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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Racing's Off Season ... What's a Fan to Do?

TAMMY: Here we are, coming down to the wire of the racing seasons. NASCAR still has 97 races to go, of course (kidding, just 8), but the Grand-Am series has already crowned its champions at a banquet! F1 has 6, IndyCar has 2, and the ALMS wraps up this weekend with the 10-hour Petit Le Mans. Which results in a big, fat, fundamental question. (No, who's going to win championships.) What's a fan to do in the off-season?!?!

Well, personally, I have to do some writing. And I've saved a couple ALMS races on my DVR to help get me in the mood. So I might revisit some past races. But mostly I'll devour racing news from my favorite sites (and expand to others with all the free time I have on weekends), pounce eagerly on Racer Magazine when it arrives, and tell my husband all the racing team/driver gossip I hear that he doesn't really care about. And maybe I'll weep quietly with loss once in a while ... OK, probably not.

Simon, I don't get the sense you watch as much racing as I do. What's your plan for the off-season?

SIMON: I'm finishing up the second of the Aidy Westlake and then jumping onto the third--which means research. I must admit I'm have whale of a time at the moment researching old races, championship stats and looking up long forgotten circuits. I have some awesome Google Earth shots of Reims in France. So I'm happy as a pig in poo at the mo'.

That said, I'm a big IRL fan so I'll be watching the last two races to see who takes the marbles. I must admit I do miss the Winter series that used to run in the UK in the 90's. A short 5-race series featuring a small race card used to be held through November & December. That helped keep me warm through the winter. Sadly unpredictable weather put pay to that after a few years.

If you're not a rally fan or an ice racing fan, the winter months might be the time to discover it. We all need our racing fix any way we can get it.

That's us, but what about you? Where are you going to get your race on?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Father Figures

DID NOT FINISH picked up three really good trade reviews in the last week. I'm really glad because the reviewers got it. They all compared my writing to Dick Francis in that I'm doing to motorsport what he did for horse racing. So yay!

So I wanted to take today to discuss one of the characters in the book. For my wife, the stand out character in the book is Steve Westlake. Steve is Aidy’s grandfather. Julie likes the relationship between Aidy and his grandfather. I suppose it’s because they don’t have a traditional relationship in that Steve takes over as Aidy’s guardian after his loses his parents when Aidy was a kid. He teaches Aidy everything about motor racing and acts as a confidant and friend. So Steve is many things to Aidy.

I can understand why Steve had an effect on Julie because Steve is based on two very important people in my life—my uncle Steve and my dad. My uncle Steve is my mum’s youngest brother and he was the cool the uncle when I was growing up. He always seemed like a free spirit and always made me believe we were all capable of anything. My dad is the opposite of my uncle Steve. He’s grounded and dependable. He was part of my pit crew and a steadying influence on me when things got crazy in the pits. He had a good engineering mind and his thoughts always gave me confidence when it came to coming up with solutions for the race car. It helped me be a far more focused and relaxed driver. And for that I’ll always be grateful to my dad.

By way of a thank you to my dad, I gave Steve an interesting quirk in that he looks like Steve McQueen. Now my dad doesn’t look like Steve McQueen, but he does possess a passing resemblance to Paul Newman (according to some) although he has pale grey eyes opposed to Mr. Newman's baby blues. I thought it would make for a nice tribute. :-)

I do like how Steve Westlake turned out. He’s a far more rounded character than I’d hoped to create, but I have my uncle and dad to thank for that.

This concludes DID NOT FINISH's month in the sun. I hope my stories my experiences and the book have piqued your interest. In the meantime, you can read the first five chapters here:
First Lap
Lap Two
Lap Three
Lap Four
Lap Five

Monday, September 26, 2011

Previewing Petit Le Mans

by Tammy

This week I'm headed out to Atlanta from my Southern California home to attend the Petit Le Mans race at Road Atlanta, home of the American Le Mans Series. The race is, as the name suggests, a mini Le Mans, though "Petit," as it's typically called, goes only 10 hours or 1,000 miles (about 394 laps of the course), whichever comes first. (Yes, it's "only" that long, compared to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.)

