Jason Leffler

When youth is lost: We’ll never fully witness Jules Bianchi’s greatness

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Death in racing is always a hard thing to swallow, no matter the driver or individual involved, no matter the age.

Yet it’s when drivers are taken before they have the opportunity to reach the zenith of their potential that the hurt cuts deeper.

Jules Bianchi, who was 25, is now one of those drivers.

Admittedly, Bianchi’s crash last year at Suzuka always had a severity and magnitude that would forever alter his career trajectory.

If he survived, he’d need a miracle. If granted that miracle, he’d need another miracle to race again. If he’d secured two miracles, he’d need another chance to advance from Marussia into Ferrari, where he was always destined to drive.

It never happened. It never had a chance of happening.

What has followed the last nine months has been almost as excruciating, if not more so, than the immediate impact itself.

But while the last nine months have still provided a glimmer of hope, however scant or remote, the late news Friday confirms the fact that Bianchi will never have that chance to show the world his greatness once more.

With young drivers, often all you have to judge them on is potential, a word I consider one of the most dangerous in the English language.

When you’re branded with “potential,” it means you have talent – God-given or otherwise acquired as you develop – and it’s up to you to fully exploit it. You do so by how you fare in your opportunities and how you work with the people around you to maximize your result in whatever discipline you’re in.

In racing, that’s a word often bestowed on young drivers, sometimes with merit, sometimes with hope.

Jules Bianchi had potential. He had metric tons of it.

The kid was destined for Ferrari for the better part of five years, if not longer, and his performances in merely his first year and a half on the F1 grid showcased what was going to be the start of an impressive career.

It was the 2013 equivalent of Alonso at Minardi or Senna at Toleman. A Marussia-Cosworth had no business being where it was those first few Grands Prix.

Yet Bianchi emerged as a superstar after he’d been drafted into the seat only at the last minute, carrying a steely resolve from the off after being passed over at Force India for Adrian Sutil and then taking over at Marussia once Luiz Razia’s sponsor backed out.

He’d starred in the junior categories as well, which vaulted him into his potential superstardom.

This was all before Monaco, of course, and now that most famous ninth place finish.

But there are names now that Bianchi will forever be compared with: those gone too talented, gone way too soon.

In my lifetime, it’s Greg Moore and Sean Edwards – like Bianchi, two fairly shy, humble, down-to-earth, yet beautiful personalities outside the cockpit who once their helmets went on, unleashed their inner beasts.

Moore was only 24. He, like Bianchi, was all but destined for the top team – he’d signed with Team Penske to join the team for its rebranded, relaunched and recalibrated 2000 CART season along with Gil de Ferran. He’d not had the best equipment in his four years in CART but he often made the most of it, starring on ovals but frequently slowed by mechanical woes.

His death was sudden, and abrupt. He lost control off Turn 2 at what was then-California Speedway before his car hit the grass, went over backwards and into the wall – cockpit-side first – in one of the most horrific accidents I’ve ever witnessed.

Moore’s successor, Helio Castroneves, has been with Team Penske ever since. He’s won three Indianapolis 500s, won 29 races and come second in the championship four times over an illustrious 16-year period of his own.

Edwards, who was 26, was destined for sports car superstardom. Just type in “Sean Edwards Nurburgring” on YouTube. Do it right now. Or wait ‘til you’ve finished reading. But either way, do it soon.

Heroics at the “Green Hell” were merely a fraction of Edwards’ arsenal and he would have all but certainly joined the ranks of Porsche factory drivers, if another manufacturer didn’t swoop him up first. Who knows if he, and not new recruits Nick Tandy and/or Earl Bamber, might have got the nod for an LMP1 ride at Le Mans this year?

We’ll never know, sadly, after an abnormal type of crash where he was killed in the passenger’s seat in a training accident in Australia. Not that it helps ease the pain any, but Edwards’ death was a catalyst for the Motorsport Safety Foundation – which is doing great work to make racing safer – to hit its next level. The Sean Edwards Foundation has been active in improvements, as well.

There are countless others, of course. NASCAR rising stars Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. were cruelly lost within months of each other at the same track in 2000. Jason Leffler starred on short tracks, but never had the right timing in NASCAR or open-wheel on big ones. Tony Renna had the best chance to succeed in open-wheel when he’d signed with Chip Ganassi Racing. Allan Simonsen showcased his ability in sports cars, most notably at Bathurst. Jeff Krosnoff was in a first-year engine program when he finally got his CART shot. Gonzalo Rodriguez raced and beat Juan Pablo Montoya in F3000 and impressed in limited CART races with Team Penske before his accident.

