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Norris McDonald’s Top Ten Auto Racing stories of 2016. Hint – Hinch is No. 1 but there’s also Formula E, Dale Jr.’s concussion and Nico Rosberg saying ‘up %$#&^’ to Mercedes and Hamilton

We’re just a day away from Dec. 31, so here are my picks for the Top Ten Auto Racing stories of 2016.

1. Hinchcliffe’s miraculous comeback.

On May 18, 2015, James Hinchcliffe of Oakville was practicing for that year’s Indianapolis 500. A suspension failure sent him out of control and into a wall at more than 200 miles an hour. Part of the wreck speared him and he was bleeding to death when the IndyCar safety team got to him. They managed to get him out of the car, into an ambulance and onto an operating table at the nearby Methodist Hospital in a matter of minutes. Doctors there saved his life.

If this had happened at any other race track in the United States or Canada, Hinchcliffe would very likely be dead. Methodist Hospital is just a short distance away from the famous Speedway, and doctors there have been treating injured racing drivers for what seems like forever. This combination of factors likely saved his life.

In any event, a little more than a year later, on May 22, 2016, Hinchcliffe not only returned to race at the world’s most famous racing facility but won pole position for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. For courage, perseverance and ambition, James Hinchcliffe’s comeback is the top auto racing story of 2016.

2. Cayden Lapcevich, 16, wins NASCAR Pinty’s Series Championship

A high school student from Grimsby, Ont., not only became the youngest national champion in Canadian stock car racing history, he became the youngest national champion in the history of Canadian auto racing.

Cayden Lapcevich, whose family owned racing operation lost its title sponsor last fall, opted to run a week-to-week schedule this season. (That’s when the plan is to do well one weekend and then use the prize money to make it to the next race.) It worked out, because in the 12 races that make up the NASCAR Canada championship, Cayden never finished worse than eighth and won three of them, which gave him the Rookie-of-the-Year title as well as the championship.

For 2017, he hopes to run in a U.S. Series but has the Pinty’s Series as a fallback.

3. The Canadian-built-for-Le Mans Ford GT comes through in the clutch (as does Scott Maxwell)

At the Detroit auto show in 2015, the Ford Motor Co. unveiled the Ford GT sports racing car that had been developed in secret by Ford engineers in partnership with Multimatic Engineering of Markham, Ont. Although initially pooh-poohing suggestions that the car had been designed and built to win its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 50 years after winning the classic for the first time, Ford confirmed in June 2015 that the car would, indeed, be entered in the 2016 Le Mans race.

Scott Maxwell, Multimatic’s “in-house” racing driver and arguably one of the two finest sports car road-racers in Canada (“arguably” being whether he should be classified as No. 1 or No. 2), spent most of 2015 developing the car with Multimatic engineers at Calabogie Motorsports Park in eastern Ontario and, toward the end of testing, at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park north of Bowmanville. When Ford hired Chip Ganassi Racing late in the year to get the car on track and to make final preparations for the Le Mans assault, Maxwell was left off the race team, which was a disappointment.

In the end, the Ford GT did go on to win its class at Le Mans. And Scott Maxwell teamed up with Billy Johnson to drive a Multimatic Ford Shelby to win the 2016 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Bravo on both counts.

4. Fallout from Nico Rosberg’s F1 world championship and retirement

(Which is one way of getting a whole bunch of significant Formula One developments into one item . . .)

So, after years of trying, the talented Nico Rosberg finally won the World Driving Championship. He did so by beating his nemesis, Lewis Hamilton, fair and square. But he had to put up with playing second banana to the Englishman all season as well as battling the psychological warfare inflicted on him by his teammate.

In the last race, Hamilton, the leader, slowed down almost to a crawl (by F1 standards) in hopes of sucking Rosberg into trying to pass him, at which time he undoubtedly would have pulled a Michael Schumacher/Ayrton Senna move and crashed the German. Rosberg would have none of it. He finished second to clinch the title, celebrated in grand style and then quit.

