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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Looking back and living today

by Gordon Kirby
I enjoyed a very pleasant weekend on Belle Isle in Detroit last weekend. The weather was perfect on Saturday and Sunday and you have to give Roger Penske's full credit for the fine job he's done sprucing the place up. Saturday's ALMS race was a thriller with Franck Montagny showing his stuff as he came through to score Andretti-Green's first outright victory and after the fastest Audi was disqualified for being underweight Acura was able to celebrate a one-two-three sweep with its LMP2 cars.

Sunday's IndyCar race also turned into a thriller as Justin Wilson scored a superb victory for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Wilson qualified fourth and moved up steadily, chasing and harassing leader Helio Castroneves who had to resort to some controversial blocking to protect his lead. A few laps later an unhappy Castroneves was told by race control to allow Wilson to pass and the tall Englishman then drove away to win comfortably as Castroneves backed-off to assure himself of safely making the finish. Meanwhile, championship leader Scott Dixon came home fifth, allowing Castroneves to edge closer--thirty points behind--as the title fight goes down to next weekend's final IRL points race at the Chicagoland Speedway.

As the weekend began, of course, we learned the sad news of Phil Hill's passing. Through the fifties and sixties, Phil was the leading pioneer of American road racing. He set the standard for California sports car racing before earning a seat in 1955 with Ferrari's factory sports car team. Over the next few years Hill established himself as one Ferrari's best sports car drivers, eventually winning Le Mans three times with Olivier Gendebien. He was also a mentor and a motivator to Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther, both of whom drove for Ferrari in sports cars and F1 during this time.

Hill was promoted to the F1 team in 1958 and '59, scored his first F1 win in the 1960 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, then won the 1961 World Championship aboard the famous 'sharknose' Ferrari 156. His defining moment came amid tragic circumstances as teammate and championship rival Wolfgang von Trips was killed on the opening lap after a collision with Ricardo Rodriguez and Jim Clark. There were no radios in those days, of course, and Phil didn't learn about von Trips' death until he arrived on the victory stand after the race.

In 1962, the British teams and Porsche debuted new V-8 engines and quickly caught and overtook Ferrari. At the end of the year, Phil joined the ill-starred ATS team which stumbled, then failed. From there he jumped to Cooper for a few years before enjoying a fantastic last hurrah with Jim Hall's Chaparral team. Hill scored the Chaparral marque's only Can-Am victory at Laguna Seca in 1966, then co-drove Hall's high-winged Chaparral 2F sports/racer to win both the Nurburgring 1000Ks and Brands Hatch world championship sports car races in '67 before retiring from the sport.

Phil was a wonderful man, an intelligent, sensitive fellow who ran a vintage car restoration business near his home in Santa Monica. He had great mechanical knowledge and possessed an innate sympathy for machinery. In the grand pantheon of the sport, Hill ranks among America's ten greatest drivers and we are blessed to have had Phil, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti make their marks in the sport as our finest international drivers. They've left a lasting impression on the world,not only as drivers, but as gentlemen and ambassors for the sport, and it was Phil Hill who set the standard for all others to follow.

At dinner on Friday evening in Detroit a small group of us offered a toast to Hill. My colleagues Robin Miller, David Phillips and John Oreovicz joined our pals Tom Neff of Honda and Eric Mauk of Rahal-Letterman Racing to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of John O's baptism as a racing writer. We enjoyed a fine dinner, reminiscing warmly and joking uproariously, too, as you might guess.

It was fifteen years ago this summer when I asked Oreovicz to fill-in for me and cover the 1993 Detroit GP CART race for Autosport. I had met John a few years earlier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he was working for the month of May in the Speedway's media department. He impressed me with his enthusiam and knowledge of racing and he kept pestering me, asking to write something for Autosport, for which I was then American editor, or Racer, a magazine I helped start with publisher Paul Pfanner.

That summer I decided to go the Canadian GP in Montreal which was run on the same weekend as Detroit, so I asked John to show us what he could do in Detroit. He came through with flying colors, handily meeting the tight deadline and writing an informative, entertaining race report. He also filed a couple of good news stories and over the next few years, between stints as a public relations guy for the PacWest CART team, Oreovicz began to establish himself in the race writing game.

Five or six years ago I asked John to help me write a book about Honda's ten years in CART called, 'A Winning Adventure', and he performed flawlessly, helping me thoroughly cover a very large subject and meet a fast-arriving deadline as we worked through the photo edit and final design phases of the book. These days Oreovicz covers the IndyCar series for ESPN.com and is one a small handful of quality writers who specializes in open-wheel racing. He's also a good guy and it's been a quiet pleasure for me to watch him develop his skills over the years.

The big news of the weekend in Detroit this year was Acura's announcement of its much-anticipated LMP1 car for 2009. It was no surprise that Gil de Ferran's new team and Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing will race the Acura P1 car next year. Anyone who may have read 'A Winning Adventure' knows that de Ferran is a superb test driver as well as a pretty darn good racer. Honda's racing engineers will tell you that de Ferran was in a class of his own as a test driver. Educated as an engineer, de Ferran was known inside Honda's racing department as 'The Human Dynamometer' and Gil has put together a very solid team this year, led by veteran team manager/master mechanic John Anderson with Simon Pagenaud as his co-driver.

