Saturday, December 12, 2009

John's Typical Cliched Blogger "Best of 2009" Post

Best Album of 2009: Killswitch Engage - Killswitch Engage

KSE continues to evolve their sound, making it slightly cleaner on vocals and cleaner on rythm, while still maintaining the thrash aspects and the powerful screams. Their video/radio-friendly "Starting Over" is the "weakest" tune of the track but still a lot of fun. Favourites of mine include Reckoning, and the head-bangingly brutal Save Me.

Honourable Mention: Megadeth - Endgame

Best Book of 2009: Dan Simmons - Drood

I was surprised this ended up my favourite of '09, as opposed to a sci-fi book... But I realized most of my great sci-fi/fantasy reads this year weren't published in '09... But Drood was just awesome, a great paranormaly-charged, brooding, dark mystery involving Charles Dickens and Wilkey Collins. The tension and fear are palpable for the entire book as you descend further and further into Wilkey's madness (or is it madness?) I eagerly await Guillermo del Toro's movie version.

Honourable Mention: Alan Campbell - God of Clocks

Best Movie of 2009: District 9

So hard to choose just one, but I'll go with District 9. It's fantastic, plain and simple. Great sci-fi, great social commentary, great special effects on a relatively low budget.

Honourable Mention: Star Trek, Coraline, 9

Best Fight of 2009: Couture vs. Nogueira, UFC 102.

Despite going to a decision, these two former HW Champs and legends in the sport still put on a clinic of dirty boxing and greco wrestling that made all the young guns this year look like crap.

Honourable Mention: St. Pierre vs Penn II, UFC 94 (Not because it was a great fight, but bceause it was a one-sided thrashing that sent the whining prick back to LW for good.

Best TV Show of 2009: Fringe

It was the best show last year too. I'm insanely hooked on this show, and never know where it's gonna go next. It's like the X-Files with better production values and special effects, and a more cohesive storyline.

Honourable Mention: The Tonight Show with Conan O'brien (still the funniest man on TV)

John's Top 10 Motorsports Stories of 2009

The first of two stereotypical blogger posts--my own personal best Motorsports Moments of 2009.

10. Talladega Continues to Produce the Worst Racing on Planet Earth

I've said my piece here and here about this crock of shit masquerading as "racing," so I won't delve into it any further. It's wrong, it's maddening, and NASCAR refuses to do anything about--until, as Carl Edwards said, someone else dies.

Honourable Mention: Brad Keselowski doing exactly what he was forced to do by NASCAR's system to win. The fact he was a winner on a part-time schedule, in a car that's barely in the owner's points and may never have had even a top 10, speaks volumes of what's wrong with Talladega. As much as we like to see underdogs win, we don't want to see it this way.

9. Johnson Wins Fourth in a Row to Cap an Awful Racing Season

With a few exceptions, like both races at Martinsville, the race at Watkins Glen and Darlington, 2009 was the most boring season in recent memory. Virtually no on-track passing (at least compared to what stockcar racing is SUPPOSED to be), fuel mileage race after fuel mileage race, horrific wrecks at Talladega, very few on-track rivalries, and yet another contrived Chase playoff that had no one biting their nails, while under the old points system Stewart and Johnson would've dueled for the title to the very last lap at Homestead.

Not to take away anything from Johnson and his team, who have learned to play the system better than anyone else in the garage--don't blame the players, blame the system.

(Then again, this system has forced him to race like a pussy--including sitting at the very back, out of the lead draft at Talladega while 30 cars wrecked in front of him, allowing him to finish 6th. Not sure if NASCAR or Johnson pisses me off more in that case.)

Of all the problems, only the ridiculous and inconsistent race start times were fixed by NASCAR for next season. Expect more of this awful boredom next season, due to bullshit rules, an awful car design, and lots of boring, boring tracks.

Honourable Mention: Carl Edwards goes winless after winning 9 races last year. Despite being the annointed one who would finally take Johnson's crown, Edwards struggled all season, but still managed to get into the Chase.

