Monday, July 29, 2013

Sporty little number

It's gotten more press than almost any other new car in the last two years, but it took a while for me to actually see a Scion FR-S in the wild. After glimpsing a couple in traffic, I finally found one parked just down the block from my kids' school earlier this year. I probably can't add much more to what's been said about the FR-S/Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 that hasn't been said by a hundred other auto journalists except to say that, in person, it's supremely covetable.

If I were a young man with sterling credit and a secure parking space I'd buy one in a second. When I become an old fart with an empty nest and no need to fill a trunk with Costco shopping to feed four for a month I'll probably want one more than a pair of knees that work. I wonder what this baby will be worth on the used market in about ten or fifteen years?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Toronto Indy 2013: Day 3, Race 2

It was Sunday morning and I needed to get to mass, but as I was covering the Indy races all weekend, it looked like there wouldn't be time. Luckily, I'd noticed signs all over the media centre advertising morning chapel and a Catholic service courtesy the Indycar Ministry, to be held in the drivers' centre in the BMO Field building on the other end of the track.

A couple of days previous I was in the area, just by turn 5, so I decided to check out the building. I was stopped by a security guard and told that my media pass wouldn't get me in. I told her about the signs, and wondered why they'd advertise mass to the media if we couldn't attend. Back at the media centre, I told the head of the press room about it, and he insisted that I was OK to get into mass - why else would the signs be up here? He said he'd talk to someone about it.

So of course on Sunday morning I arrived at the security desk at the driver's centre to be told by the same security guard that she hadn't heard a thing, and that I couldn't go to mass with a media pass. I insisted that this had all been straightened out, and that all she needed to do was talk to her bosses. Radios were picked up and phones dialed and a few minutes later I was told that, yes, I was clear to go in and attend mass, which turned out to be celebrated by an Oratorian up from Indiana.

I suppose I could have been angry about the levels of dysfunctional bureaucracy clearly at work (or not at work) here, but what struck me was how unique my queries about getting to mass seemed to be, which leads me to believe that I might have been the first member of the godless media to ask about going to Indy mass in a long time. Take from that what you will.

During mass, the priest asked us to pray for Ryan Briscoe, whose injury the day before had taken him out of today's race. Back at the press centre I learned that Carlos Munoz, a promising young driver currently leading the points in Indy Lights, had been asked by Panther Racing to take Briscoe's place in their National Guard car. There was a press conference with Munoz just after lunch, where he revealed that he'd gotten the call at 7pm the night before, and that his flight out of Toronto had been booked for 6am the next day.

"I didn't sleep much," Munoz told us. "I went at 8 o'clock to try the seat. I'm using Ryan's seat so I'm not a hundred per cent comfortable but anyway it's just for the race. It's a great opportunity."

It was the race equivalent of the star breaking their leg tripping over a set backstage and the understudy being given their big break. Only in this case it wasn't an understudy, but someone doing an off-Broadway show down the street, pulled aside in the wings and told to head right to a wardrobe fitting as soon as they were done.

"Panther Racing isn't expecting too much from me," Munoz said. "My goal is not to make any mistakes. Yesterday there was a lot of crashes - I saw the race, so I have to keep out of trouble and get quicker and quicker with each lap and not to make any mistakes on the pit stops and to finish the race."

I finally managed to watch the Stadium Super Truck race from a spot on the pit island, where I got a good view of just how NASCAR driver Robby Gordon is going to get rich. It was just a demonstration race - these things are supposed to be run inside on dirt, so even with the huge tires and massive suspension travel on these race trucks, drivers and their rides were getting pretty banged up.

The crowd loved it, however, especially as they watched the trucks corner on three and even two wheels, and then get massive air as they traveled over the ramps bracketing the beginning of start/finish straight. It was Monster Truck for people who've read a book, and while I enjoyed it immensely, I'm sure I lost fifteen IQ points by the time it was done.

"Indycar racing isn't Formula 1," Graham Rahal told me the day before. "It isn't about the standing starts, and I'm not sure that we need 'em. Tradition in this sport goes back a hundred years and it's never been that way once for a reason." Nevertheless, Indycar officials decided that they'd give standing starts another shot on Sunday and, unbelievably, it went off without a hitch.

Frankly I liked the standing starts. While F1 seems to spelunk its way up its own posterior with tire issues and pit stop strategies and corporate shenanigans of the Bernie variety, Indycar soldiers on, beset by naysayers (most of whom are still mourning ChampCar and CART) but still the only place you can see open wheel race cars drive on street tracks, road courses and ovals, and even run the most iconic motor race in the world once a year. Throw in standing starts and you have probably the most flexible racing series in the world. Decide between rolling and standing with a coin toss on pit lane and the showmanship is amplified.

