Thursday, February 28, 2013

Graham Rahal Talks Charity, Team, and 2013

If you're anywhere around Indianapolis, you'll want to be at the Dallara Facility in Speedway on Saturday, March 9. That's the day the Graham Rahal Foundation will be hosting a big charity event at the facility, along with Indy Cars and Coffee. Graham himself took the time to answer a few questions about the event and his charity, as well as talk about his position in the upcoming 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Graham, thanks so much for your time. First off, can you tell us about the big charity event at Dallara coming up on March 9?

GR: Our event on March 9th is going to be great. I attend a local group called Cars and Coffee in Indianapolis on Saturdays. They’re a large group of car and racing fans with big hearts. They were invited to tour the Dallara Indycar Factory and decided to turn the tour into an event to benefit my foundation, The Graham Rahal Foundation. The event will be from 11-5 on March 9th with tours of the Dallara facility, two seater rides, iRacing simulators, an autograph session and more.

With the Graham Rahal Foundation involved, this might be a good time to tell fans a bit more about just what it does. Who does your foundation seek to help, and was there a reason your specially chose those causes?

GR: The Graham Rahal Foundation was started in 2009 after my boss, Paul Newman, passed away. Paul was such a huge advocate for giving back to others and I wanted to continue that even after his passing. He inspired me to be a better person and to never take life for granted. GRF raises money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Paul’s foundation, SeriousFun Networks. Donations at the event will be taken to help us raise money for GRF, which will allow us to give back to these two amazing groups. Through various events, we have raised over $200,000 and helped many children in need. It’s a great thing to be part of.

This isn't your first time racing with your dad, but a lot of fans are definitely looking forward to seeing how your father-son duo does over the rigors of the season. In your opinion, what are the biggest benefits to being a part of his team?

GR: The biggest benefit is the commitment and the at ease feeling that I have from within right now. This group is top notch, they want to win, the commitment is superb, and I think we are going to have a great few years together.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was extremely fast last season, grabbing a couple of podiums and narrowly missing out on winning the Indy 500. With bringing veteran engineer Eddie Jones on the offseason, what are the main goals to improve upon last year?

GR: Eddie is certainly a great addition to our team. I love Eddie's mentality and his work ethic. His approach to our team and the sport is exactly what you like to see with an engineer, cool calm and collected while always searching for every advantage possible. Eddie mixed with my engineer Gerry [Hughes] will be a great combination. Certainly excited to have him with James.

You've got a new teammate this year in James Jakes. How much have you hung out with him before this season, and what do you look for in a teammate?

GR: James is a great guy. He and I have really clicked, something I can't say I've had much in the past. It's nice we share a lot of the same interests, and I think that will help us both on and off the track. I am excited to have him with us, and I think people will see a whole different James with this team than what they have before!

This is your 6th year in IndyCar since the merger. Mentally, how is your preparation and attitude going into the season compared to previous years?

GR: I think I am much more at ease this year. I feel quietly confident that this team can surprise some people. I have always been someone that was concerned with what was going on when I wasn't watching, but here I know everything that is happening is happening so we can win. There are zero doubts in my mind we have put together a great group of people here at RLLR.

Aside from the obvious answer of Indianapolis, is there another race on this year's schedule you have circled in red you're really looking forward to this year?

GR: I am looking forward to Houston, St. Pete of course, Mid Ohio and really everywhere we go. Every track presents a different challenge and that's what I love about indycar racing!

For more information, follow the Graham Rahal Foundation on Twitter, and also remember to follow Indy Cars and Coffee.  Thanks to Graham for his time, and see you for a great cause on March 9!


Click to enlarge

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Daughter's Take: INDYCAR Q&A

My 8 year-old daughter Saris is a budding IndyCar fan, and she'll be providing her point of view throughout the season. We're starting today with a simple Q&A about her thoughts on how the 2012 season ended, and what she's expecting in IndyCar this year. From the comfort of the Houghton Family living room, I bring you her keen insight:

Saris, thanks for agreeing to this. The basic idea is to just tell folks what you think about some IndyCar stuff. Sound good?

Saris: Sure!

So what did you think of the way last year's season ended?

Saris: I thought Will Power would win, but Ryan Hunter-Reay did an awesome job.

If you could see one other driver in the Indy 500 this year, who would it be?

Saris: Pippa Mann. I've met her, she's very nice, and I think she's a good driver who should be out there.

In terms of 1-50, how many units of butt does Pippa kick?

Saris: I'm going over your numbers. Let's say more than the number of butts that have ever raced in a car.

Impressive. So, early prediction, who will win this year's Indy 500?

Saris: I'm going with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, or Alex Tagliani.

Tag is pretty cool, huh?

Saris: Oh yeah!

