Monday, January 30, 2012


The race winning car enters the night

Twenty-four stories from the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

1)      AJ Allmendinger.  Allmendinger turned in a monster three-hour shift to close out the race, going door-to-door with Allan McNish and besting the three-time Le Mans winner.  The victory caps a remarkable month.  It began with Richard Petty Motorsports boss Robbie Loomis saying he would turn Allmendinger loose if signing Kurt Busch to replace him would help attract sponsors.  Turned out Busch was exactly what sponsors didn’t want, but no way Allmendinger was going to stay at RPM after that.  In short order he signed with Roger Penske Racing to replace Busch, became a part-owner of Michael Shank’s IndyCar team, consistently was at the top of the speed charts during Daytona Sprint Cup testing and finished the month wearing a Rolex watch.  Year of the Dragon?  Could be the Year of the “Dinger.”   

2)      Justin Wilson. Co-driver on the winning team, Wilson was making his first start since breaking his back at Mid-Ohio last year.  He'll test his Indy car later this week.  Nice comeback.

3)      Michael Shank Racing.  Not only did the Shank team win its first 24, the other team car finished third.  A friend of both Allmendinger and Wilson from their days in Formula Atlantic, Shank decided his future was as a team owner rather than a driver.  He’s also forming an IndyCar team with Allmendinger.

4)      Ford.  The Blue Oval was in the 24 victory lane for the first time in 13 years and won big, sweeping the top three places.  The Fords had been a tick slower than the both Corvettes and BMWs in pre-season testing, although there was talk of sandbagging.  Grand-Am has been following NASCAR’s playbook in trying to keep all the competitors on a level playing field and after being hit a 500 rpm reduction, the Fords were reluctant to risk further penalty by showing their hand before the race.  The first indication that perhaps the Fords had more under the hood came in qualifying with a surprising pole position.  Once the race started, the Fords quickly moved to the lead.  An added bonus, fewer revs translated into better fuel economy for the Fords.

5)     Andy Lally.  If there was anyone at Daytona happier than Allmendinger, it had to be Andy Lally.  It was his second straight Daytona 24 GT win and fourth overall.  But it was clearly the sweetest.  After winning Daytona last year, Lally and TRG Motorsports tried its hand in the Sprint Cup series.  Lally won Rookie of the Year honors by default; no one else ran enough races to qualify.  But the season ended badly when the team dropped from the top 35 in points and Lally refused to start-and-park.  That’s when the team released their longtime driver.  Lally went to Magnus Racing for the 24 Hours, helping to defeat the five car TRG team in the process. 

6)      Porsche.  Porsche also pulled off a 1-2-3 sweep, turning back the new GT entries from Ferrari and Audi in the process.  

7)      Daytona Prototypes.  The new DPs looked great, especially the Corvettes.  Even the Riley-Fords were much improved from the Gen Two cars.  Hopefully Ford and BMW will try and add a little more brand identity to their cars.

8)      GT.  It was the most competitive GT field in history.  In addition to the European makes, a host of Mazdas, a Chevrolet Camaro and a Ford Mustang also were in the field.  The Camaro showed promise.  

9)      The Infield.  For the first time in race history, the infield sold out.  There’s a big difference between the infield at a NASCAR race and the infield at a Grand-Am race.  At a NASCAR race the infield is filled with motorhomes and camper trailers.  At a Grand-Am race it’s tents.

10)  Scott Pruett.  Pruett failed in his attempt to match Hurley Haywood with five overall 24 wins.  It wasn’t for lack of effort.  At one point Pruett was heard on the radio wondering aloud how the No. 8 Ford could blow pass him without a portion of its rear bodywork. 

11)  Race Management.  Taking another page from the NASCAR book, two “debris” cautions in the final four hours wiped out a minute-and-a-half Ganassis lead and kept the cars bunched for an exciting finish.     

12)  Sir Jackie Stewart.  Filling in for the missing grand marshall, A. J. Foyt, Stewart turned in one of the most understated “Drivers Start Your Engines” you’ll ever hear.

13)  Marco Andretti.  Andretti pulled a Foyt, getting into a car he had never driven before, at night, and on a track he hadn’t driven on since Skip Barber Days – after testing his Indy car all day.  No drama, although he did have dehydration problems, along with several other drivers. 