This was as much a statement against Mercedes’ handling of the two drivers as it was anything else. Toto Wolfe and Niki Lauda scared the wits out of Rosberg two years ago after he ran into Hamilton at Spa and yet appeared almost complicit when the tables were turned. When Hamilton pulled his stunt at Abu Dhabi and refused to speed up despite “requests” from the team, he should have been ordered to park the car. He wasn’t, and yet you can bet that would have been the case with Rosberg if he had ever acted in such an insubordinate manner.

In short, Nico was tired of the crap that was coming at him from every direction. But will he stay retired? I would suggest not. He’s 31 and has many good years ahead of him. And I’m sure he’d go back to Mercedes, but only if Hamilton and the management team of Wolfe-Lauda is no longer there.

Ross Brawn, are you listening? There’s an opportunity there. I’m sure you’ve had your fill of fishing by now.

– The “retirement,” of course, put Mercedes in a bind. They needed an experienced F1 driver but one who would complement Hamilton (i.e., fast enough to keep him honest but not fast enough to challenge him). They settled on Valtteri Bottas at Williams. Much money undoubtedly changed hands and – who knows? – maybe those Mercedes engines Williams has been using won’t cost them as much (if anything) in 2017. But that, of course, created another problem.

Young Canadian Lance Stroll is joining Williams for 2017. He will be the first Canadian F1 driver since Jacques Villeneuve retired. He needs an experienced hand to help him along. When Bottas left, Williams had a choice: try to convince another driver in F1 to make a move, thus creating a problem for yet another team, or phone Brazil and ask the just-retired Felipe Massa to unretire and do for Stroll what they’d hoped Bottas would do – turn him into a champion. They opted to go with Massa. We’ll soon see whether that was the right move.

5. Formula E gains momentum

When I sit down to figure out which of the many, many stories about motor sport fit into my Top Ten list, I have two criteria. First – holy cow, what a story! That’s where James Hinchcliffe and Cayden Lapcevich come in. Second, significance. The story might not have that :”Hey, Martha, listen to this!” ring to it, but it’s something that might have an effect on the sport in the years to come.

Which is where Formula E comes in. Anybody who reads my stuff should know that I don’t like the fact that the FIA sanctioned an all-electric-car racing series. Why not an electric fuel-cell series? Or an all-diesel series? If somebody wants to enter an electric car in motor racing, go to it but that’s what sports car racing is all about. A “Garage 56″ entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans could work. Or a class entry in the WEC or the IMSA Weathertech Championship.

But I seem to be in the minority. When you have multinational automobile corporations like Jaguar Land Rover entering the series this year, and Mercedes-Benz planning to enter next year and – ye Gods! – FERRARI considering an entry in 2018 (with certain conditions), then you have something that’s on the move.

Formula E is on television all over the world and the host in North America is the well-known Ralph Sheheen with colour commentary from four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti. There will be a race in New York City next summer (something Bernie Ecclestone was never able to pull off with Formula One) and in Montreal about two months after the F1 Grand Prix du Canada.

I tell you this because there is a revolution happening here, folks. Unless something significant happens to bring everybody to their senses, I will be on the losing side – I know that now. The electric car will happen and over the next – say – 20 years, EVs will blow most of the other automobiles out of the water. And with that will go Formula One.

Get ready for Formula E and get used to it

6. The death of Bryan Clauson

Statistics can be frightening. Sometimes they don’t accurately reflect reality, but that shouldn’t matter. When racing driver Bryan Clauson was killed in August while racing in the finals of the famous Belleville High Banks Midget Nationals, he became one of more than 500 drivers to die while racing in the United States in the last 25 years, according to a study done for the Charlotte Observer.

That’s just the U.S. That doesn’t take into account Europe, Asia, Japan, India, the Middle East, Africa, South America, Mexico, Canada and I could go on and on.

But that 500 in 25 years (and the total is probably closer to 550 now, as that study is now a couple of years old) means an average of 20 (or so) people – men, women and children – are killed each year racing cars, or motorcycles, or karts.

