What Makes the Monaco Grand Prix So Special?

Monaco has been called the casino capital of the world.  It’s got a lot of wealth squeezed into just 499 acres.  For reference, that’s almost five times the size of Disneyland.  It’s also the oldest circuit of Formula 1, having been a track since 1929.  The route is essentially the same as it was in 1929, which gives you a unique opportunity to see cars with nearly 1000 horsepower blasting around for first place.  It’s also one of the few tracks where race cars get to run through the tight streets of a city.

For those of you who watch motorsports, you’re likely going to agree with me that the reason that people are drifting away from watching various races is that it doesn’t seem as exciting anymore.  I think it has to do with the fact that the tracks are wide (they can usually take well over three cars at even the narrowest corner), and that the cameramen are getting pushed further away from the action.  This last fact might seem trivial and stupid to you, but think about it for a second.  Thanks to GoPros (I have nothing against them), automotive enthusiasts are getting used to punching in a search term into YouTube (again, nothing against it) and seeing POV videos of some motorcyclist or crazy driver blasting their way through traffic.  You can put a GoPro on just about any surface on a car or motorcycle so that everybody can see the action.  That’s all fine and dandy, but we need to do this in the professional racing world.

Many Formula 1 races are actually quite exciting, but they don’t seem like it on your TV. The tracks are so wide that it’s nearly impossible to get a cameraman close to the action.  It just doesn’t seem quite as exhilarating as hearing that unearthly shriek coming towards you, the whirs and pops from the turbocharger, and the crackling downshifts sending flames shooting out of the back of the car.  There’s only so much action a camera can capture when it’s 100 feet away from the action, instead of ten feet away.

I look forward to Monaco for this reason: it’s one of the few races left where I can feel like I’m right there, even if I’m several thousand miles away from the action.  It’s the closest we can get to seeing a modern car whip around one of the most historic tracks in the world.

I feel that Formula 1 has turned into what NASCAR used to be.  Think of NASCAR as the WWE Raw TV show, while Formula 1 is like watching a street fight.  I know this might seem ridiculous, but if you were into watching wrestling, would you want to see a scripted and pre-ordained fight, or would you want to watch a fight where nothing is scripted or agreed to other than the fight itself?

NASCAR used to hold a special magic for me, and I only watch it at Watkins Glen and Sonoma Raceway now, as most of the drivers are inexperienced on road courses.  I’ve talked to several friends about the boring, pre-ordained spectacle that NASCAR has become, even though it’s got just enough reality to make it somewhat worth following.

Formula 1 now holds that magic for me.  NASCAR and Formula 1 used to be the bleeding edge of technology, and now it’s up to Formula 1 to do that.  NASCAR today is this: you have a larger-than-life personality, put the pedal to the metal, and let Dale Earnhardt., Jr. or Jimmie Johnson take the win.  It was a shocker to me when Kevin Harvick became the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.  It was completely unexpected, and it helped me somewhat re-kindle my interest in NASCAR.  Formula 1 is now truly a test of a driver, his team, and their car.  If you want to make a big splash in the racing world, become a Formula 1 driver.  I know that what I’ve said has been repeated by many automotive journalists, but it’s worth rehashing.

One last thought (promise!): Monaco is a place that should be high on the bucket list of every automotive and racing fan.  It’s incredibly high on mine.  I’ve always wanted to do a road trip through Europe of all of the great European tracks (Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Goodwood, Le Mans, Nurburgring, Hockenheim, Monaco, Monza and Imola) in a Pagani Huayra.

I’d love to hear your experiences of NASCAR/Formula 1, and why you agree or disagree with me on this.  If you watch another form of motorsport that holds this kind of magic for you, please tell me in the comments section.  I enjoy watching all of the off road racing in Baja and the desert.  It’s entertaining, and it’s truly a test of a driver.

