Here is a look back at the most significant auto racing stories of 2013. When I say significant, I don't mean one-offs, such as Tony Kanaan winning the Indianapolis 500. I mean stories that mark a milestone, or suggest a trend that will have an effect on the sport going forward.
These are not in any particular order. I just went back through my blog at wheels.ca and thestar.com, starting last January, and made notes. At the end of this column, I will list what I consider to be the Top Ten.
Here goes . . .
Formula One has had pay drivers ever since guys like Piers Courage, George Eaton, Niki Lauda and Rikky Von Opel bought their way in. In 2013, the ability to pay moved into the front office when Toto Wolfe became the first pay manager. He agreed to purchase 30 per cent of Mercedes F1 if the board of directors of Mercedes-Benz would let him run the team. They said yes and made him executive-director. The deal with Wolfe was quickly followed by one with Lauda, who now owns 10 per cent and is executive-chairman, or something. No longer are the drivers the only ones in F1 writing cheques.
Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a pole in NASCAR’s top league, the Sprint Cup, when she turned a lap of 45.817 seconds to start first in the world’s most famous stock car race, the Daytona 500. She ran in the top 10 all race, eventually finishing eighth.
NASCAR ended its policy of providing estimated attendance figures at races, Jayski (a NASCAR truth and rumours site) reported. Of the 23 tracks where NASCAR races, 21 are owned by publicly traded companies such as International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. Officials with those tracks said – get this – that they don't want to provide attendance figures because they don't want to provide earnings guidance. Nonsense. The real reason is because attendance at NASCAR races has been sinking like a stone.
Twice in 2013, race cars nearly went into grandstands. About 40 spectators were injured in the two incidents. The first happened on the last lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona in February when Kyle Larson’s car actually made it two-thirds of the way through the fence before bouncing back onto the speedway. Initially, 33 were reported injured in the grandstands; they finally settled on 28. The second was when Dario Franchitti’s car nearly cleared the fence at a street race in Houston. The number injured was 14 (13 fans and an offical). In the NASCAR race, none of the drivers was hurt. In IndyCar, Franchitti was injured badly enough that he later announced his retirement.
In the IndyCar season-opener at St. Peterburg, Canadian racing driver James Hinchcliffe of Oakville notched the first of his three race victories of 2013. As for the remaining 16 races, he had dreadful luck in some and his team didn’t do him any favours in others. It was a breakout year for Hinch and big things are expected of him in 2014. Always the entertainer, Hinchcliffe sounded off several times in 2013 about things that bothered him. Have double-headers at every race, or don't have any, he told The Star. Have standings starts at every race, or don't have any, he also told us. The wonderful thing about James is that when you sit down for a talk, he always gives you a story.
The first controversy of the F1 season came at Malaysia when Sebastian Vettel ignored orders to hold position and passed Infiniti Red Bull teammate Mark Webber for the victory. Meantime, the Mercedes drivers got the same instruction and Nico Rosberg dutifully followed Lewis Hamilton to the checkers even though he obviously had the faster car. Which driver was right?
Another first: the best auto racing movie in eons was released this year. Rush, the F1 film directed by Ron Howard, hit the ball out of the park. After 40 years of having to put up with nonsense like Stroker Ace, Talladega Nights (I betcha Anchorman 2 is a dog, by the way), Days of Thunder and Bobby Deerfield, not to mention Driven, Rush was the best breath of fresh air since Grand Prix and Winning were made in the Sixties.
In late July, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, rumours circulated - later confirmed - that Kimi Raikkonen wasn't being paid by the Lotus-Renault F1 team. This followed reports that Sauber wasn't paying Nico Hulkenberg. It quickly became clear that only five teams in F1 are financially solvent, in that they can likely continue doing business without having to depend on drivers bringing money. They are McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes F1 and Toro Rosso, although the health of Toro Rosso is in question after a pay driver was retained for 2014.
