Thursday, March 25, 2010

Let's Get Physical

I am occasionally scoffed at when I suggest that race drivers need to be in good physical shape. Most people can at least believe that pro drivers are in good condition, but not that it’s explicitly necessary for them to do what they do. I have struggled in the past to convey how, exactly, driving is in fact physical. I’m going to give it another shot here. Part of the difficulty is that race driving (like most sports) is a pretty unique activity; it’s not much like anything you’re likely to have done before, and driving a race car is extremely different from driving a “regular” car.

So, let’s play an imagination game:

For round one of our game, imagine trying to open a combination lock; a round one with a dial like you would find on a gym locker. Let’s even assume you know the combination. Certainly it isn’t physically challenging, although it does take some precision and you need to be able to see what you’re doing. Easy.

For round two, imagine the lock isn’t on a locker, but it’s chained to a 45lb plate like you would use to lift weights at the gym. Let’s make it interesting by saying you have to wear this contraption as a necklace like Flavor Flav turned into a gym rat, and you have to remain standing. Now that you’re trying to support the weight while you’re working the lock, it becomes more physically challenging. Turning the dial just right is harder when you’re also exerting yourself, but as long as you can hold up 45lbs or so for a minute you should be ok, right?

Now let’s make it really interesting. The good news is for round three you’re sitting down, the bad news is you’re sitting on a roller coaster; think of the most intense roller coaster you have actually been on, only very slightly modified to allow you to reach the lock-chain-weight combo that’s now in your lap (although still around your neck). Imagine trying to unlock the lock while the roller coaster is going. Now we’re talking about a real challenge: keeping the thing in your lap at all is pretty tough, but trying to spin that little dial to just the right numbers (without smacking yourself in the face with the weight) you can imagine is hard. Your head is being jostled around, the lock itself is all over the place, and that weight gets pretty unwieldy in that corkscrew section. I’m willing to bet, though, that if you could keep the thing in your hands you could unlock the lock once (or a few times) without really getting tired. Tough? Sure. Tiring? Probably not.

Round four. Something has malfunctioned on the roller coaster. This isn’t the usual car-gets-stuck-upside-down malfunction though; this is the ride-doesn’t-stop-at-the-end-and-just-keeps-going malfunction. You’re not in much danger (as long as you don’t hurt yourself with that weight), but you’re not getting off any time soon. Say the thing goes for an hour; some “ride engineers” are there, the Channel 4 helicopter is circling, but you’re stuck on the darn thing. Worry about keeping your lunch down later; how is it coming with that lock? Imagine if you got more points every time you unlocked, then re-locked the lock. How many times could you do it? How long could you hold the thing in your lap while your roller coaster just kept going? A few times, probably, but you can imagine how it gets pretty difficult pretty quickly.

Race drivers don’t need to unlock combination locks chained to weights, and they’re not on roller coasters. They are, however, being thrown around in their seats while trying with their hands and feet to do things that simultaneously require both strength and precision, sometimes for hours at a time. If you have never done it before it’s tough to imagine that turning the wheel and pressing the pedals could be tough; the car you drive to work has power steering and power brakes, and most of the time it doesn’t really matter how much you turn or press them as long as you’re close. Race cars (and fast go-karts) require strength to turn the wheel and press the pedals; hard to believe but it’s actually physically difficult. To go fast, you have to do those things exactly the right amount at exactly the right time. It’s difficult and challenging in the same way that round four of our imaginary game is difficult and challenging.

I highly recommend that anyone who is curious about it to go to a decent go-kart track and give it a shot. Don’t bother with the slow stuff, head to a place that requires helmets and neck braces, like F1 Boston. It’s a ton of fun, and I promise you’ll learn something.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I love what you do for me, Toyota

Details of the firestorm Toyota finds itself in have been screaming in from every angle at a dizzying pace. What began as a floor mat recall has exploded and now encompasses computers that pin the throttle, computers that spin the steering wheel, insufficient brakes, scams by the media, scams by customers, congressional hearings, and Saturday Night Live spoofs. has one of the most comprehensive collections of articles on the subject, which is why most of the links (and the image) are theirs.

