Twenty years and still going strong

This month marks the 20th anniversary of writing this column for the Appeal.

Looking back, I’m amazed at the changes that have taken place. When I started, Silver State Raceway in Carson City (previously T-Car and subsequently Champion Motor Speedway) was racing weekly from April to October. Outlaw Karts raced regularly on a flat 1/8 mile oval at Fuji Park, and I spent time in the announcer’s booth at both locations. The American Heat car show (later dubbed the Silver Dollar Car Classic) was a new event in town staged a week prior to Hot August Nights. The car show is still around, but both tracks are long gone.

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The split in open-wheel racing came in 1996 with Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League (IRL) as rival factions. Prior to the split, open-wheel racing was on a par with NASCAR in popularity, but the bickering diminished it to the point even the eventual reunification didn’t help much.

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Today’s frequent tweaks to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup aero package recalls the almost constant adjustments the sanctioning body was making back in the mid-90s to try to equalize the competitiveness of the various manufacturers. Ford and Chevy appealed to NASCAR on what seemed like a weekly basis for changes in spoiler, ride height, front valance configuration, and whatever else they could think of. Formula One and Indy Cars have also undergone major technical challenges including using both turbocharges and normally aspirated engines, and they continue to this day.

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In 1996 Jeff Gordon was still new to the scene, and like his rival Dale Earnhardt, was either loved or hated by fans. I was fortunate to watch them both race a number of times at Sonoma and Las Vegas. I filed reports from the Reno Grand Prix at the old Reno Hilton, and I also got to travel to tracks around the country with the American City Racing League as their announcer/publicist. I was lucky enough to be on the inside and meet a lot of racing’s top drivers. It was a fun time.

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In the last 20 years we have seen Gordon win four championships, and Jimmie Johnson win six. Sebastian Vettel captured four Formula One World Driving championships in a row while Michael Schumacher won five of his seven titles in the same period, and Lewis Hamilton won three. Helio Castroneves won three Indy 500 races while Juan Pablo Montoya won two, 15 years apart. Great drivers have come and gone, thrilling us all with their skill and bravery.

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I was also saddened by the loss of some of the sport’s stars to tragic accidents. NASCAR drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty died of neck injuries in 2000, but it wasn’t until the same sort of accident took Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001 NASCAR got serious about safety. Along with a host of other motorsports writers, I often took them to task for their lackadaisical attitude about safety. But Earnhardt’s passing had a dramatic effect, leading to mandatory head and neck restraints, SAFER barriers, better car and seat design, better helmets, and steps to make pit crews safer as well.

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The first time I had to write about a fatality was the death of CART driver Jeff Krosnoff at Toronto in 1996, along with a race marshal hit by his car. Greg Moore died at Fontana in 1999 in a CART race as well, and Dan Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas just a couple of years ago was especially shocking given the safety improvements made over the years. The loss of Justin Wilson at Pocono just last year was equally heartbreaking. Racing is much safer than it used to be, but it’s still a dangerous sport.

Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, along with the loss of Roland Ratzenberger at San Marino occurred before I took over this column. They were fortunately the last fatalities in Formula One until the accident in Japan in 2014 that resulted in the passing of Jules Bianchi nine months later. But overall, I feel privileged to have been able to chronicle so many milestones in our sport.

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