Monday, April 30, 2012

Notes From The Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300

Somehow, in the blink of an eye, we have reached the quarter-way mark of this IZOD IndyCar Series season. Sunday's race in Sao Paulo was the fourth race of the year, and for the fourth time this season, Roger Penske's driver won. Will Power has now won the last three races--this one in a more dominant fashion than the previous two.

Aside from the familiar victor, the Sao Paulo race did not quite proceed as anticipated. Despite an extremely ominous weather forecast, the race itself never saw enough precipitation to warrant rain tires. The actual race itself seemed to lag a bit from the great race we had at Long Beach, but part of that could be the challenges of working a Band-TV feed from a studio in Indianapolis.

Here are some other notes and thoughts from the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300:

-Let's just take a minute and acknowledge that Will Power is on as dominant a run as we'll see in the sport? At various times Sunday, he made it look easy at times against competition such as Dario Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Of course, Power will be the first to tell you it's nothing of the sort, but right now it appears to be Will Power's world--we're all just living in it.

-Ryan Hunter-Reay's podium was a nice coda to his INDYCAR 36 appearance, and his second appearance in the Top 3 this season. RHR's performing at a high level this season, and if anyone is going to catch Power in one of these race, it seems as if he'd be a prime candidate to do it.

-One race after seeing a P3 dashed on the closing lap, Takuma Sato finally grabbed his first IICS podium with a tremendous move to pass Helio Castroneves on the late restart. After early-season mechanical woes, Sato has looked quite sharp, and one of Honda's best hopes for the rest of the season.

-Ed Carpenter again did not qualify well for a street course. However, during the race itself, Carpenter drove exceedingly well, laying down some solid lap times and running as high as the Top 10 before being spun by Ana Beatriz. The results won't show it, but Ed Carpenter Racing's hard work in this area has begun to pay off.

-Ana Beatriz also had a nice race, but ran into a late pile-up and was penalized heavily for avoidable contact. It was a rough ending to a race where Bia gave the home crowd plenty to cheer for.

(On that note, Helio was the top-finishing Brazilian in P4, and Rubens Barrichello worked his way back up to P10).

-Congrats to Eric Hall of anotherindycarblog, who ended up winning our Last Driver Standing competition by choosing Ryan Hunter-Reay to finish in the Top 10. With the late pile-up dooming the chances of Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud to do the same, Eric emerges a champion of the INDYCAR bloggerati.

-Other Notes: Oriol Servia gave Lotus a solid send-off from Dreyer and Reinbold, persevering through a brutal weekend for a P11. It will, of course, be the last Lotus-powered DRR entry of the year...our Engine Power Rankings have been updated, and Chevy continues to lengthen its lead...Josef Newgarden has been beaten around the track like a punching bag the next two weeks, but his performance so far still makes this team one to watch while transitioning to ovals like Indy...

With Sao Paulo complete, it's time to change gears in a big way for the Indianapolis 500. Between the Michael Shank Racing situation, two teams changing engines, and the chance of plenty of drama right around the corner, we're not going to have any shortage of items to discuss. I don't know about you, but I am definitely ready for May to begin.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sao Paulo Indy 300 Preview

For third time, the IZOD IndyCar Series heads down to the Southern Hemisphere, where it's fall, not spring,   the rain tends to come early and often, and what sounds to be a capacity crowd will cheer drivers from Ana  Beatriz to Rubens Barrichello with a nationalistic sort of fervor. After three races of increasingly exciting racing with plenty of passing, it's time to see if Sao Paulo's streets can offer more of the same.

In any case, whether you've been unplugged the last couple of weeks or if you're just looking for a brief refresher, here are some of the big storylines going into the Sao Paulo Indy 300:

Weather: With thunderstorms forecast off and on throughout the weekend, we could easily be in for the same sort of monsoon we saw last year. If the race is soggy once more, expect a bit of a mess, some disparate strategies, and a chance to see who in the field is a wet-weather ace. With any luck, if there is rain, it won't be quite as bad as last year. Rain is interesting; a Great Flood that floats Charlie Kimball and his car away somewhere in the South Atlantic is not.

Homecoming: The race itself is apparently sold out, which is excellent news. Rubens Barrichello will make his first racing appearance in Brazil since joining INDYCAR, and Ana Beatriz joins Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves in returning to their native soil.

Can Honda Even The Score?: Honda teams received some excellent news yesterday evening when word came that their turbo change had been approved and upheld. Honda's single turbo should get quite the workout on the long straight of the Sao Paulo course, and you know after being humbled in Long Beach, they want/need a win here.If Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Mike Conway, Graham Rahal, or one of the other Honda drivers can win this weekend, it will make things seem much less one-sided heading into Indianapolis (although Chevy would still hold a 3-to-1 advantage in races won).

DRR's Last Lotus: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing will be running a Lotus at Sao Paulo, but it will be for the last time this season. As the manufacturer and racing team have gone their separate ways, DRR will be seeking to sign with another engine manufacturer (presumably Chevy), as Indianapolis lies just around the corner.

Meanwhile, with an engine transition of the own, Bryan Herta Autosport will be staying home from Brazil, but should hopefully have a deal with Honda signed in the near future. Hopefully, we'll hear some positive engine developments (as well as for Michael Shank's team) soon after the weekend.

TV Reminder: INDYCAR TV race coverage will start at 11am Eastern on Sunday, but most of the broadcast crew will be calling the race from a studio in Indianapolis. Only the resilient Kevin Lee will be on the ground, doing what he can to cover the long, long pit row of Sao Paulo. Don't expect  a precisely crisp broadcast, but they'll do their best.

Power Struggle: Yes, Will Power has won the last two races this year. However, he didn't run away with either, and overall, competition has been very strong. There have been some immensely good battles up front. If Power turns this into a simple cakewalk, I would be very surprised...

Pole: ...However, if I say Will Power will win the pole this weekend, is anyone going to argue?

Winner: Power has a great shot of making it a trifecta here, but I truly think Simon Pagenaud will get a victory this season. Let's call it for this week.

Dark Horse: Takuma Sato's strategy didn't pay off last year, but he's a wet weather warrior.

Last Blogger Standing: This week, the final five bloggers again can only watch and hope their selected driver finishes in the Top 10. Let's just say if Simon Pagenaud crashes out early, there's going to be some shamefaced bloggers skulking about, including yours truly:

Last Driver Standing Week 4 Picks

Chris Sheridan, IndySoup: Simon Pagenaud

Eric Hall, anotherindycarblog: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Kent M., Racing Mania: Tony Kanaan

Paul Dalbey, MoreFront Wing: Simon Pagenaud

Zachary Houghton, IndyCar AdvocateSimon Pagenaud

Next Week: We'll review the Sao Paulo race, hold a contest, and have a big community announcement to boot. The Month of May is going to be 100% USRDA Awesomesauce, count on it. Have a tremendous weekend, enjoy the race, and don't be shy in reminding people our sport kicks major butt, if they'd care watch.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Welcome Back, Michel Jourdain

When Michel Jourdain, Jr. was all of 19 years old, he ran in the 80th Indianapolis 500, and as a rookie, finished P13.

That was in 1996.

Lost slightly in the shuffle of news this week was the announcement that after a 16-year layoff, Michel Jourdain will again be attempting to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Sponsored by the Mexican iteration of Office Depot, Jourdain will be attempting to give Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing another bullet in their gun for Indy this year, over a decade and a half since he made his one and only Indianapolis start.

Assuming he qualifies, Jourdain's time between races won't be the longest hiatus in history; he misses it by one year (Roland Free and Cy Marshall both went 17 years), but it's still a noteworthy absence. 1996 might not seem like ages ago, but let's think back, just to have some fun with it. The last time Jourdain raced at Indianapolis...

