Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"The Great Divorce"--(with apologies to C. S. Lewis)
The questions we asked on Friday were sort of answered today moments ago, as Anton H. "Tony" George, and Kevin Kalkhoven announced an amalgamation of the Champ Car World Series into the IRL's Indy Car Series during a break at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
1st--Long Beach will be the Champ Car World Series finale, with the swan song for the DP-01 Panoz Cosworth turbocharged cars. On that same weekend, the Indy Car series will race at Motegi, Japan. The Champ Car teams who run at Long Beach will get Indy Car points--just like they will at Homestead on March 29.
2nd--the two races which will be added from the 2008 Champ Car schedule will be Edmonton and Surfer's Paradise.
3rd--Indy Car competition boss Brian Barnhart says all of the existing teams will likely compete...making the fields much more interesting than 18. The teams coming over will pair up with existing teams...Rahal-Letterman will connect with Newman Haas; Kalkhoven Vasser Racing with Chip Ganassi, etc.
4th--Tony George acknowledges the difficulty for venues like a Cleveland and Houston, mentioning them by name when asked about their absence on the 2008 schedule. He says that 2009 will see a "clean sheet" schedule with a mix of about 10 ovals and 10 road style events...about the right mix IMO.
There are still details to work out...but we'll know more in a couple of weeks.
Hear George & Kalkhoven talk this week on Race-Talk:

Friday, February 22, 2008

Open Wheel Racing Amalgamation--From what we can discern, the process is continuing between Anton H. "Tony George" and Kevin Kalkhoven to dot i's and cross t's--the details I spoke about on "Race-Talk". It is continuing slowly, but continuing nonetheless.

Until we get the release outlining the details, all of us observers are speculating or relaying a snippet of fact. I do feel confident that the concept of a single series has been embraced.

I do have some questions, which I hope will be answered in due time:

What happens with the Long Beach/Motegi date conflict?

Which two of the Champ Car races will be folded into the 2008 schedule?

Which of the Champ Car squads will fold into the series by Homestead? My guess would certainly be Newman Haas (Justin Wilson & Graham Rahal), Forsythe (Paul Tracy et al), PKV Racing, Dale Coyne, Eric Bachelart, and the Derrick Walker crew. If there are 20-24 cars for every race (except the Long Beach and Motegi rounds) then that will show up better on TV than 18 car parades.

What will the 2009 Indy Car series schedule look like? Will International Speedway Corporation bookend the season (Homestead start, Chicago end)? What about the Champ Car races that don't make the cut in 2008?

Be assured, we'll look for these answers and answers to other questions that will come up.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Newman & Donohue--Penske Racing and Engineers
We went to the Champion's Breakfast in Daytona this morning after a long day and short night recounting the victory of one Ryan Newman, who, the books will say, was the winner of the 50th Daytona 500. Newman is a complex individual, with many more facets to his personality and his interests than what appears in a six second sound bite or short quote in a race story. He graduated from Purdue (the home of Gene Keady and Joe Tiller) with a 2.06 GPA (something to do with a lot of racing in the junior and senior years). The parallel between Newman and Penske's first racing engineer, Mark Donohue is apparent. Newman says the greatest thing he took from Purdue was the ability to manage time and solve problems--which puts his in good stead with Roger Penske and crew chief Roy McCauley. The win was Newman's first since September, 2005 in the second NASCAR Chase for the Championship (81 races).
The "Captain" hopes his IndyCar series drivers (Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves) can help him achieve his goal of a Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 victory in the same year.
We're heading back to the office and will post as events dictate.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Daytona 500

