Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pontiac

This week, General Motors announced that its Pontiac division will close by the end of 2010. Although I have long believed that this is a necessary step if GM is to survive, I take no pleasure in it: it is a desperate move by a dying automaker, and Pontiac was once an American icon.

Pontiac was founded in 1926 as part of GM's effort to have a brand at every price point, occupying the space above Chevrolet but below Oldsmobile. For its first three decades it fit neatly into GM's family, selling mostly unremarkable cars that the Chevy owner aspired to buy. In 1957 the first Bonneville arrived; costing the same as a Cadillac, it began the process of blurring the lines between the GM divisions that ultimately led to Pontiac's demise.

The division's greatest impact on American popular culture came in 1964. For years horsepower had been escalating, but Pontiac general manager John DeLorean kicked the horsepower wars into high gear with what some consider the first true muscle car: the Pontiac GTO. No more than a standard Tempest with a bigger engine, different transmission, and some suspension parts, the first GTO launched the muscle car era in a cloud of tire smoke and exhaust fumes. Successive GTOs raised the bar higher and higher until the government regulation and the oil crises of the 1970s ended the party.

There was a revival in 1979 when the car-chase film "Smokey and the Bandit" propelled the Pontiac Firebird - complete with screaming chicken hood decal - into the forefront of the national car consciousness. There would be other occasional flashes of brilliance over its last three decades: the mid-engined Fiero, more Firebirds, the Solstice roadster, a new GTO - but by the 1980s Pontiac was in terminal decline. Its products were unremarkable at best, embarassing at worst: rental-grade sedans, Chevys tarted up with plastic body cladding and labeled Pontiacs, rebadged Daewoo subcompacts, the Aztek. Pontiac was broken, and there was no saving it. Its death is a mercy killing.

Today I drove the last new Pontiac there will ever be, the Pontiac G8 GXP. It is classic American iron: a large sedan powered by a big honking V-8 driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. It is big, fast, and luxurious. It possesses neck-snapping torque and superb handling. It is the best Pontiac ever made.

It was designed and built in Australia.

Ave atque vale, Pontiac. I will remember you for tire-smoking Goats and Burt Reynolds in a Firebird; I will remember you for the Solstice that was the first manual transmission car I ever drove. I will remember you for the 1970 Catalina that my father drove on his first date with my mother, and I will remember you for the 1979 Bonneville (red on red with an appetite for transmissions and police attention, a CB radio, fender skirts, and the fuel filler behind the license plate) that was the first car they ever bought new. I will remember you for the 1979 Catalina station wagon, baby blue, that was the last car my grandfather for whom I am named ever owned, and which he drove on every visit to see us. I will remember you for your exploits in motorsports - for the iconic image of Air Force One landing behind Richard Petty's blue No.43 Pontiac as he raced down the backstretch at Daytona on his way to his 200th and last NASCAR win, for Ricky Craven's fender-banging victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003 that was your last NASCAR win, and for the road-racing GTOs and GXPs and Pontiac-Riley Daytona Prototypes that in your last years showed that there was yet some driving excitement at Pontiac.

For all of these things, and more, you will be remembered: an icon fallen, but not forgotten.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Talladega

The big story in motorsports this week is the ending of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega, Alabama. Carl Edwards was leading on the final lap when he moved to block Brad Keselowski as the two cars came through the trioval toward the checkered flag. The two cars touched and Edwards spun; the rear of the car lifted off the ground but appeared to be coming back down when it was struck by Ryan Newman's car and catapulted into the catch-fence high above the racing surface. Edwards' car came back down on the track, completely destroyed; Edwards was not hurt, but seven fans were injured by flying debris.

The most important principle is business is this: don't kill your customers. NASCAR came perilously close to doing this on Sunday. Had the catch-fence failed, dozens, maybe hundreds, would have been killed; it would have been the worst racing disaster since the 1955 Le Mans 24 hour race, when a collision sent Pierre Levegh's car flying into the crowd, killing Levegh and 80 spectators. That accident resulted in a ban on motor racing in several European countries that was only lifted after safety improvements were made. Mercedes, which built Levegh's machine, did not return to racing for three decades.

NASCAR and its fans were fortunate on Sunday: the catch-fence worked and no one was seriously injured. But it never should have come into play.

Talladega has always been a dangerous track. When it opened in 1969, speeds were so high that many drivers boycotted the race, citing the inability of tire manufacturers to produce a tire able to stand up to the 200 mph laps being turned. NASCAR ran the race anyway, and the next year, the drivers returned. By 1987, speeds were much higher: Bill Elliott set a record when he won the pole with a lap of 212.809 mph for the 1987 Winston 500 that May. During the race, Bobby Allison cut a tire, spun, and flew into the catch-fence at just about the same spot where Edwards crashed on Sunday.

