See title. That's really it. I think I'm starting to grow out of my manual transmission car. And the reason is very simple: DCTs are better. I'll go a step farther: Shiftable automatic transmissions are as good as an average manual now, and DCTs are better.
BACK IN MY DAY, all we had was Tiptronic. And Sportronic. And Sentronic. And Mechatronic. And Touchtronic. And Comfortonic, Geartronic, 2tronic, Steptronic, Switchtronic, Q-Tronic, S-tronic, and Sportmatic, Hydromatic, Activematic, Multimatic, and a dozen-dozen other liars, pretenders, fakers, and also-rans. And these were the names of the many-headed enemy who's true identity we can only speak in a hushed whisper, even today: The Manumatic. All of them sucked. They fucking sucked ass. They sucked so badly that the shiftable automatic in any form is just now starting to be taken seriously, and the original vacuum-actuated, clutched Manumatic was invented almost 90 years ago.
By simple definition, any automatic transmission that can be shifted independently by the operator is some form of Manumatic. All of them were designed to emulate or return some helpful or desirable facet of the manual transmission. Whether that's pure speed, or sporty driving feel, or fuel efficiency, or helping with towing, all of these brand name Manumatics were designed to overcome the undeniable fact that automatic transmissions are bad or worse at anything that isn't the most basic kind of going forwards and very rarely going backwards.
Now, I'm not going to give a blow-for-blow accounting of transmission history, and what exactly lead to the automatic dominating automotive culture especially in America, but I will share some of my personal perspective. As I see it, the automatic took over in America because of: 1) Laziness, 2) America's addiction to and obsession with the war machine, 3) Manual transmissions sucking. Obviously, automatic transmissions are easier to drive than manuals. It takes less mental and physical effort, and people like that. As much as it may seem like hyperbole to blame the automatic transmission on war, Oldsmobile leaned heavily on war marketing to sell their Hydra-matic transmission (as seen in TANKS) when it was released in 1940. Five years later, all of GM was marketing those same automatic transmissions as "battle-hardened", and culturally, it was a fait accompli. Then there's that last prong. Yes. If we fast forward through the 60s and 70s, decades where the automatic continued to trend upwards in popularity, the 80s will land us in an automotive world where the automatic transmissions were pretty bad, but the manual transmissions were even worse. Ask about the Lamborghini Countach. Ask about the Delorean. The Dodge Omni. The Ford Mustang. In a situation where the options are a bad automatic or a worse manual, even I'm going with the automatic every time, because at least you don't have to touch the damn thing.
By the 1980s, even the world-renowned transmission elites at Porsche were struggling. Porsche wanted to make a shiftable automatic that wasn't horrific, but they hadn't yet made it click with customers. In 1980, Porsche pulled the plug on their Sportomatic "automatic", which had been made since 1968. With this transmission, the driver would move the stick, but there was no clutch pedal. Was it a manual, was it an automatic, the answer is probably "Yes, and". But what Porsche did next would not only contextualize the Sportomatic, it would also set the world on fire.
In 1989, Porsche introduced the 964-era 911 with a brand new transmission. This transmission, made in concert with a provincial company called Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen, was trade-named the Tiptronic. And all it did was start a nuclear arms race of transmission technology. The Tiptronic was a computer-controlled automatic gearbox that had one earth-shaking feature: A manual sequential Sport Mode. By the time Porsche got around to revising Tiptronic in 1995, almost every kind of car was being offered with transmissions that went beyond PRND, and soon after, the world was in the throws of Manumatic madness. From Acura to Volvo, car brands have sold 58 different kinds of Manumatic since the introduction of the Tiptronic, and that doesn't count the VW-group duplicates, all of whom have used Tiptronic itself in addition to any other shiftable automatics they may have offered. That's a staggering proliferation in a very short amount of time, especially when considering that most of those technologies, save for Tiptronic and Subaru's Sportshift transmissions, were primarily built in-house by these manufacturers. Or at least built for them by expert transmission shops. This means that the majority of these transmissions weren't just badge-engineered, they were unique enough to be considered bespoke.
All of these transmissions were meant to sell the idea of performance: An automatic transmission that was fun to drive. But...none of them were. Maybe Porsche's was fun, I don't know I've never driven it. But I can tell you that pretty much all the rest are desperately bad. None of them were sporty, none of them felt good. On most of them, the Sport mode was lip service at best, and it was a primary selling feature! How does that happen?! These transmissions, even in their sportiest mode, would indeed shift when the driver told them to...on their own time. I remember trying this in so many different cars over the years: Seeing the freeway gap, shifting into the manual mode which took the car out of its overdrive gear, pressing the lever down to drop another gear, and...
nothing would happen. THEN something would happen, and the gap was gone, and your foot was already down on the gas, and there was a car right behind you and they couldn't stop and then you and everyone else would die in a fiery explosion of disgust and disappointment and hate. Happened to everyone back then. By the early 2000s, these Manumatics were a failure on their own terms. They were never accepted by even the most casual sporty driver. Yes, they had become mainstream, but they had come out the other side exactly as diminished as the slushiest of automatic slushboxes.
But that was before The ZF. Remember that company I mentioned before? Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen? They just go by ZF now. And they make a shiftable automatic that's so good, it's known only as The ZF. This little 8-speed automatic is the industry standard, and it can be found in everything from the Chrysler 300 to the Lamborghini Urus, and from the Ram 1500 to the Rolls Royce Phantom, and the Range Rover, and the brand-new Toyota Supra. Numbers are a tricky thing when it comes to shift times, and companies define a shift differently in order to put forth numbers that "lead the class", but the important thing to know about the ZF is that - as a standard automatic - it not only shifts as fast as the LFA, and faster than the Ferrari F430, but it can also shift non-sequentially, a brand new trick for standard automatic transmissions. The ZF is so good and so reasonably priced that it has flooded the market, and most companies who don't use CVT in their mid-tier and up passenger cars use the ZF. AND it works with all drive setups. AND it works with true 4WD. AND it's hybrid compatible. AND it's notably efficient. It's just fantastic engineering, and it feels good to drive as well, even in spirited moments. And that was my first realization, inspired by the ZF: If what's most satisfying about a manual is the shift, and if the shift in a really good shiftable automatic is - after all these years - finally as good, then why not just go with the automatic?
NEXT TIME: Double Clutches enter the fray.
GM didn't hesitate. They didn't fuck it up. They did everything right. And I'm completely sold.
I honestly expected to feel differently about the C8 after the initial adrenaline rush wore off. Part of my personal excitement about this car was for the meme, and while it will always be funny to me that Nick and some others (but not many!) swore off this car because of its engine placement, that's not a sustainable source of interest in a car that's so beleaguered by everything I hate most about car culture. So at first, taking up the fandom was just part of the joke. But - as in every RomCom - that was before I got to know her!
The initial hype is gone, and here's the thing: I still want a C8. I want a C8 in the same way I wanted an R-Spec. I want to own this car. I don't care what trim level it is. I don't care about a Z51 package, or the wheels (all of which are mediocre), or the spoiler (bad), or the arrangement of the dash buttons (hilariously dumb), or the interior colors (snoozefest), and I don't even care about the exterior color. I just want one, and if I get my way, it will have body-color accents instead of black. I have to say it to the world, now: I am a fan of this Corvette. And that's how you know that GM did every single thing right. Because they got me.
Even now you could basically take my Bullitt Mustang blog from last year, change all the references from the Mustang to the Corvette, and you'd roughly arrive at how I feel about the entire cult of Corvette ownership. Openly hostile, is another way to put it. I am staunchly anti-car cult of any kind, of course, but Corvette owners always hold that extra edgelord status over even Mustang and Camaro owners, specifically because of the Corvette's supposed upmarket rivals. No matter how many numbers you shout out, Corvettes have only ever rivaled 911s when driven in professional race series, and nobody in world history has ever cross-shopped a Ferrari and a C7. But reality has never stopped a Corvette fan from claiming that stuff like it's fact! In fact, go do a quick Google Image search for "Corvette Shirt", and you'll immediately contract a social disease like Hep B or illiteracy. It's that bad. And yet..have you SEEN that car in the header pic? Have you really LOOKED at it? God damn! I have to own one! I'll happy ignore all 58 years of intolerable fandom just to have a C8 in my driveway.
