Monday, July 30, 2012

Secret Transcript From The IndyCar Fan Congress

On July 25, 2012, Randy Bernard presided over a top-secret meeting of the first-ever IndyCar Fan Congress. The minutes of that meeting were never meant for public consumption, but at great cost, we have procured the only known copy of the proceedings. They are presented below, unedited, in their entirety.

CHAIR: (gavel) I now call this session of the inaugural IndyCar Fan Congress to order. First off, just let me say how pleased I am to see all the disparate groups comprising IndyCar fandom in one room. Now, then, before we get started--er, yes, the Chair recognizes the delegate from the Schedulist Party?

SCHEDULIST: Mr. Chairman, the Schedulist Party would like to formally demand that before this meeting starts, we add the following 37 races to the IndyCar schedule--Phoenix, Road America, Rockingham, Trenton, Le Mans, Talladega, Pocono, Nashville, Gateway, Pikes Peak, Lucas Oil Raceway, Anderson, the IMS road course--

CHAIRMAN: (gavel) The Chair wishes to remind the delegates of the Schedulist Party that all scheduling concerns will be addressed at the proper time. Now, as I was saying--

DELEGATE: Mr. Chairman, the TV Rating Party would like to complain about the ratings from the last 27 events. How are we supposed to enjoy anything when clearly our passion for this hobby isn't validated by the tastes of the rest of America? We demand an instant increase of ratings of at least 2.0, or you must IMMEDIATELY terminate your dealings with ABC, NBC Sports, and for good measure, the IMS Radio Network.

CHAIRMAN: I see. (long pause) Well, first off, we'd better have our roll call. Please indicate you are present when I call your name. Crisis-A-Day Party?

C-A-D PARTY: Clearly, Mr. Chairman, there are SERIOUS QUESTIONS to be answered over why IMS continues to use French's Mustard, when clearly the ONLY RATIONAL CHOICE is Plochman's Mustard in the little yellow barrel. We indignantly await your response, and possibly the end of IndyCar or the world itself.

CHAIRMAN: Angry Retiree Party?

ANGRY RETIREE: Hold on, I'm writing my 102nd letter this year to Robin Miller's Mailbag. "And, in closing, I will never, ever, ever, EVER watch a race again. I mean it. Honest. I'm and totally and irrevocably done with IndyCar".

Sorry about that, Mr. Chairman. Let's wrap this up--I need to buy my tickets to Mid-Ohio and then catch the Early Bird Special at Denny's.

CHAIRMAN: Schedulist Party?

SCHEDULIST: --Nürburgring, Cannonball Run, Jungle Park, the orange Hot Wheels track I got for my 8th birthday--

CHAIRMAN: Overly Optimistic Press Release Party?

OOPRP DELEGATE: Mr. Chairman, I am proud to announce our driver, in only the 635th race of their young open wheel career, scored a career-best 25th last weekend! This is their best finish since qualifying at a white-hot P24 back in the Formula Ecuador Series season opener back in 2003. Clearly, they'll be contending once more for the win next weekend!

CHAIRMAN: Creepily Obsessive Fan Party?

COFP DELEGATE: Clearly, my driver is going to win, and win soon. My driver will DOMINATE all in the way, and probably win a Nobel Prize while doing it. We are totally buddies, you know. True friends, as I believe I may have mentioned. The 44 tweets I make each day about my driver are a big part of their inspiration. My driver has finished P37 or slightly better in the last two races. Funny, my driver never wrote back when I sent that lock of my hair, and neither did Chip Ganassi when I took that photo outside his house and demanded anonymously he fund my driver's career. DOMINATE, I tell you.

SCHEDULIST: --Nazareth, Watkins Glen, Eldora, Gas City, Las Vegas, Vancouver--

CHAIRMAN: Scenester Party?

SCENESTER: Oh my gosh, James Jakes was totally at my house last night. OK, well, he wasn't at my house, but we did eat dinner together, since we're so close. OK, so we weren't at dinner together, but we were in the same restaurant. OK, so it wasn't the same restaurant, but there was a guy that looked sort of like him behind me in line at the Wendy's drive-through. I'm exactly not sure how he's doing on track this year, but I do love dropping that name!

CHAIRMAN: Illogical Solution Party?

ILLOGICAL SOLUTION PARTY: Hey, sometimes fuel strategy gambles don't work for some of the teams. Ergo, we need to get rid of pit stops entirely. Also, the cars should run on Flubber.

CHAIRMAN: Roger Penske Party? Ah, there you are, Mr. Penske.

ROGER PENSKE: I've built and sold three automotive empires and a Brazilian airliner since we started this meeting. My musk is that of ruthless excellence, and several remote South Pacific tribes revere me as a war god.

CHAIRMAN: Understood. Team Owner Party?

TEAM OWNERS: Hey, we've been thinking, and although we know we agreed to it earlier, this Congress probably isn't a really good idea. I know we're just mentioning it to you, but it's cool. We already called Marshall Pruett and Curt Cavin to do an article.

CHAIRMAN: (audible sigh)

TEAM OWNERS: Also, you guys said last night's dinner bill would only be, and I quote, "twenty bucks or so". I just got a charge on my Visa for $173.21.

CHAIRMAN:, we'll come back to that. Hyper-Loyalist Party?


CHAIRMAN: Bring Back Danica Party?

BBDP: (sniffles) You'll all be sorry!

CHAIRMAN: Doom Party?

DOOM PARTY: If only you fools had listened to my gravely important points and simply changed the cars, engines, drivers, rules, schedule, TV plan, CEO, and series name for this year, we'd be fine. Instead, this is it. It's all over. Goodbye, American open wheel racing. The final nail in the coffin. It was nice knowing you. Sayonara. All over but the crying, now. The fat lady has sung. Any minute now. Won't be surprised if they pull the plug this afternoon. Shoulda listened. Doomed. Doomed. Doooooomed.

CHAIRMAN: Lotus Party?

DELEGATE: They'll be here in a few. They were about three miles back when I was walking in.

CHAIRMAN: Very well. Now then, I've asked our official historian, Mr. Donald Davidson, to rule on whether or not this qualifies as a quorum so that we may conduct official business. Mr. Davidson?

DONALD DAVIDSON: Well, I'm very glad you asked that question. I suppose I'd have to go back to 1937, when Herb Ardinger entered a car called the Quorum Standard Special, which actually didn't have anything to do with politics, but was a maker of automotive belts out of Trafalgar, Indiana, who had earlier been involved in one of Lou Moore's cars. Now, the car didn't get up to speed, so Herb actually found another ride, and also finished 6th a year later, which was his best finish at Indy, and was widely attributed to his marriage of Miss Louisa Elcott of Chalmers, Indiana, who had eleven toes and was a keen backgammon player. Now, I have to thank you, because Herb's certainly one of my favorites, and we haven't been able to talk about him in some time--oh, and I just remembered, Herb was known for his love of veal cutlets, and often would tease Cliff Bergere, who preferred salmon before a race, which is why the two of them once in Springfield were surprised to find a--

(commotion outside)

INTRUDER: This Congress is now under the control of the Ovalista Front. We demand the following: that Tony George be returned to a seat of power, that all fans attending any street course be sent to re-education camps immediately, and that Racin Gardner be given an automatic ride for any IRL event. Further, we--

(additional commotion)

2ND INTRUDER: Ovalista swine! The ChampCar Junta will bury you! Any Georgist lackey can turn left. True power resides investing the proletariat with paddock passes to Laguna Seca. We demand an instant return to--

SCHEDULIST: --Surfer's Paradise, Circuit Zolder, San Jose--

CHAIR: (heavily gavels) Listen, everyone! We have a lot to get through here, but we can't do that if you all don't stop interrupting. Now then, as I was saying--yes, what is it? The Chair recognizes the NASCAR Ambassador's, um, favored status and permission to speak.

NASCAR Ambassador: So I'm sorta new here, but you know what would be really awesome? Green-White-Checkered finishes, the Lucky Dog, and all of you bowing to this golden idol I made of Brian France gently caressing Darrel Waltrip.

At this point, the minutes cut off, with the transcript afterwards marked only by indecipherable fragments obscured by bloodstains, several bullet holes, and a hastily scrawled message stating "PLEASE LORD DON'T LET IT END LIKE THIS".

Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday INDYCAR: Complaining, Schedules, Bloggers

-Let's start with get well soon wishes to Charlie Kimball after his Mid-Ohio testing crash yesterday. It sounds as if he'll still be able to make the Mid-Ohio race next weekend, but we'll have to see. If you've chatted with CK at any length, it'd be hard not to have a lot of respect for the way he approaches racing and his sophomore season in IndyCar.

-Speaking of Mid-Ohio, I'm really hoping to make it over there for next Sunday's IndyCar race. Right now, pencil me in as probable...

