his 1992 Pontiac Grand Prix. Fuel injection? Don't hold your breath...

"To me, NASCAR's done a good job because our cars – and we've still got the basic car that we had eight or ten years ago - it's got the same wheels, the same brakes, the same suspension, the same weight, the same cubic inches. They haven't changed any of that stuff.

“The V8's with the carburetors… They might eventually go to an injection system and control our horsepower through the injections. They could do that, and that's a very feasible method. They could give every one of us a chip to put in the fuel injection and they could control the fuel. But I think that as long as it's feasible for us to have carburetors, that's what we'll be running.

“We're going to be the last thing to change,” Petty concluded. “We still run a carburetor, and there ain’t a car made in the last five years that's got a carburetor. You can talk to people now and they'll say, 'What's a carburetor?' 'Oh, that's something they used to use,' you know? But we're still using that...”

Petty was right – NASCAR was the last to change. Twenty years after having that conversation – two decades later – only now is NASCAR incorporating fuel injection into its Sprint Cup Series.

Holley's EFI throttle body, controlling air flow to the engines. NASCAR engine builders probably see this image in their dreams.

And it’s been a hot topic, and perhaps rightly so. But while everyone has weighed in on the controversy over a new method of delivering fuel to engines – well, new to NASCAR - it’s the changes to the cars themselves that are having the greatest impact as the first days of Speed Week 2012 play out. Thank goodness it did not take decades for these alterations to hit the track.

While NASCAR has conducted its usual rounds of off-season testing during the winter doldrums, Saturday night’s Bud Shootout may well have been the most important test, a window providing a clear view at how these cars will really perform and handle under the heat of superspeedway competition. And to my eyes, the view is just fine.

For the last several years, I’ve been less than thrilled with the state of superspeedway racing. If the decade-long need to have a shoving partner to make any on-track progress wasn’t bad enough, the two-cars-are-faster-than-a-pack pairings of last season marked a depressing change for the worse.

Johnson at the point in the Bud Shootout, followed by an ever-shifting pack. So long, two-by-two...

But on Saturday night, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a return to real racing: an actual pack of cars, surging, drivers moving up and back in the running order. Bump drafting was still in evidence, but it looks like the “strategy” of walloping each other down the backstretch of Daytona now bears true consequences if carelessly applied. The dreaded pairing off never occurred, and Kyle Busch successfully made a dramatic move to claim victory in a manner that a year ago would have been highly unlikely.

Granted, there is still much that could be improved. Though the Car of Tomorrow is finally beginning to actually look like a real race car rather than a boxy IROC car, it still looks nothing like the vehicles it's supposed to impersonate – we remain a long way from the days when the eye could instantly differentiate a Thunderbird from a Lumina, a Grand Prix from a Cutlass.

But let's give NASCAR credit: reducing the spoiler heights and restricting communication among drivers have been solid steps in the right direction. As for other steps? Well, change in NASCAR takes time – sometimes, a lot of it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Attack of the Platypus

In the world of motorsports, there’s more or less a universal consensus that Formula One cars are the most sophisticated racing vehicles to be found in any competition. Sure, every form of racing can point to aspects that indicate impressive performance capabilities; for example, the 7000-horsepower beasts of the NHRA’s fuel classes are mind-boggling, and even monster trucks boast suspensions with fantastic rebound capacities. But when it comes to sheer technical innovation on all fronts at once, Formula One is the name of the game. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate to aesthetic elegance.

2007 F1 Renault, all curves and sweeping lines, wide rear wing assemby, narrow (but complicated) front wing.

In the 2007 F1 season, the cars were visions of swoopy forms, aerodynamic poetry recited through complex air flow studies and an abundance of wings, winglets, and other appendages. But things seldom stay the same in the world of F1, and the FIA ordered new, wider front wings, narrower rear wing assemblies, and less cluttered bodies. At first, the front wings – expanded to stretch the full width of the cars and heavily reliant on straight surfaces - looked awkward, and the cars themselves even appeared somewhat blocky overall. But the eye adapts, and as attention turned to air diffusers and other elements soon the new, across-the-board alterations began to look normal.

But I think I’m drawing the line with the “platypus,” the nickname given to the new drop-nose front configurations being run by some of the top F1 teams in testing this week in Spain.

Oh dear. Body by Tonka? It may look good in the wind tunnel data but...

Basically, the noses on the cars of teams including Red Bull and Ferrari follow a nice smooth slope – until they reach the mid-point of the front tires. At that point, a hideous, prominent bump rises several inches before the body form carries on toward the pilot.

