Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 5, 2018

How Audi Made Me A Dieselgate Dupe

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 2.08.33 PM

Auto writers love contests.

A trophy is nice, but we don’t even need prizes. It’s just the competition. We love to beat the other guy. It’s kind of a car thing. Bragging rights.

That’s why it was so appealing to receive an invitation a few years back from Audi, to come to the Washington, D.C., area to test-drive a fleet of new Audi A6 and A7 sedans, powered by turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel engines. The pitch was to see if we could beat the EPA estimated fuel economy numbers of 25 city, 38 highway.

Well, of course, we could. We know how the EPA system works, and how to game it. (We weren’t the only ones, as it turned out!)

We were up for the challenge.

Audi encouraged my fellow competitors – a few dozen auto writers from around North America – to use social media during the program to boast about our accomplishments in real time. Audi even supplied mid-course updates, as to who was leading the miles-per-gallon economy challenge. Tweet, post pictures and videos, give Facebook updates. The more you were on social media, the better Audi liked it. In fact, Audi supplied a special hashtag for us to use, and they even re-tweeted or otherwise re-broadcast the most noteworthy blurbs on a corporate account with widespread distribution.

Just think of the glory that awaited the auto writer who was leading the MPG challenge with 52 mpg (which, for awhile, I was). Tweeted out to the world!


But there was a problem: We didn’t know we were being used by Audi. We were being duped.

It’s fairly easy to dupe auto writers. Most of us aren’t really very technical, when it comes right down to it. We all like the glitz, the glamor, the prestige of driving around fancy, fast, and obscenely expensive new cars. All too often, we are blinded by the bling factor, I must admit.

There are volumes to be written about how an auto writer failed to notice an automaker had switched out a car’s regular tires for trick racing tires, to game race track results. Or how another manufacturer removed the spare tire, the jack, extra insulation and so forth to make the car lighter – and therefore more fuel-efficient – during a mileage test run. I personally recall one manufacturer who supplied a new hybrid-electric sedan in flaming red paint, to make sure it photographed more appealingly; the catch was that car was never offered in red.

But what Audi was doing in this instance was something of a cake-taker.

The cars being used all were equipped with devices to allowed them to cheat on emissions requirements. So the A6s could go farther, faster and seem capable of engineering feats that they were, in fact, not capable of. I guess Audi wanted to disingenuously suggest, via gullible auto writers, that their diesels should have scored even higher on an EPA test they were already thumbing their noses at.

Of course we didn’t know all that then. And in fairness to the auto writers involved: what Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche (and even others) were later to be found guilty of was one of the most devious swindles in automotive history; now we know it as “Dieselgate”.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 12.49.09 PMFor years, Volkswagen Group (and its affiliated marques besides VW) had been introducing new diesel cars that were supposedly capable of incredibly good mileage – touting the company’s “excellence in engineering” and apparently unshakeable belief in the viability of diesels; “lesser” manufacturers professed to be incapable of obtaining such stellar results. Shame on them!

Here, I must credit my Times editor Norman Mayersohn for always remaining skeptical about these diesel claims; “There is no way they can achieve those mileage numbers and still pass the EPA testing regimen,” he contended over and over again. The only way it could have been possible, he added, was if the cars were equipped with an annoying and noisome urea-injection system to deep-clean the emissions system – which they weren’t. Eventually, of course, Volkswagen was found out; eventually Audi’s leadership role in the whole scheme came out as well. Fines were issued, executives were fired, some were jailed, and the cheating vehicles were pulled from sale.

But there was no skepticism on our Audi romp through the northern Virginia countryside. We were blissfully gifting Audi innumerable zillions of dollars in free advertising – the cars were even emblazoned with garish “clean diesel” advertising slogans – blessed with the imprimatur of dozens of supposed industry experts. And participating in the names of their unwitting publications.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 12.53.52 PMIt was very cunning of Audi, whose slogan was, incredibly, “Truth In Engineering”. And very calculated. And I’m embarrassed now, looking back on it, that I was such a gullible accomplice – to the degree I was.

Thank God I didn’t tweet. I did not attend as a representative of any publication. And, most importantly, I didn’t write anything about it. I came, I saw, I shrugged my shoulders. Something didn’t seem right about the whole exercise – although I adored driving the car – but I couldn’t figure out exactly what bothered me.

Now I know: Audi made me an accomplice in Dieselgate.

A Dieselgate Dupe.

Jerry Garrett

October 5, 2018





Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 26, 2018

45 Years At The Indianapolis 500


Those thrilling days of yesteryear at Indy


The first Indianapolis 500 that I ever personally attended was the 1973 running of it – the infamous “Fire and Rain” race that took three days to complete. I was covering the race for The Associated Press and was stationed near the pit exit where Salt Walther crashed in flames. I walked quickly away from that blaze, and was narrowly by missed the fire truck going the wrong way up pit road that ran over and killed a guy. Later, I stationed myself at the entrance to the pits, where Swede Savage had one of the worst crashes in speedway history. He died weeks later in the hospital. Another driver, Art Pollard, had been killed in practice; I had flown over that one in my one-and-only ride in the Goodyear blimp.

After that, I wondered if my first 500 would be my last. Yes, it had lived up to its name as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but what a bloody spectacle it was.

But I did go back; it’s been 45 years now, and this year – the 102nd running of the event – I’m reporting it again for The New York Times.

In some ways, the race has changed surprisingly little since 1973. The cars all have their engines mounted at the rear, gumball tires and aerodynamic wings. In the 45 years prior to my arrival, the cars had evolved from the most primitive, earliest forms of automotive transport – with skinny tall tires, enormous engines in front, and cockpits where the drivers sat upright. For a few years, drivers had been accompanied by riding mechanics.

In the early days here, the drivers sometimes raced in street clothes, brogans and cloth or leather helmets. Many didn’t even wear gloves. In this era, of course, racing drivers are kitted up like spacemen in fireproof suits, and strapped in place (laying on their backs inside coffin-like cockpits) with multi-point harnesses.

In days of yore, as they say, drivers eschewed wearing seat belts at all, believing – erroneously – that it was better to be thrown clear of a wreck.

Driver protection has now evolved beyond once-unimaginable, unachievable levels. Not only are the cars now designed to handle impacts without inflicting injuries, so are the walls – the so-called impact-tolerant SAFER barriers – they plow into. Fatalities are rare.

The 1973 race resulted in many of the most significant improvements in crash safety in the history of auto racing: breakaway fuel fittings and puncture-proof fuel cells (drivers had actually sat between unprotected tanks holding up to 80 gallons of fuel), and energy-absorbing or crushable structures. So, that 1973 race probably ranks as a turning point.

