The -30- Post

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When I was a print journalist, “30” was a message to the copy editor: the story is over.

After five years and over 300 posts, this is my 30 column for this blog.  In 2009, I began sharing my lifelong passion for motorsport with analysis and humor.  I wanted to talk about great drivers, great races, great cars, and great controversies.  I conceived of the blog as an online motorsport magazine, covering different aspects of the sport but also focused on the passion, the excitement, the joy of racing. Not a daily stat sheet; something broader.

I tried to provide readers with provocative writing accompanied by original images.  I had nothing to offer aside from limitless zeal, past experience as a sportswriter, and the belief that I had something to share.  I was also lucky to live near Laguna Seca and Sonoma Raceway, which collectively provide enough action to satisfy any race fan.

It started small, mostly posting after watching races on television (and attending live events in the Bay Area).  Gradually, as the blog built support, it mushroomed into something more substantial.  I fell back on my background in journalism and decided to approach the blog as if it were subjected to print journalism standards and ethics, as well as the same level of detail and passion (i.e., no spewing).  I did all of this with a demanding full-time job and a family to raise.

The blog grew bigger than I expected. Tens of thousands of visitors have viewed these pages since 2009, from over 140 countries.  I’ve engaged in a spirited debate over issues as diverse as F1 in the United States, the state of IndyCar racing, and the schism (and merger) of sports car racing.  I shared hundreds of posts and photographs, met fantastic personalities and drivers, and brought an inside look at some of the biggest racing series in the world (the World Touring Car Championship, IndyCar, the ALMS, Grand-Am, USF2000, and Pirelli World Challenge, to name a few).  I was privileged to receive inside access and tried to share it as honestly and vividly as I my skills allowed.  I learned more about racing in five years than in all the years prior to that.  It hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s always been true and hopefully accurate.

And I’ve been honored to interview so many great drivers and racing personalities, including Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Alain Menu, Yvan Muller, Mario Andretti, Lyn St. James, Roger Penske, Marcello Lotti, and many more who were generous with their time, guys like Robb Holland, Rob Huff, and Peter Portante.  These are real people, more than just celebrities.  If some drivers are known for being arrogant or unapproachable, there are ten who are wonderful, funny, great to be around.  I feel like the luckiest race fan in the world sometimes.

Over the years, I obtained greater access through the efforts of some very nice folks at Race Sonoma (thank you Diana Brennan, Jennifer Imbimbo, Laurence Lea, and the late John Cardinale), amazing media people who showed generosity of spirit with a blogger. Similarly, good friends at Mazdaspeed Motorsports helped gain access to the teams, pit and paddock at Mazda Raceway.  I was able to receive an inside line on developments in the ALMS and Grand-Am Series, and the Road to Indy, many of which I could not print because they were entrusted to me as confidential.

I have read a lot of racing blog posts over the last four years, some of which rival the top newspapers and specialist publications in their coverage of auto racing.  There are some amazingly talented bloggers on every form of motorsport today.  These folks put their passion and heart into writing for the love of it, and they keep the sport alive.  We are all tied together in a common desire to extol the virtues of auto racing, I love the passion of the fans, the teams, the media and other stakeholders.  I have been inspired and challenged like never before.  This is especially important in an era of declining journalism outlets and fewer reliable sources for racing news.

However, there is also a constant din of negativity about finance, politics, and other issues. No one can rise above that din, nor should I try.  Social media can become an echo chamber where sarcasm and criticism trump insightful analysis.  There are too many voices shouting at each other, and very few people doing any actual listening.  Mine is just another voice, no better or worse than the rest.

These are not easy times for racing, and some of the time and enthusiasm that I had in the early days of the blog has waned.  I started out writing about F1, IndyCars, the ALMS and the Grand-Am.  I stopped writing about F1 when I realized that my reach exceeded my grasp.  It’s good to know one’s own limitations, and the fact is, no one can write credibly about a racing series unless he is there, at least some of the time.  You miss a lot watching television.  F1 has serious issues to face: DRS, double points, horrible-sounding engines, degrading tires – these are gimmicks to shore up an increasingly aging and disinterested television audience.  The issue of so-called “pay” drivers is a disheartening post all by itself. 

