Ms. Understood

One thing is for sure; Danica Patrick is a household name in America. Those outside of racing have a very basic understanding of her, but even some of the most dedicated fans I have met have only a superficial view of the GoDaddy Girl. This year, Danica announced that she will be retiring from her role as racecar driver, and decided to end her career with one last shot at Victory Lane. They dubbed it the ‘Danica Double.’ Two races: NASCAR’s Daytona 500, and the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Here, she wanted to redeem her reputation, end the doubts of her talent and (maybe) make history. Neither of those races shook out the way she wanted them- 35th at Daytona and a 30th at Indy. As we end the chapter on her racing career, there are still countless misconceptions, false stories and heated arguments involving Danica. At the end of the day, her image is her legacy and things have spiraled out of control, Danica Patrick is gravely misunderstood.

The first thing that Danica haters bring up is the stats. In calling attention to the scoreboard, no, her record is not overwhelmingly impressive. She started her professional racing career in the Formula Atlantic series before moving up in open wheel to IndyCar. She was not the first woman to race in IndyCar, the Indy500, or even be the first female Indy500 Rookie of the Year. Patrick was, however, the first woman to win an IndyCar race at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan back in 2008. To those who say that she won off fuel strategy and thus does not count as a real win…Shut up! That argument is invalid. Every win in modern motorsports has something to do with strategy.

Should Danica Patrick be inducted into the motorsports-based Halls of Fame? If the criterion is based on statistical wins and poles… No. After the 2011 season with Andretti Autosport, Danica took her rising star and sponsorship money and went over to NASCAR. Here, she raced 6 seasons. In that time she scored 7 top 10’s, and 0 top 5 finishes. She is however, the first woman to win a pole in NASCAR and did so for the 2013 Daytona 500. Add that to her 3 poles, 20 top 5’s and 7 podiums in IndyCar she had a somewhat modest career. The numbers are a small blip in the Danica superstardom. As she grew bigger, so did her reputation.

As someone who has personally worked with and in proximity to Danica Patrick, I testify from my own experience that she is perfectly respectful to those around her. The stories I have heard from others say different. I take those with a grain of salt. She is blunt, honest and answers questions thoughtfully. I will say that her patience is very short, but so is her time. Think about what you are going to say to her beforehand, and furthermore, really think about if your question is worth asking. If you have to answer the same question 1,000 times in a season- you would get a little annoyed too.

Danica is also a very public sore loser. When things fall apart on the racetrack, the disappointment radiates off of her. She cares. This should not be a deciding factor in her image. There is something to say about taking defeat with grace and poise, but many great moments in racing have sprung from the heartbreak of losing. A.J. Foyt jumping out of his car on pit lane at the 1982 Indianapolis 500 and beating his Coyote with a hammer. How about later on as a team owner, backhanding Arie Luyendyk on camera after a dispute in Texas in ‘97? Tony Stewart still is not ‘graceful’ when his day goes south nor is Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch or was Mario Andretti in his hayday.

As a young fan, I will never forget the 2008 Indy500 when Ryan Briscoe took Danica out in a pit incident. Danica literally marched down the pit lane to confront her fellow driver. She had to be held back by security. Through racing’s long and heated history, one thing is for sure. Like Foyt, Stewart and countless others: hell hath no fury like an angry racecar driver. She proved to me her true grit that day.

A separation is in order. As frustrating as an on track incident is, drivers still have a role to play with the fans. There have been many a negative stories about Danica in this category as well. I have to chalk some of it up to fans not choosing their time appropriately. There is absolutely no excuse, however, for a driver to be rude to fans. I personally have seen Danica be respectful with her hoards of followers.

Something that Patrick is adamant about is her reputation as a role model. She did not ask for that spotlight. The on track novelty of being a woman in a man’s world has long since worn off. She is first and foremost a driver- that means she is an inspiration to little girls and little boys alike. If she has proved anything in her career, gender does not play a factor.

In the spirit of full-frontal feminism, Danica has harnessed the power of what she brings to the table. A mantra of hers is ‘rock what you got’ – and she has used her differences to market herself. The provocative GoDaddy commercials and racy pictures at the beginning of her career were all a means to an end. It worked. In her book Danica: Crossing the Line she notes that she was in control of her comfort level the whole time. Instead of questioning her path to household fame, maybe ask yourself why there is a demand for cheesecake pictures of her in the first place.

At the end of the day Danica Patrick is only human. She has been faced with an unfair amount of scrutiny and judgment over the years. Be reasonable your expectations. She gets tired of being asked the same regurgitated questions, being forced into a role as the token female, and fighting off the army of liquored up race fans asking for her phone number. As much as we would like to believe that the motorsports community has evolved, racing is still very much a boy’s club. Danica has helped fight that battle, even though she was unfairly drafted into that war. For that, I have the upmost respect for her. She has made her money, and she had the opportunity to do what she loved. Maybe she changed perceptions just a little. She doesn’t care what we think of her. In her last press conference after crashing out on the 68th lap of the Indianapolis 500 with a smile she leaned into the microphone and said to the media: “I will miss you- most of the time. Maybe you’ll miss me a little bit.”

“Reserve is off!”

“Andwearestartingoffattenthousandtenthousand… tenthousanddollARS. Eleven? Eleventhousandelevendthousandd… Twelve! Twelvethousanddollars. Who else? Do I hear thirteen?Thirteenthousand?Thirteenthousand? Once. Twice… One more time… SOLD!”