-When we discuss the schedule for next year, I have to admit I'd be fine having Pocono and Kentucky added back in. Kentucky was one of my favorite races, and was always a joy to attend. I'd prefer a night race there once again, but I'll take what I can get. If you add those two ovals, plus Houston and potentially one more course, I think things would seem pretty healthy for the moment.

I want to touch more on this later, but if we're going to add a Pocono or Kentucky back, the Series needs to do everything it can on its end to ensure the promoter is keeping their end of the bargain. In many ways, we are in a place where I can't see many second chances for failed tracks. Milwaukee received at least one more year--let's hope we can have that same sort of success with our 2013 additions or returns.

-If you aren't a regular reader of Eric Hall's anotherindycarblog, make sure you check out his article from yesterday. He's got the right of it, from where I sit. We have so much to be thankful for this year in IndyCar, it seems silly to spend any time on elaborate "fixes" that have little basis in financial reality. Sometimes, taking a minute to consider the lilies can't hurt.

-On that point, one of the best things for me as a fan is sharing IndyCar with others, be it my wife, kids, buddies from work, or old friends. Is there anything that approaches seeing that glint in the eye when they finally "get it?" I'll leave the "deep thoughts" and manifestos to others. I want to get friends and family to the track, watch racing, and generally enjoy everything we have. Complaining about bad news online (in the light of not offering any valid solutions) doesn't fix anything, and it doesn't help anything one bit. The simple, enjoyable act of taking someone to their first race or a day of qualifications or testing can.

When I look back on my life, I don't want to note how I spent 2008-2028 (inclusive) complaining about TV ratings on Twitter. I'd like to think I'd be remembering hanging out at the track, watching awesome racing, and just talking IndyCar with friends and family.

I'm reminded of a quote from the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell, who wrote "the people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks". We've got some great racing going now, to go along with some great challenges. This can be a golden age for fans, if they'd simply allow it to be.

-One more thought on Edmonton from last week's trip: The more I think back to the level of competition apparent in the Star Mazda ranks, the more certain I am that at least 3-4 prospects in this current class will make a serious name for themselves in time. Watching the talent apparent in guys like Jack Hawksworth, Petri Suvanto, Martin Scuncio, Sage Karam, Stefan Rzadzinski, and the incredibly hard-luck Connor De Phillippi, there's such a mix of American and international talent on display.

In any case, if you love open wheel racing, do your best to catch at least one Star Mazda race this year (or their scheduled October test at Indy). These guys are legitimate prospects, and put on a heck of a show. They were one of the highlights of an already-incredible Edmonton weekend.

-Finally, Mark Wilkinson of New Track Record is taking another spin in the Social Media Garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend for the Grand-Am and NASCAR races at the Brickyard. He'll be documenting all the animal sacrifices and other marked depravity we all know goes into a NASCAR weekend. That, or he'll be checking out an awesome Grand-Am event and making his usual sharp commentary as a fish out of water. If I were you, I'd check it out just to be sure.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Projecting Points For IndyCar's Championship

While it seems almost impossible we’re already down to the last four races of this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, we’re also down to perhaps four serious competitors for the IZOD IndyCar Series crown. These four racers—Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, and Scott Dixon—are within 61 points of one another. While drivers such as James Hinchcliffe (86 points back in P5) still have a shot at the title, it seems increasingly likely this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series champ will come from that pool of aforementioned racers.

Speculation is sky-high on just which driver will pull it off, and you can find plenty of arguments for any of the drivers named. Hunter-Reay had an amazing streak of races, and held onto his lead with a solid result at Edmonton. Helio Castroneves has been the most consistent driver in all of IndyCar this year, finishing more laps than anyone. Will Power is the acknowledged master of the street courses. Scott Dixon is as steady as they go, and knows how to finish well.

We can go around and around with these types of reasons, but what does history tell of us of how these drivers will do? I took the last five seasons, back to 2007, and averaged the drivers’ finished based on each track remaining. While some of the drivers have experience at the finale oval at Fontana, that wasn’t a scheduled race in the years covered. Therefore, I looked at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore to see how each driver might do, then added those projected points to the current totals to see what sort of potential championship fight we might have on our hands for the finale.

(Click to enlarge)
That asterisk by Will Power’s Sonoma result notes it includes his P25 finish in 2008; he’s won the last two races—if he does so again, he could have a 35 point lead in the final instead of just 7 going into Fontana. Also, keep in mind as the Baltimore results reflect only a single race there, so that’s not exactly the ideal sampling for this.

Yet if trends hold from previous years, it seems entirely possible that we’ll go into Fontana with Will Power again clinging to a narrow points lead. Here’s the rub: Will Power’s end result in IndyCar’s last two season-ending ovals is a P22 average. Even if Helio Castroneves finds himself 30 points behind coming into the finale, he wouldn’t be totally out of it, any more than Dixon would be 37 points behind (although an awful lot would need to go right in that circumstance. Let’s also remember, Dixon and Castroneves have at least some Fontana experience from back in the day.

You can also see some drivers have one race where they need to up their game. Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to do far better at Sonoma, while Helio can ill-afford a repeat of last year’s Baltimore race. Power and Dixon don’t really have any poor result averages per se, but Dixon at least could stand to duplicate his normal Mid-Ohio effort at Sonoma or Baltimore to better close the gap.

Of course, this presupposes no one listed hits a hot or cold streak, which we know is quite likely. Engines blow up; 10-grid penalties will occur (right, Scott Dixon?), and someone will have a DNF or two. In short, all signs point to another championship leading up to a last-race showdown. Showing just how these results could play out in shaking up the result gives every race an awful lot of meaning, which means the results from Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore should build on one another towards the crescendo of this unbelievable IndyCar season.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Zack's Edmonton Indy Adventure: Sunday

I need to begin with a note regarding my cabbie from Saturday evening. This guy was awesome. English was not his first language, but he engaged me in a heady theological discussion regarding the origin of the Rocky Mountains, and then discussed Reggie Miller to some length. When he was done, he gave me two souvenir Canada spoons to remember him by. I will never forget him, basically.

There was an Edmonton Indy party Saturday night I was going to go to, but as it turned out, I completely crashed out sometime around 8 or 8:30 pm and didn't wake up until 3 in the morning! I blame the Sutton Place Hotel for being entirely too comfortable. That, or I handle even minor jet lag amazingly poorly. Let's go with the former.

Sunday, I once again arrived at the track pretty early, as I didn't want to miss the second Star Mazda race of the weekend. The weather was perfect, Ryan Hunter-Reay's face took up the front page of the Edmonton Sun, and everything seemed ripe for some great racing.

I will mention at the point that although I moved around the track to scope out a few different angles, my main seat was in the pit lane suite. Now, I have always prided myself on being a doughty J-Stander at Indy, sitting on the aluminum, pressed between sober race fans, drunken outgrown frat boys, men attending their 57th 500 while grousing about how Lloyd Ruby would lap everyone here 47 times, and at least a half dozen former roadies for ZZ Top. While , I'm no pampered suite-dweller. I know how to survive--nay, thrive!--in 100+ degree heat indexes every Memorial Day Weekend.

With that said, sitting in a suite is AWESOME. I have never had the privilege of eating steak while watching an IndyCar race in person until now, and I think it changes a man. Next up, I'll be clamoring to sit someone for Indy in the shade.

In any case, the Star Mazda race did not disappoint. It was rough to see Connor De Phillippi taken out early, but Jack Hawksworth held off a last-gasp charge by Sage Karam to win the day, and in all likelihood, probably a scholarship to Indy Lights next year. Nothing's certain, but you get the sense he won't make many mistakes.

Perhaps the two most impressive Star Mazda drives of the day were courtesy of the two gentlemen starting in the back of the pack. Petri Suvanto finished an inspired P4 after starting dead last, and Edmonton native Stefan Rzadzinski finished P6 after starting just in front of Suvanto. Rzadzinski pulled off a last-minute pass of two cars through Turn 12 that has to be seen to be believed. I'm hoping there's some video up of it soon, because it was nothing short of tremendous.

I decided to walk around for a bit while the NASCAR Canadian Tires Series was on track, as that's not precisely my cup of tea. It was great to see merchanidse booths for guys like James Hinchcliffe and Rzadzinski, and companies from Target to Coleman (the camping people) were represented. Again, it would be really nice for INDYCAR to figure out a way to support this race with the Fan Zone we get at North American venues. I understand the sponsor concerns, but you've got to have that way of pulling in the young and new fans. Hopefully, a new level of support will be in place for 2013--which seems reasonably assured of happening, by the way.