A variety of great storylines are coming together to make this race a potential epic. The race organizers will start 53 cars, and there are 58 entrants, so qualifying sessions will have an urgency not often seen in the sportscar world. Petit is both the last race of the American Le Mans Series season and the second-to-last race of the International Le Mans Cup series, which means championships are on the line and many will be decided here. And because anything can and will happen in 10 hours of racing, it's inevitable that at least one class of competitors will be turned on its head by a spectacular collapse or mechanical failure, and at least one underdog will take a sentimental podium spot. Added to the drama is some extra incentive: class winners at Petit gain automatic entry to the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year.

And the diesels are coming over from Europe to play, as well. This will mark only the second meeting of teams Peugeot and Audi (at right) with their diesel-powered prototypes in North America this year, and the first time North America will see the new Audi R18, which won Le Mans on its debut this year (with a female race engineer at the helm!). The action on the track should be riveting.

What I also know for sure, is that the action off-track will be equally frantic and fascinating. If I've learned anything with my half-year of promoting my book at the races, it's that the business of racing happens in double- or triple-time during race weekends, and sometimes only happens at races. Add to that truism the fact that this is the last race for one of the U.S.'s major sportscar racing series (ALMS) and post-season for the other (Grand-Am), and we'll have "silly season" in the extreme. Team owners, manufacturers, suppliers, drivers, crew, and you name it, will all be shaking hands and trying to line up deals and opportunities for 2012. The paddock will be a who's who of the racing world this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

All I can say is, it should be fascinating! And I'll report back.... Anything you want me to watch out for or see?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bernie Ecclestone ... Discuss

TAMMY: I'm seriously looking for anyone with insight here. Bernie Ecclestone runs Formula One. There are a lot of details about him actually being the president and CEO of two organizations that control ... blah, blah, blah. He runs the show. With an iron fist. I've been watching F1 more or less faithfully for four or five years now, and my impression of Bernie is that he's a money-grubbing, dictatorial, self-centered jerk. (I'm sure he doesn't care for me either, but I'm not the one demanding $50m for the pleasure of paying to put on a race in a city.) Bernie's exploits and rude comments are nearly legend, such as when he effectively called driver Jenson Button a wimp for thinking he was about to be mugged (with his bodyguard and driver) at machine-gunpoint in Brazil on the way home from the track. What he said was, "They look for people who aren't too bright...." Of course, Bernie was mugged and punched on a London street some months later....

Anyway, I don't mean to wish the man harm. But as in many of these columns, I'm looking for understanding. I get that Bernie runs the most expensive and glamorous racing spectacle on the planet with outrageously cool technology. But at some point, I have to ask: Why does everyone put up with him?

SIMON: Tammy, what do you expect from a secondhand car salesman? :-)

For me, Bernie has been a loveable rogue. His antics have been entertaining. His comments regarding ground effect cars still make me giggle.

I always feel that Bernie is a necessary evil. He’s a wheeler and dealer and I don’t think Formula One would be where it is today without him. And one thing you can say about him is that you know what kind of person he is. He's an open book, so at least you know who you’re dealing with.

TAMMY: What does everyone else think?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Clothes Make the Man, But So Does His Car

Last week, I talked about the racecar featured in DID NOT FINISH.  This week, I want to talk about the road car used in the book.  I could have easily come up with a throw away vehicle for the characters to drive and left it at that.  But these people are gear heads.  They'd drive something that goes hand in hand with their personality. 