Many F1 fans love to debate technical aspects of the cars, and surely there is a performance-based reason for this unfortunate-looking development (though I’ve yet to see an in-depth analysis), but this is quite distracting and hard to look away from or ignore – imagine a stunning fashion model with a Limp Bizkit tattoo on her face.

"We may lose, but at least we'll look good doing so." McLaren reveals the sleak-nose MP4-27, February 1, 2012.

Thank goodness McLaren has not succumbed to this new trend: their dramatic chrome cars flow gracefully in the face of their hammerheaded competition. While the first race remains more than a month away, it’s safe to say the British team already is a winner – at least from an artistic standpoint. Bravo!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Want to race? Not so fast!

Politics, economics, regulation throttle the on-track action.

In April of 1995, the Kansas-based Sunflower Rod and Custom Association joined forces with the fledgling National Hot Road Association. The result of the alliance was the very first national drag racing championship event.

Art Arfons – who would go on to become a land speed record legend – unleashes an early version of his Green Monster on the Great Bend air field.

The SRCA had begun racing activities in a manner charmingly reflective of the era in which they took place. Basically, the group of hot rodders went to the city government of Great Bend, Kansas, and said, “Hey, you know that old air field nobody's used since World War Two? Can we use that as a race track?” The city said yes, and a chain of events was set into motion that has led to today's elite touring NHRA drag racing series.

There's never been a question about interest in staging races in the United States, for racing in all of its great formats: drag, stock car, open wheel, rallying, road courses, land speed records, and anything else you can think of that can host an engine and push a vehicle into motion.

But the days of simply asking if some unused turf can be used for motorsport are long gone.

When NASCAR turned an eye toward a return to the Golden State of California in the 1990s, the organization knew it faced an uphill challenge in building a new track. But there was little choice – the tracks at Riverside and Ontario had long since been consumed by the state's voracious taste for commercial real estate expansion. So the only choice was to start from scratch.

The late Les Richter in his NFL playing days. Richter was such a force on the field that the Dallas Texans traded him to the Los Angeles Rams for eleven players!

NASACR made a smart decision in reassigning NFL legend Les Richter from his post overseeing the sanctioning body's operational duties. Richter took to the challenge of making a racetrack happen within the marketing striking distance of Los Angeles, teaming with Roger Penske to construct an oval on the then-shuttered Kaiser Steel Mill outside Fontana. To say Richter faced near Herculean challenges would be an understatement. But Richter and Penske were able to sell the local community on the idea that the racetrack would lead to a community revitalization at a time of local economic stagnation. Construction began in 1995, and wrapped up in 1996 – blazing-fast considering the myriad aspects that had to be dealt with, including an Environmental Protection Agency mandate covering removal of toxic soil and related materials leftover from the site's steel production days. By mid-1997, NASCAR was back on track with racing action in California.

 Autoclub Speedway, formerly known as California Speedway. The water tower in the center of the oval is a remainder from the site's days as Kaiser Steel Mill.

A similar construction tale is playing out right now south of Austin, Texas, as the new Circuit of The Americas follows a troubled path into existence, chasing the goal of hosting a Formula 1 race in November of this year. It's true, the Texas racetrack creation has faced the usual modern laundry list of challenges: a need for endorsement by the Austin City Council to obtain critical funding (a move bitterly challenged by opponents), on top of site planning issues and a dispute among the project's management group.

“Keep digging!” is sometimes heard as driver encouragement. The expression is literal as workers at Circuit of The Americas stare down a November completion deadline.

On top of all that, of course, is the task of dealing with Formula 1 and its shrewd commander in chief, Bernie Ecclestone. “Machiavellian” is a term that surfaces quite often when descriptions are sought for the murky waters that make up the Formula 1 ocean, and books have been written about the tangled web of the business of F1.

“I wouldn't want to put my money down that it will happen,” Ecclestone said in November of the Austin race. When your entire goal is to build a racetrack to host a United States-based Formula 1 event, having Ecclestone issue comments like that is not comforting. But on December 7, 2011, news came that the construction that had been halted weeks earlier had resumed, and that the United States Grand Prix had secured its place on the 2012 F1 schedule. And it goes without saying: Ecclestone had received all the financial incentives he demanded in turn.

IndyCar competition on the streets of Baltimore in 2011. One and done?

Even when the difficulty of track construction is removed from the equation, getting a race off the ground can be daunting. In 2011 IndyCar competed in the Baltimore Grand Prix, a street circuit event that saw the open wheel cars blasting through the city's downtown. The city was thrilled with the economic impact of the event, estimated to have generated $50 million overall. But the race organizers failed to come up with the $1.5 million fee due to the city by the end of the year, so the 2012 event finds itself in limbo.

If you like the idea of stepping in as Baltimore Grand Prix promoter, at least you won't have to build the track.