You never hear about most of them because they don’t have the status of a Clauson, who was a three-time Indianapolis 500 starter who also dabbled in stock cars. His death made headlines, as did the deaths in recent years of Jason Leffler, Kramer Williamson, Justin Wilson, Kenny Irwin, Paul Dana, Adam Petty and so many others.

Many, if not most, of those deaths are preventable. If every racing driver at every track and racing in every class was made to wear a HANS device, I’m sure there would be far fewer fatalities. Note that I said “far fewer.” A HANS is no guarantee and I’m sure Clauson was wearing one. But you can get a HANS now for as low as $ 600 yet there are competitors out there who would rather buy something for the race car or kart – new tires, or whatever – than to invest in their own lives.

“It won’t happen to me,” is what they all think. Until, like Bryan Clauson’s family and friends, they find out it can.

Make the HANS mandatory for all kinds of racing because more than 500 people killed doing what they love to do is just way too many.

7. Unknown rookie “backs in” to win Centennial of world’s Most Famous Race

There was great anticipation for the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the 2016 Indianapolis 500. For the first time in its history, the race was sold out and so the local television blackout was lifted. ABC television, which had been broadcasting the annual event from eons, anticipated a record audience. All the downtown Indianapolis hotels blocked off their rooms as much as a year in advance knowing full well that people who couldn’t have cared less about the race for its first 99 years would be gung-ho to attend the 100th and would be prepared to pay through the nose for the privilege

In the end, it was all a a letdown. The race itself had been fast and furious from the start but, as it wound down. three drivers in particular had their feet to the floor – Tony Kanaan, Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgarden. They were going for it – but then, Kanaan ran too low on fuel and had to pit for a splash. He was followed by Munoz and then Newgarden. The lead was inherited by former Formula One driver Alexander Rossi, a rookie on the IndyCar circuit. He was running – as they say – a fuel-mileage race, in which he drove slower than the others in order to conserve fuel. He drove the last lap 40 mph off the pace but was able to limp/creep (take your pick) to the finish line where he was given the checkered flag. He ran out of fuel halfway around the big speedway after taking the checkers. The crowd was almost stunned by what had happened – a guy coming out of literally nowhere to win and with nobody really knowing who he was.

Contrast that with the finish of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 held three months earlier. There was a last-second scramble between Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. that had the crowd on its feet, screaming. Hamlin nipped Truex Jr. by a whisker – one-hundredth of a second – a margin that required a video review to determine the winner. It was the closest finish in Daytona 500 history. Said Hamlin: “This is the best. I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the pinnacle of my career. It’s the biggest race of my life. The Daytona 500 is – as a kid, what you – this is the pinnacle of our sport and I’m just proud to be here.”

Back at Indy, Rossi – a 24-year-old from California who had watched the 2015 race from either a hotel room or a yacht in the harbour at Monte Carlo, Monaco – appeared almost bored by the whole business. “I have no idea how we pulled that off,” he said on television immediately after the race. Whoopee.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffers concussion that keeps him out for half the season

Remember the good old days, when a racing car would go rocketing into a wall and bounce around and maybe turn upside down a couple of times before stopping?. Or a hockey player caught with his head down? Or a wide receiver in football being leveled by a defensive back just as he caught the ball?. And the driver would get out, eventually, or the hockey star would wobble back to the bench or the trainers would help the gridiron player off the field and the announcers would all say that all three of those guys had “had their bell rung.”

You don’t hear anybody say that any more because it’s no longer funny. The NFL is under fire these days because of concussions. So is the NHL. In fact, the NHL has “concussion spotters” whose only job is to watch players leave the ice surface after a shift and if he/she determines (from a distance, remember) that a particular player doesn’t look as sharp as he did before he went out, they can order a concussion protocol take place before that player can rejoin the game.

Now, Earnhardt has suffered concussions previously. He’s admitted that there were times he knew he was injured but covered it up in order to keep driving. This latest concussion was serious enough that he knew he had to shut down his career in order to get the proper medical attention. He has since been given the all-clear to resume racing next year at the Daytona 500.but it’s been a long road for him.