8. Jenson Button and Brawn Win Formula 1 World Championship

Despite what the haters think, Button did a bang up job this season, winning six of the first seven rounds of the championship, including Monaco. Many complained that he did so only because of a gray-area in the rules allowing a double diffuser on the car, but truth be told his championship form was not displayed in the first half of the season, but the second half.

Technology as always is the #1 thing going in F1, and once everyone else's tech had caught up with Brawn's, Button struggled to have a winning car. But lost in talk of Button's poor qualifying performances, people ignore the fact that he probably executed more daring, skillful passes in the remaining ten races than most F1 drivers pull off in their entire career. This was particularly true in Brazil, where he clinched the championship coming from 9th to finish 5th, with daring passes on Grosjean, Nakajima, and the fiery rookie Kamui Kobayashi.

Then, having performed like a racer's racer in Brazil, he went to Abu Dhabi as champion, again qualified poorly, then had an awesome battle with Mark Webber at the end for 2nd place, eventually settling for 3rd by only a couple of car lengths at the end of the race. Listen to most racing enthusiasts and they'll tell you it was the best on-track battle all season--listen to the haters, and they'll hate on Button for not being able to "easily dispatch" Mark Webber like a world champion should. I call these people idiots.

Honourable Mention: Rubens Barrichello wins two Grands Prix for Brawn GP, despite being the oldest driver in the field and in what many felt were the waning years of his career.

7. Dario Franchitti Wins a Closely Constested IRL Championship, Dozens of Fans Rejoice, And the Series Reaches New Levels of Boredom

You would think that three guys having a mathematical shot at the championship heading into the final race would be exciting, but the IRL went out with a wimper--in fact, the entire season was a joke, so really the whole thing was a wimper.

Target Chip-Ganassi and Penske Racing combined to win sixteen of seventeen races--the lone underdog to win was Justin Wilson at Watkins Glen, who only won after a pit road snafu from Penske's Ryan Briscoe took him out of the lead. And as we all know, passing in the IRL is virtually impossible except at a couple of tracks, so once Wilson was out front, that was that.

The vast, vast majority of passes took place in the pits, with the exception of a really exciting battle at Kentucky between underdog Ed Carpenter and Ryan Briscoe (you can guess who won that.)

To the IRL's credit, unlike NASCAR, they saw how awful the racing was (at Richmond--RICHMOND of all places) and quickly enacted some changes to the aerodynamics--although it didn't help parity at all, as the two Superteams continued to dominate. That, combined with most of the races being broadcast on the Versus Network, which has 13 subscribers, made for a really, really dismal season of racing. The one bright spot, as is often the case, was the 500, with Castroneves winning after clearing his name in court for tax evasion charges. Also, Danica finished 3rd in the same race, the highest ever position for a woman.

Honourable Mention: Danica finishing 3rd at Indy and, despite not winning a race (and no one else did besides Penske and Ganassi), finishes a personal high of 5th in the standings, beating out all the "best of the rest," including former champions Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon.

6. Kimi Räikkönen wins at Spa, Continues to Not Be a Typical F1 Douchebag

A lot of people have sort of glossed over this, but the Umlaut'd one picked up his fourth career victory at Spa-Francorchamps this season, tying him with the legendary Jim Clark--though unlike Clark, Kimi loves Spa. The win was particularly impressive given how poorly the Ferrari performed all season compared to Red Bull, Brawn and McLaren. He knew what equipment he had to work with though, driving from 6th on the grid to 2nd using his KERS boost, and leaving him on the back wing of the Force India car when the safety car came out. From there he passed Fisichella into Les Combes and was able to hold onto the win, his final for Ferrari.

And now he takes a break from F1, after being booted in favour of Alonso, and will go after the WRC Championship, rather than be relegated to an F1 B-Team. He continues to say what he thinks, and just gest in the car and does his job.

Honourable Mention: Mark Webber winning his first two career races, playing the perfect "experienced teammate" to Vettel and, in the early going, fighting for the championship.

