How Motorsport Has Evolved, 2004 Through 2019

NASCAR Cup Series cars in 2006 versus 2018, Formula One cars in 2004 versus 2019, Indy cars in 2005 versus 2019, the latter at an aeroscreen test.
Photo: Chris Graythen, Brian Lawdermilk, Mark Thompson, Luca Bruno, Robert Laberge (Getty Images), Darron Cummings (AP)

Jalopnik began in 2004, which, in internet years, is a long time ago. But it’s also a long time ago in motorsport years, because the plethora of changes to racing over the past 15 or so years have transformed the sport into something entirely different than it was back then—generally, for the better.

So, to end the year, we found it appropriate to recap just how far we’ve come.

Dominant Champions, 2004 through 2019

  • Lewis Hamilton, Formula One: six-time champion (2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019)
  • Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR: seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2016)
  • Marc Marquéz, MotoGP: youngest ever six-time champion (2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
  • Scott Dixon, IndyCar: five-time champion (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2018)
  • Sébastien Loeb, WRC: nine-time champion (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)
  • Sébastien Ogier, WRC: six-time champion (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)

Noteworthy Retirements

Deaths

  • Henry Surtees, Formula 2, struck in the head by an untethered wheel, 2009
  • Dan Wheldon, IndyCar, suffered fatal head injuries during a 15-car collision, 2011
  • Jason Leffler, sprint cars, front suspension failure resulted in a fatal flip, 2013
  • Maria de Villota, Formula One test driver, suffered cardiac arrest as a result of head injuries sustained in a testing crash, 2013
  • Jules Bianchi, Formula One, suffered head injures after crashing into a recovery vehicle, becoming the first driver to die in an F1 race since Ayrton Senna, 2015
  • Justin Wilson, IndyCar, struck by debris from the race leader’s crash, 2015
  • Bryan Clauson, USAC Spike Chassis Midget, suffered brain injuries after colliding with a lapped vehicle, 2016
  • Anthoine Hubert, Formula 2, hit broadside by fellow driver after initial collision, 2019

Major Structural Changes And Safety Improvements

  • NASCAR introduces the Chase (2004), the playoffs (2017)
  • Indy Racing League and Champ Car reunify, become IndyCar (2008)
  • IndyCar introduces push-to-pass device (2009)
  • Formula One introduces the Drag Reduction System (2011), turbocharged V6 hybrid power units (2014)
  • NASCAR switches from carburetors to electronic fuel injection (2012)
  • Formula One introduces Virtual Safety Car (2015)
  • Bernie Ecclestone exits Formula One, American owners Liberty Media take over (2017)
  • Red Bull Global Rallycross dies; Americas Rallycross formed, also dies (2018, 2019)
  • NASCAR announces it will finally disqualify teams for cheating (2019)
  • Open-wheel series move to close the cockpit with Formula One introducing the halo (2018), IndyCar announcing windscreen (2019)

Iconic Finishes

  • Lewis Hamilton takes World Driver’s Championship over Felipe Massa (2008)
  • Toyota loses the 24 Hours of Le Mans with three minutes to go (2016)
  • Dean Stoneman wins the Indy Lights Freedom 100 by 0.0024 of a second, the closest finish ever in the history if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2016)

Cheats, Scandals and General Weirdness

  • Ferrari gives secret documents to McLaren in Formula One (2007)
  • Nelson Piquet Jr. intentionally crashes, gives teammate Fernando Alonso an F1 Championship boost (2008)
  • Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing, and Front Row Motorsport intentionally manipulate the Federated Auto Parts 400 to get their cars in the Chase (2013)
  • Rich Energy sponsors an F1 team, causes chaos, gets sued, and ultimately leaves the sport (2019)

The State of Diversity

Racing is still largely a man’s sport, and in America particularly, a white man’s sport. But things have still improved exponentially since 2004, even if they still have a long, long way to go.

Perhaps one of the biggest revolutions in modern racing came in 2007, when now six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton entered the series with McLaren and finished third in his debut race. That year, Hamilton became the first and currently only black F1 driver, and has essentially become the face of the modern series with his championship dominance.

Hamilton’s spoken out regularly over the years about race, and his own website has an entire section about being the first black driver in one of the highest, and probably the most globally recognizable, levels of motorsport.

