Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A matter of trust...

Lewis Hamilton was leading the British Grand Prix on Sunday. Starting from the pole in his home race, Hamilton had a good start to the event, fending off any early challenges to his lead. Now, just a few laps into the race, the British driver was settling into his groove – hitting his marks on corner entry, taking care of his tires.

But one of his Pirelli tires had already had enough. With a shocking force, Hamilton’s left-rear tire exploded in a hailstorm of tire compound and carbon fiber shards knocked from the Mercedes’ body. Without warning, the race leader was limping to the back of the field.

Lewis Hamilton struggles to maintain control seconds after his left rear tire exploded just seven laps
into the British Grand Prix.

Shockingly, the exact same left-rear-tire failure happened moments later to Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. A handful of laps later the same fate befell Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne. Soon after, McLaren’s Sergio Perez joined the left rear epidemic. So grave was the situation that F1 race director Charlie Whiting was on the verge of stopping the race altogether.

For a driver to succeed in any form of motorsports, tires are the most important bond between man and machine. When that ultimate trust is cast into doubt, performance can’t help but suffer. No component of a modern-day race package is as critical as the tires.

It’s bad enough when a sole provider has problems with tires designed to support an entire series, as is the case with Pirelli and F1. It’s worse when there’s a tire war.

Anyone who drove in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series in 1994 likely has dark memories of that season. Hoosier Racing Tires had been successful in grassroots racing across the country. And after successfully providing tires to the Busch Grand National Series for three years, Hoosier stepped up to NASCAR’s premier racing series in 1994, the small Indiana company going toe-to-toe with Goodyear.

The goal of a sole provider is to offer competitors a safe and reliable tire; companies in a tire war must takes chances with formulations in a quest for an edge on the track against a corporate competitor. Reliability can take a back seat to the search for that extra bit of performance.

Geoff Bodine was the most successful driver for Hoosier’s Winston Cup program, earning three victories in 1994.

There was an air of tension in the garage area, as drivers were forced to choose sides, aligning with Leo Mehl in the Goodyear camp or casting their lot with upstart Bob Newton and Hoosier. Geoff Bodine chose the latter, becoming the flagship for Hoosier with the team that had been founded by the late Alan Kulwicki. And though Bodine charged to three victories that season, what many fans recall are the numerous crashes throughout the year resulting from tire failures. Economic realities eventually drove Hoosier back to the racing series that initially sustained the company, but not before drivers for both companies had some unfortunate accidents from blowouts and cut tires.

Mark Martin won the last race of the 1994 season, but emerged from his Thunderbird
frustrated about the tire war.

“Things that make tires fast make them less safe – there’s no getting around that,” said Mark Martin after the season. “I’m really proud I lived to talk about the ’94 tire war. It’s not worth it, man…”

Ken Schrader once told me about a crash he experienced after a tire failure at nearly 200 mph while thundering around Talladega Superspeedway. “Everything just slowed down,” he recalled. “As I climbed the banking, I had plenty of time to think, ‘This one’s going to hurt…’”

I can’t imagine a more helpless feeling for a race car driver.

A trailing Kimi Raikkonen takes evasive action – at nearly 200mph – to avoid the debris
hurled into the air and across the track Sunday at Silverstone in England.

The world of F1 was very lucky the all drivers who experienced tires failures last weekend were able to maintain control of their cars – and that the cloud of debris as the tires let go did not cause a catastrophic crash for a competitor following close behind. The pressure is on Pirelli to find out what has gone wrong – and with the F1 cars taking to the track tomorrow for the first practice session of this weekend’s German Grand Prix, time has almost run out.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Dick Trickle: The Racer

As the Sprint Cup Series prepares for what is arguably its splashiest and most over-the-top weekend, it’s ironic that it comes so soon after the news of the death of Dick Trickle. Splashy and over-the-top? Those are the last words that would be used to describe Trickle. In fact, only one word really fits: racer.

Bud Koehler and young Dick Trickle, two Midwest short track legends.

Before he arrived in NASCAR’s Winston Cup competition, Trickle had raced for decades – yes, decades – in a host of racing series beginning in his native Wisconsin: ASA, ARCA, USAC, and many more letter combinations that only local fans would recognize. He won titles, track championships, and literally dozens of races a year, always struggling to keep his operation afloat and funded.

NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year Dick Trickle.