Up until 1973, about 40 percent of Indy car drivers could be expected to be killed at some point in their careers. Perhaps 70 percent or more suffered crippling injuries – particularly burns. One of the sport’s longest-tenured drivers, A.J. Foyt, had his career threatened multiple times with burns, internal injuries and a broken bones; even after 40 years behind the wheel, he refused to retire despite shattered legs that were barely saved from amputation.

For a time in the 1990s, foot and leg injuries threatened to sideline an entire generation of Indy car drivers. But that vulnerability prompted another round of safety innovations that ultimately all but eliminated that danger.

The biggest change that I have seen in 45 years at Indy is among the drivers. Of course, all the drivers of that era have long since retired, although Mario Andretti still gives hair-raising rides to folks in an Indy car two-seater.

Andretti was in his heyday back in the 1970s – winning the 500 a second time (and then losing it in a court battle with Bobby Unser), winning a Formula 1 World Championship and capturing multiple checkered flags. But as Andretti’s time has come and long gone, so has the career of his son Michael, now a successful team owner. Now a third generation of the Andretti family is racing, with Marco, well into his career. Maybe one day a fourth generation will come along.

Now that will make you feel old!

Jerry Garrett

May 26, 2018

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 10, 2018

Solving The Mysterious Disappearance Of My Black Sheep Uncle

It’s been nearly 60 years, but I finally found my Uncle Eldon. He’s dead.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.17.56 PM

Not my uncle, but close

Not surprising, or else he would have been 112 now.

I don’t know why, but I had been thinking of my mysterious uncle recently. It seems more than a coincidence; it turns out he died almost exactly 50 years ago (fittingly, around Kentucky Derby time). No one in my family ever told me – if even they knew – what happened to him.

When I was seven years old, Uncle Eldon blew into town like a tumbleweed. He stayed with us for a couple of weeks at our little house in San Gabriel Valley, California.

He was tall, thin, weathered, with sandy hair and stubble beard. When I did a Google image search for him, for some reason pictures of the actor Hugh Laurie kept coming up; close enough. I remember him dressed in old khakis, a dark shirt and a well-worn leather jacket. I never saw him eat; he was too busy sneaking a smoke in our non-smoking household.

“I thumbed it,” he said, when I asked him how he got from his home in Colorado.

“Thumbed it? What’s that?” I asked.

“You stand on the side of the road, hold your thumb out like this,” he said, with great tolerance for a nosy little kid who asked a lot of questions. I noticed his thumb and three fingers were stained nicotine yellow. “Eventually, some car will stop and give you a lift.”

From that moment on, the notion of hitch-hiking, anywhere you wanted to go – for free! – held an irresistibly adventurous appeal to me. I couldn’t wait to try it, although I was chastised severely by my dad when I tried it a few weeks later, on the way home from second grade. I thought my mom would be happy I saved her the trip; but she seemed cross as she called the cops and told them they could stop looking for me.

By that time, it had been firmly established that Uncle Eldon was a Bad Influence.

He was gone not long after. But he had left an indelible mark on me.

In less than a week, in addition to hitch-hiking, Uncle Eldon had taught me how to play blackjack, canasta, pinochle and a dozen variations of poker. I knew how to ante, bet, bluff, and count cards like a pro. I learned the finer points of cribbage and dominoes – both played for money. He taught me how to roll his cigarettes (I never smoked any, but his second-hand smoke was worth about the same thing).

Best of all, he taught me how to “play the ponies.”

The Los Angeles Times had a pretty good horse racing section back then, and Uncle Eldon could read it like a treasure map.

“The longshots tend to win the first four or five races on the card, especially the first three,” he confided. “The favorites are tough to bet against in the features.”

He acquainted me with the great riders of the day, who included Willie Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden and some guy named Valenzuela who was the scourge of the longshots.

Eldon would mark up a tout sheet in the morning, and head off hitch-hiking somewhere. He would leave me the Times racing section and tell me to pick my own winners for the day. I guess I got really good at it.

“Didja pick any winners, kid?” he asked me a few days later.

“Yeah, but only four,” I remembered telling him, to his great surprise. “One was a 30-1. That’s good, right?”

“Jeezus,” he said, shaking his head. “Can you do that again?”

I told him I usually got at least three or four. “My goal is to pick ’em all. I got six once.”

“Jeezus,” he said again. “Tomorrow we’ll pick some together.”

The next evening, when Uncle Eldon got home, he handed me a $5 bill, which was basically more money than I’d ever had in my whole seven-year-old life.

“We did all right?” I asked.

“We did all right,” he said. “I should have listened to you.”

“We got six, yes?”

“Like I said, I should have listened more to you.”

Uncle Eldon was gone the next day.

Santa Anita was only a few miles from our home, and it occurs to me now that Uncle Eldon’s visits coincided with racing season there. His subsequent disappearances likewise had something to do with exotic names like Agua Caliente, Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Ruidoso Downs, and a faraway place called Longacres.

“What do you do?” I asked him once.

“I’m a rolling stone,” he said.

“What kind of job is that?”

“It’s not exactly a job,” he replied. “It’s more of a way of life.”

He told my sister he lived in a tree, sparking my lifelong interest in treehouses.

Eldon was my maternal grandma’s baby brother, in a family of six kids, where she was the oldest. Eldon was born in 1906, and she was nine years older.

“Your grandma calls me the Black Sheep of the family,” he added. “Your grandpa calls me something else.”

That was about the only insight I ever got on Uncle Eldon’s life. My grandparents made a point of not talking about him (or letting him stay with them). He was single, 35, and still living at home in Sanford, Colorado, when World War II broke out. Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.08.36 PMFamily genealogy records indicate he married after WWII, and he is buried in a Denver cemetery, next to his brother, two sisters, his parents, and a woman identified as his wife. No one ever spoke of her, and I know he traveled alone. I don’t know what he died of at age 61; maybe something mysterious, maybe something more logical like lung cancer or cirrhosis. Maybe someday I’ll find out; the other great (still unsolved) mystery of my family history is his grandfather, who was murdered in 1905 in St. Louis, as he tried to return to Switzerland. So, stranger things have happened.

I only saw Uncle Eldon one other time – about a year later. I think he stayed with us only one night.

“Got me a ticket on the Greyhound,” he said, proudly waving an envelope. “Travelin’ in style.”

I asked him if we could play cards.

“Grandpa won’t play with me anymore,” I told him. “He threw the cards in the fireplace.”

“Your grandpa is some card player,” he remarked. “But a sore loser.”

“He said he must not be very good, if an elementary school kid could beat him.”

“Some people can’t see the humor in getting beat by a seven-year-old,” he observed.

“I’m eight now,” I said proudly. “Third grade!”

For diversion, I was still playing the ponies, I told him, “although my dad cancelled our L.A. Times subscription, so I couldn’t get the racing form anymore. But I get them at the liquor store.”

“Still pickin’ winners?” he asked.

