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DiZinno: Thank you, Audi, for making Le Mans great again

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Today’s news that Audi Sport would be withdrawing its LMP1 program at year’s end was not a surprise in that it happened, but only a surprise in terms of when it did.

But the truth of the matter is that for five years, the beginning of the end of the Audi era was always going to end: it was just a question of how it would.

How it ends should not take away from the 18 years of magic that Audi, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, and the team of people assembled, has provided on sports car tracks around the U.S. and around the world, as a brand that has helped to elevate both itself and the sport as a whole to the level it is today.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 11: Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 11: Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

When I started watching sports car racing on an occasional basis in the late 1990s at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, it was a mix of Riley & Scotts, Ferrari 333 SPs and then a hodgepodge of GT cars – some more stealthy and pioneering, some more low-budget than others. It didn’t really seem to have proper cohesion or, more importantly, a true “star car.”

Daytona was the U.S. 24-hour race of note at the time but then there was this other 24-hour race in France every June that I knew little about but somehow, felt an allure and a draw to once I properly understood what it meant.

And from 2000 onwards, there was one manufacturer whose dominance at the event became a staple of summer, and that was Audi.

Every June, even if I hadn’t yet comprehended the series around which Audi raced – that came later – I knew I’d be tuning in from home the Saturday of Le Mans to watch as many hours as I could to see Audi win again.

17 Jun 2000: Biela, Kristensen and Pirro take their Audi R8 to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race at La Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport
17 Jun 2000: Biela, Kristensen and Pirro take their Audi R8 to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race at La Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

With a mix of promotional efforts, pioneering technology and an all-star group of drivers – none ever rising too high to be much more “a star” than another – Audi established itself as the brand to beat with its incomparable run of form with the R8 those first six years from 2000 to 2005. It was perhaps unlucky its only defeat in that time was in 2003, to the beautiful Bentley Speed 8, was to a car from a sister brand (keep that in mind for the future).

The bar was raised in 2006 with the all-conquering R10 TDI, Audi’s move into diesel shifting the game from a singular petrol focus to a form of new technology. That was 10 years ago. And Audi didn’t just win Le Mans with its new car; they dominated.

Further wins in 2007 and 2008 followed against Audi’s toughest adversary yet, Peugeot, the French carmaker entering with a diesel of its own, the 908 HDi FAP. It’s funny; to me at the time, even though Peugeot was the crowd favorite on home soil in France, I always cast them in a role of the villain up against the good guys from Audi, who we at least knew here a little better in the U.S., and who we’d got to know as fans from their time racing in the American Le Mans Series.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Tom Kristensen of Denmark drives in the final hour to take victory with Audi Sport North America team mates Allan McNish of Great Britain and Rinaldo Capello of Italy in the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 15, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The 2008 win in mixed conditions served as the impetus and race for the iconic Truth in 24, a movie that inspires chills among the sports car racing world for how good the Audi/Intersport/NFL Films production was. From the singular first line of the film – Jason Statham’s foreboding “It always rains at Le Mans,” – to the buildup to the race from testing and the preliminary races, to Allan McNish’s track lap description, and then to the introduction of Howden “H” Haynes as the engineer, you are so incredibly amped up by the time it gets to the chronicling of the race itself. And you feel as though you’ve become one with the team, as Audi won the 2008 race on smarts and strategy more than outright pace.

This would be a good time to note that when I first had the opportunity to go to Le Mans in 2009 for another website, I was so excited to see Audi win at Le Mans. Naturally, then, it didn’t happen; the new R15 was a rare misstep from Ingolstadt and Peugeot, which needed to win to keep its program going, finally did so in its third crack at the race.

The die cast of Audi’s success in the nine years previous is why Peugeot’s 2009 win was such a big deal at the time; the almighty Audi had finally been toppled. Audi was human.

In truth though, the dominant, unchallenged period of success Audi had at Le Mans was really at an end in 2008, even though they’ve still amassed more wins. The 2010 and 2011 Le Mans wins were fortunate. Audi won in 2010 only after the Peugeots grenaded themselves; with the new R18 in 2011, Audi won only after its first two cars sustained two of the heaviest accidents in recent years at Le Mans, and held on with its single remaining bullet in the gun.

Audi won the first two Le Mans in 2012 and 2013 following the launch of the FIA World Endurance Championship – a championship whose presence was spurred on by LMP1 manufacturers and the creation of hybrid technology, but has since seen the privateers that made up the rest of the class fall by the wayside. Toyota wasn’t ready to win Le Mans either year; frankly no one wanted to win in 2013 after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident in the opening laps.

