Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bittersweet.

Braselton, GA – 

Fifteen years. Compared to NASCAR’s 65 years running, not a big number. Compared to Indy and Le Mans’ ACO and FIA at or above 100 years each, barely a flash in the pan. Yet, in 15 years – the last twelve of which I’ve spent covering the American Le Mans Series – we have seen storied battles on pavement between global manufacturers and upstart privateers. We have seen a showcase for future technologies being tested in competition. We have seen history being made at high speed all over North America. In 15 years, some of the best racing anywhere has taken place in ALMS. 

With the series to be absorbed into the Tudor United Sports Car Championship in 2014, this year’s Petit Le Mans closed out the ALMS season – and the series itself – on an unusually wistful note. 

“It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? I mean… it’s an end of an era.” So said Muscle Milk Pickett Racing’s Lucas Luhr, prior to the start of Saturday’s last-ever ALMS race, which summed-up the overall feel on the paddock last week. Adding to the tinge of sadness in the air was the pain of loss within the motorsports family. Famed young Porsche ace Sean Edwards was killed in a crash in Australia on Tuesday while instructing a student, and his team made the decision to remove the No. 30 MOMO Porsche 911 GT3 from competition. The Porsche’s livery was redone in a tribute to Edwards, and taken for a solitary lap prior to the race. 


The undercurrent of sober reflection was inescapable. Edwards was a popular driver and proven talent in GTC class. At 26, likely not yet into his prime, he was leading the Porsche Supercup Championship points race at the time of his death. 

Thus, it was almost poetic that the 1,000-mile contest began with a somber backdrop of light rain, which continued for most of the daylight hours, before eventually giving way to clearer skies and cool October breezes for the finish. 

Among the other points of interest from Petit: 

All week long, it seemed much of the discussion on the paddock and trackside seemed to center not so much on the race itself, as what we might expect for next year. That is, because so little information has been made available to the teams competing in TUSCC starting in just 3 months. The series schedule was only recently released, and car specifications have been slow to come. As a result, a number of top teams have been slow to commit – Greg Pickett’s Muscle Milk Racing, Dyson Racing, and Scott Tucker’s Level 5 Motorsports are just three out of a considerable number of ALMS regulars who have yet to announce plans for 2014. 

As one division in sports car racing is coming to an end with ALMS and Grand Am becoming one series, another rivalry of sorts is apparently developing: The FIA’s World Endurance Championship, responsible in no small part for drawing talent away from existing Le Mans-style racing series in the USA and Europe, has events scheduled in conflict with the new combined series. Since the first weekend of October is the new black, apparently, WEC’s Fuji date on the same weekend as TUSCC’s Petit Le Mans in 2014. 

NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series made an appearance at the track, though rain forced the series to spend most of their scheduled time idled on the paddock. Unable to account for the damp Fall weather (read: no wet tires), the “stock cars” completed a brief practice session early in the week, only to have later practices and qualifying rained-out. They did run a full race on Friday, which was still good fun to watch. 

While the NASCAR teams were frustrated by moist track conditions, the IMSA Lites and Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup series put on an excellent show in both wet and dry. Most notably in MX-5 Cup, a last-lap battle between Elliott Skeer, John Dean II, and Patrick Gallagher brought fans – and announcers – to their feet, with the three finishing in the aforementioned order. Skeer won the final race of the season, but ended up 4 points shy of series championship winner Christian Szymczak. 

An item that’s surfaced in the last day or two: According to sources within IMSA, one possible change for 2014 may be in the series’ safety team. That is, there might not be one. While IMSA for years has had its own dedicated safety crew traveling with the series, “the NASCAR way” has always been to have a series liaison to coordinate with local firefighters, EMTs and paramedics at each of the tracks – and this is said to be the policy TUSCC wants to adopt. NASCAR claims this is due to “risk management and the series’ insurance policies,” which is shorthand for “this is how we always done it on the cheap, and we don’t like changin’ things.” Outside the world of France family racertainment, however, it’s a travesty. Ask any driver. It is one of many points of contention that need to be settled before the green flag drops at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January. 

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop. 





Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Street Giveth, and The Street Taketh Away

Baltimore, MD –

Ten years ago, while working a stint for the Mayor’s Office in Baltimore, the thought occurred to me as I was driving home through the streets, “it sure would be cool to see a sports car race through here some day.” Of course, I’ve probably said that about ¾ of the cities I’ve driven through over the years – and who would ever think of doing a race on the streets of Baltimore, anyway? In those days, the city was known nationally as little more than the backdrop for HBO’s The Wire, a show sometimes criticized for being too true to life. Too gritty. Too brutal. Too real. If Los Angeles has a polar opposite, it’s covered in Old Bay seasoning, hon. Baltimore is a picture of working class hard times, and not unlike Detroit has suffered economically for decades. The city’s got scars, ugly ones, and they’re front-and-center.

Of course, there was no way a major race could ever happen. Baltimore, for all its picturesque aerial shots of the Inner Harbor, has way too many counts against it. It’s one thing to whip-up a concrete canyon in a city where snow is something you only see on TV (that’s you, Long Beach & St. Pete), but here? With streets in such characteristically mid-Atlantic shape, they’ll turn a new car’s suspension into crab cake mush in a few months. It’ll never work.

Except that, for the last couple of years, it mostly did.

In the face of local media trashing the race weekend at every turn, and mixed support from the surrounding community (some businesses won, others lost), the first two years of the Grand Prix of Baltimore at the very least showed some promise. That is, literally the promise that much of the hazardously bumpy street surface at the rail tracks would be remedied. Hastily-poured chicanes on the Pratt St. front stretch were problematic in 2011 and 2012, but assurances had been made from all sides that “next year” the chassis-crunching curbs and rail gulleys would be tamed and the track would be so much better.

This year, all hell broke loose. Every series that showed-up – Indy Lights, ALMS, and IZOD Indycar – saw critical damage to numerous cars in every class, the chicanes and tire-barriers turning the circuit into a stunt course more worthy of “Ironman” Ivan Stewart’s off-roader than Patrick Dempsey's Porsche. Starting with a massive crash at the beginning of Saturday’s ALMS race before the field could even take the green flag (resulting in an hour-long delay that shortened the race duration from 2 hours to 1 hour 15 min), and Race Control for each series that seemed to be watching a NASCAR race somewhere, nearly everything that could go wrong, did. For every driver on every team, the ALMS race was hardcore penance for all sins real or imagined that have ever been committed in the name of competition.

As long as we’re complaining, even the humidity was awful. Again.

Sunday’s Indycar race may not have seen half the field turned into a carbon fiber modern art sculpture before it could even get started, but was yet another carnage-laced crash fest. With virtually no suspension travel, the Indy cars simply launched off the chicane curbs – and sometimes plowed into the tire barriers, keeping pit crews at the ready with new nose-pieces. On the dramatic side, the ongoing soap opera between Scott Dixon and Will Power added another chapter, courtesy of Power’s brain-fart which crashed-out Dixon’s car. It wasn’t good racing, but it was still a better story than Twilight.

Indycar may be comparable to vampires vs. werewolves, but for 2014 USCR is taking the shape of a hastily-cobbled together Frankenseries. As yet, teams and suppliers are still awaiting crucial specifications, schedules, pretty much the whole framework they should expect to be working with… and it’s not there yet. Memo to the offices in Daytona Beach: You’re late, and it looks bad.


Back to Baltimore: For all its faults, the city known for gritty TV shows, Super Bowl champs, and white marble steps, still has something to work with. Other circuits have gone through growing pains, and the harsh reality is that more of them are consigned to the scrapheap of history than on an active schedule.

We’ll know, soon.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.





Sunday, March 17, 2013

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!”

Sebring, FL –

This year’s Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours brought with it two major dramatic themes. Both involve the closing of an age.


For nearly as long as the American Le Mans Series has run, one of its biggest attractions has been the super high-tech presence of Audi’s LMP team. Their drivers have always been among the world’s finest, often with Formula 1 pedigree (indeed, the years-old joke on the paddock is that F1 is the “feeder series” for Le Mans sports cars), nearly as diversified as the UN, or at least Angelina Jolie’s nursery.