The book’s protagonist is Aidy Westlake and he’s broke, so he doesn’t have a road car, but his grandfather does.  Steve Westlake is a retired Formula One mechanic and now runs a classic car restoration business.  I wanted to give Steve something a little different, but not something that’s so exotic that it wouldn’t ring true.  So Steve drives a 1972 Ford Capri RS2600.  For those that aren’t too au fait with British cars, the Capri is the European equivalent of the Mustang.   They were in production in from the late 60’s through to the late 80’s.  The RS incarnations refer to Rally Sport and the designation was usually used to establish homologation for a race series and usually equated to limited production numbers.    The RS was produced in such low numbers, it wasn’t even sold in the UK.  It was primarily for the German market and there’s only about a handful of right-hand drive examples in the UK. 

The Capri isn’t considered a classic car by many.  However, I enjoyed the one I got to drive and I always loved the one that my dad’s work friend owned.   It wasn’t the best handling car out there, but like the Mustang, it was affordable and accessible.  The performance wasn’t exactly earth shattering, although the RS2600 version was pretty swift for its day.   But it’s these elements that seem to suit Steve Westlake.  The car is recognizable and a little unusual and it’s those qualities that help flesh out the kind of person Steve is.

Clothes do make the man/women, but so does the car he/she drives.  So what does your car say about you?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Things That Would Surprise You About a Race

There's so much that goes on during a race weekend that the race is almost the least of it. Almost. No one forgets that the point of the weekend is the racing, but there's another truism I've learned about race weekends, and that is that the business of racing happens on race weekend.

What does that mean? Well, it means that there if you want to make connections, make deals, pick up work, woo or secure sponsors, sell, promote, buy, or view ... you're likely to get more accomplished in a three-day race event than in three weeks of phone calls and e-mails leading up to it.

What this also means is that there's a lot of business happening at all times on the racetrack, and there are a lot of people around who aren't paying much attention to what's happening on track. And that can be pretty odd, especially when you consider that a race might be happening at a classic circuit with great viewing opportunities. Fans will run all over (as they're doing now at a six-hour race I'm attending) and watch from key corners (like Laguna Seca's famed Corkscrew, above). But most of the staff of the series and teams watch the race on TV.

On one hand, that's pretty silly, watching the TV feed from the middle of the track. On the other hand, it's understandable, if their jobs or meetings keep them in the pits or a hospitality tent. Of course, staff usually have a sixth sense for when to turn to the screen to catch a replay.

I'm usually torn at a race. Part of me thinks I should run around to different corners and get a first-hand view of the action. The other part of me accepts that (a) the view of the race is better on TV than from a single corner and (b) I've usually spent the better half of two days making contacts, deals, sales, and promotions. So I usually sit in a hospitality tent in comfort, with shade and ready access to food and water, and watch the television.

I only feel a little silly about it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Free Association and Fast Answers

Simon and I are both on the road this week, so we're going with some quick opinions.

Best track for driving
SIMON: Oulton Park, Cheshire
TAMMY: Road America
Best track for spectating
SIMON: Brands Hatch (Indy Circuit)
TAMMY: I haven't been there, but I suspect it's Bristol Motor Speedway
Best corner on a track
SIMON: Craner Curves (Donnington Park) a downhill S-curve
TAMMY: The Corkscrew, Laguna Seca
Best track food
SIMON: Oulton Park (The sausage guy) or Donuts at Castle Combe
TAMMY: Johnsonville Brats, Road America
Best town outside a track
SIMON: Monterey, CA
TAMMY: Monterey, CA
Worst town outside a track
SIMON: Cadwell Park (Lincolnshire and me don't mix)
TAMMY: Whatever's outside Mid-Ohio
Best car paint scheme
SIMON: The 2012 Formula Ford promo car (at right, top)
TAMMY: Extreme Speed Motorsports' Ferrari (at right). Awesome.
Worst car paint scheme
SIMON: Anything with Red Bull on it
TAMMY: The F1 Renault from a couple years ago, bright blue and yellow
Best teamwear
SIMON: Any I don't have to pay for
TAMMY: The suits that match the car at right, all black, green piping
Worst teamwear
SIMON: Those Sparco jackets that are based on a racing overalls
TAMMY: Any where the bottom half of a driver's suit is white ... do you realize how those look after they sweat through them for a couple hours???
Silliest team sponsor
SIMON: Durex (cuz it's naughty).
TAMMY: Marlboro (cuz it's gross and they can't even show the sponsor name half the time)
Most underrated driver
SIMON: Dan Weldon (cuz he deserves a drive) or me.  :)
TAMMY: Dan Weldon (have to agree with you there) or Patrick Long
Most over-hyped driver
SIMON: Danica (sorry)
TAMMY: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (sorry)
Best driver in the world (right this second)
SIMON: Sebastian Vettel (he really impresses me)
TAMMY: Tony Stewart (he can drive anything)

