Here are my choices for the Top Ten motor sport stories of 2011.
1. The on-track deaths in October of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon and up-and-coming Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli
Wheldon, a nice guy and a family man, died in the final IZOD IndyCar Series race of the season at Las Vegas while trying to win a special $5 million price from his scratch starting spot.
The "pack racing" promoted by the IndyCar series since it started business in the mid-1990s proved to be every bit as dangerous as feared. A slight collision between two cars near the front of the field became an unholy pileup involving 15 of the 34 cars on track.
Wheldon’s car was launched into catch fencing, where his head hit a pole. He was 33.
Simoncelli, a promising motorcycle racer who was in his second season in Moto GP after winning championships in lesser categories, was killed at the Malaysian Grand Prix after losing control and going down.
Although he was hit by motorcycles ridden by two others racers as he slid along the track, he died because his helmet came off and his unprotected head hit the pavement.
Simoncelli was famous for his "big hair" and was wearing a helmet a size too large. He was 24.
2. The dominance of Sebastien Vettel and Dario Franchitti in F1 and IndyCar
In winning his second consecutive World Championship, in only his third full season, Vettel made just about all the other drivers in Formula One this year look like pretenders.
In 19 races, he was on the podium for 17 of them and he won eleven. He also captured 15 poles, breaking Nigel Mansell’s record of 14 for a season. He seems well on his way to becoming the greatest of all time.
Franchitti won four races and had two poles in 17 races to win his third straight IndyCar title. In fact, he's won the championship every year’s he’s contested it in the last five but he took a year off to try NASCAR after winning his first one.
When that didn’t work out, he returned to IndyCar and hasn’t been beaten since.
3. The success enjoyed by three young Canadian racers – Robert Wickens, Kyle Marcelli and James Hinchcliffe
As the sun sets on the racing careers of Canadian household names Paul Tracy, Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani and Ron Fellows, these three young men are stepping up to take their places.
Wickens, in his third year of competing in European feeder series leading to Formula One, finally made it to the top step of the podium in Formula Renault 3.5 after finishing second the two previous years in GP3 and Formula 2.
In winning what’s called the World Series by Renault, Wickens laid a beating on French driver Jean-Erik Vergne, but Vergne was rewarded with a Scuderia Toro Rosso seat because his family or his sponsors could write the big cheque while Wickens, who does not have money, is unfortunately currently unemployed for 2012.
Marcelli’s career got a huge boost this week when speedtv.com’s John Dagys put the Barrie native at No. 2 on his Top Ten American Le Mans Series drivers list behind the team of Joey Hand and Dirk Muller and ahead of the team of Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf.
That is pretty smart company, indeed.
In nine starts in the Prototype Challenge class, Marcelli had six podiums, two class victories and two poles. He made one start in Europe, in the international Le Mans Series at Imola in Italy, and he won his class in that race too.
Dagys calls him one of the sport’s rising stars, but we already knew that. He’s expected to announce his 2012 program in the coming weeks.
Hinchcliffe paid his dues in the lesser categories (Formula Atlantic, A1-GP, Indy Lights) and finally made it to the big leagues with the legendary Newman-Haas team in IndyCar, missing the first race of the season but storming back to win the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year title.
Although he didn’t win any races or poles, he did finish in the Top Ten seven times and in the Top Five three times. He led the race at Mid-Ohio for 26 laps.
Although known primarily as a road racer, he adaped well to the ovals and qualified third at Kentucky and finished fourth at Kentucky and New Hampshire.
His future is up in the air at the moment because Newman-Haas announced it would not participate in the IndyCar Series next year and although several knowledgable observers have suggested he will be employed in 2012, there has yet to be an announcement.
4. The firing of Kurt Busch
For the first time in just about any sport, an elite athlete was given his walking papers for being a jerk.
For years, Kurt Busch (his brother, Kyle, is no better) has been the epitome of everything that’s wrong with big league sport when a participant lets success go to his head.
Instead of being thankful, or grateful, for everything that’s come his way because of his wonderful, God-given ability to drive a racing car, Busch has consistently let his sense of entitlement balloon way out of all proportion.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came at the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Busch lost his cool while waiting to be interviewed on TV and insulted the interviewer and his camerman.
