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.
The history of motorsports is chockablock with tales of people who broke down barriers, accomplishing huge achievements that naysayers would have told you were impossible. There was Henry Ford skidding his cycle-wheeled 999 across Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Bill France was considered crazy for believing that stock cars would last a 500-mile race. Mickey Thompson eyeball-engineered the slingshot layout that revolutionized drag racing. And then there was Janet Guthrie.
Janet Guthrie is an unsung racing heroine of the 1970s. Not only is she the first woman to qualify for the Indianpolis 500, but is also the first to race in the Daytona 500, where she ran with the lead pack among NASCAR’s good ol’ boys in 1977 until her engine let go with two laps remaining. She showed up at Brickyard that same year, qualified Rolla Vollstedt’s Lightning-Offy but finished 29th after that engine failed, too. But in 1978, as this Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo demonstrates, she stuck the Texaco Star Wildcat-DGS solidly in the field despite breaking her wrist in a celebrity tennis match just before qualifications. She placed ninth in the race. Janet competed in the 500 three times, the last being in 1979, and this week, she joined the late Dale Earnhardt as the newest inductees into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. I got to know her when I interviewed her for the late, lamented Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car about her early exploits with an all-female team that competed at the 12 Hours of Sebring earlier in her career. An athlete, aerospace engineer and physicist, Janet is a seriously smart lady with a competitive streak that’s immediately evident. She endured an awful lot of hazing and ostracism when she first arrived at Indianapolis. Her experiences mirrored those of another female motorsports trailblazer, the late Denise McCluggage, who came of age in sports cars during the glory years of the 1950s and also related the discrimination she faced when I interviewed her for HS&EC. I’m proud to have made Janet’s acquaintance, and I’m glad to see she’s getting the accolades she deserves. I only hope the same thing happens to another Indy veteran I know, Willy T. Ribbs, the 500’s first African American driver, whose new Netflix documentary biopic, Uppity, recounts his own struggles for acceptance as a racing equal.
The Rolex 24 kicked off Speedweeks in Daytona a couple of weeks ago, and the race was capped by a breathy announcement that IMSA and the ACO, organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, were undertaking efforts at rules commonality and equalization formulas as the World Endurance Championship prepared to unveil its new Hypercar competition category as the 2020-2021 WEC season draws near. And then, all of a sudden, one of the two major players preparing to compete in the Hypercar class has pulled the plug on its effort.
We are talking about the insanely powerful Aston Martin Valkyrie, whose race career was abruptly short-circuited before it ever began, as the British sporting legend’s new leadership announced that the announced IMSA-ACO detente and the attendant rules changes it will necessitate have cooled its enthusiasm for the program. Aston’s exit, which will take it out of the Hypercar category at Le Mans in 2021, came just a week after Formula 1 stars Max Verstappen and Alex Albon took turns hot-lapping the race-spec Valkyrie at Silverstone. A breeze through the subsequent week’s racing media makes clear that not everyone is buying Aston Martin’s public justification for its move. Based in Gaydon, Warwickshire, Aston Martin has struggled with financial disorder at various junctures since the 1980s, interrupted only when it was a Ford Motor Company property from 1991 through 2007. As of last month, Aston Martin is under new ownership in every sense of the word. It’s now gone public, having had its IPO on the London Stock Exchange last October. Last month, the Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, who made his fortune in high fashion and owns the Racing Point F1 team, led a group of investors that took a 20 percent (about 182 million pounds Sterling) controlling stake in the automaker. Stroll is expected to rebrand Racing Point as the Aston Martin F1 team, and the firm’s executives are preparing for the crucial upcoming launch of the DBX luxury crossover. So fiscally, Aston Martin’s got a lot of considerations going. It’s easy to imagine Stroll and company balking at the sheer cost of bringing a clean-sheet race car to competitive form as the same time the small-volume builder is trying to launch a completely new vehicle and adjust to public ownership. The decision leaves Toyota as the only manufacturer now committed to fielding Hypercar team, at least for now. Right now, it appears that roadgoing versions of the Valkyrie, which were expected to retail for up to $3 million, are going to get built. As for racing, Aston Martin said it will continue fielding the Vantage GTE in the WEC’s Pro and Am GTE championship.
Automotive marketing tie-ins can sometimes seem too forced or obscure to really grab the attention of the jaded masses, but there was no way we were letting this idea pass unmentioned. Toyota was piecing together an advertising campaign to mark the launch of its 2020 Highlander SUV when its agency, Burrell Communications Group, crafted a spot called “Home Team” that recognizes this year’s 100th anniversary of Negro League baseball. The spot was taped in part at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and features Jim Robinson, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1956 through 1958, serving a stint as team captain. In the commercial, Robinson plays the Highlander-driving family’s patriarch.
The Monarchs own a hallowed place in baseball lore as the Negro Leagues’ longest-running franchise, with the team’s roots reaching all the way back to 1920, and the Monarchs continuing play as late as 1965. The Monarchs owned a portable lighting system that it took along on road trips, allowing night games to be played on remote field, a full five years before Major League Baseball lit up its first ballpark at night. The Monarchs sent 13 players to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, more than any other Negro Leagues team, including the immortals Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige.
When you’re creating a totally new kind of Ford, it helps if the guys and girls who’ll be tasked with keeping it running have a hand in how everything turns out. In this case, the vehicle is Ford’s forthcoming, gigantically hyped all-electric Mustang Mach-E, and the people are the line technicians at the nation’s Ford dealerships who will be tasked with keeping the Mach-E percolating. To that end, Ford and Robert Bosch GmbH have co-created a new virtual reality training tool to learn troubleshooting and service procedures in time for the new crossover to go on sale later this year.