That ought to give you readers plenty to throw mud at. Tell us what you think!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Is A Single Seater?

I love single seater racecars. You see single seater racecars on the TV in Formula One and Indy Car, but how do they differ from the humble road car? Here’s what goes on under the sleek fiberglass skin. Here’s a nice side profile shot of a Formula Ford that’s slated to race in next year’s championship. Isn’t it pretty and hasn’t it come a long way since I owned one?

If we start from the front and work back, what have we got?

There’s not a lot at the pointy end. There are the pedals, the steering rack, front shock absorbers and the driver’s feet.
Then you get to the driver, who his lying on a mounted fiberglass seat (not very comfy). Underneath the driver’s knees is the fire extinguisher. At his sides are the radiator pods. Now there’s no fan to help cool the car down when it isn’t running. That’s the tricky things about single seaters. They’re like sharks. When they stop moving, they die. The driver’s seat is propped up against the bulkhead for the gas tank (which is a rubber bag). After the gas tank, we get to the good stuff—the engine. That’s bolted directly to the chassis to become part of the chassis (Thanks John Cooper and Colin Chapman). A bellhousing comes next that connects the gearbox to the engine and which the rear suspension connects to.

And there you have it—a single seater racecar from front to back. Sounds simple and it is. I do love the simplicity of them. Where the complexity comes in is in their adjustability. Ride heights, springs, gear ratios can be changed or adjusted at the drop of a hat, but change the car’s characteristics by miles. It’s where great engineering meets great fun.

Yours drooling,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Two Racing Mysteries You Have to Read

By Tammy

I first met my blogmate, Simon Wood, about four years ago at a mystery author event I was helping run. During the author autograph session time, I went to chat with him about racing—because he’d said in his introduction that he’d been a racecar driver. He had indeed raced, he cheerfully told me, and what’s more, he’d written a racing mystery he was trying to find a publisher for.

I’m quite sure I looked like a landed fish, mouth gaping, gasping for air. You see, I was the one who’d written a racing mystery that I was trying to find a publisher for. I was the one who was using the phrase “the Dick Francis of auto racing,” though I tacked on “with a female racecar driver” as a coda. For a moment there, in that autograph session, it might have been high noon in the OK Corral. But mystery writers aren’t like that. We’re cooperative sorts.

So Simon and I kept in touch and cheered each other’s publishing contracts when they came through. He was kind enough to write a blurb for my book, and we started this blog, to talk about. And then, would you believe what happened? THERE WAS ANOTHER. We heard about this guy named Steve Ulfelder, with a racing mystery due out before ours. (There’s no truth to the rumor that Simon and I briefly considered forming a posse to kneecap Steve in hopes of preventing him from promoting his book on his own racecar. Just because we’re insanely jealous we can’t do the same thing. No truth at all. I deny it totally.)

So you can imagine my trepidation, right? I love my book (and it goes without saying, you all need to read it, right?). But what was I going to think about these others? And what if they were anything like mine? I’m a writer, I have an imagination … I’d painted vivid mental pictures of how awful things could actually be. So I read them … and they’re great. As the title of this blog says, you’ve got to read them. Because they’re both excellent, and give you a realistic view of the world of cars and racing, in totally different ways. (And in different ways than mine.)

