Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Shutting Down

I’ve struggled with writing this since before Long Beach, and the words don’t seem to be coming any easier today than they did a few weeks ago. Effective today, I am shuttering IndyCar Advocate. The site will remain up, but as of now, there are no plans at present for additional articles or content to be posted.

This isn’t because I don’t love IndyCar, or because of any slight or offense. Simply put, I don’t have the time or resources to do this properly, and it's become pretty clear to me the winds aren't blowing in my direction. I currently work 2.5 jobs, take classes, and most importantly, have a family that needs my attention and dedication. I had hoped that I’d be able to justify to myself continuing on either through donations or from opportunities derived from writing, but that simply hasn’t materialized, outside the rare actions of a few kind-hearted individuals (thank you again).

I love IndyCar. I believe it is the best racing going on the planet, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of my involvement through this site. That, and the wonderful friends I’ve made, make this an incredibly hard decision that has kept me up nights. But I can no longer stave off reality, and that reality is my current level of obligations no longer allow for me to participate in this sport, and by extension, this site, as I would otherwise want to. As much as I've wanted the right opportunities to come along to help me to continue, it just hasn't happened.

Non-racing fans find it counter-intuitive when I talk about how peaceful I find racing. For me, the excitement of cars roaring around the track is complemented by what I feel when I drive out to the Speedway in the middle of winter, or show up just after the gates open and sit in the stands, watching the track slowly come to life. There’s something wonderful about a speedway or race course before the race, before qualifications, before practice. Nothing has yet been written; each day, each session is waiting to be born, and brings the possibility of something new, wonderful, and exciting. At the same time, that silence before all the engines roar to life, there is a quiet, profound sense of shared history, a sense of perspective and scope that is deep and affirming. In racing, the ghosts of the past are always there, and I’ve found listening for them brings a tremendous amount of peace and contentment. I hope that at some point, I’m able to come back to that. I'll at least leave the door open a crack.

Here’s hoping all of you enjoy what you love, stay positive, and have a great racing season. If you don’t mind, I’m probably not going to respond to any inquiries for a few weeks—there’s a lot to do, and after doing this, there’s the sense of needing some distance for a bit. Thanks for all the great times, and may God bless you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

No Preview This Week

Unfortunately, it's been pretty hectic lately, and I'm going to have to forego the usual preview for Long Beach. Apologies for any inconvenience, but here's hoping you have a great race weekend!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Interview With Junior Strous

I recently sat down for an interview with one of the Netherlands' most successful race car drivers to date: Junior Strous. In this interview, we will highlight his activities both on and off track; go over his personal life, ambitions, racing, crashes, business, relationships, family, highs/lows, and how he sees his comeback into competitive motorsports. This interview will be the most in depth to date. Let's jump right in:

First of all we would like to talk about how you got into racing and how involved was your family, and can you tell us about them?

JS: My dad, Ton Strous used to be a racecar driver and he still is at 81 years of age. He’s an athletic kinda guy, he participated in so many professional sports, from bobsledding to skiing, tennis to golf, al sorts of surfing, I can’t name them all. My mom is a part time yoga teacher, and a businesswoman so they are an interesting mix. They started a carwash and detailing products import from the United States in 1992, they still run this besides their successful oil business. It’s a funny story because when I was young I wasn't in to sports at all! My dad told me: ‘Listen Junior, just do reasonable in school and practice one or two sports and I’m off your back.’’ I would practice a certain sport for a while but then drop out after a few months. It drove my dad nuts. I drove my first laps on a go cart track in Tenerife, Spain when I was only 10 years of age. I still remember the first lap, it made a huge impression on me. From then on I knew I wanted to become a race car driver, and the best thing. There is a picture of that first lap! In racing terms 12 is kinda late to start by the way. My parents enabled me to get into racing. Racing starts out as an expensive hobby and only a few get to make it to the professional level. My dad was and is a great mentor.

Image courtesy J. Strous
Can you tell us where you grew up where you went to school and something about your education?

JS: I grew up in the quiet town of Wassenaar in the Netherlands and went to the St. Jan Baptist Middle school, then on to Rijlands Lyceum High Scool. By this time it was hard combining my racing schedule with school so I spent my last years of high school attending the private Stebo School in The Hague. Afterwards I attended the University of Amsterdam. I also attended a private School in Bern, Switzerland for a master in Management.

Where are you currently living?

JS: I’m living in a town called Lyss in Switzerland, it’s close by Bern. I believe it’s one of the best places to live in the world. Snowboarding in the winter is great!

What are your dreams?