Pre-Pre Race: We join you from the auxiliary press room, where our computer is set up. As some of you may know, I have other responsibilities for CBS News Radio from time to time. Since 2000, I've been their subject matter expert on American automobile racing. And I'll report for the network during the day from Daytona. We've talked with some of the CBS News affiliates around the country and all they want to hear about is Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the National Guard/AMP Hendrick Racing Chevrolet Impala). Our job is to distill 3 1/2-4 hours of action into 35 seconds for a network radio report.
This day marks two milestones; one tragic and one triumphant. The triumph--Dale Earnhardt's win in 1998. The tragedy--Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Some fans still grieve (though not as painfully as that day in 2001); most all revere the "Intimidator", whose statue adorns the plaza in front of the Daytona 500 Experience.
I have no idea whether Toyota and Tony Stewart will grace victory lane. Some of my peers hope so, so the assembled media members will get a chance to cut Tony Stewart's hair afterwards. I have no idea whether Kevin "Happy" Harvick will repeat his 2007 win. I have no idea whether Matt Kenseth may fly fast enough under the radar and sneak into victory lane. Anyone who tells you that they do is just guessing. You really can't tell who will win until the last 25 laps; and sometimes not until the last lap (2007 again).
I will, however, make an educated guess when I update this post.
Early Race/Educated Guess
I am impressed with Sam Hornish...he was mixing it up with the merry pranksters from Joe Gibbs Racing...of whom all three (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart) have led most of the 60 laps run so far. They run 200 laps. I like Jimmie Johnson's strategy to stay near the front...but not use up his car. "Educated Guess"--between Johnson and Hamlin, with the edge to Johnson. (Posted at 4:35 PM 2/17/2008)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jr., Hamlin & No News--Friday, February 15

