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The Way It Is/ There's plenty of talent out there for our changing times

by Gordon Kirby
It's very encouraging to look across the broad spectrum of small formula car racing. Even a cursory scan reveals that despite the problems confronting American open-wheel racing, scads of young drivers are enjoying the sport and making their marks at the lower levels of open-wheel racing. In spite of the egomaniacal and business failures we've witnessed over the years at the top levels, the sport as a whole remains as healthy, maybe even healthier than ever.

Across the United States and around the world these days you will find thousands of young men and women trying to make the break from karts into small formula cars. They come from everywhere, increasingly in recent years from Asia, and there's an infinitely greater number of young aspirants today then there were back in the sixties and seventies, an era many of us remember with warm nostalgia as the sport's heyday.

Last month, Team USA scholarship driver Dane Cameron, an eighteen-year old from Sonoma, California, won the Formula Palmer Winter Series in England. Cameron finished second in this year's Formula Ford 2000 championship here in the United States and took the UK Winter Series title in style by winning all three races at Brands Hatch, beating poleman and local hero Aaron Steele. Teammate Robert Podlesni, also from California, finished third to Cameron and Steele in the first two races, then beat Steele in the final for a Team USA one-two. Run by Jeremy Shaw, the Team USA program has been operating since the early nineties and plays a very useful role in America's vibrant but entirely disorganized open-wheel ladder system.

Also on the international front, Charlie Kimball won the Formula 3 Euroseries race at Zandvoort in September and finished second in the next two European F3 races at Barcelona and Le Mans. Kimball is the son of Gordon Kimball who designed Wildcat Indy cars back in the eighties and worked with John Barnard at McLaren and Ferrari. Charlie has been racing in Europe the past three years and was the runner-up in last year's British F3 championship.

© James Bearne photography
Then there's Formula BMW which has carved a niche around the world with entry-level championships in Germany, the UK, North America and Asia with a World Final at Valencia in Spain two weeks ago. Seventeen-year old Canadian Robert Wickens won the North American F.BMW title and American Jonathan Summerton has impressed in Europe.

Here at home, J.R. Hildebrand was an impressive winner of this year's Cooper Tire Formula Ford 2000 championship, winning a record twelve races. Through thick and thin, the FF2000 series has been a mainstay of the American ladder system and continues to attract big fields every year. Hildebrand, 18, from Sausalito, looked really good this year. He's extremely fast, a sharp, mature racer and a heads-up young man. He's earned a ride in next year's Mazda/Atlantic series with Newman Wachs Racing and it will be incumbent on team boss Eddie Wachs to provide Hildebrand with the equipment he deserves.

Also playing a big role in the ladder system these days is Champ Car team owner Jerry Forsythe who has made both his Lola Champ cars and Swift Atlantic cars available for testing to a wide range of young drivers this fall. Forsythe has tested IPS champion Jay Howard, Atlantic drivers Andreas Wirth and Richard Philippe, and Speed GT champion Lawson Aschenbach in one of his Lola Champ cars. Forsythe's Atlantic cars have been tested by six drivers, including Star Mazda champion Adrian Carrio, 17, who won six Star Mazda races this year.

Also among those to recently test an Atlantic car for Forsythe were seventeen-year old North American Formula BMW champion Wickens and fifteen-year old Arkansan phenom John Edwards who has raced in Formula Renault Europe the last two years and won a race this past season. Wickens and Edwards have been members of the Red Bull Junior Team program and Forsythe announced last week that the two teen-agers will drive for his Atlantic team next year sponsored by Red Bull.

© forsythe-racing.com
It's great to see these two young fellows getting their break with Forsythe and Red Bull in the burgeoning Mazda Atllantic series. Clearly, there's more talent than ever out there today. What we need is for the top levels of both open-wheel and sports car racing in the United States to develop into professional, well-run sports so there are sufficient cars and teams to put all the talent that's out there to best use.

While Tony George's dystopian vision has done absolutely nothing to build the ladder system or promote promising young American drivers, Champ Car's owners Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven are deeply aware of the importance of the ladder system, witness their introduction this past year of the new Mazda/Atlantic series with a $2 million graduation prize for the champion and their continuing support of the Atlantic series, Forsythe in particular. They are also pushing Champ Car in the right direction with new street racing venues here in the United States and a new, five-year TV deal with ABC/ESPN. And too, Champ Car has made a big move by going to the new Panoz DP01 ‘spec car' for 2007.

There's lots of debate about whether the new car will cut the cost of racing at this level, or not. Newman/Haas Racing's general manager Brian Lisles is a leading critic of Champ Car's new spec car formula and Lisles doesn't believe the attempt at cost-cutting will work. "I'm not that enamored of all the changes," Lisles commented. "Everybody says it's going to save us money, but the fact of the matter is the first year is definitely going to cost us a lot more. I just hope there will be enough teams that can afford to climb the budgetary hill. I think a few won't be able to make it. Once you get over the top in two or three years it may be cheaper. I don't know. But as we all know, there is no such thing as cheap motor racing. If you're a racer, whatever you're budget is, you're going to spend it.