One of my friends from school wrote an excellent article about the loss of magic in NASCAR for him, and it’s worth a read, as well as this article. http://www.theoakleafnews.com/sports/2015/05/12/is-nascar-fading/

Monaco 2011

Monaco-GP-05

Have You Seen Travis Kvapil’s NASCAR Stock Car Recently?

Travis Kvapil, a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, was forced to withdraw from this weekend’s race after his car and hauler were stolen from his hotel near Atlanta.

A trailer with his red number 44 Chevy SS stock car was hitched to his black 2004 Ford F-350 dually.  The truck and trailer were parked outside of his hotel room in Morrow, Georgia, about 15 miles outside of Atlanta.

Surveillance camera video shows the truck and trailer being driven out of the parking lot at around 5:30 a.m, officials said.

The trailer is all white with no markings.  The thief probably didn’t realize that the racecar was inside.  They probably thought that it was lawn equipment or something else that could be easily sold.

The 2015 Chevy stock car is valued at $250,000, according to a police report.  Also inside the trailer was a spare engine valued at $100,000, as well as tools valued at about $18,000.

A spokesman for Kvapil said that the team has withdrawn from the race this weekend, due to the lack of a back up car.

If you have any information on the stolen car, please call the Morrow Police Department at (770) 961-4006.  If you see the truck and trailer on the road, both have New Jersey plates.

The F-350 is a black crew cab dually.  The trailer is a plain white bumper hitch dual-axle trailer.

View image on Twitter

Here’s a picture of Kvapil’s car:

kvapil-876.jpg

If you see the truck and trailer on the road, call 9-1-1.  They’ll tell you what to do.

If you see the stock car on the road, good luck catching up to it!  It can hit about 200 mph, and will withstand a crash far better than whatever you drive.  It’s also pretty hard to miss. Oh, and it’s really loud!  That being said, you probably won’t see it out on the road, especially back east!  Those big slicks won’t do it any favors in the snow…

Which Modern Ponycar is the Best?

Modern ponycars have progressed a lot in the past 50 years.  While the Ford Mustang started the ponycar craze, the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger have caught up (and surpassed it) in many ways.  If you are looking for a new ponycar, I hope that this post will help you.

2015 Ford Mustang:  The 2015 Ford Mustang is pretty groundbreaking.  It’s the first Mustang to come from the factory with fully independent front AND rear suspension.  Most Mustangs that had IRS (independent rear suspension) were factory hot-rod specials (Mustang Cobra, SVO, etc.).  Not any more.  The 2015 Mustang comes right off of the assembly line with IRS in any iteration.  Previous generations of Mustang used an antiqued live rear axle circa 1964.  Going over a bump or around a curve was not for the faint of heart.  Axle hop is scary, especially if you happen to be going at a high rate of speed.  Motor Trend recently tested a 2015 Mustang GT, and found that it weighed a whopping 196 pounds heavier than the previous generation.  While this certainly isn’t Ford’s first foray into IRS with the Mustang, the rear end bobbling around while on the gas is not fun, and neither is massive understeer when the gas is let off.

However, that’s NOT how most Mustang drivers are going to drive their car.  IRS pays off big time when you’re cruising in any car.  The IRS is worlds better than a live axle when you’re cruising.  In previous generations of Mustang, one small bump was enough to make you think that the semi in the lane next to you would be the last thing that you’d see.  Think about how much you drive on the freeway.  It’s a lot, right?  Heavier is often better on the freeway.  Not for fuel economy, mind you, but for cruising.  You just feel more planted to the ground.

Powering the Mustang is Ford’s fabulous (and famous) 302 cubic inch V-8 (5.0 liters).  It’s lightweight, aluminum, and it’s got a lot of power.  It’s got 435 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque, thank in no small part to the previous-generation Boss 302’s valves, springs, connecting rods, and crankshaft.  Part of what makes this engine so fun is the fact that it loves to rev.  It doesn’t rev high, but it revs better than a pushrod V-8 has any right to.  A big part of a muscle car is driving around with the windows down and listening to that sweet thundering bellow that these engines make.  Ford’s 302 sounds good…once you put an aftermarket exhaust system on it.  I’m going to hedge a safe bet that 2015 Mustang owners will go straight to the muffler shop right after the warranty runs out.  Putting that power to the ground is either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic.  Go for the manual.  It automatically makes a car more fun to drive.  Trust me.  I drive a stick.