But the biggest signs of change for Audi had been revealed in summer, 2011, and it had nothing directly to do with Audi. That summer, Porsche announced it would be returning to Le Mans with an LMP1 entry, targeting a 2014 launch.

Audi, the flagship LMP1 brand that had built its image on Le Mans greatness in the 12 years previous, would have company within the Volkswagen Group as two top tier brands would start competing head-to-head for wins at the most glorious sports car race on the calendar.

Audi had beaten a host of competitors in its run at Le Mans, the privateers, then Peugeot, then Toyota. But it hadn’t yet beat a manufacturer from its same company in a full-season setting.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

The 2014 Le Mans promised great things. In Audi, you had the established heavyweight. In Toyota, you had the relatively younger upstart ready to win in its third year – as Peugeot had done five years earlier. And in Porsche, you had the returning giant, perhaps not ready in its first go-around but ready to fight.

And that was how it played out. Audi’s 2014 win was the third for the Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler trio, but won more on expertise and guile again rather than outright pace. Toyota’s chances came undone just before dawn, and Porsche fell off as the race entered its final stages. It would have been impossible to know at the time this would be Audi’s last of its 13 triumphs at Le Mans, but indeed it is.

Porsche won in 2015 with the famous third car win of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg. They won again this year after Toyota’s final-minute heartbreak; Audi, for the first time in 18 years at Le Mans, was nowhere, and only made the podium thanks to the Toyota non-classification. That these two poor results came following VW’s emissions scandal that emerged last fall was poor timing.

The Le Mans history outlined above is but the flagship venue of Audi’s successes in top-flight prototype racing, but far from the only one.

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 04: The #07 LMP1 Peugeot Sport Total 908 driven by Nicolas Minassian leads Marco Werner in the #2 Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI as the field follows at the start of the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
BRASELTON, GA – OCTOBER 04: The #07 LMP1 Peugeot Sport Total 908 driven by Nicolas Minassian leads Marco Werner in the #2 Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI as the field follows at the start of the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Because of its presence in the U.S. in the American Le Mans Series from 2000 through 2008 – either with the Audi Sport Team Joest or Champion Racing efforts – Audi inspired a generation of sports car fans to start paying attention to what it was doing.

Audi raced hard versus Don Panoz’s team with its weird, wacky and wonderful front-engined LMP1 Roadster, the venerable Dyson Racing Lolas, and then, for those few glorious years from 2006 to 2008, the factory-supported Porsche RS Spyder and Acura LMP2 cars from the Penske, Highcroft, Andretti, de Ferran and Fernandez teams.

It didn’t matter the tracks; it didn’t matter the classes. BoP and driver ratings weren’t buzzwords. It was simply about the racing – and seeing the ways the more powerful Audi raced against the lighter, more nimble LMP2 cars in the ALMS at the time was mesmerizing to watch.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 13: (L-R) Allan McNish of Great Britain, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and seven time race winner Tom Kristensen of Denmark and Audi Sport North America attend the drivers parade in Le Mans town centre prior to the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 13, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 13: (L-R) Allan McNish of Great Britain, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and seven time race winner Tom Kristensen of Denmark and Audi Sport North America attend the drivers parade in Le Mans town centre prior to the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 13, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The trio of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello became heroes. Kristensen will go down as the greatest of all-time at Le Mans with his nine wins there. McNish’s tenacity and starts were always an incredible sight to watch. Capello was the third tenor, and just as critical to the success by combining the best of both.

These three stood out while others like Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner also were among the winners. The Lotterer/Treluyer/Fassler trio stands as Audi’s next generation, but their time together figures to come to an end in two races.

They all slowly faded away though. Capello, McNish and Kristensen retired each of the last few years. The Pirro/Biela/Werner trio were there through 2008 before the first real changing of the guard in the driver lineup occurred. Leena Gade, an inspiration in her own right, stepped down after Le Mans this year.

Much as my formative years in IndyCar were built by the Target presence with Chip Ganassi Racing in the mid-1990s, my formative years following and appreciating sports car racing – and Le Mans in particular – was crafted by Audi.

So while the business realities and changing demands of what manufacturers want to pursue for their motorsports program to coincide with their automotive interests is changing, so ends Audi’s run of glory at the top level of sports car racing.

This is no doubt a sad day for the sport. But rather than with anger, I’m left only to reflect and say thank you to Audi for making me a fan in the first place.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15:  Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.