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, October 29, 2012

The Jimmie Juggernaut

by Tammy

Maybe we should start calling Jimmie Johnson (and crew chief Chad Knaus) "the Closer." Sure, he cruised to the title in his first couple years of championships. But the last year certainly was a fight, and in more than one, he (and crew) demonstrated an uncanny ability to finish the year strong, pulling out a number of victories and strong finishes in the Chase.

And this year. No one's been talking about Jimmie. Not as much as they've been talking about Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin. But who's on top with three races to go this season? Who dominated at Martinsville this weekend, winning from pole?

Yep, this guy.

Can he be stopped? Who do you like to take the title in NASCAR this year?

Simon's pick (back to our fantasy picks) of Jeff Gordon (6th) is doing better than my pick of Carl Edwards (not in the Chase), and Rick Helms' choice of Greg Biffle (9th). But Rick Hunt outpicked us all by pegging Jimmie from the start.

It's not too late. I'm changing my vote to Jimmie.

P.S. Did you know he wrote (with help) and published a memoir/coffee-table book? Hmm, writing, racing ... maybe he wants to join a feisty little blog....

Friday, October 26, 2012

Pros and Ams

TAMMY: Sportscar racing, more than other types (I think, correct me if I'm wrong), means professional racecar drivers sharing the track with amateurs. Granted, they're usually very good amateurs, but they often don't have the same level of experience as the pros. And that sometimes gets them in trouble.

Remember the huge crash at Le Mans this year, in which British pro Anthony Davidson's Toyota prototype flipped nose-over-tail and slammed into a tire barrier, fracturing two of Davidson's vertebrae? (See the video.) That involved a pro and an amateur, with the general consensus being that the amateur was responsible, as he just didn't understand how fast the prototype could and would maneuver.

There were two incidents at Petit caused by the same amateur driver, Peter LeSaffre in the Green Hornet Racing Porsche. The first was a dramatic upside-down slide by the Nissan Delta Wing during practice.

The second was impact with the Muscle Milk LMP2 car, which almost had enormous implications for the championship contender. Only heroic repair work by the Muscle Milk team enabled the car to get back out on track to complete the requisite number of laps and take the championship.

Tony DiZinno, Web editor for Racer magazine, wrote an excellent, thoughtful opinion piece this week reconsidering his initial stance that both incidents were LeSaffre's fault. Considering his points, I have to say I agree. However, I think it behooves amateur drivers to do a lot more studying of the other cars on the road, particularly closing speeds of prototypes at each racetrack. Similarly, as DiZinno points out, the pros need to cut the amateurs some slack also, and not expect every other driver on the road to react as a pro would

But I sure wouldn't get rid of the mix of pros and ams. What's your take, Simon?

SIMON: I wouldn't get rid of amateurs from pro racing, for one simple reason--Define pro??  Look at Romain Grosjean.  The best way to eliminate these incidents is through licensing.  There are different licenses needed for different types of racing and some series have low level license requirements.  All drivers need to earn their stripes and they will if they can't jump up a series until they have enough points finishes under their belts in a lower series.  Also I've mentioned before that mixed testing was a great learning tool.  I once tested with F3, F3000, Touring Cars and sports prototypes while I was driving a Formula Ford.  I had to have my wits about me with cars that cornered slower and cars that could catch me on a 1/3mile straight when I was hitting the braking area.  It taught me a lot about speed and manners.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Seasons' End

by Tammy

IndyCar, Grand-Am, and now the American Le Mans Series, all done for the year. All headed for the off-season now, the extra-silly-season.

For the ALMS, which wrapped up its season with a dramatic 9.5 hour Petit Le Mans on Saturday (that's the Turn 10a/b complex in the photo), and for Grand-Am, this means time finally to work on the specifics of the merger for 2014 (those in charge have promised decisions about the class structure for the merged series by the end of 2012). For teams in respective series, it means gearing up for a final, possibly lame-duck season as a separate entity. Because while they'll be preparing for 2013, their eyes will undoubtedly be on 2014. I can't imagine there won't be losers in the merger, but it's certainly too early to tell who that will be.