To me, the C8's best achievement is its design. Here are some pictures of a meticulous render of the 2016 Corvette DP car, put next to similar angles of the 2020 C8.
In designing the C8, GM did the hardest thing possible: They made a high quality, road-going version of a pre-existing race car. And it looks absolutely fantastic. There are evolutionary elements from the C7, there's a very Corvette style, there's a sense of class, there's a clear shape that can only come from having the engine - finally - in the correct place, and it's all perfect.
The C8 will perform, as well. As more facts and figures come out, it even looks like it very well might be the NSX killer that I predicted it would be - a prediction made with absolutely no merit, and for no reason. The two cars are exactly equal to 60, and in the quarter mile as well, and I expect that trend to continue once the C8 finally shows up on tracks. Its gonna be fast, there can be no doubt. And yet I find that I don't even care that much. If the C8 is faster or as fast as an NSX around racetracks, you can bet I'll brag about being right on that call that nobody else made, but that invisible rivalry has no real application to the car as I enjoy it. I like the look of the thing. I like that it symbolizes GM's first big step forward in my lifetime, I like the targa top, I like the C8's place in car history, I really really like that it pisses people off, and if you must know I like the Zeus Bronze and Elkhart Lake paint colors too.
The C8 even passed my first real-life test. At Road America I stood next to one. As close as possible in fact, closer than the rest of you plebs, because I had a media vest on. I saw the car from every angle. I saw the terrible wheels. I saw the laughable interior buttons. I saw the GM interior, as chintzy-looking as ever. I saw the foolish steering wheel. I saw the beige seats with their Avengers-suit-ass panel pattern. I saw every single bowtie. And all I could see was that car in my driveway. That brown Chevy.
And that's it. GM did it right, and they should be celebrated. I hope the C8 is a rousing success, and I hope that it empowers GM to commit and try some other cool things with their cars for once. There's no doubt in my mind that not only will the C8 be celebrated as an award-winner by automotive journalists, but next year, I believe that it will also be a huge success on the track. Already the Z51 C8 is breathing down the neck of C7 ZR1 in terms of performance, so we can already rest easy knowing the C8R will be awesome too. And when that moment comes, when the C8 Corvette wins its greatest victory, when Nick finally comes back into the fold of Corvette fans, I'll let him have his flag back. I won't even hesitate.
On any given post-race Monday, take a few minutes and peruse the different social media outlets, article comments, Reddit groups, etc. and read the fans’ reactions. Every week, it’s guaranteed that there will be disagreement on the quality of the past weekend’s events. Some will say what an “amazing” spectacle they witnessed, while others will describe the very same event as “dull”, “boring” and “a snooze.” Hell, you may have had that debate with your family or friends on the ride home from the track! This has led some of motorsports’ leading journalists to ask a rather intriguing question: what needs to happen for a race to be “good”?
There are many, many factors and opinions that can help carve out this answer, but if you were to poll race fans everywhere I think the most common characteristic that comes up is passing. No one wants to see a 2+ hour parade. I have no interest in going to the free parades in the nearest town on July 4th, much less pay money to see one at a race track. Fans want close competition, with drivers testing their skill and bravery to outduel the rest. Who will brake latest going into that hairpin corner? Who’s going to risk using the dirty, outside line to gain a position in a high speed sweeper? Passes are what get people out of their seats, specifically if their favorite drivers are involved in the battle. But that brings up another question…do the passes have to be for the lead, to make a race good?
Obviously passes for the lead hold more weight, because no one remembers who finishes second. That pass for the lead could later turn into the pass for the win. Is there anything cooler in motorsports than a last lap pass for the win or a photo finish? Probably not, but I would argue that a great finish doesn’t equate to a great race. Sometimes fans sit through a brutally boring event, and their frustrations are rewarded with a couple of exciting moments at the end. In my opinion, if one person gets everything right and runs away with the lead, so be it, as long as there’s action for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and so on. I would much rather be entertained for the entire race watching battles throughout the field than see and exciting last 10 seconds after being bored. That’s how the IndyCar race at Road America was this year: Alex Rossi took the lead in turn 1 and was on another planet for the rest of the afternoon. His margin of victory was 27 seconds! There might have been only 1 full course yellow the entire day, but I still thought it was a pretty good afternoon because there was so much else going on. Scott Dixon spun on the first lap and was in 23rd position, but battled forward to a 5th place finish. That’s a 17 position improvement without the help of caution flags to bunch the field up over and over again. Displays like that are fun for me to watch!
Some race fans, usually the ones of a more casual nature, want to see crashes. To them, a race isn’t good unless they see cars torn up and multiple yellow flags. If you are one of these people, I don’t want to associate with you. I have no problem with people who aren’t diehard race fans like me. I would argue that both of my cohosts can be classified as casual race fans. But they also appreciate the work involved by all the teams and the skill being demonstrated by the drivers, and they don’t root for failure. If all you want is wrecks, go to your local fair and watch the demo derby. Cheering for crashes is also applauding extra work for crews already stretched thin, extra expense for the team owners and potential injuries for the drivers. In other words, you’re a dick.
The more I thought about this, the more I think the mark of a great race can be summed up in a single word: unpredictability. I don’t want to drive through the gate on a Saturday or Sunday morning and know for sure, or at least have a good idea of, who’s going to cross the finish line first. Some may argue that because of the high budget teams in racing, our favorite weekend pastime has become more predictable recently. It’s true, every form of motorsports is driven by funding, and no matter where you look you will find “haves” and “have nots.” Take IndyCar for example…the “Big 3” teams of Penske Racing, Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing often find themselves filling up podiums and competing for championships. But here’s the thing: Penske runs 3 drivers, Andretti runs 4, and Ganassi another 2 cars. Even if ONLY those 9 cars were to win races, that’s still over a third of the full time Indy grid that COULD find the top step when the checkered flag falls. You go ahead and pick 1 out of 9 every week and see how often you’re right. And they aren’t the only teams that win! Sure, they win more often, but would you have bet that a then 18-year old Colton Herta would steal a win in just his 2nd career start? How about the ever-polarizing Takuma Sato, winning 2 races this year including a crazy Gateway event where he was in last place at the first round of pit stops??
And it’s not just about who wins, either. You never know who is going to pull off a pass for the ages, or who is going to have a slow pit stop that drops them multiple places at a crucial moment. This unpredictability is what makes IndyCar, in my opinion, the best racing on the planet. IMSA isn’t far off either, especially their triple-A series, the Michelin Pilot Challenge. It’s not uncommon that IMSA’s undercard is the best show of the weekend. Remember also that these two series race in the rain as well. If you can remember an umbrella or can handle getting a little wet at a race track, if you’re lucky enough to witness a rain race, you’ll be treated to what can only be described as (somewhat) controlled chaos.
In contrast, look at Formula 1: at any given race over the past 6 YEARS, you’ll be good to bet on a Mercedes. It’ll either be Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg…or more recently, Hamilton or Valterri Bottas. From 2014-2018, the team won 74 out of 100 races. Just 2 cars combined for 74% of the total wins on offer. In 2019, the team has won 10 of 13. There’s not much fun in that as a spectator. And don’t give me that “appreciate greatness as it happens” crap. I’m not discounting the effort that the engineers and team members put into making Mercedes’ F1 cars unbeatable, and not for one second am I discrediting the greatness of Lewis Hamilton. And frankly, I don’t feel any sympathy for their competitors either. Teams like Ferrari and McLaren F1 are spending upwards of $300M annually, and they still can’t get in the same zip code as the Silver Arrows. Sucks to suck, huh guys? But I’ll have plenty of time to appreciate greatness as I’m sitting in the retirement home looking through the record books and telling my grandchildren the same racing story they don’t want to hear for the 36th time. As a paying consumer or TV viewer, I want something I can talk about with other gearheads the next day. I want something memorable. And no, Lewis Hamilton winning by 30+ seconds isn’t memorable anymore, it’s routine. And routine doesn’t make for exciting races.