Although the official announcement said that he and Penske Racing had come to a mutual parting of the ways, the truth is that Busch was more of a liability than an assett and team owner Roger Penske decided he wouldn't put up with any more nonsense.
While he has signed a contract to drive for Phoenix Racing in the 2012 Sprint Cup, his future is uncertain as that team has rarely been able to afford to run a full season.
5. The sale of Mosport International Raceway
The place that opened for business in 1961 and has looked pretty much the same ever since has undergone a face lift since it was purchased last June by racing driver Ron Fellows, businessman Alan Boughton and real-estate developer Carlo Fidani.
Brush has been cleared away from spectator fences, hills levelled to improve spectator sightlines and a huge, double tunnel to allow race transporters (and spectators) to access the infield during competition are just some of the improvements.
The long-range plan – yet unannounced – is to attract a NASCAR Nationwide Series race as well as other, major series to race not only on the road circuit but also on a renovated and enlarged oval speedway that’s also on the property.
6. Tony Stewart wins 5 Chase races, Sprint Cup
Tony Stewart qualified in ninth place for this year’s NASCAR Chase for the Championship.
The only race he'd won all year to that point was the World of Outlaws sprint car race at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford in July. His Sprint Cup season had been very so-so and he was even quoted as saying he didn’t think his Stewart-Haas Racing team deserved to be in the stock car playoffs.
But then he went on a tear to end all tears. He won five of the ten Chase races, including the last one at Homestead-Miami Speedway. When the checkers flew, he was in first place and Carl Edwards was second and they were tied in points but Stewart was champion on the basis of more wins.
It was Stewart’s third title, the first two earned when he was employed by Joe Gibbs Racing. He became the second team owner-driver after Alan Kulwicki to win NASCAR’s biggest prize.
7. Canadian comes this close to winning British Formula Ford Fesival
For the first time in years, a young, talented and fast Canadian Formula Ford driver had his way paid to Britain in October to compete in the annual Formula Ford Festival that attracts upwards of 200 entries and is held each year at the famous Brands Hatch circuit.
A project initiated by Brian Graham Racing Sports and Entertainment, in partnership with Grote Industries (manufacturers of vehicle lighting and safety systems), the aim was to give a Canadian racer a chance to compete against the best Formula Ford drivers in the world, just as such racing luminaries as Dan Wheldon, Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Danica Patrick had in the past.
After a selection process, Xavier Coupal, 21, of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., was chosen (Graham said he was absolutely the fastest driver out of the box of the ones who were eligible).
Coupal went out and finished second in his first race and then sat on the pole for the final. He was leading the race seven laps in when he was punted off track. So near and yet so far.
At the end of the day, though, he still set fastest lap in the final race and became the first Canadian to start from pole – an incredible accomplishment that deserves to be in this Top Ten.
8. The best Grand Prix of Canada – Ever
I’m sure I’ll get mail on this one, particularly from people who will point to Gilles Villeneuve’s first F1 victory in the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix as being the best home race ever, but I really don’t know how you could beat the one held on Ilse Notre-Dame in June, which had everything.
Jenson Button was the surprise winner in Montreal when race favourite Sebastien Vettel, feeling the pressure from Button, ran wide on the last lap and let Button through. Vettel finished second and his Red Bull-Renault teammate, Australian Mark Webber, was third.
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher of Germany, showing everyone that he's still "got it," drove to a storming fourth-place finish in his Mercedes, just missing the podium.
The race started in rainy conditions and a downpour eventually caused a two-hour rain delay. The race, which started behind the safety car at 1 p.m., finally finished just after 5 p.m.
Button came from the back of the pack on several occasions and visited the pits six times for tire changes, to have his car checked following a collision with teammate Lewis Hamilton, and for a drive-through penalty.
Button said it was probably his greatest Formula One drive. "It was a fanastic race and I enjoyed it immensely. When I look back, yeah, I'd have to say it was one of my best, if not my best."
