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.

-3o-

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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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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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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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60 for 60: Day 57 – Inspiration

Michael Johnson.  (Photo: S. Bloom)

Michael Johnson. (Photo: S. Bloom)

We met Michael Johnson at the USF2000 race at Mazda Raceway in September.  Johnson is paralyzed from the waist down, but that doesn’t stop him from racing.  After losing the use of his legs following a motocross action at age 12, Johnson’s determination led him to pursue a career in auto racing.  With the help of a steering wheel that includes a brake and throttle, Johnson raced well enough to make the leap to Pro Mazda next year.

There are racers who have everything handed to them in life.  There are others who have to earn it, sleeping in the garage or working on their own cars.  There is also a third category: drivers who race against impossible odds.  Think of Alex Zanardi as but one example, but there are more.  Michael Johnson is one of those drivers.  A young man who gives new meaning to the term “effort”, and a new understanding of what it means to be inspired.

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 56 – A long hard road to the title

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In August, they said it was over.  Too far behind, they said.  Will never catch Castroneves, they said.  The pitlane contact penalty was thought to be the end of a title run that had ignited at Pocono and continued in Toronto.

They were wrong.  Scott Dixon wasn’t finished after a penalty at Sonoma, and he wasn’t finished after a disaster at Baltimore.  Entering Sonoma behind championship leader Helio Castroneves, the unassuming Kiwi persevered to take his third IndyCar title, marking him as one of the greats.

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 55 – Breaking his duck

Victory pose needs work. (Photo: S. Bloom)

Victory pose needs work. (Photo: S. Bloom)

It’s an honor to be present at a driver’s first victory in a series.  For Tom Chilton, that first win almost didn’t arrive.  At the end of 2012, Ford withdrew support for the Focus Chilton had been running in the WTCC.  Without a car or suitable team, Chilton’s future looked dim – until Ray Mallock stepped in.  Mallock and his RML outfit faced a bleak year without the factory support of its former patron, Chevrolet.  With the bow tie also officially bowing out of the series, the 2012 championship-winners fielded a pair of Cruzes for Yvan Muller and Chilton.  At Sonoma, Chilton put it all together and landed his first WTCC win.  Not bad for a guy who almost didn’t make the grid….

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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