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Monday Morning Crew Chief: Roads Paved With Question Marks

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 17 2009
Gil de Ferran takes his Acura up a hill at Road America over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Gil de Ferran takes his Acura up a hill at Road America over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

This week’s edition of Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Just my luck. At the same time Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped in at Road America for a surprise visit on Saturday evening, I was on the opposite side of the track. While he was watching from the inside of Turn 5, I was taking in the racing from the steep hillside known as Fireman’s Hill.

Oh, well.

There’s quite a view from the top of the sharp incline named for the firemen who once operated the concession stand at its peak. From the top, you can see Road America’s famed Carousel in all its man-made glory silhouetted by the chalk-white  formations of the Kettle Moraine and its glacial-age splendor.

During the American Le Mans Series weekend, the view was highly political. The manufacturer behind many of the brands that raced past in the valley below the big hill are currently involved in some sort of political imbroglio affecting the future of American racing. There’s plenty of smoke – and soon to be some fire. These debates will influence everything from the Indy 500 to a NASCAR property known as the Grand-Am Rolex Series.

First, there’s the decision of Honda, VW-Audi and Porsche over future participation in the Indy 500 and the IRL. All are engaged in discussions with the IRL regarding what types of engines are to be run in the month of May at Indy and throughout the season in 2011. Will it be an inline four turbo or a V-6? Which brands will participate?

Will Acura and Honda Performance Development abandon the radical new Acura ARX-02a cars and the ALMS in favor of a concentrating on a new engine initiative in the IRL? Absent since Sebring in March, will Audi return to the Petit Le Mans next month to race Peugeot or come back for any further participation in the ALMS? Exactly how will the corporate donnybrook in Germany between VW-Audi and Porsche ultimately affect American racing?

The questions hardly stop there. If neither Acura nor Audi show up in the American Le Mans Series in 2010, will that swing the balance of power in American road racing to the Grand-Am Rolex Series owned by NASCAR and its Daytona Prototypes?

Currently, the ALMS has the Daytona Prototypes outgunned three to one when it comes to major endurance events, the soul of sports car racing. In addition to the Sebring 12-hour and Petit Le Mans on its calendar, the ALMS has a direct link with the Le Mans 24-hour. The Grand-Am has the 24-hour race at Daytona.

The worldwide economic meltdown has led to these sort of grand scale silly season questions. In the face of all this, the ALMS fired a respectable volley on Sunday by declaring it will combine its current prototype classes and create a new spec prototypes class to sustain future car counts, starting in 2010.

It remains to be seen how Acura and Audi respond to this – or other manufactuers. Mazda, meanwhile, is waiting in the wings and ready to step up with its Lola prototypes run by Dyson Racing. The team won Mazda’s first pole in the LMP2 class at Road America.

In 2011, Le Mans will introduce its focus on fuel efficiency with smaller engines. It remains to be seen how Honda, Audi and Porsche respond to that plan as well. If Honda is positioning itself for Le Mans in 2011 with its Acura brand, why not continue in the ALMS with its 3.4-liter V-8?

On the other side of Lake Michigan on this weekend at the 2.0-mile oval hosting NASCAR, things look relatively settled when it comes to the future of GM, Dodge, Ford and Toyota participation in the Sprint Cup. Over there, teams are switching from one brand to another in search of better budgets, lower overheads, or better equipment. In other words, the usual story in the unusual setting of a major recession.

The only unanswered question seems to be who is going to be the next driver to have a weekend feud with Kyle Busch? And will ticket prices stay down where the belong?

Back at Fireman’s Hill, there are only theories about what the future will hold regarding American road racing and the Indy 500, temporarily joined at the hip.

Anybody saying they have definitive answers is throwing darts against the wall to see where they might land. What can a fan – and there were plenty of them at Road America this weekend – or journalist do but order up a fresh-grilled brat made in nearby Johnsonville and a beer.

Or two.

* Ring, ring: Thanks for all the comments, e-mails, cards, letters and innuendo on last week’s story about Tom Kendall being the first road racing ringer. It means a lot to us at RacinToday.com to get responses from the readers and tells us we’re reaching dedicated racing fans. For me personally, I enjoy a focus on history.

I stand by the opinion that the term road racing ringer started at Watkins Glen and belongs at Watkins Glen. To go back in time and use the same phrase for racing at Riverside nearly three decades earlier does little justice to history or accuracy. Above all, as stated in my comments, nobody used the phrase, nor carried the attitude at Riverside in the 1960’s that emerged at Watkins Glen in the 1990’s.

Does that mean I don’t think Dan Gurney was a great driver? Of course not. I don’t believe he unfairly beat the good ol’ boys at Riverside, either. That’s what the term ringer implies, among other things such as not belonging. How absurd to characterize Gurney’s efforts at Riverside as unfair or that he didn’t belong. It was his home track and the NASCAR guys were the visitors! How could he be a ringer?

