Doing Battle

I think that any racing driver would say that as long as they personally perform well during a race, they can walk away from the event feeling satisfied at some level, regardless of the outcome. Set-up problems, mechanical issues, bad calls from race control and just plain bad luck can all conspire to screw your race and leave you with a bad result and a hollow feeling inside of you.  Strangely enough, there are other times you find you and your equipment so superior to your opposition that you win easily and, while you are happy and grateful for the win, after the race you still have that hollow feeling because the win was too easy.

BUT, there are other very rare days at the track where you find yourself on top of your game, your equipment is set up as optimally as possible, and you find yourself racing with four or five other guys who are as equal as you are.  The result is that everyone is passing and re-passing for position on virtually every lap of the race and you realize that “Hey, I can win this thing if I don’t blow it!”.  The problem is that all the drivers are thinking the same thing, and before you know it, everyone is on the ragged edge, pushing the envelope and dive-bombing each other into turns with desperate out-braking maneuvers, bump drafting, wheel banging, curb hopping…you name it and everybody is doing it.  If you are fortunate enough to win a race like that, it is the most unbelievable feeling.  Even when you don’t win, you’ve had a blast and can be forgiven for feeling like you just survived World War III.  As the great Dario Franchitti once said, “Racing produces the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”  All of us understand what Dario meant when he said it.

To make my point, here is a video from the cockpit of Steve Bamford’s Mygale Honda,  competing in the Pro F1600 Championship Series race a couple of weeks ago at Road Atlanta.  This is the race that any real, honest to God racing driver wants to drive in.  While my words above partially convey what driving in a crazy race is like, just check out Bamford’s video here:

I have no idea who all the players in this race are, but all of them clearly have hitched a ride on the crazy train with some truly ballsy, aggressive moves.  It is so good to see this wonderful class, at the Pro-Level at least, treating us to the great racing and driver training that it has such a rich history of providing.  Just go to about the four minute mark in the video, put it on full-screen and just enjoy the ride!  I look forward to seeing more video from the competitors of the F1600 Championship Series this, but guys (and gals), you’ve been warned:  you have a very tough act to follow!

Musings on the 40th Edition of the Long Beach Grand Prix

I must say that the 40th running of the Long Beach Grand Prix made for some pretty good theater-the racing was hard fought throughout the field and there were enough incidents to begin inciting the rivalry (or downright hatred) that makes racing so much fun.  You know it’s really bad when Justin Wilson, probably the coolest, most polite driver in the paddock, loses it and goes off on Scott Dixon after Dixon shoved Wilson into the wall late in the race.  Or how about Simon Pagenaud blasting Will Power for Power hitting him in the race.  Pagenaud recovered after minor damage was repaired to finish 5th but Wilson, who was attempting a pass on Dixon and was squeezed into the wall, was out on the spot.  Wilson knew that Dixon’s move probably cost him the race since Dixon was in trouble with his fuel and couldn’t finish the race with the fuel he had in his tank, whereas Wilson was good to go on both fuel and tires.  Sad that Wilson could not have bagged the win for Dale Coyne’s little team, but you can count on Wilson contending again, maybe not at every race but certainly at most of them.

You certainly have to give Mike Conway and the Ed Carpenter Racing a tip of the hat for winning at Long Beach.  During the off-season, Carpenter had made the courageous decision to replace himself in the cockpit of the Fuzzy’s Vodka entry for all the street and road course races with Conway, leaving Ed to focus on the ovals.  Since Conway has stated that he will never drive on an oval again and Carpenter is never going to be a force on the road and street courses, it is a sensible decision but one that had to have been tough for Carpenter to make as a driver-but not so much as a team owner!  The result is that neither driver is going to contend for the driver’s championship but they clearly are going to be a force to be reckoned with throughout the season.  Look for more wins from this team as the 2014 season goes on.

And finally, I just had to save the best for last.  Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay got together in turn 4 towards the end of the race.  Hunter-Reay had pitted a couple of laps prior to Newgarden, who inherited the lead while Hunter-Reay was getting his car serviced.  Newgarden eventually pitted, and when he came out, he was still in the lead, but only barely with Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Power all nose to tail and looking for a way around Newgarden, who was dealing with getting his cold tires up to temperature and the correct operating pressures.  Some wheelspin on Newgarden’s car on the exit of Turn 3 gave Hunter-Reay a glimmer of hope of getting a pass done prior to the upcoming Turn 4, so he dived to the inside of Newgarden’s car only to run out of room, resulting in the left front tire of Hunter Reay hitting the right rear tire of Newgarden’s car.  Predictably, massive carnage ensued with Newgarden, Hunter Reay, Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato, Tony Kannan and Jack Hawksworth being taken out on the spot.  Somehow Power managed to avoid the wreckage, but only just.  Interestingly, both Hunter-Reay and Newgarden refused to blame the other driver, instead taking the “it was a racing incident” approach.  For his part, Hunter-Reay said that he’s a racing driver, he saw a gap and went for it.  Was it an optimistic move?  Yes.  Would I have done the same thing in those circumstances?  Probably.

