Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Monday, June 27, 2011

My Big NASCAR “But”

(No jokes about my anatomy, please.)
By Tammy Kaehler

I’ve spent some time here the last couple weeks explaining how I find NASCAR on television kind of boring. That I don’t get ovals. That I much prefer sportscar racing. There’s one big caveat to this opinion of mine, one big BUT. There’s one aspect of NASCAR that I flat out love, and that’s road courses.

See, I think stock cars on a road course are one of the funniest sights in the world. Certainly it’s the funniest sight in racing, with the possible exception of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales in the pit lane at Sebring (but that’s another story). Stock cars aren’t built to maximize downforce or to corner well. They’re … well, I’m not sure exactly what they’re built for, but road course racing ain’t it.

They look like elephants running an obstacle course sized for gazelles. They lumber around, turning hard, braking hard—looking for all the world like the car’s center of gravity is up near the roof. And I do mean they’re wobbly. (Check that shot from Getty Images if you don’t believe me.)

Adding to the entertainment, the announcers cover the same inevitable points at the two road course races each season, with great excitement:
  1. The drivers have to remember how to shift! On a road course, they’ll be doing so a couple-dozen times a lap, compared to a dozen times in total on some oval courses.
  2. The drivers have to turn right and left! This gets them talking about road courses versus ovals, and which drivers are good and bad at the road courses. This leads to the last point …
  3. We’ve got special guest stars in the field, some road course ringers! The “ringers” are the road course experts who make or have made a career in road course racing (whether sportscar or open-wheel) and who are typically brought in for a ride in a stock car for just the road course races to get a win for the team. If they don’t always win, there are inevitably three or four ringers in the top 10 at ever road course race.
This past weekend brought us some good elephant watching. First the NASCAR Nationwide Series (the minor league) raced at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, one of the most beautiful and historic road courses the U.S. has to offer. Ron Fellows, road course ringer and multiple-time ALMS and Le Mans champion for Corvette Racing, almost took the win in a weird, caution-filled finish. Then on Sunday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (the majors) raced at Infineon Raceway (aka, Sears Point) in Sonoma, California. The winner of that race won by dominating most of the day, but the big story was of fraying nerves, tempers, and behavior. The late-race bumper-car action we saw should make for some interesting wars: of words during the coming week and fenders in the next race.

All in all, a highly entertaining weekend of racing! But if NASCAR could do one thing for me, it would be to go racing at more than two road courses each year. I don’t think it’s likely, but I’ll keep hoping. Is anyone with me?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Who is Tops--Formula One or IndyCar?

When it comes to open wheel racing, the two pinnacles of the sport are Formula One and Indy Car. But which is better? It’s a tough question as it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. These racing pedigrees have grown up apart so they're more like cousins than brother and sister. But forgetting the differences, which is the better series?

Simon: Personally, I’m split when it comes to Indy Car and Formula One. Hands down, I think Formula One is the pinnacle of the sport. Technologically speaking, there's no beating the cars. The cars are frightening state of the art. Seeing what an F1 driver has to do behind the wheel, I’m astounded that any human can pilot these machines. From a romance perspective, Formula One wins again. It’s a global series having traveled to every corner of the world since its inception. The races still take place in some of the most glamorous places in the world or compete at some of the best tracks on the planet. It’s only been in the last couple of decades that Indy Car has ventured outside of North America, making it a provincial affair.

Where I think Formula One does fall down is in the competitiveness. It’s been a while since I attended a Grand Prix event, but from the races I did attend, not all F1 cars are made equal. TV coverage has a habit of making the racing look closer than it is. In person, you can tell the difference between the top teams and the also-rans. The engines aren't as refined. The handling is a little more ragged. So only a handful of the field has a realistic chance of winning. Combine this with the problem that several of the Grand Prix tracks have few overtaking possibilities; Formula One can be a little processional at times. That’s where Indy Car wins for me. There are top teams who dominate the sport, but the racing is a lot more open. For any given race, it’s very hard to predict who can win—even during the race. Things change all the time. The cars haven’t reached the limits of the circuits so there's always room for overtaking on the track. Hand on heart, some of the most exciting racing I’ve seen in the last couple of years has been from watching the IRL.

If I had to put one series in the winner’s circle over the other, I would have to give it to Indy Car. I’d want to race in F1, but I’d go watch the IRL.