JS: My dream is to race in Indycar or Formula One. To be honest I like Indycar better. There is the discipline of oval racing which always reminds me of roman chariot racing. And in Indycar you get to drive more street tracks. I like the formula of only a few chassis and engines, there is always a chance you can win an IndyCar race. But if you’re not in one of the top team or a back marker in F1, no chance! I never stop chasing my dreams but sometimes you have to take a step back to make a leap forward. That’s what I did during and after the crisis my sponsors were hit hard. Financial troubles began in 2008 when I was with Condor Motorsports in ChampCar Atlantics. One of my sponsors just couldn’t bring up the money. We ended up skipping free practices to save on expenses like tires. Going straight in to qualifying obviously doesn’t help performance but it was the only we could make it work.

’09 was the same story. I couldn’t get the sponsorship together to get a competitive seat in IndyCar or Indycar Light so I decided with help from Arie Luyendyk and some others motorsport professionals to found my own team Winners Circle Group. Now I was a race car driver and team owner both at the same time! And with success I won the first to races in St. Petersburg. It was cool winning in the Indy Lights series from big team names as Andretti and Sam Schmidt. I was later told I made history with my team by winning the first to races. No Dutch guy has ever done that on that level in motorsports, it was cool but very stressful.

What has kept you busy all this time since you won your last racing championship?

JS: Besides a race car driver and race team owner, I’m also a test driver for Toyo tires since 04’. This keeps me busy and makes sure I don’t lose my skills. As a Driver coach I teach up-and-coming race car drivers the skill set needed to succeed. People call me an entrepreneur, having founded and invested in companies in a wide variety of markets: Online, Aviation, Travel, Gemstone and Carbon credit trade. I’m an Art Dealer for artist: Michiel Molenaar , I represent him in the USA and Caribbean. Some people think I’m a bit young to be into arts. And I’m writing a book about my adventures in racing and business. I’m a busy man, I have to plan my time carefully.

How does this all affect you personal life?

JS: It all takes up a lot of time and energy. I love to travel and my newest venture is in the Online travel industry. Luckily my girlfriend Mylene Kooij also does a lot of traveling for her profession. She’s a professional model and we have even cut short vacations because of work.
Image courtesy J. Strous

Online, I’m reading articles about the heroics of Junior Strous, putting out fires, fighting crime, and most surprising, Junior Strous stopping terror attacks on commercial airports and airliners! What’s up with that?

JS: Well, some of it’s taken out of context. On some online blogs they called me a hero for extinguishing a car that was on fire. It was back in 2011. I found a Mercedes on fire on the highway between The Hague and Amsterdam in The Netherlands. I put out the fire, later on the fire department arrived and they totally destroyed the car. I caught I all on my iPhone and posted the video online. It sparked controversy and I took it down on request of the fire department. It showed inadequate handling on their part. And because they generally do a good job and risk their lives for others it thought taking the video down was best.

The crime fighter title comes from way back in 2008. I witnessed a hit and run on my family's oil company. I pursued the criminals onto the highway. I was driving my BMW M3 so obviously they didn’t stand a chance. I pushed them off the highway and they crashed. Eventually all three criminals were apprehended by police. Authorities questioned me about the incident and I told them I had to drive well over 250Km/h to catch up on the highway. The police cited me for speeding. But the charges were dropped due to Dutch law that allows citizens to break the law and pursue criminals when caught in the act. It sparked some controversy online. A major Dutch newspaper held an online poll asking readers if my license should be revoked for speeding it was about 50/50. The poll had over 12000 voters and 1800 people commenting on the matter.

My counter aviation terrorism efforts were one of the hardest things I've done in my life. Because so many live were at stake. In some Dutch newspapers they refer to me now as: Junior Strous the counter terrorism expert. It is true that I always keep my eyes open for security issues and analyze the systems in place. I see myself as just a curios air traveler. In 2009 and 2010 I noticed several security and protocol flaws at Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport. These flaws compromised the safety of international flights departing from the airport. Eventually I disclosed two scenarios. In the fist scenario it was possible to get a refilled and resealed bottle with a possibly dangerous substance i.e. a Barcardi Rum bottle onboard departing aircraft from the international terminal. The second scenario was even worse, it was possible to get around security and bring whatever you wanted on board a departing aircraft from the international terminal. Both scenarios got international coverage; it was front-page news in The Netherlands and Europe. What I found hardest about this all was that authorities at the airport were putting the commercial interest of the airport before passenger safety. After a while I felt forced to go public with my findings in the media to minimize the possibility of a terrorist attack. Schiphol International Airport at that time was the most dangerous airport in the world.

How many awards have you received over the years, and of what sort are they?

JS: The most memorable awards I have received are the Lippmann & Moens Trophy I got in 2002. It’s from the Dutch Racing school: Rennsportschool Zandvoort RSZ.

I've been nominated for sports hero of the year (The Hague Area) in 2002-2003-2005-2009 and won every time. I’m most proud of the Villeneuve Award in won in ChampCar Atlantics in 2008. It’s presented to the driver who possesses extraordinary ability and star quality and who has distinguished himself through sportsmanship, dedication and perseverance in the face of disappointment. In October 2011 I was voted best race car driver in the world by Driver Database.

