Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Driver Waiting Game

The announcement yesterday that Bertrand Baguette would be driving in the World Endurance Championship this season was both good news and bad news, as far as I was concerned. Good news because it sounds like the Breadman will have some steady employment, but bad news because it’ll be running LeMans instead of, say, Milwaukee. I’ll have to hope for a Baguette appearance at Indy, I suppose. Baguette-mania will keep.

As the season creeps ever closer, all of us have drivers that don’t have deals firmed up that we’re still keeping tabs on, as we hope they find that deal to race somewhere in INDYCAR this year. Here are five drivers from throughout INDYCAR that are especially on my personal watch list as the season draws near (bearing in mind we already discussed Tomas Scheckter on Monday, and Rubens Barrichello has been confirmed):

Pippa Mann: It sounds like it’s down to the bottom of the 9th for the social media fan favorite in terms of securing a full-time ride, but even if that doesn’t happen, it’d be great to hear something in terms of a partial season or one-off at Indianapolis this May. With as many Pippa fans as are in my household, May will just be that much more fun if she returns for at least a second effort at the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

Stefan Wilson: Wilson had a great late-season charge in Firestone Indy Lights last year for Andretti Autosport, and if he can get a solid ride there once again this year, he’s got to be considered a top candidate for the championship. Unfortunately, right now, it doesn’t sound like any sort of deal is confirmed for 2012. Here’s hoping that changes before the season gets underway.

Connor De Phillippi: One of the most promising young American prospects in the ladder right now is still looking to secure an Indy Lights deal for the season. CDP has also proven himself to be a fan-friendly sort of driver online, and honestly, Lights would better off with him in that series this year. He's tested with Brooks Associates Racing, but there's little other news to report right now.

Stefan Rzadinski: The second Stefan on our list, the young Canadian was a surprise entrant at Edmonton’s twin Lights races last year. He could be the next part of a long legacy of Canadian IndyCar drivers, but right now, the focus sounds like it’s on a Star Mazda or mixed program for this season. If it happens, don’t overlook him having the potential to make a big splash.

Nick Mancuso: One of my favorites on the Mazda Road to Indy right now; the crocodile-catching, viper-chasing driver made the transition to Star Mazda from sports cars in 2011, and hopes are to have him back for a sophomore campaign this year. Unfortunately, right now there’s nothing further to report. It’d be a shame if we missed out on his unique personality this season.

It's a difficult part of Silly Season, waiting for the drivers you liked to either be signed or deliver the bad news, and it has to be a thousand times worse for drivers waiting for that call. With any luck, the names on this list with have some type of good news for us sooner rather than later.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Return of Tomas Scheckter?

Does Tomas Scheckter get under your skin? I'll admit, he has got under mine on several occasions, but that's Tomas. He says things that irritate people, or rubs them the wrong way, then he goes out on the track and makes your jaw drop. The journeyman IndyCar driver is well-known for his salvos on social media such as Twitter, but he's also known for taking the high line at Indy and making any race he's in a pretty wild show. Love him or hate him, TScheck has a knack for mixing things up. He's not a "white hat" or a "black hat", he's sort of a muddled gray, and that's what keeps it interesting, along with pulling off passes on the outside you've almost forgotten can be done.

As most fans know, in the last few years, Tomas has been a part-timer and super-sub in the series. If you saw his run at Indy last year (an 8th-place finish that was immense fun to watch in person), you know he's always going to be a hot commodity at the season's biggest race. But in an interview with SpeedTV this past November, it sounded as if the part-time role had grown tiresome.

“I’m 31 years old and I’ve got to make a decision in the next two months,” he said. “I’m not going to do six races anymore. I want to do this the proper way, with a testing program and full-time deal," he said in that interview.

Flash forward to last week, when Tomas' manager Ben Priest tweeted the following:


This is interesting, because this year's full-time field seems to be getting very close to something equaling finalization, and it's been pretty quiet in the rumor mill in regards to Scheckter. As we all know, of course, that doesn't always signify much, but something is definitely afoot that most of us simply didn't foresee.

Speculation has ranged from Tomas joining the the announcer team to joining a team such as Foyt, Sarah Fisher's crew, or Ed Carpenter Racing for a season from Indy onward. If we're honest with ourselves, it's mostly wild guesses out there at this point.

So if we're working within the bounds of speculation...

Reference this article from SpeedTV's Marshall Pruett on January 10th of this year, where Lotus' Olivier Picquenot mentions what has come to be known by silly season aficionados as the Mystery Lotus Team:

Picquenot kept the details to a minimum, but confirmed his bosses had inked a deal with a brand-new IndyCar entrant.