How can you beat that?
9. Miss Supertest Gets Her Stamp
On Oct. 8 in Picton, Ont., the long-awaited celebration of one of Canada’s most magnificent sporting achievements took place when Canada Post officially unveiled a commemorative stamp in memory of the unlimited hydroplane racing boat Miss Supertest III and her driver, the late Bob Hayward.
The stamp honours the fastest racing boat in Canadian history, her driver Hayward and her owner, Jim Thompson, who designed and built her.
The ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Miss Supertest’s final defence of the Harmsworth Trophy, holding off the American challengers for the third consecutive year.
Several months later, on Sept. 10, 1961, while competing for the U.S. Silver Cup on the Detroit River in the sister boat Miss Supertest II, Hayward was killed. Thompson retired from the sport then and there and Miss Supertest III was never sent out to race again. The stamp is a fitting tribute to a boat and the two men who put Canada on top of the hydroplane racing world.
10. A tie, between . . .
– Danica Patrick leaves IndyCar for NASCAR. Yes, we knew it was coming but it was still a bit of a shock just the same.
She has her detractors, that’s for sure, but Patrick’s presence guaranteed coverage of IndyCar and now that she’s gone, that can’t be taken for granted.
And if there's anybody out there who doesn’t think she’s going to be a star in NASCAR, I will remind them of the reaction at Daytona last July when she took the lead late in the Nationwide Series race. The roar of the crowd as it rose to its feet could be heard – and felt – over the voices of the announcers and the roar of the engines.
NASCAR’s gain is very much IndyCar’s loss.
– Trevor Bayne, a 20-year-old driver with one Sprint Cup race under his belt, wins the Daytona 500 for the underfunded Wood Brothers team.
A devout Christian, Bayne credited his faith for helping him handle the pressures that followed his victory at Daytona and for helping him to beat off a serious illness that saw him admitted to hospital after being bitten by an insect.
- I love "comeback stories." A great comeback in 2011 was by sprint car driver Joey Saldana.
A front-running sprint car star with the World of Outlaws (they took a swing through Canada earlier this year, touching down at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve as well as at race tracks in eastern Ontario and Quebec), Saldana has been knocking on the door of the series championship for several years now.
He was running particularly well this year before disaster struck when he flipped during the Kings Royal race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio and broke his right arm and some ribs. He also suffered a punctured lung.
Out of action for several months, Saldana returned to action in September at Hartford Motor Speedway in Michigan to go up against all the regular Outlaw runners— the Kinsers, the Dolanskys, the Schatzes and the rest of those guys — and promptly won his first race back.
- Jimmie Johnson is not NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. After five years of holding the title, it's news that Johnson isn't No. 1 any more. He was still pretty much in it until the last two or three Chase races, but it was just one of those years for Johnson when he didn't get the breaks he got previously.
There were suggestions that his partnership with long-time crew chief Chad Knaus might come to an end but that hasn't happened and I think it unlikely. They will regroup over the winter and go at it again in 2012 and don't be surprised if Johnson-Knaus aren't champions again before very long.
- Antoine L'Estage and Nathalie Richard won their 150th Canadian Rally Championship presented by Subaru. It's not really their 150th but nobody else ever wins, so it just seems like it. They are in a class of their own, so have to be considered.
So, there you go. Five possibilities for story No. 10 in my personal Top Ten. I can’t pick one over the others – or I would have!
Now, I’ll close with a personal anecdote. The rest of the Wheels section on Saturday will be made up of Bests and Worsts of 2011 – best car, best experience, etc.
So here are my personal Best and Worst experiences of the past year.
I was at Toronto Motorsports Park in July to take in a special match race between the NHRA brother act of Tony and Cruz Pedregon. They were in their Nitro Funny Cars – 8,000 horsepower each.
I was standing about 20 yards behind them (fingers tight in my ears, by the way) when they popped their clutches and unleashed all that power as they started their 1,000-foot run and I can still feel the earth move.
I’m not talking about that. What I’m saying is that my legs and knees went all-rubbery and my feet felt as if they were sliding in oil.
It was scary.