Tammy: Much as I'd like to argue with you, Simon, I can't. Formula 1 is amazing technology. What I like the most about it is the spectacle. I feel the same way watching F1 as I did watching Wills and Kate get married: astounded at the pageantry and expense and hoopla. But I have to be honest, I rarely watch a race. For the most part, they're boring. But what's exciting about F1 is the stuff in between the races, and Mr. Crazy himself: Bernie Ecclestone. You never know what he's going to say next, but you know it's mostly going to be absurd and offensive.

On the other hand, IndyCar ... well, I'm not a big fan of ovals. I do like it when they're on the road or street courses, and I like that the series is more accessible (to fans, to team owners) than F1. But Indy on ovals ... also dull and without the constant passing that makes NASCAR on ovals mildly interesting. As I've said before, I don't really get ovals, so the prevalence of ovals makes me downgrade Indy. Honestly, if you'd asked me this last season, I'd have voted F1, because as overblown and egocentric as that series is, it's more interesting to watch and the technology is there. This season, IndyCar's been a lot more fun to watch, even if it is partly because of the gimmicks the new CEO is introducing.

But, you know, this is asking me to pick the lesser of two evils. Open-wheel just isn't my first choice. And can you explain to me why the Indy drivers are complaining so much about double-file restarts? I get it's dangerous, but so is their regular job driving those cars! F1 at least does double-file starts.

Simon: I’m not quite sure what the complaint is over double file re-starts. It could be the danger thing. Not necessarily because it’s dangerous to the driver, but to your position. Double file re-start increases your chances of a shunt that will kill your race—and who needs that risk? It could be that your position isn't as well protected because the guy right behind you is now right next to you. It could be the reverse. With a single file re-start, you do have a nice shot at overtaking the guy in front because there's a lot of open space around. It’s harder to do when the cars are bunched up double file. Personally, I don’t like pace cars and re-starts. I drove in a time where they yellow flagged the corner while they got the cars out of the way. The nice thing about that was that the racing continued and you maintained your lead over the car behind and did lose it with the re-start. A race was only stopped when if a car was stuck on the track.

What do you think? Formula One or IndyCar?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Non Starter

With a new book coming out set in the world of motorsport, the question that I’m asked on a regular basis is would I go back to racing? Like most drivers, I didn't quit the sport. Money quit the sport for me. And a lot has changed in almost twenty years since someone last asked me to start my engines. I’m married. I live in a different country. I have a mortgage. Writing is a full time career that sucks up a bunch of my time. The list goes on. And if I’m being really honest, I’m not sure I have the drive that I had twenty years ago to spend hours prepping a car, getting up at the arse crack of dawn to travel to some corner of the country and I certainly don’t have disposable income to underwrite a racing fix. But if someone were to say, “Simon, can you be at Infineon? There's a car waiting for you,” I’d be there in a shot.

Or so I thought.

The other week, the question of me returning to the track came up, but this time, it was said in front of my wife. I answered yes. My wife answered no. That was a shocker.

We hadn't met when I raced so she isn't aware of the life I led in those days, so I was little surprised at her reaction. To her credit, my wife has backed me in every damn fool venture I’ve thrown myself into over the last fifteen years, even when I’ve doubted whether it was a good idea or not. She was the one who suggested I junk my career so that I could write full time. Her vetoing my motor racing dreams seemed more than a little out of character. So I asked her why no on the cars. Her answer was simple. She didn't want the stress of race days. She didn't want to be hoping the phone wouldn’t ring to tell her something had happened to me. Aw, she cares. I saw that she was pretty adamant on this issue, so I kinda didn't take the conversation any further.

The problem is that racing is an addiction and I’ve been clean and sober for 18yrs, but if someone offered me a fix, sobriety would go out the window. I’d jump at the chance that to climb behind of the wheel of a race car, any race car.

So I’m faced with a tricky problem. Would I go against my wife’s wishes? She's never stopped me from doing anything my heart has desired and I more than owe her for it, so I should honor wishes on this one. I don’t think the circumstances would ever arise where a return to racing would ever be in the offing, so it’s a moot point, but should that unlikely situation strike, what would I do? I think I know. I think I would do the right thing. The only problem is I don’t know what the right thing is. :-)

Yours on the fence,

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Getting the NASCAR Thing

by Tammy Kaehler

I thought I’d follow up from our conversation last Friday and talk a little about why people like NASCAR. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan, and I certainly prefer other kinds of racing to it. But as our Friday commenter Steve Ufelder (also a racing mystery writer, in two senses of the word!) pointed out, in NASCAR there’s a lot more passing and just as much skill required. The difference is in the vehicles.

People always say, you don’t really get NASCAR until you attend a race in-person. Television doesn’t really convey the magnitude of the story. I have to agree. I went to a race last year in Fontana—a big track, which isn’t my favorite, but it’s nearby—and on the very first lap at speed, I understood.

