2017 Motorsports Year In Review
The 2017 racing season offered plenty of lessons as well. With a smashing return to Gateway Motorsports Park, the Verizon IndyCar Series learned that its oval track races can be successful with proper promotion and favorable dates. And in NASCAR, the powers-to-be should have learned that continuing to tweak the incredibly flawed Chase err….Playoffs format only continues to turn away traditional fans and does little to attract new ones. Sadly, I don’t think this lesson is sinking in quite the way it should.
Lessons noted, 2017 was ultimately, for me, was a year of conundrums. This wasn’t just in the world of racing, mind you. The National Football League dealt with the whole conundrum of players kneeling for the national anthem (quite poorly I might add). As mentioned above, NASCAR continued to wrestle with the conundrum of how to attract new, younger fans while at the same time not alienating its traditional fan base. Like the NFL, NASCAR seems to be attempting a middle ground of sorts to the pleasure of no one.
Elsewhere in the world of racing, manufacturers such as Porsche (WEC) and Mercedes (DTM) traded their involvement in traditional racing series for greater involvement in new technologies, which in the world of racing leads them to Formula E.
Racing series, of course, want the money, support and validation the OEMs bring. But can racing series attract the manufacturers’ hefty R&D budgets, while at the same time creating an engaging product that will compel fans to buy tickets, merchandise and turn on their television sets?
In fairness, there are no clear solutions, and the manner in which the consumer takes in entertainment products is changing rapidly. Nonetheless with TV ratings for the Indianapolis 500 at their lowest in 31 years and NASCAR’s finale at Homestead down 23% over 2016, anyone who dismisses such questions is not dealing in reality. With that said, let us take a look back and some of the good, bad, and ugly of 2017.
Driver of the Year
Keep in mind, when Truex arrived at Furniture Row Racing in 2014, he was a two-time NASCAR race winner who had never finished a season in the top-10 in the standings. He was also coming off of the Michael Waltrip Racing race manipulation scandal at Richmond in 2013. As for the team, FRR had scored a mere one victory since entering NASCAR competition in 2005. Fast forward to 2017, and the Truex/FRR tandem is unquestionably the gold standard in NASCAR.
Honorable Mention…Perhaps because of his dominance and that of Mercedes AMG Petronas, Lewis Hamilton’s accomplishments are often taken for granted. However, in 2017 he recorded his fourth world title, and passed Michael Schumacher on the all-time Formula One poles list. Very impressive!
Erik Jones made his fair share of mistakes in 2017. However, the 20-year-old Michigan natives looked perfectly at home running regularly at the front of the field. You have to imagine he’ll take another step forward this coming year at JGR. And hopefully Jones, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and others can form a nucleus of talented young drivers for NASCAR to hang their hat on in the coming years.
Honorable Mention…In his first full Formula One season, Esteban Ocon clearly got the attention of his very-experienced and well-regarded teammate Sergio Perez.
Race of the Year:
In 2016, the lovable and always fast Takuma Sato validated a career marked by countless mishaps after holding off a late by Helio Castroneves to etch his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Moonlight Performance of the Year
Following a WHAT THE F*** just happened announcement in early April that he would be running the Indianapolis 500, three-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso turned in an impressive drive in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500. He qualified an impressive fifth before running in the top-5 much of the day including leading 20 laps. Unfortunately, while running 7th on lap 179, Alonso’s Honda engine expired. He would finish 24th.
Still, by any measure, Alonso’s moonlighting performance at Indy was a win for all involved. The Indianapolis 500 had a true international star for the first time since the days of Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi, while Alonso’s performance and willingness to embrace a new challenge won him a new legion of fans stateside.
Honorable Mention: Each of the past three seasons, Sam Hornish Jr. has won NASCAR Xfinity Series races despite not running in the series full-time. In 2016 at Iowa, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner won a one-off performance replacing Matt Tift for Joe Gibbs Racing, and this year he won from pole at Mid-Ohio driving for Team Penske.