In the battle to establish NASCAR versus USAC in the early 1960’s, it was a feather in the cap for the stock car circuit to get entries from the likes of Gurney, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Paul Goldsmith. This war became intense enough that USAC intervened at Riverside in November of 1963 to prevent its licensed drivers from competing – or else Gurney might have won there six times.

I caught up with Leonard Wood at his house in Virginia by phone this week. Here are Leonard’s thoughts on the subject of Dan Gurney, and Riverside, where the Wood Brothers first entered in January of 1963.

RacinToday: What did it mean to the Wood Brothers to have Dan Gurney winning races for you at Riverside?

Leonard Wood: Dan Gurney had a reputation of being really good at Riverside. Holman-Moody wanted to put Dan in their car so we ran Fred Lorenzen in that first one.

At that time you didn’t have garages. We had a tent outside of Turn 9. I can remember during one practice seeing Dan come through Turn 9 [in the Holman-Moody Ford]. All the cars had front end push and they wouldn’t turn.

We were standing there at the fence at Turn 9 and when he got to the apex he drove straight out of the corner until he got to the wall and then gave it a quick turn. That’s how he got the car to turn. He was big and tall and had those long arms. You could see him reach and get the gears. It was so impressive to watch him.

RacinToday: Did the folks at Ford help you get Dan into the Wood Brothers Ford?

Leonard Wood: We just said we wanted him. He so impressed us. I remember that first race at Riverside he came down the pit road out of Turn 9. We were at the entrance to the pits. When he came by us the motor was reved up and the rear wheels were off the ground! But he got it stopped down there at the Holman-Moody pits.

RacinToday: Was there any resentment about a road racer like Dan coming into NASCAR and winning races at Riverside?

Leonard Wood: No, they didn’t have any attitude about it. They just wanted to figure out a way to beat him. He would make it look so easy, like it was a Sunday drive. He would say, ‘You don’t know how hard it is to make it look easy.’

If you backed off and set up for a corner, you’d get through it better. Anybody can drive in there deep. But then you’re slower on the other side of the corner. If you give up ground at the entrance to the straight, you’re going to be slow all the way down the straight.

Dan knew what you were supposed to do and made himself do it. At Turns 7 and 8, I don’t know if the NASCAR guys ever picked up on it. He’d get the car lined up, straightened that baby out and he carried three to four hundred more RPM down the back straight!

Parnelli (Jones) had a technique where he would back off and let the car do some of the braking. He would back off first and then hit the brakes. He’d back off and then glide past those guys like a bullet when they hit the brakes.

RacinToday: But there wasn’t any talk about road racing ringers?

Leonard Wood: In what way?

RacinToday: As if it was unfair for a road racer to beat the NASCAR guys.

Leonard Wood: Nobody wants to go out and get beat. You’re always going to have an excuse about somebody else being there.

RacinToday: Davey MacDonald drove for you at Riverside, too, in 1963.

Leonard Wood: That was the year there was a problem with USAC. Dan Gurney qualified the car, but then he couldn’t race it. Marvin Panch was our driver. So we gave that car to Marvin Panch. I put Dave MacDonald in Panch’s car. Dave was going to win the race, but the car got stuck in third gear. I think he still finished second with the car stuck in third gear for the last 100 miles!

* This just in: Dale Earnhardt Jr. flew across Lake Michigan and dropped in at Road America on late Saturday afternoon to watch the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup race.

Oddly enough, he was at the track in support of iRacing, the on-line racing community, where he’s a regular participant and a member of the Competition Committee that helps design the simulations.

“It’s an amazing time to be a simracer,” said Earnhardt Jr. at the announcement of his appointment by to the committee earlier this year.

Needless to say, there were quite a few people amazed to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. walk over to Turn 5, where he watched the race that took place at 7 p.m.

And it is indeed an interesting era for on-line racing. The top-rated iRacing.com competitor, John Prather, was awarded a drive in an actual real Volkswagen Jetta TDI race car for his efforts and Earnhardt Jr. was there to support the concept of on-line simulations as a route into motor racing. He briefly spoke with Prather after the race before quickly departing back to Michigan for Sunday’s Sprint Cup event.

* Short stops: Dave Kallmann, the racing writer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, said that the future of the Milwaukee Mile should be decided soon. “There’s about a week left of whether it’s going to be a serious, full-time racing facility or a NASCAR test track,” said Kallman. If the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series of NASCAR don’t put Milwaukee on the schedule for 2010, that means the facility is no longer banned from testing by NASCAR teams. The IRL has already left if off the 2010 calendar …Quote of the week: Road America winner Scott Sharp, who drives the Patron Highcroft Acura, was asked about competing on the same track with his father-in-law Greg Pickett, who now competes in a Porsche Spyder. “I never saw him all day!” said Sharp.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 17 2009
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