Milka Duno: Indy Car’s Next Big Thing?

This girl’s going places. Fast.

Milka Duno, Indy Car’s new rookie, has passed her entry exam. In Kansas, of all places, with temperatures barely hovering around 50 (imagine sitting in the cockpit of a car when it’s 50 degrees outside, and the wind is whipping by at, oh, 200 mph!), and with all of Indy Car racing watching, she nailed the rookie test, both on and off track.

Good for her.

Milka gives every impression that she’s smart, savvy and very capable in a race car. She’s also gorgeous and Latin. And I’m only saying that to point out that it’s about time we got a gorgeous Latin female driver up in here!!

They say her next big test is driving in traffic. Fair enough. So far, she’s been willing to take matters one thing at a time. She seems modest, serious, and dedicated. She’s under a little bit of a media glare, and she’s maintained a cool, professional demeanor, and insists that she’s just taking one step at a time.

This girl’s going places. Watch and see.

If it all comes together for her, she’s gonna give Danica Whats-Er-Name a real run for her money. On the track, and off. What’d’ya know, a driver rivalry in Indy Cars. Who’d’a guessed?

Mr. Rock, Meet Mr. Hard Place

There are some people you can take at their word. JP Montoya has been saying it all along – he’s here to win.

So it wasn’t real surprising that, with victory within his grasp, he made a “mistake” and punted his teammate at the end of Saturday’s Mexico City race. A “mistake,” you say? JPM is learning the good ol’ boy lingo quickly, methinks.

And, of course, it wasn’t surprising that HardLuckScott Pruett was unnnnnnnhappy about the whole transaction. HardLuckScott doesn’t get a lot of shots at victory — or a triumphant 1-2 finish if that’s what he was trying to set up — so he’s understandably miffed.

Not even surprising that Denny Hamlin went with the company line. 3rd place at the time of the wreck, a former MC winner and very much in line to take advantage of JP’s extra-curriculars, Hamlin had plenty of reason to spout off…but he’s gotta go race at Vegas next week, and is wise enough to keep his quote-sheet squeaky clean.

The guy you’ve gotta feel sorry for in this whole deal is PokerChip Ganassi. As car owner for both JPM and HardLuckScott, he’s got plenty to be excited about, and not all positive. But when his rising superstar takes out his professional fill-in and 1.) wins the race; 2.) as the first Hispanic to do so; 3.) in Mexico-freakin’ City for goodness sake, what’s the poor guy to do?

PokerChip’s got two sponsors to satisfy: one (the big’un) is happy, the other…not so much. He’s got two drivers (and their crews) to satisfy: one (the big’name) is happy, the other…not so much.

But most important, he’s got the 800 pound NASCAR gorilla to satisfy. Think the good ol’ boys in the bright blue trailer hated it that JPM blasted through the field, made the last 20 laps unforgettable and then kicked a white boy aside to win the race?

Me neither.

In other news, Pruett finished 5th. Maybe better than he would have, if JP had just moved him or passed him?

The Decline of American Formula Car Racing

Much has been ballyhooed on fan forums about the rise of one side of the American formula car war and the demise of its opponent, or whispered about in paddocks and bars amongst worried racers concerned for their jobs. The media has touted its opinions as facts about the state of both sides, and everyone speculates wildly.

But consider that the IRL has a confirmed 2007 car count of only 16. They have become the CART of the 1980s, with Roger Penske, foreign engine manufacturers and the few remaining big sponsors pulling the strings that orchestrate every race up to and including “the greatest spectacle.” Seats at Indy go unfilled, unsold. The biggest “names” in the game are a young Andretti and a pouty exhibitionist who has seen more success in the pages of men’s magazines than on the race track. Even Sam Hornish, poster boy for the IRL’s original “vision,” has succumbed to the lure of NASCAR.