Can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. repeat the magic of 2004...when he won everything at Daytona but the keys to the NASCAR offices? Sure would seem so...even when the team had to start from the back (thanks to the vigilant Hendrick engine builders who saw something funky in some of the valve lifters and called "time out" to fix the problem). He clawed his way to the front to win the first Duel at Daytona...and added to his legend here at the "World Center of Racing".
Denny Hamlin made Toyota Racing Development history, by becoming the first TRD driver to take a win in the Toyota Camry in NASCAR's top division. Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart finished the second Duel at Daytona 1-2. The 2006 Rookie of the year will start the 500th in 4th. Roger Penske's move to give Sam Hornish the owner's points from the #2 Dodge paid off...Kurt Busch took the past champion's provisional thanks to mechanical problems...Kurt starts 43rd. As for Sam Hornish...He'll start mid pack in 19th. There will be three Indianapolis 500 winners in the field for Sunday's NASCAR classic...besides Hornish, Juan Pablo Montoya goes from 15th...Dario Franchitti from 40th. Jacques Villeneuve (1995 winner) didn't qualify. Two past Daytona winners will get to watch the festivities from the sidelines...Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin.
We know nothing more than Mr. Anton H. "Tony" George made his return from Japan, and that rumors are still flying concerning the reunification/blending of the two American based open wheel racing series. This may be good for the process, because both sides are not saying much...which may (repeat MAY) indicate that talks are reaching a critical stage, or (as some cynics might assert) that NO talks are going on. The truth (as in many cases) likely lies somewhere between the two extremes. We would like to see something happen quickly...but would prefer that all the i's be dotted and t's crossed, so this reunification can get legs to consume its fair share of racing oxygen, and that all who have a financial stake will find some satisfaction. The open wheel cars share more technology with production cars than do the full-fendered, common template, late 20th century NASCAR cars and trucks. The short version is that the NASCAR cars and trucks are the best 20th century technology that 21st century money can buy. They are entertaining, to a fault. But they do little to nothing to inspire progress--the kind that our society needs to squeeze the most out of the resources we have, so those resources can last longer and we can use them more efficiently. Racing has always been about people and machines bumping up against limits so they may improve. We need healthy open wheel racing for that precise reason.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Take A Good Look; This May Be A Footnote for 2008
Greetings again from Daytona...where the lash of NASCAR Justice fell upon Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch...with a six race probation for their antics in practice for the Budweiser Shootout on Friday. NASCAR Vice Presidents Jim Hunter (Corporate Communications) and Robin Pemberton (Competition) came into the media center where just a handful of reporters were working to make that announcement. This was their balance between "letting boys be boys" and the buttoning down of years past...but Pemberton intimated that further hi-jinks would not be tolerated.
The Panoz DP-01 (above driven by Graham Rahal), may become the world's fastest paperweight. Speed TV (Robin Miller) reports that Champ Car may be filing for bankruptcy protection as early as today, and that Anton H. "Tony" George is scheduled to return to Indianapolis tomorrow. Questions arise about exactly how many of Champ Car's events will fold into the IndyCar schedule...and how Honda (a BIG player in all of this--they control all the engines) will deal with rescheduling Motegi (which they control) so Long Beach can go forward under IRL sanction.
Again, if something should come down...we'll blog up...and have more on Race-Talk.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Pole Day at Daytona and Other Musings--We found a spot to alight in the Daytona Media Center...and will post some comments from qualifying and other auto racing things that happen during the "beard-growing" run for the pole...which is and will be an anti-climax from last night, with an entertaining and interesting Bud Shootout won by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Junior says he always wants to do well here...especially since it is here where his dad died on February 18, 2001. One could not ask for a better starting scenario for the Jr/Hendrick relationship.
John Force qualified 5th for the NHRA season opening Winternationals at the Fairplex at Pomona, California. Antron Brown made a quick transition from the Pro Stock Motorcycle he drove last a fire-breathing, ground pounding Top Fuel dragster...Brown is the number 1 qualifier for today's eliminations. Greg Anderson has the top spot for the Pro Stock ladder.
We'll rejoin with comments later.
12:50 pm
Fifty-three cars have drawn for qualifying...Martin Truex in the Dale Earnhardt, Inc #1 goes first...Jeff Burton in the Richard Childress Racing #31 is 53rd. This will be a test of the DEI/Childress engine combine. Earlier today, Childress, Teresa Earnhardt and Motorsports Authentics honcho Mark Dyer (former NASCAR marketing wunderkind) unveiled another #3 tribute car which will be displayed here...and a replica of which will be sold at a collectibles retailer near you. Childress waxed elequent about the sight of crewmen lining pit road to greet Dale Earnhardt, a/k/a, the "Intimidator" as he won the 1998 Daytona 500...he says (and I'll take that to the bank) nothing like that "reception line" will ever be seen in NASCAR again. Teresa said next to nothing, and did not stay to take questions, nor were any questions allowed during the presser that announced the new replica car. I understand respect for tradition. I also understand that Dale Earnhardt merchandise is among the most popular NASCAR merchandise sold. There ought not to be a new old #3 car every year--the old #3 is the vehicle on which the Intimidator's legend rode, and should continue to ride. It gives the appearance of trying to build upon the legacy of a legend simply for financial reasons, when that legacy is the strongest in modern NASCAR racing, and needs no further embellishment--just ask anyone who sells #3 memorabilia.
We'll be back with the front row after qualifying (and we shave the beard that grows during this qualifying).
3:59 pm
