Monday, October 29, 2012

(Updated Re: Randy Bernard) Simona To KV: What It Means

(Note: After the news of Randy Bernard's ouster as INDYCAR CEO late Sunday, I considered tanking this piece altogether, but I really don't have any (appropriate) words yet suitable to the situation. So I'm running this article for now, and taking a bit to formulate just what I think of all this. I'll just lead with being immensely, almost biblically angry just now. Rather than say something there's a minor chance I'll regret, I'm going to take a few days or so to attempt to digest some very unpalatable news.

I have received multiple texts and emails already that are incensed at what has transpired. A lot of fans right now are feeling spat upon, ignored, and above all, disappointed and very, very enraged. Words and phrases like  "self-destructive", "betrayed", "idiotic", and "I'm DONE" are flowing freely. I don't have any words of comfort for you, because I'm in the same boat myself. This is unprecedented, absurd, ill-timed, and probably a lot of other colorful words I won't repeat here. All I can say is, don't do anything stupid, take a breath, and step away for a bit if you need to. You won't be alone. 

In any case, here's the article that I had planned to run today. Thanks, IndyCar friends, for reading and for loving this sport with so much passion:)

At the start of last weekend, one of the first dominoes of the IndyCar silly season fell into place, with Simona de Silvestro now known to be leaving HVM Racing in 2013 to become Tony Kanaan's teammate at KV Racing.

It's a big move, and probably a sigh of relief for Simona, who labored through a horrific 2012 season as the driver burdened with a Lotus engine for the entirety of the year. She'll now have Chevy power behind her, which will seem like warp speed after what she had to deal with in terms of a power deficit this past season. In terms of immediate impact for the "Iron Maiden", that's a bit like a free ticket out of Purgatory.

With that said, this probably isn't a move immediately taking the 24 year-old Swiss driver to contention, but it does do a couple of things for her besides getting her an engine. First, she has a veteran teammate in Tony Kanaan, which should help both drivers a bit. TK was staring down a 2013 as a single-car effort at the moment, so that's a nice plus after going at it alone the last three years in the Series.

Now, there are some questions, and they mainly revolve around the teams. As evidenced by much of what went on already this offseason, KV Racing might not be a bastion of stability itself. Big layoffs last month were bad enough, but the team will be missing continuity towards the top, with general manager Mark Johnson and team manager Tom Wurtz topping the names of those figures no longer with the organization. This has been a team that has failed the past two years to take the expected "big next step", and it just hasn't happened yet. Right now, if we're ranking IndyCar teams, KV is probably smack in the middle. Now, de Silvestro, paired with TK, will be their next chance to change that.

Back to de Silvestro, 2013 will be a big year. The rationale for any lack of results the last few years has been the understanding she was on a small, underfunded team. KV Racing is a step up from that, yes, though it isn't a Penske or Ganassi team. Still, this is the last year of her contract with sponsor Nuclear Energy, and as one can imagine, they were not pleased with last year's scenario. It can be reasonably assumed a big year would be a nice antidote to that.

For her old team, HVM, next season is now murkier than ever. They have no driver and no announced engine, though smart money would be on Honda finding some room for them as an additional entry. There are enough drivers shopping some sponsorship that they'll probably make ends meet, but it's very likely to be a "seat of the pants" sort of affair again for Keith Wiggins and crew.

So, while questions swirl for the drivers and team entities involved in this news, there's at least some hope that Simona de Silvestro will have a good situation for 2013, and a team that will support her in showing the Iron Maiden can't just endure the bad times, but can contend in better ones.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Our Condolences To Bob Jenkins

It was with great sadness we heard yesterday that Bob Jenkins' wife Pam lost her long battle with cancer. Of course, Bob retired as an INDYCAR announcer at the end of this last season in order to help his wife battle that same cancer.

Bob is one of our own in INDYCAR, a passionate fan and advocate of the sports that has shown decency and class along with a true love of racing in the course of his announcing duties. I know we all are thinking of him right now, and can only offer our deepest sympathies and sadness at his great loss. Please make sure to spare some prayers and thoughts for Bob and his family today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is Muñoz Ready For The Indy 500?

Well, if you’ve had your fill of Tony George and INDYCAR buyout worry in recent days, you’re not alone. Fortunately, we have some actual, impactful driver news from the last couple days to discuss.

