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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/ The stars of 2010

by Gordon Kirby
At its best in whatever category you prefer to enjoy, motor racing is about doing something special and ideally, doing it well. Regardless of all the hand-wringing we witnessed this year about new rules and new thinking in Formula One, Le Mans-type sports car racing, IndyCar racing, NASCAR and beyond, the beat goes on as an ever expanding number of races and championships take place around the world each year.

Every year more and more motor racing takes place as the sport becomes more globalized and reaches new and wider audiences. For sure the sport has its problems, but the automobile will be with us for many years to come and so too will racing as more and more people around the world enter the middle class and buy cars, some of them becoming fans of driving and racing.

The global market is not only the future but has already arrived. GM, for example, has done a great job of establishing itself as a market leader in China and its Asian success is part of the company's revitalized strength. Similarly but more expansively Bernie Ecclestone has deliberately moved Formula One into the fast-growing Asian and Arabian markets and F1 looks likely to arrive in Russia, at long last, in a few years.

Ecclestone has kept any other form of motor sport out of the global market and established F1 in a class of its own as racing's leading brand, in company with Ferrari. Globally, any other form of racing is pigeon feed, although you have to ask, what happens to F1 when Bernie finally decides to retire or more likely passes on?

Ecclestone personally negotiates the contracts with the racetracks and the 185 or so countries around the world whose TV contracts form the basis of F1's wealth. Whether it's five or ten years down the road, Bernie's time finally will come to an end and there will be an almighty power struggle.

Meanwhile, we await with great interest the return of F1 to America in Austin in 2012 as F1 rolls along, making more money than ever for most concerned and in exclusive control of racing's global market.

We saw the youngest world champion in the sport's history establish himself this year. Sebastien Vettel was the fastest driver in most Formula One races this year and he came through in style, taking the championship lead for the first time as he dominated the season-closer in Abu Dhabi. Vettel beat Fernando Alonso by four points with Red Bull teammate Mark Webber finishing third in the championship followed by McLaren pair Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, the outgoing champion.

Red Bull wrapped up the constructors championship with one race to go, soundly beating McLaren and Ferrari with Mercedes-Benz a distant fourth. The Red Bull F1 team has morphed out of the old Stewart Grand Prix and Jaguar teams. Owned these days by Red Bull's Dietrich Mateschitz the team is run by Christian Horner with some in-the-field assistance from Dr. Helmut Marko. Adrian Newey, of course, leads Red Bull's design team.

This year's RB6 was reckoned to be the best F1 car overall with plenty of downforce, courtesy Newey, if a little slow in a straightline. Between them, Vettel and Webber won nine races, almost half. Ferrari won five races, all with Alonso, and McLaren scored five wins collectively with Hamilton and Button.

So a new F1 world champion driver and team has arrived. It's impossible to guess how much Mateschitz has spent to achieve this lofty goal but Red Bull must be the biggest spender by far in motorized sport of all kinds--F1, innumerable lesser formulae, NASCAR, World Rally, motorcycle and moto-cross racing, airplane racing, etc. Apparently all this sponsorship sells product. More power to Red Bull now that the brand has a pair of world titles to its credit.

Vettel and Red Bull's sweep of F1's drivers and constructors championships was mighty impressive but surely the achievement of the year was Jimmie Johnson's fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. To win five championships in a row in a series that's as deep in teams and talent as NASCAR's top category is a supreme achievement. Johnson and Chad Knaus enjoy an equally first rate working relationship and, time and again, Johnson has shown tremendous driving ability, a real racer's instinct and the ability to dig deep when the pressure's on.

It's a mark of Johnson's extraordinary ability that he's put his stable of teammates--four-time champion Jeff Gordon, highly respected veteran Mark Martin and NASCAR's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.--firmly in the shade. And let's not underestimate the excellence of Rick Hendrick's team and organization. Founded in 1984, Hendrick Motorsports now has won ten Sprint Cup championships, a record, one more than Petty Motorsports.

Some people complain that Johnson is too 'vanilla', too buttoned-up, a nice guy who rarely loses his cool. He's not exactly a Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) or Cale Yarborough or one of the Allison brothers, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts or the legendary Curtis Turner.

But times have changed and Johnson is a product of the times, a moto-cross and off-road racer from El Cajon north of San Diego who grew up amid humble circumstances and dreamed of racing Indy cars at Indianapolis and in the streets of Long Beach before his NASCAR opportunities unfolded. At 35, Johnson appears to have many years ahead of him and as far as the fans and media are concerned his next target is to catch and pass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt's shared record of seven championships, now entirely within range.

