Fifteen Years after Fontana

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Motorsport is a cruel game that has left so many unfinished stories abruptly cut off before they ever really get good. Too many of them, in fact. But the fatal accident that claimed the life of Greg Moore fifteen years ago is one that leaves a profound, gaping void in the world of racing that is still felt today.

I touched on this briefly in my article written shortly after the Japanese Grand Prix and the near-fatal accident of Jules Bianchi. I never saw Greg Moore’s fatal crash. In fact, that was a year where I’d kind of lost interest in racing. As a child, I was a young kid of many aptitudes. That year, it just so happened that it was baseball and video games and professional wrestling. That year, racing had to go to the back-burner. Anyway, it turns out that I was out trick-or-treating with my mother the afternoon and evening of October 31st, 1999. The afternoon and evening in which Moore, starting his final race with Forsythe Racing after four seasons, spun his car at the exit of Turn 2 of what is now called Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, and at high speed, flipped violently and slammed into the inside-retaining wall, causing instantly fatal head and chest injuries. Greg Moore was only 24 years of age. The race continued on as if nothing had happened, even after his death was announced before half-distance. For most, including race winner Adrian Fernandez, now regrettably a winner of two races marred by the death of a fellow competitor, and newly-crowned rookie champion Juan Pablo Montoya, the news of Moore’s death was not broken to them until after the advertised 500-mile distance of the season finale at Fontana was complete.

I was lucky I wasn’t able to watch that. Instead, I decided to go out, around the neighborhood, seeing friends and neighbors as I walked around asking for candy in a silly costume. The privilege of youthful innocence. But eventually, I learned that Greg Moore had passed away. And not on SportsCenter or RPM2Night or the CNN Evening News. I was getting a haircut when I flipped through an issue of Automobile Magazine and got to a full-page spread that chronicled the year in racing in 1999. And towards the end, or at the end, a blurb appeared that kind of stunned me: “October: Racing World Loses Greg Moore.” As a kid, my first thought was that he’d just retired at the young age of 24 to do something else. Then the awful reality crept in of what that phrase actually meant. Greg Moore was gone. This was a driver I knew in the few years that I’d been watching CART, in its 1990s glory years. “That shouldn’t happen to a driver like him,” I thought.

The first racing fatality I can remember was that of Scott Brayton during practice in the 1996 Indianapolis 500. But I didn’t really know who Scott Brayton was. I didn’t know about his decade and a half as an Indycar journeyman from Boulder, Colorado, nor about the fact that he was the polesitter for that Indy 500 and the one the year before, nor about his status as the veteran face of the newly-created Indy Racing League, which I didn’t even know was a thing that existed at the time. All I knew was that he was somebody that was killed leading up to the Indianapolis 500. It was kind of sad, but it didn’t really affect me emotionally at the time.  That issue of Automobile was written before the staff could do a full tribute to Moore, but with enough time to memorialize Gonzalo Rodriguez, the 27-year-old Uruguayan rookie who had dazzled the international racing world in International Formula 3000, came over to CART on a partial schedule for Penske Racing, but was then killed in a grotesque practice crash at Laguna Seca. I didn’t learn about just how talented Rodriguez was until maybe…well, sadly enough, this year, the fifteenth anniversary of his passing. So while that was also sad, it wasn’t really a huge shock.

But Greg Moore was a name and a face that I’d recognized that wasn’t there any more. And that, I believe, was the moment, in the barber shop waiting for my haircut, when I really learned about how dangerous this racing thing really is. In addition to feeling the first glancing blow of heartache that now comes to me every time a prominent racing driver is killed or gravely injured.

Moore’s death fifteen years ago today is one that is the centerpiece of a web of tragedy, avoidable circumstances, and events that took place after his death that, if he had not died, would have drastically altered the entire landscape of motorsport as we know it today, from October 31st, 1999 all the way to October 31st, 2014. Continue reading “Fifteen Years after Fontana”

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The Importance of Qualifying

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Intra-team qualifying statistics have become the new measuring stick of evaluating Formula 1 talent beyond the basic statistics many racing fans are used to – wins, points, podiums, etc. And the basic stat of how many times a driver has qualified ahead of their teammate over the course of a season is actually pretty easy for the average fan to understand.