The next race is April 27th at Barber Motorsports Park.  Mike Conway will be back, Will Power loves that place, all the Andretti cars seem to be strong, Newgarden is driving well and it is probably time for the Target Chip Ganassi cars to find their pace. Best of all, Pagenaud is pissed at Power, Wilson is furious with Dixon and about a third of the field is pissed at Hunter-Reay.  Barber promises to be a fascinating race!

My Favorite Racing Cars – Part 4

For me, the Lotus 49, especially the “B” version of the car, holds a special place in my heart, even though I have never personally seen one of the 12 chassis made, let alone watch it race.  But, as a ten year old boy, that car represented everything that was cool about Formula One in the late 1960′s: crazy high mounted wings on the front and back of the car, the Gold Leaf Team Lotus colors, the Cosworth DFV powering the car, and I had a real affinity for the team’s number one driver, Graham Hill.

The three liter engine formula for Formula One was introduced in 1966, and Lotus was caught out badly by the new regulations.  Lotus had sought BRM power for that first season, but the interesting “H16″ engine configuration-basically two flat-8 engines from the previous 1.5 liter formula sandwiched on top of each other, thus the “H16″ name-was heavy, down on power and unreliable.  Team owner Colin Chapman approached the Ford Motor Company and convinced them to fund the development of a new engine in partnership with Cosworth, and thus began a dynasty that lasted over a decade.

Chapman designed the Lotus 49 with the help of Maurice Philippe, and came up with a design that was simple, elegant and radically different-the Cosworth engine was designed to be a stressed member of the car, meaning that the engine was literally part of the chassis because the front of the engine bolted directly to the chassis’ rear bulkhead and then the gearbox and rear suspension was bolted to the rear of the engine-there was no chassis framework in the engine bay or around the rear suspension.  This design is still in use in nearly all formula cars to this day, so the Lotus 49 was certainly a ground-breaking design.

The car won its first race in the Grand Prix of Holland with the great Jimmy Clark at the wheel, and would have been a contender for the World Championship had the car been more reliable, as Clark won a total of four Grand Prix that year.  After Clark was killed in Formula 2 race in April 1968, Hill took over as Lotus’ team leader and won the World Championship in 1968 with three victories.  The last victory for the Lotus 49 was at the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix with Jochen Rindt at the wheel.

The Lotus 49 took a total of 12 wins and contributed to two World Driver’s championships with Hill (1968) and Rindt (1970) at the wheel.  Check this video out of Alexander Rossi driving Jim Clark’s Lotus 49 at the Circuit of the Americas: that Cosworth sounds great, although clearly there was zero grip on the track that day!

My Favorite Racing Cars-Part 3

My third favorite race car is the Swift DB4, a car that, unlike my first two choices, is one that I have actually worked on and engineered.  So while the first two cars on my list (the Lotus 79 and the Williams FW14) are on my list simply because I thought that they’re gorgeous race cars worthy of Racer Lust, the DB4, while also worthy of Racer Lust, is a car that I am more than a little familiar with.  Since we are talking here about lust, perhaps I should say that I am “intimately familiar” with this car?

I digress.  Prior to the DB4 arriving on the scene, Formula Atlantic in North America had been dominated by multiple variants of the Ralt RT4, a proper ground effects car with an aluminum monocoque tub that was updated from year to year with revised ground effects tunnels and an eventual move from rocker-arm suspension to a sort of funky hybrid rocker-arm/pushrod suspension in later models.  Clearly the RT4 was nearing the end of its development life, and in came Swift with the Dave Bruns-penned DB4 to take over Formula Atlantic.

The arrival of the DB4 sped up the demise of the Ralt, as the Swift offering featured a monocoque tub made from aluminum honeycomb (that in later years was strengthened by the addition of carbon fiber panels to the tub), a modern pushrod suspension on all four corners of the car, optimized tunnels for superior downforce, and most cars featured a Pi Research digital data acquisition system, which was pretty radical for the day.