The base engine is a high-revving 3.7-liter V6 borrowed from the Interceptor Utility.  It’s a good engine, but my first choice is the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine.  It’s small, but it’s got a turbocharger on it.  I know that a turbocharger does not a car make, but it does in this case.  Here’s why you should get the Mustang EcoBoost:  Lower weight, better fuel economy, and 320 lb-ft of torque.  Getting the EcoBoost Mustang also shaves a massive 96 pounds off of the front of the car.  Listening to the EcoBoost Mustang is fun, thanks to an amplified exhaust note.  It’s got a series of growls and pops, and when you pop the hood, you hear whooshes and whistles from the twin-scroll turbocharger.

Stopping the porky Mustang is a set of big Brembo slotted disc brakes.  Brembo makes probably the best brakes in the world.  They never overheat or lose stopping distance.  The brakes on the Mustang are almost 15 inches tall, and they work great, stopping the overweight pony in just 107 feet.  By no means is the EcoBoost Mustang meant to be a replacement for the Mustang GT – the Mustang GT is a completely different car.  It’s just meant to be a fun alternative to it.  

2015 Chevrolet Camaro:  Ever since it made a big splash in the ponycar segment in 2010, the Camaro has been an entertaining car.  In SS form, it comes with a free-revving LS3 6.2-liter V-8 making 426 horsepower.  It’s got visibility akin to a ski mask, but the burbling, rumbling engine note is almost enough to forgive the visibility.  However, an engine does not a car make.  The SS without the 1LE package understeered my dear friend at Motor Trend, Jonny Lieberman, right off of the track at Willow Springs International Raceway.  That would be traumatizing for anybody.  Not Jonny!  He’s driven just about every current-generation Camaro, and the best he’s driven is the fire-breathing Z/28.  I’m still jealous.  For us mere mortals that don’t have $75,000 to spend on a Chevrolet Camaro, the SS 1LE is almost as good a driver’s car.  It’s simply unflappable.  You’re going to make a mistake before the car does, let’s put it that way.  Why is that?  Well, it’s got specatcular magneothermal shocks borrowed from the Corvette ZR1 and Camaro ZL1.  This is the Camaro to (almost) end all Camaros.  Jonny’s fallen in love with this car – for good reason.  It’s just one of those cars that begs you to go faster around the next corner.  I would kill for a Z/28 Camaro, but until then, my faithful readers will have to get me a SS 1LE.  

2015 Dodge Challenger:  The big news about the Challenger is the Hellcat.  For about $60,000, you can have THE most powerful factory muscle car ever.  It’s not as powerful as the current bunch of hypercars, nor is it as fast.  But, it’s far, far cheaper.  I mean, who doesn’t want 707 horsepower?  If you can’t afford the Hellcat, it’s all good.  You can get the Challenger Scat Pack.  You can get a car with 485 horsepower for under $40,000!  The problem with the Challenger is weight.  It’s simply not a small car.  It’s big, wide, loud, powerful, and it soaks up anything the road can throw at it with ease.  It’s also 400 pounds heavier than the Camaro 1LE.  You won’t notice the weight in a straight line because it’s got more horsepower than it’s rivals.  The Challenger isn’t something you want to take in tight, windy roads.  It’s just too big.  It is, however, the car that you would want to tour the country in.  The Hellcat is insanely loud – I’ve heard one at speed, and it sounds about as loud as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car.  It’s that loud.  Dialing the Challenger back into the realm of sanity is the Challenger Scat Pack.  It’s got the 6.4-liter HEMI V-8 from the Challenger SRT8, and it just howls and revs to the heavens.  It sounds like a mini Hellcat, minus the blower whine.  Speaking of blower whine, the Hellcat got it just right.  The engine was so loud that they had to put an amplifying cooling chamber in the supercharger itself to make it be heard.  A job well done, Dodge.  The Challenger is the car you want to take on a road trip.  It’s big, comfortable, it can take two large coolers and luggage in the trunk, and it can take the kids, or two buddies easily in the back.  Driving this with the windows down is the only way to drive it.  You can just sit back and listen the the burbling, howling, crackling exhaust note that sounds right out of a vintage Trans Am race.  Want to know what the Hellcat sounds like?  It sounds like NASCAR, a Ferrari V8, a plane, and a Top Fuel dragster, with blower whine mixed in.  It’s a haunting, addictive melody.  It’s the car that you just want to cruise around in, revving the engine and doing burnouts and donuts in empty parking lots.

