Sunday, December 16, 2007

Alex Lloyd -- What if You Conquered the World, and No One Noticed?

(story originally published in December 4, 2007. Photo shamelessly "borrowed" from but I don't think they'll mind.)

The scene was pathetic, even by post-Split Indy standards – a dashing young driver, in a new bright-red driving suit, standing next to a beautiful woman in a nearly-empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway press room moments after his greatest victory. As I walked into the press room, I met Alex Lloyd, the Indy Pro Series driver who'd just dominated the Carb-day race at Indy, who would soon be signed by Target Chip Ganassi's IRL team. What if you conquered the world, and no one seemed to notice?

By any standards, Alex Lloyd is a great guy. Reporters find themselves having a great interview with him, and before long, a great conversation, and then quickly becoming friends. Ask him a question, and he'll give you an answer... and another answer... and then ask where he can find a good babysitter so he can take his wife out to dinner. He's that type of guy – friendly, down to earth, smart, the guy you'd want as your best man at your wedding.

You'd also want Alex to be a driver if you owned race cars. In 2007, he won 5 poles, 8 of the 15 races in the IPS season, leading 399 of 751 laps, winning the championship by a huge margin. And, he did that running for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, not exactly the highest-dollar operation in Indianapolis.

None of this should come as a surprise, as Alex is the guy who had epic battles with Lewis Hamilton when they were younger. “At age 10 I started racing go karts, and at ages 12 – 13 I was racing with Lewis in karts. I've got lots of videos of him and me dueling at the end, with me winning some, and him winning some.”

They met up again in the UK Formula Renault Championship in 2003. By 2003, Hamilton was a prodigy in the Williams camp, who sent him to learn in the feeder series with their full backing. Lloyd, on the other hand, was running for a financially challenged team, but lead Hamilton in the points until the middle part of the season. He finished second to Hamilton in the points, despite winning their last race. “I'm kinda frustrated with that season” said Lloyd to AR1, still wondering if a fair fight in equal equipment might've changed those results.

He was still good enough to win a two-day shoot-out at Silverstone for the 2003 McLaren Autosport BRDC (British Racing Drivers Club) Award, which is given annually to the most promising young Brit driver. This gave him both an F1 test at McLaren as well as people who championed his career -- guys with names like Nigel and Jackie.

So why would a nice Brit like Alex Lloyd be on this side of the pond? Part of the reason is that no deal came together for Lloyd in Europe. He was unable to find financing for GP2 or World Series by Renault. In spite of being one of the two winners in the auditions for A1GP's Team Great Britain for 2005-2006, he was passed over for a string of unsuccessful drivers. If American fans think that our drivers need to have big wallets and inside sugar daddies, they should catch a glimpse of the brutal politics of F1 and the F1 ladder system.

Through his contacts in the BRDC he came to the USA, first with a successful test in a Champ Car Atlantic ride, then to give it a go in the Indy Pro Series. In 2006 he won the IPS support race for the USGP at Indy, and then moved to Sam Schmidt Motorports for 2007, where he ran away and hid from the entire field most of the year.

The problem, of course, is that the IPS got no respect. The list of drivers moving from the IPS to the Big Show in the IRL, who don't have the last name of “Foyt” or “Andretti,” is pretty short. If Lloyd had dominated a NASCAR Busch race at Darlington instead of an IPS race at Indy, he'd been surrounded by a hysterical mob, and his name would have been on the lips of every NASCAR fan. Instead, there he was, in a nearly-empty press room, with the few reporters seemingly more interested in his very pretty wife than in what he'd just accomplished – he'd become the only racer in history to win Indy races on both the F1 road course as well as the famed oval.

Fortunately, 2007 was the year that IRL teams got involved with the IPS. For the first time, winning drivers are coming to the IRL, with Hideki Mutoh joining Lloyd in the promotion. “This year the series really grew” observed Lloyd, “Last year you had no opportunity.” On October 18, Target Chip Ganassi Racing announced that Lloyd will be running a few of the IndyCar Series races, and perhaps some GrandAm Sports Car races. Sponsorship has yet to come together -- “But it's still early..” added Alex, confident that sponsors will be found. Alex takes pride in Chip's constant refrain that he only hires the best drivers available at the time – and this time, that is him.

And make no mistake, Alex wants to be in the IndyCar Series. Specifically, he wants to win the Indianapolis 500. He'd watched the Indy 500 on TV, but really was hooked when he saw it live. “When you've run in the IRL, you've run at the highest speeds, on all sorts of tracks – ovals, road courses, and street courses... The Indy 500 is still the best race in the world.”