This constant rhythm of words is pumped through the loudspeakers for hours on end, the cadence of money exchanging hands. This was the sound that I heard going through the tunnel entering the Indiana State Fairgrounds arena. Usually home to the Indianapolis semi-pro hockey team, the building was turned into a auction stage for the week.

The largest touring auction series in the United States, the Mecum show has been coming to Indianapolis for 31 years. They have a total of 14 stops on their tour and touch all corners of the US of A. Every Mecum event is televised live on NBC Sports and it is easy to see the entertainment value.

Mecum proudly states that they have the most stops on their tour; the most collector cars offered at auction, the most cars sold at auction and the most dollar volume of sales.
The Indianapolis stop alone is a six-day extravaganza. They feature 300 cars a day minimum for sale in order to show all 2,000+ lots that have been consigned.

“There are no restrictions,” said a seller named Michael in a vaguely east- coast- style accent. “I make my living selling cars at these things — primarily Volkswagens. That’s my little Bug right there!” Nestled between an impossibly tall 2000s Ford F150 and a brutish 1960s Ford Mustang was his little cherry-red Bug.

“This is my 21st car this weekend for sale. I have sold 13 of da ones I brought. Whatever I don’t sell, we ship home. You see — mine have a reserve.” He leans over and points to a yellow sticker centered at the top of the windshield. “That there means that I, as the teller won’t take home any less than THAT amount. When one of my cars is up for sale, I can stand up there with the auctioneer. If no one is biddin’ at my asking price here, I can give him the nod. That tells him that I’ll take anything for it- just to not have to pack it up and take it home. He tells the crowd that the reserve is off- and the biddin’ really starts.”

Unlike Barrett- Jackson auctions, Mecum does not have any parameters of what types of cars people can put up for sale. No restriction of year, make, model, rarity, or current condition makes for a cornucopia of options. Buyers can be anywhere from the Average Joe who pick up a car for fun, to serious collectors looking for diamonds. Sit in the auction arena for 20 minutes and you will see a varied array of items come up for bid and hundreds of thousands of dollars- if not millions- change hands.

Part of the excitement comes from the randomness of what is put up for sale. “Sellers pick which stop they want to sell at based on the market of that city,” explained one of the traveling Mecum security staff. “Trucks you want to sell at the Kansas City or the Houston stops. Exotics go better in LA or Kissimmee (FL).”

Sellers can put one lot up for sale or many. The collection that captured my attention was the Jim Street Estate.

James Skonzakes, better known by the moniker Jim Street, bankrolled the legendary car customizer George Barris to make a dream car in the early 1950s. The ultimate result was the Golden Sahara II. After the second round of modifications, Street invested over $75,000 (equivalent to $675,000+ today) in this technological masterpiece. Street used it as a marketing tool and lent the Golden Sahara II to motor events and dealerships to show off the car’s new- age voice control system, remotes that could drive the car and even the self- driving feature. This must have melted the minds of onlookers back in the mid 50’s. Unexpectedly pulled from the show circuit and stashed in a garage for decades, the Golden Sahara II fell into a state of disrepair.

If that piece of rolling art was not enough to capture the imagination, the other lot in the Jim Street Estate collection was “Kookie’s Kar.” Hailed as the “catalyst that started the T-Bucket Craze” this car is the definition of a classic hot rod. You might have heard of it from the TV show “77 Sunset Strip” though it has undergone an extensive re-customization since then. Also stashed from public eyes for decades, both lots were put up for bid with no reserve to begin with- it would be completely at the digression to the pool of buyers what they wanted to pay for it. Estimates were between $100,000 – $1.2 million each. It all depends on who has the money and how bad they want to take either car home.

Though the lineup of cars is seemingly random, it is clear that Saturday’s lots are the top shelf items. A collection of Ford GTs, a group of cars being sold by baseball icon Reggie Jackson and others will join the Golden Sahara II and Kookie’s Kar.

Cars are displayed in groups organized by which day they will be put up for sale. In the morning they are rolled to a big screening / staging area where buyers and people representing buyers give the cars one last look over.

“I call them Flashlight Commandos” laughs Michael, “likely is that if their boss wants my car, they will have picked it out in the catalog already and they are making sure that it doesn’t leak or nothin’.”

Once past staging, the car is driven up to the queue and given a last wipe down. The handlers cut the engine and manually push it on stage. All the while, an auctioneer is hammering words a mile a minute until it is time.

“Okayfolks. ABeetle. ABeetle. LotW201.” The auctioneer lists the car’s stats, make, model, and asking price then recites the bill of sale in one breath. The bidding starts. Teams of Mecum employees are dispersed throughout the crowd of bidders. Referred to as Ringmen, they are in charge of relaying if someone in their section wants to place a bid. To alert the auctioneer when they have an interested buyer, the Ringmen holds up fingers to represent how many thousand dollars and gives a short yell. Every time a desirable car is on the auction block, these Ringmen sound like a chorus of squawking birds until the price is driven up to draw out the top buyer.

“Once. Twice. SOLD!” The auctioneer hammers down their gavel and the Ringmen let out another shout to celebrate the fact that they just sold another car. If a lot is not desirable, the seller can give notice to take off the reserve price then the crowd practically falls over themselves to get the car at the lowest price possible. This happens for hours on end without let up. The energy level is incredible, and it is hard to understand without being there in person. Auctioneers are the ringmasters but the Ringmen run the show.