Some want to see a last lap pass for the win, others want more passes than they can count. Some want to see more time behind the safety car than under green conditions, because in their skewed minds crashes = a good time. Me, I just want some uncertainty. It’s weird, because in most other places in my life, I enjoy knowing what I’m in for. It helps me establish my daily and weekly routines for work, dating, podcasting, basketball leagues, etc. But I want leave all of that routine at the gate when my race ticket gets punched. If you are surprised at any point between green and checkered, odds are you’re going to have a favorable experience and want to get back to the track soon. One last side note, a race weekend is always more enjoyable with a large, enthusiastic crowd. Seeing others enjoying their day, feeling that energy in a section of grandstands as a race is about to start, having friendly, healthy debates with the lady in front of you or the guy you brush past in the paddock all help for a positive race. If there’s a poor crowd, the on track action seems…almost pointless. So, what makes a good race? There’s only one way to know for sure: get to your local track and find out!
The 4 mile, 640-acre slice of heaven called Road America was not something I grew up with from a very young age. As anyone who’s listened to the podcast will know, I didn’t grow up a “car guy”. I was even reluctant to get my license when I had the chance in high school. I was very nearly dragged, kicking and screaming, into the car by my dad to go practice. I had the feeling it was, for him, a deep... DEEP disappointment. Therefore, this track was not a must-see destination for me...
However, as you heard on our Father’s Day interview with my and Nick’s dad, a lot of that changed when I was taken to International Autos in Milwaukee that day that now seems so long ago. I got to exist in the presence of the indomitable racing machine that was the Audi R8. This car would go on to win Le Mans 5 times consecutively (officially, even though the Bentley Speed 8 thrown in the middle was essentially the same car). Only Porsche has more consecutive wins and they did it with three different cars. It also started off the fourteen year run from 2000-2014 that would see Audi (or the imposter Bentley) win thirteen races out of fourteen, interrupted only once by their worthy opponent, Peugeot. This run would see them to six fewer wins in those fourteen years than Porsche (with the current most overall wins at 19) could manage since 1976.
I know, I know, all boring statistics. What this is meant to drive home is the fact that this was an impressive car, driven by rockstar drivers that I still fanboy over today. The effect that had was for me to IMMEDIATELY want to go see this car race, and, it just so happened, I would have the perfect opportunity. The reason the car was even at a mid-tier, midwestern Audi dealer is that it was bound for Road America, just up the interstate and made a pitstop for some meet and greet time. So, my dad and I immediately made plans to go up to Road America for the main event that Sunday. Although I could revel in the details of that day for probably WAY too long, I don’t think it would serve the goal of me finally getting to the point here. I will give you a picture though. it was an ideal, Wisconsin, summer day. We had seats in the Audi corral. Our cars won, my dad got some great pictures (a pastime he STILL engages in when he goes to the track) and he got to pass on what little knowledge he had of Road America and sports car racing. That’s where it gets interesting. He knows some stuff, but not... all the stuff about car racing. He had been to Road America a couple times and knew generally how the system worked. However, after that trip, both of us realized what an attraction both the track and the spectacle on it provided. We were hooked. We needed to know more. This is where my co-host and lifelong friend Nick comes in. As a veritable walking encyclopedia of all things involving a steering wheel and checkered flags, we decided it would be a good idea for Nick to come with us from here on out. This was the kickoff of a father-son bonding experience where we both learned more than we ever would have imagined about cars, drivers, race tracks, and all the other stuff that I had no interest in just a year prior. Very rarely is there a situation where your dad gets to learn with you. Usually, he already knows everything. This experience was rare and one that sticks out to me, over my whole life.
This new-found obsession sent us to such far-flung and exotic places as Braselton, GA and Sebring, FL. The weird thing about it, though, is that I always felt kind of unique in the fact that I was doing this with my dad. BACK IN MY DAY (gross...) the track was a haven for cut-off jeans and old racing t-shirt wearing, cigarette smoking, beer swilling men in their 40’s and 50’s. At the sports car races my dad and I went to you MIGHT be able to see an improved quality of beer or a switch to the standard-issue BMW polo, but still. I maybe recall seeing, like, two or three young people at the track per day. Considering how much of a blast I was having sharing this experience with my dad, I was surprised not to see more kids there. Combine that with the fact that the majority of racing occurs during the summer in the united states and it would seem like the perfect way for dad to “do something with the kids” on a nice summer day or even the whole weekend. You’d think that, but it... just wasn’t. As we have discussed in previous podcast episodes, it was a land of old men leering at grid girls. Like a lot of other things (like taking my friends and I TO and buying us tickets FOR Blackhawk Down and then LEAVING) this was probably something my dad could have skipped doing with me, as far as my mom was concerned. However, it lead to either keeping alive or otherwise encouraging some of the best friendships in my life, the birth of this podcast, and, probably the most important, some of the best father-son bonding time I’ve ever had. All reservations about the environment aside, I look back and wonder why more kids weren’t there.
However, that has been subtly and slowly changing. So much that I almost missed it. I was initially writing this post to go up during our weekend at Road America, so I’ve had to change some of the tense here, but being able to come back to this post after our trip has given me the ability to confirm something that I have been seeing for the past few years. Since the merger of the American Le Mans Series with Grand Am, I’ve seen a push to bring young people into the fold. More of a push for hearing protection. The definite scaling back of practices like grid girls. The children’s special events and play areas popping up at the tracks during race weekends. Even a change in the types of concessions and merchandise. Who would have seen a Road America baby onesie anywhere ten years ago? Honestly. In the past five or six years, there has been a slow slide away from the boy’s club, men’s weekend retreat feeling of the track and a swing towards more of a petrol-powered Disneyland. Children are welcome. Whole families are going to the track. However, it all happened so slowly that I almost missed it. The fact that it’s happening was one of the most exciting things I had realized in years. It portends good things for this series, and racing in general, that younger generations are both attending and (apparently, based on the number of laughs, grass stains, and ice cream cones around) having a fantastic time at these weekends. It also, more personally and selfishly, means that it is also very unlikely that I will have to give up these race weekends should I ever have a family. Or not. If I do, they’ll be welcome. If I don’t, that’s fine. The influx of young fans means that this series will be around for quite a while yet, and that’s good. I’ll get to see my racing at my little slice of heaven in Elkhart Lake with my dad and the rest of my family, if they want. Everyone’s welcome now. And that’s the way it should be.
The Toyota monolith can be difficult to denigrate. Since the Toyopet Crown came to Hollywood in 1958, all Toyota has done is define the course of modern American personal transportation. The only recurring criticism of Toyota's cars over the past 60+ years is "Boring", which really isn't a criticism at all, but a comment on the critic's headspace. Toyota is the biggest car manufacturer in the world (pending how Renault/Nissan choose to organize themselves that day), they own the number one spot in passenger car and SUV sales, and they're always in the top 5 for truck sales, and in minivan sales, oh and the midsize luxury car segment, they have the number one spot in that too - No, Tesla, deliver what you "sell" and then we can talk. Toyota is nothing short of dominant. And yet, what if I told you that with some extra effort, Toyota might have expanded their dominance even further and taken complete control of the entire Crossover segment? It might have happened. I reckon somewhere, there is a parallel universe where Toyota rules the CUV market with three kings: The RAV4, the xB, and the Venza. It all starts 20 years ago.
In 1999, Toyota saw that their buyers were getting older. Building solid, reliable cars like the Camry, RAV4, and Corolla had made their brand an icon. But - then as now - Camrys don't get the youths excited. As an aside, that's pretty impressive foresight. American brands barely noticed this exact same trend in the past decade. Toyota's research lead them to create a new, youth-focused brand named Scion. Despite their urban-focused marketing schemes, decent selection of OEM aftermarket parts, and their ventures into tuner culture, Scion ended as a failure. Their model selection stayed small, they never really grabbed a youth audience, and their no-bargain sales technique came across as a ploy. Yet Scion had one shining, glimmering beacon of hope, and it was no more or less than exactly the car that Toyota did not expect people to buy: The Scion xB.