More to the point, he wants a good life for him and his family. “In F1, it's easy to forget that you've got the best job in the world. In F1, you hate your teammate, you don't talk to anyone on another team, you can't trust anyone.” And, one doesn't bring their kids to F1 races either -- “I remember the press criticizing Juan Pablo because he was seen in the garage area with his son, and the press and F1 community said that he'd lost it, that he no longer was dedicated. Family is not accepted in F1.” By comparison, drivers' wives and children have always been a part of Indy car racing. “All the drivers look after each other” commented Alex as I noted a large community of ex-patriot Indy car families living in the Indianapolis area.

Perhaps that is the most likable part of Alex – that he knows that long after a driver is only a comment in Indy 500 historian Donald Davidson's notebook, their sons and daughters will remember the kind of person they really were. “I think that having a family is making me a better driver now – I have a whole family to take care of, who depend on me.” And then he continued -- “One of the toughest parts is to find a good babysitter...”

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Driver's Responsibilty Tax - Debtor's Prison

(originally published on on 5 Dec 07.)

If you ever need an example of the evils inherit in big government, just look at the State of Michigan's "Driver's Responsibility Fee." Initially labeled as a tax on bad driving, instead it has turned out to be a tax on poverty, stupidity, and sloth.

It also has forced people onto welfare roles, drug dealing and prostitution as they try to pay staggering tax bills from the Michigan Dept. of Treasury.

Somewhere in the waning days of the GOP-dominated legislature, our legislators tried to come to grips with their budget deficit without cutting spending. Having spent the Tobacco Settlement, and pledged "no new taxes" to voters, they forced to look for new sources of revenue if they wanted to continue their spendthrift ways (free notebook computers to kids?!?!).

In 2003, the Republican Senate leadership borrowed an idea from New Jersey. Sen. Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, proposed a "drivers responsibility fee" (a TAX) for drivers who had more than 7 points on their license, plus another $50 for each additional point. When the dust settled, some offenses -- drunk driving for instance -- had a $2000 fee, plus the points on the license.

This effort went unnoticed, or perhaps even heralded, since no one wants to see drunk drivers get off lightly. However, it soon became clear that the tax, like the original tax in New Jersey -- where it is called "debtor's prison -- was flawed.

The worst of the problems started when people failed to pay for a ticket, then had their licenses suspended for non-payment after 30 days, then were caught driving on a suspended sentence.

Consider the case of Amy (not her real name) who struggles more than the rest of us. Divorced from an abusive husband, she was once hospitalized for depression. She's trying to raise 3 kids, and even took job training at her local community college.

She could not afford to pay a $65 seat belt ticket, and her license was suspended for failure to pay after 30 days. She was caught driving on a suspended license, and that $65 ticket cost her $690, which was paid by her mother.

Sadly, she thought that her license was reinstated when she paid the $690. A local officer saw her
driving the next week, pulled her over, and informed Amy that it was still suspended from the first series of offenses.

She spent the night in jail, and this round added another $625 to that bill. The $65 ticket now cost her $1,315.

Worse yet, the State of Michigan has a "Driver Responsibility Tax." In Amy's case, the State of Michigan taxes her an additional $1,000 for each of the next 2 years. That $65 ticket now will cost her $3,315.

Even if you have no sympathy for Amy, you should have empathy for your wallet. In Michigan the number one determinant of poverty and unemployment is the lack of access to a car. Amy has lost three jobs because she doesn't have a license. She now lives on welfare, with no hope of paying the remainder of the $3,315 which will reinstate her license.

Amy's case is not at all unique. I've talked with women who resort to turning tricks to pay off their fines, as the Michigan economy prevents "just work harder" solutions. One man owes over $2000 for tickets and Driver's Responsibility taxes for driving without insurance -- he was the designated driver, the vehicle belonged to his drunken friend, and there wasn't insurance on that vehicle. For the record, he's driving illegally, without a license.

The Driver Responsibility Tax is just that -- "taxes", not "fines." Most who are so taxed are people like Amy, who simply couldn't afford to pay a ticket. It's a tax on poverty and sloth, not on bad driving. It's a draconian tax that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas.

One party claims to be the party of the "little guy, the poor, the oppressed." The other party claims to be anti-tax, anti-big government, and pro-work. Sadly, both are addicted to the estimated $100 million that will be billed to drivers (some of which don't even live in the USA!) and refuse to fix this situation.

One quick fix would be to change the law so that a license suspended for non-payment of tickets isn't "suspended" in the same way that it's "suspended" for criminal actions. This would eliminate most of the immediate problems. The second step would be to have an appeals process, where people (like Amy) who won't ever be able to pay the money can get a "pardon" of sorts.

Of course, the real fix is to reign in the size of government, and kill the thing entirely. In my opinion, the GOP gave us this bad law, and we should be the ones taking the lead in fixing our mistake.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

So you wanna be a stock car driver? -- Part 2

(originally published in in August, 2007)

Last year, hot on the heels of Juan Pablo Montoya's announcement that he was coming to run NASCAR, I wrote an article for AutoRacing1 entitled, “So You Want to be a Stock Car Driver.”