As I exit through the tunnel on my way out, the auctioneer is still drumming up the crowd. “What is that?” he yells, “THE RESERVE IS OFF!” I close the door behind me just as I hear a loud cheer from the crowd.

Full Tilt

“I have the sickness,” he said with a smile, pushing his beer back and forth across the polished wood table at the restaurant we met for lunch. “My first Sprint car race was at Terre Haute a long time ago and I was like: ‘WOW, This is really cool.”

The sickness he speaks of is an affinity for racing. Ask a true race fan and they will tell you that the sport gets under your skin, you become addicted to going to the dirt track, the drag strip or anywhere they drop a green flag. Renowned motorsports photographer John Mahoney takes that passion to another level.

Mahoney, a Indiana native, discovered dirt track racing first then graduated on to his first Indy500 in 1955. “I have not missed a ‘500’ since” he states proudly. You might know his name, you might not- but if you follow American open wheel racing at any point in the last 40-odd years, you have undoubtedly seen his work.

Mahoney has photographed the stars of USAC, long before they become stars. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree is psychology and went to work for the state of Indiana. During his studies, he met and befriended an equally well known and talented would- be motorsports photographer Gene Crucean.

“I got my first Press Pass by pretending to write for a fake newspaper.” Mahoney admits wryly. “We called it Northwest News.” It was the mid sixties and he and his first wife had moved to southern California. “We reached out to the track in Sacramento, asking for passes but got no reply. I just wanted to get into the pits for free!” He had Crucean pose as the pretend editor for Northwest News and kept sending in requests. “The weekend of the race I was out in southern California, I was at a hotel- they were always having parties in the hotels- and I ran into JC Agajanian, you know, the promoter for Ascot Speedway. I thought to myself: ‘its now or never’ and walked up to him, saying that I was a writer for Northwest News and we never heard back about credentials. JC said that he had never heard of Northwest News but pulled out a pass from his pocket and gave it to me!” Later on Mahoney got hooked up with a couple legitimate racing publications, his photography flourished and the rest is history.

The camera was merely a means to an end. In order to get in the gate, being a member of the press was an easy and fun way to be close to the action. For John Mahoney, it was his golden ticket. His ex father-in-law was a master in the darkroom and quickly taught young Mahoney the tricks to developing film and printing his own pictures. Many years later at a pivotal point in his career with the Indiana Employment office, Mahoney decided to take make his ever-growing weekend hobby and turn it into his sole career. “It was a risk” he admits, “But it was the right choice.”

Dirt track sprint car and midget racing was, is, and will forever be his favorite. He has had the privilege to work with some of the biggest names around. From Foyt – his personal favorite-, Andretti, Rich Vogler, Bryan Clauson, Tony Stewart, and many more. In the handful of best races he has seen, the Hoosier will list big, local, Indiana races over the decades at the top.

“Some guys says that the ‘good ol days of racing was better- BOLOGNA! Some of the best drivers and racing is happening today!” Though the sport has changed, Mahoney loves it the same as ever. “Yeah the money aspect has changed racing, but the on track skill is as good as it always has been.” He cites the talent of Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell as reference. “THESE at the good ‘ol days!”

Mahoney is constantly asked for photographs for varying projects. Trying to obtain credit for his images is a never-ending battle. He has helped put together a few books on the history of USAC racing and is currently working with Dave Argabright and Pat Sullivan on another. His personal photo collection is featured proudly in “FULL TILT: The Motorsports Photography of John Mahoney” and on his website johnmahoneyphoto.com.

Mahoney, unlike most professional artists- is about as humble as they come. He refuses to admit how influential and important his vast experience is. He also jokes that he has yet to make a good portfolio of racing pictures. His wife, Martha, made a point to pull me aside after our lunch meal. “He is one of the best, no doubt. He will never say it but – if you have seen his work, you know.” Between portraits, actions shots and details of the track — John Mahoney is one of the best visual storytellers in racing. For a career made through the lens of a camera, Mahoney has managed to live his life at the place he loves best and the manner he loves best: at Full Tilt.

House Cleaning

With the turn of the New Year, two women have achieved new roles of substantial power in the motorsports industry. Both will impact the discussion of women in racing as we know it.

The first big announcement was by the FIA. Also known as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, they are the governing body that oversees the racing aspect of Formula 1 and sub divisions among many channels of international motorsports. In December, they appointed a Spaniard by the name of Carmen Jorda to the FIA Women’s Commission.

A ‘test driver’ for the Lotus Formula 1 team, Jorda’s racing resume is not the most impressive. More of a spokesperson, shots of Jorda posing in a driving suit or standing in front of an car holding her helmet are plentiful, but actual driving stats are scarce. In her frustration with the challenges she has faced being a woman in racing, Jorda has decided that the industry is rigged. Her opinion is that her gender will never have a decent opportunity in professional racing and therefore a separate, women’s only series should be created. In an interview with the sanctioning body back in 2015, she stated: “Nowadays you see women competing in their own championships: football, tennis, skiing – you name it – and in none of these championships are men and women competing against each other. So the question is: why not have a F1 world championship for women?”

Former CEO of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone not only agreed with this thought, but openly contested the role of women in motorsports in general. He has even gone as far as to say that women “should not be taken seriously” in F1 and that “they physically cannot drive a car as fast.” Though in 2000 Eccelstone went as far to share his vision with Autosport racing magazine, saying that if a woman did make it in Formula 1, “What I would really like to see happen is to find the right girl, perhaps a black girl with super looks, preferably Jewish or Muslim, who speaks Spanish.” Clearly as Ecclestone saw it, women in this industry are merely present for visual appeal and to be used as a marketing tool.