His big break into NASCAR’s top series came when he was nearly 50. Think about that for a minute – can you imagine someone entering Sprint Cup competition in 2013 in their late forties? Unthinkable! And yet it happened, with Trickle wheeling his way to the rookie of the year title in 1989, beating out a tough young Jimmy Spencer for the honor. Trickle manned the cockpit for the Stavola Brothers that season, eventually moving on to drive for Team III, Butch Mock, Larry Hedrick, and the legendary Junie Donleavy.

A true racer, once Trickle had reached Winston Cup racing he still competed in Busch Grand National series.

Trickle never struck gold in Winston Cup, and considering his cars were seldom fielded by the best-funded teams his three third-place finishes, his pole at Dover, and a victory in the Winston Open at Charlotte amounts to a successful campaign.

So Dick Trickle didn’t spend much time in the Winston Cup victory lane, but he became a fan favorite. Real race fans recognized the gritty determination built by years and years of short track competition out of the limelight, and embraced Trickle upon his arrival in the top stock car series. But even when he arrived in Winston Cup racing, he remained true to who he was – I can clearly remember seeing an in-car camera capturing Trickle as he lit up a smoke while cruising around under a yellow flag.

Rest in peace, Dick…

Monday, May 6, 2013

Too much of anything...

Peter Townshend of The Who once wrote, "Too much of anything, is too much for me..." There's a good reason why that song crossed my mind tonight.

While trying not to slip into catatonia during eight hours of Fox Sports rain-lengthened coverage of the seven-hour NASCAR Sprint Cup enduro at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend, I had plenty of time to really think about how Fox presents America’s most popular form of motorsports.


The ESPN "glory days of NASCAR Winston Cup" crew. Left to right, pit road reporter Bill Weber, commentator Ned Jarrett, broadcast anchor Bob Jenkins, pit road reporters Jerry Punch and John Kernan, and the late Benny Parsons, commentator.

The Fox entry into NASCAR was jarring to say the least. Where predecessor ESPN had presented the sport respectfully - with a touch of folksiness in the easy banter between NASCAR elder statesmen Benny Parsons and the always dignified Ned Jarrett - Fox took a page from its own burgeoning NFL coverage and ratcheted it up. The focus was on attitude, and the key component of that was the entrenching of Darrell Waltrip as the face of Fox motorsports.

Anyone with a half-serious knowledge of NASCAR knows Darrell Waltrip’s back story, though he never seems to tire of retelling it. After all, he wasn’t known as “Jaws” early in his career for shying away from self-promotion. And Fox takes every chance it gets to show video from Waltrip’s admittedly successful racing career to further bolster his legitimacy.


Darrell Waltrip revives an already-tired NFL gimmick, the Icky Shuffle, in Daytona’s victory lane. Never saw the video? Keep watching Fox - you will!

But there’s no arguing that many viewers find Waltrip’s excitable yokel shtick and occasionally dubious analysis to be polarizing (Google is your friend). A good example arose on Sunday evening, when Waltrip seemed awfully forgiving of the late race move by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in which Stenhouse shoved his way to the high side, attempting to wedge himself into a too-small opening, and thus initiating Big One May 5th Version 2.0. I doubt Kurt Busch - once he turned right-side-up, that is - would agree with Waltrip’s notation that “things just closed up” on Stenhouse. I also doubt that I’m the only viewer who mutes the start of every Fox race to avoid the tired “crew chief” to “driver” banter between Larry McReynolds and Waltrip, let alone the “boogity” gimmick, all of which stoop to a near-hillbilly caricature.

Which makes it all the more curious that Fox thought it was a good idea to draft Darrell’s brother Michael into a nearly-as-prominent on-air position, thus doubling the Waltrip quotient. It’s the equivalent of enduring Terry Bradshaw’s over-the-top NFL antics only to encounter Terry Bradshaw’s brother in the booth for the game. And for that matter, in a sizeable portion of the broadcast’s commercials as well.

More Michael? Sure! No such thing as over-exposure...

While Fox has now taken a “more of the same - much more!” approach, there have been a number of respected crew chefs and drivers who have retired from the sport or reduced their involvement, any one of whom could bring a breath of fresh air and an updated perspective on the sport. NASCAR on Fox could use a reboot after a dozen years, and my sense is that a lot of viewers would welcome such a change.