From an F1 perspective, we’re perhaps fortunate we don’t have recent examples – Bianchi is the first driver to die in a race meeting since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the nightmare weekend that was the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

But drivers like Stefan Bellof, Tony Brise, Roger Williamson, Tom Pryce and Francois Cevert – the latter of whom had won Grands Prix but not yet a World Championship – are among those where the talent was there, and the future was there, before all lost their battles.

Bianchi’s battle ends on the day when his all-but-destined future seat looks set to be filled by someone else. And it’s not that Valtteri Bottas isn’t deserving – he is – if and when he is officially confirmed by the Scuderia.

Yet the pain here for race insiders, observers and fans is that we’ll never know what Jules Bianchi could have fully achieved on the track.

TriStar Motorsports announces several changes to its corporate and four-team Xfinity Series lineup

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A busy off-season continues for TriStar Motorsports, which announced several personnel changes to the growing four-team Xfinity Series operation.

Here’s a rundown of who’s new, who has returned and who will have new duties for the 2015 season, per a team media release:

* Former TriStar general manager Keith Barnwell has returned to the team as the new Executive Vice President of Motorsports for 2015. Barnwell has a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 win as a spotter for Jamie McMurray in addition to two XFINITY Series Championships.

* NASCAR veteran Rick Viers joins as the organization’s new general manager. Viers has a long and colorful history as both a crew chief and tire changer. He was with Harry Gant when he won four races in a row, as well as was part of Dale Earnhardt’s team when he won the Brickyard 400.

* Bruce Cook is the new crew chief for the No. 8 Toyota Camry driven by Blake Koch. Cook’s previous career stops include JR Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Kevin Harvick Inc.

* Veteran crew chief Wes Ward moves to a new role as shop foreman. Among drivers Ward worked with previously as a crew chief are Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.

* Eddie Pardue is the new crew chief for Cale Conley’s No. 14 Toyota Camry for 2015. Pardue was previously TriStar’s competition director. Pardue’s previous crew chief stints included working with Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and the late Jason Leffler.

* NASCAR Veteran Mike Bliss extends his partnership with TriStar Motorsports for a fifth straight season. Paul Clapprood returns as Bliss’ crew chief. The pair come into 2015 with 133 starts together.

* Greg Conner remains as crew chief for the No. 44 Toyota Camry for a third straight season. Announcements of who will drive the No. 44, as well as sponsorship, is expected to be announced in the next few weeks.

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Scott Zipadelli named crew chief for Ben Kennedy in Truck series

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After eight seasons as a crew chief in the Nationwide Series (now Xfinity Series), it’s time for Scott Zipadelli to do a little truckin’.

Zipadelli was named Friday as crew chief for Ben Kennedy and the No. 11 Red Horse Racing Toyota Tundra for the 2015 Camping World Truck Series.

While it will be the first go-round for Zipadelli in the Truck series, he’s eager to get started.

“Red Horse Racing is a well-respected organization that has had a lot of success in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and I am very excited to be a part of it,” Zipadelli said in a media release. “Ben (Kennedy) is a talented driver and I have high expectations for him and the No. 11 team.

“(Kennedy) had an outstanding rookie season, and our goal this year is to win races and put ourselves in position to contend for the 2015 championship.”

Kennedy, 22, won NCWTS Rookie of the Year honors in 2014 after a season that saw him earn one top-five and seven top-10 finishes. He also finished an impressive ninth in the season standings.

He signed last month with Red Horse Racing after competing for the now-defunct Turner Scott Motorsports partnership in 2014.

Kennedy is the great grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and son of International Speedway Corp. president Lesa France Kennedy.

“Scott Zipadelli has great experience on top of the pit box and brings a lot to the program,” Kennedy said. “I am really looking forward to working with him and can’t wait to unload our No. 11 Toyota Tundra at Daytona in February.”

Zipadelli was crew chief for 253 Nationwide Series races from 2007 through 2014, earning three wins – including two last season with Kyle Larson.

He also earned 32 top-five and 86 top-10 finishes, plus two poles.

Zipadelli’s best season atop the pit box came in 2009, when late driver Jason Leffler finished ninth, as well as 2013, when driver Justin Allgaier finished fifth.

Scott is the younger brother of Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, and who served as crew chief for two of team co-owner Tony Stewart’s three Sprint Cup championships.

“We are very happy to have Scott Zipadelli join the Red Horse Racing family,” Red Horse owner Tom DeLoach said. “He is a great addition to our leadership here. I have set the bar high for this group in 2015, and expect great things.”

