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.