Friday, December 30, 2011

As 2011 fades, time to hand out awards

Sacramento, California – Another year has flown by, and it’s getting harder each year to hand out awards and get the Christmas decorations packed away in reasonable order.

Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts. Here they are:

CAR OF THE YEAR: Amid all the opulent luxury, incredibly complex technology and off-the-charts horsepower, I like the new Fiat 500 (pictured) above all others.

It’s not the fastest, most sophisticated car, but it is an affordable, nicely styled, fuel-sipping runabout that is right for the times. I like what the Fiat 500 represents, because it represents what I have heard from a lot of family, friends and colleagues this year: I need to be more practical, and less wasteful.

If a car can represent an idea -- even a car available in limited numbers -- that says a lot. I doubt that the Fiat 500 will make the kind of splash that the post-World War II Volkswagen made, but I think it’s a car worth having … and it’s a shot in the arm for Chrysler to be linked wheel to wheel with Fiat.

AUTOMAKER OF THE YEAR: How about America’s Big Three sharing the trophy? What a strange journey it has been … General Motors and Chrysler widely cursed for taking government money, even though that helped them get back on their feet, preserve tens of thousands of jobs and help save a massive U.S. industry. Ford, which seemingly couldn’t do anything right a few years ago, basically stepping to the head of the class with its popular products and gaudy earnings.

The U.S. manufacturers have regained some ground at home against Toyota and Honda, although to be fair, both Japanese automakers suffered supply chain problems due to the early 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan and the aftermath. It will be interesting to see how GM, Ford and Chrysler do once Toyota and Honda fully regain their footing.

RACE DRIVER OF THE YEAR: Decided in the last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the year in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Tony Stewart put on a drive for the ages. In a race where Carl Edwards did virtually everything he had to do to lock up the championship, Stewart came back from multiple setbacks to take the win. On the way to doing that, Stewart appeared to be in a class by himself – a remarkable effort given the Sprint Cup Series’ highly touted competition parity.

AUTO RACE OF THE YEAR: Selfishly, I have to go with the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. The “greatest spectacle in racing” surpassed that claim with a day drenched in history – past winning drivers, winning cars from decades ago and an over-the-top party atmosphere.

The race itself was the cherry on top of the sundae, with hard-luck rookie J.R. Hildebrand crashing within sight of the checkered flag, handing a storybook win to Dan Wheldon, who led the last few hundred yards of the race.

It was a race to keep in one’s heart forever. The same can be said of Wheldon, who crashed to his death in the IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas in October.

We’re just hours away from popping the champagne corks to ring in 2012. So many changes ahead. So much to enjoy. Hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Happy new year to all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Three dates, three losses ... and great memories

Sacramento, California -- This blog will take the week off next week, as a I look forward to immersing myself in my little family -- grateful for yet another Christmas that we will enjoy together.

As we near year's end, three dates and three losses from 2011 are with me ... and likely will be for some time.

On March 9, my longtime Indy Car riding mechanic friend, Harry Dean, died at the age of 97, following complications from surgery. Harry missed being the oldest surviving Indianapolis 500 participant (and the last from the pre-World War II era) by about six months.

In 1937, the last year for riding mechanics at the Indy 500, Harry rode with racing great Ted Horn to a third-place finish, the top three cars finishing within 20 seconds of each other. It would be the closest 1-2-3 Indy 500 finish for the next 45 years.

Harry and I would routinely meet for lunch or dinner, and he would regale me with stories of an Indy Car racing era long past, a time when drivers would play softball in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield during the month of May, a time when drivers would take great pleasure sneaking a woman into the pit area (forbidden by the rules long after WWII), a time when racers would drive their race cars on public roads from racetrack to racetrack -- living and playing hard all along the way.

When Harry would speak, I could picture all of it, somehow wishing that I had been alive back then to drink it in. I miss our meals Harry. And I miss you.

On Oct. 16, Dan Wheldon crashed to his death in the IndyCar Series finale on the super-fast Las Vegas oval. Dan died less than five months after I watched him record a storybook victory in the centennial Indianapolis 500.

It was all so heartbreaking -- the loss of Dan's instantly likable personality, his leaving behind a lovely wife and two beautiful little children and the sight of diamond-hard Indy Car drivers sobbing at his passing. Just today, IndyCar released the results of an exhaustive investigation that confirmed what I already figured out: Dan had the terrible misfortune of impacting the Vegas track's exterior catch fence on the cockpit side. Even a state-of-the-art helmet is not enough to adequately protect a driver's head hitting a vertical fence support pole at more than 150 miles per hour.

Bad, awful luck for Dan. And a hole in our hearts as we move on to remember him and watch the sport we love.

Finally, Dec. 14 brought the news I was expecting since July 15, when my sole sibling, 61-year-old Stephen C. Glover, was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Steve simply slept away this week at his home, ending suffering I would have paid dearly to spare him.