“About the same,” I told him. “I picked seven a couple of times.”

“You’re wasting your time in school, kid. Jeezus.”

Jerry Garrett

May 10, 2018

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | March 7, 2018

Dodge Trucks: A Hundred Years Old? Or Dead?


A “Centennial” Model? 2019 Ram 1500 (Photos By Jerry Garrett)

One hundred years ago, the Dodge Brothers started selling purpose-built trucks. A centennial celebration would seem to be in order. But Dodge Trucks are dead. Or are they?

When the Italian automaker Fiat acquired the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands in 2009, it was announced the truck division of Dodge would be spun off into a new, separate brand christened Ram Trucks. It wasn’t just a name pulled from thin air; the Ram’s head has been a Dodge symbol on radiator cap mascots dating to the 1930s, and since the 1970s, Ram has been a perennial Dodge model designation. But the 2009 spin-off was a jolt for the brand faithful.

In many ways, not much has changed since that decision was made. Ram executives still work in the same building with their Dodge brethren, Dodge dealers still sell trucks, and most importantly, the public still seems to identify Ram trucks with the Dodge brand.

fullsizeoutput_19a7In fact, when a 2018 Super Bowl television ad placed by Ram stirred controversy, Dodge got tarred with most of the critical blowback. (The ad was criticized for allegedly commercializing a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King.) Both companies were quick to note the ad was presented by Ram Trucks, and that Dodge had nothing to do with it.

“But it was understandable in the sense that there’s a lot of history there, with our customers, that goes back decades, associating the Dodge name with our trucks,” said Rick Deneau, a spokesman for FCA Group, the parent of today’s Dodge and Ram brands. “Of course, we’ve done a lot of work in recent years to differentiate the two brands, and we’re going to be working even harder to do that, going forward.”

But the problem goes deeper than name association. Consider this: In 1994, Dodge completely re-made its trucks with a signature “big rig” look. Even though the nameplate changed from Dodge to Ram in 2009, the big rig look carried over. So, please forgive buyers if they considered a Ram truck that looked like a Dodge to still be a Dodge.

But for the 2019 model year, virtually every one of the many old Dodge styling cues – that distinctive broad-shouldered look and “outta my way” attitude that has endured over the past 25 model years – are finally gone. Crucially, even the Dodge-style “crosshair” grille has been ditched.

fullsizeoutput_19a8Despite the bold new design language, the 2019 Ram 1500 still bears a strong family resemblance. In fact, in introducing the new Ram to news media at an event in Scottsdale, Arizona, this week, Joe Dehner, the chief exterior designer, acknowledged, “The DNA on this truck still goes back to the 1994 model.”

And with a nod to the notion of a centennial celebration being in order, he reminded everyone, “We have been building trucks for over a hundred years.” In fact, after considerable research, he has decided this new Ram model is rightfully the “15th generation” descendant of the original Dodge Brothers pickup.

While historians note that Dodge Brothers Company passenger cars first appeared in 1915, and commercial versions (probably conversions) date from that period, the company’s first purpose-built truck arrived later.


1918 Dodge Truck (“Oozlfinch” from Flickr)

In 1918, the United States Army ordered an exclusive military-spec truck based on the fledgling company’s sturdy, well-regarded and hot-selling Model 30-35 sedans. The army ended up purchasing 3,500 of those trucks, from 1918 to 1923. It wasn’t until 1924, after the army contract expired, that a “civilian” version finally went on sale.

(Collectors claim, despite its rugged reputation, only one running example of Dodge’s original military-spec truck – pictured above – is still in existence.)

So, back to our original question: Is a centennial celebration in order? Were Dodge Trucks born a century ago, and do they endure to this day? Or did they die in 2009? Maybe former Ram brand president Fred Diaz can clear that up, for the record: “Ram Trucks will always and forever be Dodges. Ram will always have the Dodge emblem inside and outside and they will be ‘vinned’ as a Dodge. We need to continue to market as Ram so Dodge can have a different brand identity: hip, cool, young, energetic. That will not fit the campaign for truck buyers. The two should have distinct themes.”

Champagne, anyone?

Jerry Garrett

March 6, 2018

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | February 21, 2018

Russian Racing Patron Rotenberg Headed for EU Sanctions & Blacklist?


A European Union review of more than 100 blacklisted Russian oligarchs, due in March, will reportedly take a second look at SMP Racing principal Boris Rotenberg, who has so far escaped the list – even though his brother and business partner Arkady is on it.

The blacklist, compiled in 2014 as a means of punishing wealthy Russians for their country’s intervention in the Ukraine, and annexation of Crimea, prevents those on it from doing business or owning property in the 27-nation block, or even traveling through it.


Boris Rotenberg (Forbes)

A joint investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and the French Le Monde published today reveals the extent to which Boris Rotenberg — reputedly Vladimir Putin’s childhood pal — continues to live the high life on the French Riviera, to run SMP Bank and the SGM Group construction business, and to mingle with the fast crowd at race tracks around the world.

This, even as his blacklisted younger brother Arkady has had to forfeit vast, lucrative properties and investments throughout Italy

You may have seen SMP Racing as a backer of drivers such as Sergey Sirotkin in Formula 1 and Mikhail Aleshin in IndyCar Racing, and a sponsor of the Renault Sport F1 team and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the Indy series, as well as sports car, spec and formula series throughout the world.

The explanation has been that Boris, a co-founder with Arkady of SMP Bank and other Russian businesses, escaped the sanctions merely because he claimed Finnish citizenship – on the basis of a former marriage to a woman from Finland. However, Finnish government officials suggest Boris’ claim of citizenship could be reviewed, especially in view of the fact he is clearly Russian, a member of Putin’s inner circle of friends, and an owner and operator of Russian businesses.

And now there’s this: New disclosures about his heretofore undisclosed holdings in France and Monaco.

The OCCRP investigation found Rotenberg owns or holds an interest in multimillion dollar properties in Eze, France – in the hills above Monaco, in nearby Nice, and near Grasse. By registering some of his interests in tax-free Monaco, the probe also raised the question whether Boris could be using that status to avoid French and other EU taxes.

Should EU officials determine that Boris Rotenberg, 61, is just as deserving as his partner and brother Arkady of being on that blacklist, it could have an impact on the fortunes of more than 40 top-echelon racers and racing teams – although it’s open to speculation just how much.

You can read the full OCCRP investigation report here.

Jerry Garrett

February 21, 2018


Posted by: Jerry Garrett | February 17, 2018

PHANTOM THREAD – What’s That Car? Hint: You’ve Seen It Before


Arguably, the most interesting component of the 2017 movie, “Phantom Thread”, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a slow-moving but fast-driving couturier, is his car.

What is it?

Here’s a hint: you’ve seen it on-screen before.