Thus, with the FIA World Endurance Championship continuing to play to the more sterile but market-friendly circuits (its only US date for 2013 being COTA in Texas), and with the LMP1 class departing from the series after this year, the Audi team returned for a Swan Song run – a thank you and farewell to the fans and the series, and as always a tune-up for Le Mans 24. What’s remarkable about Audi’s run last Saturday was not that they won, but how they continue to make it look so easy. It isn’t. Just completing 12 Hours at Sebring is a conquest of its own; winning it, and winning so convincingly for so long, leaves Audi with an overall streak to rival the greatest ever.


Then, there’s the story of the Series itself.

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!” 

The words of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters may have been intended as a joke, but no less hyperbole has been spent in recent months on next year’s integration of the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am into one combined program.

“This NASCAR thing? It’s gonna’ suck!”  – (echoed comments from any number of ALMS fans in the crowd and via the internet, on next year’s unified series)

We’ve had all Winter to grouse about it; to complain and prognosticate on what it all means to the future of racing, but with both series’ 2013 openers now in the books, it’s time to more seriously consider: What’s the United SportsCar Racing series going to mean?


Everything – the new name, the loss of LMP1 class, the inclusion of Daytona Prototypes, the mixing of various GT classes – everything has been under scrutiny, and not just from the fans. Team owners Rob Dyson and Greg Pickett, both longtime LMP1 competitors as well as great friends, held a joint conference with the motorsports press during the week, and both seemed to have more questions about 2014 than answers. How exactly will the specifications shake out? Where will the tires come from? Will P2 be competitive with DP? Right now, less than 11 months until the United SportsCar Racing series goes live in Daytona for 2014, there’s still a ton of scaffolding in place, lots of “we’re working on it,” and not too much else to go on.

However, there are several things we can count on:

The relationship with ACO will be preserved. This was pretty obvious, as ACO has benefited greatly from ALMS over the years, and had very little liability in the deal. It’s a win for ACO no matter what, so they’re in.

IMSA sanctioning is being kept in place, another obvious move. The “big reveal” ceremony showed a somewhat revised IMSA logo, which wasn’t broken to begin with, but someone’s market research must’ve concluded it was the way to go.

Manufacturers and sponsors will no longer need to hedge on which series will provide the best return. One top-level sports car series means we no longer have a split in that slice of the pie. It also means TV networks can present a more cohesive package – even though Speed channel is going away later in 2013, other networks are bound to take notice. Velocity, are you listening?


For the ALMS-faithful, the biggest complaint seems to be about NASCAR running everything. While that’s certainly valid on some fronts, the Walmart of racing in the US does do some things incredibly well. Turning racing into money is the France family specialty; it’s what they DO, before anything else. Also, as evidenced by the extreme makeover at Daytona International Speedway, they don’t mind spending real money on the fans’ experience at the track. As the USCR schedule forms, a few circuits are sure to lose out, obviously.  Those that remain, however, will stand to benefit in ways previously unimagined.

In Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans, his character Michael Delaney famously said:  “When you’re racing… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after, is just waiting.”

It’s time to stop waiting, and go racing.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Petit Le Mans 2012: Wingin' it.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.” – Semisonic

Braselton, GA –

With the full assimilation of the American Le Mans Series into the NASCAR family of racing still more than a year away, this year’s Petit Le Mans is already showing some early signs that one era of racing is winding down; another is taking shape. Much of the talk on the paddock and infield centered on 2014 and what it means to everyone in sports car racing. Opinions were, well, what you might expect:

“At last, we can address the need for restrictor plates at Sebring!”
“Hey, wouldn’t it be great if NASCAR bought its way into a monopoly of road racing in America – no, wait, nobody’s ever asked that.”
“’ISCAR?’ Really?”

And then there’s the High Octane love-it-or-hate-it truth: “It had to happen, eventually.”

The pros and cons of the unfortunately-named ISCAR deal have been hashed-out for more than a month now, and will continue long into the year to come. What should be a clear plus for manufacturers and sponsors still leaves question marks lingering in the minds of various teams, tracks (none of whom is anxious to lose a date), and most of all, the fans.

It was, for some, easy to forget that we still have a full season of both ALMS and Grand Am to come next year – and we also had one pretty big ALMS season finale over the weekend.

Despite the absence of traditional European turbo-diesel heavy hitters Audi and Peugeot (the former gone to WEC, the latter just… gone), the crowds still turned out in huge numbers to see their perennial series favorites throw down on the hot Georgia asphalt (and sometimes red clay) with a sprinkling of European Le Mans Series regulars who made the trip, as the ELMS’ own late season schedule has been cannibalized by the FIA’s World Endurance Championship.

Also absent from the week’s racing schedule were some of the regular support series, so no SCCA World Challenge Touring and GT races, though the hole in the schedule was filled with some dramatic and close racing from the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup series.

With the ALMS GT title already decided (and LMP categories all but finally sorted), some of the most fun was in watching what were effectively exhibition and development entries – the first proper endurance race for SRT’s new Viper GTS-R team was a success, with the #91 car finishing a respectable 8th in class as SRT boss Ralph Gilles watched from his team’s pit box.

However, the bigger (no, biggest) fun-run of the week was without question the US competition debut of the Delta Wing. After being crashed-out by a competitor’s imbecilic move at Le Mans in June, the program was supposedly dead – only to be resurrected for Petit. The joy was momentarily put on hold, however, when another imbecilic move (this time from Green Hornet Porsche driver Peter LeSaffre, who later went on to take out the Muscle Milk HPD car during the race) wrecked the Delta Wing during practice on Wednesday. No strangers to rebuilding a wrecked car overnight at Petit Le Mans, Duncan Dayton’s amazing Highcroft Racing team reconstructed the car overnight – complete with the headrest tips painted high-visibility red to make the otherwise stealth-fighter black Batmobile easier to spot. It worked, and the Delta Wing not only went the distance, but finished an impressive 6th overall.

In an earlier era, another great American racing team once used the term “Competition Proven” on its cars. Decades later, the Delta Wing and all those involved in its effort, have made it Competition Proven.

That’s it for this season – I’ll see you at Sebring.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Heaven On Earth. One Hell of a Show.

Alton, VA –

Two weeks ago in Baltimore, the world of sports car racing was rocked by the news that the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am Road Racing were “merging,” before details were revealed that showed this was one of those “don’t-call-it-a-buyout” buyouts. In the short time since, countless experts – including a few who actually know enough to speak intelligently on the subject – have weighed-in on what it all means; for the combined series promoters, for the teams and manufacturers, the sponsors, and the fans.

The dust still has yet to settle, and the chatter remains: Is it good news? Is it bad news? The press conference on September 5th left open far more questions than it answered, but the inside line suggests this much: Come what may, the combining of the two series was probably the eventual outcome with the least amount of fallout (both economically and politically) for all those involved, as both groups had spent some 13 years fighting over a decreasing slice of the motorsports pie. NASCAR Holdings simply took the textbook corporate approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em. No matter your take on the acquisition, it’s just one big wait-and-see for the next year or so – and there’s lots of racing to be done before the end of 2013.

This brings us, of course, to this weekend’s first-ever appearance of the ALMS at Virginia International Raceway, quite possibly the most astute definition of the word “bucolic” as you’ll find applied to an American racing circuit. The track is wrapped in Southern charm, and proudly bills itself what the late Paul Newman described as “heaven on Earth.” In basic terms, VIR is 3.27 miles of rolling hills, fast straights, one big beautiful oak tree, and as many turns as Sebring. It’s hard to ignore the red clay and down-home feel reminiscent of Road Atlanta – albeit with some uncommonly swank trackside accommodations for the “coffee on the balcony overlooking a motoring paradise” set.