Champ Car, formerly known as CART, hasn’t fared much better. With a weak car count hovering around 18 and a weaker list of mostly unknown drivers, the once diverse and challenging series has become a taunting shadow of itself with a shallow pool of talent. Gone are all ovals and super speedways and most of the natural terrain road courses, leaving the circus shows of urban temporary circuits to draw the party crowd. Gone is the technology, as the new Panoz package and rules in effect make Champ Car a spec series: no development. Apparently, the “three amigos” (of whom only two seem to be left with any decision-making authority) have determined that the whole world has accepted the NASCAR game of the “show” regardless of its content: racing is no longer a sport; it’s entertainment.

Certain pie-eyed, optimistic “super fans” who see the Champ Car world only through the rosiest of tinted lenses proclaim 2006 the best year ever, and sing the praises of the owners whose they desperately court as they anticipate beholding a dazzling future. But just what does it say about a series when one of the series co-owners, after years of freezing wages and eliminating the crew’s prize money has gone on an even more extensive economy “down-sizing” by firing one-third of the crew? And more firings are in the works as this owner has decided to cut his Atlantic program from 4 to 2 cars for 2007.

One prominent racing rumors web site announced that the drastic action was an effort to launch a championship-winning effort in 2007 and consistently in the future. No offense to Mark, but he doesn’t get it. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking he simply didn’t know the truth behind the scenes, but after he was made aware of what was really going on, he continued to promote his PR theory that “PT good, crew bad, this is necessary” when a team has “lackluster” results. This is the same crew that won five of eight races once AJ Allmendinger walked through the door this year. This is the same crew that has won numerous races and a championship. This crew knows how to do it. But let’s face it: Lavin, Dominguez, Tagliani, Carpentier and Gidley were not championship contenders … and several weren’t even race winners. Even Paul Tracy barely won the title in 2003, despite all the effort of Player’s behind him and a couple competitors busily throwing away every opportunity to steal the points lead.

No, sorry: I’m not buying Mark’s explanation. I happen to know that Gerry Forsythe has demanded terminations at the end of every season. This year, he got them. And they began with the most experienced – and most expensive, no coincidence there – crew members. The entire gearbox department was let go. Do you suppose it’s mere coincidence that at a recent test in Houston after the entire gearbox department had been sacked, they had gearbox trouble? Of the two guys left on PT’s car, one has exactly one year of experience at this level: again, no coincidence – he’s cheaper.

Much of the slash and burn at FCR is due to PT’s insistence. Never one to shoulder any responsibility for his actions, PT immediately points the finger in every direction. Signed to a five-year contract, he has job security. Never mind that PT has been in the Indy race shop exactly one time in three years, refusing even to take the time to go have a new seat made. Never mind that the reason PT not only didn’t win but didn’t even finish many races this year was due directly to his own mistakes on track and the persistent red mist he seems enveloped in. PT has a temper; anyone who’s listened to the team’s radios can vouch for that. Sadly, the fanatics at Crapwagon revel in PT’s embarrassing antics, like the ridiculous mask and cape he wore in Toronto. With Gerry contractually bound to pay PT’s fines for on- and off-track skirmishes, what incentive does he have to behave?

Unfortunately, Gerry is an absentee owner who is more of a businessman than a real racer, apparently more concerned about the bottom dollar than running a winning team. Take a look at the “winningest” team in the series: Newman-Haas. One of the keys to their success is consistency. Some of the crewmembers have been there 20 years. There is very little turnover. The guys are experienced, talented and work well together. It’s logical to expect that a team owner/series owner like Gerry would know that and apply it to his own team. He had a winning crew, but he blamed them for failures because of the lame excuses and temper tantrum of an overweight, overblown driver with a mouth as big as his attitude is bad.

PT’s comment in the Toronto paper about how Gerry rewards loyalty is pure rubbish. While I’ve seen Gerry turn on anyone who doesn’t obligingly tow his line, he has not demonstrated reciprocal loyalty, as evidenced by the immediate discharge of long-time, talented employees. His judgment relies on Neil Mickelwright, vice president of operations, and Phil LePan, team manager – two of the most highly paid team members, by the way, who might just be more concerned about saving their own jobs than standing up to Gerry by pointing out that championships are not won with a reduced crew of inexperienced men. After all, Tony Brunetti was shuttled off to Mexico when he dared criticize Greg Moore, whose father went to Player’s, who complained to Gerry, who got rid of Bruno for telling the emperor he had no clothes. FCR is a dangerous place to be honest.