Sunday was brutally hot, but the racing seemed to be sharper even as the track rubbered in and bits of shredded tire littered the edge of the racing line. My feet were blistered from the previous two days, so I stuck to the inside of the track, scurrying for shade whenever I felt lightheaded from the sun and finishing off litres of water. I can't imagine what it must have been like in the cars, though.

I know I said it before, but the movie had better be fucking awesome.

The weekend got worse for Graham Rahal's team when James Jakes went into the wall at turn five with twenty laps to go - the same wall he hit during qualifying. Then Ed Carpenter lost control and hit the same barriers by turn five; I was a few yards away (with my back turned, of course) when it happened, and caught him getting out of his car, unhurt.

Scott Dixon had a much better day, winning both Toronto races, his third in a row, and getting a $100,000 cheque for being the first driver to take a whole two-race weekend. Castroneves and Bourdais came third and second, no one dropped their trophy, and Dixon's daughters ended up getting most of the attention from the cameras as they wandered Winner's Circle in matching yellow sun dresses, playing with Firestone's Firehawk mascot and making off with Bullseye, the stuffed toy Target mascot.

Two days later, I can still barely walk. For a more concise summary of the weekend, here's my blogTO post.

Toronto Indy 2013: Day 2, Race 1

Heading into the first race at the Toronto Honda Indy was news that the rights to run Indy Lights, the top rung of the three "Road to Indy" series, had been given to Andersen Promotions, who already run the two junior series, USF2000 and Pro Mazda. Around the media centre, everyone seemed to agree that this was a good idea, pointing to the scant field of eight cars starting on the Indy Lights grid that day.

It's hard to figure out the economics of pro racing - a constantly shifting mess of sponsors, team owners, drivers and racing series. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that no one will show up to watch the races if there are no decent drivers in the cars, and that if the junior series aren't producing enough drivers, everyone's in trouble and Target, Midas and Fuzzy Premium Vodka won't want to pay to put their names on the cars.

Hometown hero James Hinchcliffe had plenty of support in the stands and a full range of official merchandise for sale in the Indy stores behind the grandstands. It was a shame that he didn't drive a better race that day - he started in 14th place on Saturday and finished 8th, which isn't bad but isn't great. Hinch is in a quandary - he either struggles or he pulls off these showpiece wins; this might be a young driver thing, but he needs to get the consistency of someone like Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves. 

Walking the grid before the start of race one, I wondered if this was going to be a repeat of Detroit's two-fer - safe racing the first day, reckless lunges and lots of crashing the second. One thing I did know was that Toronto grid girls certainly aren't the lithe supermodel types you see holding the flags at F1 races. Provided courtesy the Toronto Sun and outfitted in miniskirts they constantly tugged to keep from riding up over their butts, they looked a bit rough, some of them showcasing collections of leg and back tattoos that telegraph "Check out my reasonable stag party rates" more than "sports glamour."

I focused on Dario Franchitti in the pole position car just before the race started, and his face was an essay in pre-race tension. I've always had a lot of time for Franchitti - he's a talented, flexible driver who's had an iffy couple of years despite last year's Indy 500 win. I wonder if he ever feels jealous of his cousin, Paul Di Resta, racing in F1. In any case he saw Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon pass him and win first, slipping down to third on the podium, where he was told just as he was about to collect his trophy that he was being penalized for blocking on a yellow flag and would drop down to thirteenth. His position was reinstated afterwards upon review, but it was still probably a day that Franchitti would like to forget.

I ended up walking the length of the track twice that day hunting for good shooting spots. No amount of sunscreen can hide the sensation that your skin is being simmered away. The corner workers and flagmen all did their jobs patiently, however, either building improvised shelters for between races or stoically turning red by their holes in the fence.

Coming back from a circuit of the outside fence, I came across Charlie Kimball and his car sitting in the run-off at turn one. He'd been involved in a crash with Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe that saw Briscoe break his wrist and Wilson earn a penalty. I thought he looked forlorn sitting on the curb by the Princes' Gates, waiting for someone to drive him back to the paddock, his race over.

Graham Rahal also didn't have a great race, getting hit and spun by Tristan Vautier and slipping down to the bottom of the standings, just in front of the four DNFs. The son of Bobby Rahal, the first winner of the Toronto race back in 1986, he knew he had less than a day to recuperate for the next day's race.