With ALMS, of course, comes a huge crowd. By Saturday morning, overflow parking was loading up, and several track workers and local volunteers around the circuit were overheard stating “I’ve never seen so many people in all my life!” Not “people at the track,” but “people.” For a group putting on what had to be by far its biggest show ever, the friendly staff at VIR did a commendable job of keeping things moving along.

As has been the case for a few years now, the real show in ALMS is the absolutely fierce competition in GT class – and Corvette Racing was able to use the four-hour event to lock up the manufacturer and driver’s championships for the year, while class-winning driver Oliver Gavin celebrated his 100th series start: “For me, my 100th race, to win the race and win the championships, driver’s, team, and manufacturer, I don't think there is anything else I could have done today… We made our own luck. We clambered and put our self in the right position. We executed that 4 times this year, that’s why we won the championship.”

The series’ LMP1 class is set to enter the final round of the season at Petit Le Mans with the title still undecided. Greg Pickett’s Muscle Milk Racing Honda once again had the speed, and without the tight course and concrete barriers of Baltimore’s street circuit, Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf were able to keep the nose clean and sprint to victory. The two-car Dyson Racing Lola/Mazda team, however, were never quite up to speed. Dyson used the VIR race to debut it’s “Flybrid” KERS system, which with the season nearing its end and the championship still within reach, seems quite a gamble. The KERS “works efficiently,” according to Chris Dyson, “when it’s working.” He added that the system is still in the early stages of development, and that it will return in the car at Petit Le Mans.

The grid at Petit, of course, has been hurt by the loss of the WEC sanction – though it’s also being bolstered somewhat by the addition of some entries coming over from the now-cancelled (or “on hiatus”) European Le Mans Series – which was utterly decimated by Euro-based teams flocking to the FIA-sanctioned series. To anyone who just plain loves sports car racing, however, Petit Le Mans is the last race of the year that matters.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.



Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Baltimore Grand Prix 2012 - The Sequel

A flood of cautions, terrific action, crab cakes, and an announcement that will transform sports car racing in America? Yep, it must be Labor Day Weekend in Baltimore.

Baltimore, MD –

Last weekend’s 2012 Baltimore Sports Car Challenge presented by SRT was defined as much by off-the-circuit news as anything that happened on the 2.04-mile street circuit. We’ll get through the good, the bad, and the just plain weird of it.

For starters, following a blast of a successful debut in 2011, the original promoters – who delivered the goods in crowd turnout but blew it by having way over-promised on revenues – were sacked earlier this year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Then, with the entire event hanging in the balance for months, eventually Andretti Sports Marketing was brought in to pick up the pieces and make the event happen – all in the span of about 90 days.

The first thing anybody noticed this year was the crowd; or, really, the lack of one. Where the 2011 debut had the streets flooded with people (many of whom seem to have gotten in free) the turnout was huge despite the lack of advertising in local media. This time round, even with ads running all over TV and radio in Baltimore and DC markets, it was considerably easier to get where you needed to go, and spend a lot less time waiting in line.  Andretti Sports Marketing’s Jade Gurss summed it up, saying “we may have fewer total numbers, but we more likely have a higher number of paying customers.”  
Sunday brought the biggest crowds, as Indycar seemed to have more of a “main event” feel about it. That’s what having a live TV contract gets you, even if it’s on NBC.

For an event so quickly cobbled-together, the Andretti group deserves a tip of the hat – as does the City of Baltimore itself. Last year’s abhorrent traffic tie-ups were made substantially better by routing traffic more efficiently, and the behind-the-scenes workings seemed to flow with better organization (for the most part) than last year. Also, while the track designer may have screwed-up by re-designing the circuit without last year’s dreaded chicanes (leading to several cars literally catching air while crossing the railroad tracks on Pratt St), the response to this foul-up was quick and decisive – the chicanes were put back in place, so that rather than cars flying through the air, we had cars getting loose and tagging the wall. If you’re going to have damage, better to contain it on the tarmac than launch it through the air.

Along with the road hazard carried over from last year, every race over the span of three days involved some kind of pile-up in the now-notorious turn 1. One local fan observed “I don’t think we need a race announcer for this one, so much as we need a traffic reporter.” Coupled with some light rain on Sunday, the track seemed to take on both the best and worst characteristics of Sebring and Long Beach. This time, however, the manhole covers stayed put.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the Baltimore race without bringing up the situation that threatened to overshadow the entire event: As this is being written, we are just a few hours away from the announcement that the Grand Am series and the American Le Mans Series have reached an agreement to “merge.” Anyone who watched the DaimlerChrysler “merger of equals” play out at the end of the last century, knows what “merger” means these days – and Peter’s insight on this deal really is the last word as far as its analysis is concerned. It’s far too early to know whether to throw roses or dead fish at the parties involved – or some combination of both – but one thing is certain: Sports car racing in North America just took a very sharp U-turn, and it will never be the same.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sebring 2012: The Future is (still) Coming.

Sebring, FL – 


The closing lap of this year’s 60th running of the Sebring 12 Hours was a showcase for some of the most exciting wheel to wheel racing ever seen on our shores. Sure, Audi’s legendary trio of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, and Dindo Capello had already wrapped up the overall and LMP1 win with time to spare and little competition outside of their Joest Racing teammates, but the battle in GT was once again the knock-down street brawl we’ve come to expect from the production-based class. 

So, who won? 

The answer to that would seem to depend on where you’re counting from, how you score it, and possibly where you watched the race. The #16 Dyson Racing Lola B12/66-Mazda, which finished outside the top 3 overall, still took the ALMS P1 win. The American Le Mans Series GT win went to Joey Hand, piloting the #155 BMW Team RLL E92 M3, with the #03 Corvette Racing C6-ZR1 some six seconds back, followed by Olivier Beretta’s #71 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia in third. At least, that’s what we saw on our web browsers or internet-connected TVs, right? 

While the BMW team got the trophy for the ALMS GT win, top honors for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) went to Beretta, in a guest drive with the AF Corse team in LMGTE Pro class. So, third place overall can still be considered a win. If you’re feeling a bit lost in the esses, you’re not alone. 

Following last year’s successful run of the ACO’s Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, this year the ILMC was taken over by the FIA and turned into the WEC, ostensibly because the powers that be in motorsports prefer three letter series over those with four, and because the FIA is the be-all/end-all of motorsport sanctioning – at least, they think so. This involves, among other things, removing Petit Le Mans and Imola from the schedule and adding races at Sao Paulo, Mt. Fuji and Bahrain. The biggest downside of all in this is the loss of Petit Le Mans from the great big international series, a move I predicted in these pages last Fall to be unconscionably foolish but seemingly inevitable. 

Peugeot was among the manufacturers that had lobbied heavily for the formation of the WEC, before the company ran out of money and hastily dismantled its entire Le Mans racing team, even recalling the remaining 908-series LMP race cars from its factory team and privateers, and destroying them. 

Ah, don’t you love the smell of politics in the morning? 

I could spend a thousand words breaking down the reasoning put forth behind the FIA/WEC screwing the ALMS sideways to run a race in front of six camels and some rich men in the desert, but this sentence effectively accomplishes that in under 40. 

Since its inception at the end of the 20th century, Don Panoz, Scott Atherton, and the rest of the American Le Mans Series have worked tirelessly to promote Le Mans-style racing in North America, occasionally benefiting from the direct tie-in to the Le Mans 24 Hours, but sometimes suffering for it. This raison d’etre was not lost on anyone, and the series highlighting of not just “Green Racing” but the transfer of technology from race car to passenger car has made it the high-tech rock star of the motorsports world. That the ALMS is habitually treated as the ACO (and now FIA)’s red-headed stepchild is a crime.

Sure, starting the season with a 64-car mega-race sounds cool. The racing all day into night was as great as ever, whether you call it LMGTE-Am, LMGTE-Pro, or just call it like it is and say that Joey Hand kicked everyone’s ass on the last lap and won GT. What the WEC means to ALMS audiences is 9 classes, 27 trophies, and, post-race champagne spraying that seemed to last half as long as the race itself. As someone who’s never been much for “March Madness,” the concept of 192 drivers in 64 cars (well, 62 actually started and 58 finished) divided into 9 classes isn’t racing, it’s a bracketing headache. 