“Yeah, I know we signed one more team,” he said. “It has been signed between the UK and U.S., and it’s going to be a new team, not an existing team." (italics mine)


This team has long been speculated to be either vaporware or a mistaken reference to an existing team, but no current team, Lotus or otherwise, fits the description given. I've long-maintained this mystery team exists, but it's true there's been no details on it available, up until now.

So, could Tomas Scheckter, racing under the South African flag but with his family clearly established in England, be part of this Mystery Lotus Team?

Lotus has indicated it looks like they're full with their 5 current engine leases for the start of the season, so could the arrangement be for one of the teams they reference adding later in the season, perhaps full-time from Indy onward?

The only potentially related word from Tomas we see is this recent Tweet:

And, later, this short note, which seemed to go largely unnoticed:


Looking further into the timeline, the meeting was indeed in London.

So, could we be seeing a Scheckter effort as a UK-to-US Lotus connection? Possibly as part of a US rollout of Scheckter's Organic Energy, the drink launched by Tomas' brother Toby (whom appears, incidentally, to have met with Tomas and Mike Conway this weekend)?

We don't have our answers yet, but it's at least a working theory. There's no guarantee it's right, but you have to admit, it's not completely far-flung, either. Whatever's happening, it sounds like far more than just a Indy 500 one-off with Dreyer and Reinbold or KV Racing.

Whatever Tomas' news is, for me, the Series is a bit more unpredictable and crazy when he's the midst of it all, and I hope it's something big in regards to his participation. And would it really be silly season if we didn't have at least one more wild surprise in front of us? Either way, a bit of excitement and mystery is good for the soul, and that's what Tomas Scheckter and his big news just might provide.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Introducing IndyCar Engine Power Rankings

This season, the IZOD IndyCar Series will have something it hasn’t had in some time—direct engine competition. Honda, Chevy, and Lotus will all be squaring off for bragging rights based on performance. In evaluating that performance, many series use some manner of manufacturer’s points, as I’m sure IndyCar will as well.

However, I’m not really satisfied with many of the manufacturer’s points schemes I’ve seen as determining actual overall performance of an engine. For example, in NASCAR, the top-placing manufacturer gets 9 points, the manufacturer with the 2nd-highest placing gets 6 points, and the 3rd and 4th-highest manufacturers end up with 4 and 3 points apiece, respectively. That’s fine as it goes, but it doesn’t really give enough of a sampling for my liking. What if Chevy finishes first, but all their other engines grenade and end up with a DNF?

For IndyCar this year, I’m going to be maintaining Engine Power Rankings. Basically, it will use the IndyCar points scheme, giving points on the basis of where a car finishes in the race. The top 3 positions for each manufacturer will be considered, so that means if Chevy finishes P1, P2, and P4 in a race as their three highest positions, they’ll get the points for those finishes. If Lotus finishes P3, P10, and P12 for their top 3, they’ll get those points. The points from the top 3 finishes for each manufacturer will be added together, plus the bonus points for laps led or pole position if applicable. That will be their points total, and will determine where they rank among manufacturers.

Let’s take a look at how it could work:

Let’s say, just for our example, the following happens at St. Pete for a Top 10:

1) Justin Wilson (Honda)
2) Will Power (Chevy)
3) Ryan Hunter-Reay (Chevy)
4) Dario Franchitti (Honda)
5) Sebastien Bourdais (Lotus)
6) Simona De Silvestro (Lotus)
7) Mike Conway (Honda)
8) Alex Tagliani (Honda)
9) Tony Kanaan (Chevy)
10) Oriol Servia (Lotus)

Pole Position: Will Power (Chevy)
Laps Led: Sebastien Bourdais (Lotus)

In the above example, Honda takes points from its top 3 finishers, which are Justin Wilson in P1 (50 points), Dario in P4 (32), and Mike Conway in P7 (26). They do not receive points for the Pole Position or Laps Led, giving them a point total of 108 for the week.

Chevy looks to its top 3 finishers, and sees Power (40), Hunter-Reay (35), and Tony Kanaan (22). They also get the bonus point for Power nabbing the pole (1), giving them a point total of 98 for the week. You can see there’s a steep drop-off after the first few positions in terms of points already.

Lotus does the same as its two competitors above, and comes up with Bourdais (30), de Silvestro (28), and Servia (20). However, Bourdais leads the most laps, giving them a couple extra points (2) for a total of 80.

So after the first race of the season, the Engine Manufacturer Power Points would stand as follows:

1) Honda 108
2) Chevy 98 (-10)
3) Lotus 80 (-28)

Easy enough?