In 2003, Toyota launched the Scion brand with two models, the xA and the xB. I had to look up the xA to write this and I've already forgotten what it looked like, but everyone knows the xB. It's the square one. The one that looks like a box with wheels. Usually purple or orange. Toyota had planned that the xA would outsell the xB two to one, but that very much did not happen. From the jump, xB sales nearly doubled the xA, and that gap grew wider and wider until the xA slid mercifully into a cold grave in 2006. The xB was more than just a success, it was a bonafide hit, selling over 47,000 units in its first full production year, and over 285,000 units by 2009. Toyota had aimed for the younger Generation Y, but had squarely hit the Gen X-ers, with the xB's lifetime average purchaser age standing at 46. YouTuber Mr. Regular has attributed this twist to the car being very easy to get in and out of, and...he might be right. But no matter the reason, Toyota had unwittingly popularized what we now recognize as the Subcompact SUV, and they had found a brand new market segment that was all their own. Until 2009.
That's when the hamsters came. The rapping, dancing hamsters. By 2009, a small, upstart Korean car company named Kia had taken notice of Toyota's special little market segment. And all they did is come in and take the entire shit for themselves plus a good deal more, thanks to the Kia Soul. The sales figures are shocking. In the Soul's first year it managed to outsell the redesigned xB. In year two, Soul sales tripled sales of the xB. In year three? No, not quadrupled. In 2011, Kia sold ten times more Souls than Toyota sold xBs. And it was over. Just as Toyota's run was ramping up, it was completely and totally destroyed. The xB was never redesigned again. It was never even meaningfully updated. Toyota just let the car, and the entire Scion brand, whither and die.
But it didn't have to be that way. Nearly every single thing Kia did with the Soul they took directly from Toyota. Kia aimed for the youth with an urban-focused aesthetic. They had a smattering of OEM aftermarket parts. They produced true special editions. They used bright paint colors and big alloy wheels. Kia's unique twist was that hamster-abomination moonshot which flew directly past every youth in the world and buried itself deeply in the heart of your aunt who is thrice-divorced and calls herself "quirky" to cover up the fact that she's a fucking basket case. I can mock it as much as I want, but it worked perfectly. Kia more than won. Not only did the Soul kill the xB in the harshest way possible, but the continued success of the Soul allows Kia to make things like the Stinger, and the Forte 5 SX, and that weird K900 thing. In 2018, Kia sold over 108,000 Souls, and it was a down year. Try and tell me Toyota wouldn't like some of that market right now. They're still trying to re-enter the compact SUV market with flotsam like the C-HR, which was a Scion concept car originally, and which has been such a failure that Toyota is trying to replace it after just two years. Whoops.
The death of the xB is odd because Toyota is used to battling tough competition in tight market segments - see the Camry, see the RAV4 - and yet Toyota allowed Kia to use their own tricks to take over a segment that they popularized. It just doesn't make sense to me. And clearly, once the Soul came out, the xB no longer made sense to buyers. Maybe it was the relative scarcity of Scion dealerships, and Toyota should have absorbed the xB as its own. Maybe it was the fixed-price thing, combined with the xB starting at $3000 more than the Soul. Maybe it was the fact that the xB never got anything better than a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual, and while it had more power than the base Soul, it had less than the top-trim Soul, and the xB got worse combined gas mileage than either trim.
Looking at the sales figures, I think it's safe to say that by 2010, Toyota had given up on the xB. But I don't think they had to, and I don't think they should have. Yes, the Soul outsold the xB even in its first year, but the Soul was also so poorly made that Kia was forced to do a half-year interior redesign, which is bad. The Soul also rated Poor on the IIHS small-overlap test, which is very bad! The xB was made well. It had all the standard build-quality hallmarks of Toyota. It was an IIHS top safety pick. Why didn't they lean on any of that to fight back against Kia? They easily could have. Imagine this: A xB commercial that has some other kind of creature, perhaps a small cat, in their xB, driving into the city towards a huge, lit-up party or club, passing all of these various rapping hamsters on the side of the road in their broken down cars that for some reason, look like Kia Souls. And as the cat drives past the last hamster, the window rolls up, and Kanye West's new song Power starts to play. Cut to black. Some slogan about individuality flashes. Then some award, maybe Top Safety Pick. The Scion xB. Starts at $16 thousand-whatever it was. I feel like that could have worked. Even outside of the IIHS rating, awards are easy enough for manufacturers to get once they decide they want one. Heck, that little half-year redesign that the Soul got because the interiors were so bad? Yeah, that redesign won Kia the coveted, uh, Ward's Auto Interior Design of the Year Award. I'm sure Toyota could have grabbed something if they wanted to, maybe even from J.D. Power. Or, if marketing wasn't enough, why didn't Toyota reach over to the fresh corpse of the Matrix, and come out with an AWD xB? Or a sport version to go with the manual transmission? Or they could have beaten Jeep to the punch and released a lifted, "offroad" xB. Any of those would have moved metal for Toyota, for a certainty. The Hyundai Kona, the Soul ! (yes, seriously, that's the fast one), and the Jeep Renegade prove it. It was right within their grasp! Come ON Toyota, why did you give up?
Let's see if we can find a pattern by looking at another Toyota with a similar story: the Toyota Venza.
In my mind, the Toyota Venza was a shot aimed directly at the Subaru Outback, and it almost worked, too. In 2008, Toyota brought a brown wagon to autoshows across the US. Except, it wasn't a wagon. The Venza was a mid-size five-seat Crossover built on the venerable Toyota K platform. In reality, the Venza was absolutely a wagon, but just like the Outback, it was never sold as one. The Venza rode about as high as the Highlander, but the roofline is lower, and the interior was made to look modern and sleek instead of inoffensive like the Camry. It was a vehicle made to sit in the middle, and in its base trim, that's exactly what it did. But the Venza also brought some spice in the form of a V6, AWD trim, which somehow was the hottest seller. Can you imagine that?
Actually, let me not play coy. The V6 AWD Venza was Toyota's attempt at stealing sales from directly from Subaru's cash cow. The Subaru Outback had slightly higher ground clearance, but the Venza could tow more. The Venza cost slightly more, but came with more tech than the Outback. The Outback had more cargo space, the Venza had more passenger space. The two even cut nearly identical figures, with the Venza measuring 189" x 75" x 63.4", and the Outback measuring 189.6" x 72.4" x 66.1". And for a very short while, the look worked. In it's first full production year, the Venza fell short of Outback sales by only 955 units. But 2010 brought a fully re-designed Outback, which stormed back and more than doubled the sales of the 2009 Outback, while Venza sales declined. Subaru hasn't sold fewer than 100,000 Outbacks per year ever since, and the Venza was killed off in 2015. Did they push back against their surging rival? They did not. Once again, Toyota tapped a market, got some pushback, and just gave up. Even though Toyota knows how to market specifically against Subaru. They've been doing it for years with the Camry against the Subaru Legacy, you know, the sedan version of the Outback.
I said that the look of the Venza worked for a short time, and I think that was the real problem with the car. It only looked like the Outback. It only played the part. You see, the base Venza was...kinda bad. The front wheel drive and small engine worked fine in concept, but really, the 2.7L 4 cylinder was too anemic to meaningfully move the car along, especially on the freeway. Also, for some reason, Toyota chose to give AWD Venzas a part-time, torque-on-demand AWD system, instead of the full-time symmetric AWD system that already existed on the platform-shared Highlander. In fact, the Highlander and the Venza shared almost everything. Toyota used the same engines, the same chassis, the same transmissions...and different AWD systems. Subaru, with the Outback and the Forester, had long-proved that two similar crossovers can happily exist on lots as long as they are slightly different shapes. Toyota could have reworked the Venza and kept the Highlander without cannibalizing the business for either model, there is precedent. In the end, the Venza was something of a mirage. It had all the stats, but it didn't have the heart. It had the look, but not the guts. Customers noticed, and flew back to Subaru in an instant. They even brought their friends and family with them.