...The next-earliest start by a driver in this year's current projected field wouldn't come until 5 years later (Helio Castroneves, 2001).

...Johnny Parsons made the field. He had first attempted to qualify for Indy in 1969.

...Davey Hamilton was an Indy rookie, qualifying for his first 500 as well.

...Garry Bettenhausen, Danny Ongais, Emmerson Fittipaldi, and Bobby Rahal were all still active drivers at the time in either IRL or CART.

...The average gallon of gas cost $1.20.

...The internet looked like this.

It's been a long time since Jourdain last ran Indy.
(Courtesy IMS Archives)
Of course, it isn't as if Jourdain has been idle since his last 500 start. A late bloomer of sorts, he ended up having a solid open wheel career, winning two races in the last year of CART, and collecting ten  total podiums over the years as well. He also had stints in the NASCAR Busch Series and WTCC, not to mention the Baja 1000 and a couple other forms of racing. He's the sort of racer who has a bit of everything on the resume.

Now, at 35 years of age, younger still than Dario Franchitti or Tony Kanaan, Michel Jourdain returns to Indianapolis. The last time he was here, he was a teen, smiling in his qualification photo, his sidepod loudly trumpeting Herdez Mexican Salsa and Jalapenos. Now, as a veteran driver, he will once again attempt to make this race, even as the car count numbers continue their unpredictable flux. It's one of the more unique storylines we'll see this May. If he can improve on that P13 he scored 16 years ago, there might be something to be said for biding one's time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lotus Scaling Back: A Win/Win For All Parties?

With the bombshell dropping yesterday in regards to Lotus parting ways with Bryan Herta Autosport and Dreyer and Reinbold Racing, my first thought was simply this:

Good for them. All of them.

Lotus, even at five cars, has been stretched too thin this year. Behind on development, the smaller engine program was simply being outpunched by Chevy and Honda at every turn. As great as the overall racing has been this year, it’s no fun watching your favorite drivers struggle.

Experienced talented drivers such as Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani were racing their hearts out, but simply didn’t have enough in the engine compartment to make it happen. The frustration has been palpable, especially in the last few weeks, when it became readily apparent the struggles weren't isolated to just a single race or team.

With only 3 cars (potentially 4 for Indy), the engine supply issue for Lotus now becomes much less pronounced. Yes, they’re still behind the power curve, but it means Lotus HVM and Lotus Dragon shouldn’t have to worry about an engine and spare showing up for their race. Sure, Simona de Silvestro, Kat Legge, and Sèbastien Bourdais won’t be in top equipment, but being able to concentrate across two teams should be a much easier proposition for the Lotus crew.

A DRR livery change could be coming swiftly.
(Courtesy Used with permission).
It remains to be seen if Lotus can work through development this year and come back for 2013, but right now, it’s tough not to feel a bit of relief at this situation. It’s as if a bit of the pressure has escaped. The defending Indy 500 team can sign with Honda, and hopes are Chevy will be powering the ride of Servia, one of the most respected veteran drivers in the Series. Of course, there's the caution that nothing's been agreed to yet as far as a new engine manufacturer for these two teams go, but it seems very likely something can be worked out.

It doesn’t stop there. Within the hour of the BHA/DRR announcement, Michael Shank Racing announced they’ll be entering Jay Howard for the Indy 500 as well this year. Does this mean another one-off Lotus for Indy? It certainly seems that way right now, which is still far less of an obligation than a full-season deal.

The Lotus engine issue could have blown sky-high. Instead, we're currently looking at a more graduated, calmer resolution to matters. That's good for everyone involved. The engine drama will bear watching, but for now, a sort of reason has prevailed. Let's hope it endures.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Talk of Gasoline Alley

If you've read this site for any appreciable amount of time, you may know one of my heroes is the current historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Donald Davidson. Donald's radio show/podcast The Talk Of Gasoline Alley is one of the biggest indicators that May has in fact arrived.

Listeners of Donald's show are well aware of his answering of questions from fans (of a "nostalgic nature", if you please), as well as the fact that we will always have several questions always brought up by his avid, occasionally redundant hardcore listeners:

-Can the pole sitter be bumped, and has it ever happened?

-Did Jim Hurtubise have beer in his engine compartment while in qualifying line?

-What happened in the disputed 1981 race?

-Could you tell us about Jigger Sirois/Ed Elisian/The Rathmanns?

-Do you know anything about the old IndyCar sitting on top of the Safety Auto Glass building at Southeastern and Washington?

-My great-uncle said he was a riding mechanic in 1934. Have you ever heard of him? (Inevitable answer: a polite but definitive "no")

It's easy to tease about the same questions asked time and again, but it's because they resonate with people. In a race and month full of traditions, it's become a tradition to ask about certain traditional questions, if you follow.

More than that, Talk of Gasoline Alley gives a sense of perspective. You think an engine manufacturer struggling to find speed at Indy is the biggest crisis the 500 or American wheel open racing ever faced? Listen to the brutal details of the 1973 race, the fuel crisis years of the 70s, the battles through two World Wars, a contested 1981 finish that remained unresolved for months, and so much more. The Indy 500's path has rarely been a completely smooth one, be it 1918, 1946, 1981, or the modern era.

So why is Donald Davidson one of my heroes? He has taken on the mammoth job of being a conduit to the past of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He is uniquely qualified for it, and genuinely loves the small details that add up to comprise the grand tapestry of Indy. I will say that of all the folks I have met in and around the Indianapolis 500, perhaps the greatest privilege was finally meeting Donald Davidson last year.

When we look at an entrant sheet, we see the names: the also-rans, the runner-ups, and the Did Not Qualify crowd. We don't stop and think that every driver, big and small, from Pete DePaolo to Rodger Ward to Dennis Vitolo to Dr. Jack Miller have a story of their own. That's part of what Talk of Gasoline Alley gives us. If you came to Indy, wanting to race the 500 Miles, whatever the year, whatever the circumstance, you're part of the history of the place. Failed to qualify, finishing 33rd, finishing first--you're more than just  a couple of lines in a box score.

It's so easy to completely lose yourself in the trivia and facts of the Indy 500 and the wider net of American open wheel history. It's the same reason I so eagerly look forward to Paul Dalbey's father's Indy 500 Journals. The joy of Indy isn't comprised of just a few bronze busts and epic legends; it's in the details of people who care enough to remember their camping neighbors in 1965, where they ate every year before Pole Day, who finished 3rd in 1946 (Ted Horn), how Roger Rager made the 1980 field with a school bus engine, or the details of Eddie Sachs' first year at Indianapolis.

Certainly many veteran fans already know of the joys of The Talk of Gasoline Alley, but if you haven't listened to it, this year's run of nightly shows starts on 1070 AM (WFNI-Indianapolis) on Wednesday, May 2.. If you can't listen in over the radio, there's always the online option, or the podcast for download later.

This year, I will again join Dave from Marion, Jerry in Delphi, Paul from Racine, and so many other fans in again learning and reminiscing about the history of the greatest racecourse and greatest race in the world. Old fan or new fan, I hope you'll join us.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On Engines And Qualifying At Indianapolis

With the initial entry list out for the Indianapolis 500, I thought it might be time to go over some of the things we’re starting to hear from fans in regards to this year’s qualifying. There’s an expectation that Lotus will really need to fight to find the pace this year. Honestly, with the new car, they might not be alone. I think we’ll see a definite, pronounced grouping of have and have-nots, as some teams really ace it on setup, while others are never really going to find that comfort zone.