See, with sportscars and open-wheel cars, there’s a lot of downforce. Those cars are built to find grip on the track and create downforce with wings and inlets and body panels. When you’re watching open-wheel, prototypes, or sportscars race, they look like they’ve got grip all the way up until they’ve broken loose—there’s not much time between the car being stuck to the track in a corner and the car spinning because the wheels no longer grip. The difference with stock cars (NASCAR) is that by the time they’ve broken loose, they’ve been looking like they should break loose for a long, long time.

Put simply: stock cars just shouldn’t be driven that fast or that hard!

That’s what really hit me when I saw a race in person. The full field of 43 cars roared by, hitting close to 200 miles per hour, with less space between them than I’d leave between parked cars, and I thought, “Good grief, there is just NO WAY those cars should be going that fast.” Every one of the 43 cars in the field is probably a fraction of an inch from being out-of-control at all times. Usually for three or four hours over 400-500 miles. In a hot cockpit. With reduced visibility.

The job of every racecar driver is to drive the car at 10/10ths, to take the car to its limits, to the edge of its capabilities—and keep it there, without going over the edge and wrecking. Stock cars are simply bigger, heavier, and more technologically simple than the sportscars I prefer—but I’ll never claim those drivers aren’t every bit as skilled as those in other series. I’m still not sure I get the appeal of watching NASCAR on television, but seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the race in person is pretty awesome.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What's Your Favorite Kind of Racing?

It's really the first discussion to have, isn't it? You need to know if you're talking to an open-wheel fanatic, an oval-lover, a NASCAR diehard, a rallying afficionado, or some other breed. Not that you (or we) can't be more than one at the same time. But it sets the stage....

TAMMY: I'll come right out and say it. I don't get ovals. Open-wheel is OK, but my heart is with sportscars on road courses. Even sportscars on street coursees. But ovals ... sure, I'll watch them ... but I don't understand the appeal.

SIMON: From a spectator's point of view I get ovals. People want to see the whole track to take in all the action and ovals provide that. Most of the tracks in the UK are shrouded in trees and you get to see one corner, maybe two. Brands Hatch's "Indy" circuit is probably the only track in the UK with a clear view of the whole circuit. But as a driver, I'm with you, I'm a road course boy. Road courses have personality and that goes a long way with me. I'll drive a sports car, but I'd prefer open wheel. I hate the additional weight sports cars carry compared to a single seater. It's such a drag in comparison to a formula car that weighs as much as Blooming Onion at Outback. I'm all about power to weight and the less weight the
better. I do have a soft spot for rallying too. I always to be a rally driver, but I found I was better on tarmac than dirt. But the unpredictability of a rally stage that varies from moment to moment is the ultimate driving experience.

TAMMY: Rally drivers are nuts. Bonkers. Loopy. I mean, I sort of get it? But there's no real course, there are spectators everywhere, and you're highly likely to run straight into a tree. You people are nuts. But really, my fundamental problem with anything that isn't sportscar racing is single classes! Boring. Look how much fun it is to watch the strategy and the passing and the (controlled) chaos of multi-class racing. Two to five classes of cars on course at the same time, crazy speed differentials? Awesome. Just look at Le Mans last weekend. Awesome! I think multi-class racing requires an extra level of skill in planning on the driver's part that I find really, really cool to watch.

SIMON: I hear what you're saying about rallying--and what's your point. Everything you've described is awesome. Unpredictability of the the course, elements and the spectators is what makes it the ultimate driving challenge. Sounds like heaven on earth. I get what you're saying about multi-class racing. Some of my fondest memories of driving was 'mixed testing' where they'd let everyone and everything out on a track at once. So I'd be out there in my Formula Ford up against F3, Sports Prototypes, 911s, Ferrari Challenge cars, every kind of sedan based championship. It was organized chaos. The great thing about it is that you got a feel for how cars measured up. My Formula Ford could outlap most sports cars, but Sports Prototype could beat me on a 1/2 mile straight with a 1/4 mile head start. So I get it, multi-class racing is exciting. The downside is who's leading? It can get confusing for the spectator. And who really cares who wins in class. It's all about who's first over the line. Class matters when you're in the big one.

