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?