“When I first started in Formula One, I tried to ignore the fact I was the first black guy ever to race in the sport,” the section reads. “But, as I’ve got older, I’ve really started to appreciate the implications.

“It’s a pretty cool feeling to be the person to knock down a barrier—just like the Williams sisters did in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf.”

In 2012, the Williams F1 team, whose deputy team principal is currently Claire Williams, named Susie Wolff as part of its driver development program. Wolff left Williams in 2015, and was announced as the team principal of the Venturi Formula E team last year. Tatiana Calderon became a test driver for Sauber F1, now known as Alfa Romeo Racing, in 2018, and Jamie Chadwick became a Williams F1 development driver this year. Chadwick also won the inaugural 2019 title in the W Series, a women-only series that we have mixed feelings about.

In the top levels of NASCAR, the three national touring series, a few faces that break the typical mold have come up over the years.

Danica Patrick solidified her household name in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Cup Series, becoming the first woman to qualify on the pole and to lead a lap in the 2013 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race. Prior to that, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008. The 2019 Daytona 500 had another first for women when Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary became the first women to change tires in the race. Daniels is also the first black woman on an over-the-wall crew in a NASCAR national series, and Cup Series crew member Derrell Edwards became the first black crew member to win a Daytona 500 with Austin Dillon in 2018.

In 2016, Daniel Suarez, from Monterrey, Mexico, became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national championship with his Xfinity Series title. He became the first Mexican driver to compete full time in the top-level Cup Series the next year, and in 2018, Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first black driver since Wendell Scott in 1971 to race full time in the Cup Series.

Over the years and currently, there have also been names like Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Hailie Deegan, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Johanna Robbins (formerly Long), Nelson Piquet Jr., Natalie Decker, Jesse Iwuji and Angela Ruch.

Sure, there are a lot of “first” mentions in there, which means we’re not nearly as far as we should be in NASCAR or in racing in general. But things are getting somewhere, and that’s better than nothing at all.

NHRA is a wide net, at least compared to a lot of other categories in racing. In a 2018 story about women in racing, Leah Pritchett, who won the Factory Stock Showdown Series title in 2018 while also competing in NHRA’s highest Top Fuel category, had harsher words for NASCAR when speaking with USA Today:

“NASCAR, I think, is still in retrograde, still in a ‘good old boy’ mind-set,” she said. “This is NASCARland – a male-dominated sport, by far. Between the competitors and the fan base, they just have not come along as far and as quickly as the NHRA has come.”

In just 2017, Brittany Force became the second woman in history and the first in 35 years to win the Top Fuel championship. The first woman to do it was Shirley Muldowney, who won the title in the class in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Karen Stoffer and Erica Enders, who won back-to-back Pro Stock championships a few years ago, secured the 148th and 149th wins for women in NHRA.

In 2012, Antron Brown became the first black champion in an NHRA pro series with his Top Fuel championship despite, via USA Today, his engine catching fire and leaving him with an early elimination in the finale. He’s since gone on to win the Top Fuel title in both 2015 and 2016. In January, the winningest woman in NHRA Funny Car history, Courtney Force, said she was stepping away from driving.

Those series aren’t the only places where women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ drivers and other racing participants are gaining voices, though. There’s 2018 Supersport 300 World Champion Ana Carrasco, and British driver Flick Haigh, who in 2018 became the first woman to take an overall race win British GT’s 26-year history. Abbie Eaton, who’s been The Grand Tour’s test driver, will join the W Series next year, while hillclimb racer Charlie Martin actively works to make motorsports a more open place for fellow trans participants and the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community.

“Transitioning was the scariest thing I could ever think of doing,” she told Jalopnik last year. “But then to actually do it, to get through it, to still keep my friends and still keep doing sport I love, I felt I could do anything.”

And let’s not forget new organizations designed specifically for fostering a more diverse racing grid, including Racing Pride and NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity.

Those are just a few of the names in the scope of racing, since we don’t have an extra 1,000 words to continue this section. But even if progress is slower than a lot of us might like, the list will be far longer in another 15 years.

The Rise Of Sim Racing

Computers and our personal technology have come a long way since 2004, when you had a flip phone if you were cool. That’s led to the rapid rise of esports and hyper-realistic simulator racing, which is, in essence, a great thing—it opens racing up to more people, since the investment can consist of a gaming wheel, pedals, shifter, and the like, plus a game or subscription.

