Le Mans: 2014 race and week observations

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Another year, and another 24 Hours of Le Mans is in the books. Here’s a number of brief thoughts and observations after the week that was, with the race now completed to add to my thoughts heading into the race.

  • Audi rolls over the media, again: In 2010, Audi was viewed as the underdog with a heavily revised version of the R15+ chassis, and Peugeot had three bullets that were expected to dominate … and then did before blowing their engines all within a two or three-hour period. Audi ended 1-2-3. In 2014, Toyota was viewed as having its best chance to win, and then did dominate with the No. 7 car before an electrical failure around 5 a.m. tossed them out. Porsche put up a good fight for its first effort, but this was a race where Audi once again proved they are the kings of Le Mans until otherwise dethroned.
  • Cleaner, safer race than expected: The worry I had going in was that the carnage that peppered practice and qualifying was going to do likewise on race day. There were still a number of incidents, and the brief rain deluge in the second hour proved chaotic, but overall, it was not a day where we had to worry about heavy accidents. The retirement rate was rather low, and primarily as a result of mechanical issues rather then accidents.
  • Poignant GTE-Am win: You can’t publicly root for any particular entry as a reporter, but, it was hard not to root for the No. 95 Young Driver AMR all-Danish entry for Aston Martin Racing in the GTE-Am class, a year after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident. For Nicki Thiim, David Heinemeier Hansson and Kristian Poulsen, it was a flawless drive interrupted only by a couple brief scares in the final hour. I briefly stopped by the Aston Martin garage post-race, where joy was the overflowing emotion after last year’s heartbreak. And for DHH, from an actual racing standpoint, it was a brilliant recovery after a second place in LMP2 last year – the Danish programming ace has quickly developed into one of the world’s top, fastest and cleanest gentlemen drivers.
  • Heavy variety in LMP1, GTE-Pro; not as much in LMP2, GTE-Am: Relative to the number of cars entered in each class (9 LMP1, 17 LMP2, 1 experimental, 9 GTE-Pro, 18 GTE-Am), the two all-pro classes featured the best amount of variety. Audi, Porsche and Toyota all led in LMP1 and with mechanical issues affecting most of those seven cars, Rebellion Racing was there to capitalize with a surprise, yet impressive, fourth place overall finish in the LMP1-L Rebellion R-One Toyota. In GTE-Pro, all four manufacturers entered (Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette) and the BoP was much closer than a year ago. It made for a thrilling race throughout that as my colleague Luke Smith mentioned yesterday, featured a margin of victory wide of the mark of how close it actually was. But with really only three or four cars pacing LMP2 and GTE-Am, there wasn’t much in terms of diversity there. Maybe that made it easier to follow?
  • America’s day: Corvette Racing flew the flag for the U.S. with a runner-up finish in GTE-Pro, with the No. 73 car driven by Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor. A valve stem breakage on a pit stop cost them nearly two laps, ultimately the margin of victory to the class-winning No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia.
  • Big crowd: The ACO announced a crowd of 263,300 spectators for the race – and you could tell how many were on the grounds in trips into and out of the 8.4-mile circuit. There’s nothing else in the world like Le Mans.

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”