Monday, June 30, 2008

NASCAR first-timer's report

I popped my NASCAR cherry last weekend, by going up to Infineon not just once, but twice.

Saturday morning I went up with a friend who does some design work for one of the drivers and had managed to snag us a couple of credentials. Having free entry makes it so much easier to leave early and not feel weird about it which was exactly our plan. Being on motorcycles alos made things easier since we could enter the main gate and park right next to the paddock (good tip if you're ever planning on going to Infineon).

When we arrived we immediately got a close-up of the cars at pit-in, where the entrance to the paddock was. They looked very, very big, projecting an impressive physical presence thanks to the brightly coloured liveries. Unfortunately, our supposed "all access" passes were no good whilst the Sprint Cup cars were on track. We'd have to wait until noon, when they were done, to get into the paddock area. In the meantime we took a stroll around the vendor area and then sat in the grandstands to watch practice and happy hour. It was pretty cool stuff, the cars seeming to be reaching high speeds in spite of themselves. One particular view, of the middle of the esses complex, had the cars loading up their left side over a small crest, the weight visibly shifting. The noise was also pretty spectacular, reminiscent of Australian V8 Supercars. Speaking of which, former Aussie V8 champ Marcos Ambrose was making his first Sprint Cup start, and had qualified an impressive 8th alongside fellow former road racer Robby Gordon. The field was actually very well stocked with road course veterans, including Scott Pruett, Max Papis, Ron Fellows and Boris Said.

Once the cars were finished with their sessions we were allowed into the Sprint Cup paddock area. I have never in all my life seen so many semi tractor-trailers lined up like that. It was pretty interesting. The cars themselves were mainly in the garages, although I did get a nice close-up look at Michael Waltrip's "Toyota". The quality of the construction and preparation of the cars was very high despite their relatively low-tech nature.

And that was that for Saturday.

Sunday was going to be different, mainly due to the massive amounts of people going. Once again we took the bikes and once again got parked pretty close to the track, with no major traffic issue going in. Our pit walk passes were great, allowing us to get close to virtually all the cars, as well as view the track from the hot pit area.

After a stroll around the merchandise area (impressive but nothing like the massive merch presence at Bathurst) we grabbed some lunch and headed for our seats at turn two. The pre-race was a bit of a drawn out affair but allowed everyone a chance to cheers for / boo their favorite / least favorite driver, which was good fun. Finally the race got underway, as 43 cars charged through the corner in front of us, amazingly without incident. It was quite a sight but (sorry for constant comparison to Bathurst, can't help it) nothing like as cool as a field of V8 Supercars.

The race unfolded in a sort of endurance-race fashion, as I found myself watching gaps and tracking strategy. The details of the race can be found elsewhere on the web but no-one will have a picture of this guy, the archetypal Dale Jr. fan, who raised his fist in support every time Jr. went by:

When all was said and done, we watched a pretty entertaining race, marred by too many late-race cautions, in which none of the road course specialists did well. It was a good day's racing though, made better by a painless exit from the track. Infineon clearly know how to handle traffic. Take that Laguna!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Carolla talks Top Gear USA

Popular Mechanics has the first major interview with Top Gear USA Clarkson-alike Adam Carolla on its website. In it Carolla debunks the myth that he'll have to be nice to cars from companies who advertise on the network, and mentions a few cars he'd like to drive on the show. An interesting read for sure, especially for those of us in the USA and/or fans of the snarky radio host.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Street racing

I'm reading a fascinating book right now called "The Driver". It's written by Alex Roy, a guy who became famous for setting the fastest time ever to complete the Cannonball Run, the drive from New York to Los Angeles. There's plenty of info about the origins of the Cannonball (and its successor, the US Express) here, but Roy did it independently of any organized event.

What's fascinating for me is what drives Roy. His book, which is very well written, captures the feelings of winning on four wheels that every racing driver strives for. The only difference here is that Roy does his racing on public roads. "That's terrible" you say. "He's putting the lives of innocent people in jeapordy!" True, but Roy's approach is exactly the same as any racing team: obsessive, over-the-top preparation, the spending of large amounts of money in an attempt to improve the chances of victory and a single-minded focus that seeks to eradicate any random factor that could disrupt his racing. To that end, you get the impression that his driving is probably significantly safer than the bulk of people he shares the Interstate highways with.