Some objective people within the industry have commented that it doesn’t bode well for the series if one of the owners is in economy mode, especially if he’s filthy rich. We’re not talking about Derrick Walker having to pinch pennies. We’re talking about a multi-millionaire successful businessman who throws away money on hats for a potential sponsor (that never came to anything) but doesn’t want to pay his guys a fair wage or any prize money.

If loyal, dependable, talented, race- and championship-winning crewmen who have been employed by the team and series owner for 6, 10 or 15 years aren’t safe, there is absolutely no security in Champ Car. If Gerry makes decisions about race venues, chassis, engines, gearboxes and rules the way he does about his team – from a distance, without accurate information and always with his eye on the budget rather than on what’s best for the racing – then Champ Car doesn’t stand a chance of hell in being anything more than an open wheel spec circus running parades around cities around the globe.

Just as the IRL has become the old CART, so, too, has Champ Car become the old IRL, with two obscenely rich megalomaniacs calling the shots, destroying the racing through spec equipment and bad officiating, screwing up the schedule and the TV package, and teasing us with big promises for future greatness if only we wait and continue to believe in their “vision.”
Rusports also recently let some crewmembers go. When he hired them, Carl Russo assured them he would be around long after they were gone, and that moving their families to Denver posed no risk. Now they’re out there without a job, but with a mortgage and a family to feed. We’ve returned to the old days of motor racing, when teams laid off the team for the winter to save money – and because there wasn’t any work to be done on the cars. With these spec Panoz cars, there’s little work to do year-round, but when team owners are firing the most experienced crewmen due to costs, it sets a treacherous precedent and begins the brain drain. Look for the talented guys to turn up in ALMS. There’s nothing for them to do in American formula car racing.

Just as I reluctantly turned away from the Indy 500 once Tony George ruined it, after years of working in and covering CART/Champ Car, I’m turning my attention to Formula One and World Rally, and pinning my hopes for the future of “real” racing on ALMS.

Setting The Record Straight – A Voice for the Guys in the Industry

Recently, the owner of a subscription-only racing web site informed me that Gerry Forsythe told him AJ Allmendinger’s immediate success at FCR opened his eyes to the possibility that “new” is better than “experienced.” This was the supposed reason for sacking nearly half his crew, starting with the most experienced – and expensive – people with as much as a year of seniority and loyal service … people who have been there since the Player’s days, who know how to win and have won races and championships.

From my vantage point, ‘Dinger’s success perfectly illustrates the fact that the crew is good and has been performing their jobs very well. Despite Paul Tracy’s misleading allegations, the crew is good. It’s not their fault that talent has been lacking behind the wheel. Who honestly believes that Lavin, Dominguez, Tagliani, Carpentier and Gidley were/are championship contenders? Together, they have won a handful of races throughout their entire careers. If Gerry really wanted to clean house “because the team isn’t winning consistently,” he should have started with his most expensive employees: his drivers. Face it, PT has thrown away more races than most guys currently in the series have even competed in! Even with every effort (and dollar) being expended on his behalf in 2003, PT barely won the championship, and the outcome might have been very different had not Fontana been burned out (canceled due to area wildfires).

But when it comes to driver selection, Gerry doesn’t have the savvy of Carl Haas or Chip Ganassi. And when it comes to the crew, Gerry doesn’t know much at all. Not a racer, he has little concept of what it takes to put together a winning racing effort. Never in the shop, he has little idea of what really goes on. Instead, he relies on his vice president of operation and his team manager for information: two high-priced employees possibly more concerned with retaining their jobs than standing up against the boss. Of the two guys left on PT’s car, one has exactly one year of experience in Champ Car. You expect success from a whole crew like that?
Carl Haas understands how to put together a winning team; he knows that loyalty is a two-way street. Some of the crew members have been there since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Consistency, fair treatment, decent pay and wise choices: those are the keys to consistent winning.