Getting back to my seat before the IZOD IndyCar Series race, the stands I could see had filled up quickly. (Apparently, the stands were a sellout, but I have no idea on actual attendance). The crowd gave big cheers for James Hinchcliffe and Alex Tagliani during the intros--you could tell the pro-Canada vibe was in full swing.

You likely know how the race went; Tag grabbed the lead early from Dario and held it for over half the race, but Helio Castroneves got past him as Tag's alternate tires did him in. Takuma Sato gave it everything he had, but just didn't have enough to get past Helio. Will Power charged forward for a podium, and Ryan Hunter-Reay did enough to stay in the overall points lead. This all happened--that's right--without a single caution flag.

I have never been to a race without a caution flag. What was it like on the ground? Intense. There's no respite, no breather. The race goes amazingly fast, and there's no "down" lap where you can grab nachos and visit the Port-O-John. You are locked in. I wouldn't mind a few more of these.

There seemed to be always passing somewhere on the track (and the excellent track visibility meant you caught most of them), but honestly, the green flag racing created its own kind of suspense. This was an amazingly strong Top 10 (or Top 13 or so), and there simply wasn't any give in any of the drivers. Every pass felt well-earned, and there was never the feel someone simply didn't belong. These were true peers, masters of their trade, giving as good as they got through 75 laps. A race and fight like that is one of the best illustrations available of the talent level in IndyCar this season.

A couple of items for potential improvement: the way out for most fans crossed pit lane, and after the race, the walkway was closed so cars could head back to the paddock. A big, irate crowd formed, and it was about 10 minutes before they let folks through. This backlog was also apparent at the taxi stand, where the pickup point was ignored and an "every man for himself" battle broke out. One very angry, very drunk man wearing a Danica shirt (the only one seen all weekend) kicked the taxi stand sign, broke it, kicked it again after a woman stood it back up, and tried to assault one of the cabbies through the passenger window for picking someone up from a spot before the taxi stand. From what the police told me, they'd had some big issues with the cabbies not obeying instructions

I took a stroll Sunday evening in the area around my hotel. Race Week Edmonton is also involved with a music festival, so there plenty of folks out listening to music around the promenade, kids playing in the fountain in front of Edmonton's distinctive pyramid-topped City Hall, and just really enjoying life. It was a nice end to a great day of racing.

Will I be back? I'd like to think so, but who knows? Whatever 2013 holds, there's a group of dedicated fans in Edmonton that put on a great race, supported their local guys, got the government and local businesses to buy into it as a major event, and are working to find ways to continually improve the experience. It would be very hard NOT to like the folks behind Edmonton Indy, in fact, and even harder not to appreciate what they've done with what they have. If you're a race fan, you've got kindred spirits at work here in Alberta.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Zack's Edmonton Indy Adventure: Saturday PM

We'll pick up with the Star Mazda Series practice, where Jack Hawksworth was beat out late by Zach Veach and eventual polesitter Sage Karam. Stefan Rzadzinski in a very competitive field.

With that complete and the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series going out to play, I took a stroll around the paddock. With the relatively clean early session, it seemed as if there weren't too many furious fixes or tweaks underway.

You know what always strikes me in the paddock (besides Helio on his Scooter)? You can look at some teams and just tell the attention to detail is there. In the Penske area, there's simply not a hair out of place.

One item I do believe needs addressed for Edmonton Indy is the lack of the Fan Zone here. I understand Canadian and American sponsors don't always overlap, but if you want to build a fan base for the event, you need that extra display, that extra push. You have to hope IndyCar can see the sense in that, and figure out a way to make that needed support happen.

IndyCar quals began under increasingly stormy clouds, and by our round of 12, rain was indeed falling. It soon slackened, but still meant rain tires needed to be run.

Takuma Sato didn't waste any time starting the session, and it was pretty lively right away. Scott Dixon got into the grass in that treacherous Turn 11 (notice a pattern?), but kept it fired.

Then the rain came. It wasn't much, but enough to cause rain tires for Round 2. Amazingly, Will Power did not advance, and looked like he was fighting the car on a couple of occasions.

If you're reading this, there's a very good chance you know how quals ended--with Ryan Hunter-Reay on pole (he'll start P11 because of an engine change penalty). If you had seen Takuma Sato on wet tires, though, you'd have to think he would have been on pole if the track stayed wet.

Let's talk about how amazing it is that Andretti Autosport swept the poles in Star Mazda, Lights, and IndyCar. People will argue all day about whether or not Andretti is "back", but any team that can do that is doing something right, in my book.

After that, it was time for the Star Mazda Race. My goodness. It began to pour, and to make a long story short, series leader Jack Hawksworth and several other drivers did NOT come in for rain tires. On the restart with five minutes to go, chaos ensued. Camilo Schmidt somehow made his way through the chaos to notch his first series win. Sage Karam looked upset to finish P2 after a dominant race, and Gabby Chaves just looked amazed he finished P3. It was soggy, ugly, and at one point it seemed as if half the field had crashed on the last restart. Funnily enough, Connor De Phillippi had to put twice for car issues, and still finished P5. Don't ask me to explain...

The big race of the day was the 40-lap Firestone Indy Lights race. Carlos Munoz capped a dominant performance with a commanding win, with Sebastian Saavedra holding off a late charge by Esteban Guerrieri for P2. Ollie Webb had a nice run for P4. Peter Dempsey came back from a horrid start and a wild spin for P5. Jorge Goncalvez waited far too long to switch to dry tires as the sun came out, and dropped like a stone through the field.

I also want to talk about Edmonton itself here for a moment. Everywhere you go downtown, there are checkered flags, IndyCar displays, and even employees in crew shirts. They've done an amazing job of really getting the city outside the race involved with this.

For all it has, Edmonton isn't a massive metropolis; it's roughly the size of Indy. But in speaking with the organizers, there's an unmistakable note of pride in what they've put together, and a sense that they can pull off the big events. By God, if we in Indianapolis don't know something about that...

With that, I am beat. Time to take a break for a bit, but more updates this weekend will be forthcoming.

Zack's Edmonton Indy Adventure: Saturday AM

Good morning from Edmonton Indy, where I'm currently enjoying coffee while watching some Mazda Road to Indy action. That's a pretty good description of contentment, isn't it?

I suppose I should start with my Friday. After flying into Edmonton yesterday, I had hoped to make it over to the course in time for the last IZOD IndyCar Series practice of the day. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the hotel, it was too late for that. So, I set out to sample some of the touristy elements Edmonton had to offer.

The West Edmonton Mall is the biggest mall in North America, and it boasts not only a plethora of stores, but also an amusement park, a mini golf course, and a full replica of one of Columbus' ships. If you have a significant other who enjoys shopping, they'd likely be enraptured with that little slice of Edmonton.

My hotel for this visit, Sutton Place, is connected to the City Centre Mall and is extremely nice. The concierge has been exceedingly helpful, and they definitely know how to make a body feel welcome. It helped that the welcome bag in my room (courtesy Edmonton Tourism) included a couple of lagers from local brewer Amber's. That's hospitality, right there.

This morning, I made my way to the track not long after it opened, around 7:20 local time. First off, there is a LOT of security here, of all shapes and sizes. Military, police, rent-a-cops, volunteers...comparing it to a race like Milwaukee, it's definitely more than I'm used to. It doesn't feel too restrictive or tough to get around, though.

First up this morning was Firestone Indy Lights qualifying. As the track was still drying, times confined to drop as the session progressed. It was immensely competitive, with Carlos Munoz, Peter Dempsey, Sebastian Saavedra, and Esteban Guerrieri among those wanting a piece of the action. Ultimately, Munoz trumped Dempsey for the pole by a mere .03 seconds. The Indy Lights car count is down, but those guys are still working their tails off. We'll see which driver this afternoon is smartest in saving their equipment over the entirety of the race.

Even with Lights, you gain an immediate appreciation for just how FAST these airport straights are.

An hour of IndyCar practice followed, and the moisture in the turns continued to be a factor. Josef Newgarden went off-course going to Turn 11, and you could really see how much dicier the newer asphalt was in the turns.

The practice ended with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon at the top, but Will Power, Alex Tagliani, and Takuma Sato also had great goes at it. With rain a possibility, things could get mixed up in a hurry.

One more thing: later, I'll want to talk about the Edmonton community and just how hard they are working to make this an event destination. It shows all the way around the city, but more on that later.

