Friday, May 23, 2008

Nuerburgring Webcam

Nuerburgring Webcam
Curious to see what's lapping the Nuerburgring? Check out the webcam. It's pointed at the entrace to the track, so you can see what's waiting in line to take laps. If you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of something exotic flying down the straight in the background.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Indy 500 Primer

92nd Indy 500 Logo

It's that time of year again: You're laying out your plans for the long weekend, and someone invites you to an "Indy 500 party." You know it'll be fun, but you also don't know an Indy car from a train car. Read on for some helpful tips and answers to frequently asked questions.

What will I be watching?
The Indy 500 is an auto race, so you'll be watching 33 cars go over 200 mph around a big circle for a few hours.

Who should I root for?
Danica Patrick is a young, attractive, American woman, which is usually enough to get almost everyone's attention. You may have seen her recently on TV or in Sports Illustrated. She drives a black and blue car, sponsored by Motorola. She stands some chance of winning and the cameras will follow her progress closely.
Helio Castroneves was on Dancing with the Stars last season and is a happy, smiling, handsome guy with a great Brazilian accent, which is usually enough for anyone not watching Danica. He drives one of two red and white cars, sponsored by Marlboro. Helio has won the race twice before and has a good chance of winning, so the cameras will follow him closely as well.
Michael Andretti, Marco Andretti, Grahm Rahal, and A.J. Foyt IV are all the kids of famous racecar drivers from 20 - 30 years ago that you or your Dad may have heard of. Michael Andretti is Marco Andretti's dad, and looks like he's about 50 because he's about 50. The Andrettis always have a decent chance of winning, although if Rahal and Foyt even come close the TV cameras will pay them very close attention.

Is this like NASCAR?
Yes, it is a lot like NASCAR, except with very different-looking cars. NASCAR cars look like boxes, Indy cars look a little like weird airplanes with wheels. Those wheels are out there on the corners of the cars and aren't covered by anything. For this reason, this kind of racing is called "open-wheel." NASCAR is not open-wheel, but some other racing is.

Didn't Danica Patrick win Indy a few weeks ago?
No. Danica Patrick has not "won Indy" ever, including a few weeks ago. The word "Indy" comes from the word Indianapolis, the city in Indiana. "Indy" is used to describe a few different things:

The Racetrack - "Indy"
There is a racetrack in Indianapolis, IN. It opened in 1909, and is an oval shape that is 2.5 miles around. For more information, check out the track's website.
The Race - "The Indy 500"
The race on Sunday is a 500-mile race held at Indy and therefore called the Indy 500. This year will be the 92nd running of the race, which makes it one of the longest-running races in the world. For more on that history, check out the race's website.
The Series - "The Indy Racing League" or "The IRL"
A group of drivers and their cars travel around the world together to race at different tracks a few times per month. The drivers get points depending on how well they do, and at the end of the year a champion is crowned. The Indy 500 is the most famous and most prominent race in the series, and so the series is named after that race. NASCAR fans should think of the IRL like the Sprint Cup Series. Stick-and-ball sports fans should think of the IRL like MLB or NFL, but with "drivers" instead of "teams," and with only one "game" going on every weekend. You may hear someone mention that a particular driver is part of a particular team, but the "teams" in the IRL are completely different from the "teams" in MLB or the NFL. More on that later.
The Cars - "Indy Cars"
Like NASCAR, all of the drivers in the IRL use similar cars, called "Indy Cars." They are open-wheel cars with prominent wings on them, and they all use 3.5 liter V8 engines made by Honda which are not turbocharged.
The Races - "The Indy Japan 300" or "The Iowa Corn Indy 250"
Most races in the IRL have "Indy" in their name, even when they do not take place at Indy. This is simply to tie the name of the race to the series. Formula 1 fans can relate this to the inclusion of "Grand Prix" or "GP" in the names of their races.
So, Danica Patrick is a driver in the Indy Racing League, and she drove her Indy Car in the Indy Japan 300 a few weeks ago. She won that race, the Indy Japan 300, which takes place in Motegi, Japan. She has not yet won "Indy," or the Indy 500, which takes place in Indianapolis, IN, this coming Sunday.