14)   Foyt and Gurney. Missing at Daytona was America’s most famous endurance racing tandem, A. J. Foyt and Dan Gurney.  The winners of the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans were both sidelined with knee troubles.  Foyt, 77, the grand marshall for race and former winner, had knee surgery two weeks ago, but planned on being at the track.  However, an infection sent him back to the hospital, where he was expected to remain through the weekend.  Gurney, 80, who won the very first Daytona sports car race 50 years ago, was still recovering from recent knee replacement surgery and remained in California.   Gurney’s son Alex was an early leader before car troubles knocked them out of contention. 

15)  Hurley Haywood.  After 40 years and a record five wins, Haywood is supposedly retiring and was named grand marshall for the 51st race.  But hold on.  "I never said exactly I was hanging up my helmet.”

16)  The Corvettes.  Beautiful and fast, but fragile.  The fastest of the Vettes didn’t last 30 minutes. 

17)  Grand-Am.  A great start to the season for Grand-Am, which remains in a battle with the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) for control of American road racing.  ALMS gets its turn next at Sebring.

18)  Ford V6 Turbo.  So dominating were the Fords that talk of a V6 Turbo under development seems like overkill, especially with Grand-Am willing to limit engine output in an attempt to keep competition on a level playing field.  But it fits in line with future Dearborn production engine plans and – just a thought – the new turbo engines at Indy.  I know, I know, those are V8s.  Just saying…    

19)  Chip Ganassi Racing.  The fact that the Ganassi team didn’t win, didn’t even make the podium, is news.  The acknowledged top team in Grand-Am didn’t have the pace of the Fords, but was still in position to win before the “debris” cautions.  Only a broken transmission in the final hour kept them off the podium.

20)  Starworks Motorsports.  Probably had the fastest two Fords in the race.  But an off-track excursion by Lucas Luhr in the bus stop damaged the rear body work and eventually slowed their lead car.  A force to watch during the season. 

21)  Travis Patrana.  Driving a Ferrari for Michael Waltrip Racing, he seemed to have more fun than anyone else in the race. 

22)  761 Laps.  A new record distance for the race. 

23)  Jack Roush, Jr.  Not in the 24, but Little Roush drove a Roush Racing Boss 302 Mustang to victory in the BMW Performance 200 on Friday, the first race in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge series. 

24)  Allmendinger Again.  So impressive was Allmendinger’s performance he gets the first and last mention.  Throughout his final shift the pursuing Starworks Motorsports team encouraged their drivers to hound Allmendinger and try and rattle him.  “Keep the pressure, he’ll buckle to your pressure.”  He didn’t.  Could be a career defining race for Allmendinger.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

24 Hours

The 50th anniversary of the Rolex 24 at Daytona (back then it was a three-hour race called the Daytona Continental) is being held this weekend with A. J. Foyt serving as the grand marshal.  Foyt is a two-time winner of the 24 and was also the fastest qualifier and opening lap leader of that very first race in -- of all things -- a Pontiac Tempest. 

The story of Foyt’s win in 1983 is well known.  How he left his father’s hospital bedside at his dad’s urging to “go have some fun.”  How his first car broke down and he climbed into a Porsche, having never driven one before, and only after practicing the shift pattern on another Porsche already knocked out of the race.  He then went out and set the fastest race lap – at night and in the rain.

I remember the ’83 race well, but not for Foyt’s accomplishments – and they were truly amazing.  It was raining hard when it was announced in the press box that Foyt had run the fastest race lap, to the disbelief of all still present.  It wasn't until several people started timing Foyt that we believed what IMSA was telling us.

I was at the race on the behalf of Toyota.  Dan Gurney’s All American Racers were running three Celicas in the GTU class and I was on hand to provide public relations support.  It was a good story.  Dan had assembled a team of drivers with the sons of several of his contemporaries, including Wally Dallenbach, Jr., and Al Unser, Jr., along with Willy T. Ribbs and  Michael Chandler, heir to the Chandler newspaper family, which included the L.A. Times.  Actor Gene Hackman was paired with a couple of Japanese drivers in a third car.  The cars were numbered 97, 98 and 99.

At one point during the night I went back to a tent the team had set up to grab a short nap.  But it’s hard to sleep on a cold, rainy night at Daytona with race cars going by 100 yards away.  So it wasn’t long before I was walking back across the dark infield to the pits.  I glanced up at the scoring pylon and was stunned to see 98 on top.