Jimmie Johnson won his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in eight years in 2013 and also won the year's two biggest races, the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 (also at Daytona). The latter featured something never seen before in a NASCAR superspeedway race: not one but two Big Ones, and on the same lap too. The race came down to a green-white-checkers. As the white flag was thrown, signifying the last lap, the cars from about 12th place back began to crash up in Turn 2. Surprise! NASCAR didn't throw the yellow, opting to let the leaders race to the checkers. So as Johnson, who was winning, raced toward the start/finish line with Tony Stewart hot on his heels, lo and behold another bunch of cars got out of shape exiting Turn 4 and we got to enjoy Big One No. 2. About two-thirds of the cars still in competition got wrecked on the last lap in either Big One One or Big One Two. That race started life as the Firecracker 400, because it's always held around the July 4 weekend. There sure were plenty of fireworks that night.
Speaking of NASCAR, it has decided to take head injuries seriously and it announced that, starting in 2014, it will force all drivers in its major divisions to take pre-season baseline testing of healthy brains in order to determine treatment and whether/when to allow a driver to return to competition following concussions. Although they haven't said it, they are doing this to avoid the mess the NFL is in over concussions. I suggest Brad Keselowski be given one of the first tests. Keselowski says doctors have no business in NASCAR.
Stupid stuff: Kyle Petty says Danica Patrick is a really fast driver but she can't race. Now, there are 36 races held in the Sprint Cup Series every year and, in each one, somebody wins and 42 other drivers lose. It's true that she is always among the 42 others but since most of them don't win either, why pick on her? I did a column this year on the astounding number of Sprint Cup drivers who have rides year-in and year-out and never win. I don't hear Kyle Petty belitting them? Of course, they're guys and would probably walk up and slug him if he got too insulting. But Danica? She's fair game. And then we have retired NFL quarterback Donovan McNab, who's now fat , saying that race drivers, and particularly Jimmy Johnson, aren't athletes. Where does this stuff come from?
Frightful stuff: I admire Scott Dixon as a racing driver (he won his third IndyCar championship this season). I admire him as a person for what he and his family did after Dan Wheldon was killed (they moved to Florida to be with Wheldon's family in their time of need). But sometimes I wonder what the red mist does to people. He ran into a Penske crew member while leaving the pits during the race in Sonoma and it's a miracle the guy wasn't killed. Not once did Dixon ask about the man's health. He immediately accused the guy of deliberately trying to be hit (as if). He continued his diatribe long after the race was over and accused the race director of incompetence for giving him a penalty. He wasn't the only one out of control. Wally Dallenbach Jr., on TV as a colour commentator, was like Dixon. The crew member had just landed on his head (repeat: landed on his head) and Dallenbach was imediately accusing the guy of placing himself in position to be run over. Then, when the penalty was announced, he literally exploded with rage and suggested that Dixon ignore the order of a drive-through. "I'd stay out," he said. As I wrote at the time, can you imagine Darrell Waltrip or Larry McReynolds saying that on a NASCAR telecast? My wife, who is not a race fan but periodically keeps me company when I'm watching, listened to Wally go on and on and then, turning to me, she said: "Does he realize how stupid he sounds?"
Astounding stuff: Jordan Szoke of Brantford won his ninth Canadian national motorcycle title this year when he finished first in the Mopar Canadian Superbike Championship. And Antoine L'Estage of Ste-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., won the Canadian Rally Championship for the sixth time. The Quebec star holds six North American championship titles (2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), six Canadian titles (2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) and one American national championship (2010). He has tallied up a total of 42 overall rally victories in Canada and the United States. He is truly one of Canada's greatest athletes and I find it curious that his name has never even been mentioned as a possible candidate for Canadian Athlete of the Year. He has been a national champion and a continental champion numerous times in a form of motorsport that some call the most difficult. I suggest in order to get his name out there that L'Estage, or ASN Canada FIA, hire the same PR firm that got teenage Ferrari development driver Lance Stroll front page treatment in the Globe and Mail a year or two ago. This time, the cover of Maclean's might do it. . .
Surprising stuff: Michael Andretti, who likes to have as many cars as he possibly can in his stable each year, fielded four full-time in 2013 for son Marco, Ryan Hunter-Reay, our own James Hinchcliffe and E.J. Viso. He added a fifth for Carlos Munoz at the Indy 500. In early August, he had his PR people send out a media release that he was talking to Juan Pablo Montoya about returning to IndyCar after Montoya was told he would not have a job in NASCAR in 2014. "Hell, yeah - let's find a way to put something together," Andretti told the AP that he'd said to Montoya. "It just comes down to sponsorship." A little while later, Andretti had his people put out a release that said his company had raised 50 per cent of the necessary sponsorship. You can imagine his surprise, then, when a couple of days later Montoya announced he would return to drive in IndyCar in 2014, all right, but not for Michael Andretti. He said he'd signed with Roger Penske, who said he was pleased to have JPM aboard even if - at that time - Team Penske didn't have sponsorship to run him. Hmmm. Was Juan funnin' with Michael on the one hand while talkin' to the Captain on the other? Another hmmm.