I firmly believe this system better rewards overall engine performance through the field. If a team wins the race, but no other engines of that type come close to the Top 10, they’ll fare relatively poorly compared to a team that’s consistently managing Top 5s through the season. If you get 35 or 40 points for one driver, but only 10 or 12 from your next two, you’re going to be in some trouble. We’re looking for consistency, not just who managed to win the race that week. If a team can go 1-2-3, grab the pole, and lead the most laps, well, obviously, that’s going to reflect well on them. If engines are blowing up left and right but one team manages to eke out a win, that’s going to appear more as an anomaly than any sort of field dominance.

You’ll note a tab for the IndyCar Engine Power Rankings above on the website (blank now, updated once we go racing). I’ll be updating the standings after each race, and I hope you take the time to check it out. This system should be simple enough to calculate, yet just deep enough to offer a better view of overall competitive engine performance. Watching the engine manufacturers duke it out this year should be a lot of fun; hopefully these rankings add to that tracking and enjoyment.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

IndyCar Advocate On Trackside Tonight

Just a reminder, tonight is Blogger Night on Trackside 1070 AM, and I will be on the air at some point for IndyCar Advocate's 5 minutes of fame. I think right now I'm scheduled 11th out of the 14 or so bloggers scheduled to be on, so I'd say I'll probably be on around 8:30-9:00pm, if I had to guess, but it's probably a very fluid thing. In any case, I hope you tune in and take a listen.

Tomorrow: IndyCar Engine Power Rankings. Oh yes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Six Quick Questions With Randy Bernard

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard took the time to become the next participant for our Quick Questions. Of course, Sarah Fisher, INDYCAR (and Mazda Road to Indy) on TV, and those closing comments from State of IndyCar were all brought up. A big thanks to Randy for the responses:

I’m sure you’ve been hearing this from a lot of fans, but there’s still the whole question of the Sarah Fisher engine supply issue. Do you feel confident she will have an engine in place for the opener at St. Pete?

RB: We want to make sure that every team that has the funding, manpower and talent to compete this year will have the opportunity to do so. There is so much interest in the new car that the demand for engines is higher than expected.

In a situation like that, realistically, what can and can’t the series do to help out?

RB: We are in active discussions with all of our manufacturers regarding meeting and exceeding our supply requirements because of the expected high car count to start the season.

How closely is the series working with the NBC Sports Network on the new INDYCAR 36 show?

RB: We are working very closely with NBC Sports on INDYCAR 36, especially on identifying those key drivers and storylines that we feel are a good fit.

Is there a sense yet of which teams and drivers will be featured on that show—will it be throughout the ranks, or weighted toward the top-tier teams?

RB: Our goal is to showcase the drivers with the most compelling stories and personalities. Not only do we want to highlight everything that goes on behind the scenes on race weekend and what makes these drivers the best in the world, we also want our fans to get a better understanding of our drivers outside of the cockpit. Every driver has a great story to tell and INDYCAR 36 is going to be a great platform to do so.

With Firestone Indy Lights now having each of their races on TV, is there any chance we’ll see some air time for series such as Star Mazda in the near future?

RB: Stay tuned for announcements from our Mazda Road to Indy ladder series regarding TV plans for the season. We just announced last week that all 12 Firestone Indy Lights races will be televised on NBC Sports Network this season. We have a great partner with Mazda to groom our future stars, and TV plays an important role in this initiative.

You finished off the State of INDYCAR event with some pretty strong arguments against the doubters out there. Have you heard much feedback on how that portion of it was received?

RB: The response has been positive and motivating. I wanted to utilize my closing speech at the State of INDYCAR to address the critic, the naysayer and point out that we have had some great success, but more importantly to grow our sport, we must move forward unified and positive.

Monday, February 20, 2012

IndyCar Challenge: 33 Days, 33 Sponsors

By my account, today marks 33 days left until the IZOD IndyCar Series roars to life at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. That seems like a long time, especially when you're a fan waiting out the offseason purgatory. When I was young and would complain about about being bored, my Mom would say, "You'd better find something to do before I find something for you".

OK, Mom, fine. I came up with 33 Days, 33 Sponsors.

Here's my challenge to IndyCar fans out there, one that I hope you'll join me in doing. Take 5-10 minutes each day between now and the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series season to thank a team or Series sponsor for what they do, via letter, email, or other form of customer feedback. I'm not talking about just a tweet to the company, but at least a paragraph or two of well-reasoned, informative fan opinion. That's 33 sponsors and prospective sponsors contacted, times however many fans choose to take the time to express their support.

Not sure what to do or where to start? Here's a couple of ideas:

1) Thank a current INDYCAR or INDYCAR team sponsor for their sponsorship and support. Have you bought something there recently? If so, scan or take a pic of the receipt to show you put your money where your mouth is in terms of support.