This is no mindless punk doing 100mph on a busy city street at 1am and mowing down pedestrians as they emerge from a local bar or taqueria. This is a man who compiles stacks of data detailing average speeds, expected weather, probabilities of detection and other pertinent info in an attempt to outwit The Man, Mother Nature and other monolithic opponents.

The outright Cannonball record was set in 1983, long after Brock Yates shut the race down, at a remarkable 32 hours and 7 minutes. That equates to 89mph average for the entire run, including periods where the car sits at 0mph getting filled with gas. As you can imagine, the real required speed is significantly higher. Factor in at least two rush hours and the potential for inclement weather and unexpected construction and it's unsurprising to find out that you simply must do sustained triple-digit speeds for much of the journey. Roy did just that, along with his like-minded co-driver Dave Maher. They managed to beat the record by more than an hour in their highly-modified E39 BMW M5. Their effort was captured in a soon-to-be-released movie called "32 Hours 7 Minutes".

So let me pose this question: is this racing? Is it any less racing than a World Rally? Some might say it bears more in common with the WRC of the 70s and early 80s than current WRC events do. I just watched coverage of the 1985 Lombard RAC Rally, the British round of the WRC that year. Teams were subjected to a huge mental strain, racing for countless hours every day for 5 days in a row. This is not something Sebastien Loeb has ever dealt with. Alex Roy, on the other hand, has.

The concept of vehicles at speed on public roads is something I find quite fascinating and I'm not quite sure why. It's slightly disturbing! I'm clearly not alone though - look at the legions of followers of real road racing (such as the Isle of Man TT), or all those who compete on events like the Silver State Classic, or anyone who has ever downloaded footage of the legendary Black Prince circumnavigating Paris' Peripherique in 20 minutes...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Becoming NASCAR Nation

Yes, it's true: I get to go to my first NASCAR race this weekend. I'll admit it's not a real NASCAR race since it features that very strange animal, a right-hand corner. Still, NASCAR put it on the Sprint Cup schedule so the drivers' loss is my gain...

What can I expect? It's hard to say when you're going to NASCAR in wine country. I'm sure there will be plenty of people there who aren't racing fans. Many of NASCAR's newer, bigger sponsors can be found in nearby Silicon Valley or elsewhere in the Bay Area, and this event serves as a big hospitality opportunity for them. I'm sure whatever local redneckery there is in Northern California will also decide to take their cars off the blocks in the front yard and come too. Then there's the gentrified WT crowd - these are the folks who make very good money as contractors or unionized workers and who buy those awful big pink tract homes with fake hacienda roof tiles in Bay Area sprawl communities like Tracy, Gilroy, American Canyon and Rohnert Park and who fill them with toy haulers, GMC Suburbans, dirt bikes and kids, whilst they always make sure to vote republican and make fun of San Francisco. I'm guessing that will be the bulk of the crowd since I see so goddamn many of these people as I travel around here.

So, a little like Bathurst then...

The similarities to Mount Panorama's "Great Race" may not stop there. We're dealing with an event of massive magnitude, the biggest sporting event west of the Rockies in fact, at a race track that dances up and down a hillside to the tune of a massive field of entries. The cars are not dissimilar either: pushrod V8s powering sedan-like chassis that bear little to no resemblance mechanically to the cars they're supposed to be based on. To be fair, NASCAR is much worse in this regard - at least V8 Supercars must start with a stock shell and chassis.

Like Bathurst, the race often turns on strategy. It's about 3 laps short of being a two-stop race, but the certainty of cautions opens the door to various strategies since gaining track position at Sears Point is so much harder than at most ovals.

I also expect outrageous traffic headaches going both in and out, so much so that my girlfriend and I are trying to figure out how to take our motorcycles, even though we have a third person coming with us. Traffic in that part of the Bay Area can be ferocious on Sunday afternoons at the best of times, so a little lane-splitting might come in handy.

Expect a full report next week.