You set a speed record on the public highway of 325 Km/h and filmed the whole thing a posted it on YouTube. What were you thinking?

JS: In my defence. I posted it on April fools day. But yeah, my BMW M3 goes that fast. I set the record at 4 a.m on a 5 lane wide empty highway. It caused quite a stir online. On a Dutch car blog ‘Autoblog’ the said it as the Dutch national record.

That brings me to crashing, how often have you crashed in your racing career and what injuries did you sustain?

JS: I've had some big and bad crashes. My first big crash was in 2003 at the Assen race track in The Netherlands. I was driving a Formula Renault in the Dutch and Benelux championship when I got hit by my team mate Giedo Van Der Garde who spun out of control by a stupid mistake. My car flipped a couple of times and disintegrated. The video is on my YouTube channel. I had a burned arm from the engine oil, a concussion and afterwards doctors found out I had a ruptured spleen. The race car was a write-off.

My second big crash almost got me killed. It happened during testing for the European championship Formula Renault in Oschersleben, Germany in 2005. My new race car that just left the factory and we found out afterwards it had a production fault where a sleeve protecting the throttle cable was cut to short resulting in the throttle being stuck open at full resulting in my crash. It couldn't have happened in a worst place. Right in an almost full throttle corner. The car hit the tire wall in front of the guardrail, flipped and I landed with my helmet on top of the guardrail. I spent 2 days in an east German hospital with crack in my skull and compressed neck vertebra. Video of the crash was recorded by the Motopark Oschersleben race track but not released as it showed dangerous deficiencies in the safety barrier for formula cars.

In 2007 during during qualifying of the ChampCar Atlantics race in Long Beach, California, I crashed in the first corner of the Street race track after a differential failure. I broke my wright wrist. A navicular fracture, the doctors called it.

I continued racing with injections for pain at long beach and tried to race Houston, Texas but passed out after qualifying from the pain. I had surgery in Europe and continued to race, as I did not include a contractual possibility to withdraw from the races in case of injury with my sponsors. I’ll never forget the pain I had that season. I can’t recommend racing with a broken wrist to anyone!. Later that year, I drove a guest race for Dutch NASCAR called: Benelux Racing League, or BRL for short. This was during the ChampCar race weekend at Assen. I was leading the race and in the final lap the gearbox exploded. It was like a grenade went off inside the car. Shrapnel and ball bearings shot through aluminum covers, windshield, roof. It just destroyed the car. I got hit in my ankle, elbow and helmet by the ball bearings. The ChampCar doctors had to cut one ball bearing out of my elbow.

In 2009 my Indy Lights car caught fire during the race. It’s up on my YouTube channel. The scary thing was that I couldn't get my belts undone. The Holmatro safety crew got me out of the car. I just had some mild burns in my neck.

How do you see your comeback into racing?

JS: My goal is IndyCar. With the current economics Formula One is out of the question. To many people want to drive F1 and they’re all outbidding each other. I’m working hard on a new business venture in Online Flight Search. I feel this is the fastest way to get some solid sponsorship and funding. I want to be in a position where I can race for the win and have some proper testing pre season. Unlike the last couple of seasons.

What were your highs and lows in racing?

JS: My high was definitely winning the two Indy Lights races in St.Petersburg, Florida with my Winners Circle Group team. We worked so hard on it and the odd were against us.

My low was the passing of my engineer and friend Tim Wardrop. He was won the 500 with Arie Luyendyk and Juan Pablo Montoya. We had a good click and made the impossible happen. He was his last race with me. He was a dear friend.

Besides racing and entrepreneurship you also do some presenting a commentating for TV and radio from time to time. Can you tell us about that?

JS: I was a commentator for RaceWorld TV together with legendary commentator Bert Devies. We did commentary for DTM, ChampCar and IndyCar races live on various networks. The RaceWorld TV programs were syndicated internationally on ABC Sports, Fox Sports and other channels. I have presented and hosted many shows for the Dutch television channels, especially for SBS6. I had my own ChampCar Atlantic and Indy Lights show on that channel together with Jack Plooij. It was a lot of fun. But it took a lot out of me because at some races I was team owner, driver and TV host. In 2011 I had sponsorship deal with a Dutch radio station called SLAM!FM so I was a frequent guest on that station.

I see some drifting action on your resume, and on your YouTube channel.

JS: Drifting is one of my passions. I’m a drift specialist and instructor. And was part of the ‘drift movement’ when it started to become popular in 2000 back in Europe. Whenever I can and it’s safe I like to slide my car around. I made some cool videos for my YouTube channel. For one promotional video we traveled all the way to Death Valley in Nevada to shoot a promotional video. Check it out on my YouTube channel.