The ALMS folded up its tent last year, joining the Grand-Am to form the awkwardly-named Tudor United Sports Car Championship, an amalgam of teams from the current Grand-Am and the former ALMS.  The series immediately terminated the P1 class, added a “GTD” class, and forced all but the GTLM runners onto Continental Tires.  Le Mans is about innovation, whereas the Grand-Am has never been about tech.  The DP prototype is a dinosaur, made from a steel tubeframe rather than carbon fiber, a cost-conscious car built for a NASCAR-supported series.  I love the WEC for the machinery, but I don’t see that replacing the ALMS in the hearts of American sports car fans.

After the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Sebring 12 Hours, I think I’ve seen the future of sports car racing in America and I’m not sure how I feel.  Teams and drivers are less than enthusiastic, confused by late rule changes and an ever-moving balance of performance.  IMSA has blown the GT finish in two straight races, both of which constitute its “blue ribbon” events.   It’s the end of a chapter in sports cars, and the beginning of something different.  Call it managed competition, if you will.  The TV issue must also be addressed; the race is called the 12 Hours of Sebring, not the Three Hours of Sebring.

The IndyCar Series has lurched from crisis to crisis, although it seems to be on an even keel at the moment.  The most popular post on this blog called the DW12 an “ugly duckling.”   I didn’t get into blogging to endlessly criticize the product, but others do it for me.  The series seems to unwillingly court controversy in almost every facet, but each summer, the thrill of an IndyCar race brings me back to the hills of the wine country. The product is good, but more people need to know about it.  Signing Verizon is a huge step.

The IMS folks believe they know what’s best for the series as a whole, but they’ve only got one circuit on their mind.  I hope that the series partners with local circuit owners who are on the financial front lines of racing, companies like SMI (which operates Sonoma) need to work collectively with the IndyCar Series. Adding a race in Indianapolis does nothing for the series as a whole, it doesn’t help anyone outside of Indianapolis.  The series cannot thrive without healthy fan support all over the country, not just in the midwest.

This has always been a broad-based motorsport magazine.  However, over the last five years, my available time for the blog has dropped off due to real world concerns.  I want anything I do to be great and worth reading.  If it cannot be, because I do not have the time to devote, maybe it’s time to transition.  I’ll always be a racing fan and will always go to races, but I think this blog has seen its time come.  The posts will stay up, Twitter will continue.

After today, I’ll be shifting my focus to building the ultimate collection of race cars at a new blog called ecurie415.com.  The site features more images celebrating the art and style of racing and race cars.  It will also feature brighter and bolder images, in keeping with my own interest in motor sport photography.

I will continue to write about Sonoma and Laguna Seca events (as long as they’ll have me!). These events are under-served by the racing press, which is often concentrated in Southern California, Charlotte or Indianapolis.  The motor sport world is fortunate to have Marshall Pruett based in Northern California, but there are fewer and fewer print publications writing about racing (even outlets with a substantial Northern California presence).  I have been lucky to share those experiences with Twitter users and blog followers who are not able to make the trek west each summer.

I still love racing, and that’s why I’ve been doing this for almost five years. The only thing left to do is to say thanks to you, for reading this blog, for commenting, for re-posting and re-tweeting, and for letting me be a part of your community.  I’ll see you at the track, or at ecurie415.com.

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You and Me and JV

Villeneuve in a Renault, Shanghai, 2004. (Photo: S. Bloom)

Villeneuve in a Renault, Shanghai, 2004. (Photo: S. Bloom)

The last time I saw Jacques Villeneuve, in Shanghai in 2004, he was lost at sea. Drafted into a Renault F1 car to replace a fired Jarno Trulli, Villeneuve qualified 13th and struggled to a mid-grid finish while Fernando Alonso took sixth in the same car.

This was a far cry from the wild-haired youngster who burst onto the scene by winning the Indy 500 in 1995 and taking an F1 title two years later with Williams.  By 2004, Villeneuve had lost his confidence after trying to start an F1 team with his manager and friend, Craig Pollock.  His experience proved that BAR was no Wiliams, and that Pollock’s reach far exceeded his grasp. Honda got involved and, eventually, Pollock and Villeneuve were pushed out the door. A spell at Sauber didn’t help much, once BMW took over and found that Villeneuve hardly made a great spokesman for the German brand.  Jacques was never known for being media friendly, but then again, Robert Kubica was waiting in the wings.

So, into the wilderness.  A music career, a stock car detour, a wife and family.  But something, call it restlessness, kept pushing.