You may have seen the news the Carlos Muñoz will not only be back with Andretti Autosport for the 2013 season, but will pilot their fourth car in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. The young Colombian driver was P5 in the Lights standings last year, but showed some good patience, won two races, finished P2 in the Freedom 100, and was nicely competitive in most of the others. I’m happy to see him back in the Lights seat next year, where he should at least contend for the title, but I’m curious in regards to his debut in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

Is Muñoz ready for the Indianapolis 500? I’d probably put his development right now, over, say, Chase Austin, but that doesn’t say too much. I was nicely impressed with Muñoz’s development and body of work in Lights in 2012 (and his seeming knack for the ovals), but I think this situation is part of a bigger issue we see of possibly bringing young drivers along far too quickly. Now, fortunately, Muñoz will still be developing in 2013 in a Lights car, but the Indy 500 is a big stage on which to start your IndyCar career. We’ve seen drivers pull it off, but a little more seasoning wouldn’t hurt. As I've advocated before along with others, allowing champions of the feeder series to “bank” their championship scholarships would go a ways in encouraging this.

Still, at 20 years old, Carlos Muñoz will be nowhere near the youngest driver or most inexperienced driver to try to run in the Indy 500. I certainly feel better about him than I would having a young Lights driver who’s shown little respect on-track for others. He could turn out to do just fine—or, depending on how many entries we have, could be a swing and a miss when it comes to Bump Day.

Simply put, as much as I want to give the move a thumbs up, we just don’t have enough of a résumé on Muñoz to know how he’ll do when he gets to IMS. Looking at his overall open wheel career, we have some middling Formula Three and Formula Renault results, and not much else outside of last year. There’s nothing wrong with that—the same could be said of many drivers who have turned out to do well enough (or not). Like with so many moves, we again find ourselves needing a wait-and-see approach to see how he does. Muñoz is a sharp young driver, and I expect him to do well in INDYCAR in the long run. Whether or not he can do well right off the bat in the biggest stage this series has to offer will be a different proposition entirely.

Monday, October 22, 2012

One Amazing Email

I received this email last night, and it was absolutely too good not to share:

Dear Zach,

I just wanted to say I absolutely love your blog, and read it every week. I saw your interview with Michael Johnson (Ed. Note: Right here, if you missed it), and was absolutely blown away. I had never heard of Mr. Johnson before, but am happy I did. He sounds like an amazing guy, and I wish him all the luck I can.

One of the reason I loved the article so much is that I was able to email a link to it to my brother, who returned home from Afghanistan earlier this year. Due to an accident in the combat zone, his leg was pretty much shattered in two places, and he's been rehabilitating ever since. I really think he'll be encouraged and love reading it, even if he isn't as big of a race fan as I am. He's struggling, but I know that like Michael Johnson, he'll be able to do the things he loves again soon. It's important to remember anything can be overcome with dedication and the right attitude. Thank you again and let me know what you're up to during Indianapolis this year--I'd love to talk racing when you have some time (RHR for the repeat!)

Sincerely,

Robert

Wow. Some days or nights, you get those moments that reinforce just why you love IndyCar so much. This letter definitely marked one of those moments in a big way. God bless, Rob, and thank you to your brother, too, for his service and sacrifice.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Never Giving Up: Interview With Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson turned heads as one of the fastest drivers in the recent Chris Griffis Mazda Road to Indy Test, but he's also been turning heads as just a great story overall. Johnson has been paralyzed since he was hurt in a motorcycle accident at the age of 12, but he hasn't let that stop his participation in the Mazda Road to Indy, most recently as a USF2000 driver with JDC Motorsports.

On his website, he's quoted as saying "I'm never going to give up. Racing is my life". It's a powerful story Johnson is living, but the 19 year-old Michigan native isn't content with just being an inspirational story. He wants big results on the track, too, and if his test at Indy is any indication, he can get them.

After that sterling test at IMS, we got with Michael to ask some questions about his performance this year, his Mazda Road to Indy future, and much more.

-Michael, congrats on a great showing at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test last week. What did you take away from the test, and how did you feel afterwards?

MJ: Thanks so much! Indy was such a great place! So much history there! The biggest thing that I took from the test was my confidence with myself that I can really do it and in the car with my driving style. I felt much more comfortable then I have all season. This was the first time I have been upfront all year and it feels so good! I want more!