I last visited with Steve over the Labor Day weekend. And in his usual stoic style, he talked frankly about the end to come and how he wanted to spare me any pain at the end. I've seen much bravery in 35 years of being a professional journalist and my lifetime obsession with auto racing, but I can't think of a more courageous outlook in the face of darkness than what I saw in Steve.

I'm grateful that we shared Steve's last Indianapolis 500 -- on the 50th anniversary of his first in 1960 -- shoulder to shoulder in the frontstretch grandstand in 2010. I'll always think of Steve when I attend future 500s, with the playing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" and the command to start engines.

I hate goodbyes, and this year has had too many for me. Yet I am glad to carry with me the memories of these three remarkable people. Gone from Earth, but not from my heart.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Challenger lineup brings the horses, and fun

This review originally appeared in the November 2011 edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- There are some invitations that you just don’t turn down – like a Halloween Party at the Playboy Mansion, a skybox weekend at the Super Bowl and a Bay Area buddy who wants you to take some short romps in the 2012 Dodge Challenger lineup.

He didn’t have to ask twice.

Let me preface this by saying that if I had all the money in the world, my “drive around fun car” would not be a Bentley or a Ferrari or a Bugatti Veyron. I’d opt for a Dodge Challenger. Competition Orange if you please.

While my seat time was brief, I can tell you that the Challenger name has not been cheapened by the 2012 model year offerings.

Horsepower ratings on the SXT and R/T versions remain admirably high, and performance reflects that. The Challenger equipped with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 (305 horses) feels a little heavy off the line and adds a little engine grunt noise at the top of a steep climb. But the overall throaty roar of the engine at full song is gratifying.

Dodge is touting an 18-speaker, 900-watt Harman Kardon audio system, and that is certainly an impressive piece of sound equipment to ponder. But the Challenger’s interior remains comparatively plain and uncomplicated.

I don’t have a big problem with that as I know the automaker wants to make the Challenger available for the high $20,000s to middle $30,000s set. I can sacrifice some interior luxury for high performance.

And then there’s the new Challenger SRT8 392, which delivers omigod-are-you-kidding-me performance through a 392-cubic-inch Hemi V-8. The max horsepower and torque numbers on that engine both come in at 470. And yes, your on-road fantasies will come true with this power plant.

Classic American muscle? Oh, yes sir! This coupe makes big smoke going zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds. And yet, the big-brute engine delivers an advertised 23 miles per gallon on the highway.

Please note that the interior of the 392 is a mind-blowing mixture of retro flash and modern-day dash. And the 392 also starts around $44,000.

Does the latest Challenger make the muscle car grade?

Let’s put it this way: I begged my buddy for a return trip the next day.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Newest Charger upholds model's rich history

Sacramento, California – Strangely, some car models inspire rancorous debate and political sniping.

Take the Dodge Charger, for example.

Some folks can’t get over the Chargers of old -- big and brawny and loaded with horsepower that challenged the stability of the suspension and the grip of the tires. Those were the REAL Chargers, old-schoolers say.

Well, OK, but I did carefully read the owner’s manual on my recent ride and checked the exterior badging. Sure enough, it was a Dodge Charger SE with rear-wheel drive. Or a Dodge Charger Rallye Plus if you opt for the automaker’s more-flashy language.

Let me say up front that this was the “Charger Lite” version, meaning that it had a 3.6-liter variable-valve timing Pentastar V-6 with “only” 292 horsepower. Keep in mind that you can get a Charger SRT8 with a 6.4-liter V-8 laying down a maximum 465 horsepower.

That SRT8 puts you in a different economic bracket, and you’d be wise to put speeding ticket estimates into that budget.

My tester had a most-reasonable base price of $25,170, but it was dressed up with a nearly obscene number of extras (power sunroof, rearview camera and humidity sensor to name a tiny few) to bring the bottom line to $34,955.

The luxury was nice, but the basics were sufficient to keep me happy. That included the V-6.

No, the V-6 Charger cannot shut down a Corvette off the line, but the nearly 300 horses served up in deep, throaty tones by the V-6 were satisfying and entirely competent in all driving situations.

The Charger sedan received a much-needed restyling for the 2011 model year, and that carries over nicely in 2012. It looks American muscular from bumper to bumper, and the interior dash is a vast improvement from past years. The latter is much more organized and easier to use.

Handling was rock solid. Steering was a perfect blend of light-but-firm. The noise reaching the interior cabin was surprisingly muffled.

Naturally, purists scoff at four doors on a storied American muscle nameplate. To which I say: So what?

You want two-door muscle for 2012, hunt down a Dodge Challenger. They’ve made plenty of them.

As for me, I enjoyed every minute of my week in the Charger, a combination of four-door convenience and nostalgia-laced styling.

Old is new again. And you’ll get no argument from me: The current Charger wears it muscle and its lineage admirably well.