A Quick Paypal Note

I've updated the Paypal button for donations on the right sidebar of the site. If you're of a mind to throw a couple bucks towards the site, it would be much appreciated. I'm not really one for pushing that sort of thing, so I'll just say thanks in advance to anyone who donate, and thank everyone for reading, one way or the other.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Notes: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

-Really, if you think about it, it was sort of fitting a Verizon car won the first-ever race under the Verizon Indy Car Series banner. It was a really strong start for Will Power, who had company all day, but also never looked like he wasn't at least equal to the task.

-I suppose we should address the issues with the restart after Charlie Kimball's yellow. It seemed as if the pace car shouldn't have been as gapped as it was, but there's no doubt the whole speed up/slow down/speed up business really made a mess of things.

-Mike Conway was immensely impressive in his debut for Ed Carpenter Racing. It's only been one race, but you just get the feeling that Ed Carpenter the Owner made the right decision. Yeah, a miscommunication late in the race cost them a chance at a podium or better, but tell me something--if they don't make that unforced error, would you have bet against Conway to win it all? I wouldn't have.

-Regarding the TV and radio coverage: I thought the TV pace was better, though Scott Goodyear could still stand to bring a bit more energy. It was well-produced, and I thought a much better product than last year. In terms of the radio coverage, Paul Page was a bit rusty, but he can get away with that for a bit, being Paul Page. Pippa Mann was excellent as the driver analyst, and it was nice having Sage Karam providing insight for the Lights race. On that note, do you think there's any serious chance we don't see Karam in a car for the Indy 500? I don't--why have him in the booth and out and about if he's just going to pine away for a ride all year? My guess is Sage will have a spot for himself in the field of 33.

-Chevy grabbed the first victory, but Honda was no slouch, either. In fact the Top 10 was perfectly split 5/5 between the two manufacturers. For all the talk about either Honda or Chevy looking to have the upper hand with this engine redesign, it's still felt like anyone's race so far. Honda grabs the pole, Chevy wins the race, Honda grabs P2. I hope the see-saw continues.

-Rookies, Rookies Everywhere: I thought it was a promising weekend for most of IndyCar's rookie crop. Mikhail Aleshin crept up to finish P12. Carlos Munoz started P7, and ran into trouble only later in the race. Carlos Huertas didn't look significantly behind the power curve, given his lack of seat time. Then there's Jack Hawksworth (see below)....

-Jack Hawksworth was caught in an absolutely horrible restart that wasn't his fault, but that shouldn't take away from a very good rookie debut. He was competitive all weekend, mixing it up with the veterans, and showing more of the skill he's always shown at St. Pete. Bryan Herta Autosport has to be very excited about his potential this year.

-That was a scary moment on the Marco Andretti crash. We've seen plenty of drivers injure their wrists by not releasing the steering wheels quickly enough on a snappy impact like that. Hopefully, it's nothing he can work his way through, but it didn't look good.

-Justin Wilson starts P16, finishes P8. Why is this man not in a Penske or Ganassi or Andretti car again?

-Newgarden! Starts dead last, finishes P9, with a great charge in the closing laps of the race. I still think we see Josef get that first victory at some point this year. There are a lot of reasons to think Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing could struggle this year--a small team, engineering changes--but they don't seem to care.

-Your Top 5 yesterday: Power, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Dixon, Pagenaud. That pretty much seems like the core of the title contenders, doesn't it? Heck, throw Tony Kanaan in P6 in there, too, and I think that still holds true.

-Back to the race itself: it was nice and clean through Lap 76, and I really felt like it was just a lot of really excellent professionals, each with a reasonable shot to win, running mostly hard and clean . While it wasn't in doubt down to the wire, it just felt like an optimistic, hard-fought opener, as if we all mostly picked up right where we left off.

-I think we're in for a fun year in Indy Lights (remember, Cooper Tires now, not Firestone!). Zach Veach did a nice job yesterday of running consistently fast laps--something he couldn't always say in 2013--and it was an impressive first victory.

-Big congratulations to Spencer Pigot for winning both races of Pro Mazda's St. Pete doubleheader. You also have to impressed with Kyle Kaiser finishing P2 in both races. That's going to be a fun series to follow again this year. 16 entrants is a pretty solid field for right now, too, I think.

Other Notes: As much as I enjoy IndyCar's Radio coverage, there were a few times this weekend where there were reports of some choppy audio from web browsers. However, it sounds as if the Verizon app audio worked well...Scary moment in the Lights race with an early hard crash from Fan Force United's Scott Anderson. Glad he's ok--the FFU machine, however, didn't look as if it could say the same...Congrats to RC Enerson and Florian Latorre for their USF2000 wins this weekend....Takuma Sato might have been caught up in some traffic exiting the pits and finished P7, but still, that's got to be a very nice opening weekend for the Foyt crew. They just have to hope they not only start strong like last year, but finish strong, too.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Storylines: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

After a ridiculously long winter, the newly-christened Verizon IndyCar Series powers up once again for a season opener. This offseason has seen plenty of changes on the drivers, engines, and crew fronts, but the old favorites are (mostly) still there, ready to fight it out once again for the title. Here are a few of the storylines to keep in mind for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:

Watch Those Engines: A new engine formula, and Honda switch to a twin-turbo, mean a lot of uncertainty as to just what to expect out of the engines--especially in the first few rounds. On paper, it looks like Honda has the most to prove, and with that comes the performance of would-be title contenders such as Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. Will they be able to contend with the Chevy teams of Penske and the newly-converted Ganassi crew, or will they be sentenced to a season of also-ran status?

