Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona

It has been a little over a month since this year’s Rolex 24 hour race at Daytona. Rather than recap the racing action, I thought I’d reflect on the event. It was my first time at a 24 hour race and my first time at the Daytona International Speedway. Neither was what I expected.

The speedway is both larger and smaller than you expect.  Imagine a super-sized baseball stadium, with all of the modern amenities you’ve come to expect over the last 20 years. Cut that stadium in the middle of center field and unwind it so it’s just one long straight, and bend it slightly around the start-finish line.  I guess you would describe it as a flat C or “(“. Add seating for 100,000+ people, but only fill it with 5,000. Take another 40-50,000 people and scatter them throughout the infield. That’s the Rolex 24 crowd.

You can move freely from Grandstands to Infield, but allow 20-30 minutes for the trip as you have to exit the Grandstands and take a trolly (or walk) through the tunnel to get there. Consider driving and parking in your favorite care corral (BMW, Porsche, or Corvette) or signing up for a luxury package from Audi to enhance your experience.  Grassroots Motorsports offers some excellent packages (we had the Stadium Ticket Package), and their Sunday morning breakfast may be the best bargain going.

The hardest thing is figuring out where you want to be.  From high in the Grandstands you can see the entire track above turn 1. With an optional garage pass you can walk among the cars and mechanics in the garages. Your best close up views are in the infield (turns 3, 4, 5). RVs and campfires fill the infield.  Most of the car clubs have tents with refreshments in the infield that provide a respite from the weather.  You can’t really escape the noise, but you don’t want to either.

You do want to think about your strategy for the 24 hour period. The race starts in the afternoon and runs about 4 hours before it starts to get dark. The transition into sunset provides some of the best action. We stayed into the early evening and then came back early morning. We were staying over an hour away from the track and would stay closer next time.  This year was interesting for the lack of extended caution periods or weather delays, but because IMSA got the balance of performance wrong, also didn’t have very exciting racing. It did set a record for most laps and longest distance run.

It is interesting to note that the previous track record from 1970 of 724 laps (2,758 miles) on the old road course (without the bus-stop) by a Porsche 917 in the top class was beaten by the Ford GTs in the GTLM class (2,787 miles). The 6th place Porsche RSRs,  missed that record by only 3 miles. This is truly the golden age of sports car racing.

(See this link on Flickr for my photo gallery.)

MINI Electric Concept Car at LA Auto Show

I recently spent some time contemplating the Electric MINI concept car at the LA auto show. In many ways it was very old-school: The future was supposed to look different than it’s turned out.  This reminds me of those concepts from the 60’s where you didn’t really believe that’s what the future would hold, but you understood some of the styling cues and how current models might evolve. There are a couple of interesting nuggets to behold.

Starting at the rear, you’ll notice a variation of the Union Jack tail lights seen on the JCW GP concept car, but done in white. But more importantly, there’s the new MINI logo in the center.  Continuing the trend of recent models, it’s still huge, and now more unappealing.  MINI quietly rolled out this logo over the past year, first on the website and now actually going on cars.  This version is done in relief, but the actual production logo is “a visual expression known as ‘flat design'”. (You can read more about it here).

I think it’s another sign that MINI design is lost in the wilderness. Let’s review the recipe for a MINI: 1. Take an engine and put a box around it as tightly as possible. 2. Take seating for 4 adults and put a box around it as tightly as possible. 3. Take two pieces of luggage (the other two adults are SOL) and put a box around it.  4. Connect the three boxes in the right order and put a body around it. 5. Put a wheel in each corner. Motoring on with the tour now…

The sculpting of the rear is interesting.  Your eye always looks for the exhaust outlet so if the lower trim were flat it wouldn’t look right.  It’s hard to tell if they intend the wing to function as a diffuser or not.  If there isn’t much more of an upper spoiler or wing than what’s seen here, it would be hard to get a diffuser to work anyway given the turbulence with such a small roof spoiler.

The side splitters could be interesting if they feed an air duct to the rear brake calipers.  Not clear if that’s the intent here.  If the duct does not feed anywhere, it would just create an air bubble ahead of the turbulence of the rear wheel.  It might help reduce some of the drag, but if it doesn’t draw air through the wheel, it would actually reduce cooling to the rear brakes as well as catch debris.

The first thing I noticed from this angle was the sculpting of the fenders.  Reminds me of Subarus from the last decade — not a fan.  The headlight design over powers the rest of the design.