Sure, there are no points to be paid on Saturday qualifying sessions. And, yes, there are renowned and respected World Champion drivers in the history of Formula 1 who have a reputation of being much better racers than qualifiers. Alain Prost is the best-known example of such a driver, even though he was by absolutely no stretch of the imagination a sub-par qualifier over the course of his career. So is Jenson Button, who has not won a season-long qualifying battle versus a teammate since 2009, but has put himself well clear of his younger teammates in the championship the last two seasons. And to be honest, the importance of how many times one driver qualifies ahead of their teammate is greatly reduced the farther up the running order you go. At the end of the day, the only battle between Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton that’ll amount to much this year is the one they’re having for the 2014 World Championship. But not every team in Formula 1 can compete for the championship (certainly not in a Mercedes-dominated season such as this). And below those teams, there are the teams that won’t compete for race wins or podium finishes. And below them, are the teams that need a miracle to finish in the points any given week.

From the infrequent-scoring mid-grid all the way to the very back of the running order is where head-to-head qualifying metrics have the most weight. Because they are the most consistent and reliable method of determining a driver’s pace compared to a teammate in the exact same equipment. Race sessions are affected by so many variables including mechanical attrition, accidents, pit strategy, changing weather conditions, safety car periods, team tactics, lunatics running on track to cause a disruption – that they can produce results that can distort the perception of which driver is truly the more capable of the two over the course of a season. If Driver A of a team outqualifies their teammate Driver B every race but fails to score a point, while in just one of the races Driver B records a points-scoring finish in an attrition-filled race, it is a memorable, gutsy, determined, and hard-fought result…just not a result that truly reflects the difference in pace between Driver A and Driver B.

This is where the head-to-head qualifying results come in. Measuring a driver’s qualifying success rate versus their teammates is a much better method for evaluating the potential and ability of a driver at a team ranked lower than the top handful of teams in the sport. And in most cases, these drivers turn out to go on to great things when a young mid-field driver earns a promotion to a front-running team, or when a young driver at a backmarker team earns a promotion to a mid-field team or even up to a front-runner. It’s also a great tool for evaluating established talent at a team that has dramatically slid down the order over the course of a season.

For the baseball fans who read this, think of a driver’s head-to-head qualifying scores as being similar to a batter’s OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage), which has become a more effective method of measuring a batter’s effectiveness at the plate instead of just going by batting average or total hits in a season. Think of it as the equivalent to a hockey player’s individual Corsi rating, the accumulation of every attempted shot for and against a player while they’re on the ice, which has become a better tool to measure offensive and defensive effectiveness over the heavily team-dependent plus/minus stat. Continue reading “The Importance of Qualifying”

Frustrated Isn’t the Word For It

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The two smallest teams in Formula 1 won’t be in Austin, Texas this weekend. Caterham F1 Team was placed in administration last week, and now today, it has been confirmed that Marussia F1 Team was also placed under administration. For the American reader, think of “administration” as a very kind way of saying what it really means deep down – “bankruptcy”. They’ll miss the United States Grand Prix. They’ll almost surely miss the Brazilian Grand Prix after that, and while they can come back in time for the finale in Abu Dhabi, there is a worrying possibility that neither of these teams will race again.

And it’s made me so extremely upset. Frustrated, even. Actually, no. Frustrated isn’t the word for it.

You see, when most people want to express their outrage at something via a video clip or a reference to a piece of popular performance art, there is one long-standing, dependable source. The rant from fictional news anchor Howard Beale, in the four-time Academy Award-winning film Network. One of the all-time great motion pictures, best remembered for Peter Finch‘s performance as Beale, and his delivery of the famous line, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” For this instance, though, I’ll pull from something slightly more contemporary, and from a much more low-brow form of entertainment: Professional wrestling. From a 1997 episode of WWF Monday Night Raw, after a main-event match in which former champion and long-serving veteran Bret Hart snapped on live television, shoving announcer/owner Vince McMahon to the ring mat and launching into a scathing tirade expressing his frustration with the way his career has progressed in recent months. A tirade that started with his most famous line, which contained just a little bit saltier language:

And that sums up exactly how I feel about the plight of Caterham and Marussia. This is bullshit. Pardon the language. Continue reading “Frustrated Isn’t the Word For It”

FR3.5 Review – Fortec Motorsports: Rowland’s Decisive Qualifying Edge

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Fortec Motorsports once again put on a strong campaign in Formula Renault 3.5 this season. Having seen the likes of Alexander Rossi, Robin Frijns, and Stoffel Vandoorne walk through their paddock as series rookies and immediately put on stellar performances, the team were once again expected to impress after bringing in the Racing Steps Foundation’s top prospect Oliver Rowland to partner second-year driver and current Sauber F1 Team reserve, Sergey Sirotkin.