2) Is there a company that you'd like to see as a first-time sponsor or perhaps return to the series? Find their contact info and let them know!

3) Don't forget, there are sponsor for series such as Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda Championship, and Cooper Tires USF2000, as well, and they're important to the health of INDYCAR, as well! Take a moment to check out those series' and teams' sponsors, too.

Remember, make those emails, letters, etc., polite and courteous. Hostility and nastiness doesn't do much, except perhaps make people tune out.

Need sponsor lists and/or contact info? You can check out the INDYCAR sponsor page, as well as this excellent resource. Don't forget The IndyCar Fans on Twitter or Facebook, who are doing great work along these lines.

It's true that sponsorship needs to make financial sense for the companies involved, but don't discount passion and positive feedback in the process. We're all going stir crazy waiting for the IZOD IndyCar Series to start, but let's fire up those keyboards, get out the stationery, and do something productive while we wait. It's easier than doing a diet for that period, which means it's the sort of activity that still goes great with bacon (Oh, great idea! Hey! Someone see if Oscar Mayer wants to get in on some IndyCar action!).

So, there it is. 33 days, 33 letters or emails to companies in support of INDYCAR and the IZOD IndyCar series. I plan to keep track of what I do along the way, and I'd also love to hear from you (mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com) as we go about this. Best of luck, and have at it!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Randy Bernard's Charge

There’s a point in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s regiment, who are defending Little Round Top for the Union during one of the decisive battles of the American Civil War, are exhausted. They’ve withstood repeated charges from the enemy, are low on ammunition, and have the enemy once again storming their position.

Both historically and in the movie, Chamberlain executed a maneuver that was extremely rare for the day and age; in layman’s terms, Chamberlain’s Union troops basically charged in a formation that acted as a door swinging shut on the also-exhausted Confederates. That maneuver helped save the battle, possibly the war, and by extension, the United States of America (yes, I’m a big history nerd. Stay with me here).

I’m not directly comparing INDYCAR to the American Civil War in terms of meaning or even as a pure analogy (although both certainly featured a bitter internal divide within their vastly different scopes), but I do think Chamberlain’s victory underlies an important point: when things look grim, sometimes the best thing to do is attack.

If you look at this Series around 2008-2009, there was a definitive sense of gloom, or at least a lack of overt, serious optimism. Yes, the American open wheel battle between ChampCar and the Indy Racing League had ended with a merger, but many folks didn’t seem to feel too great about it. Although there were still many good points, much of the fan base was still angry, confused, and seemingly waiting for something to change.

Since taking the helm in 2010, Randy Bernard has provided the impetus for plenty of change. Let us assess his position that cold February morning when he assumed command of what is now INDYCAR. We had a 7 year-old car, a single (albeit reliable) engine manufacturer, and more than a little concern for what might remain for American open wheel fans in a few years.

History will show when faced with this position, Randy Bernard attacked.

There's no passivity, no sense of resting on our laurels. No, not everything that's been tried has worked as intended. There have been struggles with the schedule, setbacks here and there with the new car, but the important thing remains that a flurry of directed, positive activity permeates what's going on these days.

And while much remains to do to solidify the gains made and push for new ones, INDYCAR and the IZOD IndyCar Series are entering this new season on an unprecedented upswing. Consider just a few of the items that seemed a pipe dream a few years ago:

-Full, quality car counts
-The start of an improved, viable open wheel ladder
-A new car
-Multiple engine manufacturers
-Tie-in sports programming
-Improved series financial situation
-Increasing TV ratings
-Race weekend enhancement proposals (i.e., heat races at Iowa)

Any one of those items would have seemed like a godsend just a few short years ago. We find ourselves now with a wealth of good news, victories that can sustain us and inspire us through the challenges that continue to present themselves. There's a sense that the status quo won't be good enough, and won't be accepted when there are still improvements to be made.
It hasn't all been smiles for RB, but he's stayed in the fight.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

Bernard has a great team of folks around him to help make this happen, but if the buck stops at his desk for criticism, it must follow that it should do the same for praise. And while both honest fans and professional naysayers will always find items they don’t like, we can ask ourselves the same (slightly modified) question that always pops up in an election year: are you better off now (as a racing fan) than you were 4 years ago?

The battle for stability, improved racing product, and making American open wheel racing the best it can be will go on. Growth continues, but it will remain a measured, demanding task. The good news through it all is, we’re charging, and with Randy Bernard, there’s the sense that we’re at last getting to go back on the offensive.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Measuring INDYCAR’s Success This Season

There’s been almost a bewildering amount of news coming out of INDYCAR so far this week—single-file restarts back at several ovals, Conquest Racing sounding as if they’ll be missing the first races of the season, the carousel that is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing continuing to spin, qualifying heats at Iowa—and it can be overwhelming to the fan. Honestly, most of us are just to the point where we want to see racing. I love silly season as much as the next person, but I drove by a snow-tipped Indianapolis Motor Speedway the other day, and I wanted to see some IndyCars screaming in anger, then and there. (Of course, the temperature in the mid-30s would have made that a very poor idea, but you get what I’m saying). There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the upcoming season, and coming out of State of INDYCAR is a lot of optimism that it will be a good one.