The same car was apparently also used in the 2009 movie, “An Education”. It was driven by the film’s shape-shifting lead character, played by Peter Sarsgaard (shown blow, driving with co-star Carey Mulligan).

The deep red sports car is a Bristol 405.

How can I tell it’s the same car? It has same license plate, “WDF 964”. (Lewis, shown above, opening door for co-star Vicky Krieps.)


This is a very rare 405; only 297 were produced, during its production run, 1955-1958. The deep red, or maroon, color was not unique, but only a few were turned out in that color. The Internet Movie Car Database reports that it is a 1955 model – further narrowing the range of likely suspects.

Bristol was a tiny, rather obscure British manufacturer that went into production in 1946. Originally known as the Bristol Aeroplane Company, since it began in 1910 producing flying machines, has remained in business, now known as Bristol cars, with a few interruptions to this day.

Although the cars were British in design and manufacture, its cars were powered, from 1946 to 1960, by sporty BMW six-cylinder engines. Chrysler engines were used after that; although the company switched back to BMW power in 2016. The 405’s engine was an inline six – a signature BMW design – that displaced 2 or 2.2 liters, depending on the configuration ordered. Horsepower output ranged between 100 and 125 – a strong performer for the day.

The Bristol 405 was noteworthy not just because it was one of the first production cars to sprout tail fins – albeit tiny ones – it was also Bristol’s only four-door, or “saloon” in British vernacular, ever produced. It also featured a unique center headlight, mounted in the middle of the aircraft-inspired grille.

Under its sleek, voluptuous body were other unique features, like a wooden frame, spare tire holders behind the front wheels, rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes (developed with racing at LeMans in mind).

As suggested in “Phantom Thread”, the 405 was developed with fast driving in mind, for a wealthy, thrill-seeking clientele.

Besides the two movies mentioned here, a maroon 405 – probably the same car – has also appeared in other movies and television shows of late, including 2017’s “Crooked House”.

Jerry Garrett

February 17, 2018

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 26, 2017

A Halloween Story: Road Trip To Italy’s Most Haunted Hamlet


“Where should we go today?”

“Let’s just get in the car and go,” said Sherry Kanani, my frequent travel companion. “We always find someplace interesting.”

Certainly, it seems anyplace can be interesting, if you have enough curiosity to find out why. And that is how we discovered what some people consider the most haunted place in Italy.

– – –

“Bussana Vecchia – Borgo Medievale” said a roadside sign, directing us up a steep hill from SS1, the coast road along Italy’s Riviera dei Fiori near Sanremo.

The road became more treacherous and tortuous, the higher we drove. It narrowed to barely one lane, with scant room to let the few cars from the opposite direction to squeeze by. Damage to the roadbed made it too dangerous to continue; we parked, and walked the short distance that remained.

“What is this place?” Sherry asked. “Something terrible happened here. You can feel it.”

Bussana Vecchia is not supposed to exist anymore. This hamlet, or frazione, was destroyed in a tremendous Ash Wednesday earthquake 130 years ago that killed an estimated 2,000 or more inhabitants in the area. Most buildings collapsed, including the roof of the hilltop church. Many bodies were never recovered.

Walking through here is like being in an unfinished graveyard.


An Ash Wednesday service was in progress when the earthquake collapsed the church’s roof. (Jerry Garrett Photos)

Survivors decided not to attempt to rebuild; they moved down the hill closer to the sea and established a new Bussana (called Nuova). The areas of the worst earthquake devastation were declared off limits.

Despite that 1887 temblor, Bussana Vecchia has refused to die – even though Italian police and governmental authorities continue to try to kill it.

The ruined hill town, which dated from the 9th century by some estimates, lay abandoned for more than half a century. But after World War II, squatters – mostly displaced immigrants – began to trickle in, despite no water, electricity or sanitation facilities.


The vines are slowly taking over.

It was a precarious existence, as repairs were tricky to make; a collapsed section of wall might be holding up the side of an adjacent teetering building. Entry doors two or three floors up might no longer have stairways leading to them.

Police tried to run off the residents, but they refused to be easily dislodged. In the 1960s, hippies moved in. A few artists joined them. A small colony sprung up, existing in partially crushed apartments and homes.

An eviction order was granted in 1968, and police tried to clear the area. But residents barricaded themselves, and refused to leave without the confrontation turning violent. The police backed off. But the area was still considered officially “off limits.” Sporadic initiatives to roust the remnants have continued. As recently as 1997, the Italian government claimed ownership over the entire area, in hopes of evicting everyone. That didn’t work either.


A few hardy souls still call it home.

These days, only a few hardy souls still consider themselves residents of this eerie ghost town. Several small artist studios are open sporadically. During the day, a handful of restaurants serve simple meals. Only the most primitive water and sanitation facilities exist. Generators provide some temporary power. But as night falls, the area becomes inky black and deathly quiet.

We decided to leave, before it became too dark to navigate the ruptured road.

Yes, Bussana Vecchia, officially, doesn’t exist. Once we left, it was like we were never there.

Jerry Garrett

October 25, 2017

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 13, 2017

Strange Saga of the Superyacht Dilbar I

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.11.42 PM

Natita, off the Côte d’Azur (Burgess Yachts)

(Editor’s Note: This story is a name-dropping dream: Russian oligarchs, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Mar-a-Lago, Ivanka Trump, Goldman Sachs, billionaires, scandals, superyachts and even JFK!)

Dilbar is the name bestowed on what is currently the world’s largest superyacht.

Dilbar, as noted on this blog in a previous post, is owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, GazProm CEO and Vladimir Putin pal. The ship, which is 512 feet long, was completed in 2016 at a reported cost of $600 million. But the current Dilbar is not the first ship Usmanov, worth $18 billion and change (at last report), has owned by that name.


Current Dilbar (JG Photo)

The original Dilbar, or Dilbar I, is the subject of this story, which just recently experienced a new plot twist. The yacht now belongs to Goldman Sachs, and they seem flummoxed over what to do with it.

That yacht is now called the Natita, and it’s a 216.5-foot long version of Usmanov’s yachting fantasy that was built back by Oceanco in 2005, according to It set something of a new standard of luxury back then, with an interior by world-renowned designer Alberto Pinto. Just check out (below) the onboard pool, cited recently as one of the 10 most beautiful superyacht pools.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 6.36.33 PM

It also boasts a movie theater, eight guest cabins, a dance floor, and the obligatory helipad.

Still, it is less than half the size of the current Dilbar, and could supposedly fit entirely inside the bigger ship, with room to spare.

However, the original owner seemed never to be completely satisfied with it. It was completely refitted four years later, renamed, and then finally sold off. (A second Dilbar was commissioned and is now named the Ona, which apparently the Dilbar I was also named prior to 2010 – yes, it’s confusing to me too. So the mammoth current Dilbar would be, I guess, the third with that name.)

