Featured

Welcome to the world of going places and having a blast.

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 35 years. 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.

Delivering cars is now a gas

Statement of terms: If it involves transportation, it’s got a home on this website, and always will. Here’s an indication of what we mean: Cars built outside the United States typically reach their intended market aboard transport ships that are commonly known as ro-ros in the maritime industry, short for roll on, roll off. Volkswagen makes extensive use of this kind of cargo ship. The first in a pair of new transport ships used by Volkswagen, fueled by liquefied natural gas, just made its first call at the automaker’s East Coast port of entry in Davisville, Rhode Island, after a voyage from Emden, the port city in the German state of Lower Saxony, where Volkswagen produces the Passat.

The newly launched Siem Confucius is one of two LNG-fueled ro-ros built in China for Volkswagen transportation partner Siem Car Carriers AS of Norway. Both ships use LNG to run their massive diesel prime movers, can carry up to 4,800 cars on 13 cargo decks within their massive hulls during a single voyage. Each such odyssey will require a 475,000-gallon load of fuel to complete each round trip to the United States from Germany, which encompasses 12,000 nautical miles and usually involves another stop in Veracruz, Mexico. LNG has emerged as a desirable vehicle fuel – lots of urban transit fleets have adopted it – because it has lower carbon monoxide emissions than the sort of diesel fuel that transit buses and marine engines typically burn. You’re seeing this trend in other forms of transportation, too: Close to home, the Florida East Coast Railway operates the 351-mile line between Jacksonville and Miami that was pioneered by the great entrepreneur Henry Flagler. The FEC has lately accelerated its adoption of LNG as a locomotive fuel. It’s now common to see pressurized tank cars coupled between pairs of FEC road locomotives, serving as fuel tenders.

COVID-19 cancels Sprint car racing’s greatest happening

Locale by locale, some speedways have been inching toward resumption of their seasons, in many cases without fans, or with enforced social distancing. One such track is the historic Knoxville Raceway in central Iowa, which recently got the World of Outlaws back in operation with several fan-less events. The biggest happening at the track, however, is the Knoxville Nationals, a guaranteed four-day sellout during its run each August. COVID-19 infection rates across Iowa have been on the upswing, and the notion of running this huge event, which draws well over 100 of Sprint car racing’s top teams, is unthinkable. That’s why the Marion County Fair Board in Knoxville has decided that the 60th running of the sport’s greatest event will not take place this year. Knoxville made its decision less than 24 hours after Eldora Speedway in Ohio declared that what’s arguably the second-biggest Sprint car race in America, the Kings Royal, won’t be taking place this year, either.

It takes three days of qualifying – four, if you count the “alphabet soup” of preliminary features on the final night – to set the field for Knoxville’s A-main, which includes luminaries like the guy pictured above, multi-time track champion Terry McCarl of Altoona, Iowa. All we can say is, you haven’t really experienced auto racing until you’ve witnessed the majesty of a Knoxville Nationals. It’s truly one of the most compelling, intense short-track events anybody can ever experience. Yes, it’s that good. Start making your plans for 2021 now and it you happen to be anywhere near Des Moines in the coming year, try to take in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum, whose sparkling headquarters overlooks Turn Two of the track. And hang in there. We’ll all get through this eventually.

Don’t call it Optima anymore

You know this car. The Kia Optima, restyled cousin to the Hyundai Sonata, has soldiered along while its built a following of buyers who appreciate its honest capability and impressive array of creature comforts at an affordable price, with the added bonus of one of the most comprehensive warranties the modern auto industry offers. Since Kia doesn’t have the Godzilla-scale advertising footprint of some other automakers, the Optima doesn’t always automatically appear on some people’s shopping lists. That’s unfortunate, and Kia plans to do something about it, right now. The Optima is about to get a very serious makeover, but that’s not all. It’s getting a whole new identity. The new generation of this very capable midsize sedan is now going to be known as the Kia K5, and it’s got some attributes that we’re confident serious drivers are going to find very much to their liking.