My first introduction to the DB4 came at an SCCA National race on a very cold February day at Texas World Speedway, and it was love at first sight.  Of the over 200 entries that weekend, nothing came close to the cool factor that the DB4 enjoyed, and the howl of the Cosworth BDD powering the car just added to the magic.  It looked like one of Senna’s McLarens, and best of all, maybe it was one I could actually drive!

As it turned out, the DB4 dominated Formula Atlantic racing for about five years until Ralt re-entered the picture with their new RT40, which once again turned the tables and took the design of the Formula Atlantic car to still further heights. However, to this day, a well prepared and driven DB4 is fully capable of giving the newer cars fits at SCCA races around the country, proof that a good design is a good design.  The Swift DB4 was, in my eyes, simply magical and I always finding myself dealing with a good dose of Racer Lust every time I see one.

My Favorite Racing Cars – Part 2

Since ranking most anything in a particular order is usually a recipe for being on the receiving end of lots of criticism, I want to first say that the list of cars that I am writing about are simply my favorite racing cars, and they are not being presented in any particular order.  These are just cars that, well, did it for me and are one of the reasons that I love the sport the way I do.

The next car on my list is the 1991 Williams FW14 (and the World Championship winning Williams FW14B that was raced in 1992).  This car was designed by Adrian Newey – the same guy who has penned the all-conquering Red Bull Renault F1 cars of the past few years.  Newey designed this utterly gorgeous car, powered by a 3.5 liter V10 from Renault (hmm…must be something to this thing about Adrian Newey designed cars with Renault powerplants), as a response to the domination of Formula One by McLaren in the late 1980′s. Though the cars produced by Williams at that time were good cars, the McLarens, with their Honda engines, were simply too much for the likes of Williams and Ferrari.  Frank Williams, concerned about the possibility of losing Renault support, hired Newey and told him to build a car, and the result was the FW14, no doubt the most sophisticated car of its day and arguably one that has inspired much of what is still being done with racing cars today.

The FW14 debuted in the first race of the 1991 season, and while it won a total of seven races, Ayrton Senna won the World Championship and McLaren won the Constructor’s Championship because of the McLaren’s superior reliability-too many times the Williams was forced to retire from races while leading, the semi-automatic gearbox (hard to believe, but new to Williams at the time) failing all too often.

The 1992 season proved to be a much different story, however, as Newey improved what was already the fastest, most technically advanced car by introducing active ride suspension, which eliminated conventional springs, dampers and anti-roll bars in the suspension and replaced them with an “active ride” suspension, which was a computer controlled suspension solution that did a superior job of keeping the aerodynamic platform of the car at the optimum ride height in all situations, thus producing more aerodynamic downforce and doing so more consistently.  The greater downforce, coupled with the brutal power of that Renault V10, meant that the FW14B dominated the season, Nigel Mansell winning 9 races that year and his team mate, Italy’s Riccardo Patrese, winning one for himself.  Such was the dominance of the FW14B that at Silverstone for that year’s British Grand Prix, the Williams duo qualified on the front row, with Mansell two seconds clear of Patrese’s second-placed car, who was a further one second quicker than Senna’s third placed McLaren.

The FW14B was replaced in 1993 by the FW15C, which was driven by France’s Alain Prost to another World Championship.  It is still, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and badass race cars ever built.  Check it out in this YouTube video here: enjoy the sound made by that beautiful V10!

My Favorite Racing Cars-Part 1

I think the idea of asking any racing enthusiast “What’s Your Favorite Racecar” is setting oneself up for being on the receiving end of a dizzying array of race cars, some cool, others-perhaps not so cool.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that stuff.  Rather than suggesting just one favorite racing car, I am going to come up with my list – some of the cars are current, some are old school, but in each case, those cars have special meaning to me for various reasons.  To kick things off, I am starting with what is probably my all time favorite racing car, the Lotus 79.

The Lotus 79 was a revolutionary as it was beautiful.  A natural progression from the extremely effective Lotus 78 used during the 1977 Formula One season, the 79 was the first full ground effects car, which is perhaps what the car is most well known for.  However, it was also ground-breaking in that it was the first Formula One car that was fully designed using Computer Aided Design, and it was also the first car to download data after a run into a computer.  Pretty advanced stuff for something that ran 35-odd years ago!

Mario Andretti pretty much dominated the 1978 Formula One season with this car on his way to winning the World Championship, with the team winning 6 Grands Prix and scoring a number of 1-2 finishes during the year.  His teammate, Ronnie Peterson, finished second in the driver’s standings despite being killed in a start line crash at Monza during the early stages of the Italian Grand Prix.