Unbelievable.  We were leading the race.  I started to walk a little faster.  I looked again and 99 was on top.  Our cars were battling for the lead!  I started to run.  But how could that be?  We were running in the GTU class, the slowest of three classes and the fastest of our cars had qualified 39th.  I stopped to look at the pylon again.  It read 100.  How could I have been so stupid?  The number on top of the pylon was the lap, not a car number.   

Looking forward to the race this weekend.  I’m always amazed at how much of the race I watch on TV.  Maybe it’s because it’s the first race of the year.  This year I’m also looking forward to seeing the new cars, especially the Corvettes.    

Have a good race.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

First of the 2013s

Photo courtesy of Ford Racing
Ford unveiled the first of the new 2013 Sprint Cup racers this week during the NASCAR media tour in Charlotte.  The new Fusion production car was a stunner when it was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year and the same can be said of the race car.   Those who have seen the new Charger also say it is a beauty.  One wonders why, if Chrysler had it ready, they let Ford get the publicity jump by being the first to show a new car.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Banking On The High Banks

Grand-Am is counting on new Daytona Prototypes such as the Corvette
(above) to increase fan interest in 2012
Grand-Am is promoting the 50th anniversary running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona this coming weekend as the “most anticipated road race in North American sports car history.”  It's not. 

It does come at a crucial tipping point for American sports car racing and will be followed six weeks later by the 60th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring conducted by the rival American Le Mans Series (ALMS).  Believe it or not, once upon a time the same teams and drivers competed at both Daytona and Sebring and those two back-to-back races were a match for anything NASCAR or IndyCar had to offer.  But that was a long, long time ago.

Most everyone agrees that in order for sports car racing to return to its past glory days, there needs to be a united sanctioning body.  But it seems the two groups are farther apart than ever before.

The Rolex 24 will feature the debut of the new third generation Daytona Prototypes (DP) that Grand-Am is betting its future on.  Let’s face it, the old cars were butt ugly.  The new Corvette DP is a great looking car and the other new machines are better looking, much better.  The cars are basically the same “low tech” racers under the fiberglass that are sneered at by many racing purists, don’t underestimate the impact of the looks on fans.

ALMS, on the other hand, has always had great looking and technically advanced Le Mans Prototypes (LMP) cars.  Just not many of them.  That situation took a turn for the worse this past week when Peugeot stunned ALMS and the new FIA World Endurance Championship by announcing it would not be competing at Sebring, Le Mans or anywhere else in 2012.  That leaves only Audi as a factory entry at Sebring, along with a hand full of independent teams affiliated with Honda, Lola, Mazda and others.

Not surprisingly, Hurley Haywood, the only five-time winner at Daytona, believes Grand-Am is now in a position to take a leadership position in American sports car racing. 

“That super, super expensive type of racing is so outrageously expensive to compete in, that the formulas like Grand-Am has, both on the DP side and the GT side, make so much more sense for 1) individual teams and 2), manufacturers,” Haywood said.  “So I think the manufacturers are figuring that out, and they're coming to support more reasonably-priced racing.
“Our cars are -- technically they're not dinosaurs. They've got all the bells and whistles on them that the fancy stuff has, but we just control the costs of operation a little bit better than some of the other sanctioning bodies.”

Because of the move to new DP cars there will be fewer of them competing at Daytona, probably less than 15 in a field of about 60.  A third of those will be Corvettes and the Chevy-powered cars claimed the top five times in the open tests, although less than a second separated the top 10 runners.

Normally the Ganassi Racing super teams would be the odds-on favorite, but they got a late start and didn’t take delivery of its new BMW Rileys until late December.  Lead driver Scott Pruett says they might even have to run one of last year’s generation two cars in the race.  Still, with Pruett looking to join Haywood as a five time winner, you can’t count out them out. 

With all the attention being paid to the Corvettes and Team Ganassi, there will be six Ford-powered cars in DP with drivers including Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Allan McNish, A.J. Allmendinger and Colin Braun.    

The smaller DP field will be balanced by a surge in the GT class.  What was once a Porsche playground now has both Audi and Ferrari supporting very competitive independent efforts.  A host of Mustangs, Camaros and Mazdas will fill out the GT field.   And while DP cars continue to run at about the same speeds as they have for the past several years, the GT cars are running faster each year and are becoming more difficult to pass.  A number of DP and GT cars tangled during the pre-season test and it will be something to watch for in the Rolex.

