At the end of Season 3, Episode 14 of The Grand Tour, Jeremy Clarkson announced that the series as it has been for 3 years will be ending. Fortunately, Jeremy, Richard, and James aren't leaving us in the lurch. There will still be new road trips, new episodes and more seasons of the show. But nevertheless, when Jeremy gave this announcement, he broke down. And I felt his sadness at a deeper level than I would have even one year ago. I felt more than sympathy for the stalwart-if-problematic Clarkson, I actually felt empathy. What I saw was a man mourning the loss of his creation, a loss that he may not have been fully able to process as he was - deservedly - pushed out of Top Gear and the BBC as a result of his own actions. No matter how anyone might personally feel about the three men, there can be no doubt that Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond created modern car media. After 16 years, they are putting their own creation aside and choosing to do something else, and all three of them have now lost their own IP twice in five years. I can feel their pain. Even at this early stage in our growth, I understand how hard it must be.
What makes this announcement even sadder is that The Grand Tour was just hitting its stride. The content in seasons one and two went from extremely rough to decently polished. There was the terrible Celebrity Brain Crash segment, the somewhat less-bad Celebrity Face-Off segment, the drippingly lush Amazon cinematography, the ultra-high production value, and always underpinning it all, the incomparable relationship between the three main hosts. Season 3 kept everything that was good about seasons one and two and cut away the fluff, making the show tighter and more focused. Yet moving forward, there won't be any more car review segments. There won't be any studio segments. Just road trips. And that's fine, but I need to say a proper goodbye to what we're all losing.
Top Gear was the first car show to inject true personality into car culture and have it stick. Their car reviews always carried more weight than others I read because they always seemed more realistic. We - the audience of Jeremy, Richard and James - grew to know cars and car culture through the host's direct opinions; through the lens of their personalities. That is the mark of truly gifted reviewers. Every story and review should feel like it strings to the last, every feeling should be connected, even and especially when you end up contradicting yourself. That's relatable. That's life. Cars can be perfect and still bad, and the hosts showed us that. Cars can be terrible and wrap themselves around your heart, and they showed us that as well. Beyond review scores and test numbers there is a feel to cars, a connection, and Clarkson, Hammond, and May always put that front and center. And now, so does pretty much everybody else.
The influence of the way the three presented car news can also be seen everywhere. Long before Twitter, Clarkson, Hammond, and May were giving short, gut reactions to car news. Heck, most car coverage for the past decade or more has roots in The News (eventually Conversation Street), including this little podcast. Again, it all comes down to the personalities of the hosts. It's the personalities that lead, that generate the traffic, and when it works, it really works. Mr. Regular I think is a good example in the vein of old Top Gear, and even Jalopnik has moments, though by and large they try to be far too SFW while also having an edge, and you can't have it both ways.
The death of the celebrity interview is also rather sad. I believe I'm right in saying that Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was a Jeremy Clarkson idea. His concept was to have celebrities do race laps and then give interviews, in the hopes that some compelling nugget of information would be dislodged. Over the years, it produced a lot of memorable moments, and the competition for the to spot on the lap board was always extremely entertaining to me. Is it any wonder that The Grand Tour tried to re-create a celebrity spot in their show when that was taken away? What else could they do?
And all of that, all those segments, are now gone. Or rather, the pioneers of those segments are now gone from them. It's a loss for all of car culture.
There's no point in pretending otherwise: Nick, Tristan, and I created The Check Engine Podcast because we wanted - and still want - to be like Clarkson, Hammond, and May. The reality of old Top Gear and The Grand Tour is that they were shows about friends that like cars, not car shows. Because the original cast joked so relentlessly about hating each other, the friendship is something that every single drab American reboot of Top Gear has missed, and something that new Top Gear misses out as well. Ditto Netflix's sad attempts at car shows. Ditto every show ever put on Speed and/or Velocity, and/or whatever other car show channel which might be the same channel but maybe isn't who knows not me. What I learned from watching Top Gear was that the relationship between Clarkson, Hammond, and May always mattered to me far more than whatever they were driving. I believe that was the core of the pitch I made to Tristan and Nick as I piloted the TrailMcBlazer away from VIR and into the pooling night of the Blue Ridge Mountains: We need to make a show about us, and we need to talk about cars.
Maybe that comes across as selfish. Maybe it's braggadocious. Maybe it was arrogant to assume that three Wonderbread Wisconsin boys would be interesting to listen to. Only somehow, we are. Thanks to every single listener, reader, and supporter, we know that we have a worthwhile product. The three of us have genuinely created something that works, something that connects with an audience, and because of that, when I saw Jeremy Clarkson wiping away a tear, I suddenly realized how I would feel if we lost what we have built, even in its fledgling state. Rental Car Reviews, Pace Laps, this blog, Show and Tell episodes, the social media accounts, all of that has been created by the three of us. And if any of it were to be taken away, I would be shattered.
We aren't going away. Of course not, we have too much to do, too much to accomplish, too far to grow. Next week we'll put out what we're calling Episode 50, even though it might not actually be number 50, eh, whatever. Along with that, we're rolling out a new content schedule. First, we're moving blogs to every other week, but the rotation will stay the same. So Nick will post a blog next week, then it will be an off week, then Tristan, than an off week, then me, and then an off week. Really, it got to a point where the blogs were getting so good, I wanted to be able to talk more about them in episodes. This will allow us to do that. Second, on the blog off-weeks, we're going to bring back the live videos, so there will still be fresh content in the weeks where there is no blog. Third, we're going to add in more open-format episodes, because we all enjoy them and they keep the creative juices flowing while also allowing us to cover things in more detail. Fourth, we're aiming to get more focused with our episodes, so we get better lead-up to and after-impressions from our races, and other events we go to. And finally, we are aiming to make it easier for us to schedule and record interviews. Because between the three of us, we have half the average person's ability to organize, so creating this schedule will allow us to plan more effectively and be more accountable to our fans and to our content.
We will start recording video and create a YouTube presence, and that's in the works. We've had a lot of failures, but success is within our grasp. We will add a soundboard, and we're so close on that, we just need the quality to match what we have already established. We will continue to step up the content in our blogs. We will keep pushing ourselves to create the best content we can in our episodes. We will keep manning the social media accounts to expand our reach. We will keep growing. We will keep getting better. And it's all thanks to every single person who has ever tuned in to an episode or read a blog. And no message of thanks from us will ever be enough to accurately portray how grateful we are for each and every of you.
To close, I want to share with all of you a message that ranks as a personal life highlight: An Instagram message from user joeroy15. Joe wrote to tell us that he likes our podcast. He wrote to tell us that he just found us three weeks ago, and only has 4 episodes left. He said that he's been listening to us all day while he's at work. I teared up a bit when I read Joe's message. I never thought that I would make anything that would be binge-worthy. I never thought to create something worthwhile enough to become a daily part of a stranger's life, something that other people would be excited to get more of. It makes me want to work harder. It makes me want to grow this podcast and this content more than I ever have before. It makes me dream bigger, and even bigger than that. So, here's a thank you Joe, just from me to you: Thank you for your inspiration. And Happy early Birthday. Welcome to CEP Nation. Here's to the next 50.
As you may have heard on our most recent podcast, as Andrew so gleefully pointed out, the new C8 Corvette is being revealed in July, and it is confirmed as a mid-engine model. To some, this may seem long overdue and a step in the right direction. To others, including myself, this is nothing short of blasphemy. I have an emotional reaction because Corvettes have been in my life since I was old enough to start remembering things. My father has had a Corvette in the garage since before I was born. He’s had a 1969 Stingray (C3), a 1963 split window coupe (C2), a 1986 C4, and a 1997 C5. As a retirement present for himself, he bought back the 1969 Stingray that he sold 25 years prior…not just the same model, the Exact. Same. Car. How great a story is that?
My initiation to car culture came from my dad, and so did my love for the Corvette. As the C6 and C7 models were revealed, I noticed that I was liking them less and less. It just seemed like they were continually losing their “Corvette-ness”, and I felt like the writing was on the wall. This C8 mid-engine announcement didn’t surprise me one bit, but I’m still seething about it. I meant what I said on the air, that as of July 18, 2019, I will no longer be a fan of the Corvette. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the old ones, but I refuse to support any mid-engine GM vehicle with a Corvette badge. Besides all the emotional reason listed above, from a practical standpoint there was absolutely zero reason to change the layout of the Corvette, despite what my co-hosts may tell you. To help you understand why the car should have stayed the same, let’s first take a look at what being a “brand” means. The Webster definition is a little basic, so I found a good one from businessdictionary.com for you to read below. Pay attention to the 2nd and 3rd sentences in particular. Emphasis mine:
Unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors. Over time, this image becomes associated with a level of credibility, quality, and satisfaction in the consumer's mind. Thus brands help harried consumers in crowded and complex marketplace, by standing for certain benefits and value.