Well-known historic and sports car racer Duncan Dayton has also put together a very serious team for this season with David Brabham as his number one peddler beside Scott Sharp. Dayton hired Rob Hill to run Highcroft and Rob has put together an excellent team which has shown what it can do this year.

No details of the P1 car were announced other than confirmation that it will be built at Honda Performance Development in California in company with Nick Wirth's UK-based Wirth Design group. Wirth has been heavily involved in the development of the current P2 car and is highly-motivated to show what he can do with a clean sheet of paper design. The Acura P1 is expected to be powered by a twin-turbo V-8, but this was not confirmed at last weekend's announcement.

Conspicuously absent from Acura's ALMS lineup next year is Andretti-Green, winners on Belle Isle last Saturday. A new venture for AGR starting this fall and winter will be running a car in the latest, Ferrari-powered A1GP series. Andretti-Green will take over the Team USA franchise and Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick will drive for the new AGR A1GP operation. It's also a way for young Andretti and Patrick to build more road racing experience in powerful single-seaters to help improve their mediocre performances on road and street circuits this year.

Meanwhile, as I waiting on Saturday morning to interview Scott Dixon I bumped into his manager Stefan Johansson. Stefan is a great fellow who continues to race and he talked enthusiastically about the Ronnie Peterson celebration he attended at Anderstorp in his native Sweden this summer. He was particulary pleased with his laps in Peterson's March-Cosworth DFV 761 F1 car.

"The March was fantastic!" Stefan grinned. "It's a great car to drive with not too much horsepower. You can really chuck it about and I was only a tenth away from Ronnie's best lap with the car. I said, 'Give me some new tires and let's go for it!' But they didn't have any. It was a little frustrating."

Ah yes, still a racer after all these years.

We were chatting in the back of one of Chip Ganassi's trucks and were joined by Chip, Dario Franchitti and Mike Hull, and Dario and Stefan traded a few vintage racing stories. As everyone knows, Dario is a big fan of his countryman Jim Clark. Among his amazing collection of Clark memorabilia is Jimmy's pit board from the 1965 Indy 500 and I believe Dario prizes the board above many of the trophies he's won over the years.

Mike Hull is the general manager of Chip's IRL/Grand-Am operation, of course, and Mike is also an unabashed Jim Clark fan. Conversation got around to the Rex Mays 300 USAC race at Riverside in 1967 when Clark drove of Vollstedt-Offy, the only time he ever drove something other than a Lotus in a single-seater race.

Hull had attended the race with his father and was introuced to Dan Gurney and Clark, his two biggest heroes. Mike said he was delighted as these two great drivers treated him to some private conversation about racing. If Hull's desire to have a life in racing wasn't sparked by that weekend, it was most certainly a red-letter day in a young California boy's life.

Mike also recounted a more recent story of visiting All American Racers and listening to Dan and his master fabricator Phil Remington talk about building the Eagle F1 cars from 1966, '67 and '68, and particularly the famous '67 Belgian GP-winning magnesium Eagle-Weslake V-12. Many people consider that car to be one of the most beautiful Grand Prix cars of all-time and it certainly stands with the 'sharknose' Ferrari of 1961 as a special car from a memorable era.

"Dan knew about every detail of that car," Hull remarked to us. "Every little piece, every bracket, he had seen it being conceived, drawn, built and installed. He was totally familiar with every piece on that car and he also knew how dangerous that lightweight magnesium chassis was, how easily it could catch fire. I mean, those were very different days."

Mike also talked about the '67 Eagle's beautiful exhaust systems for the V-12 Gurney/Weslake built by Pete Wilkins, another of AAR's master fabricators. Wilkins later built the exhausts for the ADF Formula Ford 1600, perhaps the most beautiful and high-tech Formula Ford we've ever seen, designed by David Bruns. Hull worked on that project at ADF as his career as a driver/mechanic/car builder/team manager evolved.

Pretty soon, we had to break-up our little chat-fest. Each of us had things to do. I was able to sit down for fifteen minutes with Scott Dixon and then I walked over to the IRL's IndyCar store to join Rick Mears for another book-signing for our book 'Rick Mears-Thanks'. This was the fifth signing we've done this year and it went very well, as all of them have. And even 'though I've said it before, I have to add that it's a great pleasure to sit with Rick and sign books and enjoy the warmth the fans feel towards Rick. I appreciate the comments from Rick's many fans about the book and it's also very gratifying to hear the enthusiasm many of you have for Motor Sport magazine. As Motor Sport's editor Damien Smith says, it's a delight to feel unabashed pride in the magazine we work for.

And finally, a note from my old friend Bill Alsup who was Rick's teammate at Penske Racing in 1981. Bill finished second to Rick in that year's CART championship and he called a few weeks ago for a chat after he'd finished reading Rick's biography. Like all of us, Alsup has tremendous admiration for Mears the man, as well as the driver. But he also enjoys a true insider's perspective and Bill said he chuckled when he read about how open Rick was with his teammates.

"He always told me EXACTLY his set-up and EXACTLY how to drive the track," Bill said. "He didn't hold anything back. He was completely open with me and a tremendous help to me as well. But I could never go as fast!"

Just like after Sunday's IndyCar race on Belle Isle when I heartily congratulated Justin Wilson's crew and engineers on a tremendous achievement after a very tough season. "Oh, it wasn't about us," they remarked, self-effacingly. "It was Justin. He just drove the wheels off the car. He was the guy who made it happen."

And so it goes.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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