In the mid-1990s, after one particularly harrowing early lap at Talladega which saw the entire NASCAR Winston Cup field negotiate all four corners at 200 mph in a three-wide formation, a hushed Bob Jenkins solemnly wondered aloud, “Is there any doubt that we are witnessing some of the greatest race car drivers in the world?” What would ol’ D.W. have said? I’m glad the moment was not spoiled by the answer.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Out in the Garden

It’s always interesting watching how different motorsports series handle the mundane realm of day-to-day operations, including job changes. Moving from team to team seems to be regarded with increasing concern based on the annual cost for a team to compete in a given series.

In NASCAR, stringent rules governing almost all aspects of competition tend to reduce the severity of a resignation - or increase the benefit of a new signing. There have been instances in the past where a team has “found something” – the incredible September sweep of Winston Cup driver “Handsome Harry” Gant and crew chief Andy Petree in 1991, or Kyle Petty’s dominance at the track that was then called North Carolina Motor Speedway in the early 1990s. Still, it’s not at all uncommon to see personnel ranging from crews to crew chiefs cross-pollinating through the NASCAR ranks seemingly at will.

Harry Gant earned the "Mr. September" nickname in 1991.

The opposite is true in Formula One, where annual team budgets regularly exceed staggering figures (think hundreds of millions of dollars). Formula One may be even more closely regulated than NASCAR, but all that funding goes into working within the rules, tunneling deep into the regulations to find tiny openings for technical developments that may yield only a few hundredths of a second advantage per lap. But in a sport where the teams that are given little chance to win are running less than two seconds per lap slower than the elite teams on long road courses, tiny time increments become huge.

With such technical innovations both hideously expensive and jealously guarded, a top team member revealing intentions to move on to a competing team causes a seismic shock. Doubtless the current employer would prefer to simply eliminate the problem in a James Bond fashion (“If I told you, I’d have to kill you…”), but even in F1 – where elaborate espionage plots have played out in the past - there’s no getting away with murder. So the prevailing methodology is to put the traitor out to pasture for as long as possible before freeing him, quarantining him from the advancing march of team technology.

Paddy Lowe, seen celebrating a victory with McLaren driven Jenson Button in 2012, will have a much quieter 2013.

Such a situation is playing out now, even before the first competition of the 2013 F1 season this weekend in Australia. McLaren’s technical director, Paddy Lowe, intends to follow driver Lewis Hamilton from the British team to rival Mercedes. While drivers have some freedom of movement when it comes to employment, it’s also true that their byte-level familiarity with technical details is usually small. Hamilton, after all, was released by McLaren and allowed to climb out of the MP4-23 for the last time in November and go right to work testing his new ride weeks later. But what does Lowe know about McLaren? Simply everything.

Consequently, Lowe will be spending 2013 not attending McLaren’s F1 races but whiling away his time on what is amusingly referred to as “gardening leave.” It’s a period of isolation from his employer’s competition secrets before McLaren is forced to release him from employment at the end of the year. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh, while announcing Tim Goss would immediately take over the team’s reins as technical director, had little to say of his predecessor: "Paddy Lowe will be performing a different role within McLaren until the end of the year.” In other words, working in the garden.

Perhaps in F1 more than any other racing series, such personnel policies offer proof that knowledge is indeed power.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Just another street car...

OK, The View from the Pits is supposed to focus on motorsports, but sometimes we need to relax the regulations a bit. Case in point: the Lamborghini Veneno.

The Geneva auto show opens to the public on Thursday, and the event is known for debuting some of the most over-the-top supercars imaginable. Among the cars to be revealed this year is the new McLaren P1, with production limited to 375 units at about $1.3 million each. But even those heady figures are eclipsed by the Veneno, likely the most amazing supercar to emerge from Lamborghini’s Sant'Agata Bolognese, Italy headquarters.

Bearing a price tag of roughly $4 million per vehicle – hey, carbon-fiber aint cheap! - Lamborghini will produce just three of these cars. And they are indeed cars, although they certainly look like they could fly.

With a 6.5-litre V-12 making the muscle, the Veneno is expected to top out at roughly 220 mph.

If any of The View from the Pits readers ends up with a Veneno and would like to offer a test drive to see if we can actually reach that lofty velocity, feel free to get in touch. Please!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

It’s beginning to look a lot like NASCAR – again.

I was recently watching an old videotape of the Winston Cup Series running at Talladega, Alabama in May, 1992. Yes, that almost seems to be the dark ages from our vantage point more than two decades later. But it was a pretty thrilling spectacle, and a milestone along the way leading to an incredible championship battle, with the season-long victory claimed by the late Alan Kulwicki in the last race of the year.