Johnson talking things over during the IMS test.
-Let's go back and look at your 2012 body of work for a moment. Can you bring up some highlights/lowlights from your USF2000 season?

MJ: 2012 was a good year in the sense that I proved that I can race with everyone and it gave us (me and the team) a great starting point with the hand controls. A big area that I was struggling with was getting up to speed quick. In every session it took me quite a while compared to other drivers. With that being said, that hurt me in qualifying.

-In which area or areas do you think you've most honed your craft in the last year?

MJ: Areas that I have improved the most are my braking and corner exits. The beginning of the year, my brake points were quite weak..towards the end of the season, I was right with my teammates on my braking. An area that we found beginning of the season were my corner exits. With my driving style with these hand controls, it seems to work really well on big open course like IMS and Road America.

-So how are things looking as far as your 2013 racing plans go?

MJ: My racing plans for 2013 are looking good! I plan on running USF2000 with JDC Motorsports again, maybe do some kart races and even some ChumpCar races as well for fun!

After a great test at Indy, Johnson plans to be
back for more USF2000 action in 2013.
-Now, you're the first paralyzed driver on the Mazda Road to Indy, but you also still compete on the same playing field, same car, same courses as anyone else. What you do is likely inspirational to a lot of folks, but do you balance that realization with the desire to simply be seen as a competitor and prospect?

MJ: I do balance that realization every time I go on the track. I have worked so hard to get to this point and for me to share my story that anything is possible, I think it's making me a better competitor.

-As far as the feel of the car, does any limited feeling in your back/hip area change how you are able to react to the car, and what sort of adjustments have you made to address that?

MJ: With me being paralyzed, I have lost some feeling and pressure in my hips/butt area. More feeling has been coming back slowly but I have adjusted pretty well from the feel in the steering wheel and just overall pressure through my body through all the vibrations.

-Folks who don't know about your injury might not know too much about your history, but how long did it take to get a clean bill of health to get back to racing, and do you still see/feel changes in your condition?

MJ: Well, I broke my back August 13, 2005. It took me until Christmas of 2006 to get a full clean bill of health to get back doing things. I started racing in early 2007. My overall condition is constantly changing. It's hard to tell exactly what is changing but I can tell the difference of a period of time which in turn helps out my driving.

Johnson was 2nd fastest overall at the test for USF2000.
-With a full year of USF2000 in the books, is there anything you'd change in terms of the schedule or races?

MJ: If I was to change anything in USF2000 I would change the length of the races (even though that can't happen with these cars). I think I would like a long session coming from racing bikes where we are going for ever. Another thing I would like is more races and closer together with a big gap separating some events.

-Do you have a timeline in your head of how you'd like your progression up the Mazda Road to Indy to go?

MJ: The way I would like to profess up the Mazda Road To Indy is to run every step (USF2000, Star Mazda and Indy Lights). I think I would get very good seat time and have a lot of fun!

-I'm curious--how long have you been rocking the #54 on track, and does it hold any particular meaning for you?

MJ: The #54 does have a lot of meaning to me. I had #54 all the way up through bikes since I first started. Another big meaning for me is its the number I broke my back with. I know I won't be able to keep the number through my entire car racing career but its really cool to be rocking the #54 in USF2000!

-When you wake up in the morning, what's your inspiration? When you train and work for your racing career, what keeps that inner driver going?

MJ: When I wake up, my inspiration is to win the next championship, so I'm working and training as hard as I can. My family (dad, mom, grandpa) and friends are another huge motivation factor, they keep me going and support me the entire way!

-Let's try an easier one--were you pulling for Will Power or Ryan Hunter-Reay to be IZOD IndyCar Series champ this year?

MJ: I was pulling for Ryan Hunter-Reay this year all the way! :) It was a great hard fight between Ryan and Will for sure!

-A pretty smart guy I know suggested Alex Zanardi should jump in your USF2000 machine as a warm-up for an attempt at the Indy 500. What do you think?

MJ: I would love Alex Zanardi to drive with my setup! I think he would love it!

-It wouldn't be fair to have you answer all these questions and not get your plug in. Where should people go to follow your career, support your sponsors, and all that good stuff?

MJ: My website is the perfect place to follow me! It's www.michaeljohnsonracing.com.