But it will be a tough job, witness the depth of competition Johnson faces starting with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs' Toyota team. Then there's Richard Childres's Chevrolet team with Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton which expands next year to four cars. Plus, Roush-Fenway, the leading Ford team with Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and David Ragan; Stewart-Haas with Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman; as well as Team Penske, Earnhardt-Ganassi, Michael Waltrip, Team Red Bull, Richard Petty Motorsports, the Wood Bros, et al. A very deep field, to say the least.

Of course, in recent years NASCAR has suffered a sharp decline in crowds and TV ratings. Crowds were down substantially at many races this year and TV ratings have been in steady decline since 2006. Over the past four years NASCAR has lost an average of almost 2 million viewers per race--nearly 24 percent.

In IndyCar racing the great achievement in 2010 was Dario Franchitti's Indy 500 victory and Izod IndyCar title sweep. It was Dario's second championship in a row, third in four years and his second Indy win in four years. Franchitti has been racing Indy cars in North America for fourteen years scoring his first win with Team Green at Elkhart Lake in 1998. Nor should we forget his tremendous battle for the CART title with Juan-Pablo Montoya in 1999. Dario and JPM finished the year tied on points with the title going to Montoya because he won more races.

Historically, Franchitti has entered the high ground and joined some pretty heady company. He's won 26 races at this stage of his thriving career and is tied with Rodger Ward for tenth place on the all-time IndyCar winners list. Dario ranks just behind Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford and directly ahead of Gordon Johncock, Bobby Rahal and Ralph De Palma.

Next year is both the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 and the last year of the current, unloved Dallara-Honda formula. All of us would be delighted to see other teams challenge the Ganassi-Penske hegemony in 2011. There's an even greater hope that the new formula will shake things up and help generate a wider range of winners in 2012.

Without question last month's announcements from Chevrolet and Lotus about their plans to design and build engines and 'aero kits' for 2012 have created buzz and excitement. Three competing engine manufacturers, each producing their own aerodynamic packages should help revitalize IndyCar in 2012.

Nor is there any doubt that Randy Bernard has shown plenty of capacity for work and is to be congratulated for helping pull together the Chevrolet and Lotus programs. Nine months into his job Bernard has built a platform to work from and gained some positive momentum. Bernard has also been working hard to get more races televised on ABC. Everyone hopes his efforts will begin to translate into more viewers, bigger crowds, new sponsors and a healthier commercial situation, particularly when the new formula arrives in 2012.

Another remarkable achievement of the past year was Chip Ganassi's trio of victories with his NASCAR and IndyCar teams in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 (with Jamie McMurray) and the Indy 500 (with Franchitti), a first for any team owner. Chip's teams also won their seventh IndyCar and fifth Grand-Am titles. Twenty-two years into his second career as a team owner, former driver Ganassi has emerged as one of racing's most well-rounded team owners.

The most amazing comeback of the year was John Force's return to form to win his 15th NHRA title after incurring serious leg, arm and foot injuries in 2007. Force has been the King of NHRA Funny Car racing for twenty years but he had a bad accident three years ago, struggled in 2008 and '09, then rebounded this year at 61 to win his 15th NHRA championship.

Last year, Force failed to make a single NHRA final so he shook up his team last winter, firing most of his employees and taking Mike Neff out of the cockpit of one of his cars to make Neff his personal crew chief. Force went on to win six of the eleven finals he made this year and lead the championship most of the season before winning the last two races in Las Vegas and Pomona. Force thus becomes the NHRA's oldest champion and the first drag racer to win titles in three different decades.

A salute also to Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing and its drivers David Brabham, Simon Pagenaud and Marino Franchitti not only for winning a second straight ALMS LMP championship but for doing so without once damaging their car or even putting a mark on its bodywork. To achieve that over the course of a season in a series with many long-distance races is a salute to the team's preparation but also to the precision and professionalism of Brabham, Pagenaud and Franchitti's driving.

And without doubt the event of the year, for me at least, was the unveiling of the Delta Wing. Regular readers of this column know I am a fan of the Delta Wing and would love to see the car come to life. There are so many things the Delta Wing embraces: efficiency, low drag, light weight, lower power for performance, improved safety, removing the dreaded wings(!). It shook up our thinking and made us realize how much the sport needs to be revolutionized once again. Some people have no love for the Delta Wing but I think it's what racing is all about--conceiving something radical, developing it, making it work and shaking up the order by eventually winning races.

After its rejection in July by IndyCar's 'Iconic' committee the Delta Wing was forgotten by many people but designer Ben Bowlby has been working hard to find the right place to launch his concept. Bowlby hopes to build and test a prototype in 2011 before the car makes its race debut in 2012, probably outside the United States. I hope Bowlby is successful in bringing his baby to life. It would be a great thing for the sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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