Maybe it was the legacy of his father, as pure a racer who ever donned a pair of gloves. Jacques literally grew up in the paddock. It was in his blood, and it’s not easy to give up. Look at an F1 grid pre-race, and count how many ex-drivers are managers, broadcasters, or otherwise have a role.  The same is true of Indy.

“I’m a racer at heart and I will always be,” Villeneuve said upon the announcement of a drive with Schmidt Peterson.  “That’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me alive.”

The example of Michael Schumacher’s return should give pause to Villeneuve, but the circumstances are entirely different. Schumacher returned to a factory F1 drive in his home country, whereas Villeneuve is talking about driving in one race.  Whether he will perform well at Indianapolis is anyone’s guess, but the media backlash (“yesterday’s news”, some said, unfairly, while a blogger posting on NBCSports.com described Villeneuve as, essentially, undeserving of his ride) ignores the extent of Villeneuve’s considerable gifts. The kind of gifts that are not possessed (yet, maybe ever) by drivers like Conor Daly and Tristan Vautier.

The skeptics could be right, but so few of them have seen Villeneuve race, any bias against the Canadian likely reflects more about the writer than Villeneuve.  The constant need for “youth” in IndyCar is a marketing issue, not a competitive issue.   The youth movement conflates the need for younger viewers with the need for younger drivers.  The IndyCar Series has a decent share of young drivers, but none measure up to Villeneuve’s talent or charisma.  The fixation with youth also ignores the number of over-40 armchair racers who might tune for the first time in years.  Youth wasn’t always prized; in 1994, Emerson Fittipaldi lined up on the first row at Indy at 47 (a row ahead of a much younger Villeneuve).  In racing, as in life, age is a number, not an expiration date.  Ask Niki Lauda, who quit F1 only to return and win another world championship.

The fact is that racing isn’t fair or just, nor is it a democracy.  It’s a motor race, not a morality play.  If it was a democracy, we might be toasting Mark Webber’s F1 title.  But we aren’t.  It’s naive to think otherwise about racing.

Bringing Villeneuve to the party is not a slight on any other driver, and Villeneuve is not required to “move the needle” (the most overused cliche imaginable when referring to the IndyCar Series).  He’s required to work hard and be quick, not save the series.  He’s just a guy that wants to race.

I don’t know about you, but I never watched a race because the driver was marketable.  I just wanted to see one guy go faster than the rest.

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F1/IndyCar: Simona leaps in – and out

Simona de Silvestro before a test in February at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: S. Bloom)

Simona De Silvestro before a test last February at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: S. Bloom)

Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro has announced a move from the IndyCar Series to a role as “affilate” driver with the Sauber F1 team.  De Silvestro’s signing makes her one of the few women drivers with a credible opportunity at an F1 drive.  De Silvestro will not act as the team’s test and reserve driver (those seats are filled), but she hopes to move into a race seat in 2015.

The decision wasn’t without controversy.  With memories of Bernie Ecclestone’s put-down of Danica Patrick still fresh (he called her “a domestic appliance”), De Silvestro rekindles the ongoing debate about whether men and women can compete on equal terms in racing.  One longtime F1 journalist, quoting rally driver Michele Mouton, noted the difference in upper body strength and psychological makeup.  Of course, De Silvestro has been driving an IndyCar without power steering on ovals for the last five years, whereas F1 cars have power steering and other aids not found in an IndyCar.  Her toughness is beyond question – she managed to race at Indianapolis with hands that were badly burned in an accident.

Predictably, long-suffering IndyCar fans viewed the move as a further sign of the apocalypse.  Forgetting that the traditional route to success in motor racing goes from IndyCar to F1, not the reverse, De Silvestro’s departure is thought to reflect a scarcity of opportunities for talented young drivers.  Last year, the grid included seven drivers 25 and under. Only two return with full-time rides this year (Josef Newgarden and Sebastian Saavedra).

The tradition of IndyCar drivers moving to F1, and back, is nothing new.  Jim Clark and Graham Hill were F1 champions who each won the Indy 500, and Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi came from F1 to win titles in America.  Drivers like Michael Andretti, Cristiano da Matta, Alex Zanardi, and Sebastien Bourdais struggled in F1.  Notably, none of those drivers served any form of F1 tutelage before leaping into the car.  They left IndyCar mid-career, at the height of success, and rapidly fell to earth.  Moreover, aside from Andretti’s time at McLaren, neither Bourdais (Torro Rosso), da Matta (Toyota) or Zanardi (Williams) were in the right team at the right time.  De Silvestro’s year on the bench may be the kind of transition required for such a move.