If teams or a driver struggle, you’re going to hear folks bemoaning what an uncompetitive field we’re having at the 500 this year. If a team like Lotus can’t control their gremlins and do qualify 10 mph off the pace, the usual talking heads will complain on how unprecedented it all is, and what a disaster it must be.

Again, history is here to help educate us. Having fields with disparate speeds is nothing new, dating back to the classic and iconic races of years ago. To help illustrate, I started with 1964, one of the truly iconic races in Indy 500 history. That year, Jim Clark won pole position with a 4-lap average of 158.288 mph. The slowest qualifier? That would be Bill Cheesbourg, nearly 10mph slower at 148.711 mph. Cheesbourg actually finished ahead of Clark (P16 vs. P24, after Clark has suspension issues).

Let’s fast forward ahead 10 years, to 1974. AJ Foyt sat on the pole, with a top speed of 191.632 mph. The slowest qualifier was Larry Cannon, who made it in with a 173.963mph average. Yes, that's a difference of over 17 mph! Of particular note was Jim McElreath, who qualified 30th over 14 mph off the pole average, but finished P6 during the race.

For the sake of argument, let’s move ahead 10 more years, to 1984. Tom Sneva was the pole sitter with a 210.029 mph average, and the slowest was Chris Kneifel, with 199.831 mph on his 4 laps. (Curiously enough, after mechanical issues, Sneva would finish P16, one spot behind Kneifel).

We can move onto 1994, where Al Unser, Jr. won from the pole with a 228.011 mph average, but rookie Bryan Herta was slowest at 220.992 and still grabbed a Top 10 finish. Even as late as 2004, there was almost an 11mph difference between the fastest and slowest car.

It's a brand-new set of challenges at Indy this year.
(Credit: Eric Schwarzkopf. Courtesy
Used with permission.)
So yes, we probably will see some speed discrepancies—certainly, it’s doubtful we’ll see the whole field cloistered around, say 220 mph. And yes, we’ll see some engines grenade during the month, just as they have for over 100 years. That isn’t some woeful low—it’s part of development and competition. Perhaps all the trial, error, and inequalities equal a race where there are only a half-dozen cars on the lead lap at the end. It’s a different style of racing, but one that’s done pretty well for a majority of the years folks have been making the trek to Speedway. Having said that, we simply don’t know what to truly expect, do we? This is Indy, after all.

Shocking as it sounds to the casual ear, winning the Indianapolis 500 has never been purely about speed. If it were, we’d have far more than 21% of all Indy 500 victories occurring from the pole. The race is not only given to those who are fast, but those who play it smart, plan the right strategies, stay out of trouble, and nurse their equipment home over 500 miles. We are entering into a new, old, era, where mechanical and engine reliability will be especially tested with a new chassis, new competing engines, and a fresh start after eight years of development on the previous car.

We can predict all we want about how we’ll see a few Lotus cars fighting for scraps, but how quickly we forget one of the biggest lessons Indianapolis offer us: nothing can be taken for granted. Consider Sebastian Saavedra qualifying with a startup Bryan Herta team in 2010, or Pippa Mann beating the naysayers in 2011 with a struggling Conquest team. Certainly the engine situation is different this year, but when it comes to Bump Day and the Indy 500 itself, the only thing we know for certain is that 33 cars will again take the green flag to start the race.

This year’s Indianapolis 500 will play out differently from the 500s of previous years. But it’s still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, at the World’s Greatest Race Course. Some things, you see, don’t change.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is Probation For Rahal Fair?

Last Sunday at Long Beach, in the middle of a very good race, we saw something none of us wanted to see. Marco Andretti, seemingly clipped by Graham Rahal, saw his car briefly leave the ground before landing in the tire barrier. Marco was able to climb from his car without assistance, but seemed at least a little shaken in his post-race interview, stating afterwards, “I'm lucky I didn't get upside down, I could have been killed”.

With both cars out of the race after the incident, this was not a scenario where Beaux Barfield and company had to make an immediate decision on whether or not to penalize Rahal. Yesterday, after further review, Graham Rahal was indeed given probation for the next six races due to “blocking and initiating avoidable contact”. This was hardly the only penalty doled out Sunday. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves both garnered 30 second penalties for incidents occurring on the last lap of the race. EJ Viso served a stop-and-go penalty after contact with Alex Tagliani. In regards to Beaux Barfield, the new sheriff was not only in town, he was handing out traffic citations at a pretty good clip as well.

So what of the penalty itself?

Certainly during the race, had Rahal continued, there seems no doubt there would have been an on-track penalty. With Rahal taking severe damage to his car along with Marco’s, not much was going to make that P25 look any worse. So, in a post-race setting, we have probation for the next half-dozen race weekends. Is it fair? Of course, you’ll find fans to tell you both yea and nay on that one. But what are we really asking?

“Fair” is a loaded word, when it comes to fandom. It’s not “fair” that Lotus is behind the power curve early in the season. It isn’t “fair” Alex Lloyd isn’t in a full-time ride (and yes, that does stink immensely). The word is used more for anything we find personally disagreeable, and less about what we find inequitable. In the purest sense, fairness is all about being just, honest, and consistent.

Yet, really, this is our first larger driver penalty (engine change penalties aside) we’ve had under the Beaux Barfield administration. What will make this fair is if the next incident that falls under these lines is treated in an equal or similar manner. What fans will look for are the following:

-Will another driver chopping as Rahal did be subject to the same penalties?

-Will the probation period be enforced (i.e., no “final warnings” if Rahal has another incident on track at Sao Paolo)?

Ultimately, fairness begins with consistency. Few people believe the 10-grid engine penalty this year is the right level of punishment for that transgression, but if it is to be enforced, we want it to be enforced for all teams. Likewise, if penalties will be assessed on avoidable contact and blocking, we want those penalties to be enforced for all teams, from Ganassi to Bryan Herta*. The “fairness” in Graham Rahal’s penalty will be in seeing how others are treated when this incident happens in Sao Paolo, Edmonton, or Mid-Ohio. Communication and consistency will go very, very far with racing fans. Before we discuss “fair” and “unfair”, let’s see what happens next time out.

With new blocking/defending rules in effect, Rahal’s probation is a sign that on-track incidents are being held accountable. So long as that trend continues, confidence in INDYCAR’s Race Control should remain firm among a majority of fans.

(*-Bringing up Ganassi of course brings to mind Josef Newgarden’s incident when attempting to pass Dario Franchitti on Lap 1 at Long Beach. I'm still not sure what to think on that one. Part of me thinks they were both at fault, part of me thinks it was more Dario's fault. I'll call it a "racing incident" for now).

Monday, April 16, 2012

Notes From The Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix

It started crazily, got even crazier, but in the end, the conclusion was eerily familiar.

On a weekend where the chaos of all Chevys (and 3 Lotus cars) serving 10-spot grid penalties made for one of the most jumbled fields ever, Will Power still found a way to win, despite an absolute show from a hard-charging Simon Pagenaud. I'm still not entirely sure how he did it, but that's probably why I'm a portly Hoosier blogger and he's Will Power. The Pride of Toowoomba managed to get it done Sunday, and it was as if the penalty had never existed. After so much griping over the Chevy engine change, it seemed to have remarkably little impact on Chevy's fortunes overall.

Long Beach remains, well, Long Beach. Every video clip, photo, and tweet just seemed to exude excitement. Along that line, just because the race had a few slower portions, overall, multiple strategies, the uncertainties of the field, a dose of chaos, cars that are proving to look and sound really great, and some phenomenal drivers made this another superb event.