Built alongside the Telluride SUV in West Point, Georgia, the 2021 Kia K5 will initially be offered in four trim levels when it goes on sale this summer, with a GT version coming in the fall. And it’s that last offering that’s the really big news here: The GT will get its urging from a 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four producing 290 horsepower, and mated to a new eight-speed, dual-clutch automatic transaxle. And for the first time, all-wheel-drive will be available across the K5 range. Kia says that with this driveline combination, the K5 will reach 60 MPH in 5.8 seconds. The car will ride on the same modular N3 platform that also underpins the Sonata and the upmarket Kia Stinger sedan, with a wheelbase of 112.2 inches. Three driver-selectable drive modes will be available, along with Apple and Android connectivity, a Bose Premium 12-speaker audio system, panoramic sunroof and a full suite of driver-assistance systems. We like what we see here.

Braking when it’s important

The imagery that accompanies this entry comes from Toyota, but the subject matter is broader than just one manufacturer’s product might indicate. Toyota cites figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimating that about 400,000 motorists are injured each year in collisions with drivers distracted by infotainment systems, texting, looking at members of the opposite sex and all kinds of other issues that have nothing to do with operating a vehicle. Recently evolved technology known has automatic emergency braking, where the car takes over its stopping functions for you, can reduce rear-end crashes by up to 46 percent according to research by the University of Michigan. AEB is offered, or even standard, on a growing number of vehicles, especially those optioned by some form of adaptive cruise control, which can directly control the application of brakes in an oh-my-God situation.

If you’re old enough to have a perspective on the development of safety systems in mass-market motor vehicles, you’ll be pleased to learn that the driving public is embracing AEB considerably more rapidly than it warmed to things such as mandatory seat-belt use and airbags, to name just two situations. Toyota has included AEB in its Toyota Safety Sense suite of active-safety measures, which is now standard on 16 different Toyota models plus the entire Lexus lineup. From personal experience, we can assure that the first time you experience an activated AEB system in action, it’s a little unsettling, as you feel the car fully taking control of the evasive maneuver for you. But we can also tell you that you’ll appreciate the added set of “eyes” that scan ahead of the vehicle and engage the system in emergencies. We’ve gotten smart of late about any number of things. There’s no reason accident avoidance shouldn’t be one of them.

A book that lives up to its title

We’re all used to it, more or less, when things in life just don’t measure up. Earlier today, I spent an hour trying to convince a bank that the credit card they issued me really wasn’t expired, before I got disconnected. You get the picture. We deal with disappointments and frustrations like this every day. That makes us very appreciative when somebody, or something, actually delivers the goods they promise. One case involves drag racing itself, the most riotous, ear-splitting consciousness overload that most of us will ever experience during our lifetimes. Drag racing is deafening, blindingly fast and prone to the outbreak of calamity with next to no warning. Literally, anything is possible in this noisy, sudden variety of motorsport. My pal Steve Reyes, one of the best photojournalists that the quarter-mile sport has ever spawned, now has a volume out that clearly documents the outrages that drag racing can abruptly toss out to both competitors and onlookers.

Here’s what you need to know: Steve’s new title from CarTech, Quarter-Mile Chaos: Images of Drag Racing Mayhem is something like this: Take all the Mad Max movies and combine them. Then multiply them by a factor of 20. That’s the level of disaster and spectacle that this 180-page softcover work dishes up. It’s a razor-sharp, high-resolution recounting of fire, flying metal, tumbling cars, errant tow rigs, wheelstands, disintegrating fiberglass and the creative natural display of grenaded engine components. Imagine a Night of Fire or Night of Destruction at your local dragstrip that you can keep in your bookcase, magnified by a dozen or so. The action spans the whole heritage of drag racing from the 1960s forward. It’s sensational, unforgettable stuff, and you can enjoy it without stuffing plugs into your ear canals. This look at motorsport historic run amok lists for $36.95.