TAMMY: Hitting a tree, Simon! That's my point. So now you're saying the "ultimate driving challenge" is cheating death? I thought this racing was a sport (or maybe it isn't, but that's another blog topic), not just a means of proving manhood by outwitting death. I see your "who's leading," and toss it back to you: how can you tell who's leading in IndyCar or NASCAR or any single-car class when they're all lapping each other anyway--and when the cars all look the same? In all racing, you've got a leaderboard on-site or in a banner across the screen or the television coverage is focusing on the leader. At least in sportscar racing, you're watching cars that look different. And class wins don't count? You going to tell Ron Fellows that his Le Mans (class) wins didn't count? Sure they count. Sure they care who wins in class, especially now when some of the best racing is happening in the GT class. Sportscars, baby! At least the cars look different.

SIMON: No, I'm not saying it's cheating death. I'm saying rallying has an extra component in that you're not only racing the field, you're racing the elements and a literal changing playing field. Now that's exciting. I'm telling you most people aren't going care as much about a class win than the outright winner. That's a fact. You tell people that you were 1st in class, but came 18th overall. People will want to meet the guy who came 1st overall. I can always tell who is leading. It's a Jedi thing. You wouldn't understand. :-)

TAMMY: I see, Obi Wan. What about the rest of you? What kind of racing is your favorite?

My Unsung Hero

When I raced, my team consisted of my dad, my friend Andy and his wife. But there was another member of our team who was there every step of the way—and that was a Ford Transit Van. I wish I could it was mine, but it belonged to my sponsor and in fine Cinderella style, I got use of it as and when I needed it. Despite that, I loved that van. Maybe a little too much.

The reason I’m gushing is because Ford produced perfection in van form. I love the Transit because:
1. It drove like a car.
2. It was comfortable for cross-country journeys.
3. I could hook up my trailer and racecar and the suspension didn't sag under the additional weight.
4. The cargo bay seemed endless.
5. It was reliable, tireless and faithful.
6. Did I mention it drove like a car? That meant you could be very silly with it when no one was looking and it handled like a dream. It was and remains a wonderful piece of engineering.

I’m not the only one who thinks like this. The BBC did a one-off series about the Transit van where each week a well-known business figures, rock band or some such paid tribute to their particular Transit van. Everyone had a wonderful tale about how their van performed above and beyond the call of duty. I always wished they'd come to me for my experiences.

I could keep going on but Top Gear did the perfect tribute to the Transit. I’ve embedded their segment below.

All I will say is that the Ford Transit is the best friend a small-time racecar driver could have. And this was mine.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Epic Le Mans

By all accounts, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the granddaddy of all endurance races. Teams of drivers trade shifts in a car and race all out for two trips around the clock—completing more miles in this single race than are driven in an entire Formula 1 season. Every year we see many of the same stories: the warriors who come out on top after months of prep and 24 hours of battle, the scrappy teams whose point of pride is simply to be still running at the end of the race, the heartbroken few who come so close—for the fourth, or ninth, or sixteenth time—but fail again to see the podium.

This year’s race, however, is poised to go down as one of the all-time classics. But what was the story of the race?

Was it the total, explosive destruction of two cars in accidents that in decades past would have meant certain death for the drivers, but today meant they walked away unscathed?

Was it the fact that those two cars were from the same Audi factory team? And that the third and only-remaining car went on to take a fairytale win?

Was it that after 24 hours, some three-dozen pit stops, and nearly 3,000 miles, the winner had only a 13.8 second margin over the second place car?

Was it that the engineer of the winning car was, for the first time ever, a woman (Leena Gade)?

Was it that Corvette returned to victory lane in both GT classes on the 10th anniversary of Corvette Racing’s first Le Mans win and the 100th anniversary of the founding of Chevrolet?

Was it that a woman (Andrea Robertson) stood on the podium at Le Mans for the first time since 1931?

Every year, I am astounded by the effort, the expense, and the passion that go into this race. Skill and preparation are fundamental to success, but you also need luck—and sometimes your luck is in the hands of one of the other 150 drivers. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a crazy, exhausting, and awesome spectacle to watch. This year was no exception, and every bit of it was epic.

What was your story of Le Mans? And who’s up for a trip to France in 2012?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Birds of a Feather

There are a few things you should know about us.

  1. We're racecar fans. Simon used to race Formula Fords in the UK, and Tammy went from zero to big fan after working for a racing sponsor.

  2. We're writers.

  3. We're mystery writers.

  4. We're mystery writers with series set in the world of motorsport. In August, Tammy's book, Dead Man's Switch, is the first in the Kate Reilly Racing Mystery Series. In September, Simon's book, Did Not Finish, is the first in the Aidy Westlake Series.

Two for the Road is our hangout (and hopefully yours) where we chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

We hope you'll flock together with us.

Tammy & Simon