And speaking of engines...

Rules Reminder: There is no more 10-grid driver penalty for swapping engines before their expiration date, with only a manufacturer's penalty as negative reinforcement for that action.

A Big Debut: Of course, Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason, and everyone is anxious to see if he's on the same wavelength as his teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. If he struggles early or dominates out of the gate, expect plenty of discussion of his career and his place in IndyCar--and racing--history, for good or ill.

Livery Watch: My goodness, what isn't different this year? Mikhail Aleshin will debut the red, white, and blue colorings of the SMP Bank livery in the #7 car, while Sebastien Bourdais will be in a green-and-black iteration of the #11 Hydroxycut scheme. Graham Rahal's #15 will sport the blue-and-red National Guard colors, and Sebastian Saavedra returns to his AFS Racing yellow/red livery in the #17. Marco Andretti is in blue/yellow Snapple colors, while James Hinchcliffe debuts the light blue and white UFD livery. Jack Hawksworth will have the Charter #98 black/blue colors, and Josef Newgarden will take the #67 in a black/orange/white Florida Lotto configuration. All in all, there are plenty of very distinct liveries to start off the year.

Engineering Changes: There have been plenty of engineering changes and crew swaps over the offseason, but there are a few that stand out as worthy of special notice. Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing lost Bill Pappas in the offseason, but have replaced him with engineer Michael Cannon. Cannon is excellent, but you'll also note he never stays for long with any one team. Meanwhile, Bill Pappas moved to what looks to be a budding powerhouse at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Graham Rahal complained plenty about setup woes last year; we'll see what the magic of Pappas can do for that team. Elsewhere, James Hinchcliffe lost his engineer Craig Hampson to a R&D role, but the team grabbed Nathan O'Rourke from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. All the teams listed have plenty to prove this year, and just how the engineering musical chairs pans out will be a big part of that.

The Ganassi Revamp: With Dario Franchitti retiring, it will seem odd to see Tony Kanaan in the #10 Target Chip Ganassi car, but last year's Indy 500 champ is sitting in one of the best rides in the series. If he can come close to the excellence Franchitti showed in that seat, he'll be doing great--he has some very big shoes to fill, after all. With him will be teammate Ryan Briscoe, rescued from Part-Timer's Purgatory and placed in the #8 NTT Data car. Paired with defending champion Scott Dixon and race winner Charlie Kimball, this is a team that should be formidable each and every week.

Rookie Watch: It's essentially a three-way race between full-time rookies for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in IndyCar. Mikhail Aleshin is experienced, but it remains to be seen how he'll fare on the ovals. Jack Hawksworth can point to some brilliant moments on the street courses throughout the Mazda Road to Indy, but being on a one-car team and sketchy on ovals raise some big question marks. Carlos Munoz had a great rookie outing at Indy in 2012, but we'll have to see if he can bring that over a full season. Consistency is the name of the game to become Rookie of the Year, and any one of the three racers mentioned could surprise or disappoint. Let's see who gets off to a fast start.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: It's a big weekend for the Mazda Road to Indy, as both USF2000 and Pro Mazda have multi-race weekends planned (more on those series to come soon). In Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires, it's a double-digit car count (12), with hopes that it stays north of the low numbers shown in 2012. There are several possible title contenders in the field, but Matthew Brabaham and Zach Veach of Andretti, Jack Harvey and Luiz Razia of Schmidt Peterson, and Gabby Chaves Chaves of Belardi Auto Racing are probably the ones to watch right out of the gate. We'll see which other young prospects can join the fight and make a name for themselves this weekend. It will also be worth watching Lloyd Read and the Bryan Herta Autosport entry, to see how solid they are.

Pole Prediction: Will Power. Why mess with what works?

Dark Horse Prediction: Charlie Kimball. I don't think we can consider a Ganassi driver much of a dark horse, but I'm not seeing his name much in connection with being favored for this one. He finished P9 here a year ago, but that was after starting P22. I think he is line for an even better season than last year, and what better place to start?

Winner Prediction: Helio Castroneves. I think he'll start the season strong. Yes, that's just a hunch I will likely regret.

If you missed it: Don't forget to check out the 2014 Season Kick-off Round Table I did with Eric Hall, Mark Wilkinson, and Steve Wittich over at INDYCAR Nation. It's good fun for the whole family!