Looking ahead, Grand-Am has assembled an impressive 2012 schedule with new races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Detroit joining races at Mid-Ohio, Road America, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca and Lime Rock.  In addition to Sebring, ALMS visits many of the same tracks, including Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio and Road America, adding Long Beach, Baltimore, Virginia International Raceway and Road Atlanta.

It will be especially interesting to see which series draws the most fans at tracks where they both compete.

Pit Stops

All three IndyCar engine suppliers were on the track together for the first time this past week when Lotus joined Honda and Chevrolet powered teams at Sebring for several days of testing.  There was no official timing, but Scott Dixon was thought to have turned in the fastest lap in his Target Chip Ganassi Honda, while Kanaan was just a tick slower and topped the Chevrolet speed charts for KV Racing.  Lotus focused on durability runs with Simona De Silvestro turning in the most laps overall. 

IndyCar also is reportedly satisfied after a couple days of wind tunnel tests that the new Dallara DW12 chassis will post speeds similar to the car it is replacing on oval tracks.  Concerns had arisen after November tests at Indianapolis Motor Speedway had seen speeds topping out in the mid-215 mph range, well under last year’s top speeds.  After making a number of aerodynamic tweaks on the 2012 chassis and using a 2011 chassis from Target Chip Ganassi Racing as a baseline, IndyCar said the two posted similar wind tunnel numbers and, as a result, should produce similar numbers on the track. 

"I admit there were times that I got discouraged over the winter," KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser said. "You kept getting bad reports about the car -- at least from the oval testing -- and how everything was doom and gloom.  But now that I've had a chance to see and hear the car going around the track, I'm pumped.  I'm excited to go racing with these things."

Now this is special.  The Circuit of the Americas, the race track being built near Austin, Tex., to host the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in November, is selling personal seat licenses ranging in cost from $1,000 to $5,000. 

Seat licenses have been used in recent years by NFL, MLB and major college football teams, providing fans the right to buy tickets, especially at new stadiums.  The Circuit of the Americas license allows purchasers to be first in line to buy tickets at the track for the next 15 years.  You’re paying in order to be first in line to buy your ticket.  Hmmm.  Takes a lot of guts considering a month ago it was 50/50 proposition whether or not the track would ever be finished.    

But if you’re interested, the line starts today at    

NASCAR’s annual media tour is underway this week in Charlotte and several new teams have already announced plans to run at least a partial Sprint Cup schedule in 2012.  There had been some question whether NASCAR would be able to field full 43-car starting lineups at all its races and the new teams make that more likely, although they’ll be mostly of the start-and-park variety.  Inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday were Richie Evans, Dale Inman, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood and Cale Yarborough. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tango Lives On

After three days of Daytona tests and constant tinkering with the rules package, NASCAR thinks it is close to setting the final specs for the Daytona 500.  At least they'll be final until the cars show up for Speed Weeks.  Then all bets are off.
With speeds topping 202 mph on Thursday in a day of two-car tango runs, just what NASCAR didn’t want to see, the teams were allowed to run larger restrictor plates for Day Two.  Speeds jumped above 206 mph and while the drivers said they were fine with it, the engine builders weren’t, with motors hitting never intended RPM levels.  Day Three saw a smaller plate and additional cooling restrictions, and speeds hovering around 200 mph.
The tests also saw the return of pack racing as drivers bunched up – at the request of NASCAR.  Everyone was quick to proclaim that the “Pack is Back,” and it was for all of about 10 laps on Saturday.  That’s when Juan Pablo Montoya showed he was already in mid-season form, swerving into Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was turned into Jeff Burton, sending Junior and Burton for long slides.  The incident resulted in enough damage to give the #31 and #88 crews a head start loading up their cars and put an end to the pack racing experiment for the day.
As soon as the track was open for practice after the aborted pack session, the teams went right back to choreographing their two-car tango dance moves.   The general consensus seems to be there will be more pack racing come race day, that cars wouldn’t necessarily have to run in tandem to keep pace, but that the fastest laps will still be turned by two cars hooked up to tango, if only for a lap or two. 
“The two car tandem is, definitely, probably the preferred way to go as far as speed,” Earnhardt told Speed.  “You’re not gonna be able to outrun that, without doing it.  But maybe you don’t have to do it for 500 miles. 
“But that tandem stuff is what’s gonna win the race.”
There also was widespread concern about the restrictions severely limiting the cooling systems.  Test days saw near perfect cool racing conditions, but drivers indicated engine temperatures were already rising in just 10 laps of pack racing.  Warmer weather on race day could cause real challenges for the already stretched-to-the-limit cooling systems.