"Having this new car will require us to change many things we do," Lisles continued. "Everything is different in fact, and because we're not going to get the cars and most pieces until extremely late it means we will struggle to get done all the preparation work we would normally do as a professional racing team. That's rather annoying because a lot of what any engineer or any racing team strives to do is not have surprises. And you do that by working meticulously away at everything you can.

"For example, we get one set of dampers per entry on January 3rd and I don't believe we get any more until the first test at Sebring at the end of January. Having done this business for a long time, it's not the way I like to go racing and I'm sure it's not the way most people who've been in it for some time like to go racing. I don't see why it needs to be that way. In my opinion, it's not really professional racing."

Lisles cannot see any way that next season will be cheaper for Champ Car's teams. "It's going to cost a bigger percentage of our budget," Lisles said. "We have to buy the cars, which we haven't done in any great numbers recently, and we have to buy a whole bunch of new hardware and spares--dampers, clutches, brakes, and a whole new data system which is horrendously expensive. That's going to have a severe impact compared to the way we have typically run in the past where we had adequate spares we had built up over the years and carefully accumulated what we needed.

"Now we're not going to be in that position. We won't have something extra available and that will certainly affect the way we operate, and I'm sure the way a number of other teams operate. The way the series is we don't have the deep pockets to go and get half a dozen of these and half a dozen of those. That will probably put up the work load for everybody and it means we won't be able to do the job as we would like to, and as we expect to, because there will be certain constraints on our budget to what we can do. So all this is taking a lot of planning and a lot of thought as to how best to do it."

Meanwhile, I recently enjoyed a conversation about many of the same issues with an old friend of mine, Kurt Borman. Kurt is a veteran software engineer who's been involved in racing for more than twenty years. He built one of the first onboard data systems and has worked in CART, Formula One, Grand Prix motorcycle racing and NASCAR, so he enjoys a wide view of the sport. We got to talking about the passing of racing's days of innovation.

"I was just musing," Borman said, "that, oddly enough, most real innovation took place at a time when the team budgets were far, far smaller, even taking inflation into account. I do think that modern technical restrictions actually make it more expensive to develop a car, for which I site the law of diminishing returns. No one thirty years ago would have had the money to build a wind tunnel and run it 24 hours a day (a la F1) or spend hours and hours running a $2 million seven-post rig as the big NASCAR teams are doing, all to find a miniscule advantage which race realities often take away.

"Colin Chapman's revolutionary cars cost little if any more to make than the ones they replaced. It was just an era when original thought and to some extent intuition was more important than budgets. Which certainly made it a lot more interesting to me, and to a great many others in the sport and in the stands.

"But to be fair, one of the things that no longer seems to exist in society is the tolerance of risk at the level needed to open the door to real innovation. In that era of the late ‘60's and early ‘70's we lost a lot of F1 drivers when marginal component designs failed. None more so than Chapman's. And there were some pretty wild rides in the CanAm, though not many fatalities that I recall."

Turning to my criticism last week of F1's pitstops, Borman agrees. "You are right to say that F1 pit stops are a wank," Kurt said. "But more than that they have hidden the real action. Schumacher has won many a race brilliantly but invisibly by driving a series of qualifying laps with no one around him, all to position himself to pass during the next pit stop sequence, not on the track.

"But it's worse than that. There was always strategy in F1 races. When the cars ran through without a stop it was up to the driver to manage his use of the brakes and tires when the car was heavy with fuel at the start, in order to end up in the right place at the end. This was the greater part of Prost's genius. But other drivers would be on other strategies. For instance, the 'use up the tires and brakes but lead the first twenty laps to make a name for myself and look good for the sponsor' strategy. Like it or not, this made for more overtaking on the track and it was the driver in the driver's seat using his skill and experience to formulate and execute the strategy."

Borman sees a completely new look to F1 under Max Mosley and the FIA's coming new ‘green energy' rules. "The eco-friendly road may entail a lot of things, such as eco-fuels, regeneration, and so forth," Borman remarked. "But in the end it will all be about making the car go faster and farther on a given amount of energy. If they will just eliminate the mob scene pit stops and start everyone with the same amount of fuel, the cars with the more innovative and successful energy technology will be ahead at the end of the race. All managed, of course, by the driver.

"But then, if they would just eliminate the restrictions on the number of laps, or engines, or tire sets allowed over the weekend, then the Friday and Saturday show would also go back to what it once was."

Borman agrees with Brian Lisles and most other racing veterans about the economics of racing. "Almost every 'money saving' change has been to the detriment of the sport, and saved little or no money in the long run," Borman concluded. "Racing has always run on the green challenge, but of the folding green variety! I doubt it will change. Wait and see how much money the F1 teams can spend on energy regeneration and suchlike. But all the better, I guess, if it trickles down to road cars."

F1 and Champ Car are taking dramatically different approaches to the future and it will be interesting to see if either, or both, are able to prosper and adapt successfully to the 21st century's changing times. As we've observed, there's plenty of talent out there ready to fill the seats. What we really need are more good cars and teams in each of F1 and Champ Car, and more manufacturers like BMW, sponsors like Red Bull and individuals like Forsythe who are committed to investing in and developing new talent.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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