The biggest story in America

To millions of people, there’s only one Detroit introduction that really matters: The attention that focuses on the Ford Motor Company every time it reinvents the F-series pickup, which has been the biggest-selling motor vehicle of any sort in North America for an astonishing 43 consecutive years. How big a deal is this: Consider that Ford sold 896,526 copies of the F-series in the United States just last year, and that as recently as 2018, the F-series accounted for $41 billion in Dearborn’s annual bottom line. These are staggering numbers, which demonstrate that no single model weighs more heavily on the domestic auto industry’s overall health than this one. Yesterday, Ford rolled out the 14th generation of its light-truck line, assuring that it will represent advances in durability, connectivity and powertrain output in this hugely competitive market segment.

Built across four Ford assembly facilities, the new F-series continues its present architecture of using aluminum-alloy body panels atop a steel ladder frame. In terms of workplace utility, the F-series will offer an available Tailgate Work Surface, optional Interior Work Surface with available lockable interior storage, and seats that recline up to 180 degrees, just the ticket for taking a siesta at the job site. The new-generation rig will include an all-new 3.5-liter PowerBoost full hybrid, which accomplishes two things: It will make the 2021 F-150 the most powerful light truck in its class, and makes it the first light full-size pickup with hybrid power. Specifically, that means mating the EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 with a 35kw electric motor, linked to a 10-speed automatic transmission. That will give the F-150 a towing capacity of 12,000 pounds, and is said to deliver range of up to 700 miles on a single tank of fuel. Connectivity features will include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, SYNC 4 with over-the-air software updates, and a new 12-inch touchscreen that’s standard on the XLT trim level and up. Personalization? You can pick from 11 different factory grille options. This is huge news – the F-series has been with us since 1948 – and there’s more to follow, because the 14th-generation F-series lineup is widely expected to expand with a new, all-electric pickup for 2022.

Porsche wins Le Mans. Sort of.

You knew this was coming. In case you missed it given everything else that’s going on, we recently passed the weekend when the 24 Hours of Le Mans would have been contested under ordinary circumstances. You probably know that it wasn’t. But as with other varieties of motorsport, Le Mans did indeed take place in a virtual manner. Yes, the world’s most famous sports car race was run, if you will, featuring drivers using simulators. And it ended, as Le Mans events so often have, with victory by Porsche, in the form of a digitally created 911 RSR, with Nick Tandy leading its four-driver lineup. Perhaps more significantly, the digital Sarthe running came 50 years to the day after Porsche scored its initial overall Le Mans victory, when Richard Attwood and Hans Hermann won the 1970 grind aboard a Porsche 917K, the greatest factory-built racing car ever produced.

Whether you accept this as real automobile racing or not, this will go down in Porsche annals, at least, as the Stuttgart legend’s 19th overall victory at Le Mans, more than any other manufacturer. The digital race featured a four-car Porsche effort, with two professional sim drivers participating. The winning 911 RSR tallied 339 laps. Bully to the winners. If this whets your appetite for the real thing, take heart: The French tricolor is set to wave the real Le Mans off on its twice-around-the-clock classic on September 19.

The life story of an F1 legend

They called him The Rat, or the Computer. Some onlookers claimed he was something beyond human. He defied death, won world championships, and late in his life, saw his career immortalized by cinema. Whether you liked him or not, Niki Lauda will always stand as a case study in superhuman determination. Nothing, anywhere, blunted his relentless quest for excellence. When he died last year at age 70, few obituaries in the mass media attempted to address his unshakable focus, if the authors were cognizant of it at all. This author is. Niki Lauda: His Competition History is a biography that the subject himself would have likely appreciated: It’s precise, direct, and much more firmly rooted in facts and analytics than in hero-worship hyperbole. This, despite the fact that its author, Jon Saltinstall, is a lifelong Lauda fan of unswerving devotion.