For IndyCar, F1, and NASCAR, it's time for drivers and sponsors to move teams and new deals to be struck. For fans, it's time to hunker down and either get friendly with Aussie V8 Supercar racing or haunt racing sites daily for the latest news. Maybe we do both. Certainly we spend some time trying to teach ourselves the new driver, sponsor, number combinations (for NASCAR, at least).

For me, it's time to do some of the above, plus a lot of writing on a new book. But I know I'll be following the off-season soap opera that is racing, avidly. Sometimes I think I like the stories about racing even more than the racing itself. I suppose that figures.

But hey, there's still a month of racing left! So until the fat lady sings, signaling the end of F1 (4 more races, finishing Nov. 25) and NASCAR (4 more races, finishing Nov. 18), I'll savor some of the year's last competition and look forward to 2013. Only 96 days until the 24 Hours of Daytona!

Who's with me? Are you done with racing for this year? Hanging on to the bitter end of F1 or NASCAR? Making travel plans for Daytona?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Petit Le Mans Tomorrow!

by Tammy

Simon is away being celebrated this weekend, but I'll be at home, sitting in front of the computer. Because Saturday is Petit Le Mans! I attended this race the last two years and have written about it in my next book, so it's a race I really enjoy.

Check out how cool this race poster is. That's the Delta Wing there on the right, and ahead, the 2012 GT champion Corvette! All of them sweeping down the hill at Road Atlanta into Turn 12. Great spot!

Will you be watching with me? Coverage starts at 8:30 a.m. Pacific/11:30 a.m. Eastern, on I'll also be posting a lot on Twitter: @tkaehler. Hope to see you around the mediaverse!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Crash, Bang, Wallop!!

By Simon

I’m reading The Limit by Michael Cannell at the moment and which looks at racing in the 50’s and early 60’s. Naturally death rears its ugly head again and again with the upshot it’s had me reliving the crashes I’ve had and ones I’ve witnessed.

Crashes are funny things. Essentially, high speed crashes are living breathing monsters with a life of their own. You could walk away without a scratch or you find yourself in hospital. Personally, I walked away from 130mph impact after my car went airborne, but I broke two vertebrae going into a tire wall at 60mph. I won’t bore you with the details but the reason for these differing outcomes was safety harnesses. One was done up properly and the other wasn’t.

So the safety improvements have changed the dynamics of crash survival immensely, but there's one thing that can’t be changed (in theory) and that’s speed. Having seen the pile up at Belgian Grand Prix again, it reminded me that once the wheels have been sheared off a car, safety measures somewhat go out of the window and Newtonian physics takes over—a body in motion will remain in motion until an opposing force is enacted up on it (usually in the form of a crash barrier).

Velocity is a really killer. When I was learning to fly, I remember doing calculations with my instructor about crash survival rates. The numbers said that if I crashed 10knots under normal landing speed, my survival rate improved by 25%. Bring it in 20knots under normal landing speed, it wouldn’t ruffle my hair. In the light of calls for greater safety since Dan Wheldon’s death, the biggest safety improvement racing can implement is to reduce speed—but that isn't going to happen. It’s certainly something I wouldn’t want to see. The appeal of racing to me is controlling the uncontrollable.

So crashes are ugly but they are a part of the sport.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Speed and Pushing Limits

By Tammy

Two epic events happened this last weekend that made me spend some time pondering how and why humans push limits.

First, Los Angeles celebrated and cheered the Endeavour space shuttle on its final journey through the streets of LA to the California Science Center. A game of inches, that move was, with its arrival delayed some hours because crews needed to trim extra branches from trees and maneuver the shuttle sideways at times to clear historic trees and everyday residences. (Photo from my friend Miruna.)