Checkered flag: Tommy Hoan, one of the original road racers in Ontario when sports car racing got going after the Second World War, died last Friday after being in a car crash. There are indications he suffered a heart attack. RIP Tommy. Ditto Dale Boeru, who successfully started and ran the NDRA (National Drag Racing Association), a local series. They were among a number of speed sport participants who passed away in 2013. Here are the names of some of the others: Kenny Anderson, 12, child motorcycle racer; Rudy Held, pioneering drag racer; Nate Salter, journalist; Wallie Branston, racer, race official; Jason Leffler, NASCAR driver; Lawrence (Laurie) Clennet, flagger; Gord McKichan, crew chief; Kramer Williamson, sprint car star; Christian Auger, motorcycle racer; John Ross (J.R.) MacRae, motorcycle racer; George Bignotti, master mechanic; Gordie Bonin, drag racer; Allan Simonsen, race driver; Bruce Gowland, drag racer, stock car racer.
Close call: Tony Stewart is a racer's racer. A former Indy car champion, he is a three-time Sprint Cup champion who co-owns a team in NASCAR's top division. His first love is open wheel racing, however, and he owns and operates sprint car teams in the World of Outlaws and USAC. He is, across-the-board, probably the most popular driver in North American auto racing (except for, arguably, Danica Patrick). He drives the stock cars and two or three nights a week in the summer he can be found in a sprint car or a midget, usually on little dirt tracks, which are as far removed from superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega as Earth is from the moon. Two weeks from now, in the week between Christmas and New Year's, you would usually find him racing indoors at Fort Wayne, Ind., where the other racers not only try to beat Smoke on the track but try to get him drunk in the bar the night before. It's a tradition and everybody enjoys it and that's why he's as popular as he is: he's just folks. He won't be at Fort Wayne this year, however (at least not in a car), and how many times he'll be in a sprinter in 2014 is debatable because Stewart suffered a badly broken leg in a sprint-car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in early August (he'd been upside down the week before at Ohsweken Speedway near Brantford but wasn't hurt), and was out for the season. Needless to say, his sponsors weren't happy. His partner, Gene Haas, took advantage of Stewart's absence to sign Kurt Busch to drive for the team, giving the Stewart-Haas entry four drivers (Patrick, Kevin Harvick, Stewart and Busch). It was a move that can only spell trouble. The future of that team is in doubt, as a result.
Strange decisions: Another Canadian racer let the world know he's on the move. Robert Wickens of Guelph and Toronto, following a successful career in open-wheel formula cars, was signed by Mercedes to drive in the German Touring Car Championship (the DTM), and in 2013, his second year, he scored his first victory at the Nurburgring in August. The DTM is slit-your-throat tough and among the most popular racing series in Europe, attracting weekend crowds of 100,000 or more. He finished top five in the point standings and is a coming man in the series. He actually won his first race at the Norisring in July but the strangest decision in the history of motorsport relegated him to second place. Audi's Mattias Ekstrom had won the race but was disqualified after his father ran up to him in par ferme and emptied the contents of a water bottle into the pocket of his firesuit. The stewards said the water added weight to the firesuit to enable Mattias to make the minimum weight at the post-race weigh-in. They excluded Mattias and elevated Wickens, who had finished second in the race, to the top step of the podium. They were overruled by the German motor racing authority, which ruled that Ekstrom won the race on the track but that the stewards were right to disqualify him. However, they moved Wickens back to second and decreed that nobody had won the race at the Norisring. Yes, that's correct: Nobody won the race but Robert Wickens was second. Go figure. And then there's the strange case of early teenage kart racer Devlin DeFrancesco, who's generally seen as the best racer in his age group. At the national runoffs in August, he won all the heats and the semi and was favoured to win the feature. He started from pole but was bunted off the track at the first turn and rejoined in seventh. In a wonderful display of driving, he fought his way back to the front and finished the race in first place. But he was disqualified and put all the way back to 18th because of a coming together he'd had with the fourth-place driver on his way to the front. I didn't see the incident but a friend I was with, a former karting champion, said it was just a racin' deal with two karters going for the same hole and he didn't see what the fuss was about. Whatever, I call it a stranger decision to put the kid all the way back to 18th because the penalty far outweighed the crime - if there was one.