But here’s the even bigger question: Did you see it? No, I don’t mean the 90-minute highlight reel hastily cobbled-together for ABC. That’s just a joke that nobody gets, or ever will. I mean the full 12 hours, as webcast by ESPN3.com. From the feedback we’ve been getting, the series second season of Brave New World internet-only delivery is off to no better a start than we saw one year ago. Back then, it was charitably called a limited success with lots of room for improvement. In March of 2012, however, the only great sports car race in America is still a fantastic event in search of a way to reach its fans. 

Complaints from fans on the ALMS official Facebook page during the race started early and never lifted – most of them from fans in the USA complaining, “why can’t I watch this race?” Indeed, technical difficulties abounded involving the internet feed and ability to log on, and the ALMS own website didn’t seem to provide much help to viewers who wanted to watch or otherwise needed help getting hooked up. Even watching a replay on ESPN3.com – a great idea in concept at least – is fraught with issues ranging from Internet provider licenses to browser caches to ESPN’s own web servers occasionally just being… slow. 

Is web streaming the future of TV? Of course it is. The key word however, as it was in March of 2011, is “future.” Online coverage of qualifying and the race itself is a great idea that should never be abandoned. Following the work ethic of the top racing teams, it is a work that needs to be continuously refined, sweated-out, and perfected. 

As shown by a full season and two Sebring 12 Hours, the future still has not arrived. 

That’s it for now – I’ll see you at the next pit stop. 



Thursday, October 06, 2011

Absolutely Epic.

Braselton, GA –

“Epic.” Quite possibly the most abused term of the last few years, thanks in no small part to various forums on the Internet. These days, even the talking heads on TV (most of whom no longer deserve the title “anchor,”) have fallen prey to over-using a term of supreme magnitude, to describe the slightest deviation from the norm. When the act of finding a $10 bill in the pocket of one’s jeans is described as “epic win,” and pretty much everything else that ever happens in the world earns the term “epic fail” by the internet fanboy intelligentsia, it becomes clear that an example – a true to life definition of the word – is needed.

This past weekend’s 14th running of the Petit Le Mans, the final round of the American Le Mans Series 2011 season, was the very essence of the four-letter word mentioned above. The season-ender started an event-record 52 cars (53 were qualified, but a Risi Competizione Ferrari was damaged beyond repair during the morning warm-up), and of those, 38 were scored as “running” by the time the checkered flag waved and Team Peugeot TOTAL claimed victory. The race itself featured as much fantastic display of driving skill and engineering prowess as can be seen in any form of racing today, though it remains a bit unclear just how many people – in the US and abroad – were able to watch the race.

The series’ “webcast/delayed broadcast” experiment, begun at the season-opener in Sebring, has been a mixed success. Neither “epic win” or “epic fail,” the experience many fans have had streaming the races via the Internet on ESPN3.com in the US (or via Americanlemans.com overseas) has largely been… lukewarm “WTF?” We knew at the beginning of the ’11 season that the series leaving behind live TV broadcasting would be a huge gamble, and at season’s end, the result looks like a push. Next year will see the return of live broadcast on ABC and ESPN2 (ABC and the ESPN networks are owned by Disney) for four events, with the live streaming on ESPN3.com to continue unchanged. Conspicuously absent from the big picture is Radio Le Mans, the web-radio network headed by John Hindhaugh, which had previously carried live coverage of all ALMS events prior to this year. I can’t think of any other group that has the mixture of dedication, proven talent, and sheer insight shown week after week by Radio Le Mans, and the edited-to-pieces and delayed TV broadcasts on ABC/ESPN2 have drawn criticism for everything from miserable editing to dull commentary, so something else must be at work there.

Petit Le Mans is no longer just the American sports car Fall Classic, either. As part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) – which is soon to give way to the new FIA-sanctioned World Endurance Championship – it’s gone from being a quaint little day-long event with a respectable fan turnout… to being a downright huge week-long festival with fan turnout so huge, even three years into economic times that are lackluster at best, the infield is packed full and overflow parking off-site is loaded. The running joke on the paddock is that there’s nothing much “petit” about the race anymore – and it’s genuinely arrived at a level where it rivals the 12 Hours of Sebring among great American sports car races, in must-see action and prestige, if not decades of heritage.

At Autoextremist.com, Peter DeLorenzo has talked about the need for sports car racing in this country to get its act together in a hurry, and force an end to the “split” between ALMS and the France Family’s Grand Am circus. When the crowd at Sebring or Petit on Wednesday practice is exponentially larger than the raceday crowd for the 24 Hours of Daytona, it’s pretty clear that the fans are voting loudly at the ticket booth. The fact is, when you put on a great race at a good circuit, featuring the world’s most fantastic-looking cars, people will want to see them run. Not just on TV, but up close.

At this year’s Petit Le Mans, the grandstands on the front stretch were either at or near full capacity for the duration of the entire race. Even NASCAR can’t get that together, these days. Seen the Brickyard 400 lately? 

So, why the urgent need for the teams to organize and determine a singular direction for themselves? In a word, politics – and the coming wave that is the World Endurance Championship.

The WEC, as it’s set to be next year, will replace the current ILMC, with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (the French governing body overseeing Le Mans) working with the FIA (that’s the other group of French rule-makers) to create a uniform global sportscar championship series. To borrow a quote from ALMS’ Scott Atherton from just a few years ago, those teams and sanctioning bodies not at the table, will be on the menu.

Will the frequently-repeated rumor of WEC’s stated desire for a date in South America mean stripping its sanction from Petit Le Mans? Not if the ACO and FIA have half a clue to work with. Still, this is racing on an enormous international scale, and stranger (and dumber) things have happened. And leaving ‘Petit’ off the WEC schedule would be – no exaggeration here – a screw-up of epic proportions.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Baltimore Grand Prix - Charm City Turns It Up.

Baltimore, MD –

As a child growing up in suburban Maryland near Baltimore, I always wondered what it would be like to have a race on the streets of Charm City. Just a few years ago, driving home from work along Conway and Light Streets, I had visions of sports cars, winged cars, cars with loud motors and slicks and radical paint schemes, blasting at-speed alongside the curves near the Inner Harbor. A ridiculous notion, I thought: “Race cars? Here?” It’s nice to dream, I figured.

This weekend, those dreams became reality. 

Friday's practice session drew a very large crowd.
For a city well-known for its rough streets – both in the “crumbling infrastructure” sense, as well as the realistic depictions in the great TV show The Wire – Baltimore has long been a city in search of an image makeover. The Orioles are reduced to barely an homage to the good old days, and the Ravens have struggled season after season, now eleven years out from their Super Bowl XXXV victory. This is not lost on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has staked her career on the success of this race. There is no room for doubt, either: If the race proves to be a bust for the local economy, she’s a goner. Win or lose, the city and its mayor are all-in.

If the size of the crowd was any indication, the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix was a success beyond anyone’s wildest expectations – the streets inside and surrounding the 12 turns of the 2.04 mile circuit were packed with racing fans, many of them attending their first auto race of any kind. Those who braved the nightmarish traffic tie-ups to catch a glimpse of the cars, see the drivers, watch the bands playing on the main stage, and generally just enjoy the festival atmosphere, were said to number over 100,000.

We saw nearly that many people on Friday – which was just practice and qualifying events, both of which were delayed for some last-minute preparations and inspections to be completed on the track. The hurried nature of preparing a street course for racing means that manhole covers need to be welded, and even then, as Saturday’s race showed, the welds can break under race friction and send the cast-iron disc skipping across the track. Asphalt curbs were under construction late into Thursday night on several corners as well as the front-stretch chicane.

With the hold-up forcing Friday’s action to be constantly shuffled until late in the day, fans didn’t seem to mind at all. They were having a good time eating crabcakes and hot dogs, enjoying a cold one on Howard Street, and waiting in lines 15 deep at the Danica Patrick trailer to bring home hats, t-shirts and scale models of her #7 Go Daddy car.

