VIEWS FROM THE GRANDSTANDS
What to look for other than NASCAR
The NASCAR season has been running around in circles for a few weeks, but most of the other major racing series crank up the engines for the first time this month. Let’s take a quick spin through the paddocks, shall we?
Nobody in racing had a worse winter than the folks who run the IndyCar Series. Their 2011 campaign ended suddenly and shockingly with the death of Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon early in the year’s final race in Las Vegas. The tragic loss of one of the sport’s most popular and accomplished drivers threw the series into chaos, ruined its season-ending celebration and sparked calls for IndyCar officials to re-evaluate everything from where they race to what kind of cars they use.
The 2012 schedule, which begins March 25 in St. Petersburg, Fla., drops Las Vegas and includes only a handful of ovals overall — and almost none after a monthlong, midseason stretch that includes Indianapolis, Texas and Iowa. Truth is, though, this might be a positive because both in-person attendance and TV viewership were down overall for oval races in 2011. Both were up for street and road races.
In a sad twist of fate, the disaster at Las Vegas was the last race for the old cars, which dated back to 2003. For 2012, the open-wheelers will run a brand new Dallara chassis that is lighter, less expensive and, in testing, has proven faster than the old car on both street and road courses. And unlike in recent years, the teams will be able to choose from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus for their new 2.2-liter turbo-charged V-6 engines.
Among the biggest winter headlines was Newman/Haas Racing’s closure. The team had won 109 races since opening in 1983 and had captured the series championship eight different times. On the good news front, Ganassi Racing (with Honda engines) and Penske Racing (Chevrolet) should be back in full force to battle for the championship.
Elsewhere on the grid, Alex Tagliani will take over Wheldon’s seat at Bryan Herta Autosport, while James Hinchcliffe will assume the departed Danica Patrick’s ride at Andretti Autosport. Wheldon had been ticketed for Patrick’s job until his death.
After enjoying one of its most compelling championship chases ever in 2010, Formula 1 witnessed a 2011 romp by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who dominated so thoroughly that the only end-of-season drama was how many records he would smash.
Vettel and Red Bull return seemingly as strong as ever for the 2012 campaign, which begins March 18 in Australia, so the big question is whether anyone has a chance to derail their runaway train.
Rules changes for 2012 are minor, mostly focused on exhaust restrictions, so the pursuers can’t count on much help there. That leaves challengers like Ferrari and McLaren with no choice but to tighten up their in-race strategy (especially Ferrari), improve their reliability and hope their top drivers (Fernando Alonso for Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton for McLaren, both of whom are past champions) can step up.
Further down the grid, all eyes will be on 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, who is returning to F1 after two years away to drive for the mid-pack Lotus team. Raikkonen is known for his daredevil driving, and he is famous for tolerating no nonsense. How he adjusts to life on a less-than-stellar squad will be very interesting to see.
The straight-line series kicked off its 2012 season at Pomona in mid-February sporting a bit of a new look, thanks to some significant personnel changes. The biggest is that both 2011 Top Fuel champion Del Worsham, who retired after a stellar two-decade career, and fellow driver Larry Dixon have parted ways with Al-Anabi Racing.
That left the prominent team suddenly scrambling to fill both its seats, and the lower-profile Shawn Langdon and rookie Khalid alBalooshi are now in place. AlBalooshi, the reigning NHRA Pro Mod champion, has won more than 150 races in various lower level series.
The legendary Kenny Bernstein also retired at the end of last season and closed his Top Fuel team at the same time. That left his son, Brandon, without a ride, and he has secured Langdon’s old seat at Morgan Lucas Racing. Bernstein finished sixth in the points last year to Langdon’s ninth.
In addition, 23-year-old Courtney Force has become the fourth driver on her father John Force’s Funny Car squad, along with the elder Force, Mike Neff and 2009 Funny Car champion Robert Hight. And as part of a big hiring spree of off-track talent, Force Racing brought aboard Dickie Venables, who won two championships with Cruz Pedregon. Venables’ hiring has sparked speculation that Force might be building a Top Fuel dragster program for his third daughter, Brittany.
Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she writes about financial topics and blogs about taxes at Don’t Mess With Taxes (www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com).
| Going like sixty | This year’s running of the 12 Hours of Sebring, set for March 17, marks the 60th anniversary of a race that is arguably the third most important in America behind the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 as well as the world’s second most important sports car race behind the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
To celebrate the 60-year milestone, this year’s event will serve as the official kickoff of the FIA World Endurance Championship as well as the American LeMans Series. That ensures that many of Europe’s top endurance teams, which seldom venture across the Atlantic, will line up alongside the ALMS regulars, and their results will count in the season-long WEC points chase. The cutting-edge Peugeot and Audi teams are expected to renew their rivalry in the top LMP1 division, with a fleet of Mazdas, Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas also in the mix. The ultra-competitive GT class again should feature a battle royale among Corvette, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Aston Martin.
| A welcome return | After bowing out of full-time IndyCar racing a few years ago to focus on its American LeMans Series, Rahal Letterman Racing is returning this year with Mike Lanigan as its new partner. The team will maintain its BMW entry in the GT class of the ALMS.
Rahal Letterman Racing won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice at the wheel and made news for giving Danica Patrick her start in IndyCar back in 2005.
| Celebrating Shelby | He doesn’t race anymore, but Carroll Shelby is still a big deal in motorsports circles. Shelby formed Shelby American in 1962, and he will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year by releasing brand-new versions of his Ford Mustang-based Shelby GT350 and GT500 SuperSnake. He’ll also stage a national tour to show off the new cars to the public, which generally only gets to see them by visiting the Shelby Museum at Las Vegas Speedway. The highlights of his illustrious driving career include setting 15 U.S. and international speed records, winning the 1959 24 Hours of LeMans and being named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year in 1956 and 1957. A lifelong tinkerer, Shelby has created an almost nonstop string of high-performance and race cars for Ford and Dodge.