Here's a few thoughts on the rest of this past weekend's action at the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix:

Pags' Party: I seriously thought Simon Pagenaud was going to catch Will Power on the last lap. I think if EJ Viso isn't right there between them, Pags and Will are neck-and-neck at the finish. Pags was a rock star this weekend, and will turn a lot of heads with his great run at the end to finish as runner-up.

Yeah, Power's Pretty Good: Look, we can't discount how good Will Power is, and how amazing Penske Racing performs week in and week out. Complain if you want, but recognize he and the Penske team are just plain awesome. Congrats to him on another win, but like many of you, I sort of wish Pags had just a bit more at the end. I felt he deserved that one, but there is no "deserve" in racing. Will Power didn't have a cakewalk these past two races, but he's won them all the sa,e

Engine Bragging Rights: There's no way around it: Chevy still winning this race and grabbing 7/10 top spots is an embarrassment to Honda. Still, it's Honda; they'll be ok, eventually. Right now, though, it's a Chevy world. In other news, Lotus had its worst weekend yet, with their top 2 drivers finishing 3 laps down. They have a lot of work to do before Sao Paulo, but clearly their lack of power hurt them big time on Long Beach's long straight.

Ganassi Suffers: Scott Dixon's car broke. Graham Rahal's day ended with a crash. After a very good run, Charlie Kimball ran into trouble and finished in the pits. Dario Franchitti started P1, but faded to midpack very early. This was one of the worst race weekends in memory for Chip's crew.

Yellow Submarine: Within a five minute period Sunday, Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti crashed out, Kat Legge went into the tires, Alex Tagliani pitted with issues, and Mike Conway stopped on track with a gear issue. Good..Grief! 5 minute later, Scott Dixon's car gave up on him. For a good 15 minutes of the broadcast, it seemed like we couldn't get away from those yellow flags. There were problems all over, I guess.
Pags served notice to expect big things this year.
(Credit: Eric Schwarzkopf. Courtesy
Used with permission.)

Mazda Road to Indy Update: The battle for the Indy Lights championship is even more muddled, as now Sebastian Saavedra, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Guerrieri have all won Lights races this season. Now, they'll have over a month off before competing in the Firestone Freedom 100. We'll have to see who comes out of there with the upper hand. If Gustavo Yacaman wants to make the Lights championship a four-driver race, he needs to start winning some races.

Other Notes: Make sure to check out the updated engine power rankings. Not good for Lotus, it goes without saying...the knock against Takuma Sato has always been he's fast, but can't finish races. That knock will now continue...Congrats to James Hinchcliffe on his first career IICS podium (P3) after a series of P4s...Tony Kanaan must have gone all stealthy, like some sort of Brazilian ninja, in his run to P4. He was rarely mentioned, but kept moving up....If only Josef Newgarden's attempted pass on Lap 1 had worked as well as this YouTube video. He will be a star, and soon...EJ Viso seemed to have some regression Sunday, serving a drive-through penalty and getting on more than a few bad sides. Let's hope we see more of the Viso we saw at St. Pete...The "Pope of Long Beach" gave a tremendous, rambling invocation, and I wish they would have brought him into the  broadcast booth. The national anthem (interrupted by the flyover) was horrific...Ed Carpenter (P14) finished ahead of Dario Franchitti yesterday. ECR is rough on the twisties, but sometime steady, measured progress and staying out of trouble gets you where you need to be...I cannot tell you how much help a subscription to is on a chaotic race weekend like the one we just had.

Last Driver Standing Update: This week, we bid adieu to our friend Mike Knapp of 15 Days In May, whose hopes were dashed with Scott Dixon's mechanical issues.Only 5 bloggers remain, and remember, they can't pick the same driver twice during the contest! Next up: Week 4 at Sao Paolo!

Last Driver Standing Week 3 Picks

Chris Sheridan, IndySoup: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Eric Hall, anotherindycarblog: Tony Kanaan

Kent M., Racing Mania: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Mike Knapp, 15 Days In May: Scott Dixon

Paul Dalbey, MoreFront Wing: James Hinchcliffe

Zachary Houghton, IndyCar AdvocateRyan Hunter-Reay

Friday, April 13, 2012

Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix Preview

A return to Long Beach? Chevy changing out all 11 of its engines? A jumbled-up points battle? New pit rules? This INDYCAR weekend will be insane.

There are certain stops on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule that seem to have a bit of extra vibrancy and life to them. Indianapolis is the main example, of course, but you have to put Long Beach in that discussion as well.

Why is the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix special? Certainly there are older races, but Long Beach still has a proud tradition of winners. The Andrettis and Unsers owned this race throughout the 1980s, and names such as Alex Zanardi, Danny Sullivan, and Paul Tracy have won here as well. Of course, there are many tracks that can claim a great list of winners, but Long Beach seems to fuse it with a certain expectancy of excitement. The street fair atmosphere, the beautiful waterfront vista, and plenty of celebrating fans add to the overall ambience, for sure. Ultimately, perhaps certain events just seem special because they are, due to that perfect formula, and that’s all there is to it.

Let’s go over some quick notes and thoughts heading into another great race weekend:

What To Expect: Will Power strides into town with a hard-fought victory at Barber for momentum, but it’s not as if there won’t be plenty of competition for him this weekend. Scott Dixon has overcome his usual slow start to the season with a pair of runner-up finishes. Meanwhile, Power’s teammate Helio Castroneves looks to continue his bounce-back campaign with another good showing.

Last year’s winner Mike Conway has looked quick so far with the Foyt crew, so don’t count them out yet. Simon Pagenaud will be another Honda driver that will look to keep his quick start going.

Problems in the pits hurt several teams last week, and that should be a key focus in this race. A lot of teams have lost position with a number of pit miscues, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone miss out on a podium again this weekend due to a delay during a stop.

However, the biggest story coming into this weekend has to be….

A Plethora Of Penalties: Yes, this weekend both Sèbastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe have been assessed 10-spot grid penalties for engine changes (Hinch’s occurred during a test, if you hadn’t heard). There’s been a lot of complaining about how the 10-grid penalty for James Hinchcliffe and the others is perhaps unfair. I also feel it’s pretty harsh, but fans have been clamoring for rules in black and white for years. In all fairness, you can’t change something midseason, especially after other drivers have already been penalized. Take a page from sports such as Major League Baseball or the National Football League; realize things are as they are for now, and look at rule changes during the offseason. You won’t see the NFL changing holding penalties from 10 to 5 yards in the fifth week of their season; they review during the offseason, and that’s what IndyCar should do. Until then, whether it’s a Chevy, Honda, or Lotus, teams with a failing engine will pay a price.

And yes, all the Chevys—all of them—will change out their engines this week. In addition to all these, Katherine Legge and Oriol Servia will also be paying the price for an engine change. 10-spot penalties galore on the way. We're about to something very unique take place. This will be, for lack of a better term, freakin' wild. So if there was a time to take it easy on the Chevy picks, this might be it…

Pit Rule Change: Starting this week, pit road will be open for all non-emergency full-course cautions. With last year’s run-in between Sebastian Bourdais and Marco Andretti in the crowded pits, and given Long Beach’s history of numerous pit incidents, this should be as good a trial run as any for the rule change.

More Passing: Long Beach isn’t the pass-happiest course on the schedule, but after the great race at Barber, expectations are pretty high that this weekend can offer at least that level of excitement. If Firestone nails the tires for this race as they did last race, we could be in for a definite show. The logic seems to go, if they can pass at Barber, they can at Long Beach. Let’s hope so, because Alabama was nothing short of excellent.

RHR battled up front until late mechanical issues in '11.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Mechanical Woes Persist: Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato are just two of the drivers that have seen promising runs early in the season end due to broken equipment. We know we’ll have more failures this weekend, we just don’t know who yet.