5. Kyle Busch wins 20 Races, NWS Championship, Fails to Make Chase

Love him or hate him, you cannot deny the talent, even if he's basically shitting on the Nationwide Series, coming with a Cup-level team to match his Cup-level skills. He dominated the series with 9 wins, and more importantly 11 second-place finishes, breaking another single-season NWS record for 20 Top 2 finishes. He also won seven Camping World Truck races, and four Cup races... And whenever he didn't win, he whined like a petulent child... Only in the NWS and Truck series. Somehow, his PR folks managed to calm him down and make him act respectable in the Cup series, instead of blaming his team--although the latter continued to happen in Truck and NWS when he didn't win.

Perhaps the bigger story was being locked out of the Chase--despite four wins, he had a pretty terrible season, either wrecking or finishing well out of the top 10 when he DIDN'T win. Sensing that maybe his focus was wavering, he finally agreed to focus full-time on Cup in 2010, though he will still race part-time in NWS and Truck. Which is good for the NWS Championship, as someone else might actually have a shot at winning it--but bad for NWS and Truck, as he continues to steal victories away from lesser organizations that are in the series' for a living, not for fun.

Honourable Mention: Mike Bliss wins at Charlotte, then is fired by Phoenix Racing. He then races for three other teams, giving them all solid top 5s and top 10s on the way to a 5th place finish in points. Now he's signed for a start-and-park team in the Cup Series. This former Truck series champion deserves a good ride!

4. Andrew Ranger Puts NASCAR on Notice, and Wins Second NCATS Championship

Another guy I'm not particularly a huge fan of (especially since I'm a Kerry Micks fan), but he is currently "the" Canadian hero in motorsports, and proved it this season, by winning his second NASCAR Canadian Tire Series Championship, with six victories in thirteen races, including his first oval wins at Riverside, Sun Valley and Mosport. He almost swept the road course races too, but was spoiled by our local boy JR Fitzpatrick in Montreal.

Montreal though, more importantly, featured Ranger's best performance of the season, when he ran in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, leading laps, beating and banging and racing hard with Marcose Ambrose, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, eventually finishing a well-deserved 3rd, in the underfunded #11 car. How this kid doesn't have a full-time NWS ride yet is beyond me. Amazing performance--and shades of Gilles Villeneuve.

Honourable Mention: Marcos Ambrose has the win at Montreal in the bag only to overcook it into the final Chicane, narrowly miss hitting the Wall of Champions, and allows Carl Edwards by for his first ever road course win--and in the wet!

3. NCATS Delaware 200

This is a bit of a personal one to me, but seeing NASCAR come to London, Ontario, after CASCAR basically dumped Delaware Speedway a few years ago, was a pretty big deal to me. The stands were overflowing with people, we had a great 50-lap Super Stock race as a warmup, all the big-league pomp and circumstance in the opening ceremonies, and then a pretty awesome 200 lap race that had it all, including home-town favourite DJ Kennington bumping aside the "villian," Don Thompson, Jr, for the win in the final Green/White/Checkered.

NCATS returns in 2010 for the season opener at Delaware this time, and hopefully I'll be pitside, having raced in the Super Stock 50 lapper before it!

Honourable Mention: former CASCAR Champion Dave Whitlock wins NCATS season opener at St. Eustache, then announces his retirement from the sport after a long and storied career.

2. Ron Hornaday Wins 5 Races in a Row, 4th Straight Championship, Generally Continues Being No-Nonsense Racing Badass

Unlike Johnson's supposed "domination" in the boring-ass Chase, Ron Hornaday won his record 4th title in the Camping World Truck Series, which continues to impress and have a ton of great racing at a ton of great tracks.

This season had actually the LEAST exciting championship fight in the last decade or so, with Hornaday really being the class of the field unless Kyle Busch showed up--but it still featured some awesome racing, and first time winners like Timothy Peters and Brian Scott.

Old fashioned badass racing with old fashioned badass drivers, on old fashioned badass race tracks. Who would've thunk it?