"Physically I like to think I'm one of the stronger, bigger guys, but there's no doubt that there will be a lot of people who will be sore tomorrow, and definitely sore on Monday. Because like I said  - hydrate, get a big steak, and definitely get yourself together."

Rahal's crew chief, Donny Stewart, was back at the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing garage in the paddock getting Graham's car back in shape for the race. I assumed he'd be up all night with his crew, but he was unfazed by the night's work ahead of him.

"This weekend we have a little more because we damaged the underwing in this race so we'll have to change the underwing, get our backup car out and get the underwing off that one. Swap it to this car. We'll rebuild brake calipers just because of the temperatures from when we stalled. So we'll rebuild that tonight. We'll take the gear stack out and inspect everything, do a good nut and bolt on the whole car. Change air filters. For the engine, take a good look at the exhaust."

"Preventative maintenance is the biggest thing, really. When we do a double race like this we plan ahead in terms of how much mileage we have on parts and stuff like that. So we know coming into this that we're not going to mileage out, we set ourselves up ahead of time to go into these races with no issues."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Toronto Indy 2013: Day 1

I showed up for the first full day of practice and qualification at this year's Toronto Indy races intending to focus more on the various support races being run as part of the weekend - the trio of Road to Indy feeder series that move like a shadow along the Indy circuit, as well as the Pirelli World Challenge races and something called Stadium Super Trucks, about which I knew nothing at all except that it probably involved trucks.

Last year, while breaking my race coverage cherry, it was the best I could do to focus on the Indycar main event, while using the support races to practice shooting race cars. Having spent a quarter century as a photographer shooting mostly portraits, landscapes and still lifes, the challenge of shooting things moving at very near or well past a hundred miles an hour presented a learning curve. I like to think I rose to it, but as Friday's events sped past, I realized how much I still had to learn.

I missed morning practice, and working in the afternoon sun gave me some idea of how harsh a clear sky would make the weekend. I also missed the only time Indycar drivers can be found wandering pit lane openly, zipping around on their scooters and socializing with other drivers. But like I said, I wanted to spend more time checking out the weekend's other events, and savouring all the different engine notes.

Most people who hate motorsports complain about the noise, so it seems to me that if you're a race car fan, you should glory in the whole range of engine revving and unmuffled exhaust notes on offer during a big racing event like Indy. This weekend, there was a bit of everything, from the turbocharged Honda and Chevy V6s running the Indycars to the big V8s and V10s in the Pirelli GT class cars, down through the naturally aspirated V8s in Indy Lights, the Mazda Wankel rotary engines in the Pro Mazda cars, down to the V4s running the USF2000 cars and whatever's beneath the hood of the Pirelli TC class cars.

No one will deny that there's something brutally graceless in the design of current open wheel race cars, from F1 to Indy, with their profusion of wings and aero surfaces and squashed, buglike chassis covered in sponsor logos. Sponsorship is a fact of racing, but one day I'd like to hope that science and aesthetics might meet somewhere and produce an aesthetically pleasing car. In the meantime, I found my eye drawn to the cars in the USF2000 series, the lowest rung of the Road to Indy series, and one raced by drivers as young as fifteen.

They're small cars, with almost tubular bodies, long suspension struts, skinny wheels and a pair of simple wings that remind me of F1 cars at the end of the '60s, when aero was primitive and the cigar-bodied car shape of the past three decades hadn't given away to the wing-shaped cars to come. They looked agile and fun to drive, and seeing a pack of them crowd into turn one at the start of a race, they gave me some idea of what pro racing must have been like before you needed the backing of several international conglomerates to field a professional team.

As for sheer volume, the hands down winner was the Touring Car class of the Pirelli series - Mustangs and Camaros, Vipers and Audi R8s and especially the CTS V-Rs run by Cadillac Racing, which produced an unholy roar going in and out of each turn. PWC might be one of the few real "stock" car racing series running today, but it has an aura of rich guys paying for a team and even a ride for as long as their money holds out, running against a handful of factory teams with infinite resources while judges and marshalls play jiggery-pokery with the rules on each car.

That might be true for the high end GT and GTS class series, but at the low end, there are the cars racing in TC and TCB series - compact family sedans and econoboxes tricked out for racing and making you wonder if you could ever get your Yaris or Echo to hit a corner that fast.