The web site owner told me Gerry and Keven Kalkhoven have better things to spend their money on than car count and that the new package means fewer team members are necessary. First, if Gerry and Kevin have better things to spend their money on than fair wages to talented and loyal employees, this series is in trouble. Second, the web site owner and the “two amigos” are talking out of both sides of their mouths about crap. One minute this web site owner excuses FCR’s loss of two Atlantics cars because they’re not needed; the next minute he’s hanging on Gerry’s hint of adding two more, praising him for “beating” the IPS car count. If car count doesn’t matter, why is this guy keeping score?

Another hypocritical issue is Gerry’s reputation for loyalty; PT even wrote about it. As far as I can see, Gerry demands loyalty; he seldom reciprocates it – and only if it’s in his financial interest to do so, which is another way of saying he isn’t loyal at all.

Second, the guy is right about the new package: it’s a cheap spec series that doesn’t require many engineers, fabricators or mechanics to run. Thus, expect to see the brain drain from Champ Car as the truly talented will migrate to ALMS or other series that continue to incorporate development. Champ Car will become a pathetic shadow of its CART incarnation: no diversity in tracks, no technological development, little talent in the series. It is an open-wheel NASCAR: a spec series all about a contrived “show” and the bottom dollar. If that’s what the fans want, Gerry’s doing all the right things. But I’m a real racer and I don’t like what American formula car racing is becoming, from the spec packages used to the filthy rich egomaniacs running both series into the ground.

Reviewing the Indie Film: Thunder Hill

Excuse me!

Thunder Hill: paradigm of American short-track racing By Lori Lovely

I’ve been working in and/or covering CART/Champ Car, IRL and Formula One racing for well over two decades, with the occasional foray into NASCAR territory.

Pace Lap

After that many years of sharing a paddock with the likes of Mario Andretti, Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya, Nelson Piquet, Tony Stewart and other “names” in motor racing, I confess to losing touch with the local grass-roots scene – despite living within a mile of Indianapolis Raceway Park and my own heritage with SCCA club racing. Merle Bertrand’s Thunder Hill: Long Shots on a Short Track reminded me that beyond the bright lights of high-dollar, corporate-sponsored motor racing, a solid base of earnest competitors are waging the same four-wheeled battles on their local circle tracks every Saturday night with just as much passion and dedication.

Merle

Thunder Hill Raceway is a 3/8-mile paved oval near Austin, Texas, that hosts a determined group of regulars vying for race wins, championships, recognition on a bigger stage and just plain fun. Through revealing interviews and racing footage, Bertrand’s film documents the struggles, triumphs and big-time dreams of these hometown circle-track racers as it follows them through race preparation, registration, tech inspection, driver’s meeting, heat races and mains.

Many are self-proclaimed “Winston Cup” wannabes, apparently too busy rebuilding engines from leftover parts to realize that Nextel replaced Winston as title sponsor of NASCAR years ago. Hoping to use late model stock car racing as a springboard to the big time, they make their bones in budget racing. Others are out merely for the family fun, community camaraderie and opportunity to burn off some frustration. No matter their goals, reality is the same for all: perseverance seeking a delicate balance with budgetary limitations; the excitement of competition overcoming the fear of crashing; family support outweighing heat-of-battle fights and autograph-seeking fans; and the passion of racing that lures them back week after week.

Illinois-born producer/director Bertrand has L.A. film experience, leading me to believe the frequently rough footage is a deliberate move to mimic the “rubbin’ and bangin’ is racin’” mentality of the film’s heroes. Interviewing drivers over the commotion of a working paddock brings to life the essence of life on the racing circuit. Filming them in semi- to near-total darkness mirrors the challenges of night racing. The one perhaps unforgivable flaw is the camera’s reluctance to keep up with the action on the track, with the spectator getting only glimpses of passes and crashes just beyond the span of the lens. And, while Bertrand adequately captures the view from behind the fence and in the stands, it’s the up-close, from-the-pits and in-car camera angles every devoted race fan yearns to see. Nevertheless, Bertrand has captured the soul of the Saturday night hobby racer and the universal truths that make up the sport of motor racing, on any scale.