The first race of the 22-race Truck series schedule is the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, Feb. 20. 

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With 2 championships in 4 years, Gene Haas is now one of NASCAR’s elite owners

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While it’s people that build championship-winning teams, the success or failure of an organization ultimately rests with one person: the team owner.

How an organization performs, how it overcomes adversity and how it establishes a long-term linage, not to mention assembling the right people in the right positions is a direct reflection of the guy who signs the checks.

That’s why individuals like Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs and others have thrived for so long. The man at the top of the heap fosters a winning attitude that is contagious within the organization.

There is no room for mediocrity or failure. As the late Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

And that’s particularly true in NASCAR, where second place is indeed the first loser, as Ricky Bobby wisely told us.

From the time he entered Sprint Cup competition as an owner in 2002 until the end of the 2008 season, Gene Haas achieved little success and significant failure in NASCAR.

In 284 starts over that period of time, what was then known as Haas CNC Racing failed to win even one race, managed just one top-5 and only 14 top-10 finishes.

To say Haas’ teams were not competitive is an understatement. They finished on the lead lap in just 79 of those 284 starts, roughly once every four races.

During that tenure, Haas employed a number of different drivers, including Ward Burton, Mike Bliss, Jeff Green, Johnny Sauter, Scott Riggs, Jack Sprague, John Andretti, the late Jason Leffler, Jeremy Mayfield, Max Papis, Tony Raines and Ken Schrader.

None brought success.

In fact, the best season finishes in Haas CNC history were back-to-back 28th place showings, by Bliss in 2005 and Green in 2006.

Lack of success was something Haas simply was not used to in his life. He became a very wealthy manufacturer of industrial equipment.

And when you’re used to success, you can tolerate failure for only so long before taking action.

Seven seasons was enough for Haas.

When he offered a 50 percent ownership equity stake to Tony Stewart to form a “new” team following the 2008 season, it was not an easy choice for Stewart to make.

Stewart had been with Joe Gibbs Racing since he first came to NASCAR in 1999, earning a pair of championships along the way in 2002 and again in 2005.

But when Gibbs switched from Chevrolet to Toyota in 2008, Stewart was not enamored after a nearly 15-year relationship with Chevrolet or General Motors.

When Haas told Stewart he would campaign Chevys and either buy or lease equipment from Hendrick Motorsports, the preeminent organization in NASCAR, Stewart learned one very important lesson:

Just how bound and determined Haas was to turn his organization into a winner.

Stewart took Haas up on his offer and three seasons later, Stewart and SHR were Sprint Cup champs in 2011.

Three years after that, Kevin Harvick would earn SHR its second championship in the last four seasons.

Since forming SHR with Stewart prior to the 2009 season, the organization as a whole has made 540 starts and come away with 25 race wins, 103 top-5 and 204 top-10 finishes.

Success has begotten success with Haas. He’s building a top-flight organization that will compete in Formula One beginning in 2016.

He’s given opportunities to succeed to Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. He’s stuck by Stewart through thick and thin, particularly in light of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

Haas turns 62 on Thursday. At a time when other owners might start thinking about retiring, he’s essentially just getting started.

He has now moved into the upper echelon of team owners in the sport, right up there with the Hendricks, Gibbs and Penskes.

Gone are the days of 28th-place season finishes.

Gone are the days of hoping to win a race, yet never taking that checkered flag.

Gone are the days where, frankly, Haas CNC Racing was little more than an afterthought in the world of Sprint Cup racing.

Now, it’s become one of the most successful and potent organizations in the sport.

Back in the early years of his NASCAR tenure, Haas would find himself somewhere near the back of the room during the annual awards banquet. After all, there was little to reward or award him for.

But now, if things continue going in the direction they have the last four seasons, much like he was during Friday’s awards banquet, Haas may indeed remain at the head table for a lot more years to come.

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Markus Niemela on dirt racing: “This is a really, really hard sport to be good at”

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For former Formula Atlantic champion Markus Niemela, poor timing and a lack of a suitable opportunity in either Formula One or IndyCar ultimately stunted his open-wheel path.

He won the 2008 Atlantic title over Jonathan Bomarito and Jonathan Summerton, and the field also included drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, Dane Cameron and Simona de Silvestro among others.

The talented Finn, who raced in GP2 before moving to America, didn’t give up on his racing dreams though.

Shortly after his last Atlantic season in 2009 – the series’ last before coming back under different sanction several years later – Niemela made the switch to dirt racing and running sprint cars.

He was in the news last week after having a scary accident at Perris Auto Speedway, where a freak parts failure led to him somersaulting into the wall. Niemela emerged largely unscathed with only minor injuries.