Of course, to the Series, items such as TV ratings, attendance, and the bottom line are going to be the big benchmarks of whether or not the upcoming season is a success. To the fan, who helps feed and drive all of those by their participation, there will be other measures of success. I wanted to quantify some items we could come back and check the progress of over the course of the season, to truly see how INDYCAR is performing over the course of the season. I came up with four big areas to consider over the course of the upcoming season.

The first area, of course, is the On-Track Product.

-How is the racing product each race weekend?
-Is the new car performing well on ovals and road/street courses?
-How is the engine battle coming along?
-Are there compelling story lines for fans to follow?

The second area is Fan Accessibility. (Usually, this is an overall strength of INDYCAR).

-Do fans feel connected to the sport?
-Are they able to interact with and learn about their favorite drivers?
-Are there good online resources to learn more about the sport and the drivers/teams therein?
-Are experiences at the actual track friendly and positive experiences for fans?
-Is proper Series merchandise widely available for fans?

The third is Media. (Some of this is out of INDYCAR’s hands—but if ABC spends their first race ignoring the battles upfront and talking about how much everyone will miss Danica, that’s on ABC, but the buck still stops with INDYCAR).

-Are off-track special events regularly or reliably streamed?
-What sort of media tie-ins do we see (ex: INDCAR 36), and what is the quality of these shows?
-What is the broadcast/coverage quality from the networks and channels (ABC, NBC Sports, IMS Radio) tasked with covering the events?
-Is social media utilized to enhance coverage of events (may also fall under fan accessibility)?
-Are the ladder series and smaller teams given screen time as well as the top-tier teams?

The fourth is tough to quantify, but we’ll put it under Communication (though Leadership would also suffice).

-Are decisions the Series undertakes competently and clearly communicated to the fans?
-Does a sense of fair/impartial judgment follow decisions that might impact the on-track results?
-Are plans for the future of the sport made in a way that seems to value fan input?
-Does the Series follow through with promises made to the best of their ability?

Now, some fans will value some of these items more than others. Some will say it’s all about on-track action, and you can keep the rest. But I’ve tried to create a balanced portfolio of what might drive fan enjoyment and opinion on the relative success of the Series from an involved fan’s perspective. I hope to revisit this a few times over the course of the year, but of course would love to hear any feedback as far as what you think. INDYCAR has many reasons to be optimistic going forward, but that doesn’t mean we can't check in to see how things are going. After all, success starts with fan engagement.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Five Big Items From The State of INDYCAR

Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned, and I wasn't in attendance for the State of INDYCAR address. Still, checking in from home, a few big items stood out to me from the evening's proceedings:

1) Firestone Stays:
When it looked like Firestone was one-and-done with the IZOD IndyCar Series before last year, it looked like big trouble. Firestone's history with IndyCar (especially at the Indy 500) is beyond compare. Fortunately, they'll now be around at least through 2014, which is a big sigh of relief, and means one of the most dependable aspects of IndyCar racing will continue to be just that.

2) Increased TV Coverage:
This. This is a big step in continuing to build a viable and successful ladder to the top tier of American open wheel racing. Firestone Indy Lights will see each and every one of their races broadcast this season, which is a nice boost over the part-time schedule we saw in 2011.

Additionally, NBC Sports will be producing "INDYCAR 36", a show featuring a driver and what happens during 36 hours of their race weekend. It's exactly the sort of storytelling extras IndyCar fans have been asking for, it seems as if NBC is poised to help.

Oh, and don't forget live streaming in-car footage on ESPN 3 during ABC's races, and NBC Sports' promise of Indy 500 qualifications coverage. There's no sign of a return to streaming video of a race feed, but it's still progress.

3) Merchandising:
With LIDS stepping in to help with trackside and online merchandising, the hope is that the options for fans to grab INDYCAR merchandise will become less of a hunt and more of a simple task. We'll have to see how this partnership works out, but this is one area where the Series desperately needs to improve.

4) Lindy Goes, Townsend Joins: 
Nothing against Townsend Bell, who's always fun to watch at Indianapolis, but many fans were severely bummed to hear Lindy Thackston will not be part of the 2012 NBC Sports Network IIICS coverage. Townsend should be a good add to the otherwise intact crew, but losing Thackston is rough. Lindy is a smart, knowledgeable, dedicated pit reporter (not to mention a former Indy 500 princess), and she will be very much missed. Hopefully someone at NBC realizes their error and brings her back before too awfully long. This was the big bummer of the evening, from my online perch.