Over the past year I've asked former Indy drivers about their struggles in NASCAR. Most refused – some pointedly – to be quoted on the subject. This week, in the wake of Jacques Villenueve's announced that he was starting a NASCAR career, with rumors swirling that Scott Speed was joining Team Red Bull, I started updating last summer's article.

My previous article pointed out the three reasons why today's Indy (CART, IRL, CCWS) drivers have a more difficult time running NASCAR races than the greats of the past:

  • Most of the rides that are offered to Indy drivers are not the best rides. As Dan Wheldon told me, there are indeed only 2 or 3 teams a top Indy driver would want to drive for.

  • Sponsor obligations mean that drivers can't “cherry pick” rides in other series. For instance, Tony Stewart's personal services contracts probably include Goodyear and GM, which probably preclude him from running Indy in a Honda-powered car on Firestone tires.

  • NASCAR drivers are highly skilled in the specialized demands of NASCAR racing. Many of the techniques that NASCAR drivers use are the direct opposite of open-wheel methods learned in the IRL, CCWS or the Indy feeder systems. Michel Jourdain Jr. said it best: "It's not only like you have to learn. I have to forget about everything I knew before, too." Therefore, even when open wheel drivers do get hired for premium rides they often fail to be as competitive as their team mates.

Indy drivers – especially those with CART, CCWS or IRL wins -- are expected to jump into a car with little effort. The past year has proved once again that, contrary to expectations, they are subject to that same learning curve as any other rookie. John Andretti told me, “Bottom line is that Nextel Cup racing is the toughest in the world and if someone says otherwise, they haven’t competed in Nextel Cup,” and the past year hasn't proven him wrong. This year, we've seen three more Indy drivers try their hand at NASCAR. Few doubt the driving ability of JPM, Sam Hornish and AJ Allmendinger, but it's obvious that all are still mastering the art of running a Cup car.

Some AutoRacing1 readers will remember my prediction of JPM's tenure in NASCAR:
“Juan Pablo Montoya stands a significant chance of being another pointy-nose driver who fails at NASCAR... Odds are that when Montoya is mired deep in the Busch Series standings, when he's tired of using porta-johns (without a bidet), suffering through a season of corn dogs, Holiday Inns and miserable finishes, he'll be heading back to Bernie's World.”
To his credit and my chagrin, JPM has done better than I expected, with one win each in Busch and NEXTEL Cup. Chip Ganassi Racing's hardware hasn't gained on the competition, so one wonders what JPM could've accomplished if he'd been signed by one of the top 3 teams.
Still, Juan's experiences confirms my arguments. First, if you're a gifted open-wheel driver, and you jump from Indy (or F1) into NASCAR hoping to bypass the rookie learning curve and contest for wins, you've seriously underestimated the task. Except for the road courses, he's struggling like every other rookie. Radio chatter indicates that fellow Cup drivers don't believe that he's quite got the hang of NASCAR driving. He's 19th (out of 29 drivers that have run every race) in driver's points. Second, like many Indy transplants, he didn't get best equipment. Third, it took an army of lawyers and a bunch of money to get JPM out of F1 contracts.

As we predicted last year, AJ Allmendinger is with Team Red Bull in NASCAR. A new driver with no stock car experience, hired by a new team running a new brand of car, the results have been predictably disappointing. AutoRacing1 forum pundits have declared that AJ has the best job in auto racing -- “$3 million a year, with Sundays off.” Given AJ's competitive personality, the sudden availability of fellow Red Bull athlete Scott Speed, and the recent strong showing of Brian Vickers at Michigan, AJ can't be sleeping well at night. AJ hasn't bypassed the learning curve, and didn't get into a top team, both confirming my contentions.

At Michigan, Sam Hornish finished 25th in the Busch race, which is the best run of his NASCAR career (7 starts, all in Busch Cup). He came in second in an ARCA race at Michigan, but fellow Indy – NASCAR crossover Robbie Gordon wasn't impressed, noting that Hornish was running a full-blown current Penske Cup car in a field filled with lower-budget Cup castoff equipment. Everyone I talked to at Team Penske repeated the same refrain – no final decision has been made on Hornish's plans for 2008, no doubt waiting for Sam to show better results. Hornish again proves my point – even with a top-level team he isn't bypassing the learning (and un-learning?) curve.

Those drivers join a long list of Indy drivers, whose results are a decidedly mixed bag. Tony Stewart, the undisputed leader of the Indy-to-NASCAR drivers, is a real threat to win his third NEXTEL Cup Championship, recently winning the Brickyard as well as at Watkins Glen. Casey Mears won a race this year, some 6 years after his last CART ride. While not running as strong as his Hendricks teammates, he's currently 16th in the points, and starting to show promise.
Some Indy drivers are notable by their absence in NASCAR. Sarah Fisher returned to the IRL after having disappointing results in NASCAR's Grand National West series. Paul Tracy returned to CCWS, never landing sponsorship to capitalize on his relationship with Richard Childress. AJ Foyt IV is probably trying to forget NASCAR, safely back in the IRL.