Weather Weirdness: Offhand, I can’t think of the last time there’s been rain on race day at Long Beach, but it looks as if Friday practice might see a bit of rain this weekend. Nothing’s certain, but limited dry practice time could again force some teams to take some guesses on setup.

Firestone Indy Lights Update: One of my favorite drivers from Star Mazda, American Nick Andries, will making his debut with Bryan Herta’s #28 team this weekend. It’s a big order for the Florida native, but it will be interesting to see if he can make some waves in his rookie debut.

The Lights winners at Long Beach are a pretty impressive bunch: JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, and Townsend Bell have all won here in a junior series, just to name a few. Tristan Vautier has looked sharp early, and Sebastian Saavedra is right there as well. Gustavo Yacaman and Esteban Guerrieri haven’t seemed particularly sharp early, but there’s still plenty of time to get to the top of the standings. Meanwhile, David Ostella and Oliver Webb have looked particularly disappointing early on, and will seek a change of fortune starting this weekend. Remember, this is the last race for Firestone Indy Lights until the Firestone Freedom 100, so teams will have a lot of time to dwell on mistakes or successes after this weekend.

Pole: Will Power. Should we just pencil him in here for every twisty this season?

Winner: I was set to say Ryan Hunter-Reay, but with the engine change penalties, this might be a good week for Scott Dixon or Mike Conway to get the job done. Simon Pagenaud's lurking, too.

Dark Horse: Tony Kanaan. TK is last in points right now, but he’s been good here, and I don’t expect his mechanical woes to continue indefinitely.

Last Driver Standing: 6 bloggers remain in our Last Driver Standing competition. Remember, if their chosen driver fails to finish in the Top 10 this weekend, they’re out of the competition. Each blogger can only choose a driver once during the season. Here are their picks for Barber:

Chris Sheridan, IndySoup: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Eric Hall, anotherindycarblog: Tony Kanaan

Kent M., Racing Mania: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Mike Knapp, 15 Days In May: Scott Dixon

Paul Dalbey, MoreFront Wing: James Hinchcliffe

Zachary Houghton, IndyCar AdvocateRyan Hunter-Reay

Thanks for reading, have an awesome race weekend, spend some time with the family, and we'll meet back here on Monday to discuss!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

INDYCAR With The Family: A Primer

One of my goals this year was to spend more time with my family in regards to INDYCAR. My wife has been to races with me, and rates as at least a casual fan. My children (7, 4, and 3) all like INDYCAR (although the attention span isn’t always there), and have accompanied me on many trips to the Speedway. We’ve been fortunate enough to meet drivers, and the kids all have their favorites at this point.

Honestly, I didn’t want to again be one of those dads who sits on the couch for half of each Saturday or Sunday, watching racing and shutting my family out, especially when they seem to enjoy it as well. So this year, I went to some lengths to get the family involved each and every race weekend. Below are a few of the keys to making this season's INDYCAR experience family friendly:

Know Your Drivers
One of the most confusing things for a fledgling fan of any age is learning which driver is in what car, what number belongs to a respective driver, and basically who the heck everyone is. What I did this season was create a large poster that’s taped to our pantry door in the kitchen. It lists each driver, color-coded to their usual car color, and also brightly lists their engine, number, and team. Obviously, it’s less use to my two younger ones, but my oldest daughter seems to be doing much better with knowing and learning the identities of the various drivers. We're also using it to track wins and podiums: the winner gets a gold star, 2nd place a silver star, and 3rd place a green one.

Give A Sense Of Investment 
Each Friday, we take the spotter’s guide for that weekend’s race, cut out the various car/driver illustrations, and shake them up in a hat. Everyone gets to draw 2 drivers, and stick them to a sheet we have on the fridge. Saturday morning, everyone gets to pick one additional (non-random) driver. I know I’m weird, but I sort of enjoy announcing the picks in my best Loud Track Announcer voice as they are drawn out of the hat (my kids will be hugely embarrassed of me in a few years, if they aren't already). If one of your three drivers places the highest, you’re that week’s winner, and get to put a star sticker by your name. If you have kids, you know they will just about knife-fight a man for a star sticker.

Our family's contest board, pre-St. Pete.
I am sad to report that I still have a goose egg for 2012, but hope springs eternal. Meanwhile, my wife and oldest daughter are comfortably schooling the rest of us with their picks. Having someone to pull for is big in racing, and feeling like you have a stake in the action is even bigger.

Watch Together 
My kids love YouTube videos. I cannot tell you have many times we’ve watched whatever the most recent video meme has been, clips from Adventure Time, or (in the cause of my daughters), kittens that sleep/meow/fight/play adorably. So, it was only natural that we would watch INDYCAR videos, eventually.

We’ve watched everything from Ed Carpenter’s victory at Kentucky to AJ Foyt banging on his car with a hammer (my oldest daughter’s impression of AJ is yelling “BANG BANG BANG” while pretending to bash on a car, if that tells you anything).

For the race itself, the kids are still too little to have the attention span for the entire race, but it’s cool to see them watch in fits and starts. I’ve also enjoyed watching the races with my wife, which pretty much means she’s a keeper. It’s a lot more rewarding to share what you love with loved ones then cloistering yourself off for 4-5 hours each Sunday afternoon.

Activities, Activities, Activities 
From visiting the IMS Museum to making cards for their favorite drivers, the kids enjoy INDYCAR as a hobby in their own way. My daughters love drawing, my son likes to watch the cars in person, and when they ask about a driver or a race, I try to answer their questions or talk on their level. It’s important not to force any of it on them, but they really seem to enjoy many parts that make up the INDYCAR experience.

The boy has good taste.
Ultimately, INDYCAR is inherently cool, especially when you’re a kid. Roaring engines, bright colors flashing by, friendly, super-cool drivers, and just having fun is what matters. Arguments over engines, owners, rules, or any of the rest of it are a non-issue when you’re four years old. We’re also fortunate that we are fans of a very accessible sport, one that makes it easy to go to a track or event and have your children stand a very good chance of not only seeing an IndyCar driver, but building a lifetime sort of memory through personal interaction.

Am I crazy for being this die-hard of a fan? Probably a little, but everyone has their quirks--mine just happens to be full of awesomesauce. It's not always easy to be a parent and an INDYCAR fan at the same time, but it's definitely made the start of this season the most rewarding yet. Now if we can avoid Will Power's "angry birds" after being wrecked this season, and if we make the kids cover their eyes during GoDaddy commercials, we can work even more on that kid-friendly theme...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Off Course: An Interview With Randy Lanier

In 1986, he was Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500, scoring a Top 10 finish alongside drivers such as Danny Sullivan and Johnny Rutherford. A year later, he would be indicted on major Federal drug charges, resulting in a sentence of life imprisonment by 1988. 26 years after he came near the pinnacle of motorsport at Indianapolis, Randy Lanier remains incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida.

Randy Lanier was one of the first drivers I can remember seeing run in person at Indianapolis; my father took me to a day of time trials in 1986, and I remember Lanier's #12 machine as if it were yesterday. I had heard of his fate in the years since then, but on a whim, decided to write a man who had figured so prominently in one of my earliest in-person 500 memories. I sent a few questions to him, hoping he'd be willing to answer them. 

I was slightly surprised and pleased to receive a lengthy response to my letter. I'm not in a position to judge whether or not justice has been done by Randy Lanier, but I can share a bit of his story with you, in his own words...

Randy, can you explain a little bit about your background and early life, especially as it pertained to your racing career?

