Racing’s resolutions for 2023: Sort out Next Gen, get Hamilton back on top

Sports

We’re now more than a week into 2023, that time of year when we all have to face the hard truth about those New Year’s resolutions we were all so staunchly dedicated to not so long ago. The gym is already a lot less crowded than it was on Jan. 2, our swear jars already have cash in them and our liquor cabinets are already emptier.

For those who have yet to really get their new year going, though — say, our friends in the mainstream motorsports world — there is still plenty of time to identify a need and dedicate themselves to ensuring that need is met. Or, at the very least, an attempt to ensure that need is met, as opposed to that new stationary bike that’s still in the box and shaming me from the other side of the family room.

We’ve even gone ahead and identified one big new season’s resolution for each of those racing series in 2023. Why? Because that’s always our resolution: helping people whether they want it or not.

NASCAR: Get those Next Gen safety concerns sorted out

It is difficult to recall a NASCAR Cup Series season that began with as much enthusiasm as 2022 and impossible to think of a year that managed to keep that momentum going all the way into autumn. The catalyst for those good vibes and that historically great competition was the long-awaited Next Gen race car.

The one-size-fits-all machines looked unbreakable. Literally. Unfortunately, it proved a little too tough, as the same rigidness that made it so versatile and indestructible surfaced as the cause of season-derailing injuries to some of the sport’s biggest names and drawing criticism for causing everything from concussions to fire hazards. It also caused a rift between NASCAR and its drivers, exposing communication issues that sanctioning body now admits caught them entirely off guard.

The result has been a series of regular meetings with NASCAR executives and the racers. Those discussions spurred an aggressive offseason of R&D work, redesigning the rear clip and bumper to shift the transfer of crash-related violent energy away from the cockpit. Those safety talks have also covered better seats and those fires that seemed to be fueled by large pockets of air within the car.

“When we get to the LA Coliseum (for the Feb. 5 Busch Light Clash) we’re in a much better spot,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps explained in mid-December. “But it goes past the car itself. The communication that has to these changes, fixing those lines of communication, in the long run I think that could prove to be the most valuable aspect of this experience. We just need to keep that going.”

Formula One: Get Hamilton back atop a podium

As I write this, a copy of the January 2023 issue of GQ is on my desk (because I’m stylish like that) and the always-intense eyes of Max Verstappen are staring at me from the cover as if to say, “Lewis? Really?” Make no mistake, this is the Verstappen era of F1. No one disputes that. Just as no one dares argue that he hasn’t already made a case as one of the all-time greatest Grand Prix drivers.

There is only one greatest all-time driver, though, and his name is (sorry, Max) Lewis Hamilton. No matter which F1 team or racer is your favorite, we all have to admit that something was missing from the energy of the 2022 season, and that was the fact that Hamilton was never able to fully engage in the title fight, held winless for the first time since his incomparable career began way back in 2007.

Amid ceaseless chatter about his retirement (he says he has a few more years left), how amazing would the soap opera that is the paddock become if the 38-year-old won a race early and kick-started some buzz about another run at that elusive eighth title, especially if he once again battled with Max to earn it?

IndyCar: Finally get that Indy 500 legacy winner

Father Time remains undefeated, and we are reminded of that fact every spring as the checkered flag is waved over another Month of May and Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal have still not won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Last year the grandson of Mario and son of Michael finished 22nd to reach 0-for-17 at the place that made his family famous. Meanwhile, the son of Bobby finished 14th to hit 0-for-15.

Andretti is 35. Rahal is 34. A lot of legends, from Foyt and Johncock to Rutherford and Unser Sr., have won this race in their 40s. The IndyCar paddock gets younger each season, and more often than not, we have surprise winners kissing the bricks. Why not a surprise that will send the grandstand into a total meltdown of joy? Not to mention ease the pain for a couple of really good guys who love Indy like few ever will.

NHRA: Write up those wonderful women!

While every other racing series fights and scraps and often has to come up with a list of excuses why there are practically no women behind the wheel at their highest levels, the NHRA had not one but two women among their four 2022 national champions. Erica Enders won her fifth Pro Stock title while Brittany Force won her second Top Fuel championship, while also making the fastest run in Top Fuel history at a mind-bending 338.48 mph.

They are only the tip of the iceberg in a Nitro Alley that has long been big on success by racers from all walks of life while other racing paddocks have had settle for lip service when it comes to diversity. It is to the NHRA’s credit that they have created an environment where, internally, it’s no longer newsworthy that accomplishments are made by those of different races and genders, but it would behoove them to realize that’s a much bigger deal out here than it is in there, and they should be shouting it into the world with a megaphone.

SRX: Own the summer

In case you missed it while you were busy holiday shopping and throwing down on turkey legs, Tony Stewart’s grassroots short track stock car fistfight known as the Superstar Racing Experience will return for its third season this summer, and will do so right here on the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Thanks to an all-star roster hailing from every American series and era you can think of (Marco Andretti! Scott Bloomquist! Helio Castroneves! Bill Elliott?!), the six-race July-August schedule has captured the imagination of the hardcore racing world.

Now, with a new platform that is already drawing throwbacks to the old ESPN2 “Thursday Night Thunder” shows that first introduced the world to the likes of Stewart and Jeff Gordon, SRX has a chance to do what many have long asked of NASCAR, IndyCar and other American racing series. Why not stop trying to fight football every fall and own the midweek summer nights?

Sports cars: Continue to simplify

The world of sports car racing has long been a confusing alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies, divisions, rulebooks and prestigious events that seemed designed to keep the biggest names and coolest cars divided up and scattered across the globe. But at last spring’s 12 Hour of Sebring, we caught a glimpse of what the future of sports cars could look like, and it was glorious.

The stateside cars of IMSA shared the weekend in south central Florida with the FIA World Endurance Championship, and both garages seemed genuinely excited about a 2023 convergence of rules that could finally allow the top machines from IMSA and WEC to compete head to head. A lot of cooperation has to happen across both series and between manufacturers, but as Jim France, chairman of IMSA and CEO of NASCAR has stated, the opportunity is now there. It wasn’t before.

“The proof will be when we have a car that wins Daytona and wins Le Mans in the same year,” France said when the new IMSA prototype was announced in 2021. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Us, too, Mr. France.

Everyone else: Go fast, be safe, stay awesome

And when we say “everyone else,” we don’t just mean racing series other than the ones listed above. We mean everyone else and all the time, not just New Year’s.

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