I’m Jim Donnelly, and thanks for stopping by my new website, Jim Donnelly On Wheels. Some of you already know who I am. I was previously the senior editor of Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vermont, and before that, I held a bunch of positions at a daily newspaper in the Philadelphia area, including automotive and motorsport writer. I hold more than 50 journalism awards and have been in this life for more than 40 years. My home base now is Daytona Beach, Florida, down the road from the House that Bill France Built. My current list of writing clients, besides Hemmings, includes Speed Sport, PRI Magazine and Crankshaft, where I serve as senior editor. I’ve written books about my friend Don Miller, the former president of Penske Racing and a mega car guy; and one on the history of automotive advertising. What I hope to accomplish here is to share some of the stuff that I consider so worthy, inspiring and, really, life-changing. The automobile unhitched us all from the pieces of dirt we once called home. Going fast brought us thrills. Watching others compete in cars made us marvel at people with such limitless skills, determination and fortitude. Cars upended our whole existence totally and irreversibly, the same way that computers are doing today, so it’s entirely appropriate to marry the two of them here. What you’re going to find here is fresh info on what’s going on in the world of cars, what’s innovative, history that’s worth remembering, roads worth driving, races worth attending, books worth reading, cars worth buying, and maybe even some places to dine that are worth a stop when you’re out on the highways. No politics. I’ll leave that sordid topic to those who claim to know it. Let’s get rolling, because this is going to be a hell of a ride we’re going on together.
If you came of age in the 1970s, you remember the explosive force with which BMW slammed into global motorsport with its tri-color M Power campaign, which rolled up production-based victories throughout Europe and North America. BMW has chosen to make this anniversary especially meaningful, by rolling out the race-ready version of its new BMW M Hybrid V-8 for global prototype competition at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
The new hybrid will compete in the GTP category in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship events in 2023, starting out with the Rolex 24 at Daytona in February. The M Hybrid V-8’s heart is a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8, projected to produce 640 horsepower. The team will be run in North America by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing; principals Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Patrick Lanigan were present at the Petersen for the rollout. At the same time, BMW revealed its driver lineup for the effort: Connor De Phillippi (USA), Philipp Eng (Austria), Augusto Farfus (Brazil) and Nick Yelloly (UK) will share the new BMW hybrid’s hot seat, with a prominent assist from INDYCAR star Colton Herta.
The Ford Motor Company this week put shovels into dirt on the opening stages of what promises to be a major new manufacturing facility for EVs at a new plant in Stanton, Tennessee, not far from the Memphis metro area. BlueOval City, as it’s going to be know, represents a $5.6 billion investment to set up a new plant to build Ford-badged electric trucks and their batteries at a complex that will encompass six square miles and eventually employ 6,000. BlueOval City will produce batteries and related equipment for both Ford and Lincoln vehicles once it’s fully online.
The photo shows the first structural steel going skyward at BlueOval City, a major element in Ford’s long-term plan to establish itself as the world’s second-largest producer of EVs. That comes less than a year after Ford and technical partner SK On disclosed their plans to construct the sprawling Tennessee plant. An associated project has Ford working in close conjunction with Tennessee education officials to enhance STEM programs in local schools, where future BlueOval City staff may be in the classrooms today.
You know what they say Yankee ingenuity can accomplish. Here’s some amazing proof of that capability, a full-on pavement Late Model that has an entirely electric powertrain, something that would be ideal for the paved bullrings that dot New England. The Late Model is out of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the home to such local luminaries as Reino Tulonen, Ron and Kenny Bouchard, “The Travelin’ Man” Peter Fiandaca and Jean Michaud. Fitchburg is also home to the Maki family, which has been active in New England motorsport since they sponsored the cutdown of their fellow Finn, Tulonen, going back to the 1950s.
Jay Maki, seen here in his Late Model in New Hampshire, is a scion of the family and more than your typical backyard racer. He has engineered this Late Model himself with a battery electric powertrain, eliminating the snarling V-8 entirely. There is a strong likelihood that American short-track racing will be running something similar to this in coming year, a transition that Maki, from his Fitchburg shop, wants to assist. Part of that effort involves displaying the EV Late Model at the PRI – remember, I’m one of their authors – and SEMA trade shows that are the largest in private industry stateside. To get the car to the PRI show in Indianapolis and the big SEMA blowout in Las Vegas, Maki has established a GoFundMe page, to which you can donate and promote this coming advance in grassroots American motorsport.
Most of the conversation at the Detroit International Automobile Show centered on alternative fuels and electrification, with one notable exception: The seventh-generation Ford Mustang made its debut to the public, 58 years after the original, and while all the particulars haven’t been released, this edition of the Mustang promises to deliver copious power, dramatic looks, and a new level of cabin digitization and driver assists.
Aside from still being unmistakably a Mustang, the 2024 edition incorporates two new powertrains, with one of them, the turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost, aimed at reducing the pony’s hoof print in terms of emissions and fuel use. The other engine announced is the most potent version of Ford’s 5.0-liter Coyote V-8 yet produced, earmarked squarely for the Mustang GT. But the new car will also boast an unprecedented level of driver assists, all delivered through a customizable 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster that Ford says is inspired by the cockpit displays in military aircraft. The 2024 Mustang will be produced at Ford’s assembly facility in Flat Rock, Michigan, for a debut aimed at next summer.
This is an admittedly arcane story whose purpose it to show how deeply economic forces can affect big-time automobile racing, even at the top levels. Just before last weekend’s World 100 for dirt Late Models at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, Hoosier Racing Tire announced that it will be providing a single series of spec tires to all sanctioning bodies that present dirt Late Model racing in North America. The deal required agreement between the sport’s two main promotional rivals, the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model circuit and the World of Outlaws, both of which were well-represented at the big Eldora blowout won by Jonathan Davenport.