I'll back in a bit with plenty more from Edmonton.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

10 Stories For Edmonton Indy

I’m setting aside the standard Friday preview this week, and we’re trying something a bit different. As always, feedback is welcomed—it didn’t seem like the format of our Friday race previews was overly popular, so let’s see how this does:

1) Why Yes, We Do Have A Championship Fight… 

Edmonton Indy will play host to one of the liveliest championship fights in years. Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of three straight, leads Will Power by 34 points. Behind them, at least five other drivers look to still be in the title hunt. With five races left, we’re coming up to the point of mathematical elimination for a couple of fringe contenders. Since 2008, RHR has an average Edmonton finish of 9.25, including two Top 10s in a row. That sounds good, but Will Power’s is 6.5, including 2 wins and a P2 in the last three races. Did we mention Scott Dixon has also won here twice? If RHR can somehow finish ahead of those two, it would be a big moment on his quest for the championship.

2) Looking For The W 

What do James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, and Simon Pagenaud all have in common? They’re all still alive in the battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship this year, but have zero victories among them. If they’d like to leapfrog some folks in the standings, that’s about the most straightforward way to go about it. (Yes, winning will give you more points in the standings. I should be a race strategist).

3) Be Aggressive

With many drivers either looking for a win or some sort of positive result, you can bet Edmonton will be an aggressive affair. With 120 seconds of Push to Pass and what we’ve seen of the new car and tire compounds this year, there’s every reason in the world to think this race should see a goodly amount of passing.

4) Battle of the Engines, Round 11

Races Won By Honda: Indianapolis, Detroit, Texas.

Races Won By Chevy: St. Petersburg, Alabama, Long Beach, Sao Paulo, Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto.

Despite their earlier streak, Honda hasn’t been able to jump back into Victory Lane since June 9. We’ll see if they can answer this weekend, and work on that 7-3 deficit.

An interesting side note: A Chevy has won every event so far this year that’s been sponsored by Honda (St. Pete, Alabama, and Toronto). Honda won Detroit, which had Chevy as the title sponsor. Up after Edmonton: the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Hmmm…

5) Days Of Our Lotus

The fight for Lotus HVM Racing to improve continues, after mechanical issues sidelined their latest attempt last race weekend. Simona de Silvestro’s #78 seemed threateningly close to a sort of respectable midpack status before the implosion in Toronto, so we’ll see what the Iron Maiden can do with what she’s given this week. For the pessimists in the crowd, she’s finished P22 (off course) and P24 (mechanical) at Edmonton, so the odds of a decent result here seem just a hair more negative. Up The Irons, Maiden fans, and hang in there…

6) Paging Mr. Rahal

Graham Rahal had an extremely disappointing early out at Toronto. Right now, Graham is P11 in points, but honestly hasn’t had the sort of season many fans thought he would have in his second year with Chip Ganassi’s crew. He has only three Top 10s outside Texas, and he naturally doesn’t seem particularly pleased with the course things have taken. His father’s first race was at Edmonton (different layout, of course), so it would be sort of fitting for Graham to light things up here. Since 2008, however, Graham has finished P25 or worse in two out of the three races held here. To help him turn it around and get that next win, we’ve included the always-popular photo of what Graham would look like with something akin to Bobby Rahal’s old mustache:

Original photo courtesy IndyCar Media.
Mustache courtesy of me.
Grow it, Graham. The Victory 'Stache. For the fans. Let’s make this happen.

7) A BIG Mazda Road to Indy Weekend

As the second stop on their Canadian tour, the Star Mazda Championship will run two races at Edmonton this weekend, with English driver Jack Hawksworth holding a 39-point lead over American Connor De Fillippi. If Hawksworth dominates as he did at Toronto last week, the chances of him winning the Star Mazda title will increase substantially. Additionally, keep an eye out for Americans Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves, both of whom have been coming on strong as of late. Of course, we also can’t forget hometown hero Stefan Rzadzinski, who will racing in from of a hometown crowd. Despite not racing at Lucas Oil or Iowa, he remains only a single point behind Ashley Freiburg in the overall standings for P11.

8) A BIG Mazda Road to Indy Weekend, Continued

Just a few weeks ago, I truly thought Gustavo Yacaman could only play spoiler in the Firestone Indy Lights title fight, but he looks to be rounding into good form after an impressive Iowa race and a key Toronto victory. The issue is, with the Lights field down to around 11 entries right now, it’s tough for any driver to mess up enough in terms of points to give someone else a break. Guerrieri holds all the cards right now, but it should still be fun to see how Yacaman, Tristan Vautier, and Sebastian Saavedra respond this week. Peter Dempsey also bears watching after a very nice debut with Belardi Auto Racing at Toronto.

9) The Battle At The End Of The Ledger

We’re not 100% sure how TEAM funds will shake out next year, but it’s a good bet being in the Top 20 is preferable if you want your cut of the fundage. Currently, Ed Carpenter is P20 in the standings. EJ Viso and Mike Conway are only 12 points in from of him. James Jakes and Alex Tagliani are only a single point behind him. Josef Newgarden is 20 behind. Bottom line, the, er, bottom line is nowhere near settled.

10) For The Love of Statistics

You know I love my stats. Here are a few random ones from this season to keep in mind while watching the action this weekend:

-Average numbers of cars finishing on the lead lap: 11.6

-Average number of lead changes per race: 9.5

-Average number of lead changes per race, ignoring the Indy 500’s 34: 6.8

-Average number of lead changes per race, ignoring Detroit’s zero: 10.6

-Average number of lead changes per race, 2011 season: 6.23

-Average number of caution flags: 4.3 (includes the 8 at Indianapolis)

-Only two drivers running at the finish in every race this season: Simon Pagenaud and Ed Carpenter

-Best average finishing position, last three races: Ryan Hunter-Reay, 1.0 (of course)

-Worst average finishing position, last three races: Simona De Silvestro, 20.7

-Worst average finishing position of anyone not in a Lotus, last three races: Dario Franchitti, 20.3

-Lowest Points Total, Full-Time Chevy Driver: Ed Carpenter

-Lowest Points Total, Full-Time Honda Driver: Josef Newgarden

One other note: if you missed it, I’ll be flying out tomorrow for the Edmonton Indy race weekend. Looking at the event online, it’s clear this is a big Edmonton event and the organizers are very proud of the work they’ve put in. I’m looking forward to ensuring I can give everyone a good overview of just what the overall experience is like.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Edmonton Indy With Stefan Rzadzinski

Well, if you're going to preview a race, why not go right to a local source?

That's why we've got Edmonton native and Star Mazda Series driver Stefan Rzadzinski on hand to help preview this weekend's Edmonton Indy action, and also talk a bit about what he has going as he works his way through the Mazda Road to Indy. "Razzle-Dazzle" has been doing some cool initiatives in terms of sponsorship, and I can't think of anyone better to walk us through not only a bit about Edmonton Indy, but also the story of a racer working hard to be a part of INDYCAR.

Stef, let's discuss this course layout. Can you take us through it from a racer's point of view?

SR: I'm lucky enough to be the only Star Mazda driver who's driven the Edmonton circuit, so I guess it's time to spill all the beans!

Based on the limited street/airport racing I've had, I would say the City Centre Airport circuit in Edmonton is a combination of Toronto and St. Pete.

Turn 1 you have a bit of a bumpy braking zone on the airport runway, similar to Turn 1 in St. Pete. However, as you enter the corner, the new asphalt from 2011 is very smooth and this should give cars good grip post-braking zone. Great passing zone here!

You go down another long straightaway with a few small kinks all the way to Turn 5, which is a very tight hairpin. It's another really good passing zone but getting on power and out of the corner is crucial here. Minimum speeds are lower here than anywhere we've been all season.

Following that, you get a nice flowing section of racetrack from turns 6-9 which I enjoy very much. I think this section is my favourite on the entire course because of the medium speed corners where you're really just balancing the car.

Turns 10 and 11 require more balance as there are some really big bumps that can upset the car. Watch out for drivers pushing a bit too hard and losing the rear end, very easy to do especially before the track grips up.

Turn 12 is another corner where you're setting up for a big straightaway and the last passing zone of the racetrack, Turn 13. It's a section where you need a good exit if you hope to make or defend from a pass, especially on the last lap!

Turn 13 is the final corner on the racetrack, an extremely tight left-hand hairpin which is even slower than Turn 5. If two cars are coming side by side out of this corner, expect to see a drag race to the line!

Does this track favor any particular driving style? What will be the keys to a successful run here?

SR: I think this track needs a good balance of patience and precision for a quick lap. Due to the long straightaways, getting onto power and maximizing speed on the straights means you cannot be too overzealous on a lot of the corner entry's.

However, in race trim, the slow corners and long straightaways can create a lot of passing zones. So if you can run with a controlled aggression, there are plenty of places to make passes happen.

How about Edmonton Indy? What does it mean for Edmonton and Alberta to have this race here? (I ask because you're the hometown hero for this race!)