But it’s worth noting the incident came after a year when Niemela had his best season yet in four on dirt.

He finished second in the USAC West Coast Sprint Car Championship behind Matt Mitchell (659 points to 631), which marks the best season result ever for any European driver in USAC.

That’s no small accomplishment, and that’s very impressive to note for the now 30-year-old native of Rauma, Finland, who has since moved to Santa Barbara, California.

MotorSportsTalk caught up with Niemela over the weekend to touch base on his career shift and to help further explain why dirt racing is so tantalizing, and how he’s developed over four years.

“Shifting to dirt was in all honesty much harder than I thought and I might have started off with a bit too big ego to start with,” Niemela admitted. “I was quite fast right away when the track was in a good shape and logical to drive, but honestly after four years of dirt tracks I still haven’t quite figured out in how many ways the track changes throughout the night. You just can’t have ‘a driving style’ in dirt racing because you need to adapt in so many different things. Almost every lap is different.”

And with that, Niemela admitted there is still plenty that he can keep learning as he continues to grow and develop.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, and the one thing I still need to learn the most, is to change my driving fast enough to keep up with the track, other cars, lapped traffic, etc.,” he said. “Also you need to be very aware of your surroundings all the time because there are cars all over the place, and you don’t have mirrors nor spotters.”

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Markus Niemela’s No. 73. Photo credit: Robert Hargraves, via Facebook

Coming from formula cars, Niemela discussed the excitement of dirt racing and how seriously different it is. He spoke of the rawness of the arena, as well.

“Dirt racing is exciting because there is something going on the whole time and the race is not determined by the qualifying result,” he said. “Anything can happen and you always need to be awake. Dirt racing’s biggest plus and minus for me is the same thing: it’s just so raw form of sport. It’s good thing because there’s no bulls—, and also the danger element is kind of exciting for someone coming from formula cars that are very safe in general.

“But on the other hand, the biggest negative is the danger element too,” he added. “When I was racing formula cars I thought the stupidest question to ask a race car driver was about their fears – honestly since I started racing at the age of 6 in karting through all the formula car classes I had not once been afraid or thought I might get hurt or die doing it. Pretty soon after I started racing sprint cars the s— got real very fast and all of the sudden I didn’t feel immortal anymore…”

Unfortunately for sprint car racing, and dirt racing in general, safety has been a hot-button issue the last two years in the wake of Jason Leffler’s fatal accident last June, Tony Stewart’s crash and leg injury last August, and Stewart’s car striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. earlier this year.

Niemela discussed safety and what dirt racing can do moving forward to continue the improvement.

“The risk for big crashes is in the very nature of our sport and that cannot be eliminated without changing the very fundaments of it and we definitely should not do that,” Niemela said. “The key is to learn to keep the drivers alive despite a big crash.

“Comparing to European racing and formula cars, in dirt racing the safety is left more for drivers and teams to take care of than the sanctioning body to babysit. I can understand it though since it’s the drivers who get hurt if something goes wrong. The safety goes forward and we learn from each crash but unfortunately price for this learning curve can be very high (and I’m not talking about money here).

“That’s why I feel it would be nice to get information from what went wrong and what went right with each crash so that those (drivers and teams) willing to educate themselves could do so. That’s why I find also the posting of my own crash video to be a good thing. We should definitely not push the responsibility to any third party authority but expect the teams and drivers work with safety gear manufacturers and make things even better. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement.”

If there’s one thing Niemela would want to see cleared up about dirt racing, it’s that the talent and passion in the sport is immense.

“The biggest misconception is that this dirt racing is just bunch of rednecks having fun and drifting in random, easy circles,” he said. “This is actually a really, really hard sport to be good at. Some of these guys race 120 times per year and have done it all their life.

“Their faces might be dirty, they aren’t sponsored by Rolex and some of their necks might be a little red, but that’s not the point; point is that these guys are the best at what they do, no questions asked.

“I was quite close to landing a F1 deal after my Atlantic title in ’08 and I very much overlooked all the oval track racing and thought it was just plain dumb and easy. After getting constantly lapped by not-so-athletic, old sprint car veterans in local shows during my first year on dirt, my respect has grown a lot and still is growing.

“I think it’s been an big honor to lead the USAC championship most of the season here on the west coast and even if we ended up second in the points I still consider that as a personal achievement; which I never did when I finished second in my previous life in formula cars (or karting).”

We’re happy to see Niemela’s career come to the point where he’s now a bona fide title contender on dirt, and we thank him for his time and candid insights.