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Pedley: 2011 Could Be A Biggie For Racing

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, January 10 2011

Contenders expected to go head to head for the 2011 Sprint Cup championship – Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson – went face to face in garages at Kansas last year. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

2011, eh?

The thought here is that it could be a big, important year in auto racing. A good big, important year or a bad big, important year.

As it should be, the determination of whether it will be good or bad will be made by the most important racing organization in America – racing’s fan base.

Most of the top racing series in the United States are riding significant bits of momentum into the new season.

– NASCAR is coming off a terrific season and a storybook Chase. It has a driver in Jimmie Johnson who is THE American athlete of the decade – and that is not debatable in any form or fashion. It has competition at an all-time high in terms of numbers and parity – again, not debatable – as you can count 20 teams which have shots at victory on Saturday nights and Sundays. Last season, 13 different drivers won races and 26 had top-fives finishes. If this were the NBA, the Clippers would be a contender.

It has great older drivers who you can’t help but appreciate – if not love –  and it has a bounty of young personalities who are much fun to listen to as watch. The Cup series is going to a new venue and NASCAR has changed a couple of other race sites around. The Chase, for example, will begin at Chicagoland.

– The IZOD IndyCar Series, many around the sport feel, is on the verge of making a massive

Helio Castroneves and the IZOD IndyCar Series are building momentum. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

move upward. General Motors and Lotus are on board for the future and more companies are said to be considering entry – or re-entry – to American open-wheel racing and that gives IndyCar something that has been missing: Manufacturer competition. The month of May was compacted but a hoot last year with new qualifying procedures. New names and faces are making their way onto the scene and American drivers will have a much bigger presence on starting grids.

I had an nice, long, casual off season phone chat with Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi recently. Much of the conversation was just off-the-record bench racing. But on and off the record, Hull was more than just a bit excited about what is going on in Indianapolis. And Mike Hull is nobody’s shill.

– The NHRA had a season to savor as beaten-to-a-pulp John Force staged a final-event comeback to win his 15th Funny Car championship. Larry Dixon unseated Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel and did it in amazingly efficient fashion. Classy-as-hell Greg Anderson returned to the top in Pro Stock. And LE Tonglet, a rookie afterthought, won in Pro Stock bikes.

The NHRA is the great overlooked gem in American auto racing. Non-stop action, a winner

It's fairly certain that the list for this year's top contenders in Top Fuel will be topped by Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

and a loser on every run, a big event feel at every race and a midway which features a gyros stand. The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals must be taken in by anybody who considers themself an American racing fan.

– Sports car racing’s pulse seems to be quickening. The equipment landscape remains the same in the sport. In prototypes, the Rolex Grand-Am series has the numbers and the American Le Mans Series has the faster, high-tech exotics. In a phone chat with driving icon Hurley Haywood last week, we wondered back and forth what sports car racing would be like if the two series could be melded into one.

The Rolex will begin its season in the traditional socko fashion with the 24-hour race at Daytona later this month. It’s the top endurance race in the world not held at Le Mans. The usual offering of top American, European and Latin American sports car drivers will be joined

The start of the 2011 Rolex Grand-Am Racing Series is just a couple weeks away. (Photo courtesy of Daytona International Speedway)

by a nice smattering of NASCAR drivers – including five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. The ALMS season begins at the second most important road race in North America – the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. ALMS has also announced in the last week that it has reached a deal with ESPN to broadcast races.

So lots of things to be good excited about.

But it all, also, comes with built-in potential for disappointment and depression.

What if nobody cares about wonderful racing? What if TV ratings continue to trend downward? What if people opt not to take advantage of the slashed ticket prices, free parking and deals on track food?

What if big oil continues its pillaging of the American pocketbook, hotels continue to use race weekends as their own personal Facebook-stock portfolio and constant tweaking of the products render the sport unrecognizable to the traditional fan base?

What if fans continue to enjoy nit-picking more than close competition and horsepower?

Well, then suddenly, a time which could, in the future, be looked back upon as the Golden Era of American auto racing might turn out to be the Dark Ages of the best sport in the world.

Then, the purveyors of doom will be judged as sage, crotchety old guys will say they told us so and racing will join golf, tennis, the NHL and the NBA as irrelevant relics of a time when people enjoyed actual reality more than virtual reality.

Hold your breath and cross your fingers true racing fans. This is a big one.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, January 10 2011
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • The Voice Of Reason says:

    Right on! I feel sorry for people like “Used To Care.” I’m amused at how they pretend not to care, but they apparently care enough to comment on ten sites a day Gotcha!
    2010 was a good season. The sport must keep moving forward and correct its missteps and identify how to survive in the age of SUVs and hybrids.

    • Used To Care says:

      Hey Reason….
      Commenting is a lot cheaper than season tickets, express parking, $8.00 lemonades and pit passes.
      Just like the quality of NASCAR racing, talk is cheap.

      I was a dedicated fan. It hurts not to love.

  • Used to Care says:

    Sir:

    With all due respect, perhaps you should refrain from over imbibing “the NASCAR kool-aid”.
    The 2011 racing season picture is nowhere near being rosy…..and the future of the sport is in grave danger.

    Please face reality, and “tell it like it is.”

  • Terry says:

    I understand and applaud your efforts to keep the hope alive.
    That said…..
    ” pillaging of the American pocketbook ”
    ” their own personal Facebook-stock portfolio”
    ” sport unrecognizable to the traditional fan base ”
    PLEASE… do not mistake me and other …
    ” crotchety old guys..( and gals )..” for NASCAR CRIB KICKERS.
    Having little control of a sport we once thought of as our own,
    we are just trying to couple our memories of the past….
    with the realities of the present.
    Our individual needs and collective goals are to…
    MAINTAIN the ILLUSION….