SR: I'm biased, but I think it is the best race event of the year for IndyCar. Even though Edmonton is a bit "off the grid" for most people, the event has drawn so much attention in and around the area since its inception. For those who haven't been, here are a few things to expect: great track sight-lines, lots of people, and a big party. The event is still new to a lot of people in Edmonton and I'm sure we'll continue to see it grow in the years to come, but it has to be one of the best attended events Friday-Sunday on the entire IndyCar schedule.

What do you love about Edmonton and Alberta? What makes it a great place?

SR: I love the Edmonton and Alberta mentality. Edmonton is a "small" city that can do really big things, and I think we prove it year after year here during the Edmonton Indy. The metropolitan area of Edmonton is about 1 million people, so there's still plenty of people and business, but it's not a city where you ever feel cramped or overwhelmed. I like that balance. Plus, we're really big on festivals and events which is always a lot of fun.

I think Alberta in general (3 million people in total) holds true to that. We're really not that "big", but our province does things on a very high level from fun events to business. See the Calgary Stampede and Edmonton Indy for just two examples. I could go on for a while, but you should just come and check it out for yourself.

Keeping with the Canadian theme: can we talk about Paul Tracy for a minute? He's been helping you now and again, right?

SR: It's been great to have that support from Paul from time to time. Things have changed a lot since Paul moved up through the ranks, but my current engineer, Burke Harrison, was his engineer when they won the 1990 Indy Lights Championship! It's cool to have a bit of a connection there and learn from both of them.

There are so many new things I'm experiencing this season so it doesn't hurt to have somebody with a ton of experience, like Paul, to turn to when I need advice.

Rzadzinski: Powered By Alberta.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
You've done something pretty cool in terms of working sponsorship--the Powered by Alberta initiative. Can you walk us through that?

SR: The Powered by Alberta initiative was an idea of mine to try and raise excitement about my racing program, my province, and the Edmonton Indy. I initially took this idea to a number of Alberta businesses and supporters who bought into the "Powered by Alberta Businesses" concept. I think a lot of my partners saw the potential in the program and bought into the theme of a unified group of Albertans taking on the best in the world. I'm very proud to be running for them and am very thankful that they believe in my venture!

I'm currently running without a title sponsor, but over 20 Alberta businesses have come on board in some way to help me compete this season. Therefore, naturally, the car is "Powered by Alberta Businesses". The Star Mazda series is a perfect starting point for this program because of the Mazda Road to Indy tie-in and I'd like to think we'll be seeing a lot more of my "Powered by Alberta" car in years to come.

I've also launched a "Powered by Alberta Pit Crew" where Albertans can come and be a part of my team in a small way. We're doing some fun membership events and online material with that. But I can't give all of my secrets away, can I? :)

To sum it all up, things can get very busy but I can't complain if I get to stay in a race car!

How do you feel this season is progressing for you in Star Mazda?

SR: This season in Star Mazda has been a huge learning curve for me, but the JDC Motorsports crew is definitely helping me "grow up" as a driver and I can't thank them enough.

I would compare it to a puzzle...the pieces are there (I'd like to think so, at least), but I'm still continuously trying to wrap my head around it and put it all together. Every race weekend and test day we've had there has been tremendous progress, so I'm very much looking forward to my hometown race. After being in the fight for a top 5 in Toronto before a mistake, my confidence and excitement are at a season-high and I'm definitely looking forward to having my best showing of the season.

What would good result at Edmonton mean for you?

SR: A good result in Edmonton would mean the world to me as well as everyone that's helped me get this far. I know I'm just a rookie so I have to be reasonable, but I'm extremely excited about racing at home. It was only a couple of years ago that I was just a kid racing local go-karts dreaming about racing on this circuit. I'm blessed to be back for my second Edmonton Indy and hope there are many more successful events to come.

Are you expecting a lot of support from friends and family in the crowd this weekend?

SR: I'm really looking forward to experiencing that again this year. Last year was very special and unique to have all of my friends and family around the event. Almost all of the races I go to myself, so I hardly interact with anyone I know. It's a cool feeling to see familiar faces everywhere while doing "your" thing for a weekend at home. Motorsports is something that can seem so distant for people here 11 months and 3 weeks of the year because of the lack of high profile race events in the area, but everyone really gets behind it during Indy time. I'm just happy I can represent them, give them a taste of what I do, and hope they keep rooting for me!

Rzad also raced Lights at Edmonton in his '11 debut.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
What about maturity in race car drivers? It's pretty clear that some drivers have a certain amount of poise and maturity, while others come into that late (or not at all). Despite your relatively young age, you seem to be a driver who has a handle on that. Is that something learned, or just a personality thing?

SR: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that racing drivers, many of them very young, recognize that there is no time to "waste" in the early years. Especially in this day and age when it's also about marketing, branding, etc. it's difficult to show yourself on a professional ladder system without having your head wrapped around those things.

Personally, I knew from a young age that my parents were never going to be able to fund my motorsports. However, I was determined to make it in racing, so I had to find a way. I started looking for sponsorship when I was 14 years old, and by the time I was 16, I managed to get a few supporters of my early programs. Now, at 19, I've developed some of those skills such as meeting people, sharing my story/goals/aspirations, doing business deals, etc. things have really moved along for me. I know that through these years of "grinding it out" in hopes of making it in motorsports, I've grown up a lot in every aspect of life. There has definitely been invaluable training in this, and I wouldn't have it any other way (except it makes me feel like an old man sometimes).

As the old saying goes, "if it was easy, everyone would do it". I know that I may potentially face some extra challenges, but I will always do my best to work through them whatever they may be. This quote was something that inspired me years ago, and it still means a lot to me today:

"It is impossible to win the race unless you venture to run, impossible to win the victory unless you dare to battle." -Richard M. DeVos

Let's talk about progression and the Mazda Road to Indy. How would you like your progression to go over the next few years, and what sort of attitude do you take towards gauging where you are?

SR: I'd love to come back and compete in the Star Mazda Championship in 2013. Even with a limited schedule, I feel like I'm just finding my groove in the car and I'm sure I will keep making progress throughout the year if I can stay in a car. I would love to be able to compete a full season and then move on to Indy Lights, and eventually, IndyCar.

At this point, I'm just trying to establish that I'm a driver than can compete at this level and I'm learning a ton of things in the process. In saying that, I don't think about "where I'm at" too much as you just have to make the most of every situation. I think I'm realistic in saying that I could use another year of Star Mazda to keep developing my skills, but I'd love to be able to move up through the ladder with success in the near future.

What's the rest of this year's racing schedule look like for you?

SR: At this point, it's all up in the air. I hope to be back in the car soon and who knows what I'll be able to put together. Talk to me after the Edmonton Indy weekend and I'll have a better idea!

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Owner's POV: Interview With Brian Belardi

We hear an awful lot online about how the owners in INDYCAR should do this or that, from the first ranks of the Mazda Road to Indy to the IZOD IndyCar Series itself. Today's guest has a different point of view: he owns both a Firestone Indy Lights and USF2000 team. Brian Belardi, of Belardi Auto Racing, answered our questions about team ownership, the new 2014 Lights car, sponsorship, and future plans for some of his past and present drivers:

Thanks so much for your time, Brian. For those who don't know, could you recap how you got into the team ownership game?

Brian Belardi: I’ve always loved racing, and I even race in a few SCCA events throughout the year… so when I thought about pursuing my dreams of being involved in racing, the most logical was to start my own team.

How many full-time employees does it take to field a credible Firestone Indy Lights team? How about USF2000?

BB: Our Firestone Indy Lights and USF2000 programs both have seven full-time members each. That’s not counting our general manager and public relations rep who help out on both sides. We have a great staff of part-time employees as well since we don’t run all three FIL cars every weekend.

Sponsorship is one of the those items that's always seen as a health indicator of any motorsport series? How's the sponsor situation in Firestone Indy Lights? How would you compare it to, say, 1-2 years ago?

BB: Sponsorship is so hard to find nowadays…just look at the economy. You don’t see very many businesses willing to dish out anything extra unless it’s a huge advantage not only for the CEOs and their employees, but it also must benefit their long term goals. Most of the time those higher-ups just don’t see how putting their money into sponsoring a motorsport program will help them. The attainability of acquiring sponsors has gone down significantly in the past year or two. We are very fortunate to have businesses like Firestone, Sunoco and Peak who have been with the INDYCAR series for many years and truly help make the Firestone Indy Lights program what it is.

Is the Firestone Indy Lights program just too expensive to attract large car counts?

BB: That might be the case for some... There are a lot of talented drivers who are unable to garner enough money that is necessary, and without sponsors, it’s pretty darn hard to go anywhere. With the Mazda Road to Indy, I think it’s priced correctly especially since it is the last rung of the ladder before you get to the big leagues. You could ask folks if the IZOD IndyCar series is too expensive, and I’m sure they would say yes. It’s all relative…motorsports, in general, is a pretty expensive venture.