This segregation that Jorda speaks of only further feeds the divide. Not only would pulling in sponsors be an issue for a separate female series, but it eliminates one of the biggest appeals of motor racing- equality. When competing for the Champion of the World, all drivers should have the chance to Just be drivers. A women’s only series limits the winner to be the champion only amongst women. This takes a step backwards from the groundwork that predecessors have fought every inch for.

Possibly, unbeknownst to Jorda, she is the Achilles heel to her own cause. By posing for photo shoots she has turned herself into a marketing ploy. Yes, it has gained her access to one of the biggest boy’s clubs in the sporting world, but at the cost of being taken seriously as a competitor. In her new role on the Women’s Commission, it is her responsibility to now uphold the reputation of her gender in the most historically scrutinized form of racing. Here lies the concern.

Jorda’s appointment sparked outrage across social media platforms, particularly from women in the industry. One of the hardest-hitting tweet responses was from an engineer by the name of Leena Gade:

“I chose to compete in a man’s world, like so many other women in countless motorsport roles. WE want to be the best against males & females. Can’t do that? Play another game.”

In early January, Schmidt Peterson racing announced Gade as the first female head engineer in Indy Car series history. This appointment goes in the opposite direction from Jorda’s.

Leena Grade’s race engineering resume is a perfect example that women can share the podium with men. Biggest accomplishments to date include her three 24- hour Le Mans wins, one of which she was subsequently awarded the FIA World Endurance Championship ‘Man of the Year’ award. Gade is quick to say that she is also on the FIA Women’s Commission and hopes to negate the thought of a separate women’s division in racing.

The tides are changing in the motorsports world. This is a topic that is very personal to me as a young woman stepping into this industry. The days of these sexist ideals are on the way out. Liberty Media announced in early February that Grid Girls in Formula 1 are going the way of the dodo as well. This removal, I believe, is a positive one. I agree with Carmen Jorda that women have not have not had a fair shake in racing. I also believe, however, that this fight is also an uphill battle to reprogram societal norms. It is not easy – but retreating to a separate series takes away just how big of an accomplishment an appointment like Leena Gade’s is.

Drivers like Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Lella Lombardi, Maria Teresa de Filippis, the Force sisters, Simona de Silvestro, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge, Pippa Mann and dozens of others serve as reference material, a testament that women have and will have a place in the top tier of motorsports. As Ecclestone once stated: “women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances.” If you truly believe that Mr. Ecclestone, then it is high-time for us clean house.

The Cutting Edge

“I love this show” says Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian, Donald Davidson. “Everyone that you see, aisle after aisle, booth after booth. Everyone that you see is employed in motorsports. You wouldn’t believe how big it is.” Draped in respect from his peers, the humble racing expert cannot walk more than a couple paces without someone recognizing him. They grab his arms, his jacket, a celebrity based on knowledge. Davidson is one of thousands of racing enthusiasts that flock to the downtown convention center in Indianapolis for the Performance Racing Industry, or PRI show. Though Davidson doesn’t merely attend the show, he is an esteemed guest. He was invited to speak about the four A.J. Foyt Indy 500 winning cars on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum booth adjacent to the main thoroughfare. Groups of onlookers gather as the interviewer sets up a professional camera and lights. They listen, eager to hear a tidbit from the Grand Master himself.

Happenings like this occur all over the 3,400-booth showroom floor. Sister event to the SEMA show, the PRI show celebrated its 30th birthday this year. Unlike SEMA, PRI is focused specifically on auto racing. For one weekend in December, this is the center of the racing world.
No one gets into the racing industry by accident. Walking through the aisles, anyone can see that this is a passion-based profession. Booth topics go from shock absorbers to exhaust systems, brake pads, chassis, racing sanctioning bodies and publications. Seminars go on in the morning, hosted by trendsetters and industry leaders. Some are as technical as “Battery, Cranking & Charging System Myths Explained!” While others focus on the human element like “Derek Daly Academy Driver Development Seminar.”

Professionals, team owners, drivers, and engineers are invited. This is not an event open to the public until the last day. In more recent years, both PRI and SEMA have put a larger emphasis on educational development. By investing in college-age students, they are keeping the industry alive and evolving. My personal favorite example of such student/corporate partnership was a virtual reality prototype introduced to me by a student that I happened to meet in the Online Resources booth.

He introduced himself as Taylor, the lead Project Manager for the IU School of Informatics and Computing on the Augmented Reality application presented in front of us. A college student with one of the coolest homework projects I have ever heard of, he pointed to the 1958 Monza 500 winning Indy Roadster and explained. “Me and a team of students worked on this all semester. We made a digital 3D model of the engine.” Holding up an iPad to the Race of Two Worlds Champion, a digital model of the car’s engine appeared on the screen. As you moved left and right, the digital rendering followed, changing perspective. “You can use this technology to create a living dictionary of engines,” he said. With more time and resources, applications like this can be used to peel away components to virtually look into the inner workings of just about anything. Motorsports is just one application of such a program. Students like Taylor are doing research like this all over the world to further development in everything from engineering to biology. This is just the beginning.

As big as the PRI show is, it comes nowhere close to the notoriety that SEMA earns, and I think it should. Though it is not as physically big as SEMA, the PRI show should be a MUST ATTEND for anyone that aspires to work in racing. Simply being there can be educational in every definition of the word. You never know who you are going to meet, what you are going to learn or what connections you can make. The PRI show displays the cutting edge of what is happening now in the racing industry. Mark your calendars for next year. The PRI show returns December 6-8 2018.