Test Notes:
As expected, the new electronic fuel injection systems on the engines caused no problems while the cars were at speed, but were more of a challenge on pit road.  Michael Waltrip Racing said it conducted more than 20 practice pit stops before it was happy with pit stop performance.  Greg Biffle practiced stops for Roush/Fenway racing, purposely stalling and trying to restart the car.  Twice he said he was unable to immediately restart the car.  Others also found it hard to restart a hot engine. We haven’t heard the end of this.
Kurt Busch said all the right things and even topped the test’s speed charts at more than 206 mph, but his body language indicated just how difficult his first outing since being fired by Penske Racing was.  But give him credit, even after Richard Petty pretty much said Busch had been blackballed by sponsors, he talked to interviewers and even went into the press room to face the music.  And he made it clear he’s already looking ahead to 2013.
“My objective is to keep the eye on 2013's big prize, and going in and talking with as many teams as I did this off-season, my original plan was to work with as many groups as I possibly could, find four or five races with these guys, those guys, run Nationwide, do this, trucks even, and associate myself with as many sponsors, teams and people. That way they get to know me and go, wow, what's really the problem here, and the problem is when there's a bad day on the track, that's when there's the only issue.”
Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing both seemed to be teams on a mission throughout the tests.  The JGR guys spent most of their time practicing the two-car tango.  They were one of the few teams to hook up and try to tango during the pack session and quickly showed it was still the fastest way around the track.  The Penske team didn’t miss a beat in the transition from Busch to A.J. Allmendinger.  Two teams to watch.
A total of 32 cars participated in the tests, well under the 43 needed for a fill the field at a NASCAR race.  But NASCAR said it wasn't concerned about filling th field and shouldn't be at Daytona.  A little later in the season?  Something to watch.

IndyCar teams from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus will hit the track today and tomorrow at Sebring for the first mass test of the year.  All three engine brands have already been in action, but this will be the first time for all three to be on the track at the same time.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

They're Baaaack

Kyle Busch was the fastest of the first day runners at 202.402 mph during the three-day NASCAR Daytona test session.  The two-car tango was back and Busch hit the speed while working with teammate Joey Logano, who was just a tick behind in second.  Seven drivers topped 200 mph and it remains to be seen how NASCAR will react to those speeds, which in recent years has been a no-go zone.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

NASCAR Hits The Track

As NASCAR teams head to Daytona later this week for three days of the testing, the euphoria over the Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards fight to the finish for the Sprint Cup championship has been replaced by enough question marks to cast a cloud over the fast approaching season.

Typically a boring lapping session that drivers try to avoid like a sponsor’s meet-and-greet session, there’s much more at stake this year.  NASCAR is hoping the test will show that technical changes made during the off-season will end the two-car tango racing that has been prevalent at its two showcase tracks, Daytona and Talladega.  It also hopes the tests will put an end to harping about the electronic fuel injection (EFI) system being mandated for the 2012 season.

For the competitors, an inordinate number of new team-driver-crew chief combinations will be trying to jell before the start of the season. There’s also a question of just how many teams will show up for the tests, and if NASCAR will be able to field 43-cars throughout the season.

First order of business will be an attempt to put an end to the tag-teams we’ve seen at Daytona and Talladega since NASCAR’s new generation car was introduced and the two Superspeedways were repaved.  The novelty of the racing has worn off and NASCAR is right in sensing fans aren’t excited about that type of racing.

“We are working on rolling back the clock to traditional Daytona, Talladega races,” NASCAR chief Brian France said in announcing the changes.  “We’ll have to see how that goes. I think the majority of fans would like to see that, and so would we.”

The radiators for Daytona have been reduced from five gallons to two and the overflow recovery can from one gallon to a half-gallon in hopes the cars will have to swap positions more often to keep the engines cool.  NASCAR tried this before but the teams were one step ahead with improved cooling efficiency.

The cars also will be running on softer springs, which should make it harder for the bumpers to match up.  Finally, a smaller rear spoiler should make for squirrelly handling with another car tucked up under the rear end.  The smaller spoiler also could allow the cars to run faster, so NASCAR is mandating a smaller restrictor plate.