Despite the car’s superiority over the field (the only cars to win a race did so with the Lotus entries failed to finish), it did have some weaknesses.  Andretti felt that the brakes were always a bit suspect, as they faded dramatically towards the end of a race.  Perhaps more importantly was the fact that due to the enormous downforce the car produced, the chassis itself, an aluminum monocoque tub, was initially unable to handle the extra loads imposed on it, and the car never really had the strength to handle those forces.  Lotus was forced to replace broken bulkheads in the chassis on numerous occasions  during the course of the season, a problem that would never be fully rectified until carbon fiber tubs were introduced a few seasons later by McLaren.

I loved this car the first time I saw it, and the fact that it was the car that my hero Mario drove to a World Championship just helped to cement it in my mind as my favorite race car of all time.  But, there were others that came close…stay tuned to find out about another of my favorites next week!

Roll-out of the Lotus 79

The Lotus 79

Will North American Sports Car Racing Follow the Path Of NASCAR?

The 2014 edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona is now in the books, and several things stand out in my mind about that race.  While Memo Gidley’s crash into the back of Matteo Malucelli’s slowing Ferrari 458 was one of the most savage crashes I have seen in quite some time (must admit that Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash at Las Vegas and Dario Franchitti’s career-ending crash at Houston are the only crashes that come to mind as being worse than Memo’s), the crash was one of those racing incidents that is just going to happen from time to time.

No, for me it was two questionable calls by the IMSA officials, one before the race ever started, and one that was made at the race’s conclusion.  The first call was actually made the weekend prior to the start of the race, when IMSA decided to make a “competition adjustment” more formally known as the Balance of Performance (BOP) by changing the rules for certain cars in the GT Daytona class.  IMSA made rules changes that were quite favorable to the squads running Ferrari 458s and Audi R8s and at the same time, handicapped the teams running the Porsche 911 GT America.  The result?  The Porsches kept the Ferraris and Audis in sight by using good strategy and taking advantage of fortuitous caution periods, but had no chance of winning the race unless the leading Ferrari and Audi took themselves out of the race.  And that nearly happened…

Which brings up the second questionable call.  Fighting hard for the lead and the win of the race was the Level 5 Ferrari of Alessandro Pier Guidi  and the Flying Lizards Audi of Markus Winkelhock , closely followed by the Porsche of Jan Heylen.  When the Audi made a move for the lead,  Guidi made his Ferrari very wide and forced the Audi off the road.  The Ferrari was subsequently penalized for “avoidable contact” despite the cars never touching, and so the Ferrari had the win stripped from them while the team was celebrating in Victory Lane.  Hours later, after review of the video and on-board data, the Level 5 Ferrari was re-awarded the victory that was rightfully theirs.

Here’s the thing that just gets me:  in both cases, we had a NASCAR-like decision to equalize the competition and to legislate the race win.  As much as I want to see the TUDOR Championship succeed, I really don’t want the NASCAR parents of the series to turn the Championship into an extension of the Cup Road Racing program.  Let’s keep the racing real and may the best manufacturer, team and drivers win!

Here we go again!

The news that the Board of Directors for the IndyCar series (Hulman & Co.) had fired CEO Randy Bernard has certainly caused an uproar.  By all accounts, despite the official press release from IndyCar stating that the split was mutually agreed upon, all indications are that Bernard was indeed fired. Anyone who has followed the IndyCar series for at least a few years should know that the dysfunctional family that is IndyCar changes leadership about every 18-24 months, as if one guy is going to come in riding a white horse and save the series.

Interestingly, while Randy Bernard was well-liked and respected by the fans of IndyCar, he was generally unpopular in the paddock with both the owners and the drivers.  Given that Bernard is the former CEO of the Professional Bullriders Association, he did not have any knowledge of what it takes to run a team in professional motorsports or the dangers that the drivers face, but he knew how to draw and retain fans, and so the series from the fan’s point of view is great, while from the owner’s point of view, not so great.  From what I can gather, Bernard’s lack of communication with the car owners on the subject of the cost of spare parts and the possibility of a new tire supplier for the series pretty much was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  In the parlance of stick and ball sports, Bernard had lost the locker room and never got it back.

What is to be learned from this?  Well, the notion that one person can provide leadership to a dysfunctional organization is flat outdated and is a recipe for failure. It takes a team of committed, talented individuals pulling towards one vision (that is established by the leader), to make stuff happen in this day and age of specialization. You may love the idea of having one strong leader that is everything to everybody, but the truth is that a leader is supposed to create and communicate a vision for the future and then manage the managers who are experts in their fields.  It is the managers who are supposed to implement actions in a specific area that, taken as a whole, will drive the organization towards the vision expressed by the leader.  This is true of sports, business and politics.  To not have a management structure in place such as I have described is to set the new IndyCar CEO up for failure, and we will be talking about this again in another couple of years.

