Timing is everything in the automotive world. A great example of this is the
North American International Auto Show. It occurs every January and is held
in Detroit, Michigan. Motor manufacturers from around the world spend
obscene amounts of money introducing new production cars and showcasing
concept cars while wining and dining the international press corps. The
NAIAS is the first big car show of each year and every corporate hot rod hot
shot wants to make sure their product gains as much media attention
limelight as possible.
What is not possible is for any journalist to see every introduction, attend
every corporate breakfast, lunch, or coat & tie dinner, and sit in on every
press conference. Because of this, car companies go to great lengths to
attract as much attention as possible including cars crashing through plate
glass windows, ice skaters spinning around new cars, rock stars and
television actors making cameo appearances, and a cattle drive outside the
front doors of Cobo Hall. All of this to get as many writers, photographers and
talking heads to spend a few minutes now to see their product, and more
time later communicating about it.
A few short weeks prior to the start of the NAIAS, Scott Atherton decided the
Detroit show would be the perfect place and the perfect time to hold a press
conference. The only time the organizers could squeeze it in was Tuesday
morning, the last of the three press preview days. Over two hundred
journalists showed up, all trekking through 2 inches of snow that fell on
Motown over night.
Upon arrival, they were greeted with the sight of a very large digital
stopwatch. Projected 50 feet across the back of the stage, the stopwatch
displayed the number – 5:00:00 – five minutes. The watch wasn’t moving, it
was static, ready, waiting. A few minutes to have coffee, juice, muffins and
bagels and then the audience heard an announcement –“five minutes to the
start of the American Le Mans Series press conference.” At that moment,
the stopwatch starting counting backwards and from speakers the journalists
could hear voices, lots of voices. What they were hearing sounded like
mission control before the beginning of a rocket launch. It wasn’t NASA they
were listening to, it was IMSA race control, going over their check lists
moments before the start of a race. As the clock approached the 0:00:00
mark, the last thing they heard was starter Dennis Paul saying “green, green,
green” as Scott Atherton walked to the podium.
What followed was the best presentation in the history of the ALMS.
Atherton, along with representatives from the SAE, DOT and EPA, spoke
about the “greening of racing” and how the ALMS was only race series in the
world making positive strides in this direction. The presentation was precise,
concise and hit all of the marks. Atherton summed it up best when he stated,
“the American Le Mans Series is the most relevant race series in the world.”
From a technological, environmental and manufacturer collective point of
view, he is correct. As one long-time motor sports sage said after the press
conference, “the ALMS founds its voice today.” True words indeed.
Less than two weeks after the NAIAS, the motor sports world descended
upon Daytona for GrandAm’s biggest and best race of their season – the 24
hour classic around the fabled speedway. The race needs to be renamed the
24 Hours of IROC, as this race does IROC better than IROC ever did.
Winning drivers from Indy, NASCAR, F1, ALMS, and Le Mans reunite once
year to race the most equally prepared GT and spec prototype race cars in
the world. The 24 hour race is the Motorsports All-Star game. No pressure,
no worries, just hit the track and drive the wheels off the car. It is a great
show, as these world-class drivers are retained by team owners to give the
former a shot at collecting the most renowned stainless steel watch in the
world, and the latter, a historic victory of a historic event.
Chip Ganassi, proved for the third year in a row, he knows how to win at
Daytona, at least in January. Nothing would please international race fans
more than a win by Juan or Dario in February. That would go a long way in
quieting left turn specialists like Kevin Harvick from every again trying to
construct a thoughtful utterance with the term Formula 1 and NASCAR in the
same sentence. Mr. Harvick and his ilk should be reminded that open wheel
racers have always moved easily into stock cars – including Mario Andretti,
A. J. Foyt and Tony Stewart. Juan, Dario and Jacques are the latest
examples of this type of talent. I cannot think of one case where migration in
the opposite direction is true.
Daytona in January is another time to for journalists to catch up with old
friends. Two of which need mention. Gordon Kirby was in the house. Gordon
is on the very short list of the best motor sports journalists working in
America. The saying, “no prophet is well-received in his home land” in some
ways applies to Gordon. He is direct, at times gruff, and has very strong
opinions based on years of experience. It is easy to wonder what state the
world of ChampCar would be in today, if only a small percentage of Gordon’s
insights were followed. Sadly, we will never know. He was in especially good
form at Daytona, beaming in fact, as he will be writing a regular column in
Motor Sport magazine and reunited with fellow journalistic giant, Nigel
Roebuck, in reshaping this once again great publication.
I also ran into Dave Arnold – a gentle man, pr master, humorist, and all
around good guy. Dave is once again battling some health issues with
determination, grace and courage. My visit with Dave exceeded everything
else during the Daytona weekend. Like a fine wine, both Dave and Gordon
get better with time.
Go long…. I’ll hit ya !
The day after Daytona, and a world away, the motor sports circus was in
Sebring for the ALMS Winter Test. Press conferences and testing aside, the
3 days at the old B-17 training base mostly provided a preview for a historic
year of racing to come.
Time stands still for no one, and this is especially true for race teams. The
Peugeot, Audi, Porsche Spyders and Acura cars have all made
improvements in the off- season and expect the Sebring qualifying stopwatch
to stop a few ticks sooner this March. The addition of drivers Patrick Long to
Penske, Marino Franchitti to Dyson, Christian Fittipaldi to AGR and Scott
Sharp to Highcroft will provide many compelling stories throughout the year.
In addition, the Mazda LMP2 program is stepping up with the addition of
Yokohama tires and BP sponsorship. The addition of Patron with Highcroft,
two new Ferrari teams and BMW on the horizon – how about a M3 2008
debut at Laguna Seca – all bodes well for the series. And more
manufacturers are coming soon.
The battle for the 12 Hour of Sebring will be mega. Jumping across the pond
in June, Audi versus Peugeot (on home soil) and the annual Corvette/Aston
battle will go down as an epic year at Le Mans. Expect the Pratt & Miller
boys to turn up in France with the demeanor of New England head coach Bill
Belichick. Going undefeated for the entire ALMS season only to lose at Le
Mans 2 years in a row would not sit well with these General Motors patriots.
Another football legend, George Allen, the former Washington Redskins head
coach, often used the phrase, “the future is now.” He used this term when
referring to his team of veterans coming together at the peak of their careers
and forming one cohesive unit. When you ask Scott Atherton how things are
going, he will usually respond, “ things have never been better.” And he is
right. The green flag is waving. In 2008, the ALMS is a coming together of
veteran teams with experienced crews, determined drivers, sponsors who
understand it, and new technologies developed by manufacturers who believe
in it – the right product, in the right place, moving in the direction, and at the