Less evident to fans will be the advent of electronic fuel injection (EFI) for all Cup engines.  It’s an attempt by NASCAR to pull its engines into the 21st Century, where all production vehicle engines have long featured EFI.  NASCAR itself has been slow to allow the change, mainly because of concerns that the teams would find ways to cheat the system.  As a result, the fuel injection systems being mandated by NASCAR are archaic, nowhere near as technologically advanced as the systems in today’s cars.  But they are easier to monitor. 

Initial EFI tests have been less than encouraging.  Brad Keselowski said it was a “disaster” after driving an EFI car for the first time.  NASCAR spanked him with a $25,000 fine for his input.  The major complaint is that the system is less responsive.  “Just getting off pit road has been a major challenge,” said one manufacturer, “but we’ll get it figured out.”  EFI probably won’t have much impact at Daytona where drivers are flat-out all the way around the track, but pit stops could be interesting.  The real test will come on the shorter tracks where drivers are on and off the gas.

Against this backdrop, a large number of teams will be trying to mesh before the season’s most important race, beginning with the defending Cup champion and his new crew chief, Steve Addington.  Stewart fired the eventual Cup winning crew chief, Darian Grubb, when it looked like his team didn’t have a chance to win, while Kurt Busch’s whining had driven Addington from the Penske fold.

Grubb is taking over Denny Hamlin’s car at Joe Gibbs Racing from Mike Ford, who had been the only Cup crew chief Hamlin has ever known. The move may be just what the team needs to make the jump from Cup pretender to a legitimate Cup contender, although Grubb has never worked on a Toyota team. 

Stewart also lured his old JGR crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, to join Stewart-Haas Racing as competition director and to handle Danica Patrick’s Cup ride, at least for Daytona.  But it will be interesting to see how Zippy and Addington work together in the long run.
With Zipadelli leaving, JGR has moved Jason Ratcliffe up from the team’s Nationwide program.  The biggest benefactor of all this could be Joey Logano.  Zipadelli and Logano worked together for three years, never really hit it off, and Logano was nearly cut loose last year in favor of Edwards.  But Ratcliffe and Logano have worked well in Nationwide and the moved could just be what’s needed for the youngster to jumpstart his career.

Another top team with a new combo is that of Kevin Harvick, who asked for – and received – a new crew chief.  Shane Wilson is moving over the from the now defunct Richard Childress Racing team of Clint Boyer to run the Harvick operation.   The pair have worked together in the past and the combination is one of those that will need to be watched closely early in the year.

Finally, another team that needs to be watched for the first time in years is the No. 48.  Jimmy Johnson and Chad Knaus are back and from the sound of things, chomping at the bit to regain their title form.  It may not be that simple.  Both the team and Johnson made uncharacteristic mistakes last season that they had avoided in past years and there was even the first hint of bickering.  How they respond as the challenger and not even the lead challenger will need watching. 

But the most important thing of all:  it’s good to have cars back on the track.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Year In Review

