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.

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