So what we have are two vehicles, both in the highly-coveted SUV market segment, with both having made a meaningful impact on different parts of that segment, and both coming from the manufacturer of the most popular SUV right now. Yet both the xB and the Venza still failed, or were left to die, and both under similar circumstances. Both vehicles should have been aggressively updated using platform-shared mechanicals and technology that already existed inside the very factories where these two vehicles were manufactured. But instead of trying, Toyota did nothing.
I have a theory on why Toyota gave up on the xB and the Venza. And it's the RAV4. I'm not talking about a "steal sales away" kind of thing, but a commitment thing. Toyota brought the RAV4 to the US in 1996, where it was an immediate sales success. But Honda launched the CR-V in 1997, which then outsold the RAV4 from 1998 until 2017. I think that Toyota wanted their crown back, and I think they chased Honda and the CR-V down for almost 20 years at a pretty high cost. The two brands have battled back and fourth every single year: generation to generation, facelift to facelift, and feature to feature. Throughout the last two decades, Toyota have put everything they had into the RAV4 to keep it as a segment leader, and they were rewarded with the number one spot in the hottest segment right in the thick of the SUV revolution. I doubt they would change anything about what they've done to get themselves here, even if it did cost a few niche SUV models.
But still, I do think it's sad that the xB and the Venza died before they should have. I believe both of those models had untapped potential, and could have reshaped the SUV market before it hit its most recent stride. Who knows what the market would look like right now if Toyota held the Compact SUV market along with the Midsize SUV market, and then also had carved out a chunk of the Crossover/wagon market from Subaru. I know it's weird to talk about the failings of a market giant, and it's even weirder to be excited about a dominant company possibly being more dominant, but dynasties are boring if they're never truly challenged, the sales show that the Soul and the Outback are dynastic. I think Toyota could have been the challenger to make it stick. But they chose a different path.
In 2017, McLaren Competition Director Eric Boulier met with McLaren CEO Zak Brown shortly after taking the job. Brown asked Boulier a simple question: “What does your perfect team look like?” Boulier answered “Any team with Fernando Alonso”. Brown's response was simple: “Okay then. Go get him”.
McLaren was right to go after the Spaniard. Alonso is considered one of the most talented drivers of this generation. In 2003, in his 2nd start for Renault F1 Team, Alonso raced his way to the podium. His first career win followed later that year. 7 wins each in 2005 and 2006 propelled him to consecutive world championships. At the time, he was the youngest in history to win a race and a season championship. By 2017 he had amassed 32 wins, 22 poles and 97 podium finishes, a legendary resume that McLaren - a team with lots of resources but not a lot of recent results - desperately needed. McLaren found themselves reeling in the wake of several unusually tumultuous years. Historically, McLaren is a team of winners. From Hunt to Lauda, to Prost and Senna, through Hakkinen, Kimi, Montoya, Button, and of course Hamilton, throughout its history McLaren Racing has consistently put the best drivers in the world behind the wheel of their cars. They weren’t used to the struggles they endured in this new hybrid engine era, and so the team brought in Zak Brown and Eric Boullier to right the ship. They inked a new deal with Honda to supply engines, recalling the glory days of Senna. And on top of all that, they lured in Fernando Alonso, hoping that “El Nino” would return them to their past glory. They were wrong
The McLaren-Honda deal from 2015-2017 was a complete disaster. The two sides were never able to come together and put a reliable package together for Fernando and his teammate. In 81 starts in these 4 seasons, Fernando was only able to finish 47 races. I’ll say that again: FORTY SEVEN out of 81 races finished, or 58%. That’s dismal. In those 47 finishes, there were 0 podiums. He did amass some points, because he has an innate ability to outdrive the equipment he’s given (see his 2011-2014 run at an underperforming Ferrari for proof), but Alonso was at wits’ end from the time he ran his first test in 2015 until the time he retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2018. So, why did he stay for 4 years? A driver with his credentials would be able to any team he chose to try and find a car more worthy of his talents. What kept him in the turmoil of McLaren Racing? The answer was also, I think, the problem: Zak Brown.
Brown, a former racer from California, found great success in the business world once he stepped out of sportscar racing. When he sold his company Just Marketing International, it was the largest motorsport marketing company in the world. Brown has won multiple marketing awards, and the sports car team he co-founded with Richard Dean, United Autosport, has been successful in both GT and prototype cars. So why the struggle in his time as CEO at McLaren? I think it's because Brown is an expert at commercialism, not building race cars. Endurance racing is all customer-based: you buy a vehicle from a manufacturer and it comes delivered to your facility ready to race. But F1 is different. Instead of buying a car from a factory, F1 teams have to build almost everything from scratch. Brown didn’t have any experience leading a team of engineers building wining cars. He is, however, a brilliant salesman. He’s fantastic at building and maintaining high-level business relationships. True enough, he did inherit a shit show at McLaren when he became the top dog, but even then he used his marketing expertise to position the company as a heritage brand, selling sponsors on the team’s storied history. McLaren = Winners. McLaren = History. McLaren = Tradition. And it worked. Brown's successful re-brand is what brought in the sponsorships despite the poor on-track performance, and it also brought in Alonso.
But the bravado that McLaren presented to the media and sponsors also impacted the attitude internally when things started going south with Honda. According to multiple sources (look them up yourself if you want all the deets, I’m not going to list them all here), Honda found McLaren hard to work with when - not to be too coy - the rubber met the road. McLaren would tell Honda, “We need the engine to do X” and Honda would say, “Okay, but to maximize our efforts we need Y and Z changes to be made to the bodywork, or cooling, or aero, or engine mount points, etc.” McLaren’s response? “No. Fuck that. We’re McLaren. We didn’t do anything wrong. YOU fix it.” But that's not how engineering works. That complete unwillingness to bend caused a massive rift in the McLaren/Honda relationship, and ties were finally severed after the 2017 season. Honda has moved on to Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Torro Rosso, where they have immediately seen improved results. Red Bull’s young driver Max Verstappen even put Honda back on the top step of the podium in Austria. As for McLaren? They decided to use Renault power for 2018 and 2019. Still no podiums. Still a midfield car on a good day. Maybe Honda wasn’t the problem, huh, Zak?
So much for the cars, but what about Fernando Alonso? Somehow, SOME WAY, he's is still on McLaren’s payroll (EDITOR'S NOTE: Literally until today, 7/5/19. Yeah, we're that good. It seems like Alonso signed a deal to the McLaren brand either in addition to or instead of to the F1 team - more smart marketing work on Brown's part). Because as I mentioned, Zak Brown is an expert salesman, and he kept selling McLaren to Alonso. When Alonso started to voice his displeasures publicly, Brown caved and let Fernando do...whatever he felt like doing. You wanna start a lifestyle and clothing brand? Sure! McLaren will back it and we'll promote it in every race series where United Autosport runs a car. You want to go run sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona? You can use my car! You want to skip Monaco, the biggest race on the F1 calendar, to go race the Indianapolis 500? Be my guest! You want to run the World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, too? Here, let me make a few phone calls and get you in the best car on the grid, because I can’t give you shit in F1, Alonso, and we both know it.
Zak Brown is the perfect Chief Marketing Officer for any race team. He would be a fantastic VP of Public Relations. But he is not an ideal CEO because he lacks the experience necessary to establish and maintain a productive culture in the engineering room. Sure, his United Autosport outfit does well, but that’s because he has a partner. Former race driver and sportcars champion Richard Dean heads the competition side of that business, while Zak does the business deals. Brown doesn’t have to worry about making the cars fast, that’s what Richard does best. Zak makes the phone calls, he sets the lunch meetings, he does the talking. Just like he did when he talked his way into a CEO position for an F1 team he had no business running. Just like he did when he talked Fernando Alonso onto a team he had no business joining.