Next season promises to be just as exciting, with Hornaday getting a new crew chief, which may cause teething problems and let others catch up. Kyle Busch will also be fielding two trucks of his own, with Taylor Malsam and Bryan Ickler, both of whom are sure to impress. And many other potential winners sit in the field, like Matt Crafton, that asshole Todd Bodine, Mike Skinner, and hopefully a returning Johnny Benson, if Kyle Busch gets his way. And Rowdy himself will show up and win sometimes, without a doubt.

Meanwhile, SPEED TV ratings for the Truck series continue to climb up and up while the Cup Series ratings go down, down down. Which begs the question--when will these sponsors realize the success the Truck series is having, and help these teams out better?

Honourable Mention: Timothy Peters wins his home race at Martinsville.

1. Mark Martin wins Southern 500, Four More Races, Finishes 2nd for a 5th time

Being a fan of Mark since I was 12, I was pleasantly surprised to see him return full-time this season, and his first win at Phoenix had me in good spirits. I expected him to contend, but after those first three DNFs (two engines, one blown R/R tire), I figured that was the end of the season as far as the championship. But Mark is down and never out, and he rallyed from 34th-ish in the points to 8th by the time the Chase locked in. To me his best moment of the season was winning the Southern 500 for the second time, a race which I still contend is more prestigeous and important than anything else in the season other than the Daytona 500. To see him pass Jimmie Johnson, and then pull away, with it clear that Johnson had NOTHING for him, was a refreshing reminder of how Mark used to be in the 90s, and clearly it refreshed him too, and you could see that old hunger return.

He finished 2nd, yet again, in the point standings... But we Martin fans have come to accept that. We know that, much like every other season except '98, there was always that little SOMETHING out of Martin's control that snatched it away. In 1990 it was a legal carb spacer that NASCAR deemed illegal, robbing him of the exact points he needed to win the title. This season, it was undoubtedly that farce of a race at Talladega, where Johnson lulled around at the back for the entire race, slipped through two Big Ones, and finished 6th. Meanwhile Martin, the racer's racer, fought tooth and nail in the top 10 for most of the race, and was looking good until the second-last lap, when he got caught by a spinning car and ended up on his roof. What else is new. We Martin fans have learned to cherish the highs and do our best to ignore the lows.

And he'll win the championship next year, dammit.

Honourable Mention: Kasey Khane wins his first road course race at Sonoma, holding off a hard charging Tony Stewart on TWO restarts. It was also the first win for the new Petty team.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Suggested Reading...

Yay, it's time for me to be the typical blogger and recommend books! I won't bother with big drawn out reviews though, I'm not a professional reviewer and I won't waste my time.

First up is Alan Campbell's excellent Deepgate Codex, a trilogy that I'm just now finishing up with the third book, God of Clocks.

It has an amazing level of creativity, a real fresh breath in an over-saturated sci-fi/fantasy genre. In a nutshell, it takes place in a sort of alternate human reality, a mixture of magic/fantasy, steampunk and a little sci-fi. Angels and gods are real, and they're fighting a seemingly never-ending war between heaven and hell. Caught in the mix are the Spine Assassin Rachael Hael, and her archon (angel) friend Dill, the supposed hero of the books.

What I like about it is that, much like The Name of The Wind (see below), Campbell manages to have an exciting, thought-provoking story without resorting to cliches. Rachael Hael is constantly second-guessing herself as any sort of warrior at all, let alone a hero... Dill was raised by the church to believe he was a heroic warrior fighting for good, when in fact he was never trained and spends most of the book cowering in fear and not knowing what to do next.

But despite the cover blurbs focusing on Dill and Rachael, it's really more of an ensemble story, with all sorts of memorable characters--my favourite being John Anchor, a huge beast of a man who is eternally tethered to his god's floating ship, forced to drag it around the world.

The Name of the Wind is, quite simply, the best fantasy book I've ever read. Easily on the level of a Tolkein, Patrick Rothfuss has created the very definition of a page turner, one that doesn't even delve that deeply into the story of Kvoth before the book abruptly ends--and you want more, and you want it now.