To sum it up, besides being a name and icon, a brand is how companies become ingrained in the mind of the consumer. A brand is the messages you send as a company. It’s the images you conjure, it’s the feelings you evoke; your brand equity. A brand is supposed to stand for something. You see, there are certain competitive markets that are heavily saturated with a lot of choices for the consumer. One of the markets that most exemplifies saturation is the automotive space. With so many manufacturers releasing so many models and trying to catch a whiff of consumer attention, it becomes difficult to establish brand equity. General Motors had it with the Corvette: A legendary American sports car with (mostly) manual transmissions, high horsepower V8’s and a front engine, rear wheel drive layout. It’s been that way since 1953 when the car was first introduced. It’s what car fans everywhere have come to know and love. It conquered the racing world with that layout, with 170+ race wins, 8 titles in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 12 manufacturer championships, and over 50 1-2 finishes. And GM is throwing this away for…what, exactly?
Yes, there are very many successful and popular vehicles on the road and racetrack with mid or rear engine layouts. All the credit in the world to Porsche for the 911. The #1 and 1a cars on my dream list right now are Ferraris: The 458 for nostalgic reasons, and the F8 Tributo because HOLY SHIT have you seen it?! The mid-engine layout is prized in the racing world (and therefore on the streets), because putting the engine towards the back of the car puts more weight on the driving rear wheels for traction, and it also helps the suspension absorb rough roads. But the front-rear layout shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Why not? Well, see the race record above for starters. Racing comes down to a lot of different factors, not just vehicle layout. Corvette has beaten a lot of Porsches, Ferraris and mid-engine Fords in its day. And General Motors is not the only ones with front-rear performance/muscle/sports cars. Mercedes competes with multiple cars in this layout. BMW, does the same. Hell, the M3 is one of the most revered front-rear sports saloons of all time! Aston Martin launches almost all of its models with front-rear, like the Vanquish and the DB11, and they race them too. Jaguar has always gone with this layout for its lineups, which currently include the venerable F Type and the XE/XF sports sedans. Let’s not forget all the other American muscle cars out there like the Challenger, Mustang and the Camaro. The ZL1-trimmed Camaro is a proper track beast, all with an engine up front and the drive wheels out back. And who can forget the awesome Dodge Viper? Even the aforementioned Ferrari has released an F-R car to go along with all of their mid-engine examples: ever hear of the 812 Superfast? If this vehicle layout is so subpar when it comes to performance, why do all of these manufacturers continue to produce cars in this way?
One thing that Tristan and Andrew were absolutely right about is this: GM has a massive opportunity to produce a mid-engine sports car with a price that can undercut its competitors. The Corvette as it is today is already a value for the performance a buyer can enjoy. Its base price (roughly $53,000) is $40k less than the Nissan GT-R, $60k less than a 911 and $100k less than the NSX. Only when someone chooses to invest in the mighty ZR1 package do they need to pay prices anywhere near that much. Even if the base price goes up by $20,000 for a mid-engine package, I’m sure a $75k GM sports car with an engine behind the seats will most definitely turn some heads. Just don’t call it a Corvette. How cool would it be to resurrect the Firebird, literally another name for a bird that rises from the ashes, as this new mid-engine contender from GM? It wouldn’t do much good to badge it a Chevrolet, with the Camaro already there. Although Vettes are technically Chevys, I think we can all agree that it is a brand unto itself that can stand on its own. That leaves Cadillac if they really want to go that route, but I honestly don’t care what make General Motors designates it as, so long as they leave the Corvette as it is.
I’m not completely against change, but there are plenty of ways to advance technology and modernize without moving the engine. Throughout its history the Corvette actually served as General Motors’ incubator for many tech advancements that would eventually be passed on to other cars in their portfolio: things like disc brakes, fuel injection, independent rear suspension, traction control, antilock brakes, stability control and lightweight materials all made their GM debut on the Corvette. Today, the magnetic ride suspension on the C7 is widely considered to be one of, if not the best in the game today, and the Aerogel material GM fits it with to insulate the cabin from any transmission tunnel heat was developed specifically for NASA to use on its Mars rovers. Its precise 50/50 weight distribution led to the car receiving top handling and braking marks against rivals such as the Porsche 911 and McLaren 570GT. That doesn’t sound like a “dopey” front engine car to me, Tristan.
Think of how many automotive nameplates out there truly stand the test of time. Corvette, Mustang, Beetle, F-150, Jeep, the DB designation from Aston Martin…bottom line is, it’s near impossible to do, and if a car maker is fortunate enough to achieve that status, they should hold onto it with a death grip. The Corvette is a legendary name that is hardwired in the psyche of car fanatics the world over. This car has come to truly stand for something in the minds of the consumers. It’s the American sports car that conquered the world, with an engine in the front. It isn’t broke. There wasn't any reason to fix it.
Last weekend I was in the front garden digging a hole for a Blue Heaven hydrangea when I found a whole car. Well, a whole die-cast car. The weather that day was gorgeous, and my wife and I had gotten all first-time-homeowner excited to get a head start on our plans to redo the gardens around our house. You see, the previous owners had been a bit overzealous with their planting (why a cactus), and we had to do a lot of removal last fall, leaving some areas looking pretty bare. Plus, we had made some exterior color changes, and of course the gardens have to match and enhance our color scheme and spread it across the yard so the neighbors feel inferior, you know, regular stuff.
At the time I wasn't thinking anything about cars or the podcast, both of which regularly occupy my thoughts more than is medically advisable. I was just listening to some Michael McDonald and digging a hole. And then I had a clump of dirt in my hand that, for some reason, appeared to have wheels. After just a tiny bit of amateur archaeology, I unearthed the die-cast car pictured above. It seems to be a Datsun, but I can't be sure which one yet. Perhaps a 240Z or Fairlady Z, perhaps a 260Z, but it definitely looks like something in that line. It was previously green with a beige or white interior, and the hood opens but the doors do not. Also it's mostly missing one wheel, as you can see. Of course, upon revealing my find, I immediately posted it to our Instagram, where it became our most-liked post ever.
I'm not a big believer in signs or comic energy, but it is quite nice to have a random moment of personal encouragement every now and then. This was one of those for me. Recently, I've been feeling a little stagnant with the podcast, a little like I'm losing momentum, which of course just leads me to obsessively think about what I've done or have been doing wrong, or what I need to be doing differently. But when you overthink your content, it shows in the final product, so you have to think about it without thinking about it but make sure you're always thinking about it so you don't miss your own thoughts about it - small wonder pretty much all artists have anxiety. Yet outside all of that recursive bullshit, at a moment when I couldn't have been farther from my podcast worries, I found a Datsun in my garden. To me, this die-cast car is a small reminder that Hey, You're Doing Alright. It helps.
In order to investigate my find a little further, I took it to the kitchen and tried to wash it off a bit. Unfortunately, the car had been outside and buried for so long that just merely cleaning it off wasn't enough to read the letters on the bottom so I could find out more about the thing. Then, a thought occurred. What if I restored this little car a bit? For content, and also to return the favor it did for me. Is that possible? Is restoring die-cast cars a thing?
How little I knew. When I tell you that restoring die-cast cars is a thing, I mean it is AN ENTIRE THING. Forums, international online shops, YouTube channels with millions of views, collectors, sellers, buyers, conferences, conventions, eBay stores, How-Tos, Wikis, custom-made replacement parts, lingo, techniques...everything. There is everything, and its all out there on the internet for everyone to find; an entire subculture that's as well-developed as any in car fandom, and as technically astute as the most hardcore tabletop gamers. Up to this point I've avoided calling my Datsun a Matchbox car or a Hot Wheels car, and there's a reason for that. After a second of looking into this subculture, I learned that you can't just call every die-cast a Hot Wheels or a Matchbox car, you normie. You casual filth. You have to know the brand. THEN you can worry about the model.
In all honestly, the die-cast restoration subculture seems to be one of the healthiest I've ever seen online. Go check out some videos on YouTube. They're typically just a person with a camera and a voiceover mic showing you what they did, how they did it, and telling you why they did it that way. Every video is an instruction, and the comments are shockingly non-toxic for YouTube, and for car culture, and for the internet in general. Typically its either someone going "Wow, I didn't know this was a thing, amazing" or a different restorer saying how they do things, or pointing out tiny flaws in the finished product with tips or suggestions on what could make things better next time. Nobody fights. Nobody gets insulted. Typing it out, the whole thing sounds kind of simple, but the work these folks put into their restorations is deeply impressive. Clear coats, drilling out rivets, era-appropriate color-matching, custom transfer stickers, modifications, every single thing. If you want to do a die-cast restoration, you can rest assured that somebody out there has done one similar to one you want to do, and they've probably made a video for you to follow.