The second event was Felix Baumgartner's attempt to skydive from the highest altitude ever (120,000 feet or 23 miles) and, along the way, break the sound barrier in only a spacesuit and helmet (meaning without being inside a capsule or vehicle). More than most record-breaking efforts, this one seems to generate head-shaking and pronouncements that "he's nuts." Certainly that's my opinion.

I sat there watching, wondering why I was doing so. I mean, the guy could have died. Why did I care? Why was I interested? And then I realized his attempt was just another means of pushing the boundaries of what we think humans are capable of. To quote the Olympics: faster, higher, stronger. Just like car racing.

So I suppose I followed the space shuttle's journey and watched Baumgartner free-fall for the same reason I watch racing: because while I'm not interested in pushing boundaries myself, I'm fascinated by those who have the strength, talent, and will to do so.

What about you all? Did you watch Felix Baumgartner? Do you want to push boundaries yourself?

Friday, October 12, 2012

When to Retire?

TAMMY: The sound of weeping you heard last week was because Michael Schumacher announced his retirement, for the second time, from Formula 1. And many F1 fans were sad.

Me? I say, "meh." I mean, one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time? Sure. More championships than anyone? Undeniable. Iconic to see him driving in person? Absolutely. But did I ever think he'd do anything with this comeback? Nope.

One name for you: Michael Jordan. I just don't think an athlete can retire near the end of his likely career, take a break for a couple years, then come back and enjoy the same level of success. The sport passes him by. The cars changed, in Schumi's case. I mean, great, if you just want to be out there competing, good for you. But I didn't honestly think he'd ever win again.

And so I have more good to say about someone like Reubens Barrichello, who took his forced retirement from F1 (he didn't get a ride with a team) in stride and went to race elsewhere. He's still practicing his skills, learning new cars and tracks, and having a great time by all accounts.

Basically, I believe a champion athlete that goes out at the top of his game will want to come back, which won't work out well for him (or her, I don't judge). I think it's more rational for those in whom the competitive fires burn so fiercely to keep racing, wherever they can, until they've exhausted all opportunities. Then again, where could Schumi have gone from the top of F1? Maybe nowhere.

What do you think, Simon? Should they go out while they're on top or stick around and fade away slowly?

SIMON: With all that Schumacher had achieved, I didn’t understand why he came back. He would be only diluting his record. But I do understand the reasoning. He’d said he wanted to help develop an F1 car for Mercedes and I get that. Mercedes have been supporting his career since his F3 days and he never got to drive for his sponsor. So from that perspective, it makes sense.

But to answer your question, Tam Tam, I think it’s always best to check out at the top. You never want to be that guy who can’t walk away—the sporting equivalent of the old guy in the night club.

Retirement doesn’t mean you have to leave the sport. You just find a new challenge. Look at Denny Hulme. He was racing Touring Cars in Australia until he died and was still competitive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schumacher racing in the DTM in the next year.

TAMMY: I don't disagree that one should go out on top ... but when they do, they seem to return and not be able to recapture lost glory. Anyone else with me? Anyone disagree?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing

By Simon

When I raced, double headers were a rare event. It usually coincided with a big holiday weekend where racing took place all weekend long—with a race taking place on consecutive days. The concept of double headers at every event was rare. I think the DTM (aka German touring cars) was the only series to do this. In recent years, most series in the UK and Europe are double headers and some are triple header events (in the case of the British Touring Car Championship) with three sprint races occurring in the same day. As much as this sounds like a good thing, I’m not a fan. I don’t think it’s good entertainment.

I understand the economic sense of double and triple header races. In the case of the BTCC, it’s a 30-race season that plays out at ten tracks over ten weekends. This setup cuts down the travel and helps keep budgets low. But I still don’t like them. I used to run on very tight budget and operated with very few spare parts and bought them as and when I needed them. But if I was involved in a double or triple header, I would need a full complement of spares to cover myself, which I would have never been able to afford. So a major shunt could not only take me out of the race, but could take me out of two or three races instead of having the luxury of time to fix the car for the next event.