What would you like to see from the new Indy Lights car in 2014?

BB: I would love to see it look a little more futuristic. Like you said, it will be unveiled in 2014….shouldn’t cars be flying now? Kidding. I would love for it to still have a great sound, make it just as safe, if not safer, than our current model and slightly more comparable to the IndyCar. Our model now is pretty great, so any improvements I’m sure we’ll love.

For that matter, what about Indy Lights in general? Do you have any core ideas or principles that would be enacted if we woke up tomorrow and Brian Belardi was in charge?

BB: You know, INDYCAR does a great job of organizing this series already. I think I would just put a little more effort and promotion into the Firestone Indy Lights series and Mazda Road to Indy as a whole. Jason Penix, the marketing department and the public relations staff have really ramped up that promotion in the last few years, so I think I would just take it just one step further. Honestly, this is the best ladder series around, but there is always room for improvement.

The Belardi Firestone Indy Lights crew at Indy in 2011.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Let's talk about USF2000. We've definitely seen an increase in car count this year between the Championship and National classes. Do you see that continuing, and as an owner, are you getting increased inquiries regarding that series?

BB: I hope it continues to gain popularity like it has. We have definitely seen an influx of drivers interested in our program, which is obviously why we went from two cars to four cars since 2011. The USF2000 series is really competitive right now, and there are a ton of great drivers in the field…I would only imagine that it will continue to grow in the coming years.

What do potential sponsors think about the deal with Velocity TV?

BB: First of all, it’s fantastic that our races are broadcast on TV this year. Unfortunately the races are not immediately shown and are on a channel that not all cable providers offer, so it’s a little harder to use television as a selling point. The fact that we have any TV coverage at all is a huge step for the series, so I can only hope that it will continue to get better.

Are you happy with the balance in the schedules of USF2000 and Firestone Indy Lights as they currently stand?

BB: The schedules have been great so far…the biggest conflicts we have are coming up next month as our FIL team heads to Trois Rivieres, while our USF2000 team heads to Mid-Ohio. We split again in September for the finales, and it’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to attend both. The mix of race tracks we get to see in both series is great, but I hope in the future we will see more of the USF2000 races aligning with the rest of the Mazda Road to Indy.

Peter Dempsey is a guy who's had to bounce from team to team part-time since last year. He's also a driver who's pretty well-regarded as an open wheel prospect. Is he someone who's on your radar for a full-time Lights spot in 2013, and do you think he could be a Lights title contender?

BB: Peter is great. He has really brought such a positive and gung-ho energy to our team, and it’s been really awesome to see how well our team has adapted in such a short period of time together. We are mainly concentrating on finishing this season with he and Jorge, but we are currently working on partnerships to create a program for Peter in 2013.

How about Anders Krohn? Any chance we'll see the Viking back with the team in the foreseeable future?

BB: We didn’t have the season we had hoped last year with Anders, but he remains one of my good friends and is actually still a part of the team as a driver coach for one of our USF2000 drivers. Will we see him back in a Belardi FIL seat? You never say never, right? Whether he drives for me again or for any other team, I just hope his career is a successful one.

Your programs include drivers such as Jorge Goncalvez, Roman Lagudi, and Scott Anderson. Is there one of your drivers that you think deserves a bit more recognition or attention for their potential down the line?

BB: I think we have a great group of guys driving for us. They all have that potential to be a fantastic driver… Right now Roman is really showcasing his talent in USF2000, but again, I think all of our drivers have what’s necessary to succeed; they wouldn’t be driving for Belardi Auto Racing if I didn’t think they had it in them.

As a team owner, is there anything you see in terms of fan or media misconceptions that you'd consider a pet peeve or especially irritating?

BB: We have some of the greatest fans and supporters out there. The media is great, too. Sometimes the only thing that’s unnerving is the speculation and running away with a rumor, but luckily we don’t see too much of that happening with us. Overall all of that has been pretty nonexistent.

Do you see you and the team moving into either Star Mazda or the IZOD IndyCar Series anytime soon?

BB: We have definitely thought about both at one point or another. Hopefully one day we will be a winning contender in all four MRTI programs. For now we will continue focusing on bettering the two series we’re in. Who knows what 2013 will hold!

Finally, how much of a headache would you like your guys to give Cape Motorsports and Sam Schmidt's team between now and the end of the year?

BB: Trust me - we’d love nothing more than to give them a headache on track! Sam is a friend and someone I really respect, but one of these days I’d really love if we could just soar past his cars. Cape is the same…both are great teams and we want to be up there with both of them in either series.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Notes: Top 10s, Sophomores, Sprints...

Just a couple of quick hits before the weekend is upon us:

-Much has been made of Charlie Kimball’s improvement this year, and he has looked much more comfortable on track, especially since Indianapolis. He’s improved his average finish, which was an 18.5 last year, to a 14.6. But while we’re discussing sophomore improvement, let’s not forget James Jakes. Last year at this point, Jakes had a 20.1 average finish (and missed the Indy 500). This year, he’s at a 15.8 average finish. That might not seem like an earth-shattering stat, but he’s set to eclipse his total points from last year sometime in the next two races, and is only a single point out of the Top 20 (which could be very important in terms of 2013 TEAM funds).

(For those of you wondering, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s average finish in 2011 was 13.1. This year, as I referenced in Wednesday’s article, it’s an 8.1).

-We’re now down to the following full-time drivers without a Top 10 result on the year: Simona de Silvestro (best finish: P13) and Josef Newgarden (best finish: P11). Lotus vs. The Small Team Rookie. My question is simply this: which of the two gets a Top 10 first?

-The big scuttlebutt online yesterday was the possibility of GP2 team Scuderia Coloni coming over to IndyCar in 2013. While it’s been a while since we’ve had a Euro-based team in the Series, it’s still an interesting idea. Of course, as with so many of these rumors, it’ll be great fun when Silly Season starts, but I’ll believe it when I see them on the track. I’m also curious to find out just what the deal with their hasty exit from GP2 was…

-For those of you around the Midwest, don’t forget Indiana Sprint Week starts tonight! Seven races in nine nights should give everyone all the racing they can handle! I’ll be trying to get out to the track, but with my Edmonton trip coming up next Friday, I need to watch my time accordingly.

-If you haven’t made your way over to INDYCAR Nation this week, I conducted an interview with Belardi Auto Racing’s Roman Lagudi, who’s currently P3 in the USF2000 standings. Check it out—he’s fighting some stiff competition this year on that rung of the Mazda Road to Indy.

-Finally, if you missed it, here are two articles I’d highly recommend. The first is over at Racer, where Tony DiZinno touches on a topic near and dear to my heart: ensuring IndyCar doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket when it comes to driver promotion. The second is a piece on EJ Viso over at the Washington Post, talking about his work to change his reputation and on-track results. It would be tough not to pull for him to do so.

Have a great weekend, and we’ll meet back on Monday.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Closer Look At IndyCar’s Contenders

Here we are, five races from the end of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, and we still have seven drivers that may be reasonably considered as still part of the hunt for the Series Championship. That in and of itself is pretty exciting, but it’s also interesting to take a quick peek at the stats behind each of these challengers.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, and Simon Pagenaud have each fairly high up the mountain, but they took several different paths in getting there. Here’s a snapshot of each driver’s current championship points, wins, Top 3 finishes, Top 5s, Top 10s, average finishing position, and number of finishes at or below P20:

So what does this tell us?

-Ryan Hunter-Reay is on fire after three straight victories, but it’s the early good finishes that deserve a bit of attention as well in this championship race. Yes, he’s finished P20 or worse twice, but outside that, he’s done no worse than P12 all year. Compare that to Will Power, who just as many victories, the same number of P20 or worse finishes, but has an average finish position two spots worse than that of RHR (8.1 vs. 10.1 for Power).

-Power has the added problem of no podiums to add to those three victories. There seems to be no second place for Will; he’s either going to win handily or be somewhat removed from the very front. Hunter-Reay, on the other hand, has two other podiums to complement his trifecta.

-After a 2011 season in which he seemed to be punting more than Pat McAfee, Helio Castroneves has had a cleaner season, and has been the most consistent driver in the Series this year, finishing more laps than anyone else. The only truly “poor” finish this year was a P17 at Detroit. He hasn’t won since the opener, and hasn’t had a podium since Alabama, but he’s hit the Top 10 almost every week. The dream of his first IndyCar title is still alive for simply that reason. His average finish is a 7.3, the best of all the competitors.

-Scott Dixon has 5 Top 5s, but no additional Top 10s. Basically, there seems to be no middle ground for him this year. Either he’s on or close to the podium, or he’s out of contention. His average finish of 10.5 so far is the worst among the top contenders. That’s frankly uncharted territory for a driver with Dixie’s reputation for smoothness and consistency.