Although no one was seriously injured, Allison's flight forced NASCAR's hand: the cars had to be slowed down. The solution was the restrictor plate, which reduces the flow of air into the engine, dramatically reducing horsepower and thus speed. NASCAR has used restrictor plates at its two fastest tracks, Talladega and Daytona, since 1987. Unfortunately, the restrictor plates resulted in all of the cars making approximately the same power, leading to the cars bunching up in huge packs that make for huge wrecks.

The restrictor plate was part of the problem on Sunday, but there is a more basic problem: the cars are getting faster again. Telemetry from the TV footage indicates that Edwards and Keselowski were doing 199 mph when they collided on Sunday. Racing is about speed, but that much speed is too dangerous for the spectators. The cars are too fast. They need to be slowed down again.

Many solutions have been offered. NASCAR will almost certainly introduce smaller restrictor plates that will sap even more horsepower from the cars, keeping them bunched up and resulting in more huge wrecks. They will probably tinker with the aerodynamic package used at the restrictor plate tracks. What they will not do is something drastic. NASCAR rarely ever does.

But something drastic needs to be done. Some have suggested reconfiguring Talladega. I would suggest that a better solution is to change the cars themselves in a way that solves two problems: the excessive speed and the huge packs. To eliminate the huge packs requires that the restrictor plate be eliminated; to reduce speed requires something more.

NASCAR's engine formula is simple and outdated: a 358 cubic-inch carbureted pushrod V-8. NASCAR has never been about technology, and that isn't likely to change, but technology isn't the solution. Rather, it's in turning an old saying on its head: "there's no replacement for displacement." The bigger the engine, the bigger the horsepower. Conversely, the smaller the engine, the smaller the horsepower.

The engines should be smaller. As part of the rules package mandated for Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR should specify a much smaller engine that does not use a restrictor plate. Less size equals less power equals less speed; no restrictor plates equals no huge packs equals no huge wrecks.

And all of that equals no cars flying into the stands, which is the point of this entire exercise. Remember the first rule of business: don't kill your customers. NASCAR almost broke that rule on Sunday. If they ever do break it, it will be the end - of the unfortunate victims, of NASCAR, and maybe even of the sport itself. And not killing your customers is more than a rule of business. It's a moral imperative to which NASCAR must pay greater attention - before it's too late.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Miscellaneous Friday

An assortment of things not necessarily warranting independent posts...

Car Lust touched on the MG Midget today. The article is not up to the usual demented standards of Car Lust - frankly, it seems like little more than a warmed-over version of a Wikipedia (spit) article - but it nevertheless reminded me of a Midget that was, as far as I can remember, the first convertible I ever rode in, about fifteen years ago. The Midget was up the usual British automotive standards of the day, but it still sold more than 200,000 examples over twenty years. That record speaks to three things: the indomitable spirit of the British, the undying appeal of the roadster, and the sagacity of P.T. Barnum.

Thankfully, I contracted a less-severe form of British roadster-itis and bought a Miata.

(For those of you who think my NA Miata is tiny, consider that at 156 inches long and 2300 pounds, it dwarfs the 137-inch, 1600-pound Midget! That car got its name for a reason.)

While we're on the subject of British cars, let me point you to Chuck Goolsbee, biodiesel brewer, Jaguar E-type owner, and classic sports car photographer extraordinaire. If you want to see magnificent photos of vintage European iron - runners, no less - look no further. The man takes beautiful pictures of beautiful cars.

***

Pirates are all over the news lately, what with Maersk Alabama and other seizures. Much has been made of the American response - I thought it was appropriate, if delayed - and what we should do about it in the future. I've seen suggestions ranging from cooperation with the Somalian government (such as it is) to working with Somalian clan leaders to putting boots on the ground.

I can't see anything good coming out of any of those options. Cooperating with a Somalian government that barely controls the capital strikes me as a way to get dragged into the unending Somalian civil war. (If you liked Baghdad, you'll love Mogadishu!) Working with Somalian clan leaders sounds like a thinly-described euphemism for bribing them not to attack merchant ships. Putting boots on the ground would only work if foreign powers took over and governed the place themselves - the same thing that ended piracy along the North African coast in the 19th century - and if you believe that's going to happen, I have a reliable MG to sell you.

I think the best solution here is maritime insurance. I don't mean the kind you get from Lloyd's of London, but the kind you get from Blackwater of Virginia. Private security. Armed guards. Piracy continues because the risk-reward equation is on their side, but in the immortal words of the outlaw Josey Wales, "Dyin's a hell of a way to make a livin'." Up the risk, reduce the piracy.

Worth a shot, anyway.

***

Much made of high-speed rail lately too, what with the president taking an interest. Now I'm all for better transportation, but there's an auto racing maxim that's just as applicable here: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?" High-speed rail is expensive, and in most places there just isn't the population density to justify the expenditure. If you're going more than about 500 miles, it's faster to fly. High-speed rail works in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, and it could probably work in certain areas with high population densities - existing services in both Northern and Southern California could be upgraded - but a nationwide high-speed rail network is just not in the cards. The country is far too big and our population density is far too low to make it work.