When the cars did hit the circuit, the crowds were just as deep at the fences, and the grandstands were literally packed to capacity. Newer fans may not be entirely able to distinguish between Star Mazda or US F2000, or Indy Light to Indy Car, but they all know Danica. Indy’s most bankable driver is headed to NASCAR next year, and much of her fan base will surely follow. Fortunately, IndyCar fans don’t need to look far to find an attractive female driver to support, as young Simona de Silvestro is fast, smart, tough, and having a breakout year in the series. 

Simona De Silvestro at a Sunday morning press conference
While the IndyCar Series was billed by the local media as the “headliner” race on Sunday, the American Le Mans Series really wowed the crowd on Friday and Saturday. Anywhere the series goes, fans are awestruck by the Corvettes, Ferraris, Porsches, and BMWs making up the GT class. The Prototypes are exciting and they still take the overall win, but ask any fan which car he or she would like to drive home, and it’s almost certain to be a GT car. While Steven Kane and Humaid al Masaood took the overall win in the Dyson Racing Mazda-Lola, it was Bryan Sellers and Wolf Henzler’s Falken Tire-sponsored Porsche 911 GT3 that the fans in the stands most wanted for a test drive.
Henzler's Porsche chasing down Corvette
Another exciting draw for the younger fans, were the Star Mazda and US F2000 series, both showcases for drivers mostly in their teens, with open-wheel aspirations to Indy Car and Formula 1. The US F2000 series wrapped up its season at Baltimore, and young Finn Petri Suvanto took honors for both Rookie of the Year and the Series Championship.

If there’s any sour aftertaste left from the weekend, it’s the attitude of some of the local media towards what was clearly a tremendous, successful, and quite stunning event. While some of the news organizations played up the arrival of the Grand Prix as a huge step forward for the city, others took a decidedly dim view – with an eye on influencing the upcoming Mayoral election, no doubt – and decried Rawlings-Blake’s “all-in” approach to getting Baltimore its date on the motorsports calendar, while the rest of the economy is still in the toilet.

Few of those criticisms hold any water: Sure, traffic in the downtown area was a mess. And yes, some businesses in the surrounding areas expected a horde of race fans, only to find that most of them stayed pretty close to the track. Not everybody at the party gets to dance with the prom queen, but those restaurants either located inside the circuit or which had a temporary presence set up close to the track, were swamped with business. Hotels were packed. Parking near the course was hard to find – though not impossible.

Fans enjoyed the action throughout the weekend.
The local citizens, however, were for the most part excited. Did it take moving some public funds around in order to put on the race? Sure. Did it mean new taxes? Absolutely. Was it a huge pain in the ass trying to get around downtown with so many of the streets closed off? Believe it, hon. And for nearly every person on the street I asked, the answer was accompanied with a smile. This is a small, mostly working-class city getting a shot at the big-time, with news coverage extending to Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. What Baltimore has with the Grand Prix, is an event to be proud of. 

Of course, Baltimore is not the “East coast Long Beach.” It’s far too early to try that one on, and there is quite a bit of room for improvement – in the circuit design and paving, in planning and promotion, in traffic management, and probably half a dozen other nit-picks I could come up with, if only the lingering aromas of tire smoke and Old Bay seasoning didn’t have me wanting to go back for more. For its first run right out of the box, the Baltimore GP was a winner.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Through The Fire: Kit's First Month After Surgery Part II

When last we left our hero, he had just gotten up and walked on his own for the first time since his surgery. The painkillers still not out of his system, he was none the less feeling tired, confused, and aching like crazy. The doctors had sent him home with antibiotics some stuff for the pain, but the "stuff for the pain" doesn't really alleviate pain - it just makes you not really care about it so much.

More importantly, Kit had gotten out of the front-door foyer, and into the den. This is where I had whipped the room into shape so Kit had room to get up and walk around a little, he had his choice of beds to use (one a cushioned dog bed, the other his favorite wool blanket), as well as a supply of water, and a fantastic view of the back yard and trees and birds - and squirrels he could not yet chase.



In the first few days, though confined to the den, Kit began showing signs of improvement not just every day, but more like every 12 hours. He would get up more. He would walk more. His appetite was fantastic, and he enjoyed every bite. It took several days before his digestive system came back online -- and that's something we're still working on -- but his turnaround started strong and has largely been a great success.

For the first couple of weeks, Kit's world was confined to the ground floor den, and the postage stamp of our backyard. I would take him out back as frequently as he wanted to go, though for the most part he would take a few steps out back, have a wee, then a few more steps and lay down. I would spend late hours into the night - into the early morning, if need be - downstairs with him. My big rattan swivel chair and backup laptop, and boom box for entertainment while Kit rested up. As long as I was in the room with him, Kit was OK.



Then it would get to be 4 AM or so, and I'd need some sleep. No sooner would I leave the room, Kit would tell me "hey, either come back here, or let me go upstairs with you!" He was in no shape to try the steps just yet, so I'd come back to the den, get him comfy on his wool blanket, and eventually make my way upstairs again. The nearest somewhat-comfy sleeping spot for me was the living room couch on the second floor, so I'd make myself a nest there - if Kit made any noises of distress, I would be close enough to hear it. On the morning of my birthday on May 1, I woke up after being crashed-out on the couch after a late night with Kit.

Soon after, Kit was ready to try getting up the steps. I let him approach this at his own pace, but I knew from the day he came home, that was an immediate goal: Prior to the surgery, when Kit's left front leg was giving him so much pain he would randomly scream in agony, he still found the strength to climb up another flight of steps at the end of the night, to sleep beside our bed. Kit insists on being right by my side, and I can only sleep on the couch for so long.

Just a couple of weeks after the surgery - only a couple of days after having his bandages removed (to expose his half-shaved left side, and the quickly-healing incision), Kit decided nothing was going to stop him from sleeping in his favorite spot. I carefully observed as he made his way up the steps - one by one, deliberately - until he found himself in the bedroom, and his dog bed right beside ours.

Starting a little over a week ago, Kit is now undergoing chemotherapy. Every three weeks, for the next 15 or so. The day after his first treatment, he got real sick -- I was no stranger to Kit having an upset stomach (and have gotten many miles out of our little wet/dry vac, so I'm a carpet-cleaning ninja by now), but the first day after chemo left him in rough shape. Happy to say, he's not had an incident since then - it's been over a week and he hasn't yakked since.

I'm well aware that Kitsune is no young pup. He's probably about 13 now, as he was probably around 2 when I got him in 2000. He's been through quite a bit over the last few years - and his vet bills are at least double what my own entire medical bills have totaled in the last 30 years. He's also worth every penny of it, worth every bit of lost sleep, and worth all of the cleanup at 3 AM. The odds are pretty strong that Kit's osteosarcoma will eventually return, though I'm doing everything I can with his program to see to it that doesn't happen.

For now, he's going for walks. When he sees a squirrel, he tries to chase after it - and does a pretty good job on 3 legs, too. He's still full of life, still wagging his tail, still smiling that huge grin of his. He has no regrets, and neither do I.

Pictured below, Kit climbed up onto the beanbag chair in the den, and was quite proud of himself:



There's more to come. Kit's story is still being written...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Through The Fire: Kit's First Month After Surgery

This week made one month since Kitsune came home after his cancer surgery. The doctors at Southpaws removed his left front leg, including the shoulder, so he looks just a bit different from the passenger's side than he did before. A read of the the surgery notes indicate no sign of metastasis at the time, which is encouraging news.

Bringing Kit home was wonderful but tough -- just a day, two days after surgery, he was in tons of pain and the painkillers they'd given him only seemed to disorient, rather than alleviate. With help from two of the vet techs, I got him into my car, and drove home.

Getting him into the house, however, was another story.