Assuming there are no violations of NASCAR rules found after post qualifying inspection, your front row consists of two time and defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, and two time Daytona 500 winner and last year's bad boy, Michael Waltrip. Johnson circled the 2 1/2 mile speedplant at 187.075 miles an hour. Waltrip wasn't as fast...but 186.734 miles an hour is nothing to look down upon. This locks in the front row for next week's race. What they said will come later.
6:11 pm
There is much to be said for consistency. Jimmie Johnson, in every public utterance, consistently praises his team and its performance. He said crew chief Chad Knaus really pumped him up before his run for the pole (teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr busted off a fast lap at the time...Jimmie went a lot faster). Knaus said the car that won the pole was set up as the test car for a Nashville test. A few phone calls, six hours of labor from 20 crew members back at Hendrick headquarters, and a jaunt down the interstates...and the eventual pole winning car arrived here at the Speedway. Knaus said that the car had fewer than 12 timed runs on it...since it was being built when they tested in January. The data from that test was plugged in...and Johnson's 2nd Daytona pole (14th in 220 career starts) was the result. As for Mr. Waltrip, he was relieved that he starts 2nd (he's in the go or go home crew) and that the questioning, for the most part, dealt with how well the Toyotas ran vs 2007. Other surprises: "Front Row" Furniture Row Joe Nemechek ran 3rd fastest. Four Toyota Camrys are among the top 10...Travis Kvapil (7) and Boris Said (9) are the fastest Ford Fusions. Rookie Patrick Carpentier turned the fastest time for the Dodge Boys.
We'll rejoin you from the Duels at Daytona on Thursday...when we will learn the full starting lineup for the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Budweiser Shootout--Kurt Busch drew the pole for the Bud Shootout...but all of the Friday Night wrecks jumbled up the starting that puts Michael Waltrip, who drew third...on the pole. The big switch worked--Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after leading 47 of 70 laps dominated the Bud Shootout...nosing past Tony Stewart for the win. Team Hendrick had four of the top 6 finishing positions:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr--1
Tony Stewart--2 (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Jimmie Johnson--3
Jeff Gordon--4
Reed Sorenson--5 (Chip Ganassi)
Casey Mears--6
Junior seemed to have the weight of the world off his shoulders in Victory Lane...he said the racing was fun. It was certainly entertaining; the "big one" was not so big...and Jr. Nation had something to cheer for, since his last win at Richmond in 2006.
We'll have a comment on this week's Race-Talk from Jr...and we're done for the night...we'll blog from the pole tomorrow.
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Random Comments--Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch jumped ugly with each other Friday night after an on track incident during practice for the Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway...both were called to the NASCAR trailer...from what we have been able to surmise...the demonstrations and jaw-jacking and "emotion" gave way to what some wags called "prepared, non-controversial" statements.
You may have seen reports in the Indianapolis Star, and on Speed TV's newly redesigned website, that Indy Racing League founder Anton H. "Tony" George and IRL co-presidents Brian Barnhart and Terry Angstadt, are on a trip to Japan. We confirmed that with IRL Media Relations. What we and others cannot confirm, is the subject of the conversations. We suspect the topic is a possible rescheduling of the Motegi Race, which comes up against the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18-20. The rescheduling will make it easier for the IRL to assume a few of the Champ Car World Series's events, if it happens, and then the open wheel world would be reunited. Is that too late for 2008? We hear that all of the Champ Car teams would get the same deal to run the entire series that IRL teams get, and some accommodations on chassis and engines.
This may be Champ Car's Mitt Romney moment--the one when you realize that you really did spend too much of your own money, and that spending anymore in the future won't get you what you want, and will only serve to deplete your bank account.
Notice we said "MAY". You will remember past attempts at a reunification of both series, and the falling apart of those attempts. This seems to have a few more legs...but anything can happen. It may be too late for 2008.....but an orderly transition would probably give everyone time to figure out a real strategy for working on the strengths of a combined series so it can consume its fair share of racing oxygen.
John Force hadn't qualified for the Winternationals when last we looked. The fact that he is even running the NHRA Powerade Series Opener is remarkable. When we spoke to fellow Funny Car driver Ron Capps in Charlotte, we could tell by the tone of Capps' voice that he was spooked when he talked about Force's wreck in Dallas. Ford Racing and Force have collaborated on some expensive but effective changes to how the Funny Cars are constructed; the teams are ramping up for the summer, when the changes will become mandatory.
We'll have more as we find out real news during Speedweeks...not sponsor fluff.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Champ Car World Series Test #1--Sebring, 2008
14 Champ cars took times this morning during the first session of testing for the 2008 Champ Car World Series season at the 1.7 mile short course at Sebring International Raceway. Fastest early was Alex Figge of Pacific Coast Motorsports. The veteran Paul Tracy had fuel pump problems in the early session...but got those solved and was running when we left this afternoon. We'll talk with Tracy on this week's Race-Talk program about the test.
Most wags suggested that a sparse (10 or even fewer) field of cars would take advantage of the first test. Tracy talked with us about season have to consider him as a dark horse behind favorite Justin Wilson (now with Newman Haas Lanigan Racing, along with Graham Rahal, who told me he's ready to contend for wins in 2008).
The series needs at least 18 cars to satisfy promoter requirements. The "formal" roll-out is slated for the series' Spring Training at Laguna Seca outside Monterey, California in March.
We've been fortunate to be down here in FL for the 24 Hours, ALMS test and now Champ Car test, while waiting for the festivities to begin at the World Center of Racing. Kevin "Happy" Harvick will be on a New York media blitz after the Super Bowl hoopla settles down...TV and radio appearances for the defending champion of the Daytona 500 before NASCAR's Media Day on February 7.