Winner, Winner, Turkey Dinner

Christopher Bell wins the 77th running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura Raceway

Motorsports is steeped in tradition. Driver lineages, rituals, and yearly challenges are defining landmarks through racing’s past. In racing, prestige comes with age. The Daytona 500? 58 years old, Knoxville Nationals? Also 58. Chili Bowl Nationals? 30 years. Besides Racing’s Greatest Spectacle, the Indianapolis 500- that just checked off 106 years old and 101 runnings last May, the Turkey Night Grand Prix is one of the oldest marquees in motorsports.

For 77 years this race has been a Thanksgiving tradition in the southern tracks of California. The winner list reads like a who’s who of open wheel of racing history. Bill Vukovich, Johnnie Parsons, Tony and Gary Bettenhausen, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bryan Clauson and Tony Stewart are only some of the familiar names that are engraved into the famous ‘Aggie’ trophy.
Though not the originator of Turkey Night, the late J.C. Agajanian was a big promoter and proponent of the history of the event. Since his passing in 1984, J.C. Agajanian Jr. and family have done their best to keep Turkey Night alive in his father’s honor. “You know I have gone to Turkey Night my entire life,” laughed J.C. Jr., “I started out selling programs… I have only missed a handful in my life. Some of the best drivers in the world have raced here- (tonight) is some of the best talent that we have ever had!”
The inaugural race was held at Gilmore Stadium in 1934 and lived there until 1950. In 1960 Turkey Night was hosted at Agajanian’s famous Ascot Park for the first time. Thirty years later, the 50th annual Turkey Night Grand Prix became the last of more than 5,000 main events held since the track opened. The gates were closed the next day, the track destroyed to make way for a failed development project. The Thanksgiving tradition lived on, bouncing between dirt and pavement tracks alike before landing at Ventura Speedway in 2016.

“We normally get maybe 12- 16 cars for our regular program,” explained a local race fan named Sherry. “This is a big deal for us!”
Shane Golobic from Fremont, CA driving the No. 17w Clauson-Marshall/ Wood car led the field of 52 midgets in practice on Wednesday night before the big show, but reigning Turkey Night champion and Elk Grove, CA native, Kyle Larson, topped out qualifying.

Though Larson has recently reached mainstream recognition for his talents in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series, his roots are in open wheel dirt track racing. “Coming back to dirt is like riding a bike,” says Larson.  A daring competitor, he is known for his hair-raising strategy of working the high line around the track. Though he put up a valiant fight, it was Norman, OK native Christopher Bell that took home the trophy at the end of the night.

Though the box score only counts three official lead changes between Larson and Bell, it is not indicative of the battle fought. The two sea- sawed from the very beginning, trading point multiple times within each lap. At one time Larson swept his No. 1 Kunz/Curb-Agajanian- racer around the outside of Bell’s No.21 Kunz/Curb-Agajanian car going down the front straightaway, daring Bell to find a new line. Immediately through turn 1, Bell fired back by impossibly finding grip higher on the groove.
A couple of yellows slowed down the pace and bunched the cars back up. Bell held off Larson on every restart, high low and in between. You could throw a blanket over the two right down to the end of the 98th and final lap. Golobic closed the gap in the last two turns and finished third. Bell crossed the line .193 seconds before Larson.

Bell has had an exceptional 2017 campaign, racing — and winning — in the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck series, and taking home a Golden Digger from the 2017 Chili Bowl Nationals. Turkey Night is just the whip cream on Bell’s already impressive launch into the higher levels of professional racing. At 22 years old, Bell is following the projection of Larson, Jeff Gordon and other open wheel hotshots.

“Did you guys have as much fun as I did?”  Bell asked the crowd after getting out of the car. The packed grandstands roared in return. As far as traditions go, this one is well worth pulling up a chair to. It is always a feast of talent.

Tricky Maneuvers

It was in thick and anxious anticipation that I waited for my press credential clearance for the Red Bull Air Races. Their second year being held in a hover over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this was a great opportunity to take a new angle of attack on a sport and facility that I have become comfortable with.

This degree of motorsport is yet another marginal hue according to the United States demographic. Internationally however, the Red Bull Air Race Championship has been flying high for eleven years. Similar in tone to Formula 1, the Air Race Championship frequents exciting and affluent cities all over the world. Before hosting their series finale at Indy, the pilots had already put on a dazzling display in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Russia, Hungary, Portugal, and Germany and did a fly- by off the beaches of San Diego. Indy is far from the most populated event, though with a few more years of traction, and a prayer for good weather, it could be.

Finally, with email confirmation in hand, I ran down to the offices that are kiddy corner to the famed Speedway. Upon entering, I noticed a dramatic shift. All of the credential girls had turned into 50’s-inspired flight attendants. (EXP WHAT IT LOOKED BEFORE) In the spirit of branding domination, Red Bull converted both the credentials office and the media center into lux cocktail lounges. Complete with potted plants, huge translucent murals on the glass walls, and more helpful stewardesses, the place was almost unrecognizable.

This is precisely why I wanted to see this spectacle. Where the Indianapolis 500 is steeped in history and fans, this over-the-top effort to make an impression through details is a different approach to this facility.