Overall, which car would I take?  That’s hard to say.  The Mustang EcoBoost is certainly a good choice, but you just can’t hear the engine itself very well.  The Camaro Z/28 is an excellent choice, too, but it’s a stripped-down track toy that’s not meant for daily driving (case in point:  air conditioning is an option).  The Camaro 1LE is good, too,  so I’d probably get the 1LE Camaro.  The Challenger?  Hellcat, Hellcat, Hellcat!  It’s just the very definition of muscle car.  It’s so powerful that when you’re going straight with ALL of the nannies on, it will still go completely sideways.  Think of another modern car that can do that.  I certainly can’t.

If I had to go with just one of these cars, I’d get the Hellcat.  It’s the very definition of affordable performance, and even a tuner car Mustang with 800 horsepower won’t be the same.  The most powerful Camaro offered is the 580-horsepower ZL1, which handily beats the 435-horse Mustang.  Just go with the Hellcat and let me know when you get it!  I’ll feature you, sing praises about the Hellcat (it shouldn’t be too hard), and never stop saying thank you.

P.S.  Ford made the Mustang Cobra Jet (a factory drag-strip only special) until August, but there are some to be found at various racing dealerships or classifieds.  I’ve even seen a few in Hemmings Motor News.

P.P.S.  Chevrolet makes the COPO Camaro (also a factory drag-strip special).  It’s got more engine choices than the Cobra Jet, and it looks pretty darn cool.

What Makes Last Week’s Sprint Car Tragedy So Special?

There’s no denying that last week’s tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York is horrific.  For those of you who don’t know, Tony Stewart, a very good sprint car and NASCAR driver, had an on-track collision with a fellow sprint car driver, Kevin Ward, Jr.  Ward’s car spun out, hit the wall, and suffered a flat tire.  Ward then proceeded to climb out of his car and stride down the track pointing his finger at Stewart.  As Stewart’s car went by, Ward was struck by the rear right wheel of Stewart’s car, sending him flying a good 20 feet down the track.  Health officials said that Ward was killed on impact.  The result?  A massive internet phenomenon where just about every internet user has become an “expert” on sprint cars overnight.  While I’m not a sprint car expert either, I do find them fascinating.  The reason for this post being almost a week behind the tragedy is that I wanted to put some time behind the incident to gather more information and let everybody cool off.

Here’s what happened – Tony Stewart grew up driving sprint cars until his mid-20’s, when he became heavily involved in NASCAR and IndyCar.  He still drove sprint cars for fun.  After he got out of IndyCar around 2005, Stewart went full-time into NASCAR.  He went into NASCAR’s prestigious Sprint Cup Series, where he won three Cups.  He has won many, many races in NASCAR, sprint cars, and IndyCar.  He may have a reputation for having a temper, but he’s calmed down in the last few years.  According to those who know him and have interviewed him, the man has a heart of gold, but can act impulsively.  When Danica Patrick came to Stewart-Haas racing, Tony personally started coaching her.  He’s been a driving force in sprint car safety measures ever since he suffered a severely broken leg last year in a sprint car race in Iowa.  His broken leg was so bad that it forced him to go around in a mobility scooter for a good 4 months.  He had to miss the rest of the NASCAR season, making him ineligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

