Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Last Of The Mohicans

In the second book of James Fenimore Cooper's 5 novels comprising The Leatherstocking Tales, the character of Uncas is known as the last full-blooded member of the Mohican tribe of Native Americans who becomes allied within other tribes through marriage and also becomes a valued ally of the British forces in their skirmishes with the French over land in what is now known as Connecticut of the American colonies. Eventually as we know, the Mohicans as well as the other ancient tribes of America were killed off or assimilated into the new world.

With the recent news about the financial contractions of the CFH Racing team in this Racer.com article, it revealed to me that team owners Carpenter and Sarah Fisher remain the last active team/driver link to the Midgets and Sprint Car connection to Indycars. The last few of the once native and productive link from the small tracks of USAC to the top level Indycars.

It pains me to see this 'last Mohican team', backs to the wall, with massive odds against them, fight to survive. Their brightest driving talent, Josef Newgarden, will also perhaps struggle with results from a team struggling to merely pay the wages.

Much has been made of that once direct pipeline to the biggest race in the world having been essentially severed with the competitive malfeasance of USAC and the advent of CART.  The glory days of running sprints, midgets, and Champ Cars (Indycars) is only a memory for those old enough to also recall a time when Indycars first sprouted wings or when Richard Milhouse Nixon occupied the office that many candidates currently seek. I'm loathe to admit that I am old enough to recall those things and yet I'm merely at the tail end of that generation.

Indycar, and the last vestige of it's Golden era connection to the mighty USAC river of talent that rushed forth with names like Vukovich, Ward, Foyt, Bettenhausen, Rathmann, Jones, McCluskey, McElreath, Kinser, Kenyon, Leonard, Johncock, Rutherford, Unser, et. al., is on the verge of being just a tiny stream that finally dries up.

For me, I'm honestly sad to see it come to this, but on the day that USAC and CART finally and terminally agreed to disagree, I suppose this day had to come. Many have spoken about the fear of a significant drop in attention to this sport after this season. Perhaps fitting that the grand 100th Indianapolis 500 mile race may be the last that actually includes that long link to the past.

So when considering someone to cheer for this year, I challenge the fans not to change your support from your favorite as before, but let's also keep a positive thought and cheer for ol' number 67 - Josef Newgarden - and his team owner, the last of the Mohicans, Sarah Fisher.


Edit: and just hours after posting the above article, it was publicly announced that Sarah Fisher's and Wink Hartman's ownership in the CFH racing team has been absorbed into Ed Carpenter Racing effective immediately. Newgarden will drive the Number 21 and Carpenter the Number 20 for ECR for 2016. 

Fare thee well Sarah. We'll miss you and the 67 in Indycar.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Not Good Enough


It doesn't seem so very long ago when we were all left in stunned disbelief following the death of Dan Wheldon, October 16, 2011.

Maybe it's because it hasn't been that long really. 

Now resigned to the terrible result of another all too fateful moment on Sunday, I finally had to take a moment away from my work duties this morning to read what I wrote in the hours (of shock and disgust with the sport) and days (of 'Indycar family' and hope) following Wheldon's death. 

Seeing the television footage of the helicopter rising from its mid-track perch at Pocono on Sunday was an all too familiar scene and one that left me suspended between disbelief, despair, and hope. 

I told my kids this morning about Justin dying before they left for school. Certainly far from ideal timing but I also I didn't want them to not hear it from me. 

Nick, Justin, Ellie. Milwaukee 2012.
Photo: (c) Lynne Zehr
My daughter is a casual fan who could name several drivers and recognize a few by face. My son has a bit of deeper interest and knows most every car and driver visually. In the case of Justin Wilson, he represents a rare moment that they both shared with him in Milwaukee back in 2012. 

He had just finished a TV report of his riding the Milwaukee Indyfest ferris wheel with a young fan and was heading back to the paddock. We just happened to be walking nearby and asked for a quick photo opportunity with him which he so graciously, and so ridiculously-commonly, obliged. 