The original Dilbar cost something well into nine figures (possibly $263 million, according to one blog). When it changed hands in 2010, the asking price was somewhere around $80 million.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 12.26.51 PM

“Bill the Billionaire” not so popular in Peru

I don’t know if that’s what the guy who bought it, Houston oilman William Kallop, paid for it.

Kallop made a fortune back in 2009, when he sold his Peruvian offshore oil exploration operation for $900+ million to investors from Korea and Colombia. It was a controversial deal, to say the least; Peruvian activists claimed their government got screwed out of $482 million in revenue, plus they argued Kallop personally owed another $270 million in income taxes from the sale. His company had earlier been implicated in a spying and corruption scandal that had helped bring down the Peruvian cabinet.)

Armed with that windfall, Kallop went on an international spending spree. He took a seven percent stake in $3+ billion energy company Quicksilver Resources. He also bought a 300-year-old pisco liquor distillery. He acquired three Gulfstream jets. (Some internet posts erroneously claim he invested in Quiksilver, the surf apparel company, which went bankrupt awhile back.)

He must have needed those jets to hop between his eight residences, which included a Peruvian mansion, two homes in the Dominican Republic, a working cattle ranch in Texas, and a couple of south Florida estates.

And he bought lots and lots of yachts — at least seven of them over the past eight years.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 12.04.05 PM

The Honey Fitz (

That total does not include the Honey Fitz, a 93-footer used by five U.S. Presidents including John F. Kennedy, that Kallop bought at Sotheby’s Camelot auction in 1998 for about $9 million. Kallop had it painstakingly restored in the early 20-teens, but he suffered many millions in unexpected costs in the process. It sits, as of this writing, in a Palm Beach area marina.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 5.24.47 PM

Bill, now 74, married Peruvian wife Cristina, 57, in 2008.

A worse fate befell his 104-foot La Diva, once owned by Ivanka Trump; it burned to the waterline in a weird 2010 blaze at a different Palm Beach marina. The yacht had been purchased from close friend Donald Trump, according to Bill’s wife Cristina, who for some reason referred to it (or some boat they owned) as the “Jackie O”. The flamboyant Cristina was a noted hostess on the Peruvian and Palm Beach social scenes (she once masqueraded as Marie Antoinette – while Bill was a pirate) and held parties on the yacht, and at Mar-a-Lago with Trump as a guest.

Three or four years ago, Kallop’s financial situation seemed to come under stress.

The worst hit had to have been with Quicksilver, which made some multi-billion-dollar bad bets in the oil shale business and went downhill rapidly. The company actually was liquidated at the end of 2015 (there was an auction for its last $245 million in assets in January 2016).

In 2014, Kallop borrowed $21 million from Goldman Sachs for a 12,000-square-foot Polynesian-themed waterfront mansion, just down the cart path from his neighbor Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Also in 2014, he decided to draw another $32 million from Goldman Sachs against the equity in the Natita and another yacht, the Bad Girl.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.10.29 PM

A Kallop Palm Beach mansion

Two years ago, Kallop sold one of his Palm Beach mansions for $19 million. About the same time, he listed the Natita with yacht brokers at $67 million. He also offered it for rent – at $495,000 per week! He kept dropping the sales price, but the fish weren’t biting.

Last month, the Natita was seized in West Palm Beach by U.S. Marshals, at the behest of GS, which claims Kallop stopped paying on the remaining $28 million balance on his earlier $32 million loan. The marina is claiming millions in back mooring fees. The Natita reportedly has fallen into such dilapidated shape that a charter party walked off of it in March 2016. Goldman Sachs groused about having to refill its fuel tanks – just to keep its generators running – at a cost of $67,000!

While the Natita molders in impound, the Bad Girl seems to have vanished. Last February, off the coast of Punta Cana, Dominica; its locator beacon stopped sending signals.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.54.50 PM

Bad Girl

According to the Wall Street Journal, former employees have sued Kallop for – and won – millions in back pay and benefits.

What’s next? For Kallop, hard to say; his lawyers did not respond to calls for comment. Same with GS. For the Natita, it seems like the auction block could be the answer. The asking price has been steadily dropped to $39.9 million. It is likely to sell for much, much less.

Maybe Usmanov could pick it up on the cheap, and use it as a dinghy for Dilbar III.

Jerry Garrett

August 12, 2017






Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 5, 2017

Rough Seas Ahead for French Riviera Superyachts


Dilbar, largest yacht by tonnage in the world, off coast of Monaco

(Jerry Garrett Photos)


Superyachts cruise back in forth all day, in front of my modest balcony here, overlooking the Côte d’Azur.

Where are they going? To Monaco to visit their money? To the casino? To take on a new load of supermodels and aspiring actresses for another big “Wolf of Wall Street” type orgy? The imagination runs wild.

The truth, it turns out, may be rather boring. Many are just headed to Sanremo, Italy to get gas.

Big deal? Wait: This actually is a big story.

A fill-up for a superyacht can mean 200,000 liters of fuel! Enough for a trans-Atlantic crossing. The tab can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of euros. That’s if you fill up in French ports like Monaco, Nice, Cannes or Saint-Tropez.


Just another thirsty superyacht.

If you can make it to Italy – Sanremo is only about 20 nautical miles from Monaco – you can save tens of thousands!

In fact, a fueling station attendant in Monaco tells the story of a mid-size 42-meter yacht owner who missed the station closing in Sanremo by a few minutes, and ended up paying an extra €40,000 to top up in Monaco! Ouch!

By “superyacht” I will arbitarily focus on yachts longer than 67 meters, or 220 feet. There are at least 200 of those in the world. In many countries, yachts larger than 24 meters must have a fulltime professional crew. Believe it or not, there are something like 5,000 yachts longer than 24 meters right now in the world.

The yacht pictured above, the 156-meter-long (512 feet) Dilbar, is the world’s largest yacht by tonnage (15,917 gross). Its 30,000-kilowatt diesel electric engine is the largest fitted to any yacht, said its builder, Lurssen.

Delivered to its new owner, Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, in May 2016, it reportedly cost more than €500 million.

It can accommodate 40 guests, and has a fulltime crew of 80 crew.

Right now, the Dilbar is berthed in Porto Cervo on the Italian island of Sardinia. It has moved to Italy – from Monaco, where I spotted it – as have so many of the world’s biggest yachts this summer. Why? Because of a bit of a dust-up over French prices and taxes.

The average daily mooring fee in Porto Cervo is actually twice as much as, say, Saint-Tropez (about €2,500 a day versus €1,200 or so). But fuel is cheaper in Italy now. And that crew of 80 costs literally millions less to base there.


Fuel ahoy!

More and more yachting money is flowing out of the south of France to Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and other Mediterranean countries, because the French have tried to tighten the screws on loose regulation of taxes and social services that they claim yachts are supposed to pay.