It also eliminates a lot of the unexpected costs in racing, especially when a person is just learning: crashes and mechanical failures mean racing is an exponentially costly hobby, and even if a driver is good and has the potential to gain sponsorship, that’s often a barrier to people who don’t have the money to begin learning the discipline. Racing simulators are also good for practice in general, and for people not looking to be professionals but wanting to have fun or improve their track driving.

One of the biggest successes of simulator racing has been NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron, who got a racing simulator at 13 years old and learned how to drive on iRacing. Byron had help getting into a real car thanks to his family’s resources after he proved he could actually drive on the computer, via Polygon:

That helped to convince his father, a wealth management advisor in Charlotte, Bank City U.S.A., that he would be worth the business risk. And it reassured his mother that he wouldn’t get himself killed.

“I have a note that says I’ve got to pay a lot of it back,” Byron says. “My dad’s biggest thing was, if this is something I want to do, it’s going to take investment, and you have to pay it back.”

When Byron got into the three national series of NASCAR, he was successful right away. He probably should’ve won the 2016 NASCAR Truck Series title at 18 years old but didn’t due to NASCAR’s elimination-playoff format, and moved up to the Xfinity Series the next year, winning the title in his rookie season. He’s now at one of the top teams in the Cup Series, Hendrick Motorsports.

iRacing has been a major tool in the stock-car ranks, beginning in 2004 and partnering with NASCAR as well as the Indy Racing League, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Dallara for online series in 2009. IMSA is also partnered with the simulator, allowing it to run IMSA-like series online.

Earlier this year, NBC Sports Network even showed the championship finale of the NASCAR iRacing series live. Zack Novak, driving for Roush Fenway Racing, won the title and $40,000.

In 2016, we learned that playing Gran Turismo Sport could count toward a real FIA racing license—another step in making motorsports more easily accessible and less expensive. There’s also the Nissan GT Academy that began in 2008, and in 2013, we wrote about how academy winners were barred from competing in real race cars in British GT because they were too good. Lucas Ordoñez became the first winner of the GT Academy in 2008, and has since been on the 24 Hours of Le Mans podium.

Ordoñez is just one of many examples, as esports racer Enzo Bonito beat both Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi and IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay at the 2019 Race of Champions.

F1 has an entire esports structure connected to its 10 teams, with all of them fielding three drivers this year. Multiple drivers in the F1 esports league have gotten in real race cars because of it, and in the case of former racer Rudy van Buren, esports helped him get in on a job as a McLaren simulator driver after winning its World’s Fastest Gamer competition.

Van Buren had been working as a sales manager in his professional life after his racing career ended due to a lack of funding, according to an ESPN story on how he got back in it without needing to fund an expensive racing operation:

The competition it launched and the incredible job offer waiting at the end attracted 30,000 applicants worldwide, all from a range of online racing platforms. That was soon whittled down to 12 who visited McLaren’s Woking headquarters, from which Van Buren emerged victorious when the series of tests were finished.

But when the Dutchman initially saw the advert last August he was just a sceptical, and slightly bitter, former driver. By his own admission, he spent much of his early twenties wondering what might have been were it not for the lack of funding and sponsorship which prematurely ended his racing career in 2009 after showing flashes of promise in karting.

Not only are widely accessible simulators helping lower the costs of entry into motorsports for newcomers wanting to try it out, they’re giving people like van Buren, whose racing dreams ended when the funding ran out, a chance to get back into it without the same monetary struggles they faced before.

The Move to Cut Costs

Across various motorsports disciplines, a common theme has existed: Make the racing cheaper for race teams, thus enticing more teams to participate in said disciplines. Some of that is for the purpose of wanting more car count, like in NASCAR, and some of that is for the purpose of wanting teams to be cost capped so that big ones can’t run away with the title every year, like in F1.

In its 2018 title-winning season, the Mercedes F1 team was reported to have spent more than $400 million at current exchange rates. In 2013, NBC Sports reported that the Ferrari F1 team’s annual budget was $470 million compared to a top IndyCar team budget of $15 million. In 2014, the New York Times reported that the least-funded F1 teams spent about $80 million annually, meaning there’s a huge difference in budgets in a series whose current regulations make on-track success highly correlated with car innovation.