The rest of the open-wheel alumni continue to struggle. Robbie Gordon and JJ Yeley are mired mid-pack in the points, and Yeley just lost his premium ride for next year. John Andretti found another Cup ride, albeit with a bottom-tier team that never puts him in contention for the win. Michel Jourdain led a few laps at Watkins Glen, but is still in search of a full-time ride. Scott Pruett has run 3 Busch series road course races this year, losing his most promising run when Juan Pablo spun him out in Mexico.

So, if NASCAR is tougher than it looks -- in some ways the exact opposite of driving an Indy car -- why would Scott Speed, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Jacques Villenueve want to try out NASCAR? What would motivate virtually every IRL and CCWS driver to maintain relationships with NASCAR people?

Well, let's grant Hornish the benefit of the doubt – maybe they do get restless, maybe they just love to drive cars. Maybe racers just want to compare themselves to drivers of all series, as well as the greats of the past.

However, we can't discount the appeal of MONEY and JOBS. In their top 3 series, NASCAR has around 100 full-time rides. For the most part, they are not rent-a-rides, but actually pay the driver to run. Better yet, a popular driver can actually make more money in NASCAR's third-level Craftsman Truck Series than virtually everyone in the CCWS, and most in the IRL. NASCAR owners actually break even, or even turn a profit, with their racing ventures.

By comparison, probably half of the CCWS rides need the driver to bring his own sponsorship, or a very large wallet. The combined number of full-time paying Indy car rides is certainly under 40, and probably closer to 30. The CCWS drivers have very little chance at lucrative personal services contracts, with the IRL drivers doing only a little better in their quest for endorsement gigs.

Quite frankly, if Scott Speed has become accustomed to living like a millionaire while running F1, he'd have to make quite a financial adjustment to run the IRL or CCWS. In contrast, it is estimated that Dale Earnhardt, Jr's annual income is in excess of $20 million, almost twice the the sum total of the 2007 money in CCWS. Tony Stewart's new contract gives him $5 million a year in base salary, plus winnings, endorsements, service contracts, etc. Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti's income this year will probably not exceed the winnings of the Busch series champion for 2007.

To that end, Champ Car's Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing merged operations with NASCAR's Robert Yates Racing, joining Penske and Ganassi as former CART teams in NASCAR. The marriage was “arranged” (highly encouraged? Shotgun wedding?) by Ford Motor Company. The new team, dubbed “Yates/Newman/Haas/Lanigan” -- “Why NHL” in Ford-speak -- is supposed to provide Yates racing with the engineering prowess of the Champ Car people. If the Yates cars suddenly develop the ability to run on the ceiling at 150 mph, we'll know that the Champ Car people have done their job, but right now they haven't had enough time to change the logo stickers on the team haulers. Carl Haas is open with his expectations – he gets half ownership in a NASCAR team, a huge hedge bet in case of CCWS's demise, and perhaps a NASCAR franchise in the future.

Finally, NASCAR might have to do some soul-searching. Suddenly, they've got drivers named “Jacques,” “Juan,” and maybe “Michel,” two F1 drivers, three former CART teams, in a series where TRD is spending millions to put Toyota in victory circle. Is NASCAR is well on its way to becoming like CART in the mid 1990's, albeit with the largest track owner firmly in charge?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

So you wanna be a stock car driver?

(article originally published on August 30, 2006)

At the Michigan IRL race, each driver who was asked indicated that they were in contact with NASCAR Cup teams. Unfortunately, recent history shows that a move from pointy-nosed cars into NASCAR isn't a wise career choice. In fact, it might be a career-ending decision.

In the past, drivers were not paid well. Ned Jarrett retired from NASCAR as the reigning champion due to economic concerns. AJ Foyt slept in his truck, bathing in truck stop bathrooms. Drivers often stayed in track-area homes (one house near Indy had 6 bunk beds in its basement for drivers) because they couldn't afford hotel rooms. That economic reality, plus the grim mortality and morbidity rates in auto racing that made rides suddenly available, meant that guys like AJ, Mario, Bobby, Al, Parnelli, etc. were as likely to drive in a USAC dirt sprint race as in LeMans or even F1.

Times are different today in auto racing. Formula 1 no longer has a guest driver program, nor can car owners (a la Tyrrells) put together a competitive car in a 1-car garage. Drivers are well paid, and they don't need to race outside of their series to pay bills. Safer racing conditions mean that prime seats come available less often. Teams are governed by sponsors who won't allow their "property" to be seen in another form of racing, and certainly not under conditions where the sponsors' competition has sponsorship. With few exceptions, drivers never practice their skills in other forms of motor sports.