Last year, both classes of planes put on a great show. In the title series, referred to as the Master Class, a German pilot by the name of Matthias Dolderer was handed the win and championship with one more event to go. This time around it was mathematically down to a handful of pilots, whomever won the race would take home the prize.

With the sun shining and the wind low, it was considered ‘perfect flying condition’ by most of the pilots. One- by- one they zipped through the puffy nylon pylons. Each run required three trips through the course before loop–da–looping around and starting the circuit again. The name of the game is to complete the task as perfect as possible. Penalties take form as additional time added to the run. These penalties can be for clipping a pylon, not going though the two- pylon gates in a horizontal fashion, flying too low in the course or flying too high in the course, pulling too many g’s on the loop and others.

In short- not just any pilot have the skill to do this. The Red Bull series itself knows the level of competency needed and hand picks the pilots to compete. This is very different from most motorsports where drivers show up with their bag of cash from sponsors and deals with a team. Here, Red Bull assigns the pilots to the stables and hooks sponsorships on their own. Everybody gets a slice of the pie.

A mechanic who was dutifully buffing his plane broke all of this down to me. “Each plane has one man. I am the man for this plane,” he said wearily. “We ship the planes from one country to the next, then assemble them close to port. They fly them to the track.” He said.

“So you have to completely disassemble their plane between races?” I asked. “Yes” he sighed “we pretty much rebuild them from the ground up overnight.” It was no wonder why this gentleman looked exhausted.

Even though the weather was shockingly beautiful for qualifying, a cold, harsh rain set in for race morning. The officials called off the support series, named the Challenger Class, and the qualifying order from the day before stood as results. This made French born Melanie Astles the first woman to win a major event in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track history. “I am glad that I won here at Indy,” she said “but I do my best flying in the rain and in the wind. I was looking forward to going out there today and showing my best, but I am still happy with the result.” She said.

With one eye on the radar, Flight Control opted for a later start time for the Master Class. Unlike other events held at IMS, the Red Bull Air Races continue rain or shine- the heavier deciding factor being wind speed. The blustering breeze made the pylons dance all morning.

While waiting for the weather to clear, the pilots stationed at the front of their hangars to do interviews with media, talk with sponsor guests, and interact with fans. One of the front -runners for the series title, Japanese team Falken pilot Yoshi Muroya even hosted a special guest. 2017 Indy500 Champion and fellow countryman, Takuma Sato was close by all weekend.
Another contender for the race win and series crown was a veteran of the sport, American, Kirby Chambliss. “I have logged over 27,000 hours (of flight),” he said “that’s like taking off and landing four years later.”

After the gaggle of fans continued on, Chambliss rolled his Red Bull-spangled plane to the front of the hangar and grabbed an armful of tall, thin energy drink cans. I watched as he methodically set them up around the open floor area. Glancing up, he felt the need to explain the method to his madness. “This is my test track,” he motioned. “I like the flight simulator fine, but this just helps me picture what I need to do out there better.” Carefully, the two- time World Champion demonstrated the path he would take around the big course outside by using his hand to simulate the plane. After a couple of circuits he explained how the day was going go.

After each pilot takes a qualifying time, the Master Class grid is set. Much like drag racing, two pilots are slotted against each other. The better time moves on to the next round. They go from 14 pilots, to 8, then move on to 4. The last round is a shootout, best time takes all.

The wind and mist carried on throughout the rounds. Late in the previous day, the race officials made it clear that clipping a pylon, whether it was moved by the wind or not, would result in immediate disqualification. A few would be knocked out of the running by this rule enforcement, including Chambliss.

Muroya set the bar high out the gate with a new track record of 1min 03.026 seconds, which no one could touch. It came down to he and the Czechoslovakian, Martin Sonaka in the Red Bull colors. Leading the points going into this final round of battle, not only was the race win, but also the series championship was at stake. The fatal flaw of a missed vertical maneuver added four seconds to Sonaka’s time, and he could not recover. This handed the win and crown to Muroya, making him the first Japanese pilot to win a championship in series history.

Amongst screams and jubilation, Takuma Sato appeared in Victory Circle to congratulate his friend. Only four points granted Muroya the series championship, and mere seconds gave him the opportunity to kiss the bricks at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We love this sport,” said an Air Race fan by the name Jim. He and his wife had avidly followed the series for years, and had the helmet full of notable signatures to prove it. “We don’t like any other organized sports. If you can’t get killed in the stands, then it is not exciting enough for me. We are from San Diego and saw them on their way out here. This is our first time in Indy!” When asked if he would come back for the already- promised Red Bull Air Race in 2018, he was quick to reply “Absolutely.”

AMATEUR HOUR: A day’s log of the SCCA Runoffs

The Sports Car Club of America is the largest operating racing sanctioning body in the United States. Making up 116 regions and over 67,500 registered racers, the whole schema surmounts to their big event: The Runoffs. Every season the Runoffs is hosted by a different track. This year, they added the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the rotation- Pulling an unprecedented 969 entries from around the country. The entire 1,025-acre facility was filled to the brim with Miatas, Spec Racing Fords, Formula cars, GTs, and others.

For a large majority, this is their first time at the famed raceway, and the significance was not lost. You must qualify in order to participate in this event, and for most, that road is steeped with tough competition. It is an honor simply to start the main race for each class. Over a week of qualifying and pre-races boil each class down to at most 72 cars.