After an afternoon spent wandering the track to the sound of roaring race engines, the PWC TC and TCB qualifying race snuck up on us all, at a fraction of the decibel level. It probably took me a lap or two to notice the Minis, Fusions, Fiat 500s and Mazda 2s tearing around corners like kids jostling each other in an egg race at the peak of a sugar rush.

There were plenty of spinouts and crashes, especially in the Road to Indy series. There's something forlorn about crashing during practice and qualifying laps, like a majestic tree falling in a forest without anyone around to witness its end. I'm sure most of these cars were back on the track the next day, but the junior series races always feel more desperate, and loaded with promising racing careers that never get started.

Finally, there was the main event. I felt bad for James Hinchcliffe; it's his hometown race, and even it's only his second year in Indycar, and one during which he's pulled off some impressive wins, you could feel the pressure on him to win at least one of the weekend's races. It wouldn't turn out that well for him, or for Dario Franchitti, who had the pole position for the first race. Scott Dixon, on the other hand, arrived in Toronto fresh from a win and high in the standings. He would have a much better weekend.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

How to drive a racetrack

Yesterday afternoon, after the track shut down after a day of practice, I went for a track walk along Toronto's Honda Indy street circuit, along with a hundred or so drivers, crew, photographers and safety officials. While I've walked through these streets winding through the Canadian National Exhibition grounds countless times since I was a boy, I've never seen them as a race track except through the photo holes cut in the fencing.

I did it on foot, taking just less than an hour, while most of the drivers and crew traveled along them in golf carts or pit tuggers. During that hour, I think I was lapped by Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti at least twice.

As I walked, I recalled the interview I'd done with British Indy driver Justin Wilson just a few weeks before, at the annual press event at William Ashley's china shop on Toronto's ritzy Bloor shopping strip, where they balance an Indycar on top of four bone china teacups to prove something I'm sure you'd just forget the moment you dropped one of these cups into your kitchen sink and saw the first part of your wedding china shatter.

photo courtesy Honda Indy Toronto

Wilson, who won his first race in Toronto while driving for Champ Car, Indy's predecessor, has as much of a right to call himself an expert on the Toronto street track as anyone else, but before we got down to talking about braking zones and apexes, I asked him about the first start of the double-header Toronto race this year - the first standing start in Indy history.

I'd always presumed that a standing start was a little bit safer than a rolling start, if only because the cars wouldn't be traveling at nearly the same speed heading into turn one, but Wilson disagreed.

"When you've got twenty-six Indycar drivers going around the track there's nothing safe. The standing start you have the risk of stalling, but with the rolling start you get to turn one faster, people are closer together, so there is no clear choice which one gives you the best odds of making it through turn one."

looking down the start/finish straight
Before you get to turn one, however, you have to make it down the start/finish straight, which runs past the big new convention centre on the Exhibition grounds, and has all the peculiar qualities of any public street turned into a race track.

"Coming down this straight there's a couple of bumps where start/finish is, you try and get your upshifts done so when you hit those bumps it doesn't bounce the car and spin up the tires and you hit the RPM limiter because that loses time, so you're trying to time your shifts over the bumps."

And finally there's turn one, just in front of the Princes' Gates - a right hand turn that wants to be a hairpin, and which is as likely a place to see cars wreck as anywhere else on the track that isn't turn three.

"Turn one - you're going to brake late here but it's very bumpy. There's a big bump just before you brake, and then there's a lot of ripples in the brake zone, so the car's kind of skittering and sliding, and then as you turn in you hit the concrete, so the front of the car slides, and you have a split second of 'I'm not going to make it' but you turn in, turn in, and just as you get close to the apex the front just starts to grip, you touch the throttle and the back starts to slide and the whole car just drifts out of the corner. You'll feel like you're doing to slide and hit the wall - just the way this track is designed, the concrete ends and you hit the asphalt and the car grips and goes forward. It's cool when it goes right."

I point out to Wilson that he's talking about drifting - someone you're not supposed to do in an open-wheel car, which is all about aero and grip and pasting yourself to the track.

"Typically you wanna go forwards rather than sideways, but it's just the way this track drives. Trying to get the car to rotate through the corners."

The drivers don't consider turn two as a corner, Wilson tells me, but rather as a slight curve you negotiate as you build up speed heading down to the long straightaway carved out of a stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard, within sight of Lake Ontario. It's the highest speed bit of the track, but drivers only get to about 180 mph before they have to brake hard for turn three. Still, it's enough speed for something very bad to happen, and it's the reason why turn three is the site of the only fatalities in Toronto Indy history - the 1996 Champ Car crash that killed driver Jeff Krosnoff and track marshall Gary Arvin.

