Monday
Aug242009

Speed with Style

Photo by John Thawley Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Longtime readers of this website - and this column in particular - know that I often speak about the critical need for racing to return to its roots, once again becoming the ultimate tool in the development of advanced technologies for our future production vehicles. And, as I’ve stated repeatedly, now would be the perfect time for racing to take its rightful place in performing that role. Not only do I believe racing needs to lead in the development of advanced automotive technologies, the actual spirit of racing’s glory days - when unconventional “blue sky” thinking was the rule rather than the exception - needs to be injected back into the sport in order to secure its long-term future.

In short, I believe this era of “spec” racing - at least as it’s currently practiced - needs to be brought to a close in order for the sport to grow and become relevant again. It also needs to be brought to a close simply for the fact that rampant rules “commonality” has unleashed legions of homogenized racing machines - aesthetically-challenged, soulless “devices” - utterly devoid of personality and with all of the appeal of a shopping cart.

Let’s take F1, for instance. The current crop of Grand Prix cars has to be the ugliest collection of racing machines to come along in, well, since F1 began. I mean, really, the cars are so pitiful to look at that they have managed to chip away at the visceral, emotional connection to the sport itself for a lot of people. With all of the excitement of angry garden tools, the current F1 cars are brutally unappealing, and worse, they will conjure up absolutely zero memories for a lot of formerly hard-core racing fans who still revel in the sport’s most beautiful and historically significant racing machines.

You only need to compare today’s Grand Prix era with some of the great machines of past eras. Like the late 30s, for instance, when the fabulous Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars not only flaunted advanced, jaw-dropping technology, their visual appeal was stunning to behold too. Or the factory Mercedes, Lancia and Ferrari teams of the 50s, or the beautiful monocoque designs from the 60s (with Dan Gurney’s ‘67 Eagle-Weslake V12 being my personal all-time favorite). And how about Mario Andretti’s championship-winning Lotus in ‘78? Or the Brabham BT44?

You can do similar comparisons with today’s resolutely boring and inelegant IndyCar Dallaras, which can’t hold a candle to the visual appeal of some of the fantastic Indy cars from the past.

NASCAR is an obvious cesspool when it comes to jamming aesthetically-distressing machines down our throats too. The disastrous “CoT” has reduced NASCAR’s racing machines to lowest common denominator thinking - and lowest common denominator visual “appeal” - with their headlight decals and perfectly matched bodies. Go back and look at some of the great NASCAR machines of the past - the Fireball Roberts-vintage Pontiacs and the big Fords, Mercurys and Plymouths from the 60s - and it almost makes you cry that we’re stuck with the motorized blobs of today. The appeal (or lack of same) of today’s NASCAR machines can be summed up in three words: Generic. Uninspired. Forgettable.

The only racing left that still manages to produce some beautiful machines is, not surprisingly, major league road racing. The current Peugeot 908 Le Mans prototypes are simply gorgeous, as are Audi’s R10 TDI machines and the beautiful new Mazda-powered Lola Coupes. The Bentley Speed 8 Coupe several years back was just as jaw-dropping as any of the great road racing machines of the past as well (my all-time favorites being the Ferrari 330P4, Ford GT and Chaparral 2D and 2F).

The point of all this being that it’s not a coincidence that the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series still boast the most aesthetically-pleasing machines in racing. When you encourage “blue sky” thinking and push the technological envelope in search of speed with efficiency, creative and diverse solutions result. And with those solutions come some fantastic looking and performing racing machines.

I can only hope and encourage that racing presses the “reset” button so that it can again take its rightful place as the leading pioneer of advanced automotive technological development.

And let’s hope, too, that along with a newly reinvigorated and relevant sport comes a new era of speed with style.

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