Although Hornish’s move to NASCAR has been something of a disappointment, he has very quietly carved himself a reputation for being able to jump in any car on a moment’s notice and get up to speed right away.
What Could Have Been Award
When he opened the season with a win at St. Pete, followed by a second at Long Beach, Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing were atop the IndyCar world. Fast forward to qualifying at the Indianapolis 500 in May, Bourdais was on pace for the fast qualifying run of the day before a violent turn 1 crash resulted in a broken pelvis.
I don’t think Bourdais would have won the championship or even contended for the title. But it’s fair to say he would have contended for the pole at Indy. And given the fact his rookie teammate finished third with a wounded car, it’s more than fair to assume the Frenchman would have contended for a 500 win.
Swallow The Whistle Award
This one goes to IMSA for their non-call after Ricky Taylor moved Filipe Albuquerque with seven minutes remaining in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. And the fact Jeff Gordon was part of Team Taylor wasn’t lost on the conspiracy theorists.
Hair on Your Chest Award
Give this to Josef Newgarden. After a cataclysmic error exiting at pit lane at Watkins Glen, young Newgarden went to Sonoma with Scott Dixon, Team Ganassi and Team Penske demons of championships lost squarely on his shoulders. The Hendersonville, TN native didn’t put a wheel wrong, earning his first IndyCar Series title.
No S*** Sherlock Award
This one goes to Team Penske for their botched handling of Helio Castroneves leaving IndyCar full-time for sports cars. Instead of getting in front of the story, making a proper announcement and allowing Castroneves the proper sendoff he deserved, Team Penske went into a shell, and played it coy. In fact, following the Brazilian’s win at Iowa, the team mandated the media ask no questions about sports cars. Well, sorry guys, that, not Castroneves’ win, was THE STORY, because you guys MADE IT THE STORY with your botched handling of the matter.
The end result was that instead of saying goodbye to fans during the last half of the year, Castroneves had to play the non-answer game. His move to sports cars in early October two weeks after the IndyCar season ended.
An Unfortunate Departure
It was refreshing to see Watkins Glen return to the IndyCar calendar following last year’s cancelled Boston Grand Prix. Sadly, IndyCar and the Glen were to be short-lived…again.
No, the namesake of one the NASCAR legend was never the driver his father was. But his Everyman persona connected with the public in a way even his charismatic father did not. And for a sport with rapidly declining interest, Junior’s loss combined with that of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and others in recent seasons, will be difficult to replace.
The Verizon IndyCar Series will say goodbye to Verizon following the 2018 season. And Danica Patrick will close out her career in 2018 with drives in the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s. Furthermore, powerhouse IndyCar teams Ganassi and Penske will both downsize in 2018, with Ganassi moving from four to two cars, and Penske from four to three.
Also, who can forget Carl Edwards’ shock retirement announcement at the outset of the year? And while there has been rampant speculation, has anyone got the real story of why Edwards bowed out at the relatively young age 37?
However, the most important goodbye of 2017 is reserved for one Bernard Charles Ecclestone.
Well, that time came this past January.
And while his departure turned out to be more of a whimper than a bang, it would be remiss of us to not acknowledge that, the prickly, sometimes controversial Ecclestone is – unquestionably – the most impactful figure in motorsports over the last half-century. Modern Formula One as we know it, would be inconceivable without Ecclestone’s vision and business acumen.
There were a few people who were particularly helpful, encouraging or willing to extend a few extra minutes of their time this past year. In no particular order I’d like to thank:
Billy Kamphausen, Kevin and Kara Gladstone, Mary Mendez, Chip Ganassi, Chad Frankenfeld, Spencer Pigot, Alexander Rossi, Terry Brown, Pat Caporali, Mike Hull, Art Wilmes, Jesse Cordray, Oliver Askew
AutoRacing1 would not be possible without the tireless efforts of President Mark Cipolloni. Second, we at AR1 of course would not be able to write and cover motor races without the help of you our loyal readers. We thank you for your continued patronage and look forward to another great year in 2018.
Brian Carroccio is a senior columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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