That was over three years ago and while my kids have grown so much when compared to the picture, they both remember this moment quite vividly and fondly. Both were saddened to hear the news I had to share with them this morning. 

I was equally sad to have to deliver it.

Having just surpassed my recent "Gurney Eagle/Jerry Karl/Foyt's third entry" birthday, each year seems to bring more energy into my brain for more existential pondering - "what, if any, is the purpose and meaning of life?"

You may have also read my recent post with the same question bent specifically toward the sport of Indycar. Having little remaining hope that Indycar will ever be any sort of genuine 'innovative and working future-thought laboratory' for auto manufacturers as I'd dream, I have finally come to grips that this sport is set-up primarily as an entertainment vehicle which sells thrills and tradition and nostalgia in direct support of the Indianapolis 500 and the benefit of those who own the event and property.

"Duh." might be your response. 

Fair enough, but I bought in early and heavily into the ideals found in automotive innovation found in the golden years of auto-racing (c. early-1960s to mid-1980s). Giving up on that ideal has been difficult for sure as it represents, to me, all that is good about people - the unfailing human desire to achieve and progress - working together to improve the things in our lives and the world around us.

That flicker of optimism found in human nature as reflected in the form of automotive racing has finally been extinguished for me. So what is left is simply a sport as entertainment vehicle. 

What is left is simply not good enough. 

This sport, as we are all too-well aware, is horrifically brutal. There are moments of thrilling performance to be sure, but when things go wrong, it seems it is always in spectacular fashion. I've written before about the 'the long dark thread' woven into the fabric of autosport. Sunday was evidence that thread is long and continuous. 

And so here we are again.

Another death. 

Another widowed family. 

Another horrible event in a long list of horrible events. 

It seems that only numerous, and somewhat random factors, align to produce these darkest of events which often leave us with nothing else to ponder but "why?" Could every single death of every single racing driver and fan have been prevented somehow? Of course, but it's always that strange alignment of wrong thing, wrong place, wrong time. 

In pursuit of something so uncommonly amazing, such as landing a human on the moon, the risks are significant and great and their achievement stands as incredible historical human events. People lined up to be selected for those ridiculously dangerous roles because their desire was so great to risk their very essence to be a part of that history.

For me, Indycars racing around tracks on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon for the benefit of thousands watching in person or on broadcast are not of such gravitas. Likewise nor do I think the similar risk of life is worth the paltry sums of either glory or riches we have today in autosport, and Indycar specifically.

Therefore, I simply find no good, remaining excuse you can give me why the safety of the competitors (and crews and fans) isn't paramount anymore. You may want to argue with me whether safety is or isn't paramount, but following and understanding what has happened in this sport over the last 40 years, I'm of the informed opinion that cost-containment, not safety, is at the forefront. That isn't to say that the current cars aren't amazing in how they protect drivers and fans, but that safety needs to be at the forefront of autosport design now. 

The time for making only reactionary improvements in safety has long passed. These people aren't sound-barrier or moonshot pilots, they're highly skilled drivers of cars for entertainment purposes. I have no desire to see people on either side of the fence get maimed or killed for a paltry bit of entertainment. 

What we have is simply not good enough. 

Justin Wilson knew all too well the risks involved. By most all accounts he also was a very thoughtful and genuine person who spoke often of his concerns for the safety of fans and drivers alike. We know there are significant risks that have existed for several years and still need to be addressed as evidenced by the most recent injuries and fatalities from cockpit intrusion in autosport, and especially over the last seven years. I call for this issue to be addressed now via development of the full enclosure of the cockpit from all manner of intrusions. End of story. It will take nothing away from the sport and it's enjoyment. 

Not just incrementally better but BEST driver protection should be the new hallmark.

No amount of tradition, nostalgia, or perception of danger is worth this. No excuse you can give me for not immediately pursuing, testing, and incorporating designs fully-enclosed cockpits in Indycar is acceptable. Anything short of this is not acceptable and I'll go one further and propose that NO MORE Indycar racing should occur after Sonoma until this is properly done. 