RL: While attending the 1978 auto show that was being held at Miami Beach Convention Center, I came across a booth representing the SCCA. I took a few of the pamphlets home. One pamphlet was about racing schools and information as to what was required to obtain a competition license. That year, I bought 1957 356 Porsche Speedster. The car had been raced at some regional SCCA events. It still had the drum brakes and some shoddy wiring. After months of preparing the 356, I took it to Sebring and other South Florida race tracks.

By '87, Lanier's racing career was over.
(Credit: releaserandylanier)
In 1980 I won the SCCA’s SouthEast Division for E-Production. In 1982, while attending the 24 Hours of Daytona, one of the crew members for the North American Ferrari Team informed me a driver was sick and might not make the race. I spoke with the team owner and was allowed to do some practice laps. The sick driver turned out to be a woman named Janet Guthrie. The car itself was a B.B. 512 Ferrari. We ran in 3rd place for 18 hours until the gearbox broke. That May I was invited to driver in LeMans with the North American Ferrari Team. In 1983, I raced with several different IMSA teams of the GTP circuit, finishing 2nd at the 24 Hours of Daytona. In 1984, I put together a team, calling the Blue Thunder Race Team. We campaigned in two March GTPs. It was a year that was beyond my expectations.

 Teaming up with Bill Whittington and crew chief Keith Leyton, we won the L.A. Grand Prix, Laguna Seca, Grand Prix Charlotte, G.I. Joe Grand Prix at Portland, Michigan 500, and Watkins Glen Grand Prix; this gave me enough points for the GTP championship with one race remaining.

In 1985, I drove several IndyCar race with the Aricero Race Team. In 1986, I was scheduling to run the entire season with the Aricero team.

You finished in 10th place in the 1986 Indianapolis 500, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. What do you most remember from that race?

RL: What I remember most from the 1986 Indy 500 is that it rained a lot that month. I also remember how the wind would affect the car. The start of the race is stuck in my memory as if it were yesterday. On the pace lap Tom Sneva spun out and hit the inside rail on the back straight. He was right behind me.

That first lap is unforgettable. It seems like there was a lot of debris, such as hot dog wrappers, blowing in the wind.

What were your biggest memories from that period in racing? You also garnered some Top 10 finishes at places like Portland, the Meadowlands, and Cleveland while in CART.

RL: Some fond memories from that period are of the friendships with drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Jr., Arie Luyendyk, AJ Foyt, and Johnny Rutherford.

In 1987, you were arrested for drug trafficking (marijuana). What were the reasons given to you for the sentence of life imprisonment?

RL: The reason for sentencing me to Life Without Parole (Natural Death) was because I was convicted of running a Criminal Enterprise which distributed marijuana.

I guess the big question everyone always asks is: why did you do it?

RL: There are probably a few different reasons as to why I distributed marijuana. Faulty thinking and having my priorities in the wrong place is one reason. Growing up in the 60s and being around the marijuana culture could have had some influence on me. Money was also a contributing factor, along with the thrill of that sort of lifestyle.

Did any of the money from those transactions fuel your racing career?

RL: Yes, the money from distributing marijuana helped win the 1984 GTP championship.

Is there any sort of appeals process remaining, or is the ruling of life without parole final?

RL: There are no appeals remaining that I am aware of. Currently, I am gathering signatures of support to present to the President for Commutation of Sentence. (You can find this petition at

You mention on your website your son was only 7 days old when you were arrested. What sort of family time or arrangements have you had over the years?

RL: My family and I are very close. We visit as often as we can.

How difficult was it to realize you were never going to race again?

RL: The thought of never racing did not really bother me, because I had bigger problems at the time.

Do you ever miss racing?

RL: At first, I missed racing; being around and in race cars, the race tracks, and the comradeship.

Do you still keep in contact with anyone from the racing community?

RL: I have no contact from anyone within the racing community. However, John Andretti recently contacted me to sign a race car that will be auctioned off for St. Jude Hospital.

What is a normal day like for you now? What are your passions?

RL: Recently, I took up oil painting. My days start early with yoga and tai chi at 5:30 am. I try to play chess as often as I can, and I work out regularly. Running was a big part of my life until the cartilage in my right hip deteriorated.

If you could tell your mid-20s self something right now, what would it be?

RL: “Accomplishments and achievements are not what life is all about.”

Do you have any sort of message for the racing fans who still remember you from your career?

RL: Life is how you see it. Our thoughts determine our experience of every circumstance and situation. Peace.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Anniversary Of The 500 Rookie Of The Year Award

This year's Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will mark an anniversary few people might be aware of, but is important enough in its own right. 2012's Indy 500 will mark the 60th anniversary of the first Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award being handed out at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Art Cross kicked things off in 1952, being the first 500 driver so honored with the top rookie designation. And while the members of the media still vote to determine the award (now sponsored by Chase Bank), just as they did then, you'd think they were voting for a 500 Hall of Fame class. The 500's Rookie of the Year honors have gone to a truly special list of drivers, from Parnelli Jones and Jim Clark in the 60s, to Rick Mears and Pancho Carter in the 70s, to Michael Andretti and Arie Luyendyk in the 80s and beyond. Here's a bit more Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award trivia and facts for your consumption:

-The list of award alumni includes 10 drivers that would go on to win the Indianapolis 500. During the CART/IRL years, Juan Pablo Montoya (2000) and Helio Castroneves (2001) became the only two drivers to win both the race and the top 500 rookie award in the same year.

-Four different members of the Andretti family have won the Rookie of the Year Award: Mario (1965), Michael (1984), Jeff (1991), and Marco (2006). Despite their proficiency at Indy, no Unser family member has ever won the award.

-Along with Mario Andretti and his sons Michael and Jeff (and of course Michael and Marco), the only other father/son duo to win Rookie of the Year honors was Bill Vukovich II (1968) and his son Bill Vukovich III (1988).

-Co-Rookies of the Year have announced due to a tie vote on five separate occasions. The first was 1961 (Bobby Marshman/Parnelli Jones), followed by 1978 (Rick Mears/Larry Rice, in an especially contentious vote), then 1984 (Michael Andretti/Roberto Guerrero), 1989 (Bernard Jourdain/Scott Pruett), and finally 2002 (Alex Barron/Tomas Scheckter).

Larry Rice shared 500 ROY honors with Rick Mears in '78.
(Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway)
-Seven drivers that could still be considered active in INDYCAR have won top rookie honors: J.R.Hildebrand, Simona de Silvestro, Alex Tagliani, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Tomas Scheckter, and Helio Castroneves.

-The following starting grid positions have never produced an Indy 500 Rookie of the Year: 18th, 29th, 31st, and 32nd.

-In the 60 years since its inception, Teo Fabi is the only pole winner to win the 500 Rookie of the Year Award in the same year (Tony Stewart started in first position after Scott Brayton's death in 1996, but was not the pole winner).

-The first winner of the award, Art Cross, was also a Purple Heart winner from his service during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge.

-Last year's Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, J.R. Hildebrand, received a $25,000 bonus and the Chase Rookie of the Year trophy. By comparison, in 1952, Art Cross received $500 and a year's supply of meat!

Check back tomorrow for the story of one of these Rookie of the Year winners.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Updated Indy 500 Car Count Projections

(Note: I'm on vacation, so I probably won't respond to email or comments as quickly as usual).

With the news of both Jean Alesi at Newman/Haas and Ana Beatriz with Andretti/Conquest confirmed for the Indianapolis 500 this year, I thought it might be time to go through and do my best Indy 500 car count projections based on what we know now.

