Thoughts on a New Racing Season

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While the 2013 motorsports season has yet to get going with actual racing and we’ll have to wait a little longer (although, not too much longer thankfully) before digesting any on-track results, the season ahead figures to be an interesting one on several fronts.

I tend to not be in favour of making predictions at this time of year, primarily because I’m often wrong and with so much yet to transpire, it’s difficult to say which stories, events and personalities are going to capture our imagination as the year unfolds.

With that said, here are some stories (some of which have already begun to play out) I’ll be keeping my eye on in the coming weeks and months.

IZOD IndyCar Series

As surely just about everyone knows by now, former president and CEO Randy Bernard resigned last October (many think he was forced out, myself included), and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Jeff Belskus is now in charge of leading IndyCar, at least for the time being. A search for a permanent replacement is ongoing, although there hasn’t been much talk about how that process is going in the past month or so.

The search for Bernard’s long-term replacement is one of several intriguing stories that loom large over the sport as 2013 begins.

Year two of manufacturer competition is set to begin between Chevrolet and Honda, but with Lotus gone after just one year, is there a manufacturer interested in stepping into the void to give the entrenched players a run for their money? The answer to that question is maybe.

Engine builder John Judd, owner of Engine Developments Limited (EDL), the U.K.-based firm that designed and built Lotus-badged IndyCar engines last year told SPEED’s Marshall Pruett last month that he’s interested in working with another manufacturer to supply engines to the series again. In fact, Judd claims that the engines built last year can be more much more competitive than they were provided a new manufacturer is willing to invest in performance improvements EDL has identified. The biggest reason for the engine’s relatively poor performance in 2012 was the program’s lack of adequate funding from Lotus.

The opportunity might be intriguing to manufacturers interested in supplying engines to IndyCar, but may not wish to spend the time and money required to develop a new engine from scratch. I think Judd will find a willing partner, but probably not until next year.

Other aspects that will bear watching are the revamped schedule featuring three doubleheaders and the return of venues that have been absent from the calendar for some time (Pocono and Houston), and a reshuffled grid.

Driver movement has slowed over the past couple of months, but a flurry of activity is likely to ensue in the coming weeks, especially once the mandatory test ban is lifted on Jan.15. Ryan Briscoe is one of the more accomplished drivers currently looking for a new home in 2013 after spending the past five seasons with Team Penske.

ALMS-Grand-Am Merger

Although the newly merged sports car series won’t take to the track until next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, 2013 figures to be a momentous one for those connected to the North American sports car scene.

A new class structure was just announced at the end of last week, and it will be interesting to see which teams decide to stay where they are, change classes or leave the sport altogether.

As we saw back in 2008 during the IRL-Champ Car merger in open-wheel, some car owners weren’t willing to spend large sums of money on new cars once their existing machinery was declared obsolete. Forsythe Racing, which had been a dominant team in Champ Car, is a notable example of a team that shut down rather than move to a merged entity that was based on someone else’s rules and equipment. I’d be shocked if one or more of those teams – particularly those on the ALMS side – don’t wind up doing the same thing.

It’s worth noting the divide that has existed between ALMS and Grand-Am for more than a decade was just as wide as the one that existed in open-wheel. Simply put, the partisan feelings and philosophical differences on both sides aren’t likely to just disappear, regardless of all of the happy talk emanating from the leadership of both series at the moment. For some car owners, 2013 will be their last in competition, even if they haven’t told anyone else yet.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but for more on the ALMS-Grand-Am merger be sure to check out my colleague George Webster’s blog post on the subject here.

Canadian Scene

With so many changes in store for the upcoming Canadian racing season, it’s easier to start with what will carry over from last year before getting into the new stuff. Three of the biggest events – F1 Grand Prix of Canada, Honda Indy Toronto and the ALMS Grand Prix of Mosport – will return in their usual slots on the calendar, but two others will be noticeably absent.

The Edmonton Indy (a stalwart on Champ Car and IndyCar schedules since 2005) and the NASCAR Nationwide Series event in Montreal (contested every year since 2007) were both casualties of challenging economics that proved to be unworkable according to Octane Management, the promoter of both events. Neither will return in 2013, and it seems unlikely either IndyCar or NASCAR will stage similar events in those cities again. However, both have expressed interest in bringing more races to Canada, but what those events will look like and where they will be staged is anyone’s guess. IndyCar has indicated it would like to have two Canadian dates on its 2014 calendar, but has yet to say where a second race will land.

While the departure of those events are tough pills for fans in Edmonton and Montreal to swallow, for those living in Southern Ontario the off-season has brought some exciting news thanks to the confirmation that Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport International Raceway) will host a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the Labour Day Weekend. The event will be the first Truck race held outside of the U.S., and the first top touring series race (Truck, Nationwide, Sprint Cup) to be held at the track. It will also mark the first time the series has raced on a road course since 2000 (Watkins Glen).

Finally, a prominent story worth staying in touch with is the fate of the Canadian Motor Speedway (CMS), a proposed one-mile oval track near Fort Erie, Ontario designed to seat up to 65,000 spectators. The developers got what appeared to be a green light to begin construction in the near future when the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) dismissed all outstanding appeals in a ruling handed down last November. However, an environmental group known as Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) has filed an appeal, which the OMB will hear later this month via teleconference.

Could this appeal have a significant impact on the project’s future? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Azhar Mohammed, executive director of the CMS has dismissed the appeal as little more than a ‘stall tactic’ in a recent article in the Fort Erie Times. He remains confident the project will move forward. On the other hand, a PALS member who was interviewed for the same article expressed confidence this appeal would succeed where the group’s previous efforts have failed.

Given that this project has been ‘coming soon’ for nearly five years and ground has still not been broken, I remain sceptical about its prospects. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but I still think we’re a long way from seeing racing in Fort Erie.

Photo by Michael Levitt / LAT Photo USA

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