But think about this for a moment: those drivers go into those walls at 200 miles an hour. 200 mph. Does anybody really think they are not physically black-and-blue afterward? And if that’s what their bodies look like, think about what their insides look like – from their brains to their intestines. (If you want a graphic description of what a crash does to a brain, click here to find out.)

Since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed, NASCAR has spent millions to make the Cup cars (and others down the line) safer. And they’ve done a great job. But now they are going to have to go one step further. If Dale Jr. lied about being concussed, you can bet others have as well and so NASCAR will have to put a concussion protocol in place, just like the other major league sports. Dementia and early death are two results of too many bangs to the head. Lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits got the attention of the other leagues. Crashes are a way of life in NASCAR, so they should be the first to act.

9. Jimmie Johnson wins seventh Sprint Cup crown

I have long written that the reason Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are so successful is because they are all business about the sport of auto racing. They both go at it in a way unlike any other team in what will now be called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Johnson once had a wreck and instead of getting out and wandering around in the garage and giving interviews to television like all the other drivers do while they wait for the car to be repaired, he sat inside the car with his belts tight and his helmet and balaclava and gloves on, waiting for the car to be fixed so he could go back to work. That is the mark of a champion.

And Knaus? Remember, he got so angry with Johnson’s pit crew once that he traded – in mid-race – that pit crew for Jeff Gordon’s. Right in the middle of the race, he said, “You guys aren’t performing well enough to get the job done (translation: win) so you’re gone and we’ll bring those guys in from over there to do things correctly.” Or words to that effect. And after Johnson had won – I believe – his fourth Sprint Cup title, and he was sitting, waiting for the post-race media conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to start, Knaus leaned over to him and started talking about some changes he wanted to make to the car before testing started in January.

All business – and that’s why they’re so successful.

Johnson won five championships in a row. His sixth and seventh titles have been spread out a bit. He’s now tied all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Sr. I think he will go all-out to win the championship again next year and that will be eight. It’s my bet that he will then retire. In the meantime, enjoy watching him drive while Knauss conducts the orchestra. Together, they make beautiful music.

I doubt if we will ever see their like again.

10. Roger Penske sees his team win IndyCar title in 50th anniversary year

When 2016 began, which was the 50th anniversary of the forming of Team Penske/Penske Racing, “the Captain” had ambitions to win the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the IndyCar and NACAR points championships.

He won one of the four – the IndyCar title with Simon Pagenaud leading the way, followed closely by Will Power and Helio Castroneves. He came close in the Sprint Cup, with both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski qualifying for the Chase. Unfortunately for Penske, the two 500- mile classics got away from him but, as even he will tell you, that’s racing.

There’s not much more anyone can say about Roger Penske, who lives by his motto, Effort Equals Results. Just this year, I wrote two magazine-length features about him. USA Today newspaper published a Penske-by-the-Numbers story earlier this year that I think boils down the essence of what “RP” (as he’s called by some) is all about as much as any full-length story.

Age: 79

Born: Shaker Heights, Ohio

Nickname: “The Captain”

Indianapolis 500 wins: 16 — Rick Mears (1979, ’84, ’88, ’91), Helio Castroneves (2001-02, ’09), Mark Donohue (1972), Bobby Unser (1981), Danny Sullivan (1985), Al Unser Sr. (1987), Emerson Fittipaldi (1993), Al Unser Jr. (1994), Gil de Ferran (2003), Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Juan Pablo Montoya (2015)

Daytona 500 wins: Two — Ryan Newman (2008), Joey Logano (2015)

IndyCar titles: 14 — Tom Sneva (1977-78), Mears (1979, ’81-82), Al Unser Sr. (1983, ’85), Sullivan (1988), Al Unser Jr. (1994), de Ferran (2000-01), Hornish (2006), Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016)

Sprint Cup titles: One — Brad Keselowski (2012)

Driving highlights: Named 1961 Sports Car Club of America driver of the year by Sports Illustrated; made two Formula One starts as a driver (both at Watkins Glen International)

Net worth: Estimated at $ 1.5 billion by Forbes

Children: Five — sons Roger Jr., Gregory, Jay and Mark and daughter Blair

There’s not much more to say. He’s like the Energizer bunny – he just keeps going and going and going. His business interests are as important to him as his racing. He wants to win every time out, whether it’s selling cars or finishing on the top step of the podium.