What we have is simply not good enough.

I'm telling everyone in the positions of power and rule over the sport of Indycar - I will not watch people die anymore for the sake of mere entertainment. 

No reason you can give me, or Susie Wheldon or Julia Wilson or whomever the next is to be widowed by this brutal sport, is good enough.


What we have today is simply not good enough.

 
Right now, this sport is simply not good enough to go on.








Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Alternate Realities, Part II

Back again folks. 

During the in-between days where the luster of the Indy 500 becomes patina and the pomp of season culmination not quite here, I dare to fill that space with something that most other outlets do not - rewrite the amazing and rich history of Indycar's biggest event, The Indy 500.

Knowing that between the fates, Racing Gods, and free will, something amazing can and often does happen. I find it refreshing to not simply rehash and parse history, but to ponder "what might have been".  

Some of the richest lore comes from events that seemed destined for a certain end if not for the intervention of fate's final twist and newest Indy legend born.

I think of some of those events, that nine times out of ten would turn out differently and more predictably, yet didn't, forever changed the future course of the race itself. 

From time-to-time, I'm going to offer some of the most influential twists of racing fate in Indy 500 history. I hope you enjoy this installment of Alternate Realities:



1967 - Something We've Never Seen Before:
The 51st Running of the Indy 500 set for Tuesday, May 30th, 1967 was one of the most historic before any race laps were ever turned. A wildly innovative car was brought by Andy Granatelli to the speedway in 1967 - the STP Paxton turbine. Utilizing a helicopter jet engine and four-wheel drive, the totally purpose-built car incited as much fear as curiosity in the racing community and beyond. While I was not present to observe this car and the reactions of those around, it is generally noted that the reactions centered around one of two - disapproval for how it could affect the integrity of the Indy 500, or wide-eyed curiosity for what it could mean for the future of racing and production automobiles. 


The end-result however was one of heartbreak and disappointment for Granatelli, STP, and all those who developed and supported it. With just under four laps to go, after leading 170 of the 196 laps, an inexpensive but invaluable part failed in the transmission line sending the disturbingly quiet turbine car to an even-more-shockingly silent end and A.J. Foyt into victory lane for his third time, tying Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose for most Indy 500 wins.

Now let's engage some imaginative thought; just forget the history as it exists and travel down a new path...


The $6 transmission bearing survives another 240 seconds of use and the incredibly wild, incredibly brightly-painted and futuristic STP Turbine, becomes the latest in a rapid progression of innovative cars to win the Indy 500. Rufus Parnelli Jones joins Milton, Vuky, Ward and Foyt as two-time winners of the 500. With the incredible and dominant win, USAC's attempts to shutter (outlaw) the turbine are met with surprising push-back from manufacturers and fans alike who are excited and ready for jet propulsion as the future of production vehicles. Chrysler, GM, and Ford all rush to begin turbine-powered factory racing programs.  The internal combustion engine soldiers on for another seven years, winning only once more (via the venerable Offy), before going the way of the front-engined chassis at Indy. 

Parnelli goes repeats his wins with two more Indy 500s (in 1968 with the turbine motor and again in 1970, after being recruited by a rival team, ironically recording the Offy's final win) becoming the first person to win four 500s.  Parnelli subsequently retires from racing in Victory Lane only to join STP Granatelli Racing in 1971 as a team partner and overseeing the Chrysler factory NASCAR jet-engine racing program. 

By the mid-1970s, all major forms of motorsport employ various configurations of smaller turbine motors while production vehicle sales for the first turbine passenger cars off the assembly line are staggering. With surprising initial reliability, multiple fuel options, and quick public acceptance, the 'jet-age' is ushered in.  All manner of styling is affected, from clothing to appliances to architecture.



The internal combustion engine soldiers on in rapidly-decreasing numbers in passenger cars but still with primary use in farm and heavy equipment. Never again is the internal combustion engine seen as being near the forefront of propulsion technology.