The characters are richly realized and the settings are vivid, but what makes this work so amazing is how it turns fantasy cliches on their head. At every turn, Rothfuss has us believing the book is heading down the path of "Yet Another Sword of Truth" or "Yet Another Ring of Time" or "Yet Another Lord of the Rings," only to give us an exciting, surprising, and often funny twist. The entire book is based around Kvoth telling his life story, growing up as (basically) a carnie, then being drawn into magic school (including a few jabs at Harry Potter, which I always approve of), falling in love, searching for those who killed his parents, etc etc etc... And while his legend is that of an amazing, unstoppable, all-powerful warrior, the truth comes out in poignant, thought-provoking ways, and we see a much more human, much more vulnerable, and much more BELIEVABLE hero than any in Fantasy before this.

It frustrates me beyond belief that the sequel has been pushed back to April, instead of coming out now... But I don't blame the author. I just eagerly await it. GET. THIS. BOOK.

Also, two good suggestions for motorsports enthusiasts reading this. The first is the biography of Wendell Scott, called Hard Driving. The first African-American to play a major role in auto racing in North America, and thus far the only black man to win a NASCAR Cup race, the book tells about his hardships growing up, racing at the local dirt tracks, and gradually clawing his way tooth and nail into Grand National, all the while dealing with obscene levels of racism and segregation, up to and including having his win ignored, only to be awarded it a few days later. The story gives a whole new meaning to the word perseverance.

I would also highly recommend Crashed and Byrned, the autobiography of Tommy Byrne, the "greatest racing driver you never saw." An outrageous story of his life growing up penniless in Ireland, clawing is way into victory lane and dominating the lower rungs of open wheel racing on talent alone, and his crushing failure to land a seat in Formula 1. An honest, hilarious and sometimes frustrating look into what makes a racer a racer, and why racing at the world's highest level often has little to do with how good you actually are. The book is laugh-out-loud funny.

I strongly recommend both of these books to any aspiring racer--they both give us a great look into what makes us want to do what we do.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Danica Patrick - Don't Hate the Player, Hate Her PR Department

If there's one thing that annoys me more than Danica Patrick hype, it's Danica Patrick haters.

Here's a woman who, with the exception of Shirley Muldowney in drag racing, has come further than any woman before her. But like everything since the dawn of the Internet, there has to be haters, who hate for the sake of hating. I hate the PR machine that won't shut up about her--but Danica herself? Hell of a racer.

She won a bunch of championships in the World Karting Association, then jumped to European Formula Ford, where she finished second at the annual FF Festival--the highest finish for a woman ever. Then she jumped back to America to compete in Toyota Atlantics, with a pole position and consistent podiums.

At this point she was, admittedly, fast-tracked to the IRL by Rahal-Letterman--they saw not only a lot of talent, but a marketing machine that would bring the Indy Racing League to prominence. The IRL's decision, and the race team's decision. Danica, being smart enough to realize the career she was about to have, goes for it.

Although the haters complained she was too green.

She ran fastest in practice at Indy in her rookie year, led briefly, and finished 4th. In case that hasn't sunk in, I'll repeat it--she finished 4th, at what many consider the world's greatest race, in her rookie year, and as a woman.

She finished the season with two pole positions, Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, and IRL Rookie of the Year. Those, in themselves, were huge accomplishments.

Although the haters complained about her not winning.

Her second year with Rahal-Letterman was not as successful, thanks to a switch to the inferior Dallara chassis. She still managed a couple of 4th place finishes though.

Although the haters complained about her not winning, despite the crap car.

Her switch to Andretti-Green the following season proved fruitful, as she finished with 3 podiums, 4 top 5s and 11 top 10s.

Although the haters complained about her not winning, despite jumping into a new car and being forced to race against two of the best open wheelers in the world, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti.

