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Top Ten motorsports stories of 2012

Published December 19, 2012

There were many more than 10 “Top Ten” motorsports stories in 2012 but somebody had to bite the bullet and make the calls, so I nominated myself.

I’ll tell you about four right off the top that didn’t make it – but boy, were they close.

Dodge winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup and then withdrawing from the series. You guys never heard of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday?”

– Juan Pablo Montoya escaping death in the Daytona 500 when his car hit a jet dryer that exploded. It was the second time in three Daytona 500s that the race was delayed because of something that had nothing to do with racing. In 2010, there were two long delays because of potholes.

– Brad Keselowski attracting hundreds of thousands more fans to his Twitter account by tweeting during the lengthy red flag that followed Montoya’s accident – and NASCAR then forbidding him from doing it later in the season. Earth to NASCAR: Sprint sponsors the Sprint Cup and WANTS people to tweet.

Sebastien Loeb winning his ninth straight World Rally Championship title. What more is there to say?

So here are the Top Ten.

No. 1

Car owner Roger Penske and driver Brad Keselowski winning their first NASCAR Sprint Cup championships.

Penske, who’s dominated North American Indy car and sports car racing for decades, finally made it to the top step of the NASCAR podium after years of trying.

Keselowski comes from a racing family and won his first title on the basis of talent, moxy, drive and determination. Like champions in other leagues before him, he influenced Penske to build a team around him (he brought in his own crew chief, for starters). This title will likely be the first of many.

No. 2

Sebastian Vettel winning his third consecutive Formula One world championship, with Red Bull Racing (Christian Hornder, team principal; Adrien Newey, chief designer) scoring its third straight constructors championship.

After a slow start (he didn’t win his first race of 2012 until the fourth of the season, in Bahrain, and then he didn’t win again until the 14th of the year, in Singapore), Vettel finally got the bit between his teeth late in the season and ran off a string of victories that put him in front to stay.

Fernando Alonso had a brilliant season for Ferrari (Joann Villeneuve, widow of Gilles, told me that Alonso made a slow car fast this year) and finished second, only three points behind the champion. If Alonso doesn’t get taken out of two races, in which he scored zero points, he might be champion today.

And Kimi Raikkonen finished an astonishing third in points after being out of F1 for the previous two seasons, preferring to drive WRC cars and NASCAR trucks. He was consistent all year and won a race, at Abu Dhabi, near the end of the season. The Iceman is back and will be one to watch in 2013.

No. 3

Canada losing two major international races was a real kick in the teeth for motorsport in this country.

Gone from the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar in 2013 will be the Edmonton Grand Prix and the NASCAR Nationwide Series will not return to Montreal for the annual NAPA Auto Parts 200 either.

Both were crowd-pleasers and both were broadcast live over international television.

Both were promoted by Octane Management, Inc., owned by Francois Dumontier of Montreal, whose other company, Octane Racing Group, promotes the F1 Grand Prix du Canada. Dumontier said he was losing millions on both races and unable to continue. Critics suggested there were other reasons.

The Grand Prix is not affected.

As well as taking two important races off the national calendar, Dumontier’s decisions put the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in a bind. The stock cars were on the undercard in both Edmonton and Montreal and, when combined with losing a contract to race as part of the Honda Indy Toronto following the 2011 event, it meant the country’s only national racing series lost three major dates in 14 months.

No. 4

The branding of Mosport as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park knocked long-time Canadian racing fans for a loop.

Although selling the “naming rights” to North American sports arenas is a well-established practice (two exceptions, both in New York: Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium – some things are not for sale), the commercial branding of road racing circuits has never been popular. It has happened, though.

But Mazda incorporated the historic name of the circuit when it took over Laguna Seca race track in California and renamed it Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Infineon Raceway, named arfter the technologies group, was previously Sears Point but Sears Point started life many years ago as Golden Gate Raceway so name-changes at the San Francisco-area circuit are not uncommon.

But Watkins Glen, Road America, Road Atlanta, Daytona, Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio, Le Circuit-Mont Tremblant and on and on are storied names that live on.