"It's a big brake zone. To be fast, it's all about breaking late. In all three, turn one, turn three and turn eight, you've got to brake as late as you can, because that's where there's a big chunk of lap time. You come in at 290 km/h down to 50 km/h, tricky corner, very tight, and once again you hit that concrete and the car slides again, so you've got to flow through the corner but you've got to carry some speed."

The exit of turn three is the only real elevation change on the whole Toronto course, as the straight that precedes it is basically a long, descending line. It leads into a very slight uphill curving corner that seems to want to be a chicane and probably rewards drivers who've come out of three with a perfect line.

"Right about here you come off Lakeshore and you start to climb up the hill, but you're trying to get the power back on, so we're spinning the wheels all the way through turn four trying to get drive up the hill. It's a a difficult balance, because you don't want to spin them up too much and wear out the tires, but any time you can get up this short spurt is big time."

The next corner is a tight right angle formed by the Better Living Centre, the Queen Elizabeth Centre and BMO Field. It's the start of a part of the track that's unseen by spectators, and as such gets built from the oldest, least pretty bits of concrete barrier and safety fencing.

"Turn five is very low grip, the car is skipping and sliding around. You're just trying to flow the speed through there. Turn six is quite fast, it shows on here as a couple of right angles, but it's just one long big curve, and you're just trying to keep the minimum speed up and carry that speed through turn six. Very tricky corner, because the wall is right here, and all the grip is right here next ot the wall. And you can't see through the corner at all - it's totally blind. I guess it's third gear, I want to say a 160 km/h blind corner, and the front of the car keeps slipping as you go through, and when it grips again you're hoping you don't brush the wall. There's been a couple of crashes there where people have brushed the inside wall. It breaks the suspension and then you turn hard left into the outside wall. So that's the tricky part."

After driving around the Food Building, there's a corner formed by the side of the old Horse Palace - now Ricoh Stadium. It's a higher profile bit of track, and for this year's race it's been bought wholesale to advertise Rush, Ron Howard's new film about the James Hunt/Niki Lauda F1 rivalry. (Which I hope to God is as good as the trailers.)

"Seven is just flat out, and then you're hitting the brakes for eight. Right as you're hitting the brakes there's a big bump, and the car's trying to recover, and then you go to turn in, and you're hitting a manhole cover. And no matter where you position the car, you always end up hitting that one manhole cover. The track's seventy-five feet wide or whatever it is, and there's a three foot manhole cover, and no matter where you position it, you hit it every time. If you paid us we couldn't hit it, but because we don't want to, we hit it every single lap. The whole car slips over it, unsettles it, and again it steps out and you catch it, and the whole time you're just trying to react and recover the car."

The next series of turns - nine-ten-eleven - pass through the open part of the Exhibition grounds where the whack-a-mole and games of chance set up during the midway every summer. Wilson describes it as the most technical part of the track, as you try to keep enough speed to head into the start/finish straight again - or head into pit lane.

"Turn nine you can carry good speed. Second gear, and it's all about trying to carry the speed in, keep the minimum speed up, because if you brake too hard you transfer too much weight to the front, and then you overslow the corner, and it's easier just to roll out the throttle, roll back into the throttle, roll out early but slowly and it keeps the car more balances, so you can carry the speed through that corner."

"Ten and eleven is all about minimum speed, trying to keep the minimum speed up. If you can go a couple of miles and hour quicker through ten and eleven, that will flow with you all the way down the next straight."

Wilson says this last section is what makes Toronto unique - more like a custom-built road course than a street circuit, something nobody buying cotton candy or losing at roulette on a hot August night at the Ex would ever imagine as they stood there.

"There's nowhere else like it. It's tight, bumpy, change of surfaces on all these corners. A typical street course type of driving. But then you've got this section here which is all about flowing and minimum speed and it's not very street course like. It's a complete contrast - you've got to drive these different to how you drive these other corners."

Indy is unique in that its season contains everything, from street circuits to road courses to ovals to the most iconic race track in motorsport. I ask Wilson if there's any particular track that he prefers.

"I like 'em all. I like the fact that we have to do them all and be good at them all. I started out road racing back in Europe, I seem to have adapted to the street races pretty quickly, and I got my first win here in Toronto. I love the street races, but that's the appeal of Indycar for me - you've got to be good on all these types of tracks."