Fernando, I get that loyalty still means a least a little bit from time to time, but PLEASE sever the ties with McLaren! You talent was heinously wasted for the past 5+ seasons and you don’t’ have that much time left before you hang up your helmet for good. There are plenty of teams with plenty of cars that would KILL to have you strap in for them. Do like LeBron did. Take your talents elsewhere.
Hello dear readers! This week, for our hottest of blogs, I would like to offer up a toast to the best worst car you’ll ever drive. To your chance to see how the other half lives. To the infinite promise of not having to own something. To, as one famous car presenter put it, the Fastest Car...in the World. Here’s to you, rental car!
We as a podcast have often discussed how much we like discussing rental cars. We’ve even come up with a Rental Car Reviews segment. But you know what? That isn't enough for me, and after my most recent rental car experience I felt I needed to write this blog. It was at the outset of a great Memorial Day adventure to Tennessee that I was handed the keys to a dreary Hyundai Elantra. It was the most basic of most basic models, redolent of the heady smell of industrial cleaners. The seat was tipped back to a simply astonishing angle by the lot attendant who had dropped it off. In my head, I decided that this was not going to be worth a rental car review. In fact, that specific Elantra is not going to be worth many more pixels on this page. What that car did do, however, was spawn the idea for this blog post.
The rental car, I believe, is one of the most under-appreciated luxuries of modern life. The rental car is often met with derision or, almost worse, just paid no attention to at all. I just did it to the poor Elantra mentioned above. But as a car person, I can tell you the last three or four cars I rented, easily. Yet I suspect that's pretty unusual. I think most people would remember the color of the car they rented more than they would remember the make or model. However, I really do find this to be a shame. In this country where distances are so vast and the forecast for quality public transportation is grim, rental cars are a godsend for travelers. Instead of getting off of the plane and having to go wherever the winds of fate (read: CTA, MTA, BART, etc.) take you, what can you do instead? Bounce on down to the rental counter and speak to a harried-looking man in a tie and ask him for a(n) car please. You can even pick the size of the car you want. It could be not a car at all, in fact! You want a truck? A SUV? A creepy panel van? No problem! And, just like that, you have as much freedom in the vast, far away land of Ft. Lauderdale as you could ever need. Of course, the rental car you get might be something you would never buy yourself, but then again, you didn't buy it. That car WILL take you to your hotel without having to wait for a shuttle. It WILL take you to the 24 hour Walgreens without having to talk to a cab driver. It WILL allow you to visit JimBob’s Barbecue and Moonshine Shack, located so far up in the mountains that you would never get there otherwise.
The other thing rental cars allow is the continuity of joy, at least for myself and my co-hosts. We’re drivers. We love driving. We love road tripping. We’ll be doing it to Watkins Glen in a few short weeks. However, we do realize there ARE some places to which it is quite difficult to drive. Like Madagascar. Or, for a less extreme example, the drive may be prohibitively expensive, like driving to Alaska from anywhere that isn't Alaska. The rental car allows you to still live out your “live like a local” fantasies while not having to take three weeks of vacation. You can even - like my family has done multiple times - rent a car in your very own home city! We often do this for road trips because, well, as great as they are, road trips put a lot of miles on the cars we love so very very much and if those cars break, that REALLY puts a wet blanket on your cool road trip. With a rental car, you don’t have to worry about the miles or the fear of turning your road trip to Colorado into a road trip to... Nebraska or something. Your rental car breaks? Great, have them bring you a new one. No fuss, no muss.
Rental cars also give you the opportunity to experience a car that you might not, otherwise. Sometimes, that can actually be a really valuable thing. For years, my co-host Andrew, had been harping on and ON about how actually good the new Hyundai/Kia models were. In the relatively standard response for someone who is a fan of German car... or Japanese cars... or actually lots of other cars, I always replied “Oh, I’m sure! Just not my scene, you know?” As if I were a man from the 70's (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is still a strong possibility). I was still living in the biased past where Korean cars were junk. However, that all changed when Nick and I drive a rental Kia Optima from Milwaukee, WI to Austin, TX and back. A trip of some 18 hours each way. In the span of that trip, we stopped three times on the way down and three times on the way back up because we had to. Not the car. The squishy human bits were tired and had to use the bathroom. The car could have gone another quarter tank each time we stopped. To us, that was an amazing feat! It rode out an absolute frog-drowned of a storm in Dallas. It was super comfortable and it had Bluetooth for our phones. (Something which neither of us had in our own cars, at the time, might I add). That one rental car experience took my entire car world view and tipped it on its head.
So, my point stands. Rental cars are cruelly under-appreciated. Are most rental cars the bottom of the options list barrel? Yes. Are they often not even close to the best model in their class? Yes. Are they YOUR car? No. But... are they A car? Yes. And that has a lot of value. You’ll be able to drive, no matter where you go, courtesy of the rental car. And hey, you might even learn something along the way.
Yep, it's another car culture blog. I'm just bringing up Goldeneye because I couldn't think of a better jumping off point to talk about my thesis that didn't involve the phrase "rose-tinted glasses" and I hate that phrase. I'm just going to hit you with the main idea:
It is fine to judge old cars by modern standards.
A simple enough statement, but one that super-triggers people with fan allegiances or nostalgia issues. These same issues exist anywhere self-made loyalties lie: movies, music, food, and of course video games and cars. The reason I picked seminal Nintendo 64 title Goldeneye to clickbait this blog is because its saying Goldeneye sucks is one of my very hottest takes, and also because the reaction I get to that take almost exactly mirrors Tristan's reaction to my statement from a few episodes ago that old land yachts suck. There's anger. There's strident protest. And of course, the endless tide of "Yeah but".
Some more background for you non-gamers, feel free to skip ahead if you know this stuff: Goldeneye 64 was a first-person shooter released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. It was absolutely groundbreaking. Goldeneye proved not only that first-person shooters could work on home consoles, but also that shooters could be open-world adventures. The game's story mode mirrored the events of the hit 1995 Bond film, and the game's multiplayer mode reached such legendary status that not only has it spawned a hundred direct-line imitators, mods, remakes, and re-imaginings, but it also poisoned the mind of an entire generation. I'll bet at least a third of gamers my age would say Goldeneye is the best shooter they've ever played, and every single one of them would be complete idiots to do so. Because Goldeneye is trash. The controls were created by a meth-addled tarantula-ape-squid. The multiplayer is farcically unbalanced. Every aspect of the single-player has aged exactly as well as summer roadkill deer. All of these problems were screamingly evident with the advent of the very next console generation - just four years after the game's release. Goldeneye 64 is fetid. And it's also extremely important.
It's possible to like things that are of poor quality. It happens all the time. Look at McDonald's. Look at Twitter. Look at Dodge. Look at The Bachelor/ette. There's no accounting for personal taste. For example: I love chocolate cake. But only if it is not in any way homemade. I like the homemade stuff, sure, but I love the commercial-grade stuff. Would they serve it in a dorm cafeteria and/or a hospital? I already have my tray. With the chocolate sprinkles? Even better. Two pieces. And the big ones. But commercial-grade chocolate cake is objectively shit compared to "real" cake. It tastes worse. It looks worse. The texture is worse. It contains no love or care. Commercial-grade chocolate cake is worse than homemade chocolate cake by every meaningful standard of the food world, but I like it more. I freely understand that it is worse, and I can even tell you why it is worse, but I like it more. I'm fine with that. And by the way, we aren't going to talk about irony here in this blog. There is no irony any more, irony is dead. Stop bringing it up.
