Could 2017 Match Historic 1967 as One of Motorsport’s Greatest Years?
Fans that have watched auto racing all their life and have been alive long enough to remember might say 1967 was the most memorable year in motorsports history.
It was the year “The King” Richard Petty won 27 races and his second of seven championships in the NASCAR Grand National Series. That season, the sport consisted of 49 points events, meaning he won 55 percent of the races.
Racing legend Mario Andretti made his presence known in stock car racing by winning the Daytona 500 in the No. 11 Holman-Moody Ford. He started 12th and led 112 laps that day, and his victory is still considered one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history.
“At that point, I had not won Indy [500, won it in 1969] yet,” Andretti once said. “I was competitive with a couple of poles but had not won at Indy. So arguably the Daytona 500 win at that time was the biggest event of my career at that time and particularly satisfying to do it somewhere where it wasn’t my specialty.
“Can you imagine the same thing as if one of their drivers — Richard Petty or David Pearson -— had come to Indy and won the Indy 500? It had a special sound to it, and it still does, actually.”
“Super Tex” A.J. Foyt won his third of four career Indianapolis 500s in 1967. He also won the iconic sports car event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in France co-driving with Dan Gurney just two weeks later. Foyt went on to win his fifth USAC Champ Car Series title at season’s end.
Now, let’s jump ahead 50 years. Think about what the racing world is like today. It’s a lot different, wouldn’t you say?
Today, NASCAR has three national series with its top division sponsored by the increasingly popular Monster Energy drink. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which it is now called, begins its 36-race season with its most historic race, the Daytona 500, often referred to as “The Great American Race.” Races are also divided into three stages and the final 10 events of the year make up the elimination-style NASCAR playoffs, which started in 2014.
Open-wheel racing has evolved exponentially over the years too. Both the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula 1 have become exceptionally safer. In the 2013 Ron Howard film Rush, three-time F1 World Champion Niki Lauda says, “Twenty-five drivers start every season in Formula 1, and each year two of us die.”
Although the film took place in 1976, Lauda’s statement emphasizes the danger of being a racecar driver of more than 40 years ago. Deaths of both drivers and spectators were not as unusual as they are today.
In the last six years, two IndyCar drivers have died from accident-related injuries. The 2011 Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, who lost his life in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the same year he won the 500, and Justin Wilson, who was struck in the head by a flying piece of debris from Sage Karam’s wrecked car at Pocono Raceway in 2015.
In 2014, Jules Bianchi died after an accident in the F1 Japanese Grand Prix — the European sport’s most recent death. It’s still three lives too many when you include the two IndyCar drivers, but racecars have been redesigned countless times to enhance safety for each competitor.
In NASCAR, following the death of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the sanctioning body mandated the use of the Hutchens system, which was the head and neck restraint system required until the end of the 2004 season.
In January 2005, NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS Device, which most drivers were already using, as the required safety system because it felt the Hutchens didn’t meet minimum safety standards.
The 2017 racing season is still just beginning, but many storylines could make this year another one for the history books.
The new three-stage format NASCAR created during the offseason made its debut at the 59th running of the Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson embarks on his quest for a record-breaking eighth championship after winning No. 7 in 2016. And the “Monster” era of NASCAR began with a “Monster” win by 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, who is sponsored by the drink, in the “Great American Race.”
“The more I run this race, the more I’ve learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip,” Busch, who had previously finished runner-up three times, said. “The performance of the [Stewart-Haas Racing] team has been incredible. My rearview mirror fell off with 30 to go, and I knew I had to drive defensively. I couldn’t even see the cars behind me, just heard my spotter in my ear, once we made that pass.
“It’s just unbelievable to have all this teamwork to get us in victory lane.”
Busch’s victory not only was a triumph for him but also for Tony Gibson, who won the race for the first time as a crew chief, and SHR co-owner Tony Stewart, who ran the race 17 times in his racing career but never won it.
Now being retired from NASCAR racing and having won the 500 as a team owner, Stewart jokingly said, “If I knew all I had to do was retire to get it done, I would have retired a long time ago.”
In IndyCar, Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will defend his 2016 title and look to become the first repeat titlist since Dario Franchitti, who claimed three consecutive championships from 2009 to 2011, and the first Penske driver to repeat since Gil de Ferran, who accomplished the feat in 2001.
Lisa Davidson wrote a POPULAR SPEED story about Pagenaud’s approach to the 2017 season in which he says he’ll be in more of an “attack” mode than a defensive one.
“… I would say I really understood better what it all meant last year [his championship year],” Pagenaud said. “It’s about defending. Everything is back to zero. The counts are all back to zero. It’s all reset.
“Now it’s time to attack, attack a new championship, attack a new year. Last year, if I was so successful, it’s because we attacked and we didn’t look in the mirrors. The goal is to do the same thing, not defend, but attack a new season coming up.”
Pagenaud finished second in the season-opener in St. Petersburg behind fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, who won the race after starting from the back.
Across the pond in F1, a retirement announcement heard around the world shocked the entire auto racing industry. The most recent World Champion Nico Rosberg decided that 2016 would be his final season in the pinnacle of motorsports and left the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team. It ended a rivalry — which had the potential to match the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s or Lauda and James Hunt in the mid-1970s — with teammate Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton, now paired with Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes, will look to be the fifth driver in F1 history to win a fourth title. He’s 32 years old and already has 53 career wins, 104 podiums, and 61 poles. By the end of his career, whenever that is, he’ll likely be considered one of the sport’s greatest, if he isn’t already.
During preseason testing, Hamilton said rather interesting comments about the Scuderia Ferrari team, which last won the championship with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. Hamilton said, “I think Ferrari are bluffing and that they are a lot quicker than they are showing. They are very close, if not faster.
“It’s difficult right now to say who is quicker.”
If what Hamilton said proves to be true, it will be an intense competition for this year’s championship. Mercedes cars won all but two races in 2016, and Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Raikkonen won none.
Red Bull Racing won the other two races, once with 19-year-old Max Verstappen in his Red Bull debut at the Grand Prix of Spain after Hamilton and Rosberg wrecked each other on the first lap, and the other at the Malaysia Grand Prix with Daniel Ricciardo after Hamilton suffered a catastrophic engine failure while leading.
The 2017 IndyCar and F1’s campaigns are just getting underway, and there will surely be plenty to pay attention to as their season’s progress. If there’s one thing that holds true about racing, it’s that the unpredictability factor is always predictable.
So my question to you, whether you were around in 1967 or not, can 2017 be just as memorable 50 years from now?
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