The DVD is available at http://www.carproductions.net/.

Book Review – Rapid Response

Rapid Response Book Cover

Rapid Response: My Inside Story as a Motor Racing Life-Saver
By Dr. Stephen Olvey, Haynes Publishing, Somerset, UK; $29.95

Dr. Stephen Olvey served as Championship Auto Racing Teams’ medical director from 1979 to 2003. This very moving memoir of his years leading the charge for motor sports safety in the series at the pinnacle of open wheel racing in America recaptures an exciting era in the development of technology, both in motor racing and in sports medicine. With professionalism, sincerity, empathy and humor, Olvey recounts the challenges, rewards and devastating losses of forwarding safety in the sport.

It opens with Alex Zanardi’s shocking crash at Lausitzring in Germany just days after 9/11, setting the tone for the book. Olvey then backtracks to his boyhood, growing up in Indy and going to the track every May. His first race was in 1955. For those of you unfamiliar with Indy history, that was the year the great Bill Vukovich lost his life on his way to his third consecutive Indy 500 victory.

Olvey was a pioneer in safety and sports medicine. His challenges, battles, struggles, sorrows and successes are not only inspirational, they are the history of CART itself.

They are also my history. I have had the distinct honor of knowing Olvey during most of his tenure with CART, and have heard many of these stories directly from him and Dr. Trammel. I have certainly interviewed and written about everyone in his book (during the CART era; Vuky was before my time!), and many of them are (or were) my friends. I was at most of the races Olvey writes about and I personally witnessed many of the incidents he tells of (and several others he doesn’t mention). For me, it is a bittersweet reminder of the history of my own life in motor sports. Reading this book brought back memories of my life the last 25+ years.

Some of it is funny. The stories of Emerson Fittipaldi, whom I know very well, really capture who he is and are hilarious. Some of it is sad. There are so many deaths, so many accidents. I admit to breaking down in gut-wrenching sobs during the chapter on Greg Moore. That one touched my husband Chris and me very personally, as Greg was like our son. That was Chris’ team and I had just written a profile of Greg for On Track before he was killed. We were flown to the private funeral in Vancouver, BC. It was one of the toughest times of our lives.

Despite another shunt in nearly every chapter, there are many racing accidents Olvey didn’t cover. He didn’t mention Scott Pruett or Scotty Brayton or Jovie Marcelo or Stan Fox: the list of omissions goes on and on. Most surprisingly, he didn’t mention Nelson Piquet. Surprising because that one shook the motor racing world and because Dr. Trammel, who features so prominently in the book as Olvey’s partner and as the “magician” orthopedist who has reconstructed so many racing drivers he’s lost count, performed another miracle by saving Nelse’s feet. Nelson himself is a miracle in many ways (and I’m not just saying that as someone who used to date him!). If you saw the photos of his car stuffed into the fourth turn wall at Indy, you’d be surprised he has any legs at all!

However, I suppose there was enough death and destruction to satisfy the most morbidly curious racing fan, including me. The book is so engaging and so easy to read (despite abominable punctuation!!!) that I put it down only twice. The first time was early on, because the butcher’s bill became too much, even for me. The second time was after the Greg chapter, when I couldn’t deal with all the painful memories.

Still, it’s such a good tale of an era in racing. At the end of the book, Olvey captures the state of American open wheel racing today very well, without bias. Just as life for all Americans changed after 9/11, so too has motor racing changed.

It all started with “the split” in 1995, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George formed a break-away league, but, as Olvey’s book reminded me, we (CART) remained very strong until about 2001. Then things fell apart. CART is gone, sunk into bankruptcy, resurrected as Champ Car by “the three amigos.” Sadly it’s not the same; it’s a mere shadow of the former glorious racing body.

For anyone interested in the evolution of safety in motor racing, this snapshot in time of CART’s headiest and best years, despite some of the worst tragedies, Olvey’s book is a fantastic read. Everyone applauds the bravery of the drivers. I have long advocated for recognition of the men and women behind the scenes: the mechanics, the support staff and the safety crews. Salut, mon amis!