-The seasons of James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan largely mirror each other. Both have the same average finishing position, and both drivers are still in contention, despite not having won a race. Neither driver has had many poor finishes (only 2 apiece at P20 or lower), but both likely need either a host of mistakes in front of them or a string of wins and podiums to grab the championship. Both guys have been reliably good so far this year, but for the title, there needs to be a flash of something even better.

-Simon Pagenaud also doesn’t have a win, but has been even more consistent than Hinch or TK. His 7.9 average finish is second only to Helio among contenders. However, while he’s been excellent in his rookie year, the reason he isn’t higher seems to be that his highs aren’t quite as good as TK or Hinch. He’s finished P12 three times, and P16 once, which is why his point could be slightly higher than they are now. Still, it’s proper to include him with Hinchcliffe and Kanaan as three drivers that could be at the fore of this title hunt in just a weekend or two with a win.

Now let’s look at why our driver in P8, Dario Franchitti, isn’t in contention right now:

Anything jump out at you? His wins and Top 3s look ok, compared to the rest of the contenders, but his average finish is 12.1, over a spot and a half worse than the worst contender average. His finishes at/under P20 are deceptive, showing only 1, but Franchitti has P15 at Long Beach, P19 at Milwaukee, and P17 at Toronto, which haven’t helped that average one bit.

The issue is, unlike Scott Dixon or Will Power (who also have had some poor finishes), Dario doesn’t have enough other quality finishes to make up for it. You can argue he’s less than 40 points back from drivers such as Pagenaud, but that’s a big line of demarcation with five races left on the schedule.

Of course, trends can always change. The last fraction of Will Power’s 2010 and 2011 seasons looked different from the majority of it, after all. In a sense, we can tell how we got here, but it’s still up to the drivers chasing the championship to tell us where we end up.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hinch For Homepage Victory Party

July 9, 2012. A day like any other, except for this one thing:

A band of IndyCar patriots, starving and outnumbered, charged the virtual voting booths of They fought like A.J. going after Arie. They fought like true race fans. And won the GoDaddy Homepage for  James Hinchcliffe.

Yes, it has happened. James Hinchcliffe is on the front page of GoDaddy, having stunned the world with an upset over NASCAR's Danica Patrick. Proof, O Unbeliever:

In the euphoria of the moment, it's time for a procession of victory images. Enjoy, and bask in the moment of triumph:

Courtesy IndyCar Media

This concludes today's gloat.

Well, almost:

There, that's more like it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Late Carpocalypse: Toronto Notes

Good morning, INDYCAR friends! We have a lot to go over, so let's get to it:

-I thought the Toronto race was a good reminder that races this year in IndyCar have very rarely gone the way we thought they would this year. Few fans had Charlie Kimball in line for a podium today, and even fewer (including yours truly) thought Mike Conway would do much with his car this weekend. It was a lively day out on the track, and we ALMOST made it the entire race without widespread crack-ups. Almost.

Not every race is going to end under green, and it was an ugly last restart (with all the quick shots between the legion of stalled/crashed cars, I was pretty sure ABC was going to show this clip). Still, that's life. We don't go in for do-overs.

This is my apology, Mike Conway, for doubting you.
(Photo by Eric Schwarzkopf. Courtesy
Used With Permission).
-I will admit, I did not think Ryan Hunter-Reay would jump into the overall points lead this week. Then again, I didn't expect Scott Dixon's engine to go KERBLAMMO early on in the race. Will Power could still catch him easily enough, and Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan have to feel pretty good that they're continuing to bring home very consistent finishes.With Dario Franchitti over 100 points off the pace for the championship, his chances at yet another Series title are realistically finished. I thought if he was his usual best at Toronto, he'd have a good shot at sneaking back into the hunt, but it just doesn't seem to be in the cards this year.

-It's also pretty great to have five races left in the season and to still have no earthly idea who will be Series champion. Hunter-Reay, Power, Dixie, Pagenaud, Kanaan, Castroneves, and James Hinchcliffe all have to still feel like they can make a run at this. There are no "off" races to be had, and the later we get in the season, the bigger any DNF or poor finish seems to loom. The Top 7 or so aren't just "mathematically" in it, but seem to be real threats to turn the point standings on their ear on any given race weekend.

-Ryan Hunter-Reay, to be momentarily unkind, has not had the reputation as one of this Series' most consistent drivers. Yet after three wins in a row, it just might be time to re-evaluate that criticism. He just seems to be in a good place right now, and it's manifesting itself on the track. There are plenty of drivers that can win in this series: it's winning and finishing consistently that separates the championship contenders from the rest of the field. By the way, the last Andretti driver to win three in a row? That'd be Dan Wheldon.

-The chaos on the last restart was a reminder that although the racing has been excellent this season, every IndyCar driver still maintains the potential to be a massive butthead when circumstances arise.

-Back to Charlie Kimball for a moment; CK has taken some heat from fans as being not quite ready for the show when he debuted in the IZOD IndyCar Series last year. It was an up-and-down rookie season for him last year, but when I interviewed him this past March, he felt like he could reliably make the Top 10 this year, and possibly contend for podiums. With his first podium added to his other four Top 10 finishes so far this year, it appears he was correct. He's still got some work to do, but this was a very good one to build on, especially coming back as he did after his early incident with Graham Rahal. Simply put, it was a great drive for a guy that's very easy to pull for.

-The 11-car field for this past weekend's Firestone Indy Lights race was pretty sad. We have great competition in IndyCar this year, and Star Mazda and USF2000 have some great prospects. However, there's a somewhat weak rung in the middle just now: Indy Lights. It's too expensive for the competitors right now, and quality prospects such as Stefan Wilson, Anders Krohn, and Peter Dempsey (now thankfully with Belardi) have been either out of Lights or bouncing between part-time gigs. When the new car comes in 2014, it needs to address some realistic budgeting for these programs.

The lack of entrants ensures that even poor finishes by the contender do very little overall to the points battle, since you aren't going to finish that much worse than your other competitors, regardless of what happens. Gustavo Yacaman is coming on strong and trying to make it interesting, and Tristan Vautier and Sebastian Saavedra remain game, but the Lights championship seems Esteban Guerrieri's to lose.

-Oriol Servia has gained 98 positions on the year so far. On a related note, HOLY COW, ORIOL SERVIA HAS GAINED 98 POSITIONS ON THE YEAR SO FAR.

Other Notes: Let's give a hand to Alex Tagliani and the Bryan Herta crew, managing a Top 10 despite changing out their nose cone. They've had bad luck almost every weekend, it seems, but keep pushing...Ed Carpenter extended his streak of consecutive races finished to 11, leading all current IndyCar drivers...James Jakes had his 2nd IndyCar Top 10, and his first on a road/street circuit...If 2013 TEAM funds go to the Top 20 entries from this season, right now Ed Carpenter would be the last driver in. Tagliani and Jakes are a single point behind him, tied for 21st...I don't care what anyone says about the DW12 this year; combined with Firestone's tires, it's given us some excellent races. The chassis has grown on me...With Connor De Phillippi's bad luck at Toronto, Jack Hawksworth has jumped back to a 39-point lead in the Star Mazda Series...I was incredibly jealous of the time fans were having in Toronto this weekend, judging by their Twitter and Facebook updates. Honda Indy Toronto has to be on my race list next year...

Friday, July 6, 2012

Go North, Young Man: Honda Indy Toronto Preview

After a week off, the IZOD IndyCar Series begins its Canadian tour. I'll be headed to Edmonton for the first time in two weeks, but for now, we have the Honda Indy Toronto, which has become one of the most unpredictable and entertaining of the street courses. This city has seen winners ranging from Bobby Rahal, to Michael Andretti's amazing 7 victories, to the more recent domination by Will Power and Dario Franchitti.

Whenever we come off of an oval stint back to road/street courses, it's interesting to see which drivers seem to sputter out, and which seem to continue without so much as missing

As we prepare to attempt to interpret ABC's coverage of what should be a fine race, here are some storylines to follow through the weekend:

Prepare For Yellow: Everyone is talking about Turn 3 this week, which has hosted some big pileups in recent IndyCar races. There’s no reason to expect anything different this go-round, so look for at least a couple of possible contenders to have their chances gutted early on. Hopefully, there will be many fewer yellow laps this year, but we'll see.

Basically, if we don’t end up with someone on Double Secret Probation after this weekend, I’ll be surprised.

Franchitti's Favorite?: On an INDYCAR conference call this week, Dario seemed very pleased to be heading back to Toronto. He should be, having won here in 1999, 2009, and 2011. Sitting 70 points behind Will Power in the standings with 6 races to go, a poor finish here could truly finish off his already-fading championship repeat hopes. Fortunately for Dario, this is a great track for him; if he's going to start a rally, this is a prime spot in which to do so.