It's also possible for things that are of poor quality to be important, or even vital, in their own context. Those ideas are not remotely incomparable. Context is extremely important whenever you're judging an object of any kind, and it can't be elided or forgotten. The thing is that when context is properly considered, even if you judge the past by using the lens of the present the best will always shake out on top. For example, if we judge Goldeneye by modern video game standards, it's going to get utterly destroyed - but it will still come out as critically important because it was the first game to establish...well...almost every single tenet of the first-person shooter genre we know today. If you judge the 1974 BMW 2002 by modern standards, it looks pretty good! Decent power, decent-looking, good features, sure 9 seconds to 60, and it nearly created the sports saloon. That's pretty good! Ditto the original Ford Mustang. And the Firebird Trans Am. And the Model T. And the Honda Accord. And the Beetle. And a dozen-dozen other cars. And if you do the same thing with a Cadillac Brougham, you end up cry-laughing. Because that's how bad that car truly was. It reads exactly like a joke. So why can't it just be that? Even a joke has an audience.
Of course, car culture is absolutely infested with this nostalgia obsession where everything you like has to also be validated as good by some outside source. Car fans have always chosen to die on the hoods of the cars they like the most. Every few years some Detroit publication prints some soft-focusass piece on the newest Ford exec who was raised in fucking House Karstark or whatever and how that exec was promised to GM as an infant and then after the exec got the Ford job their father or uncle wouldn't talk to them for three months or whatever. Obviously these stories are complete fabrications, but the element of truth in the lie is the still-aggressive undercurrent of diehards in car culture. And to those people I would ask these questions: Why can't you like what you like and still recognize it for what it is objectively? Why is it total devotion or accusations of not being a "real fan"? Why is it zealotry or being a filthy casual? Why do the new Star Wars movies have to ruin the old ones for those too weak-willed to accept that they grew out of it a little bit in the interim of forty fucking years?
Maybe that last one is less connected, but I think my point is clear. It's perfectly fine to like things that are factually bad. It will always be okay to like what you like, but I honestly think we'd all be better off if we all could also understand what we like in it's own context, no matter what that context illustrates. And you know what? If facing the reality of what you like changes your like for it, then you didn't actually like it all that much. Move on. Find something else that's more your taste. It's fine to do that. It's fine to change your own opinion. But that's a blog for another day.
Damn, CEP listeners, it’s been awhile! I hope you’ve all been well, and I appreciate you all sticking with my cohosts and I as we come to grips with being more professional. But there’s no better way to return to the World of the HOT BLOG than with the annual Indianapolis 500 preview! It’s that time of year again: The greatest weekend on the calendar for gear heads. I want to jump right in with a look ahead to the world’s greatest race, but before we do that, we need to look back at the weekend that was.
Qualifying weekend at Indianapolis delivered in every way: There was weather to contend with, there were major upsets, there is a new pole winner and 3 drivers left disappointed after the Last Row Shootout (IndyCar’s new term for Bump Day qualifying). Talk about a pressure cooker: The 6 cars that didn’t make the top 30 on Saturday each had one chance to make the final 3 positions on Sunday. One solitary run; 4 laps, 10 miles, for the rest of your life. While there were a few smaller teams in danger, as expected, the real story was the big name drivers and teams fighting for their Indy dreams. Could people’s champ James Hinchcliffe actually miss the race 2 years in a row? He destroyed his primary car in Saturday qualifying, and had to jump in a backup car with very few practice laps and lay it all on the line. Or what about international mega-star Fernando Alonso? The McLaren team both looked and acted overmatched and out of place all month, but surely a team with pockets that deep and resources that profound would find a way to squeak in, right? Well, Hinch snuck in by the last hair on his chinny-chin-chin and will roll off 32nd out of 33, but Mr. Alonso will not be joining him on the last row, thanks to tiny little Juncos Racing.
Alonso was sitting in P33 when Kyle Kaiser went out as the final car to qualify in the Last Row Shootout. Kyle and his team had been through a hellacious month of May to that point. Right as practice opened, their major sponsors backed out. The team’s plan was to try and qualify, then worry about funding to actually contest the 500. Then, later in practice week, Kyle had a hard accident and destroyed the one car the team had prepared. The Juncos boys had to somehow pull a whole race car out of a hat just to get Kaiser in the qualifying line. They worked nonstop overnight to scrap, claw, and assemble an old borrowed race car. Team owner Ricardo Juncos, who immigrated to America as a go-kart mechanic and eventually started his own team, moving up the ladder from karts through junior open wheel to eventually a part-time IndyCar program, said he kept his team fueled with “pizza and Starbucks” as they slaved until 4am to make qualifying tech inspection. With no practice on this car, the 23-year-old Kaiser took to the track for his last ditch effort to make the show. The mission: knock out 2-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and the mighty Team McLaren. The 4 lap average to beat? 227.353 mph. Kaiser’s first lap was faster than Alonso’s. Encouraging, but he still had three laps left. 2nd lap: faster than Alonso’s. You don’t think….3rd lap, right there, in line with the champ. This can’t be happening…Kaiser rips across the stripe to register a 4 lap average of 227.372 mph. By 0.019 mph over 4 laps, Juncos knocked out McLaren. Kaiser takes down Alonso! David defeats Goliath again! This is exactly what makes the month of May at Indianapolis so special, and one of the many reasons why I can’t WAIT for this weekend. What happened with McLaren? What’s next for Alonso? Don’t worry, that’ll be in my next blog. But for now, let’s focus on the 103rd Indianapolis 500, set to take place this weekend.
I just spent a lot of time focusing on the back of the grid, and that’s because the sharp end is pretty much status quo. The top 9 starting spots are dominated by juggernaut Team Penske and superspeedway specialists Ed Carpenter Racing. Ed is an Indianapolis native, who grew up racing the local dirt tracks, went to school at Butler University, and has started on pole for this race 3 times. He finished 2nd last year, and if he were to move up one more step on that podium, the entire grandstands might collapse from the pandemonium that’s sure to ensue. He’s got a fair shot, as do his two team cars driven by young American Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones, who finished 3rd here as a rookie in 2017. But to accomplish this, ECR needs to run through the buzzsaw that is Team Penske.
Penske also put 3 cars in the first three rows, led by first time Indy polesitter Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman won a championship for Penske in 2016, but has struggled since. There were grumblings for the past year and a half that he was close to being dropped from his contract, but he has responded this year with a brilliant drive in the rain at the Indy GP two weeks ago, running down CEP favorite Scott Dixon from 7 seconds back in just 3 laps to pass for the win. He then qualified on the pole for the biggest race on the calendar, and has history on his side. Last year, Will Power won the Indy GP and followed it up by winning the 500. His team owner? Oh yeah, Roger Penske. Things are looking up for the one they call “The Professor.”
Of course, in a 500 mile race like this we can expect more than just 2 teams to spend time at the front. Herta-mania is in full swing, as the now 19-year-old rookie Colton Herta - already with a race win to his credit in 2019 - was the quickest qualifying Honda-powered car and will roll off from row 2. Andretti Autosport brings a 5-car armada led by former champ Ryan Hunter-Reay and budding superstar Alexander Rossi, who is proving to be a straight up assassin. He doesn’t come to the track to win, he comes to embarrass the competition and does so with no remorse. Drivers like the aforementioned Dixon and Graham Rahal are too experienced, smart and talented to not have some say in how the final results play out. They may start further back in the field, but they’ll find their way to the front through speed, strategy or both. And what about Hinch?? He starts 32nd, but Rossi started there last year and finished in the top 3. After all that The Speedway has put him through in the past few years, I feel like the ol’ girl owes him one.
So, after ALL this talk, who is actually going to win the Indianapolis 500? Below are my 3 favorites, and a few dark horses to watch out for:
1 – Alexander Rossi
2 – Simon Pagenaud
3 – Ed Jones
1 – Connor Daly
2 – James Davison
3 – JR Hildebrand
This is going to be a weekend for the ages. I can feel it! So crack open a cold one, pick your favorite chip/dip combo, and settle in for the greatest show in the world of motor racing. I am fortunate enough to be able to attend once again, and I’ll be wearing my podcast shirt on Sunday, so feel free to say hello if we cross paths. Even if we don’t run into each other (or you avoid me on purpose), be sure to stop and see our friends at the Styled Aesthetic booth. Indiana is broiler-hot at the end of May, so you’ll need a CEP can coolie to keep those drinks cold! Shameless plugs aside, my one wish for any petrol-head out there is that they get as much joy as I do out of watching these 33 gladiators vie for the single greatest trophy in racing. It feels great to be blogging again, and it’ll feel even better to back in the Tower Terrace at Indy this weekend! Let’s GO!