Thanks again to Michael for the interview, and make sure to follow him on Twitter at @racer54iscool. Best of luck in 2013, Michael!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wheldon's True Legacy

You’re going to see a lot of wonderfully heartfelt tributes today and throughout the week, commemorating the driver and friend we lost one year ago. As a certain American President once said in commemorating the fallen, it is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.

For my part, though, I can’t and don’t want to spend 2000 words reliving that terrible day. I have my memories of a good man, a great driver, and someone was a hero less because of his love and mastery of racing, and more because of the love and joy he shared with fans, who returned it to him in kind.

No, for me, that memorial is out on the track, with this car, the one he developed. Like Dan, at one point it was dismissed and disregarded by doubters. Like Dan, when given the opportunity on track, it shone, and showed its detractors just what it was capable of. It gave us an amazing season, and something to celebrate and enjoy in the very best of racing traditions.

That’s the legacy I choose to mark, and will do so every time I go to a race or see these cars racing like crazy on the track. It’s a choice to celebrate and move forward, not dwell on a single tragic moment time and again. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate Dan than to continue to enjoy racing, love his contribution to the sport, and try to approach it with even a fraction of the joy he found in it. In this way, somber words must give way to celebration, and tragedy can be made into something positive and lasting.

Dan Wheldon left us an amazing car, and the memory of a joyous champion along with it. With that I mind, that’s how I choose to go on, not only October 16th, but for all the days to follow.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why The Peter Dempsey News Rocks

I mentioned the Peter Dempsey to Belardi Auto Racing news briefly in my recap article Friday, but felt it perhaps warranted a bit more explanation as precisely why I'm so thrilled about this Firestone Indy Lights signing. Believe me, this is great news--not only for Dempsey and that team, but for the projected competition level in Lights next year.

There are some drivers considered "hard-luck" because they just miss glory on the track through uncanny mishaps or poor timing. Other drivers are "hard-luck" because their career is derailed by politics, lack of funds, and other circumstances that have little to do with their actual talent. Dempsey fits firmly in the latter category. Don't believe me? Let's go through just the last few years of 26 year-old Irishman's career:

2009: A year after finishing 3rd in the Star Mazda standings, Dempsey has a breakout type of year in the series, winning 5 of 13 races, grabbing 6 podiums, and starting on the pole 5 more times to boot. However, in the season's final race, he was hit by other drivers twice, and improbably lost the crown to the even more improbably-named Adam Christodoulou. Peter Dempsey would lose that title by a mere 12-point margin.

2010: Despite his excellent 2009 season, Dempsey finds himself without a ride when the season begins. He manages a single ALMS and some brief Formula Ford action, but otherwise, it's a quiet year.

2011: Jumps to Indy Lights. Begins the season brilliantly, with a pair of podiums for O2 Racing Technology. However, he is able to race less than half a season with the team before the O2 team withdrew and was suspended until 2013 due to a very public falling out over rules enforcement and a potential boycott in Lights. Dempsey found himself without a ride, but would manage to secure five Lights races with Andretti Autosport, which would include two podiums and a P5.

2012: Dempsey begins the season without a ride. He gets two races with Younessi Racing before being very publicly thrown under the bus by that team.  He would again sign on with another team--Belardi Auto Racing, where he managed three Top 5 finishes and demonstrated plenty of promise in the last five contests of the season.

Do you begin to see why one could reasonably feel that Dempsey hasn't really had the most stable of careers in the past few seasons? I personally believe he will respond well to the consistency of a single, full-year ride, and that's going to reap rewards for Belardi on track. Belardi has been a greatly improving Mazda Road to Indy operation, and this signing helps that development right along.

That's just a little insight into the hard-luck recent career of Peter Dempsey, and why last week's news is indeed welcome.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Observations From The Mazda Road to Indy Test

Here are a few observations from the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

-I wasn't able to actually make it out to the track until Thursday, but was instantly glad to be back out there. Besides being at the Best Place Ever, it was immensely welcome to hear the sound of racing engines once more. I know it's only been a few weeks, but man, it seems like the offseason has already stretched for an eternity.

-Perhaps the best bit of news coming out of the last two days was the announcement that Peter Dempsey will be with Belardi Auto Racing for a full season in 2013. That's wonderful news for Belardi, who retains a driver who can compete for wins, and Dempsey, who gets the consistency that's been missing for the past two years of his Lights career. Congratulations to all parties for getting it done.