NASCAR itself has also grown up. Gone are the days when NASCAR teams built cars in garages out of the wreckage of police cars. Lottery winners can't buy a car and enter a Cup race anymore. Elliott Sadler's recent move to Evernham Motorsports required a fleet of lawyers to address over 20 personal services contracts. Tony Stewart is under contract with Chevrolet, which certainly prohibits him from running a Honda in the Indy 500. Top NASCAR teams have a whole stable full of development drivers, in whom they've invested millions of dollars, meaning that those rides are simply not available for outsiders. Dan Wheldon exclaimed, "There are only 2 or 3 that you want to drive for," and since he's still in IRL it's obvious that those top teams are not hiring IRL drivers for Cup rides.

Lately, several Indy-style drivers in the two leagues have mentioned their interest in NASCAR. Along with Dan Wheldon, Danica Patrick shamelessly used the "NASCAR card" when negotiating her salary. published reports that AJ Allmendinger is talking to NASCAR, and Team Australia is being forced into NASCAR by their sponsor.

Perhaps those drivers should note the experience of Paul Tracy, along with other "pointy-nose" drivers who've attempted NASCAR. In a well publicized move, Tracy got permission to drive in NASCAR, and tested in 2005 with Richard Childress Racing. However, RCR didn't provide a ride, and Tracy finally secured a five-race Busch deal with a new team with poor equipment. His best finish was 24th, which was in his first start at Daytona. He tested a RCR Cup car again last week, but has yet to make a start in Cup. He blames his lack of success mostly on the fact that top rides aren't available.

Even if an Indy driver lands a good ride, there is a definite "trick" to running a NASCAR-style car. Nothing in Indy-style cars prepares drivers for that experience. Perhaps Michel Jourdain Jr. said it best: "It's not only like you have to learn. I have to forget about everything I knew before, too."

NASCAR's David Gilliland, who raced with Sarah Fisher in NASCAR West, gave the following observation: "They're different. When Sarah Fisher came over she definitely struggled on the stock car side. We'll have a better idea next year with Juan Pablo Montoya coming... They are definitely different. For me to run the Winston West Series and the Busch Series then come to the Cup Series makes the transition way, way easier -- they're all very similar. In the Indy cars there's nothing like it -- you've got tons of downforce, lots of tire area. Here [in NASCAR] you're got not a lot of downforce, not a lot of tire."

Consider the results of modern Indy-style drivers who tried NASCAR:

  1. Tony Stewart -- Clearly the leader of the group, winning two Nextel Cup championships and 24 Cup races.

  2. Robby Gordon --Currently 24th in points in NASCAR Cup, with three NASCAR Cup wins.

  3. John Andretti -- 340 Cup starts, two wins, average finish was 24th, mostly in non-competitive Petty cars. Currently 12th in Busch points, running for "Rookie of the Year."

  4. JJ Yeley - 29 Cup starts, 2 top-10 finishes. Then again, with only five IRL starts, was he really an Indy driver?

  5. Casey Mears -- In JP Montoya's next ride, 108 Cup starts with only four top-5 finishes . Only eight combined Champ Car / IRL starts.

  6. Michel Jourdain Jr. -- In 2006 three Busch and four truck starts. His highest finish was 13th in a truck at Texas, which of course he didn't run in CART. In 2005 23 starts, 1 top 10 (tenth at Atlanta), 2 laps lead in that time, and he still isn't starting in NASCAR this year. He'll be at the races where Spanish-speaking drivers are needed, much as Paul Tracy will be at Canadian races (well, maybe not in Quebec). Window dressing for Mexican audiences?

  7. Christian Fittipaldi -- 16 Cup starts, average finish was 32nd, in sub-par Petty rides.

  8. Scott Pruett -- 39 Cup starts, three top-5 finishes.

  9. PJ Jones -- 22 Cup starts, one top-5 finish.

  10. Paul Tracy - Five Busch starts, highest finish was 24th. Despite good reports in testing he has yet to make a Cup start.

  11. Sarah Fisher - Signed by RCR as a development driver, but languished in the NASCAR West tour with four top-10 finishes in 12 starts before calling it quits.

  12. Anthony Foyt IV - Hired by Ray Evernham, his seven Busch starts made his IRL career look brilliant before being benched. Grandpa sold off the family NASCAR stuff last week.

  13. Adrian Fernandez - two Busch starts, both on road courses. More window dressing for Mexico?

  14. Max Papis - After looking for a NASCAR ride for years, he failed to qualify for Cup at Watkins Glen for Furniture Row Racing. Finished 14th in the Watkins Glen Busch race, and will sign for three more Busch races with McGill Motorsports.

And Juan Pablo? Juan Pablo Montoya stands a significant chance of being another pointy-nose driver who fails at NASCAR. Team Ganassi has only five wins to its credit (seven if you count the SABCO days), no wins since 2002, and their cars are 16th, 21st and 33rd in owners points this year. It can't be considered a "top ride" since it has never placed a car in the NASCAR championship chase. Odds are that when Montoya is mired deep in the Busch Series standings, when he's tired of using porta-johns (without a bidet), suffering through a season of corn dogs, Holiday Inns and miserable finishes, he'll be heading back to Bernie's World.