Now, with the branding of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the internationally known, loved and respected “Mosport” is no more.

Would they change the name of Silverstone? Brands Hatch? Monza?

Would it have been hard to incorporate “Mosport’ into the new name?

Of course not, which is a shame and short-sighted because, as will inevitably happen, at some point somebody in control of Canadian Tire is going to decide not to continue the arrangement, and what then?

On the bright side, the announcement of a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race there on Labour Day weekend in 2013 is a wonderful, positive step as new owners Carlo Fidani and Ron Fellows strive to update the aging facility to 2013 standards.

No. 5

D.J. Kennington’s winning of the 2012 NASCAR Canadian Tire Series championship was one of the most dominant displays of race-driving ever seen in all of Canadian motorsport.

En route to winning his second national title in three years, Kennington won seven of the 12 races , a series record; five in a row for another record; and six of the seven oval-track races, also a record. He also scored the most top five finishes in a single season.

His performance during the last race of year, at Kawartha Speeedway near Peterborough, was inspiring. Having to finish 21st or better to clinch the title, he left no doubt about his intentions: he flat went out and won it.

In short, it was a banner year.

Which is a good thing, because there are – as they say – signs.

Signs of what, I don’t know. But they are there.

For the first time in his life, D.J. has a job outside of racing. He’s working for the county where he lives, which means (gulp) that he’s making pension contributions.

And he became the father of a son, Chase, just a few weeks ago.

You may now speculate about what all this means.

No. 6

Two women professional drag racers winning championships on the same day served to illustrate how women have shattered motorsport’s glass ceiling.

From Janet Guthrie at Indianapolis to Shirley Muldowney in Top Fuel dragsters to Danica Patrick about to become the first woman to compete full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, women racers have come a long way, baby.

On Aug. 5, at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals near Seattle, rookie Funny Car driver Courtney Force finished first in her class for the first time and Erica Enders won her second Pro Stock championship.

Auto racing is perhaps the only sport in the world where women can compete equally with men and more are not only getting involved but are becoming successful.

As 15-times NHRA Funny Car champion John Force (and father of Courtney) said: “It’s always been a man’s sport – but the rules are changing.”

No. 7

CEO Randy Bernard’s firing by the IZOD IndyCar Series, although – according to some – justified, is yet another negative that Indy car racing is going to have to overcome.

Although the racing was great in 2012 and Oakville native James Hinchcliffe succeeding Danica Patrick in the Go Daddy car and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s winning his first championship were good stories, the off-track soap opera continued apace and garnered most of the headlines.

These included stories suggesting that Tony George was trying to buy back the series, Bernard himself tweeting that some of the team owners were plotting to get rid of him, driver Scott Dixon being penalized for something he didn’t do because race officials were watching THE WRONG REPLAY (I’m not making that up; can you see that happening in the NFL? ) and an absurd rule that penalized drivers for teams having to change leased engines before their time, which saw 11 drivers at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – nearly half the field – assessed 10-grid-position penalties. (A guy who qualified 20th was made to go back to the last race. Okay, I made that up but it shows how absurd the whole thing was.)

Now there’s a new fellow in charge. His name’s Mark Miles. He kinda sounds a lot like Bernard when he came in – someone who made another sport a raging success, in his case tennis rather than Bernard’s bull-riding, and somebody else thinking he’d be perfect for IndyCar.

And he’s starting out pretty much the same way, too: slowly, learning names, learning who’s who, learning the sport.

How many more times Indy car racing will be able to get away with this is anyone’s guess. But while some people are suggesting there will be about the same number of cars on the grid in 2013 as there were in 2012 – 25 or 26 – I say car count will be a concern as sponsorship (and interest generally) dwindles because of all the nonsense.

No. 8

A.J. Allmendinger’s failed drug test and then his relatively quick return to Sprint Cup competition toward the end of the season.

People shook their heads when Allmendinger, a former Champ Car driver who made the switch to NASCAR and was given the ride of a lifetime by Roger Penske, failed a random drug test early in the summer. Penske fired him, as a result.