With major league racing still a couple of weeks away, let’s kick off the AutoRacing2012 blog with a look back at the top American racing stories of 2011:
1)  Dan Weldon killed at Las Vegas.  Unfortunately the big racing story of 2011 was the death of Dan Weldon in the season-ending Las Vegas IndyCar race.  The loss of the popular and photogenic Indy 500 winner in a fiery crash made for a week of national news coverage the series didn’t need.  IndyCar was showing signs of revitalization during the season but it remains to be seen how badly the series has been hurt by the fiasco.   
2)  Tony Stewart beats Carl Edwards for Sprint Cup title.  Most years Stewart’s late season heroics would be the hands down winner as the top racing story of the year.  After saying early on his team didn’t belong in The Chase, his five wins during the 10-race Chase were a remarkable accomplishment and the victory at Homestead was a true classic.  Only Stewart’s decision to fire crew chief Darian Grubb when the title was still very much in doubt taints the accomplishment and creates a giant question mark regarding his 2012 season.  
3)   Indianapolis 500.  One hundred years after the first running of the Indy 500 the magic – and fans – were back.  Although somewhat contrived, qualifying featured the first serious bumping and drama in years.  The race was fast and exciting and the double file restarts added to the excitement.  Dan Weldon’s last lap victory was popular with both drivers and fans.  The Speedway will attempt to keep the momentum going by reprising many of the fan events that helped make the 2011 race a success.  And the new car and engine manufacturers are sure to add to fan interest.
4)   Dario Franchitti wins third straight IndyCar title.  Lost in the season-ending Las Vegas disaster was Franchitti’s third straight IZOD IndyCar championship and fourth title overall.  He is now tied for second in Indy series titles and trails only A.J. Foyt (who has seven).  The worst part about the Vegas sideshow was that it wasn’t needed.  Franchitti led Will Power by just 18 points going into the finale, well within striking range.  But Power was involved in the accident that took Dan Weldon’s life and when the race was cancelled, Franchitti was handed the somewhat hollow title.  
5)   Trevor Bayne wins Daytona 500.  The feel good moment of 2011 was Bayne’s victory in the 500.  The new Daytona surface led to Talladega style tag team racing and love it or hate it (put me in the “really dislike” category), it produces exciting finishes, often after 498 miles of some pretty boring lapping.  Bayne played it all to perfection.  It was an emotional victory lane for Bayne and even more so for the return of the Woods team, which had come close to missing Daytona.  Bayne has the potential to become the Tim Tebow of NASCAR, in stark contrast to the Busch Brats.
6)   The Busch Brats.  It looked for a while as if two of the most talented drivers in NASCAR, brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, would be without rides in 2012 because of their boorish 2011 antics on- and off-the-track.  Kyle was all but gone until Joe Gibbs convinced corporate sponsor Mars Candy to give him one last chance.  Indications are Kyle will be limited to Sprint Cup races only in 2012, where Gibbs hopes he has more control over his driver.  Kurt has caught on with the #51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet team of James Finch, but it’s hard to see how he can control his emotions with this second (or third?) tier team if the likes of Jack Roush and Roger Penske couldn’t make him happy. 
7)   Ganassi Dominates Grand-Am – Again.  Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates won its fifth Grand-Am title and fourth Rolex 24 at Daytona, taking the top two places at Daytona.  It was the Ganassi team’s second straight title and fifth overall. Scott Pruett won at Daytona and picked up his fourth Grand-Am driver’s championship.  One more overall win at Daytona (he has four) and Pruett will have more wins than any other driver in Daytona 24 history.
8)   Racing Biz.  Off-track happenings rivaled on-track action in 2011 and continue to loom large over 2012.  NASCAR seemed to stabilize its fan base both at the track and on television, but at a far cry from its peak years.  Tracks that rapidly expanded seating capacity during the mid-2000 boom years are now embarrassed by empty grandstands.   Teams large and small lost sponsorships.  Top tier NASCAR teams, including Roush/Fenway and Richard Childress Racing, have cut the number of cars they will run in 2012.  In IndyCar, one of the top teams in the series, Newman/Haas Racing, has said it won’t run at all in 2012 because of the lack of sponsorship and the cost of acquiring new cars.  On the television front, IndyCar may be getting a boost from NBC’s push to make Versus a competitor with ESPN.  NASCAR, on the other hand, has to be concerned that Fox appears interested in moving nearly half of the 13 Sprint Cup races it televises to its Speed channel.  Fox positions it as a move to boost Speed, but it can’t be good for NASCAR.  When ABC moved more of its Sprint Cup races to ESPN, viewership on both channels suffered.   
9)   New car, engines, for IndyCar.  The IndyCar series selected its long awaited new car design during 2011.  The selection committee picked a traditional design from Dallara, an IndyCar partner since 1997, while dismissing the radical Delta Wing supported by Chip Ganassi and a few others.  Plans to allow the teams to develop their own aero packages have been put on hold in an effort to control costs and the car is now known as the DW12 in honor of Dan Weldon, who had done initial testing of the car prior to his death.  Three engine manufacturers have stepped up to build new engines of 2.2-liter, turbocharged, V6 configuration.  Honda, the sole engine supplier since 2006, will be joined by Chevrolet and Lotus branded engines in the coming year.
10) F1 returning to U.S.?  In great fanfare it was announced Formula One would return to America in 2012 at a new track being built in Austin, Texas.  It’s been four years since Formula One last raced in the U.S., at Indianapolis in 2007.  The announcement has been followed by the typical F1 drama and with the race off-and-on several times through the year.  Adding to the confusion, a second race in America was put on the tentative schedule for 2013.  By year’s end the Texas race was back on again.  In an indication of F1’s total arrogance, the race is scheduled for Nov. 18, the same day as NASCAR’s Chase finale in Homestead.  Nice.  Will it really happen?  Who knows?  Does anyone care?