I think I'm going to give this a try. To pay respect to this little buried treasure, I think I'm going to take a whack at restoring it. Step one will be finding out what it is and who made it. So far, I've had no luck finding a green die-cast Datsun that has an opening hood but no opening doors. It doesn't seem that Hot Wheels or Matchbox made one exactly matching that description, but there are more than 50 brands that have made die-cast model cars over the years, and obviously one of them made my little Datsun. So thank you little Datsun. I would very much like to pay you back, and hopefully with the help of the die-cast restoration subculture I'll find myself equal to the task.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about something we’ve discussed on our recent episodes: the VW and Ford partnership. As the podcast’s resident VAG fanboy (or VW AG for the more childish of our hosts), I’d like to weigh in on the issue. My verdict: PUMPED. I’ve been looking into it more and more, and I have to say I’ve come away excited. We rag a lot on Ford in our episodes for boneheadedly choosing to move away from the regular car, but what we don’t give Ford a lot of credit for is their very good trucks and vans.
This is because we are an automobile enthusiast podcast, but when we say automobile enthusiast, we generally mean cars, not trucks and vans. Minus some offroad variants or special editions, to us, pickup trucks and vans are just kind of... there. A lot of people drive them daily, but for the most part, they are there to do a job. A lot are fleet vehicles or are owned by individual tradespeople. At the very least some of them are privately owned for to boat towing, RV towing, or go kart towing. Although necessary in some cases and good at what they do, trucks and work vans are rarely, if ever, glamorous.
That said, we did have the F-150 on our bracket for most iconic car for a reason. It is still the benchmark and template for the “pickup truck”. 32 million F-series trucks had been sold as of a year ago (the most recent numbers I could find, given lag in collating data). Two are sold every minute, on average. On the van front, the Ford Transit is also king. Four hundred thousand have been registered in the US so far. It’s only been here since 2014, and in America, vans don’t sell nearly as well as trucks. Getting Americans to make the leap to an extremely European, kinda weird looking van is no small feat, but the Transit seems to have accomplished it. Some might argue the Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter was first, and it was, at least chronologically. But the Sprinter was just the ripple that started the tidal wave of Euro-style vans on North American roads. The Transit is the wave. So, in the truck and van market? Ford is doing well.
But Ford isn't doing well everywhere else. Despite being a dominant force in the work vehicle markets, Ford’s overall market share has plummeted in the last three years. At the CEP, we chalk that up to aging car models, lackluster crossovers, and horrendous interiors even before they decided to completely stop selling cars. Fortunately, all of this is something that VW can help with. VW has recently had a notable re-invigoration of their design departments with the new Arteon, Atlas, new Jetta (which I prefectly predicted, but anyways), and the new Tiguan all sporting really solid looks matched with VW's signature high-quality interiors. VW seems to have taken our advice and put the value back into the People’s Car. If any of that manages to bleed over to Ford, especially into their already successful trucks and vans, it can only be a good thing. But what does VW get in return?
A goddamn truck. Simple as that. I state again, I’m the VW fanboy around these parts and even I would never drive their current truck, the Amarok. It just doesn’t have the chops to be a "real" pickup truck. For example: The Amarok is All-wheel drive instead of true 4WD, it has no low range gearbox, it has leaf springs in the back, etc. Of course, the most damning evidence that the Amarok isn't a real truck is that VW doesn't even sell it in America, home of the truck! Now, it does have some excellent engine options and it IS a traditional body-on-frame design. However, that makes it seem half done to me. I think Ford could help VW finish the Amarok. Ford is already developing a new platform for the re-introduced Ranger, and it’s already been confirmed that they are going to share truck technology with VW. If VW can bring a real truck to market in order to compete directly with the Ranger, Colorado, and Tacoma, then suddenly, VW - who has been doing everything else correctly as of late - will have a powerful new weapon in not just the rest of the world, but hopefully in America too.
The idea of this partnership began with plans for sharing development and production of commercial vehicles. Large work vans, delivery trucks, etc. This was purported to be in order for the two companies to save billions in development, production, and distribution costs. But the talks have grown to encompass everything from technology sharing for consumer vehicles, to EV technology, to VW possibly purchasing a stake in Fords autonomous car division “Argo”. Yes, I had to look that up. I didn’t even know it was it’s own division, much less that it was named Argo. To me, that’s the only sour grape in the whole bunch of goodness that can come from this. We know a certain amount of driver aid is coming, but we also know that, according to all the experts so far, truly autonomous vehicles are, if not impossible, a VERY long way off. I would wait, VW. Run your own tests. Create some of your own tech. Buy into an alliance LATER if it makes sense. Don’t give needless money to Ford to buy into their tech.
So yes. You heard it on the podcast. Initially I was skeptical of VWs ties to one of the most anti-car car brands in America: Ford. It’s weird to say that about the brand that BROUGHT you the car, but there it is. Ford is anti-car. Not anti-automobile, but anti-car. VW, of course, loves the car. 13 of the 28 countries in the EU have either the VW Golf or the Skoda Octavia as their best-selling car of 2018, and every single country has at least one VWG car in their top 3. So why would VW want to associate themselves with Ford? Because it’s not Ford’s car expertise they’re after. VW is after Ford's trucks. And maybe, hopefully, a little of VW’s continuing love for cars will rub back off on the Ford executive board. We can always hope. But for now, I think we’re going to see some very good things come from this unholy-seeming alliance. Bring it on.
The tides are changing in the world of sports and entertainment. All sports have been battling the shortening attention spans of key demographics that instead are turning to drone racing, eSports, YouTube and Snapchat. Major League Baseball is trying to figure out how to shorten games. The NBA is pushing the star power of the game’s best players like never before, and the NFL is still sitting pretty compared to the others, but the league has a wealth issues of its own. As the overall interest in cars and motoring has waned recently, sanctioning bodies like F1, IndyCar, IMSA, WEC and NASCAR have been frantically trying to figure out how to get the attention of the younger consumer in order to secure the long term health of their respective series. As Eric Cartman so eloquently put it, in South Park’s Season 12, Episode 5… “How do I reach these keeeeds?”
Of all the major motorsport governing bodies out there, NASCAR seems the most committed to change. They just announced their 2020 schedule this week, and the internet has officially broken. NASCAR fans all over are wondering just what the hell is going on here. A double-header at Pocono? A new host for the season championship? Have those in charge lost their collective minds?! Well…maybe, but before we draw any conclusions let’s examine further:
The first big change to discuss is that the championship will be awarded at a new venue next year. Instead of Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the big check has been given out since 2002, ISM Raceway in Phoenix is where the confetti will fly. Homestead’s date moves from November to March, becoming race #6 of the season. To be honest, I really don’t care that Homestead doesn’t host the championship. It’s a relatively newer facility in South Florida that doesn’t have any real lineage in the sport. The only significance of Homestead schedule is that…well, it hosted championship weekend. Now that their date has lost that importance, is it even worth keeping on the calendar? I think Miami residents have enough going on that they don’t need a NASCAR race to attend, and if it is now just an “also ran” on the schedule, who’s going to show up? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first step in removing Homestead from the calendar completely.
That brings us to Phoenix hosting the championship race. I don’t get this move. At all. I’ve seen NASCAR and IndyCar races at the track. It’s a great facility, and it deserves the two dates it has on the calendar (March 8 is the 1st race there) because NASCAR needs to maintain presence in the Southwestern US. Since I last visited, the powers-that-be even gave the track a $175 million facelift! But I feel like that’s the only reason they got rewarded with the final date of the season on November 8. NASCAR is a sport based in the Southeast – Charlotte, to be specific. There are plenty of tracks in the “heart” of the sport that would be a perfect to close the season. What about NASCAR's Final Four racing at Darlington, the track "Too Tough To Tame"? What about Atlanta? Hell, what about Charlotte? But instead we get Phoenix; A flat, 1 mile track, thousands of miles away from NASCAR Country. I agree that Homestead isn’t needed to crown champions, and the final race could be anywhere, but I feel like NASCAR missed big by picking Phoenix to take its place. The only thing that could be a bigger gaff is if they made a wild card restrictor plate race hold some sort of significance -- What's that you say?