The VR initiative will allow Ford mechanics to learn service procedures and steps for a Mustang Mach-E without having access to an actual vehicle. The technology borrows from simulation and gaming, an uses Oculus Quest VR headsets designed and created by Facebook. Bosch, the German automotive technology giant, began research last year into the use of VR in automotive service training; the Ford Motor Company is the first automaker to use the system in training dealer service techs. The system will allow technicians to perform diagnostic and service tasks using the Oculus Quest headset, including removal, installation and repair of the Mach-E’s main battery pack. Bosch is also developing VR “modules” that will allow technicians to enter virtual rooms, each of which houses a specific area of the vehicle’s mechanics and/or software. Interested? Want to get in the game? You can still go online and reserve your own Mach-E online by clicking here.
One motorsports event that I’d really, really like to see is the Bathurst 1000, a wild melee on one of the world’s great racing circuits that heavily incorporates public roads, like Le Mans. Hands down, it’s the most prestigious homegrown competition of any kind in Australia, which on its home continent is simply called “the great race.” It’s mainly contested by touring-type cars, including Australia’s famous V8 Supercar class, a wild category of production-based racing saloons that I hope NASCAR examined closely when crafting the specs for its next-generation car that’s coming next year. The Bathurst 1000 has been held since 1960 on the historic, 3.86-mile Mount Panorama Circuit, which is open to a variety of cars on non-race weekends, including those who are exclusively competing against the clock. One such adventure took place on the same weekend as last year’s Bathurst 1000, and involves a screamer you can buy now, named for one of Australia’s greatest racing heroes of all time.
Track cars don’t get much more focused, or linked to fame, as the BT62 hypercar from Brabham Automotive. We need to make clear right here that there’s no way the BT62 can be made legal for road use, at least in the United States, although the company does offer a road-conversion option kit that allows it to comply with vehicle laws in the United Kingdom, at least. During a monitored test at last year’s Bathurst weekend, a BT62 shattered the absolute track record by nailing a lap at 1.58.679, bettering the Australian V8 Supercar mark at Mount Panorama by nearly four full seconds. The BT62 is based around a Brabham-branded 5.4-liter quad-cam V-8 borrowed from an unidentified manufacturer, rated at 700 naturally aspirated horsepower, and linked to a six-speed Holinger sequential-shift transaxle. How strong is this car? Onboard telemetry showed that the BT62 pulled 2.98 lateral gs in the corners during its record run, along with an eyeball-dislodging 3.51g when its carbon-to-carbon brakes were fully applied. Brabham Automotive, founded in 2018, is based in Winchester, Hampshire, England. Its founder is Formula 1 veteran and 2009 Le Mans co-winner David Brabham, the youngest son of the late Sir Jack Brabham, a three-time F1 world champion and the only driver to win an F1 race in a car of his own design and construction. Sir Jack, who passed away in 2014, is the most iconic individual in the history of Australian motorsports.
“Hypercar.” It’s not a reference to a futuristic flying mega-vehicle like Gerry and Sylvia Anderson once visualized with marionettes in producing Supercar for kids’ TV in the late 1950s, but instead it’s a new addition to the automotive lexicon. It refers to an insanely overpowered and suicidal-fast coupe or GT, most of the time with hybrid ICE/electric power hitting the ground. Up until now, this ozone-level market has been the exclusive stomping grounds of Europeans, who traditionally have always had a leg up when it comes to really extreme automobiles. But right now, a California-base concern is right on the cusp of launching into this exclusive orbit in a very big way.
Prepare yourselves for the imminent arrival of the Czinger 21C, which will be unveiled to the world early next month at the Geneva International Motor Show 2020. What is it? It’s the latest in the emerging world of ultra-expensive, ultra-performance cars aimed at drivers with at least some access to such things as track days. Pronounced “zinger,” and named for the firm’s founder, Kevin Czinger, the 21C is being fully designed and assembled in Los Angeles, a process that the manufacturer claims is making extensive use of proprietary technology. Not many details of what that entails have been disclosed to the public as yet, but Czinger is making some lofty promises about its hypercar’s capabilities. Among them are the equivalent of 1,250hp from its hybrid powertrain, and a claimed 0-100 KM/H (that’s 62 MPH) time of just 1.9 seconds. The C21 is unique from a layout standpoint, making use of an in-line seating arrangement, with the passenger (singular) positioned behind the driver. That allows for a narrower cross-section, which leaves the C21 resembling famed Le Mans race cars such as the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP or even the original Lola T70 from some angles. Price? As the narrator intoned about Charles Foster Kane’s estate, Xanadu, in Citizen Kane, no man can say.
Face it: For all their overwhelming popularity, and for all the current uncertainty over just where federal fuel-economy standards are going to end up, automakers still have to labor away, en masse, on some way to make these inherently inefficient vehicles more environmentally conscious. If the idea of a small-displacement, high-output engine in one of these things sounds a little off kilter, get used to it. Last year, we spent some seat time in the Midwest aboard a Chevrolet Equinox LT with a 2.0-liter Ecotech inline-four that acquitted itself quite well, accelerating eagerly toward an 85 MPH cruise. That displacement has been dropped to 1.5 liters for 2020. So what Audi’s doing with the Q7 45 isn’t so unorthodox by current practices.
The standard powertrain for the 2020 Q7 45, the more basic of the two Q7 models, is reminiscent of that Equinox’s. It’s based around Audi’s 2.0-liter TFSI inline-four, mated to a standard eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission and, of course, Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system. For its smallish displacement, the TFSI engine’s output numbers are impressively robust; 248hp and 273-lbs.ft. of torque. The Q7 55 applies TFSI technology to its 3.0-liter V-6 with twin-scroll turbocharging. Prices get out of the gate at $54,800.