Steckly doesn't rhyme with "three-time:" Scott Steckly of Milverton, Ont., became the first three-time NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion when he won the Pinty's 250 at Kawartha Speedway near Peterborough in September. Steckly went into the race trailing defending champion D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas by five points. There was a seven-point swing on the day. Steckly won the race and gained a bonus point for leading the most laps. He finished the season with 473 points. Kennington wound up fourth in the race and tallied 471 points on the season. The national championship came down to a difference of two points and you can't get much better than that.
The Gong Show That Was NASCAR: You reap what you sow. For years, NASCAR manipulated races and race results, all in the name of entertainment. Debris cautions have always been my favourite. Sometimes legitimate (there really is something on the track) or phantom (the cars are too strung out and have to be bunched up, all the better to increase chances of a Big One), you could always count on a debris caution to goose excitement. And don't kid yourself: to sometimes give one driver a leg up on another. So, after stage-managing races and turning a blind eye to team orders, NASCAR was faced with a social media uprising after some things that happened in the waning laps of the last race of the regular Sprint Cup season at Richmond didn't ring quite true. In the end, it threw Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase, put Ryan Newman in, fined Michael Waltrip Racing $300,000 (which caused it to lose its NAPA sponsorship), suspended the MWR team manager indefinitely, put Jeff Gordon into the Chase (incomprehensible and indefensible), all because there was collusion (collusion?) within the Michael Waltrip Racing three-car team to maximize one car’s points. Then, it announced that Penske Racing and Front Row Racing had been put on probation until the end of the season for doing exactly the same thing. How come there were no fines for the two teams who were doing exactly what the one team was doing: arranging it so that cars passed other cars in order to score points to make the Chase? You can bet that - except for Waltrip who, so far as I can tell, is still kissing butt to make sure he stays on the right side of NASCAR - there were lawyers involved. NASCAR did not just wake up one day and decide to add Jeff Gordon to the Chase field. Very likely, the message it received was do it, or else. It was not NASCAR's finest hour.
Its Finest Hour In Canada: The miracle that is Canadian Tire Motorsport Park enjoyed its finest weekend in decades when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series came to Old Mosport on Labour Day weekend. The crowd was the best in ages and the truck race didn't let anybody down. In the end, Chase Elliott, son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, rammed his way to victory, knocking Ty Dillon out of the way on the last corner of the last lap. It was an all-out assault but NASCAR let it go and the fans went home happy. It wasn't the only tradin' paint that went on as the last lap progressed. Max Papis and Mike Skeen got into it and bumped each other back and forth on the cooldown lap with both drivers being less than complimentary about the other in post-race interviews. To add to the excitement, Kelly Heaphy, Skeen's girlfriend, walked up to Max and clobbered him. He's lucky she didn't break his jaw and I'm astonished a charge wasn't laid. Kudos to Max for not whacking her back. NASCAR did, though. She was fined $2,500 and banned indefinitely from any and all NASCAR-sanctioned events. All that aside, the success of the race and the event weekend means the trucks will be back in 2014, the track was awarded a round of the new United SportsCar Championship (the last race starring the American Le Mans Series was held there this year) and bigger and better things are on the horizon for co-owners Carlo Fidani, Ron Fellows and Old Mosport President Myles Brandt. Is there a Sprint Cup race somewhere in the future? You never know.
Sebastian Vettel won the 2013 world championship of drivers, of course, and it was his fourth consecutive title. He won it with three races still to go and among his victories was the Canadian GP. He set a record for winning nine straight races in a season. It is to be hoped that the fools who booed him toward the end of the season will come to their senses at some point in time and accept the fact that once every generation a driver comes along who is just so much better than everyone else. This time around it's him. Yes, he has the best car and the best team and probably the best sponsor but even with all that he still has to do the driving and he still has to beat everybody else. And when you are in Formula One, that is no easy task. Just ask Jackie Stewart, or Emerson Fittipaldi, or Nelson Piquet, or Nigel Mansell. Vettel is now officially among the greats. He has a way to go to beat Michael Schumacher's records, but he's on the way. And while Schumacher oozed arrogance, Vettel is really quite down to earth. He is great with the fans and wonderful with the media. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy. And he's about to become a father for the first time. Yes, he has a bit of attitude - but you can't be a four-times world champion and not be a little bit cheeky, can you?