The next talking point in next year’s schedule is the swap between Daytona’s 4th of July date and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s slot in August, even though Daytona has hosted a race on America’s birthday weekend since 1959 (!). If there is ONE track in the United States with more gravitas than Daytona, it’s The Brickyard, and their traditional August 29-30 slot is an important one, as it has always been the last race of modern NASCAR’s regular season. All of the playoff contenders are finalized on that date. But here’s the hard truth: NASCAR sucks at Indianapolis. The track was built for open-wheelers with high downforce and blinding speed. Stock cars need either short tracks or high banks to put on a remotely entertaining show, and Indy has neither of those features. If you want to go watch a 4 hour parade, be my guest, but even as a racing, Indy, and NASCAR addict, I don’t bother tuning in. And most people agree with me. NASCAR’s Indianapolis race is hemorrhaging ticket sales and TV ratings, and this move to the July 4th weekend is a last gasp to save it. The move also means that the final race before the playoffs is Daytona. That's right: The last chance anyone has a chance to punch their ticket for the championship fight is at a race track with restrictor plates, 200mph traffic jams, and crashes so big you’d think a tornado had ripped through the property. Remember the 2019 Daytona 500? You know, just last month? There was a crash with 10 laps to go that took out 21 cars. TWENTY ONE! So, you mean to tell me that a driver who has battled tooth and nail for 25 weeks for a chance to make the playoffs could have all that hard work go to shit because a couple cars 12 rows in front of him/her make contact, and no one has anywhere to go? Sounds like pure stupidity to me.
There are some positives to the 2020 schedule changes that NASCAR announced. Fans wanted more short tracks in the playoff rounds, and they got their wish. Richmond (.75 mile), Bristol (.6) and Martinsville (.5) all have races in the playoffs. Combine that with Darlington, Talladega, and the Charlotte “Roval” thing, and you’ve actually got a pretty diverse mix of circuits for the 16 playoff contenders to conquer if they want to hoist the cup...in Phoenix…Jesus, that just doesn’t sound right. The spring Martinsville race, on Mother’s Day weekend, will be completely under the lights for the first time, which is awesome and long overdue. And Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway gets a double-header! That’s right, a full race on Saturday, followed by a full race on Sunday. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to have both races be 400 miles long though. Pocono is almost Indianapolis. Not as bad, but 400 miles there is A LOT to sit through. I hope that after 2020, they try to change up the format for the Pocono weekend. It would be a great change of pace if Saturday had single car qualifying followed by heat races of some sort that set the final grid for a “feature” race on Sunday. Remember, the younger demographic has shorter attention spans, not longer. If you can’t get them to sit through one 400 miler, you probably won’t get them to sit through 2 in a row. I probably won't even make it.
All in all, NASCAR has taken some big swings here. Some could be extra base hits, even home runs. Others are 3 pitch strikeouts, in my opinion. But what does all this really mean? To me it’s obvious and can be summed up in three words:
NASCAR. IS. DESPERATE.
It’s that simple. Long gone are the days of Earnhardt vs Gordon. The sport's best personalities and most marketable names like Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Danica and Carl Edwards have retired. TV ratings are slipping, and ticket sales are slumping. Their current TV deal expires in 2024, and they need to drum up some interest quick, fast, and in a hurry if they want a renewal anywhere near the $8.2 billion they are currently getting. Remember all the stuff they’ve tried in the past few years: Playoffs (horrible), multiple “stages” in each race (good idea), new aerodynamic rules package (doesn’t seem to be working), the “green-white-checkered” finish (horrible), signing Monster Energy as title sponsor (intriguing), the Charlotte “Roval” (an entertaining shit show). All of these shots in the dark were meant to try and draw more eyeballs and grab more headlines, so we can get the attention of the younger consumers out there who have attention spans like gnats.
The 2020 schedule shakeup is the next phase. While the series is becoming more and more gimmicky, to the point where it makes racing purists like myself cringe at times, I actually applaud NASCAR for trying as hard as they do. Although IndyCar and IMSA have seen some positive momentum in the past few years, NASCAR is still the big fish in American racing. To their credit, they aren’t resting on those laurels, but are constantly willing to try new things and take steps to improve and maintain relevance. No, NASCAR fans, your sport hasn't gone insane. The minds behind stock car still seem least somewhat intact, and all of these changes are for a purpose. But I’m going to stick with the positive growth and pure racing that IMSA and IndyCar have to offer, and wish you all the best of luck from a safe distance.
Last week I took my car in for a scheduled service. Oil change, tire rotation, blinker fluid top-up, and oh wait. There's an open recall on your car, sir, should I schedule that fix as well?
I don't claim to be the great car-info-all-knower, but I am certainly tuned into both car news and Veloster news enough that I think I would have at least heard rumors about any open recalls on my own car. I asked what the recall was for, and the Service Department Administrative Assistant told me it was for a "pump". Okay, cool, schedule the service, take the car as long as you need it, yes, yes, fine, yes, Tuesday morning is great, okay, bye. I immediately hit the internet to see if I could find out about this recall.
There are several websites that keep records of all open recalls for every car manufacturer, not least of which is the NHTSA itself. I plugged my car's VIN into the database, and...no recalls. Nothing open. I checked a few more websites. Nothing listed anywhere for the 2017 Veloster, Turbo or R-Spec trim. Hmm. Now, Kia and Hyundai are having a bit of recall difficulty at the moment. There are several models under each brand that are having a problem with engine fires, which is a massive, massive deal. The recalled cars are the Kia Optima, Kia Sorento, Kia Soul, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tuscon, Hyundai Sonata, and Hyundai Sante Fe Sport. Please, if you own one of those vehicles, check the database immediately. The very worst part of this large recall is that Hyundai and Kia are being a little...coy on which vehicles need to be recalled to fix this very serious problem. On their official site, everything is hidden behind a VIN entry search, and more models seem to be added to the recall quietly, with little to no fanfare. Several of the recalled Kia models have also been recalled before for other engine issues, which further complicates matters, because how can any consumer be expected to keep the third engine recall separated from the fourth? People just want to, oh I don't know, drive the cars they bought. The long and short of this string of recalls is that the engine map needs to be altered or the fuel pump or fuel lines need to be replaced to prevent poor fuel/air from mixture causing a rather serious problem quaintly called "engine knocking". However, if the pump or lines have not been replaced, or have previously been replaced incorrectly, the lines may leak, causing engine bay fires, thus the recall on the recall.
Keen readers may remember that the Administrative Assistant said my car was being recalled for a "pump", and that Kia and Hyundai are stealth-adding cars to their recall list. I was concerned. Not just because of the information I had, but also because my Veloster and all those cars that were recalled share a similar engine technology: GDI, or Gasoline Direct Injection. And this is going to go way out past the limits of my technical knowledge, so bear with me. Currently, the recalled cars use one of three engines, the 2.4L Theta II, the 2.0L Nu, or the 1.8L Nu. To me, the Theta II can be put to the side because it's an engine that has been problematic for it's entire production life. So, the two Nu engines remain. My Veloster has a 1.6L Gamma engine, and while I believe the Gamma and the Nu are related mechanically (with the Gamma released one year before the Nu, pioneering the all-aluminum construction, GDI technology, the engine configuration, and the timing chain) and that the Nu may be a larger-bored and longer-stroked version of the Gamma, I can't prove that.
What I can prove is that all the recalled cars and my car share both that GDI technology and varying amounts of "issues" with the fuel pump. Of course, the Nu engines have real problems with the fuel pump. The fiery, recally kind. But the Veloster is also known for fuel pump issues, especially in the tuner community. You see, the factory fuel pump and fuel lines that are used on the Veloster are exactly strong enough to power the engine reliably. But exactly strong enough actually isn't exactly strong enough. Most 1st Gen Veloster Turbos will experience stuttering under hard acceleration that almost feels like interference from the traction control. But it isn't. It's actually the fuel lines intermittently clamping themselves shut for fractions of a second as the engine demands more fuel than can comfortably run from the pump at the back of the car to the engine bay. All of this assorted information meant to me that I was either missing something, or somebody wasn't telling me something. So I tweeted and Instagrammed Hyundai from my personal and podcast accounts. No response. I poked around online, and couldn't find anything definite. I even asked the dealership, and they told me they "weren't sure" if the recall on my car was related to the Hyundai/Kia engine recall. My car was going in a few days later, no big deal. But still: HMM.
On the day I took my car in, I asked the head of the service department to pull up the recall notice on my car so I could see it. He said there wasn't one. HMMMMMMMMMMMM!
What there was, and what there is on all 2017 Hyundai Veloster Turbos, R-Specs, and Rally Editions is an open Technical Service Bulletin. For a vacuum pump. He told me that the issue would have shown up as warning lights, and because I didn't have any warning lights on, there would be an easy fix. Now, I'm stupid, and I don't know shit about car parts, so I just nodded, thanked him and left. Later, I looked up the service bulletin by searching "Veloster vaccum pump recall". TSB ID #5NP-P9V7R-11 reads as follows:
"Hyundai Motor America is conducting a Service Campaign to inspect and (if necessary) replace the vacuum pump cap on certain 2015-17 Veloster vehicles. Service Campaign T3F provides a service procedure to inspect and apply sealant or replace."