Steve Ulfelder’s Purgatory Chasm stars Conway Sax, an ex NASCAR driver who’s straightened himself out with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s making his living now as a mechanic, and in trying to help a friend with a car, stumbles into a mess of trouble that makes him a murder suspect in the eyes of the law and a near murder victim thanks to the real bad guys. It’s a novel of a man looking for redemption, even if he has to find it in ways the law doesn’t approve of. Steve creates wonderful, flawed, and interesting characters that you care about and root for. And want to read more of. Next, Steve?!

Simon Woods’ Did Not Finish centers on young Aidy Westlake, a driver trying to make it in the British Formula Ford ranks. What I liked about this book is that we get a glimpse of what it’s like to be struggling to make it in the lower levels of racing, working for your big break—and we get an especially good understanding of the kind of competition and camaraderie that happen on and off track. Aidy is a crusader for justice—not what the law says is right and wrong, but justice—and through his efforts to right various wrongs, the reader joins Aidy in learning a great deal about the kind of off-track games the big boys play that affect the lives of the rest of us peons. Aidy’s a great, compelling character who I’m eager to see grow in future novels.

And there you have it. Two novels I enjoyed the hell out of. They should be on any racing fan’s must-read list. Simon and Steve? Good on you!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Time Machine

SIMON: If you could take part in any era of motorsport, what would it be? Personally, I’d like to be a young driver in the 60’s. As much as the cars were deathtraps, I still would have loved to have cut my teeth just as engines went from the front to the back. The cars were gorgeous to look at. Also they were cars I understood from engineering perspective. I would be nice to have helped been part of an engineering movement that changed the face of motorsport as we know it.

I must admit I enjoyed the era I raced in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Which is easy I suppose. It’s easy to like the things you know. However, the racing was affordable. The cars were fun and accessible for any novice to take on. The competition was close and plentiful. There was a series for every class of racing. Magic times.

So Tam Tam, what time period would you be in--past, present or future?

TAMMY: I'm torn, Simon. See, I'm a complete chicken, so my immediate, knee-jerk response is, "Give me all the safety we have RIGHT THIS MINUTE, are you crazy?!" But if I get past that, I'd have liked to been around in the late 50s, early 60s. Partly it's that I have sort of a fan-girl crush on Denise McCluggage, who was a journalist, racer, skydiver, you name it. Maybe I just want to be as cool as she was. But I got to meet her and talk with her, and what astonished me (I know I've mentioned this before) was that she said she was just "a journalist who did what I wrote about."

Can you imagine that today? In fact, she said that her partner for many races, including when she won the GT class at Sebring (Won! Sebring!) was a professional musician. So I'm fascinated by the era when the people we now think of as the greats--Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, Juan Fangio, Jim Clark--rubbed shoulders with amateur drivers and professional journalists and musicians. Partly I'm fascinated by the time before the greater commercialization of motorsport. As Denise said, back then it was more of a sport, and a team of amateurs could win Sebring if they were any good.

On the other hand, Denise was never allowed to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, though she was friends with Briggs Cunningham and had a ride in his new Corvette program lined up ... so maybe I'd prefer today with the greater opportunities available to women racers after all!

SIMON: Nice thinking, Tams. I was looking at Oulton Park (which is one of my fav tracks). It was film from the 60's and they used have trees lining the track. Crazy. The only time I wouldn't have liked to drive in would have been in the 30's. Those monster Mercedes & Auto Unions would have been suicidal.

So what about the rest of you. What's your dream era?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fast and Dirty

Did Not Finish is a book that is very close to my heart as it’s a mystery centering on the world of motorsport. Twenty years ago, I raced open-wheel cars motorsport in the UK.