Kit knew where he was, and I'm sure on some level he was glad to be home. Yet, from the moment I opened the car door, I knew this wouldn't be easy. He wouldn't maneuver well at all in the back seat, and the soreness and swelling from the surgery made him to tender to lift -- I could loop a towel under his front leg (the only front leg now) and try to support, but every single step was a struggle. He was fighting to move ahead, but his strength wasn't there. Kit wasn't going to get anywhere on physical ability alone, but he pushed for all he was worth - he made it the fifteen feet or so from the car to just inside the front door, and collapsed flat on the linoleum.

Kit looked at me with some confusion in his eyes, as though he didn't quite understand why he was so lame, and looked sad as if he was letting me down. Dogs always want to please their masters, and the best ones practically shame themselves sick when they feel they've let you down. Kit has always been one of the best. I got some towels underneath and around him, brought some water for him to drink, and sat with him.

All afternoon. All night.

I made a nest out of Kim's beanbag chairs, brought my laptop over to watch some Top Gear Australia, and tried to get some rest. With Kit unable to get up and move, I knew he'd have no choice but to evacuate on the floor - that didn't matter, as I was ready to clean up whatever happened. Ever the dog to mind his manners, Kit moaned, groaned, and tried with all his might to hold back, until he peed a river on the floor.  Cleanup was quick and complete, to prevent him from soaking the bandage that wrapped round his chest.

I held him, comforted him, and told him "you're gonna' make it - just hang in there." Kit has always seemed to understand more of my vocabulary than most animals, and he seemed to get it, somewhat.

That first night was rough: He constantly shifted round, moaned and whined, and was generally just the most uncomfortable I've ever seen him. The drugs in his system were wearing off, leaving him groggy and in plenty of pain. I was hopeful, however, that he'd feel a little better the next day. He needed to -- for his sake, and my own.

On day two, after peeing on the floor probably 3 times, it was time to try whatever we could to get him out to the back yard. I had already converted the bottom-floor den from "storage" to "pretty good space for Kit to rest and enjoy some peace & quiet."

Still in the foyer, I helped him up onto his feet. He limped -- aching all the way -- to the back door. One step down, and he was on the grass. He took a few steps, peed, took a few more steps, then laid down. Flat. Exhausted. He stayed planted there for 20 minutes, in fact, not wanting to even attempt to move. The look on his face told me "hey, I'm glad to be out in the yard... why can't I just stay here?"

After spending what seemed like a month laying on the cool damp turf, and after about half a dozen attempts (no go, no go, and oh hell no go) to help him get up and return inside, Kit struggled to his feet, and staggered to the door -- a few yelps, some wincing, but he made it on his own. He took a while to hop his front leg up the one step from the back door into the den, but he made it. And once he was just barely clear of the back door, he plopped down again.

He had gotten up and walked on his own, and it took all he had. Already, he was stronger than the day before.



[To be continued... soon.]

Monday, April 18, 2011

More badass with three legs than the rest are with four.

When I last wrote, I had just brought Kit home from Silver Spring. He'd had a bad day last Thursday, and mom's still got a puncture wound in her hand to show for it.

I observed Kit here at home on Friday and Saturday, and noticed his limp getting worse, and the pain seemed to be increasing. He wasn't up for walks unless he really needed to go -- though nothing could prevent him from climbing the stairs late at night to take his place beside our bed to sleep. The pain was so bad in his leg, he wouldn't even put his paw to the floor while standing, much less while limping along.

Saturday afternoon, after observing this long enough, I got him into the car and took him to a vet near us that has a 24/7 clinic. They're also a first-rate vet hospital during the week. We met with a doc there who examined him, took X-rays to ascertain his condition, and it was then time to discuss what limited options were available.

The worst choice, by far, was to do nothing. He's in terrible pain from the leg, and it's making him suffer. Another option we didn't consider for long was to load him up with heavy painkillers, which in his case would be akin to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound - it might take the pain from a 98 down to a 94, maybe a 90. It wouldn't relieve it. They have a targeted radiation program which may or may not bring much pain relief, but wouldn't address the advanced stage cancer. Strike one, strike two...  WAIT A MINUTE.

The X-rays revealed some very interesting information to contrast with the last X-rays he'd had, back in March. The condition of his leg where the cancer is localized, has worsened - the wall of bone supporting the top of the Humerus bone (where all the weight is supported) is barely millimeters thin now. He's frighteningly close to breaking that bone, just by placing a foot wrong - and if that bone breaks, being cancerous, it will not heal.

However, we also found in the X-rays - which were taken from more views than previously - that his lungs appear to be clear, his heart looks to be in good shape, and his bloodwork (which we had done there) came back normal, normal, and more normal. His other front leg looks fantastic, too.

I looked into Kit's eyes, and saw that he is NOT done smiling. He's not done wagging his tail. He's not ready to leave us, and is in no hurry to check out. When Tripper got really old in '89, I saw in his eyes that he was getting tired. It was the same with Shayna back in '98, and we experienced the same thing with Shadow last year - when he's had enough, he'll let you know. Kit is nowhere near ready for that. For Kit to climb the steps to be with us at the end of the night, when it clearly meant a fuck-all hurricane of pain for him to do so, means he wants to fight this with everything he's got.

The only viable option, to remove the pain and give him a shot at enjoying life, is to amputate the bad leg. He's already used to getting around on 3 legs, he's PROVED to me that he will get around on sheer determination if he must, and if he's minus a leg, fuck it, he'll be the most gorgeous 3-legged dog you've ever seen.

Kit is remaining at the vet until we have the surgery consult tomorrow, and get things in motion to get the work done. He will remain on his herbal/holistic program, as I think it's shown some worthwhile benefit - it certainly hasn't hurt. It's a little bit of work, sure. Mixing up all of the herbs and getting the veggies juiced, can be a little messy and time-consuming. Yeah, and he's worth a thousand times the mess and fuss, too. Kim has been incredibly supportive throughout. I'd be a goddamn wreck without her.

Kit is, by our best guess, around 13, and the surgery probably will not prevent the spread of cancer to his lungs, eventually. There is no way to tell how much time this will buy him, but it's his best shot. He will emerge from surgery without the pain that's been driving him mad, without the cancerous lesion eating the leg from the inside out, and hopefully with a good appetite.

To everyone who's been following this, thanks again for the help and support and concern for Kit - he appreciates it as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

French Revolution and Digital Revulsion – The Sebring that took it to the Web.

Sebring, FL –

This past weekend, the 59th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring brought so many stories to life, an in-depth examination of them all would take more time and space than practicality allows. So, here in brief, was the low-down:

Team ORECA Matmut scored what was arguably the biggest surprise victory in recent years, thanks in part to drivers Loic Duval, Nicolas Lapierre, and Olivier Panis’ clever avoidance of the on-track incidents that put rivals Audi and factory Team Peugeot TOTAL out of contention and fighting to regain position in a crowded and brutal 56-car field that left virtually no car unscathed.

That a privateer team like ORECA could win at Sebring is impressive enough; but doing with last year’s 908 HDi FAP car? Stunning work. Team Principle Hughes de Chaunac had not tasted victory at Sebring since his Chrysler-backed Vipers swept the podium in GTS-class 11 years ago. “It’s a historic result for us… We finished just in front of the manufacturers,” he cheerfully claimed. “We avoided any mistakes. It was a perfect job from the team and these three drivers.”

During the week, I was able to meet with members of Team ORECA, who were unanimous in their enthusiasm for racing in America – “We love to come here, to race in America… the excitement, the people and the culture here, is like nothing else. We love America because there is so many (circuits) and no two are the same,” one team member told me. (He’s also apparently never been to a 1.5 mile NASCAR tri-oval.)

It is worth noting here that part of the reason for the car count reaching a fantastic 56 this year, and one reason de Chaunac brought Team ORECA to Sebring (and to Petit Le Mans) is the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup series. Not many people outside the motorsports press paid much attention when the ILMC was announced at Sebring a year ago, but with two dates in the US (compared to one each in Belgium, France, Italy, China, and England), the ILMC plays into how the two biggest dates in the ALMS calendar will run – and if last year’s Petit Le Mans and this year’s Sebring are any indication, that’s a very good thing.