The challenge in covering this event is the magnitude. This whole experience was huge. Not in the way that the Indianapolis 500 is, but in trying to wrangle the all of the details, I found my mind swimming. Instead of a race report or traditional driver feature, I set myself adrift through the pits to discover. In this, I met some very interesting people, came across some strange pit stall decorations, and learned a lot about the world of SCCA racing. Here is a log of my day in the ocean of SCCA.

10:35 am
Arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway greeted by a yellow shirt and the familiar drone of cars on track. One of the last-chance races was already underway.

10:45 am
Keep the party going.

11:16 am

After fighting the stream of cars, motor homes, and people, I located the crew that had adopted me from the week. We set off for high ground to watch their last driver compete in the next race.

11:45 am
Tucked into the breezy shade of the inside grandstands deep in turn 4, the 72 car Gen 3 Spec Racing Ford field is set for green. I have never seen so many cars on track at once.

12:35 pm
The race concluded with few issues. Our competitor fought valiantly, improving eighteen positions to finish 46th in the official results. In celebration upon us all reuniting in the pits, one of the crew members yells the mantra/battle cry for the week: “It’s F**KING INDY!”

1:00 pm
While perusing the many speedway souvenir shops in search for a gift to give his generous sponsors, my study for the week is a driver by the name of Connor Solis from the San Francisco region. Aspiring to professional levels of competition, Solis came to his first Runoffs with a destination in mind. “Indy, of course, is significant, but my goal this year was the Runoffs no matter where it went.” he said, “I want to race in IMSA or the Pirelli World Challenge someday.” He is not alone in this crowd; SCCA provides a greater platform and feeder system to the major leagues. Finishing 7th among the fifty entries in his class, Solis walked away from the Runoffs with new contacts and an impressive new point added to his racing resume.

1:32 pm
I found the unicorn pit.

1:45 pm
Drivers Amy Mills and Whitfield Gregg from the New York district explain to me why they participate in the SCCA. “It’s a hobby,” says Gregg. “Racing is just for bragging rights. The SCCA will just give you a trophy; a sponsor might award you tires or something for winning… Some people golf for fun- we do this.” Mills was the only female driver racing a Spec Miata. “I am most proud of being a woman out there in my class and being respected as just another driver,” she said. “Amateur doesn’t mean bad driver, there is some really great competition out there.”

2:30 pm
A home away from home for the week, many teams find ways to make their pits comfortable. In walking though the stalls close to the Pagoda I found this one that featured what appeared to be pictures of previous wins and inspirational quotes from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. “If you ain’t first, you’re last!”

3:05 pm
I love that rumbling noise of the cars as they glide under the tunnel that connects pit lane to Gasoline Alley.

4:15 pm
Time for a quick nap.

4:45 pm
Ran into Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles out enjoying the race weekend. “I am always out here,” he grinned as the Prototype race came down for the green.

5:10 pm
The view peeking through the sky bridge above the back straightaway over the 15-turn, 2.592-mile road course.

5:42 pm
Came across the most elaborate pit set up around. Complete with inflatable furniture, party lights, and a full-sized doughboy pool, this crew from Jupiter, Florida was camping in style. “The pool came in real handy when it was muggy earlier this week,” laughed driver John Kauffman, “as it started to cool down in the evenings, we are trying to find a way to heat it like a hot tub!” Their efforts were apparently unsuccessful.

6:01 pm
This Mustang, like most other cars and pits, were tucked in for the night. Ready for the long trek home to every corner of the United States, and awaiting next year’s Runoffs that will be held at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California.

Fire Breathing Monsters

As a journalist that has spent time around a lot of different forms of racing, I thoroughly enjoyed my maiden voyage into the realm of drag racing. I would best describe the tone of the NHRA Drag Race Nationals as amusingly eccentric.

The car/sponsor regalia is as loud as the cars themselves. The drivers openly make quips at each other during grid interviews and the announcers were at an impossibly high energy level all day long. No one takes themselves too seriously.

That is not to the disservice to the drivers or crews who are focused and working really hard, or to the fans that are passionate about this form of the sport. I mean to describe the feeling in the air. This event was fun. All of the fans – and there were a lot of them – had smiles on their faces and truly enjoyed every minute.

The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals held in Indianapolis are the biggest six days in the drag racing world. “This is our Super Bowl. This is our Daytona or Indy 500,” said a fan that drove from three states over for the weekend. “I come every year! We can tell you everything that y’all need to know.” In a thick southern drawl he did his best to explain the ins and outs of the event and series to me. Here is what we learned:

 

» The Mello Yello NHRA series includes a couple breeds of cars; Top Fuel, that are shaped long and skinny, and Funny Cars, that are shorter and are meant to resemble street cars. Both are considered the elite of the drag racing pyramid.

» Top Fuel cars and Funny Cars produce an estimated 10,000 horsepower each — which is more than ten current NASCAR Cup cars combined.

» Success is measured in absolute speed and how quick drivers can complete a ¼ of a mile. Both variations comfortably break 300 mph.

» Top Fuel and Funny Cars burn nitro methane, at roughly 11 gallons per second and produce G forces similar to a space shuttle launch. Bright flames shoot out the sides of the car. It’s visually spectacular.

» Lastly, and most importantly, always always always bring earplugs. The mere sound of the engines produce decibels so loud that they can only be measured on the Richter scale. That’s right, each run that these dragsters make are roughly equivalent to an earthquake. To further illustrate this point, my new drag racing friend told me to watch closely during the next drive by. About 100 yards from the racing surface, the unobstructed sound waves rattled his full beer cup about four inches across the metal table. I can see why people are hooked on this stuff.

