Ingram's Flat Spot On: The best ever?


Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


The Best Ever?

On a weekend when Tony Schumacher clinched his sixth straight Top Fuel championship at Pomona, Jimmie Johnson put himself in line to win his fourth straight Sprint Cup title after leaving behind nothing but scorched earth at Phoenix.

Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Photo by Getty Images.

Unless something goes unexpectedly wrong at Homestead this weekend, Johnson will break free of a tie with Cale Yarborough and become the only driver to win NASCAR's most prestigious title four times running.

It wasn't all that long ago Michael Schumacher won five straight unanswered Formula One titles for Ferrari. Or that John Force put together his string of 10 straight Funny Car championships.

Given that all these guys grew up in different places, it can't be something in the water they drank that enabled them to become the equivalent of supermen in their respective branches of motor racing.

But are they really supermen? Well, to win that many consecutive titles in fiercely competitive series can't be a matter of luck. Maybe luck explains Mark Martin's inability -- thus far -- to win even one title in NASCAR's premier series over the years. But it doesn't go very far in explaining how drivers like Schumacher, Johnson, Force and F1's Schumacher trailerized their competition in an era of widespread resources in major series.

Motor racing is a team sport and team methodology surely is the next most important component. But ultimately the driver has to get the job done.

Not long before F1's Schumacher retired, a friend of mine suggested that we were witnessing the finest driver in a Formula One car who had ever lived. That's saying a lot of a series that started in 1950. But it will probably remain true for most of our lifetimes.

Talent. It's an inescapable element of any champion. Enormous talent, including an extraordinary will to win, is the inescapable element of any driver and team that wins year after year, despite the onslaught of those who would be king.

Like them, love them or loathe them, drivers of this magnitude do not come along very often. Are those who win the most consecutive championships the greatest ever? Well, it's not a matter of being in the right place at the right time. That would be luck.

The irony is that monotony seems to set in when one guy wins all the time, unless you happen to be one of his fans. But in later years, people tend to remember the dynasties with inevitable respect and a touch of nostalgia for greatness passed.

NHRA Top Fuel 2009 champion Tony Schumacher.
Photo by NHRA.

The trick is to tune out the inevitable hype. Motor racing is after all a sport. But it remains a sport which happens to involve machines and danger, which puts physical skills at a rare premium. So it beckons greatness in a way very much different from a game on a field where players are, say, "outlined against a gray November sky."

On Sunday, Schumacher clinched his sixth straight Top Fuel title in the halcyon glow of Southern California and Johnson, barring disaster, put a headlock on a fourth Sprint Cup in the bright desert outside Phoenix.

In both cases, the message was clear as the sunshine. Talent. Some days and some years, you just can't beat it.

On the road again: This week's Q &A comes from a visit with US F1 owner and designer Ken Anderson last week at the team's shops in Huntersville, N.C., where Anderson was in the middle of preparations for the US F1 debut at the Formula One season opener next March in Bahrain.

Among other things, Anderson said he does not expect to finish the remaining crash tests for the nosebox and rear of US F1's car until late December or early January, choosing instead to spend more time on design. (The lateral test is complete.)

Q: How concerned are you about passing the FIA's mandated crash tests?

Anderson: "It's actually quite easy to pass if you design the parts right. Whatever piece it is, if it weighs ten pounds it will easily pass. But if it weighs nine pounds, eight pounds... . Toyota had 800 people and they had entire departments trying to save an ounce here and an ounce there.

"If you try to save 10 ounces so you can put more tungsten in the bottom of the car, that's a good thing. We're not going to lose the world championship next year because our crash structures are four ounces more than Ferrari's. It doesn't behoove us to go to the last gram.

"We're not going to spend six months crashing 50 noses."

Q: Nick Wirth was very successful designing the Acura ARX-02a using nothing but CFD. But he had two seasons with other Acura prototypes in the American Le Mans Series as a starting point. What results do you anticipate using CFD without having done a car previously?

Anderson: "We have some really good guys with current F1 knowledge. One of the guys we have (Steve Brown) was the head of R&D at Brawn and he got to touch every part of the car. It's not like we've been doing this in a vacuum. The other thing is, the specification of the Formula One cars the boundaries of where it can and can't be is far tighter than it used to be. It all comes from the Senna crash and the safety zones. That really dictates the shape of the car. You've got to be fairly creative like Adrian Newey was last year with Red Bull car to come up with a shape that's much different."

Design deparment.
Photo by US F1 Team.

Q: Given the fact he had a small team and no manufacturer backing, what Ross Brawn and his team have done this season in winning the F1 driving and constructor championships must give you some encouragement.

Anderson: "I was working with Ross at Williams in the early 1980's. That's when I first met (current partner) Peter Windsor. I was working for Penske (Racing Shocks) on shock stuff and I would go over to the wind tunnel every winter. I met this wind tunnel machinist, mechanic all-around good guy named Ross Brawn. We both come from a very similar hands-on approach."

Q: What are your thoughts about building an F1 car in America for the first time since Dan Gurney built his Eagles in the 1960's?

Anderson: "I grew up in the Sixties. When you look at the 1960's and 1970's, it was a very interesting time. We went to the moon. The cars went from skinny tires to rear engines, turbos, fat tires, wings, you know. It was fantastic.

"A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Roger Penske, Frank Williams. All these guys came from that era, Max (Mosley) and Bernie (Ecclestone), they're interesting guys. I feel very privileged to have worked with those guys. I'm very proud to be part of Formula 1. I'm certainly not the only guy to do it to have worked on both sides of the pond enough to understand what it takes and go for it. There's way smarter guys out there than me."

Clarity quotient? Last week, the Wall St. Journal listed NASCAR as fifth among sports organizers when it comes to the "clarity quotient" of its drug testing policy. Perhaps it's just a poor choice of words from one of the standards of American print media. But upon closer reading of the listed sports organizations and their policies, the swiftness and severity of punishment emerged as the key criteria. The lack of recourse by individuals accused ranked highly as well in the criteria. So by "clarity" this report means certainty of punishment.

A policy with real "clarity," when it implies fairness, would not leave those who are "clean," as the jargon goes, subject to so much confusion about what is and what isn't a violation. A policy such as NASCAR's without a clear list of drugs, including over-the-counter products, is more of an implied threat.

NASCAR's long history of different rules enforcement at different times for different individuals undermines the supposed clarity of its policy as well.

And speaking of clarity, there has yet to be any determination in motor racing that any supplement enhances a driver's chances of winning a race. Almost all the other sports organizations on the list are screening drugs primarily to prevent enhanced performance. So the drug policy at NASCAR smacks more of image-making and social engineering in a sport long associated with rough edges.

By testing only on Fridays, there's no assurance a driver cannot compete under the influence two days later and endanger other drivers or fans.

But a driver can lose an entire career if a test goes awry, given no alternative test available under NASCAR's rules by an independent lab.

See ya! ...At the races.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.