But in recent years, those taxes and fees have been getting dodged.

Many family members of yacht crews officially reside in France, where they enjoy generous social services, while claiming tax-free salaries because their wages are earned offshore. France now is sending out tax bills reflecting tougher rules, collections for pensions, health insurance, and other compulsory contributions – which are up from less than 15 percent of their wages to now 55 percent!

France is also now strictly imposing a 20 percent VAT on yacht fuel sales, which were previously much easier to avoid.

fullsizeoutput_1992Harbors on the French Riviera have seen busier summers.

Revenue at the iconic marinas such as Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Toulon are off 30-40 percent this summer, prompting a needy letter from local leaders to President Emmanuel Macron, asking for relief.

Their letter cited an example of a 42-meter yacht being refueled in Italy instead of France “gives a saving of nearly €21,000 a week because of the difference in tax.” Fuel sales by the four largest French marine fuel vendors has fallen by 50 percent this summer, the letter added.

As to crew wages and taxes, the letter stated that while the least experienced crew member may only make €24,000 per year, a captain can command €300,000. The letter noted that “the additional cost of maintaining a seven-person crew in France is €300,000 a year.”

Do the math on how much that crew of 80 on the Dilbar must cost!

Not surprisingly, crew members are being laid off in droves.

Even less surprising: Over one-third of those 5,000+ over-24-meter yachts are up for sale.

Yes, the people who own these yachts can probably afford to pay more, but not surprisingly, they prefer not to. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for them.

But there is a wider problem here, and it’s a problem for France’s new President Macron, who is trying to revamp the country’s severe labor and tax laws.

Wine producers in the south of France claim that it costs them far more to produce their wines than it does for producers in neighboring Italy or Spain. Liquor also costs far less in Italy; the same is true of building materials, designer clothing and food. Market days in Ventimiglia, Italy, on the French border are thronged with French shoppers, buying all they can carry.

Screen Shot 2017-08-05 at 3.40.49 PM

Artist rendering of what Ventimiglia’s yacht harbor will look like.

His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco just recently bought the entire unfinished yacht harbor in nearby Ventimiglia, Italy (for a bargain €34 million); he means to finish it off and open it as a cheaper alternative affiliated with the harbor in Monaco.

Nicholas Edmiston, of the Edmiston yacht brokerage in Monaco, recently told The Daily Beast, “The possibility of this happening if taxes and fees were increased has actually been talked about for the last two years, and everyone warned what would happen. This where the French government so often goes wrong, this attitude of, ‘Well, we are France, people will always come here.'”

This time they may have miscalculated.

Edmiston said yachting is an important contributor to the Côte d’Azur economy, beyond the port fees, fueling costs and taxes, because yachts bring high-end shoppers and home buyers.


If people are not made to feel feel welcome in the area, he warned, they will go elsewhere.

Something like this happened about 30 years ago, he recalled, and the yachting community did indeed go elsewhere – and they stayed away until the French eased off.

Maybe this is just history repeating and the problem will be eventually solve itself. Until then, it could be costly for France’s economy, but a welcome boon for beleaguered neighbors like Italy.

Jerry Garrett

August 5, 2017








Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 8.02.05 PM

A Chinese schoolgirl designed a prototype of this wing for Nico Hulkenberg’s F1 Renault. (Courtesy of Renault Sport F1)

The Renault Sport Formula 1 team raced at the recent British and Hungarian grands prix with a derivative of a new rear wing developed by a Chinese schoolgirl. Okay, that’s pretty weird, huh? But wait, there’s more…

The student who developed it, Sally Li, is an intern this year in Infiniti’s Engineering Academy near the Silverstone track in England. The academy is, among things, an innovative recruitment tool for both the F1 team and Infiniti, its technical partner. I mean, how do you entice top talent to come work for an F1 outfit – much less a Japanese luxury car brand in Europe – at an out-of-the-way factory of a twice-failed team?

“Sally’s Wing,” as it’s called, has been used in testing, with noteworthy results, said Tommaso Volpe, Infiniti’s global motorsports manager. “A derivative of it,” he pointed out, was used only because the actual “Sally’s Wing” awaits final approval for use in races, from the sport’s sanctioning body.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 7.18.26 PM

Sally’s drawing of her wing (this appeared in Autosport)


“I am working in the aero department,” Miss Li said of her internship. “My mission is to add aerodynamic performance to the racecar using development tools such as computational fluid dynamics and the wind tunnel.

“In particular, I have been working on developing the range of rear wings, in an attempt to extract more performance from them. We try to look at old problems with new eyes.”

Miss Li, then 21, was selected in January from among 12,000 applicants last year for the unique program, which provides opportunities for up-and-coming engineering students to go straight from undergraduate work to racing’s front lines, with a Formula 1 team.

“Who gets to do that, at my age, and from my background?” added Miss Li. “This is an opportunity like no other.”

The international academy, in operation for four years now, annually offers internships for seven aspiring automotive engineering students in an Infiniti program that shares them with Renault Sport. It also helps Renault Sport, which is headquartered in a rather unappealing gravel pit in Oxfordshire, recruit against F1’s more elite teams for engineering talent.

“It’s only open to students,” Volpe said. “We want to create opportunities for them, that they almost certainly would not have, if they were competing against professionals for openings.”

Interest in the program has grown exponentially – from about 1,200 that first year, to an estimated 20,000 applicants for the Class of 2018, he said.

Word is getting around among engineering schools, Volpe noted, “that this can be a ticket straight to the top.” Would you agree to work in a gravel pit? Yes, yes, I believe I would. (Now where is my F1 hard card, thank you.)

A 2014 participant in the program, William Priest, earned a fulltime engineering job at Infiniti, upon his completion of the program. Daniel Sanham, a 2015 graduate, now has a fulltime contract with the F1 team.

Last year, Caitlin Bunt, of Rockport, Ill., became the program’s first female to win a placement.

One applicant is selected from each of seven geographical regions: Asia/Oceania, Canada, Mexico, China, the Middle East, Europe/Russia and the United States.

Miss Bunt said she now works with the chassis team at Infiniti, and has been pleasantly surprised at how much input she’s been able to have in her projects.

“We’ve been able to try a lot of things that maybe they haven’t tried before, or haven’t had personnel to work on before,” she said. “I love it.” Some of the projects she has been working on are likely to end up on production models.

Miss Bunt said she is undecided what her next move might be, after completing her studies, but she said, “There is no shortage of choices for me, going forward.” (She wishes she knew someone in IndyCar. Hint, hint.)

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 8.21.05 PM

Here’sssss Sally!

Likewise, Miss Li has not formalized what’s next on her career ladder, but Infiniti and Renault have each expressed interested in keeping her on, she said. So it is safe to say, on the market for F1 engineering talent, her stock is headed up.

