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....”