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Tomb Raiding on the Monterey Peninsula

It’s August, and it’s tomb-raiding time on the Monterey Peninsula again.  This year I once again swore-off the lawn shows as I’ve always been partial to the upper- register of the rev range and prefer the smell of brakes to that of ostrich hide.  This year Steve Earle mined an important vein of American racing history (that was somewhat alien to his home-base of Laguna Seca) by featuring the Indy roadsters of the 1952-1964 era.  This tribute to the cars of a half century ago was a good fit with the current crop of entrants, most of whom are graybeards contemporary with the pre-1970 cars making up thirteen of the fourteen race groups.

My neighbor Toyopet…

The good people from Toyota Motor Sales USA again sponsored the event and yet again shamed every other previous marquee sponsor.  Those Indy Roadsters may have been contemporary with the doofy Toyopet Crown, but Toyota filled the place with feel-good, including free chilled water, SPF-15 lip balm, and the largest gathering of 2000 GT’s ever seen.  Toyota doesn’t currently offer us anything even remotely sporty and limit their North American competition to the France family- branded NASCAR and Grand-Am, but on Thursday they gathered at great expense a panel of motorsports luminaries under the moderation of Speed Channel’s Dave Despain to discuss “Evolution to Revolution,” the past, present, and future of motorsport.

In atypical fashion the discussion wasn’t limited to media.  The public were welcomed and were catered finger-sandwiches and beverages.  The panel was itself impressive: Richard Cregan of Toyota Motorsport, Pierre Dupasquier recently retired from Michelin racing, Herb Fischel, recently “retired” from GM Racing, Mario Illien of Ilmor Engineering, Richard Karlstetter of Shell Global Technology Group, and California fabricator Phil Remington.  Later, a cast of old-timers drafted to race front-drive Scions in a Toyota celebrity race joined in: Derek Bell, Johnny Rutheford, Parnelli Jones, Vic Elford, Ove Andersson, Al Unser, Jr., and his brother Bobby.

The discussion was opened with a question about which technical innovation in the past 25 years was most significant in motorsport.  After talking about innovations in driver, circuit, and spectator safety, tire development, and engine and engine management, the panelists who represented manufacturing and engineering got into a sparring match with the drivers.  I’ve been watching The Bronx is Burning on ESPN and I was reminded of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin going at it for Miller Lite: “Tastes great!”  “Less filling!”  “The rules should give us more freedom to innovate!”  “The cars should be equal so that the drivers can be the stars!”

If dogs run free….

The general consensus of the panelists was that safety of cars and circuits was the biggest improvement over the past decades, with tires and electronics providing huge gains as well.  Herb Fischel also noted how the entertainment value of racing has been enhanced by the development of the technology behind how races are telecast.  The discussion by the panelists seemed to polarize on ovals in North America and Formula 1 in Europe, with Fischel and Karlstetter occasionally steering the discussion to sports cars.  Fischel stated that his greatest mistake was underestimating what it would take to win Le Mans with the Cadillac LMP program.

The discussion then turned to the future.  The technical-side panelists were unable to agree on where to go.  They saw a clear need for racing to go back to being a place for the industry to develop and market technical innovations and to train engineers how to think.  What they couldn’t agree on was how much leeway there should be for innovation.  Cregan of course wants Toyota to be able to use hybrids, Karlstetter hyped diesel and fuels featuring renewable and alternative components.  Mario Illien warned that the problem is regulation and balance because a multi-fuel formula makes it too easy to cheat.  Fischel stated his belief is that there is life beyond NASCAR and F-1 and that road racing is the future.

Again and again the panelists spoke of what “they” needed to do to the “rules” to encourage players like automobile manufacturers, tire companies, and fuel and lubricant conglomerates to have more attractive series. The discussion never seemed to quite focus on the “balance of performance” issues with which the ACO and IMSA are at the forefront, grappling with competition between the diesel P1 Audi and the P2 gasoline Porsches and Acuras.  Strange, as Toyota brought its panel to Laguna Seca, not exactly a NASCAR or F-1 venue, in front of a hard-core road racing crowd (and on Thursday right before Steve Earle’s pre-party with heavy audience representation by entrants in the MHAR).

Once upon a time in the west….

Despain was, as is his habit, well-prepared and a good discussion leader, but as things wore on I realized that the most important participants in a discussion of the future of our favorite sport were absent from the panel: “they” who make the “rules.”  I was frustrated that the discussion never confronted what I saw as the most important factor in the development of motorsport over the past century: the evolution of circuit ownership and infrastructure and the influence of circuit-owners and promoters on the “rules.”  In my view, the type of racing circuit available to manufacturers and drivers has had more to do with the evolution of racing than any other factor, explaining why racing and “rules” are different on the two sides of the Atlantic and why they are different today than they were forty years ago.

As Despain pointed out, automobile racing in Europe and America got underway at about the same time, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century.  Europe, and especially France, had already developed a fairly elaborate infrastructure of public roads, largely to accommodate mass movements of the troops of national armies which had expanded in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.  Automobile racing began as great city-to-city competitions along these public roads, closed for competition.  When the carnage from open-road events became unacceptable, the auto clubs promoting them began to create circuits made up of closed roads where crowd control and road conditions could be better managed for the safety of both spectators and concourants.