2008 would prove to be the banner year, as she became the first woman to win a major open wheel race in history at Twin-Ring Motegi. Was it a fuel mileage win? Sure. But since when is a win not a win? Some haters would have you believe that, but the fact is, she conserved fuel well, she communicated with her team well, and she ran smoother and better than anyone else on the track. The win was well deserved.

And have you watched the IRL lately? The only way to pass ANYONE is in the pits, with FUEL MILEAGE STRATEGY. Is anyone hating on Scott Dixon for winning a few dozen races with fuel mileage?

The rest of her season was up and down but she finished 6th in points.

Although the haters complained it was a fuel mileage win and she should've won more races.

2009 was her best year statistically, as she finished 5th in points (barely missing 4th place) with a 3rd place finish at the Indy 500, beating her previous best and the best for a woman.

Although the haters complained she should've beat Penske and Ganassi and won races--even when no one else beat Penske and Ganassi either.

Now... Only one win you say? Fair enough. But have any of you watched the IRL in the last two years? It's a joke--I should write a separate post about that some day... But for now suffice to say that it's completely and utterly dominated by two teams, Chip-Ganassi and Penske, to the point of absurdity. Every race in 2009 was won by one of the two teams, with the minor exception of Justin Wilson's win at Watkins Glen (which Briscoe would've run away with had it not been for a pit road error)... And Danica finished 5th in points, the "best of the rest", as it were.

Think about that--with the exception of the two dominant, highest-budget, best-paying "super teams", Danica was the best driver on the track. She finished higher than Dan Wheldon (former Champ), higher than her teammates Tony Kanaan (former Champ) and Marco Andretti (an Andretti), higher than guys like Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal (road course aces). They call Penske, Ganassi and AGR the "BIG THREE" but to be fair, in the last TWO seasons it's really been the BIG TWO.

So, let's summarize:

  1. She's thrust into the lime light at a very early age with decent, but not amazing success in the lower tier racing series
  2. She's IRL Rookie of the year and Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, finishing the highest a woman ever has
  3. She becomes the first woman to win a major motorsports race (not counting rallying and NHRA)
  4. She finishes progressively better in the points standings every season
  5. With those progressively better finishes comes a progressively better attitude--still aggressive, but less of a bitch about it.
  6. She finishes 5th in points in 2009, the best driver NOT driving a Ganassi or Penske car

Yet the haters hate on.

They complain that she's a bimbo and doesn't care about racing because she's done a couple of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues. Seriously? So when ESPN Magazine approached Carl Edwards about doing a photo shoot with his shirt off, that was okay? Every racing driver does PR--the more popular you are, the more PR you do. She's the most successful female driver in history not named Shirley Muldowney; thus, she is popular. I guarantee she did not approach SI to do a swimsuit issue, they approached her. This was not Playboy. This was not Hustler. This was a tasteful sports magazine that would improve her marketing worth, and put the IRL in the spotlight. It was a smart business.

And she's hot.

Yet the haters hate on.

Even when she shows up at the racetrack, every weekend, with her game face on, completely different than the woman you see in front of the camera during the week. She's all business, she doesn't take shit from anyone, and she races hard. She also has respect and graciousness for her team, Andretti Autosport, as she signed a new deal with them, even though she's in an inferior car. She wants to work with it and make it better.

Yet the haters hate on.

Now she's possibly going to run a partial Nationwide and ARCA schedule to test her hand at stockcars. Can you blame her? The IRL is a dead end. With the exception of the 500, no one gives half a shit about the IRL. The racing is obscenely boring, the rules package is getting them nowhere, and if you're in a white/orange car or a white/red car, you're basically racing for 5th place. If she were to hop to NASCAR, whether full time or not, she can a) make more money b) grow her fanbase and c) probably be put in equipment capable of winning a race or two. And while she's at it, do what a lot of open wheel guys haven't been capable of--succeeding in stockcars.

Yet the haters hate on.

So I'll continue to watch her career with appreciation. She's got plenty of years ahead of her, and if she gets into equipment that can win, she will win. And that's all that really matters to her, I think.

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