The race is 500 miles? How long will that take?
Indy cars can go more than 230 mph under the right circumstances. The speeds during the Indy 500 will be closer to 220 mph for most of the race. If there is an accident, the rules say that all of the cars have to slow down to about 60 mph until the accident is cleaned up, which usually takes 5 - 10 minutes. Overall, the race will probably last about 3 hours.

Accidents? Do people get hurt or die?
The cars, and the race itself, is actually very safe. If there is an accident, the cars involved will stay on or very near the track, and there are lots of walls and fences to keep them away from the crowds, crews, TV cameras, etc. The walls around the outside of the track are metal guardrails attached to foam blocks, so while they are not squishy, they are not rock-hard either. The cars themselves are designed to basically explode into lots of pieces, except for the parts right around the driver. Think of those exploding pieces like a big crumple-zone. Drivers can get hurt, but usually the most serious injury is a sprain or bruise.

Can drivers keep racing even after they've been in an accident?
They can, but they usually don't. Indy Cars are fragile, and all of the parts are critical. NASCAR fans might expect to see sledgehammers and duct-tape come out after a crash, but usually if a piece on an Indy Car breaks, it takes literally all week to fix.

Someone just said "teams"
When the drivers and cars are on the track, they are all racing against each other. Race cars are expensive, and it turns out that there are only a few people with the money and interest to pay for them. Because of this, those people usually pay for more than one. All of the cars and drivers that get paid for by the same person are on a "team." Some of the "teams" have only one car and one driver, but some "teams" have several. Usually, all of the cars and drivers who are on the same team go back to the same research facility between the races, so if someone figures out how to make one of the cars a little faster, the other drivers and cars on that same team will probably hear about it first. Also, a driver is less likely to act like a jerk on the track towards another car on the same team. You will probably hear about how many cars and drivers each team has, how many times each team has won the race, and how "teammates" are helping each other out on the track. As much as you will hear those things, at the end of the race, every driver is racing every other driver.

Will this be fun?
Yes, it will probably be fun. Even beyond the fun people and good food you're likely to be surrounded by, the race itself is very exciting. The cars are going very fast, and they are very close to each other. Driving the cars is difficult, and it is exciting to watch the drivers try not to make any mistakes at all for three whole hours.

And maybe you'll get to see Danica actually "win Indy."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rental Bliss: 2006 Saturn ION2

Last summer I had an ION for a business trip from Orange County to the Silicon Valley and back. It's a long trip that puts a car through a lot of scenarios: the worst of LA traffic hell, two mountain ranges, a vast expanse of flat highway, and twisty country roads around Gilroy (garlic capital of the world!).

The ION's exterior styling fits with Saturn's current design trends of understated geometric designs and vaguely European modernism. I think it's handsome for a small economy car, but that's subjective. The interior continues the geometric theme of circles, arcs, and ellipses. Mine was furnished with grey cloth, hard grey plastic, and silvery gray accents. It is thoroughly unexciting, but that's to be expected in a value-oriented economy car. The gauges are mounted in a center pod and have a classic-looking typeface. I expected the location to be distracting but after a few minutes it became second nature.

The ION seems to be tuned to drive like a larger car. The steering has a heavy feel and mushy center. It's easy to keep pointed on the highway but can be annoying in city driving. The suspension is incredibly loose for a car this size -- on the highway it's dreamboat smooth, but there is an immense amount of body lean on onramps or even 90 degree turns from a stop. Acceleration is good for a car in this class and I had no problem merging, passing, or climbing hills. The engine is very loud and coarse-sounding, especially at higher RPMs. I found myself limiting throttle just to avoid the noise, which would get grating in a daily commute. The ION automatic is rated at 24/32 mpg. I lost my mileage log but recall getting mileage consistent with those numbers.