By the dawn of the automobile, America had yet to develop the sort of road network enjoyed by Europe.  As social anthropologists now believe, the preceding two hundred years had seen the continent largely depopulated by epidemics among the indigenous population, finished off by the U.S. cavalry.  There was no need for mass movement of troops after the Civil War, but the  rapid growth of the European immigrant population and generally large distances between population centers had encouraged the development of the railroads.  Roads were limited to the urban centers and largely made up of dust in summer and mud the rest of the year.  While road racing was established on Long Island and in California, most parts of the country lacked roads, and automotive competition instead took advantage of the existing equine infrastructure.  Barnstormers such as Barney Oldfield moved cars like the Blitzen Benz and the Golden Submarine from horse-oval to horse-oval via the railroad.

The Europeans continued their tradition of racing on public roads until Jackie Stewart’s driver safety movement took hold in the early Seventies.  Le Mans and Spa are vestiges of this tradition dating to the dawn of the automobile.  In America bad roads and cheap real estate conspired to morph the hippodromes into autodromes such as the Speedway at Indianapolis built in 1909 and the great board tracks in the erstwhile road racing venues of Long Island and Southern California.  Current motorsport infrastructure largely mirrors these developments of the Twentieth Century.  In Europe, where there is a tradition of turning both left and right, the safety movement led to dedicated natural terrain circuits which have now evolved into the surgically smooth and operating room sterile “designed” circuits dedicated to modern F-1 kart racing.  In North America we have seen massive construction of super-speedways while natural terrain circuit construction has largely been limited to club-level tracks.

Don’t question the little man….

What this has meant is that the “rules” are largely in the hands of track owners and promoters.  NASCAR’s France family control International Speedway Corporation, which has holdings coast-to-coast; the IRL is a subsidiary of Tony George, who owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has partnerships with ISC (ChampCar’s attempt to compete with George using tax-subsidized street circuits appears to be going down the tubes as of this writing); the FIA is masterminded by promoter Bernie Ecclestone and his lawyer Max Mosley, who control the series by providing access to the product but who haven’t been involved in racing cars for decades; the Automobile Club de l’Ouest controls Le Mans and through it the shape of sportscar racing (the France family’s control of Daytona and the Daytona Prototype formula hasn’t changed the shape of sportscar racing; it merely redistributed the size of the fields).

During the panel discussion Herb Fischel openly questioned why any manufacturer would go spec racing.  To market engineering and technology those in the automobile business need to work with a series that is dedicated to more than rolling billboards.  NASCAR, IRL, and F-1 have become little more.  Only sportscar racing, and its tradition of endurance racing, can provide the platform which justifies their investment.  Its rules are a natural development of its base at the oldest closed-road event in the world, Le Mans, and a continuing tradition of encouraging technological development, such as the current diesel prototypes.  If sportscar racing’s rule-makers don’t screw it up, it’s the way forward.  If not, a whole new racing infrastructure may be in order.  Allan McNish was recently quoted that the racing car he currently most wants to drive is a Volkswagen Touareg TDI Dakar Raid car.

The days run away like wild horses over the hills…

As for the Historics themselves, the impressive gathering of Indy roadsters emphasized the “horses for courses” nature of circuit-driven rules and development.  The roadsters were hobbled by having to lumber around Laguna instead of being able to stretch out  their legs on a speedway.  An Offy is a wonderful engine, but it sounds a bit agricultural straining to gain revs out of the corners through a two-speed transmission.  Our own Kerry Morse was a young juvenile delinquent in this crowd of old crockery, driving Matt Drendel’s mere 27 year-old Porsche 924 GTP Le Mans car in the Historic IMSA group that was tagged onto the end of the weekend.  At least until a head gasket let go.  This was the very same car that served to introduce Derek Bell to the Porsche factory when Peter Gregg was forced to scratch from the 1980 race.

The high-point of the weekend for me was wandering across trash-and-trinket island and running into the great Tony Adamowicz.  He told me that he is in the final stages of completing his historic 1969 F5000 championship-winning Eagle with its current owner.  In my opinion the L&M F5000 Championship was the most exciting open-wheel series of all time, and I look forward to seeing Tony reliving his title.  Again, the legendary racer wasn’t in the show (he complained that he and John Morton weren’t in the “Legends” race, either), but he has a new business venture to apply the focus he has used to finish near the top a Le Mans so many times: a2z Racer Gear.

His first product besides PRDA paraphernalia was a version of the popular “Michael Delaney” overalls jacket with Gulf, Heuer, and Firestone patches.  Nice, but a bit too “poseur” for me (Morse has another word for them which I won’t repeat here…).  Tony pulled out his latest addition for me, a version of the blue fleece-lined “Team Gulf” winter jacket worn by Steve McQueen during the night scenes in the Le Mans movie.  It was cribbed from the real thing that hung in the back of Kerry Morse’s shop for the past quarter century until he let it go at Bonham’s McQueen auction where it fetched silly money.  A-to-Z turned fashion model and haberdasher as he pointed out the authentic features and several subtle design changes that make the garment more practical than the throw-away original.  I mean, how can you resist a guy who tells you how much better his waterproofing is by recounting seeing Steve McQueen in the original at Le Mans in 1970, soaked to the bone?  Since I didn’t have 2.3 mil for the McQueen Lusso at Christie’s, I took one home (no plug; the price is quite reasonable).

                                                                                                            David Soares
                                                                                                             August 2007

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