The formula for literary success here is straightforward: This 376-page hardcover is not the usual litany of statistics and recycled quotes, but instead consists of individual accounts that recall each of the 316 pro-level races that Lauda contested during his career, from saloon cars to Formula Ford to Grand Prix glory. Not only that, but the author also examines each of the documented press events, manufacturer’s introductions, and celebrity events at which Lauda drove once his competitive years ended. There’s also an appendix of races where Lauda was entered but didn’t actually drive. Observations on the subject come from Lauda’s former teammate at Brabham, John Watson, and from the esteemed historian Doug Nye. We especially appreciate the fact that this book is in original English, unlike some of the Lauda autobiographies, which were unevenly translated from German. This title is the work of Evro Publishing in the United Kingdom, whose catalog contains a slew of intriguing motoring titles. At current exchange rates, it retails for $74.09.

Straight outta Dearborn: How to keep an EV from going “dry”

As its historic lashup with Volkswagen demonstrated last week, the Ford Motor Company is all-in on electric vehicles in a very large and capital-intensive way. The fact that it applied the priceless Mustang nameplate to an electron-fueled four-door crossover is proof positive how serious Ford is about this new kind of everyday vehicle. It has an enormous stake in the Mustang Mach-E’s forthcoming launch (and you’ve still got to reserve one if your ready to buy. If you want to get in the queue, click here), and understandably is trying to anticipate consumer uncertainties about embracing this new definition of juiced driving. One potential worry, you would think, is how drivers might react when the charge or distance-to-empty function on the trip computer grabs their attention while they’re driving across Nevada on U.S. 50. Bad timing.

Ford, happily, has anticipated this possibility. The Mustang Mach-E will be delivered with something that can remedy it. The vehicle’s instrumentation package will include Intelligent Range, an onboard program that can recall past driver behavior, balance it against current weather conditions, and immediately calculate a miles-to-dead assessment via cloud-based computing. Intelligent Range works by gathering a real-time reading from the onboard battery system of how much energy is left, and balances it against data from the powertrain module about how much of it is being used. Since warmer or colder temperatures can significantly affect battery life, this is also monitored and updated in real time. Intelligent Range will also be capable of collecting crowdsourced energy-use data from other connected Ford vehicles. So, what happens if the battery runs out anyway? The Ford Roadside Assistance program will tow a disabled vehicle up to 35 miles for electricity at home, a public charging station or an EV-certified Ford dealership. Stay tuned, folks.

Mmm, mmm, good: At BMW, the M5 returns for 2021

It’s always big news, and good news, whenever BMW rolls out a new model with “M” badging that designates a very serious performance car aimed squarely at the most demanding drivers around. That just happened yesterday, as BMW announced both the M5 and M5 Competition sedans, which joyfully combine four doors and honest midsize passenger space with truly awesome driving manners. The M5 – that’s the road-legal variant – has some absolutely electrifying numbers. The S63 engine that’s its standard powerplant displaces 4.4 liters but thanks to twin water-intercooled turbochargers and direct injection, produces a stunning 600hp at 6,000 RPM and an extraordinarily muscular 553-lbs.ft. of torque between 1,800 and 5,960 RPM. Those. cousins, are world-class numbers. In street trim, the M5 will reach 60 MPH in 3.2 seconds, and maxes out at an electrically governed top end of 155 MPH. In short, this car’s enough for even the most determined driver to probably scare himself a time or two.

All that punch is parceled out via an eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission and standard xDrive all-wheel drive, with three available driving modes, including rear-drive only. All the goodies are now accessible via a single M Mode pushbutton, which combines functions that the previous M5 needed five individual controls to manage. New electronics include active cruise control, cloud-based navigation maps, a voice-activated personal assistant and new Android Auto connectivity, joining Apple CarPlay. The Competition model boosts engine output to 617hp and adds 20-inch wheels with run-flat tires. Want some? Can’t blame you. Prices will start at $103,500 when the new M5 hits the showrooms in August.