That's all for now. Enjoy the first 2014 weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and may it be a good weekend for one and all!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jim Nabors: More Than Tradition

Unlike many individuals, I don't have a specific remembrance of the first time I heard Jim Nabors sing "Indiana" at the 500. For many of us 30 or 40-something midwesterner types, I suspect that's because it has seemed as if Jim Nabors has always been a part of the Indianapolis 500. It was just a given; since 1972, he's performed just before the race 33 times (a fitting number, I suppose). The years where he wasn't there seemed an anomaly, just a blip in an otherwise solid Indy tradition.

Honestly, for many years, Jim Nabors performing was sort of an afterthought to me--something that I knew was part of the overall festivities, but didn't really do much for me, outside of the fact that I liked the idea of the tradition. As I became a snotty teenager, my interest in the 500 and open wheel racing waned for a few years.

Flash forward a few years, and I am in the middle of a deployment with the United States Air Force. I'm thousands of miles from home, missing my family, my state, and my country desperately. One Sunday, I tune in to a grainy, unreliable Armed Forces Network feed. There on that fuzzy screen, singing "Indiana", was Jim Nabors. I absolutely broke down. In that simple performance, he encapsulated everything I loved--and missed--about home, growing up, and the Indianapolis 500.

Every year, from my seat in J-Stand, I see men and women from every walk of society--biker and lawyer, dentist and couch-burner--tear up when Jim Nabors sings. I know that for many of them, like me, that song is hitting them right in the heart. There's a moment in "Indiana" where all the longing, all the great memories, and the joy of being somewhere special come together into a feeling that can't quite ever be precisely described. Sharing that feeling--even if we can't quite name it--with 250,000 of your newfound closest friends just heightens it.

We live in a cynical world, one where sometimes something simple and sweet can often only be loved if it is in the "ironic" sense. I think there is often a tendency to think of matters such as an attachment to Jim Nabors, or "11 rows of 3", or the Gordon Pipers, as somehow dismissively provincial, equating anything not understood by the wider public as somehow without merit or meaning. How wrong they are.

I've seen people laugh at the idea that there's somehow meaning in having Jim Nabors sing before the race. I've seen people refer to Jim Nabors as out-of-date or needing replaced by some newer act. I don't think that's the case. Whomever follows Jim Nabors (they can't replace him) should have the same sentimentality, the same straightforward spirit in singing, and that same intangible ability to evoke the best feelings of home, happiness, and memory. I like to believe there is still a place for earnestness in the world, for pure enthusiasm and joy, untempered by cynicism or the prevailing fashions of the world. For me, Jim Nabors singing "Indiana" embodies much of that.

We are lucky to have Jim Nabors one more year at the Indianapolis 500. I hope that he finds as much happiness and remembrance in his last performance as he brought to so many of us for so many years.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Notebook: Hildebrand, Car Count, Points

Oh my goodness, so much to discuss going into this weekend:

-I absolutely love the moves Ed Carpenter and his team have made this offseason. Although he worked hard at improving his craft on the road/street courses, he knew Mike Conway would be an upgrade, and pulled the trigger on that deal. Now, for the Indy 500, an event Ed has every possibility of winning one of these days, he’s chosen a teammate in J.R. Hildebrand that should have no problems matching and adding to the team’s success overall.

One comment I saw online discounted Hildebrand’s chances due to his P33 finish at Indy last year. Yeah it wasn’t pretty. But honestly, the entire situation with Hildebrand and Panther Racing deserves a do-over. We know he can the big speedways, including Indy: one poor results shouldn’t nullify that. Plus if any driver has motivation to do well this May, between 2011, last year’s brutal race, and what transpired with Panther, it is JR Hildebrand. I really like the move, and think the #21 is going to be fun to watch come May.

-So where does that leave us on Indy 500 car count? That gets us to 27 confirmed car-and-driver combos. For a math whiz like me, that comes to…let’s see….6 more entries for 33 cars, and 7 for 34. Right now the split is 12 Chevy and 15 Honda. You’re still looking at a Panther entry (Chevy), Dreyer & Reinbold’s one-off (Chevy), Ganassi’s fifth (Chevy), KV’s third (Chevy). Assuming all those come through, that’s 31 (16 Chevy/15 Honda). If Dale Coyne runs two more cars like he did last year, that gets the field to 33, with a 16 Chevy/17 Honda split. Is there another Chevy out there somewhere?

-There's also the big news on point changes for 500-mile races. With the points doubled for 500-milers, that seems like really good news for Ed Carpenter Racing, who should see their entrant points bump nicely between Ed’s oval prowess and Mike Conway on the twisties. Carpenter scored 333 points while finishing in P16 in the final standings last year; he could conceivably get close to a third of that in a single weekend at Indy, Pocono, or Fontana.