I suppose the big thing here is that I don’t like this trend for double headers as the race card isn't as fun anymore. I liked race days when there used to be a 10-race program with ten different kinds of racing incorporating sedans, single seaters, historics, etc. Now, you have a race program with the same cars coming back up over and over again like Jason Voorhees and I think it takes the shine off the race going because the variety disappears. You really can have too much of a good thing, don’t you think?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Reprise: Racecars and Street Cars

by Tammy (who was out of town last weekend, and is reprising an old favorite)

The stereotype of a racing fan is, among other traits, one who leaves the track so influenced by what they've watched that they imagine themselves the next Andretti or Earnhardt and speed away in his or her Chevy Malibu (or Mazda 3 or Ford Fusion) only to get a speeding ticket or wreck the car on the way home.

So here's my question: Racing fans out there, are you so intoxicated by watching speed at the track that you push your speed in the corners, heel-and-toe downshift, and aim for the apex in the corners? Do you speed?

(Note: I live in Los Angeles, so I count some amount of speeding as a given. But I'm talking about more than the standard 10 m.p.h above the speed limit that just might escape the notice of the cops.)

I've never wanted the fastest car money could buy. I've never wanted to go 100 m.p.h. anywhere, really, let alone on highways or in other situations where everyone else on the road wasn't prepared for it. (Yes, the irony of me writing about a racecar driver is not lost on me.) My husband, on the other hand, has occasionally pushed the speedometer higher than I ever would. And as a car guy, he's always fascinated with high horsepower and speed vehicles. Which is why one of the most interesting outcomes of being intimately involved with the racing world is that he has less desire to own or drive such a car than ever before.

The reason is that he's realized how different a real racecar is than any car you can buy for the street. (OK, Corvette fans, I can hear you shouting about Corvette models, such as the ZR1, which, I'll grant you is about as close to a racecar as you can get.) But the point is that after watching racecars tuned and prepped for the racetrack be driven within inches of their performance limits, the idea of having a car whose performance limits we'll never touch more than 20% of just seems like a waste.

Now, I'm not saying we don't appreciate high performance cars. But for our needs, we go with a good power-to-weight ratio so that what we drive feels fun, quick, and zippy.

What about all of you? Do you drive your Porsches, Corvettes, Mazda 3s and occasionally punch it up to far, far above the posted speed limit? Do you take your cars to the track? Or do you just dream of speed in your four-door sedan or mini-van? I don't judge....

Monday, October 1, 2012

Stop Copying Me!

by Tammy

Grand-Am Road Racing released their 2013 schedule at the end of last week, and it contained a few ... well, not surprises, given the coming merger, but features that would have been unthinkable just a year ago.

For one, Grand-Am is racing at Road Atlanta (owned by Dr. Panoz, who owns the ALMS). I'm hoping in return we see the ALMS at Watkins Glen (owned or closely affiliated with Grand-Am/NASCAR interests). But one race on the schedule almost made me fall over in shock.

You see... I started writing my second Kate Reilly Racing Mystery in 2006. Then I scrapped most of that idea and started it again in 2007. Ditto 2008, 2009 (you're getting the trend here). Every time I restarted it, I changed the two featured tracks and races.

I always knew it would include a visiting NASCAR star, and so at one point (probably in 2009), I decided that the star (Miles Hanson, who made it into the final version) wouldn't be present because he was racing in the ALMS. I came up with a much more far-fetched idea: the ALMS and Grand-Am would share a double-header race weekend for a SportsCar Summit.

Where did I set this unlikely, fictional event? At the Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

So imagine my shock when I saw that Grand-Am's 2013 schedule includes an August double-header weekend race event with the ALMS. At Road America.

Life imitates art? I suppose. But maybe the new Grand American Le Mans Series (or whatever they're going to call it) should put me on the payroll ... just sayin'.