No single mode is the solution to our transportation problems. Rail works for commuter service and over some shorter distances. Air works for places where there isn't the population density to support rail service for long hauls. And roads will get you to places that neither rail nor air service go. An integrated, multi-modal solution is the way to go. There are no panaceas, and there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, either.

***

On the subject of spending, some of you may have noticed the Tea Party protests that have popped up lately. Conservatives are not, as I have noted in the past, especially good at protesting. But, as Glenn Reynolds points out, we're getting better at it and that may be to the detriment of the political establishment.

Not that that's a bad thing.

***

Song recommendation for you: Jamey Johnson's "In Color." Great song. Cool video. Reminds me of a conversation I once had with my Uncle Ed and Aunt Ellen when we were looking at some old pictures - we see the past in black and white, but they lived it in color. Maybe that's why I'm so fascinated by color photography from the Thirties and Forties - it's a glimpse of a world we so rarely see.

***

One of the things that bummed me out about moving to Omaha was being so far from the ocean. That still bums me out, but it's not so bad now that I've discovered Freedom Park, home of the World War II minesweeper USS Hazard, Cold War submarine USS Marlin, and other relics. I went there the other day, and while the ships aren't open yet, it was still nice to wander around and take some pictures. They say a bad day on the water is better than a good day on land, and I don't know how that applies to ships berthed on land, but it's nice to have them here anyway.

***

I've been reading a book lately called The Wreck of the Memphis, which is about the tsunami that struck Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic on August 29, 1916, battering the city and wrecking the armored cruiser Memphis, which was there helping maintain order during one of the periodic disorders that mark the Caribbean history. The book was written by Edward L. Beach, Jr., son of the commanding officer of Memphis during the disaster. The elder Beach went on to command the battleship New York with the British Grand Fleet in 1918, while the younger Beach also became a naval officer who distinguished himself in submarines during World War II and eventually commanded the submarine Triton when in 1960 she became the first vessel to complete a submerged circumnavigation of the Earth. Both also distinguished themselves in literary pursuits. The elder Beach published the first edition of The Bluejacket's Manual, the Navy enlisted man's bible since 1902; the younger Beach wrote many books but is best known for Run Silent, Run Deep, the 1955 novel of World War II submarine life that became a 1958 movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.

The Navy has traditionally named its destroyers and frigates after notable naval figures. I think it would be fitting for the Navy to so honor these two men with a USS Edward L. Beach.

***

And while we're speaking of literary figures, I have lately been working on cover art for a re-release of Wake Relieved, with an eye toward an Amazon.com release and publication of the other books in the series. π is doing most of the heavy lifting on this one, because she's just that talented and I am not, but it's not the easiest process in the world. I don't have an artistic bone in my body. I could paint you great paintings, if only I could paint. I can see exactly how they should look on canvas, but they get lost somewhere between my brain and the brush. I don't know why.

Sometimes I'd like to be able to download my brain.

***

Joe Yogerst has an article called "America's Scariest Drives." I view this as a travel guide. As the Extra Milers say, "The shortest distance between two points is no fun."

***

Relations with Cuba seem to be warming. I'll believe it when I see it - things warmed up a little under Carter, too - but although I dislike a Communist dictatorship as much as the next guy, we've isolated Cuba for fifty years and they're still a Communist dictatorship. Points for consistency - in fact, I think that may be the longest America has ever stuck with one foreign policy item - but how's that working out for us? Flooding the place with tourists might be a lot easier. Plus then all the hipsters in their Ché shirts would have someplace to go where they could feel really ironic.

***

Graduating Duke point guard Greg Paulus, a standout quarterback in high school, may be headed to Michigan to play quarterback.

Are we sure this is a good idea? I mean, ask any Duke fan who suffered through his three years as the Blue Devils' starting point guard - he's got a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.54. Am I the only one who sees an interception machine of Favrean proportions here?

***

Meanwhile, John Madden, one of the all-time great football broadcasters and a Super Bowl winner as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, has retired.

***

There are wild turkeys living in Omaha, I've discovered. A few weeks ago I saw one on the grounds of my apartment complex, and last Sunday I was visiting friends when four turkeys landed in their back yard. Apparently they're fairly common, and in season. Who knew?

***

Paid off my appendix last week. That was my last medical bill - finished paying for the gall bladder a month or so ago - and it felt good to get it off the books. Bad genes are expensive.

***

And...I'm out!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Norfolk

City by the sea, river bay and shore
Tree-lined streets and salt air smell
Ships in the harbor and boats on the beach
Coastal.

Oily Elizabeth drifts through and around
Ships in the docks and the tour boats cruise
Tables half-full, the smoke wafts away
Harbor.

Come all to Willoughby, where it's sandy and damp
Trees bent away, Atlantic winds blow
Cottages in shadow, the amusement park's gone
Ocean.

Old trees and houses shelter beneath
Moss hangs low, leaves fall on the grass
Sidewalks uprooted but no one much minds
Home.