5) The 'Nard Dog Stays:
Rumors of Randy Bernard's departure from IndyCar have been floating since he first took the job, and no one can deny it's likely one of the toughest, most challenging tasks in all of sports. He's also had his share of sadness and contreversy to deal with over the past couple of years. Yet Bernard seemed dismiss any signs of his leaving, stating he'll be around so long as the Hulman-George family will have him. In my opinion, let's hope that's a long time.

There will be plenty more written about the State of INDYCAR over the next few days, but ultimately, the success of the season will be counted in how things go when 20-something engines roar to life in St. Petersburg next month. Thank goodness it's getting closer.

Happy State of INDYCAR Day!

Today marks the State of INDYCAR meeting, taking place at Hilbert Circle Theater in downtown Indianapolis at 5:30pm this afternoon. I should be there around 3 or 3:30pm--I'm hoping to get some interviews done beforehand. Liveblogging will depend on internet connection at the theater, but at the least, expect some later updates/analysis both here and on the Twitter account.

Although there's no set agenda out there yet for this gathering, expect to of course hear more about the return of the Milwaukee Mile, as well as possibly more about Baltimore (although that's not 100% settled yet. Additionally, I think there's a good chance we'll hear on expanded Mazda Road to Indy coverage for this year (along with expectation in regards to the NBC Sports Network), and expect some items in regards to INDYCAR media expansion as well.

On the competition side of things, I think the engine deadlines will be discussed, and some of the key philosophy changes for the new rulebook as well. With any luck, there will be a surprise or two in the proceedings to boot.

All in all, it should be a great afternoon/evening, and if you happen to be in attendance and see me bumming around in my IndyCar Advocate shirt, make sure to say hello. We should have plenty to discuss this evening and through the week!

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Brief Proposal On Standing Starts

Hi Randy,

I can’t believe I’m discussing this topic; the mere mention of a standing start in IndyCar is often enough to cause eyeballs to bulge out of their sockets and veins in the forehead to begin to pulse angrily. And yes, I agree that the rolling start is a part of American open wheel heritage; it’s something I enjoy and value as part of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

However…

The standing start is contentious, intriguing, and exotic all at once. Would it hurt to try it at perhaps one race in 2012?

Let’s think about this in terms of Sonoma. The race at Infineon is wildly popular with sponsors, and we understand why it’s on the schedule. Yet in terms of the fan watching at home, the race has traditionally been somewhat of a parade, with minimal passing.

I’m not saying incorporating a standing start at a race like Sonoma will turn it into a barn-burner, but I do think it could very easily add a level of interest and uniqueness to the race that could make one of the least popular circuits in terms of fan interest have a bit of a storyline. Will it go cleanly? Will the drivers accustomed to standing starts be able to take advantage of it? Will it shake things up?

No, it isn’t a cure-all, and it could easily be called just a gimmick. And I’m certainly not advocating it across all twisties on the schedule. Of course, you’re also taking a risk in doing it; the same voices that usually pen vitriol in online forums or to Robin Miller’s mailbag will accuse you of everything from murdering the tradition of American open wheel to stomping on the grave of Carl Fisher. But then again, that’s going to happen for some real or imagined slight at some point this season, anyhow. (Remind me to send you a hip flask, by the way).

Right now, we’ve got a race that’s a non-starter among many fans. We also have the potential to try something new, which at the least will excite comment among fans. Let’s put the two together and see what happens. If it doesn’t catch on, then oh well, you’ve still got an event the sponsors love, don’t you?

Let’s retain our unique identity as the top series in American open wheel racing, but be secure enough in that identity to change things up for a race. I’m not sure if it will pan out, but it can’t hurt to try.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pagenaud's Season Shaping Up

It was with some interest I read the news yesterday that Simon Pagenaud will be contesting Sebring for Pickett Racing in the American Le Mans Series this year. The 2010 ALMS champ will be adding sports cars to a resume that will already include being the primary driver for Sam Schmidt Motorsports' IZOD IndyCar Series program.

As a racer that's continually been high on the list for Honda Performance Development (HPD), it will come as no surprise to you that Pickett Racing and Sam Schmidt Motorsports both fall under the Honda umbrella. As he prepares for this year's IndyCar campaign, the feeling seems to be he could make some definite waves.

Pagenaud will technically be a rookie this season, but of course he has a season of ChampCar under his belt already. Additionally, in taking over for an injured Ana Beatriz in the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last year, he did an excellent job in finishing P8, with a performance that made a lot of fans and teams excited about his future in the Series.