Confirmed Indy 500 Entrants (Italics note Indy rookie)

#2 Ryan Briscoe, Team Penske, Chevrolet

#3 Helio Castroneves, Team Penske, Chevrolet

#4 JR Hildebrand, Panther Racing, Chevrolet

#5 EJ Viso, KV Racing Technology, Chevrolet

#6 Katherine Legge, Lotus-Dragon Racing, Lotus

#7 Sebastien Bourdais, Lotus-Dragon Racing, Lotus

#8 Rubens Barrichello, KV Racing Technology, Lotus

#9 Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda

#10 Dario Franchitti, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda

#11 Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology, Chevrolet

#12 Will Power, Team Penske, Chevrolet

#14 Mike Conway, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Honda

#15 Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda

#17 Sebastian Saavedra, AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport, Chevrolet

#18 Justin Wilson, Dale Coyne Racing, Honda

#19 James Jakes, Dale Coyne Racing, Honda

#20 Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing, Chevrolet

#22 Oriol Servia, Lotus-DRR, Lotus

#25 Ana Beatriz, Andretti Autosport/Conquest Racing, Chevrolet

#26 Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport,Chevrolet

#27 James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport, Chevrolet

#28 Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport, Chevrolet

#30 Luca Filippi, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda

#38 Graham Rahal, Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda

#67 Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Honda

#77 Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Hamilton Racing, Honda

#78 Simona de Silvestro, Lotus-HVM Racing, Lotus

#83 Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda

#98 Alex Tagliani, Bryan Herta Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian, Lotus

#TBA (02/06?) Jean Alesi, Newman/Haas Racing, Lotus

That's 30 cars right there: 13 Chevy, 11 Honda, and 6 Lotus engines, as confirmed entries stand. Hold on, because here comes the hard part. Here are my informed guesses/wild stabs at what we have left to get us to between the 34-35 cars we should have trying to make the field at Indy:

Projected/Probable (All car numbers speculative until final)

2nd Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing:
#57/66? Bryan Clauson, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Honda

2nd Panther Racing*
#44 Buddy Rice, Panther Racing, Chevrolet

2nd AJ Foyt Enterprises:
#41 Wade Cunningham, AJ Foyt Enterprises, Honda

2nd Schmidt Hamilton Racing:
#99 Townsend Bell, Schmidt Hamilton Racing, Honda

*-I know John Barnes is on record as saying this won't happen this year. Let's wait and see, shall we?

Humor me for a moment, and let's assume those are at least close to the mark. That brings us to 14 Chevy, 14 Honda, and 6 Lotus, for a total of 34 cars. Chevy and Honda probably won't go much past 14-15 engines, so at most we're probably looking at two more potential serious entries: for Chevy, a second Ed Carpenter Racing car, and for Honda, the middling possibility of a third Rahal Letterman Lanigan car (I've also heard of the possibility of one other ride that would in some manner be associated with Schmidt Hamilton Racing, but am pretty hesitant on that one right now). If you're asking about Michael Shank Racing, my gut feeling is they're a no-show right now. No engine, no budget, from the sound of things.

For those entries, I'll leave it to you to speculate on which driver will be in those seats, or if those seats will even be available. After all, some mystery has to remain in the 500 silly season. But with Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Tomas Scheckter, Bertrand Baguette, John Andretti, and Jay Howard still floating around out there, not all items are settled yet. Suffice it to say, there are going to be some tremendous drivers qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, and some tremendous ones sitting on the sidelines, helmet in hand.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Quick Trip To The IMS Test

(Note: I'm on vacation until Monday, so I might not respond to email or comments as quickly as usual).

I was only able to escape from work for a few hours Wednesday afternoon, but it was enough time to take the family over to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to check out the new oval configuration for the DW12. I had been trying to follow updates as best I could during the day, but nothing replaces seeing it for yourself.

The first thing I noticed is that IMS was pretty busy, with a good crowd on hand. From the fence near Turn 1 to the Turn 2 viewing mounds, there was a noticeable concentration of fans.

My wife managed to snag a couple of photos of the new car. I really liked the look of Tony Kanaan's car; it was my first time seeing it in person, and if anything, it stands out even more than it appears to on TV. Here's a pic of TK going by:

Photo: Theresa Houghton
I found I did like the look of the new rear config on the car. It really does have sort of a "Batmobile" look to it. But what did I like even more than that? How about those turbo engines? They're remarkably quiet, especially compared to last year's normally-aspirated engine, but to me, they sound awesome. Here's a quick video I took with my phone. Have a listen:

Apparently, the top speed of the test was Marco's 218.6 mph (with a tow), with teams playing it safe before the Long Beach race. I really don't think it will be much of a push once these cars are really trimmed out to hit into at least the low 220s, if not around that 225 mark. They probably won't be as fast as last year's car, but I don't think they'll be hideously off, either. You got the sense this was a pretty conservative test overall.

The cars, the sounds, and the crowds were all great, sure, but I'm happy my wife and kids seemed to be excited as well to see the cars testing. It was a good afternoon--not that a fan can really have a bad one at IMS. It was great to see so many IndyCar fans in one place; sometimes, as an American open wheel fan, you can feel like you're isolated or crazy, even in Indiana. Wednesday helped remind me that we might indeed be crazy, but we aren't alone out there.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Contest Winners & Wednesday INDYCAR Notes

-First off, congratulations to our Milwaukee IndyFest ticket giveaway winner! Paul Stackpole wins two grandstand tickets to the Milwaukeee IndyFest 225. Readers Jason Winston and Katie Digby also won, and will be sent IndyCar prize packs, full of whatever goodies I could put my hands on.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and I hope to have another contest for May!

-Jean Alesi to Newman-Haas for the Indianapolis 500? It sounds far-fetched, perhaps, but that's exactly what one French outlet is reporting today. We'll see if this bears fruit, but it does, that would be the sixth Lotus expected for Indy...

-If you’re attempting to glean any and all info on today’s test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (I should be out there for a bit this afternoon), here’s something to remember: these cars will be running in race configuration. So if the top speed is nowhere near last year’s Indy 500 qualification speeds, don’t freak out. Qualification speeds should be well north of what we see run today. Of course, that won’t stop the mass hysteria when it happens, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a part of it. As famed IndyCar fan Thomas Hobbes wrote, "knowledge is power".

-While we’re discussing IMS and the Indy 500, there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not we’ll have 33 cars at Indy. It seems like every year this comes up, and every year people needlessly worry about it. Hey, we made 33 cars several years ago when the car count was way short of where it is now. We’re close to 33 already, with additional entries such as Bryan Clauson, Sebastian Saavedra, and Luca de Filippi jumping in for Indy. Randy Bernard says we’ll see at least 34, and that seems reasonable, though I wouldn’t put it past anyone to make a last-second deal to add to it (my prediction was 35). Basically, in terms of things to worry about, this is somewhere below fans booing Sarah Fisher or John Andretti at Indy--in other words, I wouldn’t sweat it.

-OK...let's tackle this whole INDYCAR ratings thing. By now, I'm sure you have read approximately 14,000 doom and gloom postings about how horrible yesterday's announced rating for the Barber race on NBC Sports Network is for the Series (never mind the fact that those are initial numbers; last year's ratings were lower and ended up higher). But we're talking about a rebranded network. When NBC Sports Network changed their name from Versus, they also shook up and changed out 40% of their programming lineup. Between the name change, rebranding efforts, and attempting to re-establish the audience, their ratings for all shows are down 22% across the board. It's going to take time--it's not an overnight thing.

This is not something we can control, so why should we worry about it? NBC Sports will continue to establish their new position, and with programming like the Olympics coming up, their audience will return. In the mean time, INDYCAR has shown it can offer great racing, and NBCSN's broadcast coverage is excellent. (Word-of-mouth alone should mean an increase for Long Beach). This is not something where Randy Bernard and company can decide to just "push harder". But that's not what we want in an era where stories are presented, dissected, and pronounced final within a micro-cycle of news. The only "magic bullets" here are patience and commitment, two things the world seems in short supply of at times.

