Archive for the 'John Della Penna' category

Paul Newman: The Ultimate Gentlemen and Racer

Monday, October 6th, 2008

Paul passed away last week and to me that marks the end of an era; an era when Hollywood stars were in fact bigger than life; when they had an air of dignity and class rarely seen anymore amongst today’s version of Hollywood stars and even more rare amongst us regular mortals.
I had the pleasure of knowing Paul Newman although not very well; I used to see him from time to time when he owned a Can Am team that was based at Laguna Seca Raceway. I met him for the first time about twenty-five years ago when I was representing Willy T, Ribbs.  He invited into his motor home at Moroso during a Trans Am race.  I was I awe as we sat there during his lunch brake. His deep voice still resonates in my memory form that meeting. I saw him casually several times after that never exchanging more than a casual hello, and then one day he called my home.  I will never forget Cindy’s face when she told me Paul Newman is on the line and he wants to talk to you… what? I could not imagine what it could be about.  I nervously picked up the phone and after collecting myself I calmly said, “Hello Paul how are you?”   “I am well thank you. I just wanted to call you and welcome you to CART,” he said.  I was floored; we had just made the press announcement that we were going to compete in CART in 1997 and beyond.  I had heard that some of the other team owners were happy I was joining the series especially in light of the split, but he was the only one that called me. We spoke for a few minutes about my plans and hung up. From then on we always exchanged pleasantries when we saw each other at the track. He loved racing and he loved CART; he loved his open wheel team and as much as he was admired all over the world he admired fast drivers more, like Mario, Michael and Nigel.  He was a fierce competitor, I saw him drive on a number of occasions and I think he would have traded many if not all of his of his acting accomplishments for one professional racing championship. Last time I worked with him was during the San Jose Grand Prix when I helped organize a Go Kart race to raise money for charity.  He came, he raced and he charmed a bunch of Silicon Valley CEOs and did it wit a smile. I am sure the acting community will miss him, but I think the racing community will miss him more; he was a great ambassador for the sport and even a greater one for human kind. I know I am a better person for having known him.

Rules of the road

Friday, September 5th, 2008

The Ferrari Challenge series is sanctioned by Grand Am which is a little odd in my opinion because when you think of Ferrari you think Europe, the heart of road racing; F1, Le Mans, FIA GT championship etc.  But Grand Am is apart of NASCAR and their specialty is oval racing.
Road racing rules everywhere in the world are pretty much based on the European rules; the driver has a little latitude to strategize, defend or block to defend his position.  We’ve all seen the starts where Schumaker positions his car at an angle and aggressively goes after his opponent from the pole at the start. I think that is a little extreme but over all drivers over there are allowed a little defensive blocking and when it comes to re-starts after a caution or safety car period the pole-sitter pretty much dictates the pace (within reason).  Not so here, the field is supposed to file in close proximity behind the pace car for restarts and not accelerate over 45 MPH until after the start finish line, where at no time passing the pace car even when it is in pit lane. It’s a strange way to go road racing if you ask me because if you are the leader and your lead just got cut back to zero because the track went full course yellow, you should have the perceived advantage of dictating the pace for the restart otherwise you could be a sitting duck.  But then maybe that’s the idea of these rules; maybe it’s more exiting for the fans that way because more cars get to turn one at the same time.
The point is that Pablo got a stiff penalty this past Saturday when he basically had his win taken away from him because as the officials put it, “he manipulated the start”. I though that’s what the guy in the lead is supposed to do.  He let the pace car get a little ahead of him and he smoothly accelerated when the lights on the pace car went off and it was safely in pit lane.
The Grand Am rules say that no one can get out of line or attempt a pass before start/finish during a start even if the green flag is waving!  That may work well for ovals but I don’t think is good for road courses.
At the very least pulling out of line laterally should be allowed so the driver can get an idea what’s going on in front of him.  With all the stuff we got inside these cars today, roll cages, wrap around seats and HANS devises, it’s hard to see out, so you are at the mercy of the guy in front of you. I can go along with not advancing your position before start/finish on the start of a race but I don’t see the point in doing that for restarts, especially because that promotes this brake checking that drivers do especially in the middle of the pack causing accidents.

I felt bad for Pablo, he did a great job all weekend and he was the class of the field.  This was his first race back after so many months of operations and hospital visits.  I think the officials, while technically correct by the letter of the rules, may have missed a great opportunity to do the right thing from the human side… where are those old SCCA chief Stewards when you need them.

Smooth sailing for Massa; Down to the wire for Dixon

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008


The Valencia course was unlike any other street course I ever saw or experienced. The track layout is very busy with a lot of different kind of corners and a long straight, which produced very high speed for a street course.  It is also very smooth which is something we don’t normally see.  Most of the street courses in the US are very bumpy putting a premium on mechanical grip.