RK Siler

Somewhere in Texas

USA vs Australia!

This weekend brings the end of the 2012 IndyCar season.  I must say that this has been one of the more interesting and entertaining season, with new cars, competition between engine manufacturers and new drivers to the series being the headline stories.  The on-track action has generally been ferocious, and there has been some surprise race winners along the way and others who have surprised us by having an off year.  I mean, who would have thought that despite winning the Indy 500, you would describe Dario Franchitti’s season as being a disappointment?  Or, how about Justin Wilson winning on an oval?  If that is not good enough, there’s the story of Will Power utterly dominating everyone early in the year, Scott Dixon quietly amassing points race after race and, last but not least, Ryan Hunter-Reay pulling off four wins (and three in a row) in the season to date?  Who would have imagined that one driver from Penske would be fighting it out with one driver from Andretti Autosport in the last race of the season for the IndyCar Series championship?

Yes, it’s been an entertaining season, one that I must say is ending too soon and which has two deserving championship contenders.  I honestly can’t say that I am pulling for either Power or Hunter-Reay. Both guys have dominated races at various points in the season, both have been victims of terrible luck or bone-headed moves by either their competitors or even themselves.  Both are good guys who have overcome a lot of hardship in years past who now find themselves at the top of the heap in their sport.  No losers in this one, but there can only be one winner.

I must say that in some ways, the Aussie Power winning the championship would be poetic justice.  He came close to winning the championships in 2010 and 2011, beaten both times by Franchitti.  He is stupid-fast on the road and street courses, he is brutally honest when he or a fellow competitor makes a mistake and he has an unmistakable passion for winning.  It’s hard not to like the guy.

America’s Hunter-Reay has a different story.  Forgotten by all the teams just a handful of years ago, Michael Andretti saved Hunter-Reay’s career from the scrap heap by giving him a ride. Hunter-Reay has responded by giving Andretti a win in both 2010 and 2011, and then in 2012, he went on a tear, clicking off three wins in a row followed by a very opportunistic win at Baltimore a week ago to keep his championship hopes alive.

Who’s the favorite to win the title?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Who would I like to see win the title?  I’m not sure it matters-both men are deserving champions.  What I do know is this: the race this weekend at Autoclub Speedway in California is going to be a barn-burner, since there are probably 15 drivers capable of winning, even though only two have championship aspirations.  Plan on the first 250 miles of the race being very different from the last 250 miles! Enjoy it!

RK Siler

Somewhere in Texas

Boneheads, Wankers and Groove Turtles

I’ve gotten quite a few humorous comments from folks who have seen some of my recent Facebook posts about bone-headed moves that have been made on the race track over the past few weeks.  To be fair to the boneheads, if you are going for it, and if you are absolutely on the limit, that stuff is going to happen from time to time.  Some racing drivers are notorious crashers, guys who never get it and who apparently have more balls than good sense.  Many good racing drivers crash from time to time when they are at the absolute limit of adhesion and for whatever reason, just run out of room on the race track.

Having said all that, there are a lot of terms in the racer’s dictionary that are not necessarily used by everyday folks, or even racing fans.  While the term “bonehead” is understood by most sports fans no matter what sport they follow (an off-sides violation in football or a reaching foul in basketball because you won’t/can’t play defense are good examples of boneheaded moves), the terms “wanker” and groove turtle come to mind as good, descriptive and colorful terms pretty much in the domain of any real, honest to God racer’s vocabulary.

Groove Turtle is pretty easy to explain.  Think of the rich guy who shows up to an amateur for the first time with all the latest and greatest equipment but cannot drive a nail, let alone a race car.  He knows enough to figure out what the proper racing line (or “groove”) is around a race track but is so slow that he may as well be parked – thus the term Groove Turtle.  The Groove Turtle’s cousin is the Wanker,  a rude English term having everything to do with sexual self gratification (not to put too fine a point on this, but lots of effort for no real reason other than the Wanker’s own pleasure) and the Wanker’s kid brother, the Wally.  If you ask any member of the British Empire for a proper definition, you’ll get a conversation like this:

Your English Cousin (YEC): “Mate, that bloke is so slow, it’s not to be believed.  He’s an effing Wally.”

You: “A Wally?  Is that like a Wanker?”

YEC:  “Hmmm…Well, of course, a Wanker expends effort for their own self-gratification, but Wally won’t even do that!”

Guess this means it is far better to be a Wanker than a Wally.  Come to think of it, I’d rather be a bonehead.

RK Siler

Somewhere in Texas