At the end of October, F1 made an announcement that would hopefully reel that in: that beginning with its 2021 regulations, it would implement a cost cap of $175 million per team per race season. The goal, the announcement said, was to create “a sport where success is determined more by how well a team spends its money not how much it spends.” That, hopefully, means closer competition and better racing.

There have been more distant moves to cap costs, such as the MotoGP response to the financial crisis around 2008 and 2009. Kawasaki quit the championship in 2009, Reuters reported in January of that year, writing that it was “part of the company’s efforts to cut spending amid the global financial crisis.” That year, MotoGP responded with a set of cost-cutting regulations that cut practice and testing time, as well as limiting use of certain devices and engine use.

As Autosport reported at the time:

The plans were submitted to motorcycle racing’s governing body, the FIM, after being suggested by the MotoGP manufacturers during meetings in recent months.

Many in the sport have called for more radical cost-cutting measures to be taken from 2010, following the lead set by Formula One.

MotoGP costs have been in the spotlight since Kawasaki announced it was pulling its works team out of the championship. Efforts to keep the team in MotoGP as a private entry - and therefore maintain a 19-bike field - are ongoing.

The Kawasaki response that year is a reminder that when it comes to companies manufacturing any type of vehicle, participating in motorsport is often the fat, not the main moneymaker. It’s easier to trim.

NASCAR has also seen a lot of cost cutting in recent years, such as the recently controversial NT1 spec engine in the third-tier Truck Series. The spec engine was introduced before the 2018 season to cut costs, and regulations were later put in place that made OEM options essentially uncompetitive.

The sanctioning body has also cut field sizes in all three of its national series, dropped an over-the-wall crew member in the Cup Series, and standardized pit guns.

Perhaps the most visible sign of costs outweighing benefits in motorsports was when, in 2018, the defending Cup Series championship team Furniture Row Racing announced it would shut down at the end of the year. After winning the 2017 title with Martin Truex Jr., team owner Barney Visser, as quoted by ESPN from a team statement, said the numbers “just don’t add up.”

“I would have to borrow money to continue as a competitive team and I’m not going to do that,” Visser said. “This was obviously a painful decision to arrive at knowing how it will affect a number of quality and talented people.

“We’ve been aggressively seeking sponsorship to replace 5-hour Energy and to offset the rising costs of continuing a team alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing but haven’t had any success. I feel that it’s only proper to make the decision at this time to allow all team members to start seeking employment for next year.”

Truex Jr. and championship crew chief Cole Pearn went to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2019 season, and Pearn announced his retirement after it.

Going Electric

For the first time in the history of motorsport, people have grown incredibly conscious of the impact of their favorite series on the health of the planet. And to match the demand for hybrid and electric vehicles in the market, racing has begun moving away from the purity of internal combustion engines.

One of the first hints of changing times came in 2011, when rumors about an all-electric open-wheel series began making the rounds. There weren’t many details, but there was a hell of a lot of skepticism: How is this relatively untried technology going to become a full-fledged racing series? And who even wants to watch a bunch of whiny electric cars putt around a circuit for an hour?

Three years later, in 2014, the very first Formula E race took place in Beijing, China. With a field full of former F1 drivers (including a second-generation Senna and Prost) and a wild last-lap crash, race fans were interested. OK, they said, we can get down with this.

In the five years that have followed, the scope of electric racing has changed drastically. The batteries in Formula E cars are so advanced that they can now last an entire race without a mid-race pit stop to swap cars. The series introduced an electric, autonomous race series called Roborace. It has also founded Extreme E, a rally-like event designed to raise awareness about climate change. MotoE got back on track despite a devastating fire that wiped out its whole paddock. DTM wants its own all-electric touring car series. World Rallycross wants to convert to electric powertrains. There’s Electric GT, ETCR, and the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy, just to name a few of the growing all-electric series coming to light.

Not everyone has been a fan. Plenty of people miss the noise of big, angry V8 or V10 engines, the smell of gasoline and motor oil. But the move to greener racing—be it going electric or F1’s push to become carbon neutral—looks like it’ll define the next 15 years of motorsport.


A lot can happen over the course of 15 years, and, in terms of motorsports, did. The general progression of the culture, technology and safety precautions in the sport has been a positive one over those years, even if things are moving more slowly than they should.

But forward progress is better than none at all.

Staff writer, Jalopnik

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

Alanis, since MotoGP was listed in the dominant champions sports listing I’d like to append Marco Simoncelli to death(s) for 2011.