This year, Tony’s been back with an eye on the prize.  He’s already gotten one pole at a race, and started in the Top 5 4 times.  But, the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. last weekend shook him.  He was scheduled to race the next day at Watkins Glen International Raceway for the Cheez-it 355, but decided not to race after the tragedy the night before.  On Thursday, he released a statement saying that he will not be racing at Michigan International Speedway, and that Jeff Burton will continue to drive his No. 14 Chevrolet SS for the indefinite future.

Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle both grew up driving sprint cars on dirt tracks.  Many drivers like Stewart have humble beginnings on short tracks, or start off in go-karts.  Mostly in NASCAR, it’s the former.  For Tony Stewart, driving sprint cars is just a fun hobby that he does for fun occasionally.  However, he does have a couple of drivers driving sprint cars under his direction from Stewart-Haas Racing.  It’s like Ivan “Ironman” Stewart (no relation to Tony Stewart), who is still an off-road motorsports legend.  Ivan grew up riding motorcycles, and he enjoys riding them across the country with friends when he’s not helping Toyota Racing Development (TRD) with new off-road race trucks.  Back to Tony Stewart.  The tragedy obviously shook him to his core, and I think that he just needs to take a break from racing all together for a while to reorient himself.  I don’t think that he will ever recover from accidentally killing a fellow driver, especially a 20-year-old.  I don’t think that anybody can.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, NASCAR has released new on-track protocols for drivers following a wreck.  In a nutshell, drivers are not supposed to exit their car after a wreck unless instructed to by a safety official.  Drivers are prohibited from going onto the track or towards other cars under all circumstances unless it is a safety vehicle.  The reason for this is that some NASCAR superspeedways like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead-Miami are big enough for cars to reach speeds in excess of 200 mph.  When a caution happens in NASCAR, drivers are only supposed to let off the gas and coast until the pace car comes on the track.  If a driver exited their car at Daytona and started striding towards another car, the result could be disastrous.  Drivers are safer inside of their cars.  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars are built to withstand multiple impacts of 200 mph or greater, and still allow the driver to live.  The driver might have an injury like a broken leg or arm, but they will be far better off than dead.  These rules might seem foolish, but they are really only common sense.  There is no logical reason for a driver to approach another car on foot.

Now, let’s talk about sprint cars.  These little things that look like they belong on a WWII fighter plane are tricky and super cool.  Sprint car racing is different than midget car racing.  Midget cars are essentially go-karts with semi-powerful engines (usually a Ford flathead V8 or a GMC “Jimmy” inline-six-cylinder) and dirt or asphalt tires.  They are freakishly fast and unsafe.  Sprint cars are the next step up from that.  These cars define insanity.

There are a couple of different classes of sprint cars:  The craziest class is World of Outlaws, started in 1978.  These cars use a 410 cubic-inch naturally-aspirated V8 (6.7 liters) that can produce anywhere from 900-1,100 horsepower.  These cars do not have a starter, transmission, clutch, or battery.  This means that these cars must get a push from a start truck to get going.  They simply use a driveshaft directly from the engine to the rear axle.  Their left rear tire is 335 millimeters wide (that’s as wide as the rear tires on a SRT Viper!), and their massive right rear tire is 380 millimeters wide.  The class that Tony Stewart races in is called the United Racing Company.  These sprint cars use a 360 cubic-inch V8 (5.9 liters) that is based off of a Dodge/Plymouth design.  That’s where the similarities to the Big 3 end.  These engines are capable of producing anywhere from 700-900 horsepower.  Again, these cars don’t use transmissions, clutches, batteries, or starters.