In the book, a death threat is circulating around the pits. Derek Deacon says he’ll kill his championship rival, Alex Fanning, unless Alex throws the championship deciding race. Rookie driver, Adrian ‘Aidy’ Westlake, doesn’t put too much stock in the threat. He figures Derek is just playing mind games. That changes when Alex dies on the track after banging wheels with Derek. A cover-up ensues. The police wrap up their investigation without following up on the death threat, TV coverage omits the crash and the racing community seems happy to ignore what they heard. Aidy is the exception. He feels obligated to expose the truth and finds himself dragged into a much larger conspiracy.

A real incident is the basis for Did Not Finish. I was competing in a regional championship where a rumor was floating around the paddock that a driver threatened to kill the championship leader if he didn’t win and, just as in the book, that driver died in a crash during the race. At the time, I felt quite helpless. There is a world of difference between an idle threat and an actual murder. What made the situation even harder for me to accept was that minutes before the race started, the driver who died had shared something with me that he hadn’t even shared with his family. It’s a confidence I’ve kept for twenty years.

Did Not Finish is not an attempt to expose a crime or rewrite history but illustrate life in the fast lane. Motorsport is an expensive game. To compete, you need more than just a bat, a ball and a pair of sneakers. You need a small army. Even at a grass roots level, it costs tens of thousands each year to own, maintain and race at a competitive level. Because of that, the desire to win gets amped up and tensions run high. Competition brings out our best, but it can also bring out our worst, so dirty tricks aren’t out of the question.

Naturally, there’s rule bending in motor racing and I can’t say I didn’t pull some stunts to help me survive in the sport. Other people I knew took more drastic measures, especially when it came to money. Some people borrowed heavily, in some cases turning to loan sharks. Others got involved in a variety of criminal pursuits to make ends meet. They ranged from misdemeanors such as theft to major felonies such as drug trafficking. Some individuals felt they had to protect their interests and did so by intimidating others or flagrant cheating. Some of the stuff that occurred is enough to make your hair curl. And in most cases, all these acts boiled down to people doing anything to hang on to their dream and win. It’s a siren song that’s hard to ignore.

Dick Francis showed the dark side of the world of horseracing, I’m hoping to do the same through Aidy’s adventures. He lives in the shadow of his famous father, the late, great driver, Rob Westlake, who died along with Aidy’s mother in an auto wreck after securing a Formula One contract. Raised by his grandfather, Steve, himself a retired Grand Prix mechanic, Aidy is following in his father’s footsteps.

As the series develops and Aidy makes his rise through the world of motor racing, he’ll be drawn into the various issues affecting the sport. And as he does, he’ll learn one thing—in motorsport, murder will always happen breakneck speed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Will Someone Please Explain IndyCar to Me?

by Tammy

This is an honest request. I don't mean to be dismissive, but I don't understand. I just don't get it. So if someone can explain what I'm missing, I'd appreciate it.... I'm watching the IndyCar street circuit race in Baltimore, and I have some questions.

First of all, aren't races supposed to start with cars in a two-by-two lineup? The first three rows (of 14 potential rows) formed up, and the rest were so far behind that they hadn't even turned onto the front straight before the green flag waved. That put the cars at the back about a half-mile behind the leaders at the start of the race. That doesn't seem fair. Second, we're 12 laps in, and I've seen three passes. So far it seems like a one-by-one tour ... perhaps in part because most of the field was in a line at the start?

Now, I absolutely get that the cars are tough to drive. They have lots of power and touchy handling, and aero that can go away when you get close to other cars. The folks who race them are good drivers. No disrespect intended. I guess what I'm really asking is what's with all the hype about the series?

My bias in this, of course, comes from the fact that I love the multi-class racing of the American Le Mans Series. And I just watched an ALMS race on the same circuit that was phenomenal, with incredible wheel-to-wheel battles for the lead in the final laps of not one, not two, but three of the classes. I've yet to see that kind of competition and racing in an IndyCar race (any of them, not just this one). Am I missing some subtlety? Am I expecting the wrong thing?

Educate me, would you?