Under any rational analysis, De Silvestro’s move is a coup for her, for F1, and for IndyCar.  As a well-funded but young driver, De Silvestro never had her choice of rides among the top teams in IndyCar.  Her decision to pursue F1 is a savvy career decision, as opposed to a wasted year funding a ride at a smaller IndyCar team.  F1 teams like Sauber devote substantial resources to building, testing and racing their own car, an engineering opportunity De Silvestro will never find in IndyCar, which uses a spec chassis and engine package.  F1 is the height of engineering and technology; the same cannot be said for IndyCar.

And Sauber is no minnow.  Peter Sauber ran his Swiss sports car and F1 team for years before BMW came along with a major investment, eventually selling the team back to Sauber.  As a Swiss national, the media-friendly De Silvestro provides Sauber and F1 with a public relations coup.  Her departure from the IndyCar Series is not a loss for that series, but rather a gain for the sport. To view it any other way is to miss the point.

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F1: Nose jobs

A proper F1 nose.  (Photo: S. Bloom)

A proper F1 nose. (Photo: S. Bloom)

F1 engineers and designers are an odd lot.  Not unlike the lawyers of sport, they scour the rules for competitive advantage, something the late Mark Donohue once labelled “the unfair advantage”.  But that’s what brings home championships, as men like Adrian Newey can attest.

The 2014 F1 aerodynamic regulations require a lowered nose for safety reasons, leading engineers to go to great lengths to exploit the new rules.  However, instead of creating a thing of beauty (like the Lotus F1 car, above, designed by Colin Chapman), F1 designers gave us a proboscis.  A thin, narrow nose, unsightly and providing ample grist for the phallic joke mill.

F1 cars should be the pinnacle of design, but aesthetics still matter.  We’ll see if this trend persists, or if this nose goes the way of the hideous Williams “walrus” nose.

F14T. Quite a noise. (Via Ferrari)

F14T. Quite a nose. (Via Ferrari)

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Rolex 24 at Daytona: 1979 Mazda RX-7 – GTU killer

35 years ago: the RX-7

35 years ago: the RX-7

In 1979, Mazda took the sports car world by storm with a class win in the 24 Hours at Daytona.  Although the two RX-7’s qualified far down the grid, they moved through the field with a combination of agile handling and durability.  Finishing fifth overall against tough competition, the rotary-engined RX-7 made an indelible stamp on the American racing scene in its first major race.  The RX-7 was also of its kind to win at Daytona (Mazda had a class win with an RX-3 in 1975), and victory at Daytona set the stage for Mazda’s triumphant rotary victory at Le Mans in 1991.

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Vintage: Memory Alfa

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It’s been many years since Alfa Romeo sold cars in the United States, but that hasn’t stopped the Italian brand’s legion of devoted followers.  Alfa enthusiasts continue to race in historic club events throughout the United States, keeping the flame alive for these exotic but user-friendly sedans.

The Alfa Giulia Sprint GTA was the little engine that could in the early days of SCCA Trans-Am racing, where Alfas fought against other small-displacement cars like the Dodge Dart, Datsun 510, and BMW 2002 in the under-2L class.  The cars had grunt to spare and cleaned up with trophies and podiums, winning the U2 class for drivers on five occasions before 1972.  This era is fondly remembered as the zenith in American sedan racing, as Ford, Dodge, Porsche, Datsun and BMW routinely traded supremacy.

The two cars shown here are mid-1960s examples, a 1966 on top and a 1967 below.  Both are raced today with gusto in the Classic Sports Racing Group and other events.  Alfa has promised to return the Alfa 4C to the United States in 2014, but we’re not holding our breath.

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Photo of the 4C by Alfa Romeo.

Photo of the 4C by Alfa Romeo.

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Daytona beckons – no rest for the wicked

BMW returns with the Z4 GTE. (Photo: S. Bloom)

BMW returns with the Z4 GTE. (Photo: S. Bloom)

The “Roar before the 24″ takes on a new complexion in the first unified race since the ALMS was acquired by the Grand-Am and renamed the Tudor United Sportscar Championship.  Three new classes of machinery will race each other for the first time later this month, as GTLM, P2 and PC cars will join the existing field of DP and GTD cars.