In recent years, sprint car safety has greatly increased.  Roll cages are now mandatory, as well as fully tubbed chassis’.  Fuel tank bladders prevent fuel leakages, and alcohol-infused fuel is now used.  Six or seven-point safety harnesses are now standard, and drivers are now required to wear a 2-layer fire suit and Nomex gloves.  Full helmets, arm restraint devices, right headrests, and a 1/8 inch-thick rock/debris screen on the front of the roll cage.  Plus, World of Outlaws and United Racing Company require head and neck restraints (HANS devices).

Winged sprint cars are much safer than non-winged sprint cars, due to the fact that the aluminum wings are capable of absorbing a good deal of impact.  When crashes happen, they are often violent, and debilitating injuries in non-winged sprint cars are commonplace.  The safety of winged sprint cars was shown in 2013 when Tony Stewart’s sprint car flipped and hit a safety fence before hitting the ground upside down.  Tony was able to walk away from the crash with only a severely broken leg (okay, maybe hop away).

Any sprint car is capable of reaching speeds of 140 mph or more.  With winged sprint cars, the wings add hundreds of pounds of downforce at speed, making the car easier to control.  Surprisingly, sprint cars are easier to control at higher speeds, thanks to the added downforce.  Sprint cars are mainly steered with the throttle, which is why they are almost always sideways.  They are built to turn left 99% of the time, and side visibility is almost nothing.  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Greg Biffle also grew up driving sprint cars, and he has said multiple times in interviews that sprint cars need to have better side visibility.  The wings on the sides go down to about head level of the driver, and shorter drivers have no problem with visibility.  What needs to happen with sprint cars is simple:

  • Drivers should NOT exit their car unless it’s on fire.  This would alleviate any repeats of the Ward/Stewart tragedy.  When a car spins out or hits the wall, a caution is called.  Drivers let off the gas, but they still are travelling pretty fast.  Tony Stewart was going about 40 mph when he hit Kevin Ward, Jr.  Even if he was in a street car, Ward would still be dead.  Safety officials can be anywhere on a track like Canandaigua in seconds.  Watch the video, and you’ll see that the safety truck was at the site where Ward was killed in under 10 seconds.  The truck was heading out to help Ward’s car get back to the pits when the accident happened.
  • The wings on the side NEED to be raised about 6-10 inches higher for better visibility.  It won’t make the cars more unstable.  Look at Can-Am McLaren’s of the 1960’s and 1970’s – their wings got higher and higher.  It actually HELPED the car’s stability and downforce!  Sprint cars could benefit from that.  Plus, it will make the cars safer, as there will be more space between the wall/catch fence/ground and the driver.
  • Drivers need to wait until after a caution to talk to race officials about who was at fault in the accident.  It was clear in the Ward/Stewart incident the lap before Ward was killed that Ward bumped Stewart’s car and hit the wall as a result.  Ward was clearly at fault in the accident, but Stewart also used his car to shove Ward’s away from his so that both cars didn’t spin.  It’s a simple maneuver, yet it proved to be ultimately fatal.  Race officials know who did what when, and they will assign points and/or penalties accordingly.  I know that drivers become furious when their car is wrecked, but walking towards the car that wrecked yours is simply not a smart or good way to take your anger out.

I think that in the coming months, many sanctioning bodies of various motorsports will enact rules telling drivers to not exit their vehicles until told to do so by safety officials.  Let me be perfectly clear:  Crew chiefs and spotters are NOT safety officials.  They are there to make sure that you stay out of accidents and win a race.  They are not a track safety official telling you to get out of the car.  I know that humans make mistakes, but Kevin Ward, Jr.’s mistake proved fatal.  There’s no taking back what happened that night, but we can prevent it from happening again.  It’s sad, and my thoughts go out to Kevin Ward, Jr.’s family and to Tony Stewart.  I can’t even begin to fathom how sad Tony Stewart must feel about what happened that night.

I have attached the video of Tony Stewart killing Kevin Ward, Jr.  Please do not watch this video if you felt at all uncomfortable reading this post.  I had trouble watching the video, but I feel that it is important for you to see it.  Viewer discretion is advised when watching this video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5JNNXXdqM4