 

 

“You know how you know the real fans?” he drawled. (I shook my head) “The Nitro eyes.” Evidently, it is a common practice for the more committed enthusiasts to rush up to the pit entrances when the teams fire the cars up. They then stare deep down the fiery throats of the beasts, the breath from the engine ripping the caps off their heads. A bluey haze burps and engulfs the fans, burning the air they are breathing. As the engine is cut and the roar dies, everybody coughs until their brains retract from the edge of asphyxiation. I tried it once. It was not my favorite aspect of the sport. The true diehards go from tent to tent performing this ritual until their cheeks are blistered, facial hair scorched and matted, and their eyes are a (Mello) yellow color.

The races themselves are run in short bursts, two cars at a time. The Nationals determine who is in the chase for the championship; so all teams aim to make a strong impression. After five rounds of qualifying, the eighteen Top Fuel competitors were matched up for the ‘elimination’ rounds. Each round narrowed the field; eight cars, four cars, two cars. The final showdown was between Steve Torrence in the CAPCO Contractors car in the left lane and Kebin Kinsley in the Road Rage Fuel Booster racer on the right. Off the line, Kinsley lost his grip and Torrence was crowned the weekend champion for the Top Fuel guys. “We have had a lot of success at Indy but have never been able to close the deal” said Torrence after. “It was one of the proudest days in my career.”

On the Funny Car side of things, fourteen competitors followed the same format. The last round of two starred J.R. Todd in the DHL car on the left and Ron Capps in the NAPA Auto Parts car on the right. They battled off the line and down the strip. Todd prevailed by .0297 seconds over Capps, equating to roughly 14 feet of victory. “I knew we were going to go out there and throw down,” said Todd. “I could not believe that win light came on.”

I went home from the event with my head in a daze and my ears ringing, trying to wrap my head around what I had just experienced. How could the family of motorsports have such variation from one discipline of racing to another? In debriefing my roommates (who are utterly unfamiliar with the racing world) of this event, they asked what the cars were like. The true description from the track announcers rang clear in my brain. “Well,” I said, “These cars are fire breathing monsters.”

 

A Whole Other Animal

“How do we describe Global Rally at it’s simplest form? Crazy cars that drive over jumps, handle gravel, dirt and pavement sections. A lot of action.”
Oliver Eriksson driving the RedBull sponsored Honda Civic.

Those words rang in my ears as I looked around the Lucas Oil Speedway- Red Bull Global Rally cross hybrid track. What exactly was I looking at? The guest sanctioning body took the basic .686 mile pavement oval and made some additions. Instead of turn two, the Rally cars would cut through a dirt chicane out in the infield and over a large gravel jump laid adjacent to start/finish, and loop around in a mud puddle before rejoining the pavement course between turns three and four. Sitting on a grassy knoll, surveying the scene in front of me I realized that this adaptation of auto racing was both vaguely similar and completely different.

In this version of racing, a fast start is key. Each race lasts roughly 10 minutes depending on the course. The race weekend schedule is littered with a bunch of these short sprints, each finish designating points to set up the main event. That being said, the race weekend is extremely laid back. Two days of racing equates to maybe six or eight shorts bursts of competition by the title series, called ‘Super Cars’ followed by a development group referred to as the ‘Lights.’ In all, there is a lot of flexibility in the schedules, fostering a laid back and casual atmosphere around the track.

The only the pit crews seem to be flung into a frenzy. This style of racing is so rough on the cars that a lot needs to be cleaned, replaced and monitored between each bout. Once the car comes zipping in off of the track, it is immediately propped up on jacks, the hood is flown open, and a little army of technicians descend on the race-fresh vehicle. Quick engine changes are common and each crewman has to have hustle in their job description.

The Red Bull Global Rallycross series has twelve races, most of them in the United States. Each course is made- to order for race weekend, each having a completely different layout and challenges. A few elements are consistent. The track must have pavement and dirt, all must have a jump of some kind and all must involve what the series refers to as a ‘Joker.’

A Joker is an addition on the racecourse that every driver must take once in each race. They are not allowed to take this route on the first lap, but they can take it only once per round. Sometimes the course is designed so that the Joker is a short cut, and sometimes the Joker is the long way around. The key is taking the Joker lap to strategy.

In the main event that I attended, the Supercar winner, Scott Speed driving the Olberto sponsored Volkswagen Bug for Andretti Autosport took the Joker when he was comfortably out front so that the long lag time did not affect his position. His teammate, Tanner Foust in the Rockstar Energy Drink Volkswagen Bug finished second and Steve Arpin in the Lorenbro motorsports Derive Efficiency Ford Fiesta rounded out the podium.

Upon celebrating in Winner’s Circle, it was clear that the series focused on the younger fans. After the traditional podium pictures and champagne fight, the drivers invited all of the kids to come up on stage and have their photo taken. Shortly thereafter, each of the podium winners spent as long as needed in order to sign every autograph and take every picture requested. This time is not a luxury in other styles of racing and I personally think that this attention to the younger demographic is what is fueling the sport’s popularity. Admission cheap, the racing is fast and the pits are open to anyone that bought a ticket to the show. The drivers are diverse, young and often very accessible.

“Global Rallycross is so different to what usually comes around here.” Commented Sebastian Eriksson (no relation to Oliver Eriksson) driving the other Team Red Bull sponsored Honda Civic. “I think it is fun for the fans to see something different. They seem to enjoy it very much.”