Weekend Menu - Week 25

I'm seeing a race this weekend, but more on that later. Here's the menu:

  • Magny Cours, France: F1, GP2, Porsche Supercup
  • Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course, OH: Grand Am
  • Sears Point, CA: NASCAR Sprint Cup
  • Donington Park, England: MotoGP, 125 / 250cc GP
  • Milwaukee Mile, WI: NASCAR Nationwide Series and Craftsman Trucks
  • Iowa Speedway: Indycars, Indy Pro Series
  • Adria, Italy: FIA GT
  • Nurburgring, Germany: VLN
  • Sepang, Malaysia: Japanese SuperGT
  • Estoril, Portugal: FIM World Endurance
  • Dungannon, Northern Ireland: Bush Road Races
  • Trebic, Czech Rep.: Horacka Rally Trebic (European Rally Cup Central)
  • Sofia, Bulgaria: Victory Rally (European Rally Cup East)
  • Mooloolaba Beach, Australia: Coates Rally Queensland (Australian Rally Championship)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How to do Le Mans

We didn't go to Le Mans this year, but here's how we made up for it:

  • Listened to coverage of qualifying whilst watching the Eurosport live streaming video via a European proxy
  • Moved the TV to the bedroom so that when we woke up on Saturday morning we just needed to push the power button and we were good to go. Also had the laptop on hand to tune into Radio Le Mans for audio (we muted the Speed Channel coverage) and for live timing and scoring
  • Had fresh coffee, baguettes and croissants for breakfast, just like we do when we're there
  • Then we moved the TV and laptop to the kitchen whilst we prepped for the evening's Le Mans party
  • Taped Andy Blackmore's superb spotters guide to the wall, crossing off retirements as they happened, like you find in the local Le Mans newspapers
  • Had people show up around 5pm, just before Speed Channel came back on, and made sure to only invite true Le Mans fans. The group this year was great!
  • Provided French cheese and crackers for appetizers
  • Drank Kronenbourg 1664 beer and French wine
  • Cooked roast chicken and tartiflette, grilled fresh, hand-stuffed halal merguez sausage and borrowed my mate Dave's deep fryer to do proper twice-fried French fries. Delicious!
  • For dessert we had tasty little European confectionaries
  • We stayed up until 11:30pm Pacific time, got 3 hours sleep (like we do at the track) then got up for the final 3 hours
That's about as authentic as you can get I think. It was a Le Mans to remember.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Someone peed in their pasta

Remarkable events have unfolded before anyone even turned a wheel in anger at Le Mans.

When the entry list was first published, many people questioned the inclusion an LMP2-spec Lucchini prototype entered by veteran Italian team Racing Box. The chassis was old and slow and other more worthy entries had been denied in order to allow it entry.

Part of the paperwork requirements at Le Mans is a certification from a car's manufacturer that the entry is as originally homologated, and if any changes have been made by the team that they haven't compromised the integrity of the tub.

Racing Box asked for this paperwork from Lucchini prior to the LMS race at Monza and received it, only to make some modifications afterwards (and before the Le Mans test day). When Lucchini heard about the modifications they informed Le Mans organizers, the ACO, that they were withdrawing their certification pending a re-inspection of the car. The ACO informed Racing Box of this development and the team made hasty arrangements to bring the car to Lucchini. On the day of the meeting, Lucchini's CEO called Racing Box to say he couldn't meet with them due to a bad back. Later that day he called again and said that he would meet with them to certify the car but only if they paid him 28,000 Euro!!! This amounted to extortion and Racing Box immediately called the police who raided Lucchini's premises and caught them trying to destroy documents.

Racing Box still turned up at Le Mans but failed scrutineering due to the missing paperwork. As a result, a second Epsilon Euskadi LMP1 coupe has taken its place with the powerhouse lineup of Stefan Johanssen, Jean-Marc Gounon and Shinji Nakano. Quite why this happened is unclear - we are well past the deadline for reserve entries to take a place, and Epsilon seemed *very* ready for the turn of events. Perhaps the ACO suspected that Racing Box would run into trouble and informed Epsilon that they might be offered another grid place.

There's much to this story that remains a mystery, but for now it's just one more piece of Le Mans' rich and sometimes bizarre history.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

BMW: Toyota's worst nightmare

Back in December 2006, I wrote a post about how Toyota should really be so much better than they are, not just in F1 but in all forms of motorsport. Here we are, 18 months later, and Toyota's generally poor showing in F1 has been brought into stark contrast by the remarkable first win for the BMW F1 team in Canada.

BMW seems almost to be the opposite of the behemoth that is Toyota. Perhaps the most successful "small" independent carmaker, they've made a point of generally kicking tail in every motorsport they've been in. Robert Kubica's win today is simply the latest in a long string of racing successes for the Munich-based manufacturer. Back in 1998 after a failed two-car Le Mans effort they radically revamped their V12LM prototype, realizing that revolution, not evolution was the way to go, and brought in the expertise of the Williams F1 design and engineering departments to help out. Whilst requiring more work, and representing greater risk of failure, it was this move that set the ball rolling for a victory at the Sarthe in 1999.