Racing fans don't expect to die

(This article first appeared on on November 10, 2003)

It's a given that drivers risk their lives in motorsports. What fans do not expect, and cannot accept, is that their own lives might be in danger from the race cars. Recent incidents by Kenny Brack and Tony Renna remind us of the potential for death to drivers, but to spectators as well.

Far back in racing history was a time when fans were likely to be injured or killed during a race. The 1906 Vanderbilt cup saw the death of a child when a car struck spectators who'd entered the race area through a hole cut in the fence. Indy lost 2 spectators to race-related causes in its second 1909 race, plus one each in 1923 and 1938. The Mille Miglia was notorious for spectator deaths, losing 10 spectators (7 of which were children) in 1937, 4 (plus 3 drivers) in 1956, and an appalling 11 in 1957 after which it was banned.

The 1952 Watkins Glen Grand Prix resulted in one fan killed and 12 injured after a car left the track. Hundreds of small tracks around the nation recorded countless deaths of both drivers and spectators, the accounts of which are buried in local newspapers, such as the Winfield (Kansas) Daily Courier's account of the death of a young spectator in 1953 by a racer's tire.

Racing spectator safety as we know it started at LeMans in 1955. Speeds were hitting 150+ mph, in an era with no warning lights, no fire suits or safety cells, no roll cages, and most importantly, only earth embankments and wooden fences to separate spectators from competitors at LeMans. In the third hour a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh, traveling 150 mph, clipped a slowed car in front of the main grandstand and hurtled in flames into the crowd, acting like a giant scythe as it tore through the crowd. The vehicle's magnesium body resembled a giant sparkler as it burned. At least eighty-three people including Levegh died instantly, and some 16 of the 76 seriously injured died later from injuries.

The movie of the crash was shown around the world, and magazines like "Life Magazine" featured photos of the crash scene complete with priests giving last rites. Even before the end of the race Mercedes' management decided to withdraw from racing altogether, not to re-enter until 1999. France, Germany, and Switzerland canceled their national GP races; Switzerland banned all auto racing, and that ban is still in effect. In the aftermath, literally facing the end of auto racing, promoters gave new emphasis to spectator safety, and spectator deaths dropped drastically.

In modern times the emphasis on fan safety has not only been due to humanitarian concerns, but also due to liability, publicity and business concerns. After several incidents where cars became airborne during 200+ mph accidents at Daytona and Talladega, a 1987 crash by Bobby Allison tore down the fence on the front stretch during a race, and pressure by NASCAR's insurance carriers prompted the current restrictor plate and roof flap rules to protect fans.

In 1998 three fans were killed during the CART US 500 at Michigan International Speedway, beginning a downward spiral in attendance at MIS for open-wheeled racing that continues to this day, even though the Michigan fences were drastically improved. In 1999 three spectators were killed during an IRL race at Lowe's Motor Speedway; soon afterwards tire tethers were required in both series.

CART's road racing fans will remember the 1999 Gonzalo Rodriguez incident at Laguna Seca's corkscrew turn in which his car struck a wall head-on, flipped in the air over the wall, over a tree, landing outside of the track area. A year later Patrick Carpentier had a shunt out of the same track in turn 4. Neither resulted in fan injuries but both prompted changes to the track.

Recent incidents have brought the issue of fan safety to light again. Brack's accident ended the last IRL race early when his car went into the fence, tearing down large sections. While there are no video tapes of Renna's incident it is obvious that the car went airborne into the fence, disintegrated and major parts hit the facade of the grandstands. Indianapolis has not had a race-related spectator death since 1987 when Tony Bettenhausen Jr.'s tire struck a fan at the top of the grandstands, and the IRL has not had an incident since the 1999 Lowe's race, but perhaps we're living on borrowed time, like NASCAR before Earnhardt's death was the first in four driver deaths that season.

It is clear that pointy-nosed cars, traveling at current oval speeds, might exceed the ability of any fence to contain major auto parts, let alone protect fans from carbon fiber fragments and burning fluids. Fans do NOT expect, and will not accept, being the victims of on-track incidents, and a single major incident of this type might be the end of Indy-style open-wheeled racing.

Satisfying Man-urges with a Lotus Clone....

(Published in on January 19, 2007)

The average man, when looking at options for a second childhood, usually boils things down to two choices: A mistress, or a sports car. I'm going for the sports car, if for no other reason than my mistress prospects are limited, and my wife has reluctantly said "yes" to the car.

Normally, a middle-aged guy will simply buy the car that he dreamed about when he was 15. However, 1st-gen Camaros are now fetching premium prices, and Superbirds are solidly in the 6-figure range. Newer cars, such as the C6 'Vette or the new 600 hp Viper, cost more than the current worth of my retirement plan.