Additionally, we’ll see a much larger swing possible in the season finale. If Simon Pagenaud trails Scott Dixon by 70 points going into Fontana, that’s no longer out of reach. Basically, if a championship contender walls it and finishes P25 (let’s assume the field will be a bit larger for the finale), there could be a 90-point swing for the race alone. That’s going to be huge, and might mean a couple additional drivers in the title hunt come the finale.

-If you missed yesterday’s interview with Martin Plowman, why not take a minute and give it a read? Plowey is one of the truly nice guys in the paddock, and I hope he drives the wheels off that #41 at Indy.

-Finally, I wanted to give another plug for the site The IndyCar Blogs. It’s a nice gathering of all the IndyCar blogs out there, and I’ve picked up a few stories and sites I might now have otherwise seen. They’re also doing some nice work on Twitter, if you’re so inclined to follow them there.

Have a great weekend, and we’ll continue to gear up for the season next week!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Martin Plowman Interview: Looking Ahead To Indy

Martin Plowman is one of this year's rookie crop of drivers for the Indianapolis 500, and he'll also be "doubling" in May by competing in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. This year's driver of the #41 AJ Foyt Racing car has a pretty varied resume: he's an Indy Lights alum, he raced a few IndyCar weekends in 2011, and has a Le Mans class win under his belt. Now, with an all-new challenge in front of him, the English racer took a few minutes to answer a short Q&A on his Month of May plans and a few other items:

Plowey, thanks so much for taking some time out to do this. First, I guess we have to ask that all-consuming question, how did this deal come together? How long have you been chatting with Foyt?

MP: I first connected with Larry [Foyt] when I was a part of the Indy 500 Centennial tour, visiting military bases across the Middle-East, and I stayed in contact with him and his team ever since. AJ Foyt was one of the teams I interviewed with after moving up from Firestone Indy Lights, but the timing wasn't right as they needed a veteran to lead their one-car team. This off-season, the sportscar scene was looking bleak as it seemed that nearly all of the teams that were interested in hiring me were waiting on funding to come through from sponsors or "gentlemen drivers" so I had simply had to wait and keep phoning and emailing for an opportunity out there.

I had run out of people to email, when my dad asked me, "Have you emailed anyone in IndyCar?". At that point I had lost all hope of IndyCar because I wasn't getting anywhere finding a job in sportscar. My dad insisted I put my name out there one last time, so I reached out to Larry. He called me the next day and told me that he might have something for a second car at Indy. He told me that he had wanted to work with me for sometime, but that he would have to convince his dad to take a chance on an Indy "rookie."

I think winning at Le Mans last year certainly helped sway the decision slightly, as it's something AJ can relate to, plus I have a reputation of being someone who doesn't crash cars. Of course accidents can and will happen, but I'm someone who finds the limit in a smart way.

Have you talked much with AJ Foyt yet? Is it intimidating to think of driving for his team as a 500 rookie?

MP: The first time I got to talk to AJ formally was at Sebring for my first test. He was very easy to get along with. It's a huge honor to race for AJ, especially at Indianapolis as a rookie. He's not just a figure-head for the team; he's still very much involved with everything going on with the car, so his wealth of experience will be a huge help to me. It's not intimidating at all. In fact, I gave him my permission to slap me around if I did something wrong, as I want his help to become the best.

You've been a spotter at Indy before. Do you think that's going to help you at all in terms of preparation?

MP: Being a spotter gave me a different insight into the race, but I'm not sure how much it helped in preparing me for racing in the 500. If anything, I saw just how much of a roller-coaster ride the race is and how you have to stay very patient as the balance of a car shifts during the race.

Let's talk about your teammate for May, Takuma Sato. How would you say your driving styles are similar or different?

MP: Luckily our driving styles seem to be fairly similar after working with him at the test. We both look for the same things in a car and are sensitive to the same balance problems. It's a huge bonus for me, as it means the setup work that Taku is working on this season should transfer over to me. When I first raced in IndyCar, Tagliani, my team-mate at the time, had a very different style to me, so it meant that I had to create my own-setup with my engineer. By the second race, I was on pace with Tags, but we had opposite approaches in setup.

You've won your class at Le Mans and have been around Indy. How do the two most famous races on earth compare to one another in terms of the feeling surrounding them?

MP: They're very similar in the feel around the build-up to the race. Both cities live for their big-race and seem to completely shut-down for the two weeks the race is in town. Just like in Indy, the driver parade in Le Mans is watched by up to 100,000 people. They're both very special races that every driver aspires to win and everyone should attend before they die.
Plowman will be pulling double duty this May.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media. Image by Dana Garrett).

What about your Le Mans teammate, Bertrand Baguette? Did you guys ever have any discussion about him wanting to come back to Indy in a DW12?

MP: No, we never really talked about IndyCar together that much.

You've been involved with some pretty cool charities like Snowball Express. What's going on right now on that front?