The interior ergonomics are generally fair. It has a high door sill that's easy to trip on, and the cup holders are positioned such that a medium-sized fast food cup will block all the HVAC controls. The AC is surprisingly powerful, which is common for GM vehicles. Visibility is good.

There was a lot riding on the ION's 2003 debut. Saturn had been waiting a very long time for an updated compact car, and the ION was the first example of GM's Delta-body / Ecotec engine combo that would be the basis of small GM cars for years to come. The ION was unilaterally slammed as a horrible failure, which I think is unfair. It's the same size as a Cobalt or Corolla, and compared unfavorably in that class. But it was actually priced priced closer to an Aveo or ECHO, and looks good against those. I would also argue that the outgoing S-series was meeting consumer expectations better than the Cavalier was, so the incremental S-to-ION transition was easily upstaged by the earth-shaking Cavalier-to-Cobalt transition.

The ION was the last model designed around Saturn's original ethos of friendly, economical basic transportation. It lives up to that promise. It drives like a floaty midsize car and gets compact car mileage. It's not flashy or fun to drive, but that's not the point. It would be a fine choice as an everyday car, especially for someone who is downsizing from a larger vehicle or doesn't really care about cars. Conventional wisdom is that a Civic or Corolla does this better. That's probably right, but only by a thin margin. The ION's price advantage makes it a defensible choice.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Rental Bliss: 2008 Scion xB

For various reasons I rent a lot of cars. I'd like to extract some greater good from these experiences, so I'll be writing up quick-take reviews of the cars I rent.

Recently I needed to rent a Flexcar to drop off a car at the garage, and ended up with a 2008 Scion xB. This was my first experience with a Scion product, so I was eager to see what I thought of the brand. More on that shortly.

The xB is essentially a brick on wheels. It is tall for its size, but rides low on small tires. The interior is styled in a sport compact tuner aesthetic. The gauges are arranged in a pod of four circles resembling a pillar gauge pod, positioned in the center of the dash. Most of the visible paneling is black plastic molded to resemble carbon fiber. The contours are geometric, giving the whole thing a goth/industrial feel. I don't care for it. Even if I did, I'd be leery of styling this distinctive, since it rarely wears well over a car's entire 10+ year lifetime. Look at the interior of any 10+ year old Buick to see what I mean.

Given the mundane FWD chassis, tiny wheels, and tall body, my handling expectations were low and I was not surprised. There is a lot of body lean in corners, and the tires start to chirp very quickly. The steering has a heavy on-center feel reminiscent of a truck or van. Acceleration is adequate in leisurely driving. I didn't have an opportunity to flog it. The engine is loud and appliance-like, rather like a cordless power drill. Overall the driving experience is unremarkable but perfectly adequate for everyday use.

The interior ergonomics are pretty good. The xB's upright seating position makes effective use of space and makes it roomier than it would be otherwise. There is a convenient iPod port in the center console, and a phone-sized nook next to the steering column. There's also a shallow shelf above the glove box. I'm not sure what it's intended for, but my fiance and I put a bag of donuts there, so we called it a "donut shelf." As expected the rear cargo area is huge, and the large hatch door should make loading and unloading convenient. Visibility is excellent.

The xB would be a decent commuter. It is an economical alternative to a CUV or small SUV due to its cargo space and high seating position. It could work as a family's only car. It is not a performance vehicle in the slightest. The car has a strong tuner/Emo/industrial vibe to it, which is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I hate it. But there are surely people who love it.

Now, back to my take on Scion. Let's see here. We have a mundane chassis, mundane engine, mundane suspension, and mundane steering feel, gussied up as a performance vehicle with polarizing exterior styling, boy-racer interior styling, and a loud exhaust. The whole package is targeted at adolescents, but has broader appeal because at its heart it's a practical vehicle.

I sense something. A presence I have not felt since...

Ah yes, Pontiac circa the 1990s. Look how well that worked out. Maybe the xB will succeed where the Trans Sport failed. Good luck, Scion.