Cool! What? That actually doesn't help at all! I will reiterate at this point that I am stupid, and there's probably some of you reading this that are screaming out the information that I'm missing, but the long and short of the rabbit hole I went down is that in this context, the "vacuum pump" (and the cap that sits thereupon), is either related to the brakes, or it's related to the turbo and the fuel system. There's vacuum pumps in each system, and the failure of the pump in each system would lead to warning lights. In this case, I'm leaning towards the vacuum pump in this TSB being in the fuel system, as that is the category heading the TSB is filed under.
But I've got a few nagging questions: Why in the Banarama FUCK was this information so hard to find? Why do I still not have all the information I need after two weeks of looking into this whole "recall" thing as a person with a hefty knowledge base in cars in general, Hyundai Motor Group specifically, and the 1st Gen Veloster Turbo in detail? Why did every single person give me a different answer to the same questions? Just...WHY? Why to all of this? And here's the even worse part: Let's say that the next time I take my car in, there's another TSB, and it also relates to the fuel system. That's how this all started for all of those other cars that are now being recalled lest they burn to the ground. Every single one had nebulous engine and/or fuel system TSBs released, and they didn't fix the problem even for the customers who got the repair work done. What if this escalates from warning lights to car fires for Velosters? That's very much on the table here. And monitoring and digging for answers on TSBs from Hyundai could be a second job, that's how hard this information can be to find. And there's a worst part too: Im actually in one of the better situations for car buyers, because I can mostly trust my dealership, and that's a genuine rarity. First, they bothered to tell me about the open TSB, and second, they didn't charge me a cent for the work.
That header image is a fake recall notice. Predatory dealerships use them to get people in the doors under the pretense of fake recalls, and my guess is that those dealerships link recalls to TSBs in order to get around fraud charges. Doing forum research into this vacuum pump thing, I found people who paid $300, $500, or even up to $2,000 to get some kind of "vacuum pump" repaired, either related to the TSB I found, or related to a possible different one of which I couldn't find a consistent record. Those owners paid just because the dealer told them they had to. They ponied up because the mechanic told them there was a "recall" on their car, and it wasn't covered under warranty. And I find it hard to blame the victims. I know that recalls MUST be covered at manufacturers expense, but I can't blame anyone who caves under a surprise pressure that suddenly puts their lives in the crosshairs. There's truth in every lie, and the truth, typically, is this: TSBs are not technically covered under either the manufacturer's warranty or the legal liabilities of a recall. They are most often guides created by car manufacturers, and intended for dealerships, which detail how to perform certain work for common problems of varying degrees of severity. Of course, there's lot of very obvious problems with that system. Should Hyundai be using the same system to issue repair instructions for faulty Tuscon fuel pumps that they use to issue notifications to mechanics that sometimes Sonatas with high mileage get clunks in the steering rack? No! Should Toyota be able to issue the exact same iterative EVAP system TSB for successive generations of RAV4? No! But it's legal to do that. It's so legal that it's almost impossible to say that car manufacturers are doing anything wrong by issuing TSBs, deeply shitty though it may be at times. And of course, what's the alternative? NOT being told about known and somewhat common problems?
I learned a lot during this whole vacuum pump thing, and almost none of it was complete, useful, or positive. I don't have the investigative chops to go further, and I don't have the car repair chops to fill the gaps in the information I already have. I just know that I really, REALLY don't like having to get my information on Reddit or other forums, especially when it relates to a possible manufacturing defect in my car. But Reddit and the Veloster.org forum are where I got my best free information. Incredibly unscrupulous websites will hide TSB data behind a paywall, or at least pretend to, and then print the full text of the bulletins. Of course the TSBs themselves are universally worded obscurely and awkwardly, often referencing diagrams or manuals that customers don't have easy access to, if that information can even be found on the open internet. How is that fair? When safety is at risk, how is it reasonable for brands to assume that customers either don't care, shouldn't know, or must be a brand-certified mechanic just to know the problem?
As I see it, this TSB/recall/repair nexus is not only a system that's ripe for abuse, it's a system that is actively abused every single day by virulent and predatory dealerships. And here's what haunts me most about what I learned. If, last week, the mechanic had told me that the TSB fix for my car would cost $200, I probably would have paid it without thinking, like pretty much everyone else would do, and I think that's frightening. It's obvious to me that there's a huge problem with how car problems are reported to consumers, and it goes way beyond this Hyundai recall, even if that swollen mess of TSBs and recall notices does grow to include my car too. I don't have any answers for what can or should be done to improve the situation, but I'm going to think on that, and perhaps write a follow-up at a late date. Because if Season Two of the Check Engine Podcast has taught me anything, it's that the three of us can - at least in theory - fix absolutely any problem we see.
Hello CEP readers! As has become tradition for me, I’m here to offer you another dose of Tristan’s Deep Thought TM. This week’s deep thoughts spring from a discussion I had with my dad (who has been a guest writer for this blog before) on the merits of a new car versus an old car. It came after watching one of the episodes from the most recent seasons of The Grand Tour. I know we try to distance ourselves from that here at CEP and not directly rip content or ideas from them, but it was just the trigger for a discussion. In their episode, they talk about resto-modding vintage cars.
For anyone unfamiliar with that term, resto-modding is the process of restoring a vintage car with all of the cosmetic or aesthetic elements in place while replacing the important safety, performance, or everyday convenience bits with new ones. The Grand Tour made the argument that that is the best way kind of car to drive, ever. All the reliability, safety, and performance of new mechanicals with the far more interesting and storied shell and interior of some classic car. That statement isn’t something that I disagree with. However, resto-modding can be VERY expensive to do. Most of these cars end up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s just not attainable for most people. That got my dad and I thinking. Would it be worth buying older cars anyway? Even without the resto-mod?
My family has a very long history of buying cars and keeping them forever or buying used cars and... also keeping them forever. We received this advice (probably slightly self-serving, now that I come to think of it) from our local mechanic of choice: What are else are you going to get that’s better for the price of the repair? Let me give you a little bit of an example to clarify. In 1992 my dad bought a 1989 Merkur Scorpio. Merkur was Ford’s attempt at giving a little European flair to the Lincoln/Mercury dealers of the time. It was based on the German pronunciation of Mercury and was meant to attract buyers of European “Executive sedans” to the Ford family of brands. The cars were even mostly built with parts sourced from Europe, and the car was assembled in Germany. My dad purchased his Scorpio for $9000, and couldn’t have put more than $8000 in repairs over the course of it’s 100,000+ mile life. It retailed for $30,000... in 1989. That's more than the MSRP of my base model WRX today. Before accounting for inflation. For about 50% of the price that the car was going off of lots, my dad got and drove what, in his words, was “a really nice car!” for 100,000+ miles, just repairing it as it broke. He was able to purchase a car that would have been well out of his price range, had he bought it new, and have that experience every day instead of buying some econobox.
Even when my parent's finances exited the post-college stage, things didn’t change. Although they were purchased new, the Audi A4 and Audi A6 that you might have heard me talk about in our first episode “You Never Forget Your First" were cars that were around forever. In fact the last one just recently left the family fleet. That longevity was driven by the idea of “What could you get for the same money as a repair that would be a better car?”. In fact, the same thought is currently working for my 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. We probably got three or even four cars worth of use out of the cars we bought new instead of always trading them in for new ones. That also allowed us to save up for huge periods of time to buy cars, so the ones that we bought were real gems.
The same rationale of “what could you get for the same money” can be used when looking at purchasing old, good cars. The question just comes to bear on a later part of the life cycle. My dad now owns a mid-90s Mercedes SL that was freshly purchased just last year. He’s always dreamed of owning a SL. Sure, my dad could have (theoretically) plopped down nearly NINETY THOUSAND dollars on a new SL (the styling of which he doesn’t even really like as much) instead of spending the few thousand he did on his mid-nineties one. You can buy a NEW car, but we all know the costs of that. If you enjoy your current car, why not fix it? You’ve always wanted to drive that dream car? Why not buy it used for a VERY low price and fix it when it inevitably breaks? You could even do a little, light resto-mod yourself like I did with the Jeep. I replaced it’s old, tired suspension with one that was MUCH better than the factory would have likely even had access to at the time. There is a dark side to all of this, however: Downtime.