The front splitter reminds me of Toyota concept cars of recent years as well. The angle is too steep to be effective as a splitter so it just creates drag.  The opening at the end is too far off center to be effective at channeling air to the brakes so perhaps they’re to be fed from the center.  The headlight design works a little better from this angle, but the inner sculpting is too wide.  It reminds me of a Pac-Man face-off.

So what did I like about the car? That paint is gorgeous. It would be impossible to keep clean and not show fingerprints, but it looks great. I like that it’s a small car and not a Countryman or Clubman. Maybe the future for a small MINI will be reborn as electric.

NY Auto Show 2017

The NY Auto Show wraps up this weekend. Traditionally it’s the last of the big annual auto shows for the year that stars in the Fall.  I went to see two Porsches having their North American Premiere: The 2018 GT3 and the Panamera Sport (don’t call it a wagon) Turismo. Along the way there, I got distracted by a couple of Lexus and Alfas. So by the time I got to where I wanted to be, my camera’s battery died, but I did at least get a couple of photos along the way.

The 2018 991.2 GT3 is a well proportioned, beautiful track beast. Click the link and go to the microsite.  Click through until you get to the engine workshop (but turn down your speakers.) Build your own in Guards Red with manual transmission, Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes, Sport Chrono Pack, Full Bucket Seats, and Front Axel Lift system (so you can get out of the end of your driveway) and you’re pushing $170K before taxes.  Which seems like a lot of money, mostly because it is. So then you go spec a Cayman S, and $86K suddenly doesn’t seem that outrageous.

The other car I really wanted to see was the new Panamera. I had always thought the old Panamera was the Camel of the Porsche line-up, meaning similar to a horse designed by committee. The front was from a Cayenne, the front doors and rear end from a 911, and the rear doors were just photo-shopped in by your cousin’s friend who knows photoshop.

This new generation Panamera hangs together much more cohesively.  The parts in better proportion, and in Sport Turismo (wagon) trim, seems to work —  though that’s one long wheelbase car, even if it’s not the longest.  That distinction goes to the new Panamera Executive, which is 6 inches longer. That show car must have an adjustable suspension, because the photos on the website show a higher ride height.

Lexus (which generally I don’t get anyway) was also there with their new GTD race car (or a reasonable facsimile of one.) At first I was drawn in by this strange LED wrap. Then I started to check out the GTD car, but somethings just didn’t seem right.  It didn’t have a transponder or any telemetry antennas; it had dark window tint; there didn’t appear to be any exhaust; and the space between the wing struts seemed to be fabricated by the kind of stuff I would use in my garage. Also the carbon-fauxber panels weren’t very well fitted.  Still it was an interesting car.

The final car of interest was the new Alfa SUV, the Stelvio. On a new platform that will be shared by Maserati, Dodge, and Jeep (which is a wicked mash-up), it very much reminded me of the Red Angry Bird. It’s a very striking design, but I have a few issues, not the least of which is that an Alfa SUV is somehow blasphemous.

At an angle from the rear, you start to sense that things just aren’t quite right. The rotors are too small for these ridiculous low profile wheels, but take a closer look at the rear glass.  There’s a huge panel of black masking on the inside of the glass, meaning that visibility out the back is problematic at best. The back just doesn’t relate to the  rest of the car, sort of like the enormous buttocks on some baboons. Maybe it’s an thing: “Le natiche di un babbuino”. Dunno.

I like going to car shows because you can see the entire range of cars from each manufacture in one place in similar lighting. A few trends are worth noting.  The love affair we have with SUVs shows no ending. Most manufactures now have at least three variants of small, medium, and large SUVs plus tall sedans or wagons.  If the huge profit margins on these cars allows the manufacturers continue to produce interesting sports cars, then I’m all for it.

But the problem is that many of them just aren’t that interesting.  I don’t really like the current design language of BMW or Mercedes. Chevy and VW were opposite one another on the convention center floor and given the two, the Chevys were more visually appealing.  That doesn’t say so much about Chevy as it does about how bland VW has become. “VW — when Buick is too exciting.”