“I have always been passionate about race cars and always curious to learn how everything is made and how it works,” said Miss Li, who was attending school in Beijing when she was selected. “During my time at university I found that engineering is not only about what we learned from a book, but also about the experience. The more experience I gain here, the more determined I am to become a racing engineer and to realize my dream.”

Using “Sally’s Wing,” which the team says really does make a significant aerodynamic difference, was an admittedly unorthodox move by Renault Sport. But they’ve been working especially hard the past two seasons to breathe new life into the remains of the defunct Lotus team.

Team principals believe these sorts of daring, out-of-the-box ideas are helping Renault Sport make the leap from the ranks of also-rans in Formula 1 this season, to the elite level of championship contenders like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

(Editor’s Note: A different version of this feature appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, July 30, 2017)

Jerry Garrett

July 31, 2017




Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 30, 2017

Migrant Crisis Tearing Apart Historic Italian Border Town


Ventimiglia (Jerry Garrett photo)


July and August are supposed to be the height of tourist season here in Ventimiglia, an historic seaside town near Italy’s border with the French Riviera.

But the beaches are half-empty this year. Dozens of shops in the traditionally popular commercial center are closed down. Restaurants now employ greeters beeching passing pedestrians to enter. By 9:30 p.m. – even on weekends – most everything is shut down.

What’s the problem? Most people will agree it is the town’s burgeoning population of migrants, and the problems they bring. Most come from Africa – Sudan, Chad, Senegal, Niger, Eriteria, Algeria, Libya, etc. They don’t fit in at all.

The locals – hardly a cosmopolitan demographic – were initially surprisingly kind and accommodating. But what started as a temporary problem of desperate people, backed up here because they are being denied entry into France, has gone on too long; a backlog of nearly 1,000 people has formed, more are on the way, and the residents here have lost patience.

Hundreds of migrants sleep rough in the Roya riverbed – eating, sleeping, bathing, defecating and littering along the once-pristine banks of a scenic river that flows down from the coastal Alps.

Beggars panhandle at every door, on every corner, around the clock; hordes of them have become trinket salesmen, armed with Chinese-made tat and designer knockoffs, and they constantly pester everyone, like ants at a picnic.

The 50,000 or so mostly blue-collar residents here are not rich; they have little for themselves, much less others. The Italian economy, as a whole, is horrible; here it’s worse.

Local volunteers, charities and churches have tried to help with basic needs like blankets, medical attention and food. But too many people have now arrived; the city recently demanded that the swelling throngs be moved farther away from the overwhelmed city center to a nearby Red Cross camp. They didn’t want to go.

So, riots broke out in June, with police tear-gassing rampaging migrants (who demanded to be let into France). This mortified the populace. Now, the international notoriety the town has been blighted with is seen as the crippling blow to this summer’s vital tourist season.

When I started spending extended periods of time in Ventimiglia four years ago, it was an off-the-radar dream destination – the kind travel writers fantasize about.

Julius Caesar himself was reputed to have settled this area; the main drag, named after Marcus Aurelius, still leads to Rome. With breath-taking views of the French and Italian Riviera coastlines – including Monaco, azure waters, fabulous cuisine, low prices and an almost ideal year-round climate, it was pretty appealing.

The locals were kind, generous and welcoming.


And then the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers started coming, in greater and greater numbers. They had no jobs, no money, no food, poor hygiene and little clothing. The Italian Navy had rescued many from treacherous crossings of the Mediterranean; authorities deposited them on Italian shores, and expected them to keep going farther into Europe.

For awhile, that was the case. But the system started to back up, as England, and then France, Switzerland, Austria and others started refusing to let them in. So this flood of humanity has backed up in Italy. And the blockage is most acute at Ventimiglia, which is now being tarred with the epithet “Little Calais”. (Italian cities farther from the border seem far less affected.)

Uncounted thousands have successfully made the illegal crossing through the porous border, but many of the most pathetic, unprepared and ill-suited to the journey fail.

The craggy crossing into France here is so treacherous it has come to be called the “Pass of Death”. Migrants can be seen at all hours marching along railroad tracks, dashing across the high highway bridges into dark tunnels, or even swimming in the azure sea toward France. Dozens have drowned, been hit by vehicles, crushed by trains, electrocuted, or just vanished in the rugged terrain.

If they make it to France, a massive police and armed forces presence awaits them. Every day hundreds are arrested, put in vans and buses, and taken back to be dumped in Italy – usually in Ventimiglia.

The Italians protest that it is illegal for the French to do this; the French claim they have a right to protect themselves. Four years ago, the border was unattended; now, on a high-alert day (whenever the French decide to declare one), it can take hours for anyone to cross into France. This has a truly chilling effect on Ventimiglia’s renown as a market town – with a revered six-day-a-week flower and farmers market, a Friday flea market that draws bargain hunters from as far away as Switzerland, and monthly antiques sales.

Among the shops that are still open, “70% off” sales are now common.

It’s not a sustainable situation.

But what will happen next? The French seem unwilling to back off their stance. Ventimiglia can’t absorb any more. It seems some kind of eruption is imminent.

Jerry Garrett

July 30, 2017



Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 2, 2017

What Ever Happened To NASCAR?

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 3.05.45 PM

Weird race: Eventual winner Ricky Stenhouse drives under a crash. (NBC)



“I’d rather fill the seats we have, than look at empty ones,” Bill France Jr. explained to me in 1977. I had asked him why he turned down a proposal to add a mere 5,000 new seats at Daytona International Speedway. “Tell me we can sell those seats, and I might change my mind.”

That seemed such conservative thinking to me at the time – the Daytona 500 was always a sellout back then – but the perspective of history has brought France’s logic into clearer focus now.

“Yes, we sell out the seats we have for the 500,” he added, “but we don’t sell out the July race. Or any other race we have here – and we have more than a dozen each year.”

He and his father, Bill Sr. the NASCAR founder, had been through high times and lean times since the racing sanctioning body had been founded in 1949. They were so broke after the first Daytona 500 in 1959 – a very successful race – they couldn’t afford to clean the grandstands or haul away the infield trash afterward (they got the Boy Scouts to volunteer). The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 had thrown an existential scare into them.

“We’re always trying to look for ways to improve our product,” France continued, “but we’re pretty happy with what we have now. We don’t make changes, just to be making changes.”

Eventually, however, those seats at Daytona, and whole lot more, got built – at the behest of others who challenged France in his waning days of control of the sport. Ironically, 44,000 of those seats at Daytona got taken right back out in the past couple of years (in the $400 million Daytona Rising “expansion”) because NASCAR couldn’t fill them in a tanking economy. Many other NASCAR tracks that also ill-advisedly over-expanded have had to do the same thing.