-Thursday, Michael Johnson led the morning session for USF2000, with a fast time of 1:27.637. That's just a micro-fraction off Matthew Di Leo's fast lap of the test of 1:27.623 in the final session. Johnson isn't just the first paralyzed driver in the Mazda Road to Indy, he's showing some speed out there as well. This is a really awesome story, and one that's going to be so exciting to follow next year. If you're part of the Twitterati, make sure to follow along.

-As mentioned, Di Leo was the fastest USF2000 driver in the test. His family-owned team is proving pretty adept at hanging with the more well-known names in the ladder, such as Cape and Andretti. He'll be one to watch next season--he definitely looked sharp and in control from what I saw at the test.

-Other impressive USF2000 drivers have to include Sennan Fielding (the only other driver to be in the 1:27.6 range), RC Enerson, Brandon Newey, and Jake Eidson. We'll have to keep tabs on where they all land, but the bottom line is that USF2000 is looking to have no letdown in talent level for 2013--quite the opposite, I would think.

-As you may have seen, four Star Mazda drivers--Spencer Pigot, Renan Guerra, Kyle Kaiser, and Matthew Brabham--all broke the IMS Star Mazda record set by Jack Hawksworth last year. They may have had a good weekend, but there was also plenty of praise floating around for Shelby Blackstock, who was P2 in both Wednesday sessions (his only day of participation).
Testing, 1, 2, 3...
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

-The Firestone Indy Lights representation was sparse (probably not a surprise), but if either Sage Karam or Zach Veach do move up to that series, it will be interesting to gauge how far along they are in their development. Right now, the 2013 Lights field seems wide-open.

-While we're on Lights, Star Mazda champ Jack Hawksworth didn't get to test a car this week, but we know he'll be somewhere for the St. Pete opener. The popular opinion has put him in a car at Sam Schmidt, so we'll have to see if that still holds. For Hawksworth's part, it sounds like he's waiting to put it all together, as well.

-On a related note, if you haven't seen Marshall Pruett's article on Tristan Vautier, I think it points out a very important moment for the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. Vautier came into Star Mazda, won a championship, moved to Lights, won a championship there, and now needs to move up to the IZOD IndyCar Series to complete that link. We know full well the lower rungs of this ladder is viable in terms of upward mobility; now we need reinforcement that someone can start from the lower rungs and finish all the way at the top with the current scholarship structure. If Vautier doesn't get in a ride for 2013, it'll be discouraging.

-Of course, I'm also of the opinion that they should take away two TEAM money slots, give one to the Lights champ, and split the other among USF2000 and Star Mazda. The ladder needs to be not only viable for the champ, but needs to offer developing and potential stars that perhaps finish close to the top a chance for another year. $1.1 million dollars can go a long way in those series, friends. Keep those drivers in the fight, and see what happens.

OK, that's enough on the soapbox for that one.

-In any case, I'm excited to see where everyone lands for 2013, but I also hope we hear about favorites that weren't at the test soon. I'm still hoping for the best for young drivers such as Stefan Wilson, Stefan Rzadinski, and Connor De Phillippi. I like that as many drivers as there were participated in this week's test, but there's plenty more talent out there, working and hoping for that big break. While we relax in the offseason, they're still out there, going full-bore to get things done. It makes you appreciate the fight to be a part of this, and what success in the Mazda Road to Indy can mean.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

IndyCar Fans Didn't See That Coming

Back before the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season began, I did a survey that asked fans to make their predictions on how the season would unfold. Now, I didn't want to pick at fresh wounds right after this season ended, but man, we did a really mixed job of predicting how things would pan out. Bear in mind, this survey garnered over 400 individual responses.

It's ok, though: unpredictability in which teams will win is a welcome feature in a racing series. Let's see how some key questions turned out:

1) How many different teams will win during the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season?
59% 3-4
40% 5-6
1% 2

This one was close, but with Penske, Target Chip Ganassi, Dale Coyne Racing, Andretti Autosport, and Ed Carpenter Racing grabbing wins, the 40% that said 5-6 different teams winning was the correct answer. 0-for-1, guys.

2) Which engine manufacturer will win the most races in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year?
69% Chevy
29% Honda
2% Lotus

OK, so this response tells us two things: a) We did a fine job as a fan base discerning Chevy would have the upper hand this year, and b) two percent of the fan base were wildly optimistic, or living in an alternate reality.