Honestly, there simply aren't many fans with a negative opinion of Pagenaud. But how will he do this year?

There's a very good likelihood Pagenaud will see himself paired with a hodgepodge of drivers at various races for Sam Schmidt in 2012; like last season, the 2nd car for that team will likely be a whirlwind of one-offs and multi-race deals with different faces along the way. While that's not ideal when you're chasing Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Pagenaud isn't exactly your typical rookie fresh out of Formula Renault. Fellow rookie Josef Newgarden also won't have a full-time teammate this season, though Dragon Racing's Katherine Legge will in her initial IZOD IndyCar Series season. Although that will be big for Legge, there's still a sense of anticipation about Pags' potential for this year that might give him the early odds for those Rookie of the Year honors.

Another big question is how Pagenaud will do on ovals, since he's coming in without any real experience in that category. When the Indianapolis 500 will be your first major open wheel oval event, the learning curve could be high indeed. How he responds at tracks such as Indy and Texas will be an interesting portion of his rookie campaign, but for a driver that's accustomed to finding success in different driving disciplines and formulas over the years, you have to like his chances of figuring it out.

Of course, nothing is settled. We need to see how each engine will do, how the various teams shape up, and who comes into St. Petersburg with a good grasp of the new car. But in a year where Sebastien Bourdais is likely the most well-known French driver in INDYCAR, don't forget about the other French driver who will finally be getting the chance to show what he can do in this Series.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Super Weekend

I don't really follow pro football like I used to, but as you might have heard, the Indianapolis area had a tiny NFL event this past weekend. I speculated a bit last week on what sort of exposure the Super Bowl might bring IndyCar, and it did not disappoint. From the IndyCars decked out in NFL franchise colors and logos drawing a crowd down on the circle before being dispersed throughout sites in the region, to last Tuesday evening's apparently killer media party at IMS, Super Bowl week began well in terms of INDYCAR links, and it continued through to the big game itself.

There was Jimmy Fallon's comedy segment with Marco Andretti, and Graham Rahal driving up in his DW12 to make a delivery to ESPN's NFL Countdown crew. Dan Patrick covered IMS nicely for his show. The pregame mentioned the "storied" Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During the broadcast itself, we saw Dario Franchitti in a spot for NBC Sports between shots of IndyCars, and heard other mentions from the broadcast crew. Networks covering Super Bowl Sunday ensured IMS was captured in several aerial camera shots. In an event that couldn't be more major, the IZOD IndyCar Series did a fine job of looking major league.

I'm going to slip into my "Proud Hoosier" persona here for a minute, and just say I'm proud of the way Indianapolis pulled off this event. There were a lot of pundits who thought a Super Bowl in Indy would be a dull, chilly mess. Instead, with a little bit of cooperating weather, they found a friendly, well-organized, entertaining, accessible city that showed it knew how to put on a major sporting event. Then again, we have this little race you might have heard of each May that probably helps with that just a bit. Those of us who attend the 500 Mile Race from both around this area (and all those fans that become honorary Hoosiers each May) know what Indy can do, and what Indy means. My hope is that some of the folks who visited or tuned into Indianapolis this week check back in a few months--to watch the largest single-day sporting event in the world. It was a good week for the Super Bowl, a good week for Indianapolis, and a good week in terms of publicity for the Indy 500 and INDYCAR as a whole.

Take a bow, Indy, but rest up. It's only 96 days until Opening Day.

Friday, February 3, 2012

INDYCAR Inspires

Most fans of racing, including INDYCAR fans, often get the question from our non-racing friends, “why do you enjoy racing?” It’s a question that is often answered in terms of speed, of strategy, of fan access, or one of the other high points of our sport.

In 1932, a young driver named Howdy Wilcox finished runner-up in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. To differentiate himself from the previous, Indy 500-winning man also named Howdy Wilcox, he assumed a “II” suffix to his name). But before he could contest the 500 next year, he was disallowed from competition because it was discovered he was a diabetic. Although other drivers stormed over the ban, the Speedway stood firm, citing safety concerns, and Wilcox would never race again.

Flash forward to 2011, where a young American driver named Charlie Kimball, a confirmed diabetic, made his debut in the IZOD IndyCar Series, including qualifying for his first 500. He managed his condition from the cockpit of his racer car, including a glucose monitor and the proper nutrients. He’s managed to chase his dream of professional racing, whereas not long ago, people would have seen as a disqualifier from that same dream.

Whether it’s Kimball spreading diabetes awareness or a long line of females showing there should never be a glass ceiling at a race track, INDYCAR, from the lowest rung on the ladder on up, gives us inspiration, be it to do our best, overcome challenges, or simply taking a chance that hasn’t been taken before.