Empty seats, to television viewers, look like failure. Empty seats have helped get the conversation started about what has gone wrong for NASCAR, which up until 10 years or so ago was so wildly popular. But so many other factors now play into NASCAR’s sagging fortunes. The conversation is definitely started.

Nowadays the once-sacred annual slate of races now changes yearly; sponsors come and go (mostly go). Teams, tracks and backers go out of business. Officials jigger constantly with rules, formats, points and strategies in a (so far) failing attempt to get their groove back. Race times and dates change. Night races were added to appeal to TV viewers, while stifling live gates. The big-bucks television packages include events on obscure cable channels like Fox Sports, NBCSN  and CNBC – boo-yah!

What would Bill Jr., who had a heart attack in 1999 and was in declining health until his death in 2007, have thought of NASCAR today? His successor, his son Brian, and the braintrust he has assembled to run the sport seem forever in search of an answer.

Those changes Bill Jr. was always so loath to make are now made freely – almost weekly – by a an ever-changing leadership team that seems to still be trying define what NASCAR is, or ought to be, or could be, in the 21st Century. Perhaps there is no better example of how much is changing, and how quickly, than the rather unsatisfying outcome of the wreck-plagued Coke Zero 400 at Daytona last night. The capriciousness of the pervasive violence in NASCAR these days has drivers vexed, if not downright fed up.

“Way different race tonight than usual,” Brad Keselowski, the outspoken former series champion, opined on Twitter afterward. “Combo of the short stages & softer Goodyear tire has made the track super easy to drive = wreckfest.” The list of top ten finishers looked like names drawn out of a hat; the preparation, attention to detail, skill and excellence of the top teams mattered less than blind luck.

Keselowski was among the 15 non-finishing victims, out of 40 starters. Another casualty was the overwhelming pre-race favorite and sentimental choice Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fastest qualifier who was taken out in yet another crash not of his making. Even the surprise winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., only got to the finish line safely by driving under a car that flipped in front of him. Even many finishers were battered, bruised and covered in duct tape.

Outcomes are almost impossible to predict in a new 2017 format that breaks races into thirds, or fourths, like soccer or basketball, with breaks between segments. Every lap is an inconclusive mad scramble of cars packed ever-more dangerously close together. Old, time-tested strategies are out the window.

NASCAR “Cup” races, as the major league events have long been known, were once epic affairs that lasted for hours – five hours was once considered about the norm. Plenty of time to consume a whole cooler of beer.

The series – year after year – visited the same eccentric, colorful venues scattered about the Southern States, from whence the sport evolved: Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Rockingham, Richmond, Bristol, Nashville and Darlington. Two stops a year at each of those bullrings, plus visits to the big “superspeedways” at Charlotte, Daytona, Talladega and various venues in California (Riverside, Ontario, Fontana and Sonoma). Indianapolis was a popular addition in 1994 (its appeal has since faded embarrassingly).

Fans used to come for the spectacle, and they seldom went home disappointed. It was a tried-and-true format that produced ever greater returns. Up until newcomers – old hardliners might call them “carpetbaggers” – started fiddling with the formula.

The growing profit potential of owning a NASCAR racing track, with its attendant slate of annual race dates – the “Cup” races being almost sure-fire money-makers – inspired a number of would-be promoters to build new racetracks. Opulent venues, with almost gladiatorial grandeur, were built – unlike anything the sport had seen. When NASCAR balked at expanding its schedule to accommodate all the potential new races they were offered, the race track owners started buying the “weak sister” tracks like Wilkesboro and Rockingham – just to close them down, and expropriate their race dates. So the series began a process of re-defining itself in new non-traditional markets like central Texas, suburban Chicago, Kansas City, greater Miami and Las Vegas. Brian France even bought a large tract of land on Staten Island for a suburban New York speedway (it has yet to be built).

With the growing popularity of the sport, and its offbeat cast of Old School, tough-as-nails drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt Sr., came the interest of television. But there was a catch: Television wanted to re-program NASCAR into a “Reader’s Digest” version of itself – with races jammed into tight three-hour formats of action-packed racing that maintained couch-potato interest from beginning to end. Oh, and the networks also wanted to shoehorn at least an hour’s worth of distracting advertisements into that format. Sometimes it worked; most often, it didn’t.

A three-hour race wasn’t as alluring a prospect for fans to drive to, and spend the weekend tailgating at, especially if it was going to be on live national television anyway. Their old favorite tracks were gone – even the legendary Darlington track and its beloved Southern 500 were unceremoniously yanked from the schedule – and so the nostalgic appeal of attending in person was blown away. A sort of modern-day Gone with the Wind, courtesy of NASCAR’s new management team and consultants.

Tickets became unattainably expensive – especially for so many Americans who lost their jobs and homes in the recession that started in 2007 (and, for many, has yet to end.) So, seats sat empty.

Traditional sponsorships like those of Winston cigarettes – the sport’s mainstay for decades – went away, followed by a revolving door cast of cellphone companies, unrelated consumer product and retail companies, vanity projects, and tenuous charitable connections. Traditional events have lost their traditional names and now are bizarre conglomerates of “presented by” married to mouths-full of advertising slogans.

The whole sport has an identity crisis, and at many different levels. Racing used to be about finding who was the fastest driver, in the fastest car. NASCAR races aren’t about that anymore. Most of these races feature a gaggle of cars riding around in an aerodynamic bubble they’ve created, waiting to see what happens when they get too close together. The results are unpredictable, at best.

Drivers used to have productive careers into their 50s. But top still relatively young stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards walked away suddenly last year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving after this season. Others, like Danica Patrick – the sport’s only female regular, are sure to follow, especially as many of the older drivers, who cut their teeth on a more traditional form of NASCAR racing, become frustrated at the increasingly random nature of race outcomes. The explanations, if given at all, are usually polite creampuffs like, “It was just time.”

But all too often these days racers complain, “I was just cruising along, minding my own business, when – wham! – out of nowhere, I’m in a 20-car pileup.” Dale Jr. missed half of last season with his fifth or sixth concussion; Patrick estimates she might have had a dozen or more by now. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola have all had to endure broken bones.

Yet, every race the announcers breathlessly speculate when the next “big one” pileup will occur.

To entertain these ghoulish fantasies week after week is expensive; last night’s Daytona race probably cost more in wrecked race cars than it paid in purse money.

Though drivers accept that what they do is dangerous, there must be a margin for error, a feeling that to some extent they can control their own destinies, that they must have to continue to be willing to put their lives on the line. In today’s NASCAR that assurance is harder and harder for some to find.

Perhaps, as NASCAR is hoping, a new generation of promising talents such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty and Austin Dillon will help re-define the sport in a way that appeals to a new generation of race fans.

If that happens, you’ll know it when NASCAR tracks start adding seats again.

Jerry Garrett

July 2, 2017






Older Posts »