By chance, I happened on Ron Champion's book, Build Your Own Sports Car for as Little as £250 and Race It! The title might as well say, How to Lose Weight, Regrow your Hair, Play Basketball Like an 18-year-old, and Make Love Without Viagra. I was hooked. The book details the author's steps as he used a British 1300cc Mk2 Ford Escort (nothing like the American version) to make a replica of the legendary Lotus Seven.

If you've never heard of the Lotus Seven, then you've missed a fun part of motor sports. Colin Chapman built the Seven in 1957 to be a "...four wheeled motorbike -- as light as possible, small, cheap and fun." Lotus sold it as a kit to avoid the killer British auto taxes of the period, as well as a complete car. The stressed-skin, tube-chassied car didn't include anything that wasn't required to make the car go fast, or keep it legal. The initial 1100cc motor produced a whopping 40 hp (later increased to 75), but the car weighed only 960 pounds. Built around the 5'7" Colin Chapman, it was 123 inches long and 53 inches wide, and as low as a Countach. The kit sold for around $7,260 in today's US dollars. By comparison, a modern SmartForTwo is 98 inches long, 60 inches wide, weighs 1600 pounds, has 84 hp SAE, and costs $34,000.

In 1973, Lotus sold the rights to for the Seven to Caterham. readers might have seen Caterham featured on the Brit TV show, Top Gear. Caterham continues to build the Seven, both in kits and completely assembled. Caterham's 1012-pound R500 Evo, fitted with a 250 hp engine, set a production car record when it went 0-100-0 mph in 10.7 seconds, with 0-60 in 3.4 seconds, 70-90 mph in 2.3 seconds. All this can be yours for, say, $66,500 (give or take).

Other manufacturers emerged to produce cars, and kits for cars, that look strangely like a Seven, but are not called a "Seven" due to trademark considerations. There are dozens of "sevenesque" or "clubman" manufacturers world-wide. Many AR1 readers remember Westfield's knockoff of the Lotus Eleven from a 1980's Road and Track article; Westfield produces a sevenesque roadster as well. Dennis Brunton builds his "Stalker" kits to accept a GM V-6 power plant (including the supercharged 3800) and Chevy S10 parts. Coveland Motorsports sells soup-to-nuts Locost parts, including a frame ready for a Miata IRS. If you've got a little money, and want to get going fast, a kit is your best bet, at least to get started-- but make sure you're dealing with a company that is sound financially!

However, anyone can buy a fun ride if they have enough money. The real trick - and the charm of Champion's book - is the idea that a clever and resourceful person armed with their wit, Ron Champion's book, and a borrowed welder can put together a hot rod without tapping into their elderly parent's nursing home fund. Such cars are called "Locosts", and a quick Google of the word will reveal hundreds of Locost builders around the world.

The basic Locost rules are: Keep it as light as you can, keep it cheap, make it look roughly like a Lotus Seven, and keep it fun. The project is basically a road-legal midget car built for two. Donor vehicles are usually any small RWD vehicle (Miata, Mustang II, S10, 1970's import, etc). At least one example is built out of wood. Power plants are up to the builder, but range from Mazda 13b twin-turbo rotaries (dubbed "Rotus"), motorcycle engines (Honda Fireblade, Kawasaki ZZR 900-1100, Hayabusa, Harley-Davidson), 2.3L Ford Pinto motors, electric motors, and at least one turbo diesel. Some builders stuff 450 hp V8 motors in their projects, but at that point it is neither "low cost" nor "low weight -- but I do want to drove one at least once. While £250 -- about $500 dollars -- isn't realistic unless you own your own junk yard, $8,000 is probably a good budget, and $10,000 allows for some niceties like a programmable ECU, Wilwood brakes and a pre-made frame.

If you're interested in building a Locost, Yahoo has several active Locost groups. Ron Champion has a new version of his book due for release in a few weeks, entitled "Build Your Own Sports Car for as Little as £1000." Keith Tanner has turned his Miata-based build (featured in Car and Driver last August) into an acclaimed book, "How to Build a Cheap Sports Car" plus a killer website. Virtually all Locost builders stop by Jim McSorley's website, which features plans for a slightly expanded version of the "book build" that accommodates American-sized butts. Australian chassis flex laws have given rise to all sorts of chassis modifications that greatly add rigidity at a very low cost, either in money or weight. Google is always your friend in one of these projects.

Assuming that the Locost builder keeps their car's weight to 1400 pounds - weights under 1000 pounds are seen in motorcycle-engined cars -- and uses any number of the current 200 hp minivan or econobox motors, the power-to-weight ratio will be better than the current Dodge Viper, and not too far from the C6 Vette. While a Locost's hopeless aerodynamics -- not to mention one's amateur welding skills -- won't allow for the Viper's top speed, the Locost's weight will allow you to trounce the Viper around those cones. Best of all, it will allow a man to scare his mistress to death, which is the definition of a great second childhood.