It hasn’t been an easy transition.  Tensions simmered throughout 2013 as IMSA officials, teams and partners struggled to draft a rulebook, agree on types of machinery, incorporate an FIA driver ranking system, and decide on a schedule.  Key among these decisions was the balance of performance, a voodoo metric that – in theory – will keep the DPs at the top of the food chain, with other classes following behind.  Early indications are that the balance of performance is (at least) within the ballpark.

It remains to be seen whether today’s times are an accurate barometer of what to expect in the 24 Hours.  In past years, allegations of sandbagging have dogged the event.  It wasn’t unusual to see a team post average numbers at the Roar, and show significant performance gains come race day.  IMSA officials claim to be combating this concern by establishing balance of performance levels at the Roar, enticing teams to put their best foot forward sooner rather than later.

The Roar also serves an important public relations service, allowing fans and media to get an early look at the car and driver pairings.  It’s only the third day of 2014, but the racing season is in full swing.

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60 for 60: Day 60 – Raising a glass

Cheers! (Photo: S. Bloom)

Cheers! (Photo: S. Bloom)

As New Year’s Eve approaches, we wrap our celebration of the year in motorsport. For the past 60 days, we’ve published our 60 favorite images – memorable moments from an exciting year.  We believe, and many agree, that 2013 was a bumper year for auto racing.  Of course, we’re always mindful that it was a difficult and tragic year, and Allan Simonsen, Sean Edwards, and Jason Leffler are never far from our thoughts.

Tragedy aside, this was a wonderful year on track.  In F1 and IndyCar, competition was tighter than ever, and while some criticized the means, the end was clearly worth it.  This was also the last year of separate American sports car racing series, and we bid a fond farewell to the ALMS as we look forward to the United series debut next month in Daytona.

We’ve enjoyed interacting with the motorsport community all season, via this blog, Twitter, and our visits to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Sonoma Raceway.  This blog would not be possible without the support and help of so many people, including Mazda, Avast Communications, Robb Holland, Sonoma Raceway media staff, the FIA WTCC press folks, the IndyCar PR department, IMSA staff, and many others.  We’re also grateful for the marshals and safety crew who keep us safe when we’re taking photographs of cars flying by just a few feet away.

We hope to bring more of the same in 2014, and we thank you for your support.  When we look back on 2013, we feel pretty much like the Honda engineer in this photo.

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60 for 60: Day 59 – On the edge of our seat

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For this blog, 2013 was a fantastic year.  We brought you coverage from IndyCar races, the World Touring Car Championship, the American Le Mans Series, the Grand-Am, and World Superbikes.  Every race was a privilege, and we are eternally indebted to the fine folks at Sonoma Raceway and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, our hosts for most of the year.

It’s never easy to choose the best images of the year. There are many favorite moments, exciting shots and poignant ones as well.  The photo above was chosen not necessarily for the quality, but for personal reasons.  There is no feeling like standing on the side of the circuit while the entire IndyCar field flies by at full throttle.  We are not racers, we merely write about them.  Every once in a while, we get as close to the action as anyone can possibly get without wearing a fire suit.  For the ability to experience all of this, and for your support, we are eternally grateful.

60 for 60: to celebrate the end of our racing year, we’re posting the 60 favorite images we captured this season, one each day from November 1 to December 31.

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60 for 60: Day 58 – Muscle car

Muscle Milk: bowing out on top.

Muscle Milk: bowing out on top.

We first attended an ALMS race in 2000.  After that first race, we attended all of the Bay Area races until the final event this year.  We fell in love with Le Mans racing (and the ALMS) because of the prototypes – the specially-built “monsters of the Mulsanne” that thrill with outright speed (and occasional airborne flight).

P1 prototypes did not survive the merger between the ALMS and the Grand-Am, and Muscle Milk’s Honda ARX-03 will be the final ALMS prototype champion.  Much credit to Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr for two straight ALMS class championships.  The team is building a P2 car for the new Tudor United series, but we’ll always miss the sights and sounds of the big boys.  Off to Le Mans, I guess…..

60 for 60: to celebrate the end of our racing year, we’re posting the 60 favorite images we captured this season, one each day from November 1 to December 31.

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