Moving on:

3) Will Lotus win a race in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year?
54% No
33% Yes
13% I Don't Know

One third? Did we really think that? Were we ever that optimistic about Lotus? Were we ever so young and naive? Seems a lifetime ago, doesn't it?
Nope.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

4) Which of these drivers will finish higher in the final points standings for the 2012 season?
68.7% Tony Kanaan
32.3% Rubens Barrichello

Good call there.

5) How will E.J. Viso do this year?
45% He Should Be Slightly Better Than Last Year
35% He Should Perform About The Same As Last Year
14% He Should Be Much Better Than Last Year
6% He Will Regress, And Perform Worse Than Last Year


This one was also a pretty good call. Depending on your viewpoint, either 45% or 35% got this one right.

6) Who will be the Sunoco Rookie of the Year?
59% Simon Pagenaud
37% Josef Newgarden
4% Katherine Legge

Hey, we're on a roll! Let's see if we could keep it going:

7) Which driver will win the Indianapolis 500?
21% Tony Kanaan
12% Scott Dixon
12% Dario Franchitti
9% Marco Andretti
9% Helio Castroneves
9% Will Power

...well, the heart wants what it wants. I can't fault anyone for a sentimental pick (especially since I made the same one). TK gave it a good go, as always. It's about to get worse, though:

TK at Indy: A popular pick...every year, probably.
(Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)
8) Which driver will win the the A.J. Foyt Oval Trophy?
31% Scott Dixon
27% Dario Franchitti
11% Helio Castroneves
8% Ed Carpenter
7% Tony Kanaan
4% Ryan Briscoe

The correct answer, Ryan Hunter-Reay, polled less than a single percentage point in the original survey.

9) Which driver will win the Mario Andretti Road/Street Trophy? 
56% Will Power
17% Rubens Barrichello
6% Dario Franchitti
5% Scott Dixon
4% Mike Conway
3% Ryan Hunter-Reay


That was a gimme. Now, for the big question...

10) Which driver will be 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion?
43% Will Power
17% Scott Dixon
12% Dario Franchitti
7% Tony Kanaan
7% Helio Castroneves
4% Rubens Barrichello

When all was said and done, Ryan Hunter-Reay, our 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champ, polled right at 1%.

Oof. Well, I was going to make a prediction on who would make the jump up the ladder next year, given this  week's Chris Griffis Mazda Road to Indy test, but I think I'll just wait and see.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Eight Young Open Wheelers To Watch This Week

It's October, the IZOD IndyCar season is finished, and the American open wheel fan doesn't have much going on at the moment, right? Wrong. This upcoming Wednesday and Thursday mark the second annual Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Open Test. Taking place on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this event is a chance for up-and-coming drivers to try their hand in USF2000, Star Mazda, and Indy Lights cars as a very early prologue to the 2013 season. Additionally, Andretti Autosport is currently conducting their own Mazda Road to Indy test with several drivers at Putnam Park.

Now, I know most of you won't be in attendance this week when the cars take to the track, but there will be press releases and stories aplenty coming out of this week's tests. In no particular order, here's a starting list of young drivers (Twitter handle links included!) to keep tabs on through the test and going ahead:

1) Matthew Brabham
If you missed the action in USF2000 this year, you missed a dominating performance by Brabham as part of the powerful Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing stable. Brabs obviously has about as fine a pedigree as any driver could (with father Geoff and grandpa Sir Jack), and has done honor to his surname thus far. As winner of the scholarship to move up to Star Mazda next season, he'll be a familiar name and exciting young prospect to follow in that super-competitive series.

2) Gabby Chaves
The young Colombian-American driver came on strong in Star Mazda action this season, and won his first race of the year at Mazda Raceway in Round 16. Currently holding onto P2 behind Series champ Jack Hawksworth ahead of the season's finale later this month, Chaves will be testing in an Indy Lights car. It remains to be seen whether he returns for a second year of Star Mazda action in 2013 or moves up the ladder, but he definitely has the talent to compete in either series.

3) Matthew Di Leo
One of the current crop of Canadian open wheel prospects, Di Leo finished fourth in this year's USF2000 standings, and the Ontario native should be a prime competitor when he returns for an encore USF2000 season with his family-owned drive in 2013. 