Note - cudos to Keith Tanner for his assistance. Keith routinely beats C6 Vettes by 5 seconds on a 1-minute autocross course in his Locost.

Related Links

Top Gear Caterham assembly video

Locost Assembly video:

Caterham in slalom:

Car and Driver Article, August 2006

Keith Tanner

Jim McSorley

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Milka - the Real Story

(originally published in on 8 Aug 2007)

Milka Duno is a PR person's dream. She's popular with the fans, great with kids, and always has a smile on her face. Her killer bedroom eyes have to be hidden behind sunglasses to keep traffic flowing, and let's just say that her silhouette is never confused with that of Buddy Rice. Getting an interview with Milka isn't difficult because Milka refuses interviews, but rather because every news outlet wants to talk to her -- like the popular girl in school, her dance card is always full. Imagine a person with the charisma of 1970's pop culture icon Charo, smart enough to have four graduate degrees to her credit, in a driving suit and you'll understand why she creates a stir when she walks around the race track.

It looks like Hollywood has noticed Milka's charisma too -- AutoRacing1 was the first to break the news that Milka is making a trip to Berlin this week to appear in the upcoming movie adaptation of the 1960's anime cartoon, “Speed Racer”. She'll be missing this weekend's Kentucky race due to the filming schedule. God knows she's got the eyes for anime.

The problem is that to say she's struggled on the track is an understatement. At Michigan, driving a car set up by IRL/F1/ALMS bad boy driver Tomas Enge, she struggled to get within 5 mph of Dario Franchitti, or even within 3/10 of a second of Enge's lap time. She crashed twice at Indy, and once each in Nashville, Texas, and spun at Michigan.

The Citgo team skipped the IRL road course events, even thought Milka's prior experience is in Grand-Am, ALMS and World Series by Nissan. This puzzles more than a few IRL fans. Certainly many pundits suggest that she should've started out on road courses instead of super speedways, or at least let her run those courses in the hopes that her confidence would be rebuilt from the oval experiences.

In an exclusive AutoRacing1 interview, I asked her that very question -- When are we going to see you on a road course? She replied that the plans were for her to be at Sonoma. I then asked her why she hasn't raced on any road courses so far this year. Milka explained, “I have to learn to run the ovals. We prefer different races (for me to learn) on the ovals because there are many things I have to learn. I wanted to race the race at Watkins Glen in Ohio, but we choose like that (to concentrate on ovals, ed). I have now Kentucky, Sonoma and Chicago.” Still puzzled, I asked, “Did anything that you learned in road racing carry over to Indy car racing?” She replied, “Everything is different. Everything (is) so different, everything is new, yes, everything is soooo different.”

One wonders if “everything is different” from her sports car background, she can learn fast enough to avoid a serious crash due to her inexperience. Obviously, a year in Champ Car Atlantics or Indy Pro would've served her well. A new driver in a new team is always a tough situation, and few succeed with that combination. Instead, her team strategy has been to use 2007 IRL schedule as her “Indy Pro” year, and since Milka had no oval experience, they decided to run only on ovals.

Another part of the reason that Milka hasn't been on road courses is that the team got a late start. “There are only a handful of road courses that IndyCar will allow drivers to test on,” explained teams spokesperson Laura Tanin. “Because we announced our entering the Series at Homestead, we didn’t have the ability to practice on the courses during the off season when availability is at its best. To say it’s been a challenge to find an available spot at the few road courses during race season, coordinate with Honda and their mandatory presence, and working with the schedule has been impossible. There are many more ovals and the goal is get her hours and experience behind the wheel.”

What I do know is that her team believes in her, fiercely protecting her against all doubters. To a person, they all say she has the potential to become competitive. When the IRL placed her on probation, her team was vocal with its irritation - “There are other drivers currently on probation according to IndyCar," explained a team member. "They haven’t said who. It’s a shame that the only driver receiving this attention is Milka when she is not the only one on probation.” The only bit of criticism that I heard in her pits (I spent much of the weekend there) was that, perhaps, she's too polite, too nice on the track, and needs to be a bit more aggressive.

As for Milka, she'll be damned if she gives in to critics. I watched her get out of her car at Michigan, emotionally wrung out from the experience. Perhaps it was only frustration from a dead fuel pump. Perhaps it was the fear that every Indy driver feels at Michigan. If Milka did have any fear, she wasn't gonna admit it to me or anyone else. Before the race, I asked her, “It's got to be very scary for someone who's never been over 200 mph (prior to driving in the IRL) to come here. How do you handle it?” She went back to talking about “learning many, many things,” never once using the word “fear.” She continued: “It's hard because I'm learning in the fast way without Indy Pro, without practice. But it's an opportunity because you have to learn the fast way, every practice that you have, about the track, about the car, about the traffic – everything! But I say opportunity....”