As a Ford enthusiast, I admit to initially reacting with a smirk. I have been generally aware of my automotive surroundings for 15 or so years, and those 15 years have not been kind to Ford. I'm happy to see this happening to someone (anyone) else, and it brings me even more joy to see it happening to a foreign company.

Unfortunately, I can't gloat at Toyota's misfortune. Not because of any pity I may have for them, but because of the endless stream of misinformation and deception that I think ultimately helps Toyota more than it hurts. I should have seen this coming, of course, as all the same songs were played when Ford (and GM and Chrysler) was in the crosshairs: the overblown reports of the recalls (recalls happen all the time), the congressional hearings (where the cluelessness of our congressmen and women was embarrassingly apparent), the suspicious media replications of problems. The customer scam angle is at least relatively new, but serves the same purpose.

In my opinion, these things don't help. Much of what I think is wrong with cars and the auto industry revolves around the lack of accurate information. Consumers make mis- or un-informed purchasing decisions, then drive their cars without sufficient knowledge of how to do it safely or efficiently. Feeding more mis-information into the fire certainly won't fix the problem. Giving a false reason for a real problem makes it all-too-easy to dismiss both.

If someone passes up a Toyota in favor of a Ford, I would much rather it be because they found that one of Ford's vehicles was better-suited for their purpose than any of Toyota's, or that they preferred not to send thousands of dollars overseas. While I'm happy to hear that membership in the Toyota Is Always Better Club is dwindling, it's unfortunate that the reasons for it are just as hollow as those that The Club was founded on to begin with.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

US F1: Just The Facts, Ma'am

Ken Anderson has spoken to Autosport about the current status of the US F1 team.

Mr. Anderson confirmed that the team will not participate in the 2010 season, and has requested that the FIA defer their entry until 2011. The team is intact, with the exception of previously-contracted driver Jose Maria Lopez and some temporary staff members, and is optimistic that the FIA will quickly grant their request. A sponsorship deal fell through in mid-January and without it the team was simply unable to commit to racing, however most of the preparations to do so were in place. The interview is worth reading as it clears up much of the blather that has been careening around this week.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

US F1: Good News and Bad News

Following a day of rampant speculation, there is good news and bad news about the fledgling US F1 team.

First, a little background:
Formula 1 isn't open to all comers. There are a limited number of available spots on the grid, set by the sport's governing body, the FIA. Even a fully-funded, ready-to-run team can't simply show up and race. Several teams from 2009 withdrew from the sport and the FIA further expanded the total number of available spots, making room for four all-new teams. Out of the many prospective teams that applied for those spots, the US F1 team was one of those selected to join Formula 1. The FIA's decision was intended to strengthen the sport both by including a US-based team, but also by filling the grid with teams that displayed both possible competitiveness and longevity.

The bad news, summarized effectively by AutoSport, is the US F1 team will almost certainly not be ready for the season-opening race at Bahrain. The team has formally asked the FIA to defer their entry until 2011. This unprecedented move has a measure of plausibility, as the FIA is aware that some presence in the US is beneficial to the sport, however obviously if the team was ready to go it would not have made this request.

The good news is in spite of rampant media coverage to the contrary, the team has not completely disbanded, nor has it lost the services of partner Chad Hurley (founder of YouTube). In fact, the team has offered the FIA a seven-figure bond to help secure their grid spot for 2011, so it would seem that time (and/or time management) is the only resource they are lacking.

Should the FIA not grant the request, the US F1 team has not ruled out the possibility of joining the F1 season at the fourth event in Barcelona. Normally missing any races is grounds for disqualification from the season, however the FIA had previously granted several of the new teams a three-race grace period. A far-less-likely emergency fall-back plan could possibly include some presence in Bahrain, however that possibility is slight indeed.

The US F1 team quickly built a large fanbase, and we're all hopeful that the operation continues to make progress and will show signs of success sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we'll have to wait for further word from Mr. Anderson or Mr. Windsor.