The National Late Model Tire, as it will be known, will consist of three rubber compounds for 90-inch-circumference tires and another three for 92-inch components. A simplified compound-identifying series of lettering will also be adopted. Why’s this important? Because with pro-level racing still coping with lingering COVID-related supply shortage, anything that streamlines the availability of tires will be hugely beneficial, rather than forcing traveling teams to haul across the country with big supplies of multi-sized tires from multiple suppliers in their ranks. Full disclosure: I recently produced a story on Hoosier and its streamlining plans for Performance Racing Industry magazine, which looked in part at the fact that Hoosier is now owned by the European rubber giant Continental, which has enhanced its capability to make major product moves like this one.
Chevrolet’s top-selling full-size SUV, the Tahoe, has been adapted for specialty duty including law enforcement and other fleet use requiring better-than-spec performance. That kind of gusto is coming to the masses this year as Chevrolet rolls out its 2023 Tahoe RST Performance Edition, a pure adrenaline-spurting version of the vehicle that’s taken a stroll through the Chevrolet Performance catalog. Specifically, new induction and exhaust hardware gleaned from the go-fast book will boost the RST’s 6.3-liter V-8 to 433 horsepower, with a corresponding 467-lbs.ft. of torque, increases of 13 horsepower and 7-lbs.ft., respectively, making the RST the most potent Tahoe ever offered to the public.
Chevrolet is advertising that the RST Performance Edition will not only be able to reach 60 MPH in under six seconds with a top speed of 124 MPH, but will also haul down to a dead stop in just 133 feet from 60 MPH. Given the vehicle’s size and heft, those are impressive numbers. The RST, which borrows liberally from the police-duty Tahoe PPV, especially in the chassis department, will go on sale late this year once deliveries start from the dedicated Tahoe assembly line in Arlington, Texas.
With a lot of credibility, Lexus claims that it was first out of the gate in the late 1990s with a car-based, high-luxury interpretation of an SUV, what became the first RX 300, and which rang up strong sales immediately on its Toyota Camry-derived platform. That evolution is continuing with the rollout of the fifth-generation Lexus RX, riding on a new platform and with a clutch of powertrain options, including both an Atkinson-cycle, plug-in hybrid driveline and a new, full-on performance model.
Riding on the new Global Architecture-K platform, the 2023 Lexus RX will be sold across five levels: Standard, Premium, RX-first Premium+, Luxury, F SPORT Handling and RX-first, F SPORT Performance. The RX 500h performance model will produce 271 horsepower via a 2.4-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine matched to a six-speed automatic transmission and a single electric motor. A second, 80kW electric motor at the rear wheels will boost the performance model’s overall output to 366 horsepower, thus creating an all-wheel-drive experience.
If you remember back to the 1970s, General Motors bestowed an option package on both the Chevrolet Nova and Pontiac Ventura equipped with hatchbacks, which allowed the open hatch to be transformed into a built-in camper by way of a snap-in tent top. It was a decently good idea, both then and now, attracting the attention of Porsche, which usually has a different definition of the lifestyles its products promises. But hey, Porsche is solidly into building SUVs, not just sports cars, so a camping package makes more sense for Stuttgart than most of us might immediately realize.
Porsche Techquipment, the marque’s accessory ancillary, has thus come up with a hardcase folding tent that mounts to the roof of most Porsches in the model lineup, whether the vehicle has roof rails or not. With an integrated polyfoam mattress and three windows, one of them a skylight, the tent is designed for wet-weather use and has interior quilting for insulation. As you can see, it pops into action from the rooftop of most any Porsche model. At just under 5,000 euros, it ain’t cheap, but deliveries are expected to get underway by November.
Want proof that North America’s premier open-wheel series is competitive? For the 17th straight year, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, to use its proper name, will decide its season championship at its final event, coming up this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on the coast of central California. This year’s major difference is that for the first time, five drivers have a mathematical shot at the season crown going into the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. And unlike some other branches of motorsport, INDYCAR does not rely on a manufactured playoff system to anoint its champion.
Scott McLaughlin punched his way into the championship quintet by winning last weekend’s series stop in Portland, with a total of 482 points going into Laguna Seca. The other contenders are Will Power (leading with 523 points), Josef Newgarden (503), Scott Dixon (also 503) and this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Marcus Ericsson (484). Power can lock up his second season title – the first came in 2014 – by finishing third or better at Laguna Seca.
One of North America’s most unique automotive competitions is the race-within-a-race that takes place annually during the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, itself esteemed as drag racing’s most prestigious and historic event. Known as the Dodge Hemi Challenge, it’s an elimination for cars at the very pinnacle of NHRA Super Stock racing, the Hemi-powered 1968 Dodge Darts and Plymouth Barracudas, going at it in heads-up, no-handicap action at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park. For people who love muscle Mopars, this event is the Holy Grail, contested by some of the most exalted race cars in Hemi world. The Labor Day weekend shootout this featured a repeat champion.
In the razor-close final round, which you see here, the win went to the guy in the near lane, No. 1 qualifier Steve Comella, whose Barracuda bested the 1968 Hemi Dart of Eldon Baum Jr. to capture the $15,000 top money. It was Comella’s second shootout win in three consecutive final round appearances. When we say razor-thin, we mean it, as Baum actually red-lighted away the win while Comella laid down an 8.407-second winning pass, providing that with an easy 900 horsepower on tap, these old crocks can still get down the strip in spectacular fashion.