Carlos Sainz‘s dominance and a smattering of untimely DNFs throughout the season ultimately squashed any chance of either Fortec driver being able to post a serious championship challenge the way that Vandoorne did last season by finishing 2nd to Kevin Magnussen, or Frijns the year before when he won the whole thing. But Fortec just missed out on the Team Championship by three points to DAMS, who accumulated over two-thirds of their points from Sainz’s championship campaign. That’s a testament to a strong organization with two very capable drivers that were, for the most part, very evenly matched. During a qualifying session at Moscow Raceway, Rowland, who finished fourth in the championship, and Sirotkin, who was fifth, were separated in qualifying by just one one-thousandth of a second. The smallest quantifiable margin you could get.

One driver, however, did prove to be decisively more successful than the other in at least one area. I’ll explain. Continue reading “FR3.5 Review – Fortec Motorsports: Rowland’s Decisive Qualifying Edge”

Moments in Time and Tragedy

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I was out grocery shopping one afternoon when I got in line with all my items, pulled out my phone to open Twitter, and was notified of a horrifying accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the one that would claim the life of Dan Wheldon in the 2011 IndyCar Series finale. When Greg Moore perished at what was then known as California Speedway twelve years earlier, I was trick-or-treating with my mother. I wouldn’t even know that Greg Moore was dead until I read about it in a magazine in a barber shop a few months later. I had seen the last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, but when I was told, by my mother who watched the race with me, that seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt was pronounced dead after what looked to be a very ordinary collision, I remember still being in the middle of a game of SSX on the Playstation 2 and then feeling so awful afterwards that I shut the system off and just sat alone in my bedroom for a while.

My mother was driving me to see my father out of state when on the radio, the DJ had relayed the news of the death of Adam Petty in Nascar Grand National Series practice the day before. Adam Petty. He was the 19-year-old, fourth-generation heir to the Petty lineage. I knew him only from the game NASCAR 2000. No way could someone that young die at the wheel, I thought. Even my mother was distraught just on that fact alone. And I was once again in a car, driving to visit my father for the weekend, when two months later, Kenny Irwin Jr. died at the same circuit, on the same corner, in a crash caused by the same mechanical failure and in the same exact model of car. It was the damndest sequence.

I remember being asleep when I learned of the grisly accident that claimed the life of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli. I also slept as Alex Zanardi was nearly killed at the Lausitzring and remembering my 11-year-old brain refusing to accept that he had lost his legs. I slept as Felipe Massa clung to life after being struck in the head by a 60 gram spring at speed five years ago while qualifying in Hungary. Slept when popular WRC co-driver Michael Park was killed at the Wales Rally GB in 2005. I was not asleep after the 2007 Belgian Grand Prix, when SPEED announcer Bob Varsha announced that a helicopter registered to Colin McRae had crashed and killed all four passengers aboard, and then later learned that the passengers were McRae, his son, and two family friends. And I was not asleep – in fact I had just woke up early – to watch the start of last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, when Aston Martin driver Allan Simonsen crashed on lap 2. After initial reports suggested that he was alright, I was devastated to learn that in fact, he had virtually died on impact.

And then, just two months ago, I remember being up on a Saturday night and preparing to watch the Super GT race at Fuji Speedway in August, when word came out that Tony Stewart was involved in a sprint car accident in upstate New York. The accident that claimed the life of young Kevin Ward Jr., in one of the most grisly, appalling, freak accidents that I could imagine. One which tragically brought NASCAR into the front pages of the national news, and for all of the wrong reasons.