Just recently, I’ve leased two new cars in succession: my Outback and my WRX. This action was driven by the absolute, ever-present fear that my car was always about to need a wrench applied to it. Or worse... it would be something terminal, unfixable. It seemed like we were always down a vehicle, in one way or another. Cars were at the mechanic for work, they needed work and couldn’t be driven too far, or they were strewn across the garage in a storm of parts (that, by far, was my mom’s FAVORITE state for them to be in... ehem...). This atmosphere is, quite frankly, a little oppressive. The consistent air of uncertainty around the question of “will my car start today” or “will a wheel fall off on this road trip I’m taking” can cause you to lose your mind a little. That’s why I’ve made the decision to go new this time, but... I don’t think that’s the fully the best way to go either.
What I’ve come to as the perfect balance is some wisdom imparted to me by my mother. Her mantra has always been “Why choose?” I think this is the best way to own cars. Currently, I have my relatively shiny, relatively new WRX that is still under warranty and doesn’t give me nightmares about trips to the dealer or shop. I also share ownership of the old Jeep. This is the way to live. I have the joy of having an older car to work on, that I couldn’t pay full price for alongside paying for my new car, and I get to experience many different joys of driving. I can rip along in the WRX or I can rumble off-road and carry large objects in my Jeep. My hope for my future when the Jeep inevitably and sadly goes ashes to ashes, rust to rust, is that I will be able to relegate the WRX to the older, hobby car and I would replace the Jeep with a new Jeep, truck, SUV, whatever. I’ve enjoyed having both worlds. One paid off and the other under warranty. Now, I’m able to sustain this due to having enough garage space, disposable income, etc. That may not be the case for everyone. So, much like my last blog, that leads me to ask you, reader-friends, what would you do? How do YOU live your car life? A boneyard of fun but only half working cars? A gleaming example of automotive ease replaced every three years under lease? The sensible, certified pre-owned vehicle? Some combination? None of the above? Let us know in the blog comments or shoot us an email. I want to know!
As a young recent college grad with a marketing degree, I had a dream to work for a race team. I had sent out hundreds upon hundreds of resumes via email and snail mail, made personal business cards and bought extra paddock passes so I could wander around and make as many contacts with team principals or marketing professionals as I could, and I even got up at 2am to take a one-day road trip to Indianapolis so I could hand-deliver resumes to IndyCar race shops and talk to whoever would take a couple of minutes to listen. So working in motorsports was the only thing on my mind when I went to Road Atlanta in the fall of 2012.
My co-host and serial Deep Thinker Tristan, his dad, and I took a trip to Petit Le Mans, the season finale for the American Le Mans Series (now IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship). One of the best parts of these races, as we’ve mentioned on the podcast, is the grid walk. Fans can walk the pit lane right before the command to start engines and get a close-up look at the drivers, teams and machines that are about to hit the track. Armed with a stack of business cards and a memorized personal sales pitch, I set off down the Road Atlanta pit lane. One of the people I ran into and chatted with was a man named Scott Tucker, owner and co-driver for the Level 5 Motorsports prototype team. Level 5 was a championship-caliber team and Mr. Tucker was a very pleasant person to talk with. He took my card, wrote notes on the back so he could remember where we met, and passed the card to another team member for further review. A few weeks later, in the off season, I followed up with a visit to the team’s facility in Madison, WI. See, not only was this team a championship level organization, they were based about an hour from where I grew up. Plus, Scott was one of those “gentleman drivers” who's racing was a passion project, not what they did for a living. I was gunning for chance to work for a person that had the desire, work ethic, and finances to turn a hobby into a top tier racing program which rivaled Penske in terms of equipment, presentation, and talent, both on track and off. Names like IMSA champ Ryan Briscoe and IndyCar stalwarts Simon Pagenaud, Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay have all sat in a Level 5 Motorsports seat at one time or another. I was desperate for that opportunity. That is until I, and the rest of the world, found out how Scott Tucker made his fortune.
In 2001, Scott Tucker and his brother co-founded AMG Services, an online payday loan service. He was one of the first in that industry to harness the power of the internet, so business grew quickly, eventually becoming a company of 600 employees and earning him over $400 million. As he started making more, he began pursuing his passion for racing more seriously, climbing the ranks through SCCA, Ferrari Challenge and eventually the Grand-Am series and American Le Mans Series, naming his team Level 5 Motorsports. But Tucker’s massive fortune was tainted, in a big way. You see, Tucker’s group made their bones preying off of desperate people using loan contracts that were hard to follow and purposely written poorly. When a customer went to one of Tucker’s many payday loan brands (500FastCash, Advantage Cash Services, Ameriloan, OneClickCash, Star Cash Processing, UnitedCashLoans or USFastCash to name a few), what they thought was a minimum payment was actually a loan renewal payment. All they were doing was paying to extend the terms of the loan, which would incur finance charges, and their principal payment hadn’t been touched. On top of that, when the loan was extended, an interest rate of up to 700% was applied. Quick example…for a simple $300 loan, customers would pay up to $585 in finance charges before they even touched the original $300 principal! This kind of deception is highly illegal, but in an attempt to work around the system, AMG Services claimed affiliation with Native American tribes and reservations to avoid state lending laws. Reservations are considered sovereign nations and are immune from most state and some federal laws, and AMG would give the tribes a cut of the profits and employ residents of the often impoverished reservations in exchange for letting them operate there. Even though AMG Services was located in Overland Park, Kansas, call center employees were instructed to say they were located in Oklahoma, Nebraska or the Dakotas if they were asked by customers. Managers even sent out weather reports from those areas to cover their tracks in case a disgruntled customer wanted to dig deeper with the call center rep.
It wouldn’t be long before the FTC got wise to what was going on. In April 2012, they filed a civil suit against AMG Services citing “illegal business tactics.” Less than 2 years later, a U.S. grand jury filed a subpoena against the company regarding wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Of course, Tucker maintained his innocence, but he was arrested in February 2016 and in September of that year he and other defendants were ordered to pay a $1.266 billion judgement. Scott and his attorney were convicted of 14 counts of wire fraud, money laundering, racketeering and Truth In Lending Act violations. On top of all that, in December of 2017, Tucker was indicted for filing false tax returns. Apparently, he failed to report earnings of $117.5 million in 2009 and 2010. Scott was sentenced to a 16 year, 8 month prison sentence for his crimes and the FTC announced this past December that they were returning $505 million to his victims, the largest payout in the history of the agency…and I could have worked for that guy! Him! Scott Tucker, Douchebag Extraordinaire! In my defense, and I’m guessing the defense of most who worked for the race team, I wasn’t aware of how he made his money. I mean, I knew he was a businessman but until all this went public, I never knew any of this. I’m sure the mechanics, truck drivers, engineers, PR people etc. saw their deposits every two weeks and went about their work.
Even though I didn’t get the job, I always still pulled for the Level 5 guys. You can ask my two co-hosts, I used to wear a Level 5 team shirt to the races we went to. I was always cheering for the local team, especially when they went overseas to race in the the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s crazy to think of what was happening behind this overachieving underdog team. Hearing about this peaked my curiosity, and this story isn’t the only example of folks funding their motorsports dreams using “questionable” means (stay tuned for an episode later this year). Looking back now, it’s funny how things turned out after that meeting on the grid in October 2012: At the time, I was bummed I never got that marketing job for Level 5 Motorsports, but here I am now with a job that I enjoy, writing a blog for a podcast that has become my favorite pastime, while Scott Tucker is inmate number 06133-045, scheduled for release on June 27, 2032.
There's a worrying trend in the auto industry right now. The idiom for this trend is along the lines of "Putting all your eggs in one basket". But it actually goes further than that in the auto industry. Companies around the world are doing more than putting all of their eggs in one basket, they're actually getting rid of every egg they possibly can, and then taking their one or two remaining eggs and putting them each in a separate basket. Of course, I'm talking about EVs and AVs, commonly known as electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles.
You know, every time I write about this I feel the need to do disclaimers. Yes, technology must move on. Yes, traditional internal combustion engines must change and be phased out, blah blah blah. I'm skipping it this time. If you don't know where I stand on this yet, go back and read some previous blogs, I'm sick of repeating myself. All the usual disclaimers apply. What I'm here to say today is that the baskets that the auto industry have chosen have every appearance of being dumb ones. To dispense with the metaphor, EV and AV tech are not the kind of technologies that you want to bet your company's future on. Because they're fiction.
I actually had a few issues with Nick's blog on EVs from January. I think he didn't go hard enough on EV tech in the areas that it most needs to be taken to task. Like the range thing. New research in this area comes out almost every month at this point, and I found that this article from the AAA was fairly interesting. It puts numbers to what we already knew: If you want to heat your EV when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, you will lose 40% of your range. 40%! On average! That's not just impractical, that's potentially dangerous. But to be more fair to EVs, let's think up a realistic, non-emergency situation into which we can place an electric car, and see how it fares.