My advice (not that you asked for it)? Enjoy what you have, take a friend to a race, thank the sponsors, and remember that you only get to so many racing seasons on this Earth. If you really want to help INDYCAR, just be a fan that shares what they enjoy with others. Anyhow, that's probably more than enough on that topic. Moving on...

-If you haven’t been watching Firestone Indy Lights, it’s a bit interesting to see how the points have broken down over the first two races. Many expected Lights veterans such Esteban Guerrieri, Gustavo Yacaman, and Sebastian Saavedra to be fighting for the championship. While Saavedra has won a race and is ensconced in second place, the favorite of many, Esteban Guerrieri, is P3 in the standings right now. Yacaman is P4, but they’re all trailing last year’s Star Mazda champ Tristan Vautier, who has been extremely sharp early on. There’s a long season to go, and the fight will probably come down to consistency, and which driver can effectively limit the sort of mistakes we usually see from Lights drivers. If Vautier keeps this up (and granted, that’s still a big if this early in the season), it will have to be considered an upset.

Hawksworth has ruled the first two Star Mazda weekends.
(Copyright Eric Schwarzkopf. Used with permission.

-If we’re going to discuss Lights, we also have to discuss the Star Mazda Championship. What was anticipated to be a close battle is indeed just that, with positions 2 through 5 in the standings separated by all of 12 points. Right now, however, it’s young British racer (and Star Mazda rookie) Jack Hawksworth that’s the class of the field. Through four races, he’s won twice, been runner-up twice, and has captured the bonus point for fastest lap in all 4 races. He leads his closest competitor right now, American Connor De Phillippi, by 29 points. Now, that’s easily made up in a race or two, and we’re coming to the oval section of the schedule, where CDP should have a nice advantage. However it plays out, it seems certain Indy Lights will have welcome a very good scholarship rookie next season.

-I was asked the other day whom I thought was the most surprising driver of the year so far. On the negative side, I’ve been surprised Dario hasn’t been in contention at all—that’s probably the biggest surprise overall for a lot of us. Tony Kanaan last in points so far is also a surprise, but there’s nothing to be done regarding to mechanical issues. On the positive side of things, we knew Josef Newgarden was a very poised young driver, but he’s looked very smooth out on the track, and the Sarah Fisher Hartman crew is showing they’re at least game on the road and street courses. That’s not something you could say even just a year ago. Now if Walgreens or another sponsor would like to step up, I’ve got a rabid host of INDYCAR fans ready to thank their business with their words and wallet.

-If you missed Robin Miller’s interesting Q&A on the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, it’s definitely worth a read. You get the sense that INDYCAR and Randy Bernard are working to go where events work, not just where they’d like to go. That unfortunately means ovals won’t likely be on par with the twisties anytime soon, but the important thing has to be getting events where there’s an opportunity for stability and profit. Honestly, I’m ok with slow, measured progression. Let’s make sure events like Milwaukee and Iowa succeed or continue to succeed, then figure out if ovals such as Phoenix, Pocono, or Kentucky can be made viable. And yes, INDYCAR, hear my plea: figure out a way to bring back Road America. There’s got to be something that can work with the scheduling. These cars deserve to run on the best road course in America. Look what they did at Barber; just think what they could do at Elkhart Lake!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Notes From The Barber Race: Pass-O-Rama

OK, new rule: we can never, never, again refer to Barber or the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama as a parade.

There was passing in Turn 5. There was passing in Turn 1. There was passing on the restarts. There was passing in places where we told these cars could not and would not pass.

Will Power won this race, but not before having a big fight on his hands in terms of both back-and-forth for track position and pit stops. This race was never a foregone conclusion, and it's just not podium finishers Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneneves that should feel good about how things played out Sunday. Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, and Rubens Barrichello were just a few of the drivers that really made this race exciting.

How good was it? It honestly made St. Pete feel like a dress rehearsal. If that was the welcome party for the new cars and engines, all I can hope is that we're all invited back very soon.

Granted, the ratings probably won't be stellar on this broadcast; NBC Sports has a name change working against it. But after a race and a telecast like that, it's hard to not feel optimistic.

Let's move on to some of the other items, big and small of the day.

The Broadcasting: NBC Sports Network did an amazing job. They had the "pulse of the race", so to speak. They showed passing, they went back and replayed important aspects, and their camera work was peerless. Quite frankly, NBC Sports Network not only gets an "A" on their coverage, but they made ABC look simply dreadful in comparison. Passion and excitement count for an awful lot, and the NBC Sports crew made it abundantly clear they were interested in what was happening on-track Sunday.

The only real disappointment was a poorly-coordinated, short Grid Run. As FTHurley suggested yesterday on Twitter, they need to get Townsend Bell involved on those to help the flow of the segment. Speaking of the Grid Run: Did Robin Miller interrupt the prayer invocation? Unintentionally funny in the extreme.

Passing: No longer a problem at Barber...
(Copyright Eric Schwarzkopf. Used with permission.
Pass, Pass, Pass: No one, including yours truly, expected to see this much passing on Sunday. But the action on track was sustained and amazing. It was a perfect blend of different engines, different setups, different tires, and yes, a defending rule that really brought things to life. When you let the racers race, they reward your trust. Beaux Barfield and the drivers both deserve high marks for taking care of things Sunday.

Pags' Stock Rising: Simon Pagenaud has been a rocket in these first two races, proving Honda and Schmidt Hamilton Racing knew exactly what they were doing when they invested in the driver. Last year's solid performance was clearly a sneak preview of his overall talent. Along with Scott Dixon, he's been Honda's bright spot so far. Yes, he's a rookie, but he could very easily grab some podiums before it's all said and done this year.

The High And Lows of Lotus: Actually, Lotus didn't have a completely terrible weekend. Alex Tagliani blew an engine right off the bat, which didn't help matters (or the engine supply situation), but Sebastien Bourdais showed why he's one of the best in the business with a P9 finish, and Oriol Servia's P13 was respectable. We'll see what their spare situation is in two weeks for Long Beach, however. It's also going to hurt that they won't have any representation at this week's test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: The Star Mazda race that should have run Friday instead ran Sunday, but it didn't seem to phase Jack Hawksworth. Hawk ran away with the first race, with Andretti's Sage Karam landing runner-up honors. In the second race, which actually ran after the IndyCar race (due to severe rain on Friday), Martin Scuncio held off Hawksworth and Connor De Phillippi to grab his first victory. This championship fight won't be over anytime soon.

The 40-lap Firestone Indy Lights race saw Victor Carbone finish P7 after starting P15 in a spirited charge, but polesitter Sebastian Saavedra led every lap, despite a very strong challenge from P2 Tristan Vautier. Esteban Guerrieri managed P3. As the tires fell off, there were some pretty lively fights throughout the race, which would turn out to be a minor precursor for what we'd get with the main event later. Without Carlos Munoz's late spin, we likely would have seen a wild finish.

Other Notes: Dario Franchitti recovered to finish P10, but he just has not looked comfortable in these first two races...Takuma Sato was again knocked out of the race with mechanical issues--that's 2/2 this season....Tony Kanaan's day ended with a shock issue--he finished a lap down, well out of contention. Not the expected start to his year...our IndyCar Engine Power Rankings are updated, with Honda and Lotus improving, but Chevy still leading...our Last Driver Standing contest is also updated, with only 6 bloggers there any doubt we need Road America back on the schedule with these cars?
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