 

SEMA Show 2016

retro-1It’s been about a month since the SEMA show in Las Vegas which started just after Halloween this year. With the US election and Thanksgiving holiday in the rearview mirror, this seemed like a good time to reflect on the state of the aftermarket industry. For those not familiar with it, SEMA is the Specialty Equipment Market Association, an industry trade association for the automotive aftermarket industry. In the US, this is nearly a $40b industry and over 165,000 participants descend on Las Vegas annually to attend the fourth largest trade show in the world. We go every couple of years to take the pulse of the industry and meet with almost all our suppliers in one place. And to see the cars.

State of the Market: SEMA estimates the US automotive aftermarket to be $39.2b in 2016. The market has shown steady growth for six years straight, different-1growing at a rate of 8% last year. This is the first year the total has exceeded pre-recession levels. The Racing segment is one of the smallest niche at about $1.57b, which is a little smaller than Off-Road ($1.82b) and about the same size as Restoration ($1.53) and Street Rod & Custom ($1.47b). The fundamental shift in the market has been in the Accessory and Appearance Product Segment which was about half of the market before the recession. It peaked at about $24b in 2007 and has just now returned to 2001 levels at just under $15b in 2016. The change is especially true in the Light Truck segment, but has had an effect across all segments including Compact Performance (including most of the MINI aftermarket.)

different-4In 2007, new car/truck buyers were spending $1500 to $2000 accessorizing their new purchase. Last year it was about a third of that. There are a couple of trends at play here. One is the higher degree of customization available during the purchase process and the second is a change in buyer behavior. Buyers in most segments are more focused on utility than style. In the MINI new car market, this is reflected in more buyers purchasing cars off the lot with fewer optional features and fewer customers ordering on line. That results in dealerships needing to carry more cars in inventory and taking less risks when ordering cars. (Some call this the Camry effect which ultimately results in a used car market flooded with beige colored cars that no one wants.)

The good news for us is that we’ve shifted more into the Racing niche interesting-4segment over the past year. That niche is perhaps less dynamic, but also less cyclical. It consists of three product segments: Performance (48%); Wheels, Tires & Suspension (34%); and Accessory & Appearance (18%). The first two have had steady growth for 15 years. The last has grown steadily since floundering between 2007 and 2011.

MINI at SEMA: We were hoping we’d catch the new Countryman at SEMA, but MINI USA waited until the LA Auto Show to unveil it. They brought instead a JCW Clubman, Cooper Convertible, and Cooper S Hatchback. The most interesting thing about MINI was where it wasn’t, namely, anywhere else in the show. Once a favorite of the tuning crowd, the new, larger MINIs have gone mainstream. No longer is it seen as a platform to advertise other products.

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The current generation of cars are quite capable. They outperform the earlier models in almost every dimension except one: fun. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad in MINI land. I especially liked the Union Jack convertible roof. The interiors are very nice – approaching Audi nice – but they are not enthusiast cars, they’re just cars. The funny thing about MINI’s current design language is that it doesn’t seem to work on the smaller cars. The taillights across the models are oddly proportioned, as if making them bigger would make the cars seem smaller. Compare the Clubman to the standard hatchback. The proportions of the larger Clubman seem to work better with the larger platform. The longer nose, the higher waistline, they all seem to work on the Clubman.

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More than a Trade Show: SEMA’s roots go back to the Southern California Hot Rod scene 50 years ago and there was much of that still on display. Most people think of the street racing scene when they think about the show today, but there’s much more to see. I’ve selected some of my favorite photos and shared them below.

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There are always some interesting racecars and quality builds at the show each year. The public may be fascinated with reality TV builders, but I’m more interested in unique cars and personalities. It was interesting to compare the Singer Design Porsches to Magnus Walker’s builds. The new NSX racecar is beautiful and the Turner M6 is much larger in person.

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There were also plenty of unbalanced wings; incorrectly mounted splitters; and slammed “racecars” with zero suspension travel. Rust and Steam-Punk were major themes. Not so much for product offerings as much as displays to draw you in. I appreciate the patina on a non-restored classic, but now you can’t tell what’s real and what’s affected. I do appreciate an inappropriately large motor applied to just about anything though. Some of the builds made no sense to me. I’m not sure what they’re intended to convey: The art of the possible or just to get your attention. This could be from the maker of a wrap, to top-heavy lifted vehicles just waiting to be pushed over.

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I also thought Continental Tire had an interesting way of demonstrating the grip and wear performance of their tires. By giving drifting demonstration rides. Although from where I was standing, it looked as if some of the backseat passengers were trying to get out….