1991 Winston 500 winner “Handsome Harry” Gant finished deep in the field a year later, while Dale Earnhardt claimed a top five.

As the laps of the Winston 500 ticked down to reveal a hard-fought win by Davey Allison that long-ago May afternoon, I recognized all of the drivers and their numbers. But what struck me just from casual glances at the screen were two things in particular. One was how easy it was to differentiate a Thunderbird from a Lumina and a Grand Prix from a Cutlass. The other? How cool all these cars looked as stock car racers.

Fast forward to 2008 and, along with a new title for the series thanks to Sprint, here comes the Car of Tomorrow. I get all the reasons that drove the development and implementation of this vehicle – wider, sturdier, and safer. But holy smokes – has there ever been a more uninspiring flock of “stock cars” to roll onto a superspeedway?

OK, it’s safer – but do I have to look at it?

I’ve complained about NASCAR plenty since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed at Daytona. In my opinion, the sport of stock car racing’s top series began to drift away from what made it great in a cloud of marketing and a head-on frenzy to expand – and the revolting appearance of the Car of Tomorrow only made things worse.

But credit where it’s due: watching this year’s testing sessions at Daytona International Speedway brought back that old exciting feeling. The work in progress that has been the Car of Tomorrow has evolved from the ugly ducklings of that initial season to the real race cars I saw blasting around those famed high banks. The Gen-6 (“sixth-generation”) cars look like the real deal, and perception can indeed become reality.

“Hey, this looks like… a real stock car!” That it is…

Folks, the stock car is back, and boy did I miss it! Now if we could just get away from tongue-twister race names like “The Sprint Unlimited At Daytona” and return to the simplicity of monikers like “Bud Shootout…”

Well, one step at a time.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"I dunno... Let's just try it!"

When I was a kid in the late 1960s, I was as much into drag racing as I was music (a passion that also lives on; please visit my http://FrankBlankMusic.blogspot.com  site for more on that realm).

The two interests make a lot of sense now as I look back on that era. Both drag racing and rock music were seeing cataclysmic upheavals in all aspects, reflecting the wild times of American culture in general.

Two things in particular characterized drag strip culture in that era: a sense of wild innovation, and an appreciation of the importance of show biz.

Computer say, driver do: drag racing in the modern era...

Modern drag racing is similar to the other big budget sports - those big sponsorships demand professionalism and consistency of results. Anything that results in a dragster going faster now is most likely an innovation emerging from computer diagnostics.

John Peters' historic "Freight Train," restored for the enjoyment of future generations. Groundpounder, indeed...

In the late 1960s, though, computers took up entire rooms and were the domain of the pocket protector gang. Out at the strip, “going faster” was something obtained - or totally missed - by best guesses. “Hey, that thing goes pretty fast with one engine. What if we put in two?” Or, “Well, it looks aerodynamic to me.”

Tommy Ivo's attempt at implementing advanced aerodynamics: fail. Says Ivo today, "What a ride! This was it! The only thing that made me mad was I got so scared I closed my eyes and missed the whole show!"

What hurts drag racing today is that there’s little reward in trying out wild ideas. There are banks of data that answer all the questions before attempts are ever made, with the result that everybody’s running just about the same thing.

It’s rare to see something startling on the track. In the late 1960s, it was almost expected.

Of course, earlier I mentioned the show biz aspect. We’ll take a peak at that down the road, but here’s a hint of what I’m talking about!

Just another day at the office...


Friday, February 8, 2013

Return to action...

There are few things sadder on the Internet than a blog that’s fallen into inactivity, digital cobwebs hanging from that distant date in the past when the content was last updated…

Well, as Patti Smith exclaimed upon her return to the stage after breaking her neck in a fall: “Out of traction, back in action!”
My blog silence was not the result of a medical condition (fortunately!). Instead, I had the opportunity to focus on one area of my range of interests, and it demanded full attention. So I’ve spent much of the last nine months living in the past while working on the music of my band of the 1980s, Informed Sources. This effort ranged from mixing studio multitrack tapes and preparing for a commercial release to practicing and playing a one-off show in Philadelphia. And, of course, there was the creation of a Web site: www.FrankBlankMusic.com
But after all those weeks playing the roles of recording engineer, art director, sales manager, web developer, publicist, logistics coordinator – oh, and guitarist! – it’s time to end the hiatus and dust off these blogs.
Keyboard, computer, action!