He’s a champion and long may he reign.

Okay, there are plenty of other stories that could have made it into the list. Here are some of them.

– Ron Dennis being voted out of McLaren. This happened before, however, and he made it back. I will be surprised if he didn’t start plotting his comeback the minute he got chopped.

– Audi withdraws from WEC racing. So? People who cover sports car racing exclusively see significance in this. I don’t. Auto racing at the world level is enormously expensive. Look at Audi’s parent company. Then do the math.

– Mark Webber retires. So did Nico Rosberg. Lewis Hamilton will, someday, as will all the rest of the drivers in F1. If Vettel, a four-time champion, retired, that might be newsy enough to make the list. Or if Max quits before he hits his stride. But Webber, although a good driver, was not a great driver and not a champion.

– Jeff Gordon unretires. Jeff Gordon had a wonderful Farewell Tour year in 2015 and settled back to live in his Manhattan penthouse with his wife and kids and take up a career in television. Then Dale Jr. was concussed. Rick Hendrick talked him back into the cockpit, “as a favour.” He shouldn’t have done it because he didn’t do all that well. When it’s over, it’s over.

– Max Verstappen (and his father, Jos) essentially said to Red Bull Racing early in the season: “Move me up to the A Team or I’m walking at the end of the 2016.” So they gave Danil Kvyat the boot (back to Toro Rosso; not out of F1) and put Max in his place and the move paid off, with him winning his first race and generating excitement (and criticism) the rest of the year. The kid could be the next world champion.

– The musical chairs podium at the Mexican Grand Prix. Talk about confusion. Max finished the race in third, followed by Vettela and Ricciardo. In the cool-down room, Max was told he was being penalized five seconds for cutting a corner to stay in front of Sebastian, elevating Vettel to third. The four-time champion attended the podium ceremony where he received a trophy and sprayed the champagne. Then, when he left the podium, he learned he had been penalized 10 seconds for blocking Ricciardo under braking. So Ricciardo officially finished third while Verstappen was fourth and Vettel fifth.

They think.

– The finish of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park every year always has a surprise and sometimes violent ending. This year was no exception, except that it went beyond the pale. John Hunter Nemechek lined up Cole Custer to drill him just as they came onto the main straight and were heading toward the checkers. NASCA racing is a contact sport and you come to accept this sort of behaviour as being legal (until such time as somebody gets killed and charges are laid and then NASCAR will legislate it out of existence). But I digress. Custer knew what Nemechek was planning (mainly because he’d probably have done the same thing if the roles were reversed) and checked up, putting both trucks off the racing circuit and up against a retaining wall, Custer on the inside and Nemechek outside. This is when it got interesting. Rather than racing Custer to the line, Nemechek held him against the retaining wall all the way to the checkered flag, narrowly missing hitting two photographers who were shooting the finish from underneath a footbridge that crosses the main straight. Nemechek should have been disqualified for rough racing and Custer given the victory but nooooo, NASCAR thinks that sort of stuff is crowd-pleasing. Custer didn’t help his cause, any, by running across the track afterward and tackling Nemechek. Custer has since moved on to the Xfinity Series while Nemechek will probably race in the trucks series again. Which, in its own way, is probably poetic justice.

Congratulations to the Canadian Touring Car Championship for landing Pirelli as its presenting sponsor for 2017 and onwards. Congratulations to Pinty’s Delicious Foods for its first year of sponsoring the NASCAR Canada stock car series, this country’s only national racing series. But is Monster Energy drinks the best sponsor for NASCAR’s premier Cup series? We’re going to see, aren’t we? I know there’s gold in them thar energy drinks hills, but Monster seems to be everywhere and you have to wonder if they’re not, perhaps, spreading themselves a little too thin . . .

Happy New Year, everybody. And may 2017 turn out to be the best year of your life.


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