Let's say it's March, and me and my wife head out for a nice dinner in our BMW i3, a car that roughly fits our lifestyle, if not budget. The i3 has a maximum range of about 100 miles. Because this is meant to be a real-life situation, let's say I drove the car to and from work that day on an average commute of 16 miles each way, popped it back on the charger when I got home, and the car is now charged back to 80%, for a range of about 80 miles. There's a nice place called The Capitol Grille in Milwaukee, about 20 miles from our house, mostly freeway driving. So, if we drove from our house to the nice restaurant we'd have a remaining range of about 60 miles, if BMW's advertised range can be believed (which it can't, but that's almost a separate lie at this point). But remember, it's March in Wisconsin. It was in the 30s when we left the house. But now, it's night time, and the temperature is in the teens or single digits. 60 miles of maximum possible range remained when we parked at above 20 degrees, but now the batteries are cold-soaked, minus the heater's 40% share - let us say there are 30-35 miles of maximum range remaining, 20 or so miles from the house. That could be enough, but it also might not be. Stopping at a charging station will add range, but it will also take at least 20 additional minutes of sitting, at night, outside, even if we drive the 5 miles to the nearest level 3 charging point. The level 2 charger a half-mile away might take an hour to add useful range. We could gamble and head home, but what if we hit traffic or a detour? What if we blow a tire? What if we need to use the high beams, or suddenly remember that we're out of eggs and milk and want to stop at the store? What would you do? To be honest, the mundanity of this situation scares the hot shits out of me. If we're as generous as possible with the range, efficiency, and charging capabilities of one of the most modern EVs on the market, going out for dinner in the spring is a fucking thought exercise. March isn't even the coldest month! And I picked the closest possible nice restaurant in Milwaukee! We wouldn't even get lakefront views with our steaks! That's pathetic! THIS is your future? THIS is your savior? No. That's fiction. EVs like the ones we have today will never be enough to kill regular cars, because they are not good enough.
The next thing nobody ever talks about when it comes to EVs is the scarcity of rare elements. Nick briefly brought it up in his post, but again, I think he didn't go far enough. Yes, the mining process is difficult, toxic, and extremely inefficient. But it has to be stressed how rare elements like cobalt, manganese, and lithium are. Of these elements, manganese is the most "common", weighing in at a massive .11% of the Earth's crust. Cobalt makes up a staggering .003%, and Lithium, the tricky little bugger, claims only .0017%. Those numbers are hard to conceptualize, but it is estimated that there are 380 million metric tons of manganese on Earth, which sounds like a whole lot! Until you realize that apart from EV batteries, manganese is a critical element used to manufacture steel, cast iron, and other metal alloys. Right now, 18.5 million tons of manganese are used annually. Before the EV becomes mainstream. At the current rate, we'll run through the world's supply of manganese in 20 years. Before we run out of oil. This is why paying attention to narrative is so important. Remember when the biggest advertising push behind EVs and hybrids was the scarcity of oil? They changed that real quick, didn't they? Know what replaced it? 0-60 times. Thanks, Elon. Cobalt is even more problematic. Some outlets estimate as much as 60% of the world's Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than HALF of the world's supply, in a country a quarter the size of the US. And, speaking of the DRC...
I added a line in Nick's blog post about the human toll of mining for rare elements, because as a society, we have an opportunity to make a choice about which practices are okay and which practices are not okay at the advent of a newer technology. There is a moment here where we can all be on the right side of the eventual history, and stop human rights abuses before they become just part of the corporate EV machine. Here's what I'm talking about: The DRC is a famously corrupt country, and as of last year, more than 40,000 children were working in the "artisanal" cobalt mines of the DRC. These children are exposed not only to brutal conditions and unsafe practices, but also the toxicity of cobalt, which is known to cause respiratory problems and cardiomyopathy on its own. Oh, and also, cobalt is found alongside an element called uranium. You think a mine that uses child labor pays for safety equipment? They actually use the word "artisanal" to denote that the work is done by hand! You think people that evil give a shit about exposing a child to dangerous levels of radiation daily? Of course they don't! And those are just the problems the natural elements cause. What kind of health effects do you think the acids used in the refining process cause? Not just to the environment, but to the people. To the children. And yet that isn't far enough either. The towns near the mines suffer higher rates of birth defects and sickness. Their water supplies become contaminated, their soil poisoned, their air toxic. All of this is before EVs become mainstream.
How much worse will it get? What if the people from the DRC who deal with these international mining companies decide they're going to militarize? What happens if the money coming in from these foreign mining interests destabilizes the country and civil war breaks out again? If 40,000 children working in dangerous cobalt mines doesn't shock you, what would? 50,000? 150,000? Who do you think will be working in these mines as demand goes up? What price are we truly willing to accept for a technology that has far too many immediate and future limitations to ever be the long-term solution? The term blood diamonds had to become vogue before people began to realize the atrocious impact of the diamond cartels. What happens when the term blood battery enters public consciousness? Ignoring the human cost of EVs is already untenable, and assuming the industry will either take care of itself or continue apace without ever needing to confront the exploitation inherent in performing industrial-scale production in developing nations is a fiction. There is always a reckoning. And wouldn't it be nice, just for once, for an emerging industry to tackle it's exploitative tendencies BEFORE going mainstream? No matter what happens, the auto industry can't run from this forever, and neither can the technology companies.
Now let's talk AVs. Off the rip, fully autonomous vehicles are a complete work of fiction. They will never exist. Period. There is no debate. Like we already talked about on the podcast, the industry leader says so. Who would know better than him? My wife's Hyundai Kona is what's known as a level 2 AV, meaning it can stop itself and has lane assist that will keep the vehicle driving straight. All of that technology, in real-world applications, ends up just above "Fucking Useless". The auto-braking sensors turn themselves off so often we thought the car had a defect, but nope! That's just how the shit "works". It doesn't work in the snow, in the sleet, in the rain, in the mist, when there are no other cars around, in the fog, or when the car is dirty. The lane-keep assist is so high-strung it just goes off for no reason, so that's been turned off since the second day she owned the car. The only useful sensor on that car is the cross-traffic alert for the backup cam. And the Kona is an IIHS Safety Pick+! The safest tier! What are we even doing out here, people?
AV technology is a marketing trick, but I see it more accurately described as a scam. Despite all of the claims and all of the hot takes about how AVs will flood the market in just a few years, we are so far away from AVs becoming even a marginal practicality that it beggars belief. Yet this is a primary selling point for almost every single car brand in the world. Ford and VW announced a billion-dollar partnership over this kind of stuff. That partnership, by the way, still has not actually materialized. At what point does marketing become straight-up lies? At what point do companies step away from these fully-autonomous "concept" charlatans and come to grips with fact? I don't have any concrete answers, but if we use EVs as a guide, announcements about these "cars of the future" that are arriving now generally take about 10 years to show up for sale. The electric car concepts that I saw at Frankfurt in 2009 are just coming to market now, which seems pretty insane to me. If you're advertising a single technology for a decade and barely scraping together something passable at the farthest end of that timeline, how well is your R&D really doing? In which other tech industry would that kind of rollout be acceptable? Well let's look at some tech industry leaders.
In 2009, Apple released the iPhone 3GS, and last year they released the iPhone XR - two devices so different in capability, ability, and function that they only share a product name for brand recognition's sake. In 2009, Intel debuted the first-generation Core i7 860 processors, and last year they debuted the 9th generation Core i9-90060X, a processor that is more than one hundred and sixty percent faster in terms of raw power, and nearly three hundred percent more efficient in the same tasks. Listen, I hear you, AVs are just starting to come out now. They may very well see the same scalar improvement over a decade-long timeline. But never forget that AVs are already marketed as being ready right now, immediately, and imminently all at the same time, when the reality is that all three of those selling points might be lies, and two of them already are confirmed to be false. I have two words to describe all technologies in that same circumstance: Scam, and Fiction.
I said at the beginning that all disclaimers apply, and that remains true. I must also add that cars should be made safer, and that AV technology can in fact make cars safer. But can we not do it like this? I freely admit that my biggest obsession in car culture is narrative, and these are the two biggest out there. But when I look at the stories that these companies tell to consumers about EVs and AVs, what I see is disingenuous in the best case. Yet most companies are throwing their entire might behind these two technologies - some to the exclusion of all else - and I just don't see it working. Yes, over a long enough timeline, EVs and AV tech might work out the way they say it works now, but the entire point is that right now, these technologies don't work the way they are said to work.The counter to narrative is always reality, and the two are at direct odds at this very moment...but nobody really seems to care all that much. It feels more than a little like I'm screaming into a void here, especially when I look at car Twitter, where every other post is about an EV, an AV, or an EV/AV. It could also be that I'm wrong, and EVs and AVs are now too big to fail no matter how real they are or aren't at this very moment. That is often what happens when every company puts the same egg into the same basket: Wrong or right, damn the torpedoes, those ideas make it to market. But it's what happens after that determines whether or not the gamble paid off. 2019 is going to be a big year for EVs and AVs, so let's all watch and see what happens to these eggs. And also that Instagram egg too, I guess. Is that still a thing?