Although the story of the circumstances changed several times – his management team would say one thing and the Dinger would say another – Allmendinger eventually ‘fessed up to the fact that a friend had offered him what he thought was an energy pill (it was Adderall, an amphetamine) and he “foolishly” took it (you betcha).

But he proceeded to do something that none of the other NASCAR stars who’d flunked drug tests (Jeremy Mayfield, Aaron Fyke, come on down) had done previously: he immediately entered and completed NASCAR’s drug treatment program (called the Road to Recovery).

And then the stars aligned and he was in the right place at the right time in October (Kurt Busch went to Furniture Row Racing early and Phoenix Racing needed a driver) and he finished the year back in Cup.

Whether his rehabilitation will continue in 2013 is unknown at this point. He’s looking for a ride in any series but hasn’t received a firm offer.

No. 9

The signing of McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton by Mercedes to replace the second-time-retiring Michael Schumacher had (and continues to have) Formula One watchers scratching their heads.

With McLaren, Hamilton – who won one world championship with the marque – could expect continuing to win races. In 2012, McLaren won seven times and Lewis was the driver for four of them. Nico Rosberg won but one race for Mercedes.

There are suggestions that it all has to do with money and the exploitation of Hamilton’s brand. At McLaren, he was contractually hamstrung when it came to personal sponsorship but there apparently are no such restrictions at Mercedes and so long as he fulfills the testing, racing and PR obligations of his contract, he’s pretty much free to do what he wants on his own time.

But I have a friend who sees something more sinister. He suggests Bernie Ecclestone, McLaren and Mercedes cooked this “trade” up for two reasons: that the Mercedes board was lukewarm, at best, about continuing in F1 but now, with the addition of one of the top three stars in F1, they are firmly behind continuing; and/or McLaren wanted to find a way to continue with Mercedes engines in their cars going forward and Lewis’ driving for Mercedes is simply the price they had to pay of doin’ business.

We’ll find out in 2013 how things work out, won’t we?

No. 10

Roger Penske using the end-of-season NASCAR awards banquet to both plug the Indianapolis 500 and to try to get the open-wheel-drivers-to-NASCAR scenario reversed.

Penske, who received the Sprint Cup along with his driver Brad Keselowski, used his acceptance speech to suggest to Tony Stewart that if Tony wanted to do “the double” in 2013, Penske would have a car and crew ready for him.

Within a day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway let it be known it would move back the time of the Indianapolis 500 so that Stewart – and any other NASCAR stars who wanted to take a shot (Danica Patrick, for instance) – would have more time to finish that race and get to Charlotte in time for the start of the same-day Coca-Cola 600.

Several days later, Stewart met with Penske and said he’d like to try but that he wouldn’t do it. He said IndyCar is too competitive for a driver to just “show up” and expect to win and that he was too involved with his NASCAR operation to even begin to think about it.

Now, ever since Jeff Gordon called every team owner in CART in 1990 and asked for a ride, only to be rebuffed again and again, thus sending him south to race in NASCAR, supermodified, midget and sprint car drivers don’t consider for a second a career in Indy cars.

Since Gordon went to stock cars, so have Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Stewart, Patrick and any number of others.

If Stewart and Patrick did “the double,” you can bet pressure would be on some of the others to give it a shot, too. NASCAR is a Goliath but the Indianapolis 500 is still the biggest and most prestigious race in the world and most racing drivers would like to have it on their CVs.

The feeling is that a good performance in the Indy 500 might whet the appetite of some of the other NASCAR drivers to give the whole circuit a try. After all, Cale Yarborough drove at Indy in the late 1960s and liked it so much that he left stock cars for the Indy-car circuit in 1970 (he wasn’t very good in an open-cockpit car, so went back to the taxis where he excelled).

In any event, Roger Penske is always thinking, always plotting, always looking for an angle, an edge. He fights fair but he fights really hard, too.

He knew exactly what he was doing when he stood up at that NASCAR function and started kidding around about Tony Stewart driving for him at Indianapolis.

Exactly what he was doing.

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