4) Brandon Newey
The 20-year old F1600 driver hails from Carmel, Indiana, and is currently leading his series in points, with only a pair of races at Watkins Glen to go. He'll be testing out a USF2000 car with JDC Motorsports, which should be a nice progression for him if he does indeed end up in one for 2012. With his family connections and involvement in racing, he's definitely no stranger to INDYCAR, and could be an interesting prospect indeed in the years to come.

5) Jarett Andretti
This one might not lead to anything, but the son of John Andretti is indeed had chance to test a USF2000 car at Putnam Park this past weekend. This might be little more than some seat time to see how the young Andretti scion likes the feel of what's under him, but it remains an intriguing possibility that another Andretti family member might decide to give the Mazda Road to Indy a shot. With a background heavy in both pavement and dirt midgets, it'd be fun to see how he'd progress. 

Blackstock racked up a half-dozen Top 10s in his rookie USF2000 season, and will join and Andretti and USF2000 alum Zach Veach in the Putnam Park test on Wednesday. Blackstock, of course, is the son of country music superstar Reba McEntire, but has proven himself to be a mature, respectful, level-headed driver that should have every chance to move up into a Star Mazda seat if things go his way. Plus, he's kept up his GRAND-AM involvement, which never hurts in gaining valuable road course experience.

7) Michael Johnson
Johnson is testing a USF2000 car for JDC Motorsports. As the first paralyzed driver in the Mazda Road to Indy, he had an up-and-down first season in USF2000, but managed to collect a handful of Top 10 finishes along the way. Johnson's unique story and fight alone merit following, but if he also returns for a second USF2000 campaign, it will bear watching to see how the 2012 USF2000 Spirit Award recipient does in terms of the learning curve.

8) Ayla Agren
Another Andretti Autosport tester, albeit one participating in the Griffis test at IMS and not Putnam Park, Agren will be stepping into a USF2000 car this week. She had formerly tested one with Cape Motorsports, so this will be an encore of sorts. The 19 year-old Norwegian comes from a European karting background, but just finished a promising debut in Skip Barber's Summer Series that makes her participation in a 2013 USF2000 a good possibility to entertain.

There will be plenty of other participants this week, and the above list is only a starting point for checking into some of the real young talent that will be coming through this week.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Welcome Back To Foyt Friday

Two more clips to get your Foyt Fix in on a fall Friday. The first as a bonus features IMS Historian Donald Davidson discussing Foyt's career:


The second features some beautiful vintage color footage from the 1963 LA Grand Prix. You'll want to set 10 minutes aside to check this one out:


As always, have a great weekend, and we'll see you on Monday.



Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Search For Stability

I find myself in the slightly rare position this week of agreeing rather heavily with a Robin Miller article. His latest, entitled “The Cult of Negativity”, takes aim at some of the rumors circulated by Sports Business Journal this week that a group of INDYCAR owners were actively working to purchase the Series. He’s right: this sort of rumor hurts INDYCAR, and needs to stop. But beyond that, INDYCAR needs to ensure that its appearance is one of a stable organization.

Fortunately, on the schedule side for next year, stability seems to be what we’re getting. For the most part, the schedule will look close to the same events and dates we saw for 2012, with nearly all events taking place within a week of this year’s date. For example, next year, Toronto shifts a week to accommodate Pocono. With Edmonton gone, there’s a gap between Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, but both those races again return in the same slot. Fontana appears to be the only event with a major shift, and that’s calculated. Stability? That’s a good thing. Keeping events in the same place, working on making them an annual event and destination for folks, and giving them an air of permanency inspires confidence, visibility, and most of all, customer planning.

On Jake Query’s Indianapolis radio show Monday afternoon, Randy Bernard expressed a desire to have 2014's schedule locked in as soon as possible, which makes sense. It only stands to reason you want as large a window as possible for folks to buy tickets and plan for your events. If INDYCAR is already working to lock down 2014 dates, and can follow through, that’s a good sign.

IndyCar has just finished an amazing 2012--
So why is so much garbage being brought out?
Away from the track, however, it seems as if whenever we get a dose of good news—such as the long-awaited return of Pocono--there’s a story in the wings about unhappy owners, interest in changing series ownership, or whatever other crisis—real or manufactured—is being circulated at the time. That gives INDYCAR the look of instability, when you’re talking about prospective sponsors peeking in from the outside.