When you think of motorsports in any capacity, specifically in America, the word “Daytona” will most certainly spring to mind. The place is steeped in history, from the IMSA’s Rolex 24 Hour race in January to being the very birthplace of NASCAR as we know it. Indeed, this beach town on the Atlantic coast is a pilgrimage for any hardcore stock car fan. I may be partial to the road racing in IMSA and IndyCar, but this annual father-son trip is something I always look forward to. Not only do we finally see some cars on track after months of waiting, but it’s also a chance to escape the long Wisconsin winter for a few days. While my co-hosts were off gallivanting at the Chicago Auto Show this past weekend, I was doing some real field work in the bright Florida sunshine. 4 days of track action awaited my dad and me: the Duel Qualifying Races on Thursday, the Gander Outdoor Truck Series season opener on Friday, the Xfinity Series 300-miler (featuring friend of the podcast and future of NASCAR Josh Bilicki) on Saturday, and of course, the one and only Daytona 500 to cap it all off on Sunday. Below is my day by day report of what went down at Daytona 2019.
Thursday – Duel Qualifying Races
Plot twist: We didn’t go to the qualifying races! Gotcha! We have gone plenty of times in the past, but these races have become kind of stale in the past few years. The Daytona 500 is different than any major auto race out there. The Sunday before race day, single car qualifying is held. But the only 2 positions locked into the race at that point are the fastest two drivers. Everyone else is split into 2 qualifying races that are held the Thursday before race day. You want in? You gotta race for it! Exciting concept, right? Yeah! But in reality...The problem is that teams are now allowed to buy full-season “charters” that lock them into every race they show up to. Think of it as an entry fee for all 36 races, paid up front. Another issue is that if you do any damage to your car between qualifying and the race and need to switch to a backup car, you have to start in the back of the field. These rules mean that most of the teams with a starting spot guaranteed by their charter will just ride around to conserve their equipment for Sunday’s big race. A wise decision on their part, but not very entertaining. So this year, my dad and I switched it up and went to a local track for some grassroots dirt track racing instead.
Volusia Speedway Park is about a half hour inland from Daytona, where literally ALL of the alligators live. Every year around the same time as Daytona hosts the beginning of NASCAR’s season, this ½ mile clay oval plays host to the Dirt Car Nationals: 10 days straight of sprint cars, modifieds and dirt late models, all of which boast 700hp engines that can rattle your ribcage and shatter your eardrums. The sprint cars were parked for the night, but we got experience both the late models and modifieds, and the field of cars was MASSIVE. The modified cars were the support class, with 34 participants, and the late models had 52 entries! And these late models were super quick, averaging 95mph in a half mile! That would be quick even if they were on pavement. And at that speed, when they come directly right at your seat with their right rear corner poked out in what can only be described as a controlled spin, it is quite the spectacle to behold.
There was just one problem…we didn’t bring any eye protection. When these cars roar past the grandstand a massive cloud of dust and dirt specs wafts it’s way right into your eyeballs within about 3 seconds. Because we didn’t bring any sort of eye protection, we were both forced to either close our eyes or look away each lap, which means we missed about half of the races. I had never seen these cars on track before and I definitely want to go back, better prepared, so I can make a better overall assessment of the sport.
Friday-Gander Outdoor Truck Series
Friday night gave us our first look at the big 2.5 mile tri-oval that is Daytona International Speedway. No matter how many times I’ve been there before, I’m always taken aback by the enormity of the facility when I first walk through the gates. How big is it? Well, 15 professional sports stadiums could fit in the infield.That doesn’t include the grandstands, the concourses, vendor village or parking. When I eventually pulled my jaw back up to my face I was able to focus on the task at hand: truck racing.
As we talked about on our “Ask Dr. Nick” episode, the truck series is a developmental series that gives top tier NASCAR teams’ young drivers a chance to prove themselves on the national scene prior to getting “called up” to the bigger leagues, racing Chevy Silverados, Ford F-150s or Toyota Tundras. Think AA baseball. Mix in a few veterans in the twilights of their careers and you get a mixed bag of talent and experience…and it showed.
As soon as the green flag dropped, a demolition derby broke out. I didn’t verify the actual number, but I would bet they never finished 10 consecutive green flag laps before someone wrecked. The race had no rhythm, no flow and it was really hard to maintain interest. Alas, half of the laps completed were under caution and only 5 of the 32 starters finished without major damage. There were a few stragglers barely putting around, so total trucks on track totaled maybe 12 at the end. Not fun. As our group left, we all looked at each other and summed it up pretty succinctly, “That sucked.” But, I have to give a hearty congrats to Austin Hill, who navigated through all the wreckage to claim his first career win. First wins are always huge, but they are amplified times a bajillion when that win comes at Daytona. We were just hoping that the next day would give us a better show.
Saturday – Xfinity Series
We didn’t get a better show.
Before I get into the race itself, this was the day when we showed up early to wander through the vendor village. Teams had their merchandise trailers set up, sponsors had their activation tents, bands were playing, and Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet had set up massive booths to peruse. Chevy and Ford had a bunch of trucks and SUVs because that’s all they make anymore. Toyota used the platform that Daytona provides to introduce the new Supra to the masses, and dear GOD is it awful. It’s way worse in person than any pictures could let on. The front looks like some sort of mosquito. They didn’t have any performance figures to share, because they know it’s awful. And the car doesn’t come close to fitting the Xfinity Series body template! The race version is literally a Camry with new decals. Just pitiful…anyway we had a race to go watch, or so we thought.
The Xfinity drivers must’ve seen the race from the previous night and decided, “Well we’re not going to get THAT crazy.” This race had one yellow flag the whole time. Most cars stayed in a single file line from start to finish, just like the qualifying races we thought we avoided by going to the dirt track two nights before. No one did anything. Ever. If someone was brave enough to attempt something as bold as a pass, they were left out of the draft because no one would go with them, and they fell towards the rear of the field. I was really looking forward to the Xfinity race. It is normally the best race of this weekend, and our pal Josh Bilicki was stepping up to some competitive equipment. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to the hype.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well Nick, you don’t like it when they crash, and you don’t like it when they don’t crash, so what do you want here?” What I want, is good racing. Good racing doesn’t mean crashes. Action doesn’t mean torn up equipment. I want to see the skill of these drivers as they maneuver and out strategize one another in pursuit of the trophy. They are in this position at the top of the racing world for a reason: they’re damn good! So show me that. Don’t ride around waiting for the end, and don’t turn your vehicle into a battering ram either. Just race somebody. Sunday’s group was bound to deliver, right?
Sunday – Monster Energy Cup – Daytona 500
Finally, the big day was here. The headline act. The Daytona 500! The super bowl of the sport, with the 40 best stock car drivers on the planet competing. And for a vast majority of the race, these guys delivered a great show.
For 190 laps, the 40 racers were slicing, dicing, making powerful passes, bouncing around between drafting partners and leaving us all in awe. At some points, varying pit strategies split the field into smaller groups that were pretty spread out, but that didn’t bother me that much because I was curious to see which strategy was going to play out the best. This was a legitimately fun race to watch for multiple different reasons, until lap 191…
With 10 laps to go, everyone’s brains fell out of their skulls. First, a massive 21 car pileup that I’m sure you’ve all seen by now took out over half the field. This resulted in a red flag due to the massive amount of cleanup required. And that was just the beginning…crash after crash, yellow after yellow flag, even one more red flag caused the last 10 laps to last over an hour in real time. By the time the dust settled, there were only 3 cars that hadn’t received some type of damage. Two of them, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, are the two drivers that I hate the most and they ended up finishing 1-2. For sentimental reasons, this was a big moment because both Hamlin and Busch, along with 3rd place finisher Erik Jones, drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, whose president J.D. Gibbs passed away earlier this year at only 49 years old. To have J.D.’s team finish 1-2-3 at Daytona, in the first race since his passing, was a huge deal. But while that’s a great story, I was still pissed that my least favorite drivers did so well and that the end of a really good race turned into such a mess.
While the racing on all 4 days left something to be desired, I have to say that all in all this was a great weekend. I got to spend some quality time with my dad and some friends, I forgot about work for a few days, and I wasn’t freezing my ass off in Chicago with my cohosts! I’ve been back in Wisconsin for less than a week and I already can’t wait to go back.