MP: I'm still very active with Snowball, using my racing career as a platform to raise awareness for them and try to help them raise the funds needed to continue the good work they do for families of our fallen military. Nicole and I are actually planning a fundraiser in early May to benefit Snowball Express, and we'll announce further details on social media soon.

In your opinion, what has been the most exciting IndyCar or Indy 500 driver announcement this offseason (aside from your own, of course)?

MP: It was cool to see JPM make his return to open-wheel racing. He was an animal in ChampCar and took it to the Formula 1 elite when he raced for Williams, so I always welcome the chance to race against the world's best drivers.

Of course, no one ever knows how many chances they'll get at Indy. If this ended up being your only race at Indy, how would you like to be remembered? What sort of expectations are you bringing in as a rookie?

MP: I'd like to be remembered as a hard-charger who never quits and if it is my only 500....a winner!

How much have you kept up with your fellow Indy Lights classmates? There certainly should be a lot of them out there this year!

MP: We're actually all really good friends for the most part. Charlie, Stef, and Hinch are three of the current guys who I'm still very good friends with. I guess spending a year together as part of the Pace Car Team helped. Three of the quartet got engaged within the space of a month, so Hinch got a lot of harassment about him being the last one to commit. He has a good genuine girl too, so he had better not let her get away.

Everyone knows funding for a driver can be exceedingly hard to come by. What has driven and sustained you when the funding chase seemed dire?

MP: Never, never give up. Don't complain about your situation on social media; it's just wasted time. Work harder than you every have done before, work smarter, surround yourself with the right people, keep yourself prepared for any opportunity that might come your way and your luck will change.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Three Big Things To Watch At The Barber Test

For most of us, Spring has not precisely sprung just yet, but that’s not stopping the Verizon IndyCar Series from getting in some spring training this week. Monday and Tuesday’s open test sessions from Barber Motorsports Park will be the first IndyCar fix for many of us, and thankfully, it will be covered via IndyCar.com’s Live Timing and Scoring. 23 cars (22 drivers, 1 TBA) will take to the track over the two-day test. The 10am-12pm, 2pm-5pm (CT) sessions each day will be bookended by some interviews and press conferences, so we should get some nice announcements this week, too, as some of the final bits of the upcoming season are fleshed out or nailed down.

If you don’t have time during the early part of your work week to get into deep stuff, or you’re just looking for a brief overview of what to expect from Barber, here are three things to keep an eye on from the Verizon Indycar Series Open Test:

1) The Honda Differential
Honda is back this year with the newly-mandated twin turbo engine, and if there’s a big question mark right now, it has to be just how they’re going to do against Chevy and their revamped line-up. With Andretti Autosport moving to Honda and Chip Ganassi Racing moving to Chevrolet, there’s a lot of intrigue as to where the teams will sort out this year. With Honda jumping to a new engine design and the Ganassis and Penskes arrayed as the top Chevy teams, it would seem as if it is incumbent upon Honda and their teams to show they have what it takes to lead the pack. While a few open sessions might not be enough to tell the tale of a season, it could be an early indicator of where the Chevy and Honda camps (and by extension, their teams) are early on. The early results from Andretti, Rahal, Penske, and Ganassi could very well be bellwethers.

2) That Coyne 2nd Seat
God bless Dale Coyne, who keeps bloggers like me on the edge of our seats perpetually. Dale Coyne has been instrumental in bringing many drivers to this series, and has given a lot of drivers their chance in IndyCar. This year, the only unfilled spot on the entry sheet for the Barber Test is—you guessed it—the Coyne #18 car. We’ll probably find out sooner rather than later who it’s going to be, and of course there’s no guarantee the driver that’s in there for the test is going to be the main driver for the second Coyne ride. But it does add a bit of intrigue to a field that already appears to be fairly firmed cemented in terms of full-time rides (seeing as how Panther Racing doesn’t seem likely to answer the bell—you’ll notice their name isn’t to be found on the entry list). Coyne has his favorites, but he’s also been known to throw out some curveballs. I can’t wait to see who is in that seat, and what it means for the upcoming season.

3) Watch Those Rookies
There are three rookies in the field this week, and each of them brings their own story and situation to the table. Carlos Munoz already raced quite memorably part-time last year, and appears to be a strong candidate for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year. It will be interesting to see where he lands in terms of times versus the rest of a strong Andretti Autosport stable. Meanwhile, Russian Mikhail Aleshin has a teammate in Simon Pagenaud who seems a threat to contend for the title if his Honda is up to the task. Will Aleshin be an asset to the team’s campaign, and will he be able to complement his teammate well? Finally, there’s Jack Hawksworth, who was announced as a bit of a surprise with Bryan Herta Autosport. Hawk is young, and will likely have some challenges ahead of him on ovals, but Barber should be a course where he is quite comfortable. We’ll have to see just how the rookies compare against one another, and who needs a bit more work.

So there you have it—just a few of the items to watch from the Barber Open Test. Get ready, and gear up—the season is just around the corner!