Push to Pass: Yes, Push to Pass will be making its return this week. There's been sort of a confused, mixed reaction on the part of the fans---the racing has been largely exceptional this year, so while it's not much of an issue, it might not add much, either. We'll see if anything comes of it this week.

Stat of the Weekend: The driver with the current longest streak of races running at the finish? You might be surprised: it's Ed Carpenter, who's been running (somewhere) at the end of the last 10 events. Further, Carpenter is 2nd in the number of laps completed this year (1302 out of 1313), only 8 behind Helio Castroneves. Carpenter currently sits P19 in points overall.

Welcome To Hinchtown: James Hinchcliffe is in his native Ontario for this week's race, and is still a prime contender in this year's points battle. A victory in front of the fans at home would be big, and probably one of the biggest and most welcome victories from IndyCar's rising crop of driver talent. (Our other Canadian in the race, Alex Tagliani, has also shown some spirited drives this year, and if his team can finally catch a break this year, should bear watching as well).

This is a pretty good summary of half of the 2011 race.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Mazda Road to Indy Update: Both Star Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights are in Toronto as well this week. Jack Hawksworth will try to take the Star Mazda Championship lead back from Connor De Phillippi, while CDP will attempt to show he can maintain the momentum from the oval races. Don't forget, Canadian prospect Stefan Rzadzinski is rejoining Star Mazda for the next two races, as well. 

Meanwhile, in what is quickly becoming a two-driver race in Firestone Indy Lights, rookie Tristan Vautier will attempt to stop Esteban Guerrieri’s momentum. Driver David Ostella has had a rough season, but will be driving this weekend in front of a home crowd. Also, this will mark Peter Dempsey's debut for his new team, Belardi Auto Racing. It'll be a pretty thin field this weekend, with the entry list at only 11 Lights car.

Livery Update: Don't forget, it's Sebastian Bourdais in the #7 TrueCar machine again this week, empowering women drivers everywhere (and don't think he can't win, either). Helio Castroneves will be in the now-familiar yellow Penske Truck Rental machine paint, and Ryan Hunter-Reay's DHL machine will be sporting a slightly different look. Marco Andretti's popular Dr. Pepper livery will be getting a workout this week, while Graham Rahal will have Midas on the side of his ride. Valspar will be the primary sponsor on Oriol Servia's #22 car this weekend.

Pole: Wile Prowl, which is an anagram for Will Power. We have to change it up somehow.

Winner: It’s awfully hard to pick against Power, isn’t it? I’m going to. Time for Ryan Hunter-Reay to prove he can make a championship run.

Dark Horse: While I’d love to see Hinch or Tag take the checkered flag for the home country, Simon Pagenaud is an intriguing pick, and a driver that seems immune to poor results from engine penalties. You get the idea victory isn’t far off for Schmidt Hamilton Racing.

Have a tremendous weekend, and enjoy one of the best street courses on the schedule. Oh, and if you missed my interview with Simona de Silvestro over on INDYCAR Nation this week, make sure to check it out. As for me, I've got my all-Rush playlist at the ready, this clip queued on YouTube, and an appreciation for whatever surprises this race can throw at us.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day

Monday, July 2, 2012

Let's Make Canada "Crisis"-Free

One of the trials of being an IndyCar fan this year has been this disconnect in some of the reactions online versus the overall race weekend experience. To an extent, that's fine; we've all received emails or press releases that seem a teensy bit disconnected from the reality of the situation ("Car XX finished a strong 23rd place, and was working on  the Herculean task of passing for 22nd when there was another on-track incident involving the driver. It was the 2nd consecutive finish above 25th place for the young star"). Yet these aren't press releases I'm referencing; we're talking about part of the online contingent of fans.

There are certain movie phrases that come to mind now and again, and that have been mentioned here and there in our Saturday morning IndyCar coffee group. One of my favorites, in regards to IndyCar fans online, is the "Little Lights" frame of mind, taken from the film National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Fellow blogger and IndyCar Coffee denizen Mark Wilkinson once used it to proper effect in his blog, but I think it bears repeating here:

Talk about Christmas in July....

Every race, every development, the Little Lights mentality is utilized by some. Before the post-race euphoria has subsided, someone is online polluting feeds or forums with their insistence that the race or Series did something unforgivable. So, let's see if we can go back the last few weeks and see what the some of the reactions were online:

Justin Wilson wins, in a race that was as exciting as any we've seen in recent years, including a metric ton of passing.

General Fan Reaction: "Holy crap! Dale Coyne and Justin Wilson won on an oval! What a race!"

Little Lights Guy: "Wilson had an illegal part of his car? TAKE AWAY THE WIN."

The Andrettis successfully saved the Milwaukee Mile for at least one more year, completely reviving the fan experience. Oh, and Ryan Hunter-Reay won a pretty good race.

General Fan Reaction: "Hey, nice job saving the Mile! RHR had a great race, too."

Little Lights Guy: "The missed penalty on Scott Dixon ruined this race completely."

Ryan Hunter-Reay outbattled a host of drivers, including Marco Andretti, in a surprise-filled, excellent race. 

General Fan Reaction: "I cannot believe all those things happened. WOW, and congrats to RHR."

Little Lights Guy: "The race finished under yellow? What an incredibly horrible thing."

Now, let's be clear: some things, such as owners having major issues with Dallara parts pricing, are indeed big deals, and need to be addressed. However, running an illegal part that was considered to have little/no effect on the race is not a crisis, unless people want it to be. Penalizing Scott Dixon was bizarre, but his car was in severe mechanical distress late in the race, and he wasn't robbed of the win. Again, not really a crisis--and the sort of once-in-a-lifetime incident that was addressed, open and honestly, right after it happened.

Surely, I thought, Iowa wouldn't have any of that drama. Yet almost immediately, the griping began after Katherine Legge's spin in the closing laps. Some went so far as to suggest the odious Green/White/Checkered of NASCAR, which is probably one of the few things INDYCAR could implement that would see me picketing outside their offices and writing 15,000-word manifestos online against it.

Maybe I'm just really easygoing (you think?), but it seems to me there shouldn't be much off the track--especially the incidents as described as above--that should ruin one's enjoyment of the frankly excellent on-track product we've seen this year. Yeah, addressing issues in a positive manner is great, but it seems some fans don't give themselves time to enjoy the actual racing that's going on. And that's a shame, because it's been an awesome ride--especially these past few races.

I don't want to sound like a life coach here, but at some point in my life, I realized that a lot of the things I was worrying about were likely out of my control. And amazingly, many of the them ended up resolving themselves, shockingly independent of my position, opinion, or even existence.

That's part of the reason I'm pretty nonchalant when it comes to most issues outside the actual, meat-and-potatoes of racing. Yet I know that if Toronto or Edmonton have even a hint of something less than perfection--a questionable penalty, a non-call on blocking, even a rain delay, for heaven's sake--it will be flagged as a grave crisis. Never mind the on-track product--any mistake at all will be held up under the microscope, and grimly pronounced at a magnitude several dozen times larger than it might deserve.

Indeed, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. There is no "minor issue"--problems are treated like a Big Deal, regardless of their actual substance. The more nervous among us go between the highest highs and lowest lows with each turn of fate. It's an instant 0 to 60, with no braking.

We're living in a generation and a world becoming more and more used to instant gratification. Analysis is instant and often close to comprehensive; expectations are the super-fan has the ability to dissect every bit of the happenings of their hobby or passion, and share their feelings on it with lightning speed. While this is great for the hardcore fans among us, it also unfortunately can an induce a sort of myopia wherein everything happening now is important, unprecedented, or seen to have a greater impact than it really does. It's part of the reason every time IndyCar gets a bad bit of news (never mind the good parts), there's no shortage of prognosticators, grimly shaking their heads at their laptop screen, coming to the snap judgement that IndyCar is doomed unto perpetuity. It has transformed some of us into skittish, shaking lap dogs, waiting for the other shoe to drop, certain that destruction lies just around the next corner.

Yes, even with the great races, IndyCar has had what might be called (were it not already copyrighted) A Series of Unfortunate Events. And I can understand the allure of being the Cassandra of IndyCar, grimly predicting the downfall of Troy with only a smattering of masochistic pleasure in being correct as the flames come. However, I thought perhaps we could try a little experiment for the Canadian swing of IndyCar races coming up. Here's a flowchart showing the current thought process for a sadly vocal amount of IndyCar fans:

Starting in Toronto, I'd like us to try the following flowchart instead:

It might just be crazy enough to work.

Cheers to our Canadian friends--IndyCar will be seeing you soon. Hopefully, we'll leave the emotional baggage at Customs.

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