A couple of classes down in GT, the most competitive class in all of sports car racing saw no less excitement and fury. The BMW Motorsport team RLL – led by winning driver Joey Hand in the team’s #56 M3 GT and followed by teammate Dirk Werner in the #55 – ran a clean race through all 12 hours, and held off a hard charge in the late hours from the Corvette Racing C6.R-ZR1 of Tommy Milner. Milner was impressive in the #3 Corvette, his first with the factory Corvette team. A close look at the top teams in GT – BMW team RLL, Flying Lizard Porsche, Corvette Racing, Risi Ferrari and others indicates that, as we saw last year, there is no clear favorite for the title early on, and the battles in GT throughout this season absolutely cannot be missed.

One team making a fresh start with an all-new car was the Panoz Abruzzi “Spirit of Le Mans,” getting a shakedown before ostensibly going to Le Mans later this year. There are many words we heard used in reference to that car – it’s truly a love-it or hate-it design, but one word sums it up without a fight: Weird. At times it may be fast, at times it may spend a week in the pits getting its nails done, but that car is categorically weird – and any car that unusual is worth checking out, just because it dares to be so different.

A notable change to the track was Michelin’s eye-catching new Pilot Super Sport sponsorship of the walk-over bridge near turn 17 at the track. In a nighttime flash photo, Bibendum seems to leap right off the panel, a terrific effect. The new tire, as described to me by a Michelin rep, serves a purpose similar to the walk-over bridge, in that it connects the paddock to the infield. Clever.


Sebring did not just have the most loaded-up grid in years this time around, it also had a rather densely packed infield. Compared with the last few years, the crowd seemed to fill-in earlier and thicker, and by race day it was nearly impossible to find a place to park a pogo stick in the Green Park.

However, while ORECA was carrying out the French Revolution described above and the fans were enjoying the scene trackside, many racing fans outside the track in the US and worldwide were having trouble just trying to watch it. Having ended its deal with Speed Channel (which never gave Sports Car racing 1/10th the attention it gives NASCAR), the American Le Mans Series is taking it to the web with ESPN3.com – with very mixed results.

Some of the feedback I’ve gotten, both in the US and abroad, has been quite positive. I heard from people who don’t carry cable TV but have broadband internet, who were watching Sebring for the very first time and loved it. I heard from a friend in Europe who – though the feed was at times choppy and then disappeared for 40 minutes at a time – found the whole experience exciting. I also heard from huge numbers of fans all over who were aghast – why does ESPN3.com ask me for my provider, why doesn’t this video feed work, and why did the ALMS say at first that they were serving video on their website for this race alongside ESPN3, only to later change that to overseas-only? What overpaid lawyer screwed this up?

For those who logged-on Saturday, the 12 Hours of Sebring was a glimpse of the future – a very early, not-fully-sorted glimpse – but an idea of where our sports coverage and entertainment will be in years to come.

The American Le Mans series gets an B+ for ambition in its new webcast package, but a D for execution. The concept of moving coverage from TV to the Internet is certainly forward-thinking and ahead of its time – for the moment, perhaps a bit too ahead. All of the problems facing ALMS with its new takin’-it-to-the-web deal can certainly be worked-out – and this series has always done well with making itself open and accessible to fans – but the lesson of this year’s coverage is that there’s much work left to be done.

That's it for now, I'll see you at the next pit stop.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My guest piece for Motorsport.com

Sebring, FL -- 

In what could only be described as an unexpected turn of events, the French Team Oreca Matmut scored a stunning and hard fought victory in Saturday's 59th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. On-track incidents throughout the day and into the evening kept the competition both fierce and ever-changing, yielding a 44.5 second split between the winning privateer #10 Oreca Peugeot LMP1 and third place factory team, #8 Team Peugeot TOTAL, with Highcroft Racing's petrol-powered #01 HPD ARX-01e splitting the difference and finishing second.

The win for Team Oreca and team principle Hughes de Chaunac was impressive for more than just the team's privateer status, as it was competing with a 2010 model Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. It was the first win for de Chaunac and Oreca since 2000, when the Chrysler-backed Team Oreca Vipers swept the podium in GTS class.

Following the overall victory, de Chaunac was ebullient: "It's a historic result for us... We finished just in front of the manufacturers. We avoided any mistakes. It was a perfect job from the team and these three drivers." Winning driver Loic Duval was no less enthusiastic, adding "I think we didn't expect to be in this position. We were building and building and at the end the car was perfect." Duval traded the 12 hour driving time with Nicolas Lapierre and Olivier Panis.

The race-winning #10 Team ORECA Matmut Peugeot with Panis at the wheel

With noted LMP1 powerhouse teams Audi Sport Team Joest and Team Peugeot TOTAL set back by a variety of mishaps, Highcroft Racing - new to P1 but defending ALMS PC champions - were able to capitalize and use to their advantage both new rule changes designed to further balance competition between diesel and petrol-powered cars, as well as their drivers' noted skills and exceptional teamwork for a solid second-place finish.

In LMP2, Ryan Hunter-Reay managed a class victory, along with team owner/driver Scott Tucker, in the #55 Level 5 Motorsports Lola Honda, garnering his first series win. "We didn't have the speed in the straights," said teammate Luis Diaz, "but the engineers gave us a great car in the corners and the Honda was very reliable as always." Hunter-Reay added "for me, growing up in Florida, winning Sebring is a dream come true. This place is very special to me."

Meanwhile, an intense battle in GT saw first and second place taken by BMW Motorsport M3 GTs. Class winner Joey Hand in the #56 and runner-up Dirk Werner in the #55 fought off a late charge by Tommy Milner in the #3 Corvette Racing C6-ZR1. Hand gave praise to his BMW team RLL, stating "the team worked really well together in the off-season and built two new race cars. They make everything better, that's what they did. We got a couple new guys on the team and they did a great job."

The #56 BMW M3 GT, at speed.

In LMPC, the trio of Jens Petersen, Michael Guasch, and Dane Cameron celebrated their breakthrough victory, with Cameron piloting the #036 Oreca FLM09 to 9th position overall. "We had the fastest car in the field going into the race... the team prepared such a solid car for us and we just went about our day," said Cameron.

GTC was won in convincing fashion by Black Swan Racing's Damien Faulkner, who took the checkers in a class-spec Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. For Faulkner, winning his first season start was cause for elation. "I am so happy to be here at the 12 Hours of Sebring," he mused, "I have a four race program this season, and to kick it off with Black Swan and a victory is fantastic!"

[Sebring 2011] Five hours til the race begins..



It's Race Day, and it's ON.

Anyone reading this who would like to get a taste of what drives me to such lengths to be here, really ought to check out at least a bit of today's 59th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. Unlike previous years, one doesn't need cable or a dish to watch in the USA - just an internet connection. Every race of the American Le Mans Series will be webcast instead - in the US, coverage will be on ESPN3.com, and beyond our borders there will be coverage provided by American Le Mans Series own website. (There's been some confusion and outright misinformation about how all of this is being run, but I'll touch on that in a later post.)

I encourage everyone out there to take at least a few minutes, if you're not so rush-rush busy on a beautiful Saturday, just to check it out. In light of the disaster still taking place in Japan, several teams are responding in various ways to provide help. Some of them have pledged a per-lap charity contribution, others have set up various ways for fans to help. Highcroft Racing's effort really stands out - they race with Honda engines, and much of their engineering R&D is tied closely with Japan. Highcroft Racing has a strong history of charitable work, most notably their Miles to end Malaria campaign, to which I contributed and helped to promote.

And, hey - speaking of charity, let me take a second to plug my entry into the BMW Ultimate Blogger contest. I'm ranked 16th (out of 558 entries) and can use all the votes I can get. No sign-up of anything, you don't fill out any stupid questionnaires, you just click the "+1" dot and I get a vote. You can vote once per day, per IP address - and if you've already voted, thank you very much.