If something catastrophically awful has happened in motorsport in the fifteen years that I’ve watched it as often as I could, chances are that if I was lucky enough to have not seen it in person, I can tell you what I was doing instead because the loss or severe injury of an active driver still in the spring of their young lives leaves such a profound, stinging sadness in my heart and overshadows so much else that day.

So, yes, I can tell you what I was doing during the Japanese Grand Prix. I was in bed, under the covers, staying up late, tweeting during the race like so many others – a race that was already a bizarre and eventful affair as the laps wound down. Typhoon warnings, safety car starts, the possibility that the race would be called before full points could be scored, or before a lap was turned at race speed. Fernando Alonso‘s car broke down under a safety car period, to further salt the wounds in what has been a lost final season for the Spaniard at Ferrari. The front-running Mercedes driver for most of the early laps wasn’t Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton, it was Bernd Maylander, the veteran Safety Car driver of Formula One.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened on lap 46. I couldn’t sleep until my body literally would not keep me awake because for an hour after an overnight race that ended at nearly 4:00 AM Eastern Time, all I could do was worry, and hope, and shake, and come close to tears because I feared that I would have just seen the first Formula 1 driver fatality in two decades. And when I finally woke up hours later, I woke up with a chill and a dread in my gut, that when I pulled up Twitter on my phone, I would learn that Jules Bianchi, the driver who sustained severe head injuries on lap 46 of the Japanese Grand Prix, had passed away from his injuries. Instead, I woke to the news that he was alive, but in critical condition. Continue reading “Moments in Time and Tragedy”

Super GT Title Fights: GT300

Yesterday, I outlined the challengers for the GT500 championship in the 2014 Autobacs Super GT Series. Today, I look at Super GT’s second class. The one that has, historically, given us rotary-powered Miatas and AE86 Truenos competing as recently as the year 2000. The one that pits the finest FIA GT3 supercars against the pride of Japan and their purpose-built JAF GT300-spec cars. As mentioned before, there’s only one race remaining after the inaugural event in Thailand at Chang International Circuit on October 5th, and that’s the 250km race at Twin Ring Motegi in November. The weight handicaps have been slashed down to 1kg per point in GT300 as well, and only the top two teams are carrying fuel flow restrictions in addition to the maximum 50kg of lead ballast allowed, which means the championship-contending cars will be able to run closer to flat-out than they were over the summer.

Examining the primary contenders for the GT300 championship begins with a look at the three-headed monster that is BMW’s Super GT effort, which has combined for three victories and takes up three of the top five places in the championship table. They were expected to be strong this season, and my goodness, are they ever.



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Let me go into full nerd mode here for a split second. Hatsune Miku isn’t an anime character. She’s a Vocaloid. It’s a huge difference, y’all.

And once upon a time, the only thing Goodsmile Racing had going for it was the fact that they had Hatsune Miku on the car. Then in 2011, after two otherwise irrelevant campaigns where they were just lucky to make it onto the grid at all for most weekends, the team aligned with Japanese F1 alumni Ukyo Katayama, signed drifter-turned-GT racer Nobuteru Taniguchi, and bought a BMW Z4 GT3 that already won championships in Europe. They dominated the 2011 season with three victories, claiming the title in the process – the first for Taniguchi after nine seasons, the first for BMW as a manufacturer, and the first for an FIA GT3-specification car in the GT300 class. Fast-forward three years, Hatsune Miku is still the team’s title sponsor and mascot and will even be a musical guest on fellow BMW team owner David Letterman‘s Late Show next Wednesday, Goodsmile Racing has split from Studie AG, the outfit with whom they joined forces with to win the championship in 2011, and yet they’re still leading the championship with 56 points and back-to-back victories to open the season at Okayama and Fuji I. Even with a colossal eighty kilogram handicap accumulated in the first two races that weighed them down all summer (which will now be cut to a more manageable 56kg in Thailand) they are still in the lead after adding two top-5 finishes at Fuji II (4th) and a crucial 5th place at Suzuka. Both Taniguchi and co-driver Tatsuya Kataoka are both seeking their second GT300 championships as drivers – Kataoka won his in 2009, driving for Racing Project Bandoh in their famous WedsSport Lexus. Continue reading “Super GT Title Fights: GT300”