Views from the Grandstands

Around the Circuits

NASCAR started its engines last month, but March brings even more motorsports


Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia Street Circuit — Nico Rosberg with FW31 of Williams Toyota -- on Aug. 22, 2009, in Valencia, Spain.

The green flag dropped on NASCAR’s 2009 season at Daytona last month, but March is when most of the big racing series fire up. Let’s take a quick spin round the tracks and see what’s what.


FORMULA 1

F1 has featured 20-car grids the last several seasons, but as many as 26 are scheduled to line up in Bahrain on March 14 to start a 19-race slate. Even more noteworthy is the shakeup in the grid’s makeup.

Toyota and BMW are gone, leaving Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes-Benz as the only three factory teams — and Mercedes pulled out of its longtime partnership with McLaren, bought the 2009 title-winning Brawn GP team and will race as Mercedes GP. The old McLaren-Mercedes team will still race as McLaren-Mercedes.

Just as mixed-up is the driver lineup. For starters, 2008 champion Kimi Raikkonen has left Ferrari and will race for Citroen in the World Rally Championships. He’s replaced by 2005 and 2007 champion Fernando Alonso, who comes over from Renault. Meanwhile, 2009 champion Jenson Button was released when Mercedes bought Brawn and now will race for McLaren-Mercedes, where he’ll team with 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton.

The biggest news, though, is the return of Michael Schumacher, who won two titles with Benetton and then five straight from 2000-04 with Ferrari en route to becoming the winningest driver in F1 history and the world’s richest athlete. After a four-year retirement, he’s back — but not with Ferrari. Instead, he’ll join Mercedes GP, where he’s favored to win an eighth title.


INDY RACING LEAGUE

The IRL also kicks off March 14, with a 17-race schedule beginning in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Where F1 is full of changes, the IRL seems shockingly stable. In a series that could use a shot of energy, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The big offseason news was Michael Andretti assuming complete control of Andretti-Green Racing, but I doubt the teams racing for the renamed Andretti Autosport can seriously challenge the Ganassi and Penske behemoths. Only one race in 2009 was won by a team other than Ganassi or Penske.

Ganassi again will partner 2009 champion Dario Franchitti with Scott Dixon, a two-time champ who’s also the winningest driver in IRL history. Penske will run Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Will Power.

Two other notes: The cars will have reverse gear installed for the road and street races (though not for the ovals), which I see as a big positive. Also, Indy 500 qualifying will be cut to two days from its usual four.


NHRA

Hot rodders joined NASCAR in cranking up in February, with a 23-race season that began in Pomona, Calif. No major series has seen more success by women and minorities. I’m especially interested to see if Ashley Force Hood, who finished a close second last year to Funny Car champion Robert Hight, can break through and grab her first title. Given her maturity and the backing of the powerful John Force organization, I wouldn’t be surprised.

In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher has won six straight season titles (and seven overall), a dynasty like few others. But he prevailed by a mere two points last season, and drivers like Larry Dixon and Antron Brown have to feel like this is the year the king loses his crown.

The 2010 season will be the second full slate run using the 1,000-foot distance put in place after Scott Kalitta’s death in the middle of the 2008 campaign. I still believe that was a misguided, knee-jerk reaction, but I accept it because the teams’ ingenuity has the cars running virtually as fast as ever.


AMERICAN LE MANS

The ALMS kicks off its nine-event calendar on Mar. 20 with the 12 Hours of Sebring, one of racing’s great spectacles. And in a move I really like, the new season will end Oct. 2 with the 12-hour Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

ALMS has rearranged its classifications for 2010, folding LMP1 and LMP2 into a single LMP class, folding GT1 and GT2 into a single GT class and creating a new entry-level LMP Challenge class to go with the GT Challenge class.

The real excitement will come in the GT class. The factory Corvette Racing team, which ruled the old GT1 class, proved at the end of 2009 that it could compete — and win — against the Porsches, Ferraris and BMWs that have ruled GT2.

The two-time GT2 champion Flying Lizard team has retained drivers Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long, while Scott Sharp, who co-drove the 2009 LMP2 champion Acura, will pilot a Ferrari 430 he owns in the GT class. The GT cars are the smallest on the grid, but they should provide the biggest excitement in 2010.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.


Loose lugnuts

Snake bit The 2010 NHRA season opened on something of a down note with the news of Don “the Snake” Prudhomme’s retirement after five decades as a driver and team owner. Prudhomme didn’t come right out and say it, but a lack of sponsorship pushed him to the sidelines earlier than he had hoped. As popular as he was successful, Prudhomme drove 32 seasons and spent 15 more as a team owner. Over his career, he amassed 35 Funny Car victories, 14 Top Fuel wins and a total of six NHRA world championships. Prudhomme’s retirement comes on the heels of a difficult 2009 season for the NHRA, which laid off a significant part of its permanent staff toward the end of the year amid serious financial troubles. At this point, it seems likely several prominent Top Fuel teams will only run partial schedules to save money and that multiple events could struggle to put together regulation 16-car fields.

There’s no easy answer for the NHRA — or any other racing series, for that matter. We can only hope that the economy continues to improve, that teams are using these lean times to improve their pitches to sponsors and that more sponsors soon recognize the value of associating themselves with the racing series that best fits their needs.

New Nationwide venue With the Milwaukee Mile struggling financially, the Nationwide Series found itself with no place to run its June 19 event. But NASCAR has made lemonade by quickly relocating the race to Road America in nearby Elkhart Lake, Wis., on the same date.

The move knocks a boring short-track oval race off the schedule. Road America is one of the top two or three road courses in the country, and it should be a great day for both the drivers and NASCAR’s fans in Wisconsin. Coincidentally, NASCAR now will feature two road races that weekend. On June 20, the Sprint Cup will make its annual summer stop at Infineon Speedway in Sonoma, Calif.

Champion recognition Jimmie Johnson’s fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title last season earned him an honor no other racer has ever received: the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year Award. Johnson picked up 42 votes from AP-member newspapers, far more than tennis champion Roger Federer (30 votes) and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt (29).

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