If the rumors are true, the C8 Corvette will be king in a way that no other Corvette has ever been.
And that's me saying that.
If I were Acura, and had the NSX out right now as the quintessential modern American mid-engine supercar (Yeah, American, fight me in Marysville), I'd be scrambling. Because the C8 is coming. And after it launches, nothing will be the same.
At this point, there's little reason to doubt the leaks and rumors on the C8. Between Corvette forums, Reddit, and good-old fashioned journalism, basically every previous reasonable leak has been proven true. From the mid-engine layout, to the wiring issues, to the hybrid rumors, to the Cadillac coverup, to the engine options, it's all been rumors or leaks, and it's all turned out to be fact. Two months before the car's official debut, there's a new rumor, and it's about the price. According to Hagerty, the base-model C8 Corvette is slated to start between $60-70,000. We predicted that by the way. Or at least we asked "What if". But divorced from our awesomeness and objective right-and-righteousness in all things, remember: That Acura NSX, the Corvette's main American competition, starts at $157,000. Not twice the price, $100,00 more, almost three times more. Holy shit.
Imagine this: A Corvette C8 that costs $65,000 and matches the performance of the NSX. Not almost matches, not comes close, but matches it. That car would be king. Right now, the C7 Corvette ZR1 is just slightly faster than the NSX in pretty much every measurable test. But the ZR1 also matches the NSX when it comes to price, with the top trim coming in at around $155,000. Of course, the current ZR1 has that big Supercharged V8 in the front making over 600 HP, but the first C8s are expected to sit on lots with a 500-ish HP V8 in the middle. Okay, so maybe the 570 HP hybrid NSX beats the base C8 in a drag race, but doesn't the C8 need to match it around a track? It feels that way to me. After all, we know that Corvette loves racing, and we know they've been race-track testing the C8 since August of last year, all the while watching the NSX race across the class line in the Weathertech Championship. Corvette won't release an all-new mid-engined car that's a slouch on the track, it's not even possible. We also know that Corvette perennially has one eye on Ferrari. And with the C8, they have their other eye on hybrid technology. Ferrari is announcing their first-ever hybrid V8 any day now. Try to imagine a Corvette engineer who isn't quaking and frothing at the mouth to see the specs on that Ferrari, ready to rabidly work on how they can match the Ferrari on it's home layout turf for half the cost. Given what Corvette wants to have the top trim of the C8 compete with, and given how much the layout change has put at stake for Corvette, Chevy, and GM at large, I don't think it's strange to say that the base C8 needs to match the NSX. Actually, I believe it's fair to ask if Corvette can afford to not go directly at the NSX, a car that has its own cult following and launched to international acclaim. In fact, if Corvette can't make a huge international impression with the very first C8s, this whole mid-engine transition could fail before it even makes it off the ground.
But just for a moment, let's say that all my prophesies come true. Let's say that the base C8 gets fabulous reviews, that it matches the NSX, and that the top-tier C8 is a twin-turbo, hybrid, Ferrari-mashing, scalpel-wielding track lunatic from Bowling Green. And let's imagine the C8 comes in a color called Bowling Green, because it really helps the imagery. All of that still might not matter. Because of Nick.
Not Nick specifically, but Nick too. Reading the C8 rumor threads in Corvette forums is an awful, awful time. So many FRAM-brained layout truthers pop in to talk about how the C8 isn't...whatever, or how it doesn't...uh...how it...Okay, I honestly don't know what they're talking about, because I get really bad synesthesia when I read something fundamentally at odds with reality, and all I hear is this song. I said this about the Charger all the way back in the Mustang blog, and I'll say it again now: Any given modern car is so different from any of its progenitor's roots that a layout change cannot even matter. Oh wow, the first Corvette was front-engined! Y'all sure cracked that case. It also was also so ugly it caused an Anthrax outbreak in Manchester, New Hampshire. The C3 was a trash fire. The C4 was so 80s you still can't legally be seen in public next to one. The C5 was a fantastic race car...as long as it had its entire own class. But they didn't keep any of those parts for the C7 just because they were tradition! They didn't even keep the appalling chrome wheels from the C6. Does anyone truly believe that the C7 should be compared to the C1? Of course not, nobody wants those problems. The C8 doesn't need that comparison either.
The truth is that if you look at the entire history of Corvette with an objective eye, not only are they one of most changeable cars in all of car history, but they also are notable trend-followers who lead from the front. Meaning, Corvette is rarely the first one to do anything new, but they are regularly the first ones to do anything new successfully. That's not damning with faint praise, it's just praise. Between the C1 and the C8 lie four dozen rusted hulks of lost, failed, and abandoned American supercars. The Corvette has outlasted the Mustang. It outlasted the Camaro. It outlasted the Panoz Esperante, the Delorean, the Firebird, the Thunderbird, Vector, Mosler, AMC, Callaway, the Cobra, Consulier, Plymouth, SSZ, the Charger, the Falcon F7, the Saleen, the GNX, the Viper, every single weak attempt from Cadillac, the GTO, Mercury, Glickenhaus, the Challenger, the Ford GT40, the Ford GT, the Ford GT, the Roisson, everything from SSC, the Venom, the G8, the SS, and every single other car that has challenged it for its entire existence. Yet people who stanned the Corvette would dare to threaten to leave over an engine layout change? Pure nonsense. Utter foolery!
But of course, some old fans will leave. Some, like Nick, already have. Former Corvette fans taking their nonsense and leaving could be damaging enough to kill the brand, potentially. But staying where they've been since 1953 would kill the brand with absolute certainty. When we initially talked about the mid-engine Corvette rumors, we postulated that maybe - just maybe - the Camaro division had fired a ZL1-shaped bullet directly through the heart of the Front/Rear Corvette by making a car that could, with a hobbled engine, race on track in a class with the ZR1...for the price of a Grand Sport. Now, there's no doubt in my mind that was the final straw. That fact - added to the ever-mounting staleness of a C7 that was an on-track winner and off-track media darling, but has been utterly humiliated by the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger in sales for the C7's entire existence - makes it clear to me that Corvette had no choice but to swing as hard as they could with the C8 and hope for the best. No matter what The Olde Guard might think about it. Corvette was in the Harley dilemma. But they chose to act, instead of gracelessly sliding into a grave of their very own American design and manufacture.
And so, Corvette is taking on almost endless risk with the C8, specifically because of the fans: new, old, and prospective. That's why I titled this post Scary Hours. Not just because I like Drake, but because the Hours be Scary. Acura has to be scared. Ford has to be scared. Ferrari better be scared. Corvette stans have been scared, scared enough to run away. GM must be scared. We all know Chevy is scared. Corvette themselves have to be scared too, because it's all on them. Right now, every major development in the world of the supercar is entirely focused on the C8. If they execute, none of this Corvette fan grandstanding will matter or even be remembered. If they waver, or if they fail, then how long will it really take for a GM on the desperate hunt for cash savings above all else to shutter the Corvette division in total and let the resurgent Camaro reign? It's already the face of the brand in NASCAR, and their sports car volume-seller, and they could easily make a more plush, GT-style trim to grab the older Corvette buyers, and it could definitely be homologated to race in IMSA. It even has that precious Front/Rear layout that brings all the old men to the yard. I don't think it's a far-flung imagining to say that should everything break wrong, Corvette could be two or three years from disappearing out of car history. GM has killed better-selling brands for less.
Fortunately, all of this imagining and prophecy and guesswork ends soon. Because 7/8/19 is almost here. Right now it's scary hours, but a new king is coming. And after that - come hell or high water - nothing will be the same.