Since the return of the World Touring Car Championship in 2004, BMW has taken both drivers and manufacturers championships, always in the face of very stiff competition. Between 1973 and 1988 they won seven European Touring Car Championships, and the '88-'91 E30 M3 is often considered the most successful production-based racing car of all time.

When BMW brought their E46 M3 to the American Le Mans Series it was utterly dominant. It's not often that you see Porsche crying foul about another manufacturer cheating, but the success of the M3GTR drove them to such action. The car was swiftly banned for not complying with homologation numbers requirements. Next year sees the return of the M3 to the ALMS. I wonder how it will do? They're also going World Superbike racing in 2009 with a clean-sheet design, no doubt with series designs on the title.

And there's always the small matter of two Nurburgring 24 Hours victories with the aforementioned M3 GTR in 2004 and 2005.

For such a relatively small company, BMW have generally done a splendid job whenever they've gone racing. Toyota on the other hand have nothing but a string of failures to show for the ungodly amounts of money they've spent on their racing activities. The only bright spot in their racing portfolio is recent success in NASCAR, but based on this season's results, much of that is due to a certain Mr. Busch.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

World Superbike at Miller, a spectator perspective

We all know what happened in the races at Miller last weekend, so here's some non-racing observations from my first trip to this new track...

Event management was virtually flawless: Getting in and out of the facility was a piece of cake on all three days. Even on Sunday after the second WSBK race, when everybody left at the same time, it still only took about ten minutes to get out of the parking lot. From the checkered flag until I checked in at the airport took me 50 minutes, including a ten minute walk to my car and a twenty mile drive!

The schedule also ran to the minute - there were no red flags and any on-track incidents were handled quickly and effectively, no small feat given that the 4.5 mile track requires 250 marshals. The large run-off areas no doubt helped in this.

The crowd were great: Check this out from the track's CEO. I'd agree with him. People were courteous, friendly and it seemed like everyone was enjoying themselves. Every rider got a supportive cheer at the end of a race, and the enthusiasm during the press conference after WSBK race 1 was terrific.

The track still lacks soul: The very things that make Miller so great (plenty of space and high degree of safety) also rob it of soul. At the end of the day it's a flat circuit in the middle of a plain and all the runoff means that decent spectating spots are extremely rare. The entry to the Attitudes was pretty good, as was the Witchcraft corner. There's one small part of the straight between Tooele turn and Clubhouse corner that is quite dramatic. The best parts, strangely enough, are the pitlane entry and exit, both of which allow you to get very close to the bikes.

Biggest complaint: concessions: They make a big deal of the six "oasis" areas dotted around the circuit. These feature grass, restrooms and concessions. So I set off to walk the whole damn thing on Friday afternoon, having had some water before I started. Halfway round I was getting thirsty. I had discovered that there were no open concessions at the Tooele turn oasis, so I faced either a long walk back to the Clubhouse corner oasis or I could push on to the oasis at the southwest corner. I did the latter. When I got there, there was nothing - no food, no drink, nothing. I checked my map and found that there wasn't supposed to be anything there. My fault, but had the the cafe at Tooele turn been open I wouldn't find myself miles from water. Now I had to choose whether to wait for one of the very occasional shuttles, or continue walking back around to the cafe at Sunset corner. Since there was no sign of a shuttle I kept walking. By the time I got to Sunset I was utterly dehydrated.

The food and drink vendors that were there were not bad. The permanent cafes offered some decent platters with rice, beans and salad along with the tri-tip steak, whilst there was always a Mexican food vendor on hand. The shortage of vendors in general was brought sharply into focus on Sunday lunchtime - the lines were LOOOOOOONG.

Thanks for the pitwalk: Three times on Friday and twice on Saturday and Sunday the World Superbike pitlane was open for spectators. Not many people took advantage of this because the only place it was written was on a small sign at the east end of the lane. If people spend $15 on a paddock pass, they should be told that the things they want to see most (e.g. WSBK riders and bikes) can be viewed. Most paddock-goers only got to see the back of the garages.

Don't listen to me: I predicted that Ryuichi Kiyonari would do well this weekend. Instead, he sucked, with a poor qualifying position that forced him to battle for mid-pack places in both races. He made solid progress in each but was never in with a shout, unlike his team-mate.