Broadly speaking, IndyCar fans know they have a good product. They saw what the racing was in 2012, saw the level of competition, and know that they have some true talent mixing it up in a variety of venues. But what most fans—and I imagine, by extension, interested sponsors—want—is a surcease from continued chaotic negativity. Some of that is likely sensationalism from interests both in and outside the sport, some of it is the product of a subset of fans who seem to seek out the bad while disregarding the good, and yes, some of it is just a byproduct of a series going through the uneven process of trying to bounce back from over a decade of frustration and struggle.

Ultimately, most of us just want to enjoy racing, and have our unpredictability come on the track, not off of it. INDYCAR is taking steps to ensure that’s the case. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of factions both within and without that seem to need or want that air of instability. Taking a more proactive approach in shutting down or shutting out some of the continued bomb-throwers would be a fine first step, but some items—like continued rumors of an attempted owner coup, for example—can’t be simply ignored. A robust, positive social media presence is needed, not to let control of the narrative get away from INDYCAR. The next time there’s an uproar over owner disgruntlement, there should be a statement when warranted, and plenty of other news and features to focus the interest back on what’s important.

There’s so much to like about what’s going on with INDYCAR right now. If it can control the message, control its image, and refocus on the positive, while providing a sense of stability for the fans, then there’s every chance more folks will focus on that, not rumors and negativity. Not every interest out there is friendly to the Series as we know it--indeed, some are quite the opposite. The micro-news cycle can't belong to the embittered, "concern trolls", lackeys of the competition, or the openly hostile; it needs to be the domain of the Series, with the push coming from the Series and allied parties. Give race fans an increasing sense that all is indeed well, that current leadership has the confidence of the board, and that this is a sport with a definitive plan and control over its own destiny. Give supporters the confidence they need (and should have) to worry only about the drivers and races they love, not a will they/won’t they future of the Series. Again, that begins with stability, a firm hand, and plenty of outreach.

Remember this: if INDYCAR can’t define itself in clear and decisive terms, others will. In other words, snakes will remain snakes. Forget about the street/oval split, or cost of parts, or the other aspects of this sport we know will always be contentious. The most important thing IndyCar can do for its fans and future is project confidence, control the message, and offer a sense of permanent stability in its dealings. If it can do that, then the vacuum will be filled with positivity, instead of malicious rumors and negative headlines.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Quick Thoughts On The 2013 IndyCar Schedule

While listening to Randy Bernard's announcement and subsequent official release of the 2013 IndyCar schedule, I jotted down my initial reactions to what we found out:

-I think the obvious highlight of the schedule has to be Pocono and the return of the Triple Crown. I'd like to see a 500-miler at Pocono, but will live with a 400-miler, given ABC's notoriously fickle TV window. 

-Speaking of ABC, I do like how they've selected a block of races firmly in the middle of the schedule after the Indy 500 for their part to televise this year. We complain about ABC's coverage a lot, but the fact is, we need network visibility, too. It's a trade-off.

-Obviously the big concern for the schedule as it stands is what we'll call the "September Gap". There's a long time between the September 1 date at Baltimore and the October 5-6 dates for Houston. Is there a chance a late announcement for Providence or Kentucky could go there? I certainly like to think so. It's just too long to go without a race. 

-Ultimately, however, if this is where events are going to be on the calendar, I hope they stay on the weekends they're on whenever possible going forward. Consistent dates are needed to build up tradition and planning for venue and event fans. Fill in the gaps around what we have, but build for consistency.

-I like the doubleheaders, and am excited (yet nervous) regarding the standing starts at those events. How IndyCar's drivers will handle those remains to be seen. Yes, many of them have a background with series using standing starts, but let's just see how much chaos ensues.

-It's a little curious to see Iowa not listed as a night race. That really seemed to be a great track for it. I guess we'll see what time is officially announced as we get a bit closer.

-June will again be an absolute beast for the teams, coming off Indy and having back-to-back-to-back events at Detroit, Texas, and Milwaukee. That's going to be a grueling stretch indeed.

-In summary, I think IndyCar has some great events for 2013 and some solid ideas in place, but I think few would disagree with the idea that they still have some work to do. A late announcement for another race in September would do wonders for that, but the really validation will come if this schedule proves to be a stable springboard for building up events and adding new ones in the years to come.