This is the 10th installment in RACER’s ongoing 25th anniversary celebration during which we share the 25 most important issues from our first quarter century.
The saga of the here-today, gone-tomorrow United States Grand Prix had been a recurrent topic in RACER since the magazine’s launch, despite the fact that Formula 1 had been absent from U.S. shores altogether since the founding of the magazine. The dawn of the new century finally brought grand prix racing back to the USA for the first time since 1991, and this time on America’s most renowned racetrack, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The creation of an infield road course furthered IMS President Tony George’s vision of making the Speedway the central hub of auto racing in the nation, with F1 joining NASCAR at the track previously reserved only for the Indianapolis 500 once a year. (Sports cars and MotoGP motorcycles would soon arrive, too.) Whether this process bolstered or diminished the mystique of Indy was (and remains) a matter of debate, but in the short term it obviously represented a sea change for American racing and F1’s place in it.
To explore what the event meant to all parties, RACER looked at the first USGP at Indy with a two-part feature story, with editor John Zimmermann examining the race from a U.S. viewpoint and regular F1 contributor Maurice Hamilton from the perspective of the Eurocentric F1 teams and series management. The signals they received were mixed.
One of the biggest crowds ever for a grand prix turned out fill Indy’s cavernous grandstands, debunking the claim that F1 could not compete with domestic series in the American marketplace, and while the consensus view seemed to find the infield course a trifle dull, the previously unimaginable spectacle of cars coming the “wrong” way out Turn 1 and down the front straight provided a unique stage. But already there were warning signs that the sport’s decision-makers didn’t “get” Indy, with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s remarks reflecting apparent disdain for the location making a poor impression on the U.S. media.
Worse PR blows lay ahead for the race – particularly the clumsily stage-managed “win” by Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello in 2002, and the infamous “Michelin-gate” race of 2005 in which only six cars took the start, infuriating the spectators – that would help doom Indy to join the benighted ranks of ex-USGP venues. But as our feature story on the 2000 race detailed, the foundations of F1 interest in the U.S. had been relaid, helping pave the way for another rebirth on a bespoke grand prix circuit in Austin in 2012.
While F1 was relaunching, NASCAR was having a crisis of perception at the turn of the millennium. The power-capping engine restrictor plates introduced for superspeedways in response to a rash of serious crashes had had the unintended consequence, or at least the perception of one, of increasing “pack racing” and reducing passing. NASCAR contributor Ben Blake (who had succeeded our founding head NASCAR writer Gerald Martin following the latter’s sad passing in 1999) explored the issue and the sanctioning body’s response to it for the October race at Talladega in that month’s NASCAR feature, “Fresh Air.” The combination of steeper spoiler angles and increased horsepower via larger-diameter restrictor plates got a generally positive review from fans and competitors, but the balancing act of speed-safety-spectacle would remain a hot-button issue in both NASCAR and IndyCar racing.
Analysis of industry changes and rules debates are an essential element of any serious consideration of the motorsports scene, but RACER has also always strived not to neglect the primary motivation that made us all racing fans to begin with: how flat-out cool racecars are. It’s the motivation for our regular series of “In Focus” photo shoots that go beyond eye candy to provide technical details and insights about their subjects.
In the December issue it was the turn of the Audi Sport Team Joest R8 competing in the American Le Mans Series, forerunner of today’s IMSA. Arriving appropriately enough with the new millennium, this is the car that would shape a whole new era of sports car racing the world over and look awesome doing it, as the photography of Rick Graves and Boyd Janes showed in our cover story.
As this issue was being produced, company founder Paul Pfanner was deep in the final stages of selling the majority of the company to UK-based Haymarket Media after a 30-month dialogue, during which time several other companies had also approached us but were rebuffed. We eventually closed the deal in the first week of January 2001 and the RACER 2.0 era began – but many twists and impossible turns in the RACER story would follow over the next 11 years.
Another key development of this issue was illustrated by the appearance of the Speedvision logo on the cover. By this time RACER.com had formed an alliance with Roger Werner’s Speedvision network and had shifted all of its news content to the new TV network’s website on the stroke of midnight Y2k. This alliance, too, would shape the future of the company in new ways in the years ahead.