Speaking of the Canadian Grand Prix, whether it was because of orders from the Canadian Grand Prix organizers themselves, or sub-contractors anxious to get on with the job, but whatever: there sure seemed to be a rush last June 9 to wind up the F1 race in Montreal before it was even over. This was the day that marshal Mark Robinson was killed while helping to remove a car from the side of the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve shortly after the race received the checkered flag. But even before the race was half over, construction workers were disassembling portions of the infrastructure. For instance, a pass gate separating the paddock from the suites grandstands was dismantled while the race was going on. Even portions of the grandstands themselves were being taken apart. Rush, rush, rush. And Robinson, 38, an experienced race marshal and acknowledged F1 "fanatic," paid for this haste with his life. In recent weeks, Quebec's workplace health and safety board released a report of its investigation and concluded that any safety training conducted had not been sufficient and that the method of operation to remove the abandoned race car was dangerous. The crane was moving too quickly (11 km/h), the board ruled, and the car was hanging too high off the ground. Nobody should have been in front of the crane, the board found, although Robinson and another worker were ahead of it in order to stabilize the car as it was being taken back to the pit area. At some point, Robinson tripped and was run over by the crane. He was taken to the track's medical facility and then to hospital in downtown Montreal where he was pronounced dead.
Another of motorsport’s sad stories came to an end with the death at age 33 of Maria de Villota. The daughter of ex-Formula One driver Emilio de Villota, Maria de Villota had been grievously injured in 2012 in a testing crash for the Marussia F1 team in which she lost her right eye, but was thought to be recovering. De Vilotta’s death — so tragic — shines the spotlight on women in racing and the stark reality is that there are hardly any at the moment. In fact, you can pretty much count them on two hands: drivers Danica Patrick, Johanna Long, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Simona de Silvestro, Susie Wolfe and Ashley Force Hood, F1 Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and IndyCar team owner Sarah Fisher. Yes, there are a few mechanics and engineers scattered around but just about the only women you find anywhere in racing are employed in communications, marketing or public relations. Which is curious. Motor racing is one of the few sports in the world where women and men can compete pretty much on an equal basis either as drivers or in-pit support staff. For a few years at the end of the 1980s, several CART teams had women fuelers but that initiative pretty much petered out and other than a few tough-as-nails women since (Fisher, Patrick and De Silvestro come to mind) the sport remains male-dominated. When Janet Guthrie qualified for what was then called the World 600 in 1976 and the Indianapolis 500 a year later, a great social change in auto racing was predicted. What happened?
In closing: Kevin Harvick, after he won the Sprint Unlimited, said: "Maybe this will knock Ricky (Stenhouse, Jr.) and Danica off the front page." Not a chance, Kevin. Not a chance . . . ABC televised an IndyCar Series race from Texas live in June. It came on at 8:30 p.m. The program before it was Tim Allen's show, Last Man Standing. In the episode that night, Tony Stewart made a guest appearance. Allen stole Tony's No. 20 Sprint Cup car and went on a joyride. Coincidence? Not a chance. Not a chance.
Norris's Top Ten Motorsport Stories of 2013:
1. The Gong Show that was NASCAR.
2. Sebastian Vettel wins fourth world championship.
3. Jimmie Johnson wins sixth Sprint Cup title in eight years.
4. NASCAR to test drivers for head injuries
5. Antoine L'Estage wins sixth Canadian rally title, sixth North American title
6. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park's amazing resurgance
7. All hail Canadian racers - Hinchcliffe, Wickens, Steckly
8.Scott Dixon wins third IndyCar title but Sonoma meltdown overshadows fete.
9. Danica Patrick becomes first woman to win a pole in NASCAR Sprint Cup
10. F1 now has pay managers (before long, everyone will pay to get into F1)
- NORRIS McDONALD