The practice sessions were pretty much textbook for a new street course with no grip, the sessions kept getting faster all the time and some drivers that are not normally near the top of the grid seemed to be fast at times, kind of like a wet track. As rubber gets laid down of course the track gets faster, the problem is that rubber usually only gets laid down in the racing line, therefore there was little or no passing during the race because drivers could not out brake each other going into the corners.

At some point this season Massa decided that he would take the fight to Hamilton for the world title.  And he did just that at the last race in Hungary when he took Lewis on the outside of turn 1 and sailed into the distance until his engine expired two laps from the end. I thought it was a great move but I thought, ok he just had a good day, so I was surprised to see Massa be so dominant again in Valencia, especially because he made some costly mistakes this year. He’s been dismal in the rain and he spun himself out of contention at least once in the dry.
Kimi struggled all weekend although he was the more consistent of the two in the first part of the season. I think there has been a change in the tires and some drivers are having trouble adapting to that, Kimi may be one of them. Hamilton was a close second to Massa in terms of performance all weekend but could not mach his pace in the race. It’s interesting how the balance keeps switching back and forth between Ferrari and McLaren.  It doesn’t take much as both teams must be undergoing massive development. The engine failures at Ferrari are curious.  Supposedly these engines are frozen, but there must be some development going on because there seems to be more disparity in straight-line speed between the teams than earlier in the season. I would love to be a fly on the wall at the Ferrari factory during one of those meetings.  My guess is that what has been reported by the press is probably what’s going on. They must have a manufacturing defect that is causing some problem.  This is unusual in racing engines because everything is tested so rigorously and especially for Ferrari as their engines have been bullet proof for a long time.

The race was a little bit of a bore because of the lack of passing. I think Kubica and Kovalainen would have had a great battle for second if the track wasn’t so green but the lack of grip off line made it impossible to try to pass under braking.

Spa is quite a different track to Valencia.  It is a very mature circuit, with lots of grip and high-speed corners.  Power is important especially gong up that hill by Eau Rouge.  Ferrari should be dominant here if their engine problem is fixed. Of course anything can happen these days. I think Kimi could make a big come back.

Indy Car

Boy it looked like the championship was all but done for Dixon and Ganassi but not so.  Helio came back and won Sonoma and almost won Detroit.  Now Penske and Castro Neves have a real shot. The next race is in Chicago-Land and anything can happen in an oval.
I am very surprised that the Ganassi boys made that call yesterday.  They gave up track position and pitted out of sequence surrendering the lead and putting Dixon in a tough spot having to deal with lots of slower traffic in the middle of the pack while Helio was clear sailing up front getting a big gap on Dixon and leading most of the race from there. If it wasn’t for the questionable call by the IRL he would have won and made matters even worse for Dixon in Chicago.
I guess if there would have been a yellow there is a chance that the early pit stop would have paid off for Dixon but why give up the lead when you don’t have to. Of course this is all Monday morning quarter backing. I still think that Dixon and the Ganassi boys will win the championship. We will know in one week.

The Next Race

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

As racers…and that includes drivers, mechanics, engineers and team owners and anybody who’s ever got up in the middle of the night to travel for several hours or days to help a friend race his or her car …we all live for the next race.
We strategize, prepare, focus and obsess with beating the competition at the next one, regardless of how we finished at the last one.
I think for the most part successful racers and athletes have very short memories, mostly because we have to. Dwelling in what could have been after a loss or rejoicing too long in victory kills the winning spirit.
I remember Jeff Krosnoff, who I new for a very short time before he was killed in a horrific accident in Toronto during a Champ Car race; his motto was, “stay hungry” and he lived by it. I think success in sports comes when we really want something bad enough to sacrifice and pay the price. Preparation, dedication, perseverance; call it what you will but the bottom line is that winning is hard because is worth it! There is nothing like the feeling of standing on top of the podium; it doesn’t matter if it’s a go-kart race or a F1 race; in that race you were the best!

For me the next race is a very special one. We will be racing at my favorite track; Laguna Seca. We will be competing in front of family and friends, which is always an added bonus. But those are not the only reasons I am looking forward to our next race. The number one reason is that Pablo will be driving once again. For those of you who don’t know Pablo Perez was severely injured in March of last year when his car flew into the fence during the Indy Lights race at Homestead.
We weren’t sure if he was going to walk again, never mind drive a racecar. But Pablo worked hard making the sacrifice, working through the pain of over a dozen operations and overcoming many set backs, never doubting that he would be in the driver’s seat again. I am not sure I would have been able to be that diligent; maybe that’s why I am not a professional racecar driver. But the point is that people like Pablo are inspiring to the rest of us who find it hard to persevere from time to time especially when things get tough. We often give up or decide that maybe this is not for us.
We live in a complicated world right now and information flows at warp speed. There are lots of choices but it is only when we endure and work through the most difficult times that we achieve growth.
I know Pablo will do well at Laguna because he is a great driver and he will push to the end. I can’t guarantee results because anything can happen in a race but no matter what happens he is already a winner of his next race.