On a personal note: It's been a tough week - I've had a few ups and downs doing my gearhead writer thing over the years, but nothing that's ever made me second-guess whether I should've made the trip. The time for second-guessing, however, ended a few days ago - and I'm absolutely certain that if Kit could speak English (and he really does try), he would've told me "dude, just GO! I'll be fine, just GO!" I'm thankful for all of the support I've had - from my wife, from my family, and from all of my friends.

As I've said for years now: I may or may not ever make a real living doing this kind of work, but I'll either make it or die trying.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Why I'm up for the BMW Blogging contest...

Yours truly with Boris Said, who just drove that big-ass Tonka Truck behind us. Road Atlanta, 2003.

Anyone who reads me on Facebook or the Twitter lately, is probably tiring of my incessant reminders to pop open a new tab and vote for me. You see, there's a BMW outfit based in Canada that's holding a contest right now, for the Ultimate BMW Blogger.

I'm not sure I'm anyone's idea of an "ultimate" anything (depending on where you're counting from), but if you've ever spent five minutes in the same room with me, you know all I do is talk about cars. If I didn't, this blog wouldn't exist.

So, if you've got 10 seconds to spare, click here: http://endrasbmw.com/ultimateblogger/morningaj and hit the link to vote for me.

That's it. Nothing to sign up for, no personal info exchanged, no donations needed - just a mouse-click. If you've read this far, hell, why not?

And, if you remember to, you can vote for me every day. Once per day, per IP address. If you're at work now, you can vote me up again when you get home. If you're going to the coffee shop with its free WiFi, yes, you can do it again, and again... Cool, huh? Hey, the guys in the top 20 so far have been stuffing the hell out of the boxes - so why not?

What happens if I win? I get a platform to shill for the Ultimate Driving Machine. I get to take some trips, drive some cars, see some fantastic things, and write about it all. This is what I do, except I'd actually be getting paid for it. 

So, vote for me now, before I come over and sleep on your couch.


A letter to the editor...

[in October of 2004, I wrote the following in response to some serial idiocy I saw in the local newspaper. The letter below sums up my thoughts on the subject.]
 
... of Gazette.net. The editor spouted off and said something really stupid.

So I wrote him back... Here's the letter to the editor that the Gazette will probably never print, because it makes too much farkin' sense for Montgomery County:

I read with a mixture of sadness and interest about the recent tragic roadway deaths of five county youths. It seems as if every few weeks there’s a new statistic, another pole alongside the road made into a makeshift memorial where some young local student lost his or her life. It’s hard to drive anywhere in the county without seeing such a sight, and it’s a message to all parents in the area.

On page 16 of the Gazette, I see where the editors are calling for tougher penalties, higher fines, and more emphasis on enforcement. Then on page 20, I read where the entire State of Maryland has exactly ONE person in charge of inspecting the state’s Driver Education schools. Our state’s requirements for obtaining and keeping a driver’s license are ridiculously low, and our laws do practically nothing to ensure that the cars on our roads are properly maintained. Emissions testing every two years only checks for an engine that is out of tune or a catalytic converter that's gone bad, not tires that are bald, steering linkages that are about to give way, suspensions that are worn out, or brakes on the verge of failure.

There is also no real means of seeing to it that drivers’ skills are up to par. Indeed, the state has just made it easier for those with impaired skills to renew their licenses without even taking a simple vision test, by allowing people to renew by mail, phone, and Internet. Driving used to be a privilege; now it's considered a Constitutionally-guaranteed right.

The answer, according to those who think they knows what's best for us, is to suggest that the state introduce new laws to “get tough” on young drivers. I was once one of those young drivers, and so were most of the people reading this article. The typical response to a tragedy (and losing 5 kids in a weekend qualifies as quite a tragedy) is for lawmakers to play politics and say “if only the legislature had passed my bill to get tough on teen drivers…” Now there are calls for increased fines and other penalties (including car seizures) for any on-road behavior that police want to call “racing.”

That’s the wrong answer to the wrong question.

The question at hand is “why are so many kids getting killed on the road?” The answer is simple: They’re kids and they want to have fun. Let's be honest, and get this up-front: Driving fast is fun. Can we stop pretending otherwise, for a moment? Entire industries cater to the love of the automobile and the fun that can be had with it. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. The problem comes when someone with little experience behind the wheel and even less knowledge of how the car she is driving behaves under a variety of circumstances wants to have fun. Statistics have shown for years that younger drivers are involved in more vehicle collisions than any other age group, and there is exactly one reason at the top of the list: Lack of experience behind the wheel.

Well, so many people say, why don’t we raise the driving age? Why don’t we enact new laws to “get tough” on these kids? Why don’t we throw legislation and money at the problem, which seems to work so well with every other problem in our society? Better yet, why don't we make more things illegal?

Nonsense. I ask, “why aren’t we giving them proper instruction?” I’d also ask “who in their right mind would give the keys to a 2004 Pontiac GTO with 300 horsepower on tap, to a 17 year old?” Did the kid ever learn what that car could do, before being handed the wheel and turned loose? 

And finally, doesn’t anyone still believe in the notion of a kid’s “first car” being an old heap that doesn’t go fast, doesn’t corner like a Porsche, and doesn’t look like it belongs on the cover of Sport Compact Car magazine? Giving your kid a hot-rod without his or her having learned how to drive it properly is hardly different from giving the kid a bottle of vodka and a bag of crack with the keys and saying, “have fun.”

Anyone who has attended a typical “driving school” in Maryland since 1989 (when the State decided that Driver’s Ed was no longer important enough to be available to students in high school), has gotten a mediocre excuse for education behind the wheel. Examine the criteria for getting and keeping a driver’s license in other countries for contrast (Germany immediately comes to mind), and our requirements practically guarantee that as long as parents refuse to take a very active role in teaching their kids how to properly drive, we’re just doomed for more of the same. We can pass new laws, pat ourselves on the back, and make ourselves feel better about it, but we’ll still see kids getting killed and the problem won’t go away. But at least we can say we've done something, right?

The answer: Learning how to control a vehicle makes for a better driver.

Performance driving schools like Skip Barber, Bobby Ore, and Bondurant have taught collision avoidance, tactical maneuvers, and total vehicle control to people all over the country for years. Graduates of those schools go on to become some of the safest and most accident-free drivers on the road. These schools are not just for police and Secret Service officers. They're available to would-be racers. They're available to stuntmen. And they're most available to young teens who need to learn how not to get killed out on the Beltway.

Some parents might bark at the prospect of spending upwards of $1500 for a performance driving school. Of course, after spending $35,000 on your kid's shiny new GTO, that last $1500 to teach him how to drive it really does get steep. 

The money spent on a performance driving school may very well be recouped in not having to spend so much for vehicle repairs, fines, higher insurance rates down the road, hospital bills, lawsuits, and funeral costs. In fact, many insurance companies offer discounts to drivers who have successfully completed such a course. How much is your kid’s safety worth?

And for those who simply cannot (for whatever reason) send their kids to a performance school, local chapters of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) are everywhere. Far from a dangerous street-racing experience, SCCA events teach car control, braking and cornering, and smart judgment behind the wheel. Events are staged practically year-round, and are a very good way for drivers of all ages to learn the limits of not only the vehicle but also their own skills, without the risk of mowing down pedestrians or wrapping the car around a telephone pole. Speeds at these events are generally low (far below highway speed) and the emphasis is on safety. What’s more, there are entire classes geared towards younger drivers.

This also teaches kids that their natural desire to push the limits has its place – on a closed course under supervision, and not on the street. Just telling kids to “drive safely” and buckle-up isn’t enough. Give them an opportunity to actually learn.

Is this a one-stop fix-all? Please. There is no single solution that will automatically make our roads safer places to drive. With record traffic and deteriorating infrastructure, it’s not going to get any easier. However, with some education and a more common-sense approach to motoring, the “average” lunatic behind the wheel can be made into quite a good driver, and many of our younger drivers may be given a chance to prove their harshest critics wrong.

They might even live to see graduation.