Looking back on motorsports’ 2014 “Festivus” moments

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Today is December 23, which means only one thing: It’s Festivus.

The fictional holiday created by Jerry Stiller’s Frank Costanza in Seinfeld lives on more than 15 years after its debut. If by some chance you’ve never heard of it, here’s a link.

What does this have to do with motorsports, you ask? It represents a perfect time for MotorSportsTalk to outline its 2014 “feats of strength” and “airing of grievances.”

FEATS OF STRENGTH

These were occasions where people pinned others down, or emerged victorious from battle:

  • Mercedes winning 16 of 19 Formula 1 races and their two drivers essentially saving the season by racing between each other for the win, and championship.
  • Lewis Hamilton emerging ahead of Nico Rosberg after their titanic tussle in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
  • Daniel Ricciardo winning at Montreal, Budapest and Spa. The Budapest drive in particular, where Ricciardo passed a couple World Champions in the process, was incredible to watch.
  • Pirelli making tires all year that were durable, yet went off when they were supposed to, and not being a story after being a story for all the wrong reasons in 2013.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s emotions after winning the Daytona 500 and Martinsville. Few victory lane celebrations have looked so pure and raw.
  • A.J. Allmendinger beating Marcos Ambrose to the Watkins Glen win, in one of the best finishes to a race this season.
  • Ryan Newman punting Kyle Larson out of the way at Phoenix to make the Championship 4 finale at Homestead.
  • Kevin Harvick’s final stint at Homestead that saw him rise from 12th to win and score both the win and the championship.
  • Harvick’s win delivering on his “Closer” nickname, and saving NASCAR from a potential winless champion in Newman.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay making both that move in Turn 3 and then, a couple laps later, another move in Turn 1 to edge Helio Castroneves for the Indianapolis 500 victory.
  • Will Power finally winning the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
  • Mikhail Aleshin – and the structural safety cell of his Dallara DW12 chassis – surviving a vicious impact against the catch fencing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
  • The Taylor brothers emerging victorious after a great, beat-and-bang last lap battle against the Action Express Corvette at the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race in Detroit.

AIRING OF GRIEVANCES

These were cases I had a lot of problems with this year, where people got mad and it led to controversy, contact, drama, tragedy or all of the above:

  • Everything about the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy in August. There were no winners and it led to so much angst, as the biggest racing story of the year.
  • Matt Kenseth vs. Brad Keselowski at Charlotte.
  • Jeff Gordon vs. Keselowski at Texas (captured so brilliantly here by NASCAR satirist @Nascarcasm).
  • Mercedes’ reaction to the Rosberg-Hamilton contact at Spa.
  • Everything about Ferrari this year. Three team principals, countless staff changes, and Fernando Alonso’s long, drawn out departure. How does Maranello find its way back?
  • McLaren’s delay in announcing its 2015 driver lineup.
  • Caterham and Marussia’s demise. I hated to see them fade away, even though they did so in different ways. Caterham’s situation could best be described as an ongoing cluster given their management and financial turmoil – I termed it “Clusterham” – while Marussia’s demise was quick, hasty and sad after the Suzuka accident.
  • The Long Beach crash where Hunter-Reay went for it and came up empty… oy vey.
  • The post-standing start crash for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis… again, oy vey.
  • Power vs. rival Simon Pagenaud the first half of the season. It was good to have a rivalry but it seemed almost a bit overplayed by the time we got to Detroit. Although watch this space next year when the two are teammates.
  • Power vs. race control at Pocono, and then Power deciding to take his gripes out on NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.
  • The opening two races of the new TUDOR Championship season, where officiating errors led to controversial results in the GT Daytona classes at both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
  • Ongoing BoP and driver rating discussions in sports car racing. Sad that these are often bigger talking points than the racing itself, and that doesn’t seem like it will change anytime soon.

Any others to add in either instance? That’s what the comments section is for…

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500