When I read Michael Johnson’s story yesterday, I immediately knew it was in the same vein. Michael Johnson will join many other racers in a crowded field next year in USF2000, an early stop on the Mazda Road to Indy. Like many drivers in that series, Michael has known success before both in motorcycle racing and as a winner in Skip Barber competition. However, unlike other drivers, Michael was paralyzed after an accident at age 12.

It took years and plenty of pain to come back to racing, but come back he did, albeit still paralyzed from the mid-chest down. And now, at the age of 19, Michael will be racing for JDC Motorsports in 2012 in the USF2000 Series. His dream? To become the first paralyzed driver to qualify for the Indy 500. That’s the sort of dream, the sort of simple sentence, that grabs you, and holds on.

There’s determination, and then there’s determination. I don’t know if Michael Johnson will ever make it to the top ranks of the INDYCAR, but I do know he doesn’t have to in order to be a source of inspiration to so many who may face extreme hardships and challenges of their own.

All of the other items—Lotus vs. Chevy vs. Honda, driver signings, on-track strategy, a new chassis design—that’s just the backdrop for what INDYCAR represents. INDYCAR is the opportunity to do what you haven’t done, to challenge yourself, to learn from the bravery and example of others, and to contribute to this wild, unpredictable, running narrative that’s been going for over a hundred years now. There's a soul to INDYCAR--a bright, unconquerable, immortal, unquenchable soul--and it shines so very brightly in stories such as these.

When you talk to folks, be it over Super Bowl weekend, next week, or somewhere down the road, remember stories like Michael Johnson’s. Somewhere in the discussion of engines, new cars, and drivers, remember how far we’ve come, and what a testament INDYCAR is to the triumph of determination and spirit.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Six Quick Questions With Tristan Vautier

Today's guest won the Star Mazda Series Championship in 2011, and as the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship recipient for that class, will be contesting this season in Firestone Indy Lights in the #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car. Tristan Vautier won 4 races races and 4 poles against stout competition in his sophomore Star Mazda season, and he'll look to continue his winning ways just a step away from the IZOD IndyCar Series. The 22 year-old French racer found time to be our next subject for Six Quick Questions:

Tristan, as the Star Mazda Series champion, you were able to move up to Firestone Indy Lights this season. How much a part did the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship format play in your move, and what's your overall feel for how the scholarship program is working?

TV: The Mazda Road to Indy played a huge role in helping me to step up to Firestone Indy Lights this season, especially in a first-class team like Sam Schmidt Motorsports. I think the Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship program is just great, it goes from the roots of US racing to the doors of IndyCar, and with this program, a driver who doesn't have the funding but clearly has everything it takes to make it, can manage and accomplish his goal to race in IndyCar. This program really plays a big part in making racing in USA so attractive for upcoming drivers.

What are your expectations with Sam Schmidt Motorsports this season? You're going to be with a team that been the class of Lights in recent years.

TV: I'm on the best team, and this being told I know that if I get the job done I'll be up front. From there, my only focus is about being on top of my game every weekend and work hard to learn things quickly since I'm a rookie.
Vautier At MRTI Test
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

Coming from your background in Euro series such as F2 and Formula Renault 2.0, what are the biggest transition you've had to make to racing in America?

TV: I'd say the different types of tracks we race on here in US. In Europe the schedule is made of 90% if not 100% of regular road courses. Here it's mixed between road courses, street courses and ovals. It requires us to be fast on every type of track as a driver, and to develop the car for each type of circuit as a whole team, which is very interesting.

Speaking of transitions, as a driver, what are the biggest adjustments you have to make in driving a Star Mazda car versus a Lights car?

TV: The Lights car is really different from a Star Mazda. It's bigger and more powerful, you can brake harder, and you have to be patient in the corner since it's harder to apply full power. The bigger wings also allow you to rely more on the downforce in faster turns. I may be able to say more after I do some more testing in the car!

Last year's Star Mazda Series championship fight seemed to pit some really promising drivers against one another? Which drivers would you say were your toughest competitors, and which ones should we keep an eye out for in the future?

TV: Depending on the different types of track we've been on, I've had tough competition from a few different drivers entered in the championship. Sage [Karam] with Andretti Autosport was very strong on the ovals and the Pelfrey guys, Connor [De Phillippi] and Nick [Andries], have been our closest competitors on the street courses.

If you could change or improve one thing about the current Mazda Road to Indy program, what would it be?

TV: I don't think I could find anything to change about a ladder system that allows every champion to move up to the next step of the ladder, starting in karting. I think we drivers all need to respect the job Mazda and INDYCAR have done pulling this ladder together.