Is it the accent?

Saris: No. I just like how he drives.

Is there a driver you really want to meet this year?

Saris: Will Power.

It's not because your mother has a driver crush on him, is it?

Saris:. No.

Sure?

Saris: I just think he's a good driver, and he comes from Australia, mate. Shut your whiskers!

(That last part was directed at our cranky, growling tomcat. I hope.).

What advice would you give Will Power in order for him to win the championship this year?

Saris: Stay on the track!

Which IndyCar driver name is the most fun to say?

Saris: Takummmma SAT-OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

If you could pick one driver who didn't win last year who you think will win a race this year, who would it be, and why?

Saris: Really, almost any of the drivers could have a chance of winning. But I will say Tag, because last year he was close, and because I've noticed he tends to stay on the track.

A valuable asset in any driver, to be sure. What do you think of Simona's chances this season?

Saris: I'd call it 50/50 if she wins or not. Oh, and give that Lotus from last year to someone for like $100.

Who has the best looking car?

Saris: Hinch's GoDaddy car looks cool, and I like the silver and dark red on James Jakes' new car. But I want to see more before deciding.

If you could have one sponsor on the side of a car this year, what product would you pick?

Saris: Great Wolf Lodge!

You've done qualifications and practice before, but Milwaukee this year will be your first full race. What part of it are you most looking forward to?

Saris: Quite a few parts. I am looking forward to watching the cars race in person, staying in a hotel, and maybe meeting some drivers.

Who would win in a fight, AJ Foyt or a massive killer robot?

Saris: AJ Foyt. The robot could be some sort of deadly trap, but 1) AJ was an IndyCar driver, 2) you've showed me video of him hitting things with a hammer, and 3) he's AJ Foyt.

Looking forward to seeing Turbo when it comes out?

Saris: Yes. Seriously, who's ever seen a snail try to race in the Indy 500?

You weren't around for Marty Roth. What's the best part about IndyCar for you?

Saris: I love seeing the drivers pass by, and you get to meet all sorts of them, too. All those drivers are very fast, and I don't know how they go that fast. I especially like going to the track (like IMS) with my dad.

Flattery will get you everywhere. Is there something you wish IndyCar would do different, or you'd like to see them add?

Saris: More shade to the seats! We always get sun burnt, because you like sitting in the sun!

I think that's more my fault than theirs, but I'll ask about a tarp. Any words for the readers out there?

Saris: See you at the track!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Risk For All

In 1987, I attended my first-ever Indianapolis 500. I was probably in first grade at the time, and the entire day is now a patchwork of bold memories, with a few moments especially standing out. I remember cheering for my favorite driver, Rick Mears, and how his yellow beast of a car started on the front row, but went out early with problems. I remember car after car dropping out, unable to stand the rigorous test the Speedway still demands of man and machine. I remember Mario Andretti slowing down--perhaps the first time in my life I had heard those famous words. It was the sort of day to make a Hoosier kid fall in love with the Greatest Race Course In The World, and that's just what happened. But most of all, there remains a moment, clear as anything, that has yet to fade with time. It has to do with the loss of life.

For those unaware of that year's tragedy, on Lap 130, a tire that fell off Tony Bettenhausen's car and was punted high into the stands by Roberto Guerrero's car, with enough force to kill spectator Lyle Kurtenbach. It was a sad, freak sort of accident, and the first race day fatality since 1973.

My family was sitting in Turn 4 that day, and though I don't recall seeing the wheel fly high in the air, I do remember Guerrero slowing down with a damaged car, and finally heading back to the pits. I believe rumors reached our section some debris had gone into the crowd, but there was nothing concrete.

I don't recollect hearing until the next day the fact that a spectator had died, but when I did, I thought back to that seeing that accident. Whether you're in first grade, or in the second half of your life, you don't think of the potential for danger that awaits race fans. It's rare, and never fails to shock us, even when we know in the back of our mind it's happened before, and can happen again. That's why when fans were injured this weekend at Daytona, it was still a jarring experience, even for those of us who have seen even far worse. Perhaps it's because we don't think we've signed up for danger, disclaimers on the back of our race ticket be damned. We expect the racers on track to entertain us through their ragged-edge exploits and courage, not dodge danger ourselves. That's usually the case--but when it happens, it does give us pause.

Honestly, freak accidents happen in any activity. I've seen someone break their leg stumbling in a hole in their backyard. I've seen someone hit with a falling tree limb while moving a sprinkler. At an Indianapolis Indians game I attended as a kid, a foul ball knocked an unsuspecting woman out. The risk of going to a race is acceptable to me, and I judge it to be the same for my family.

I don't have some overarching message or moral for this entry, just an appreciation for those who work to make the race experience safer for fans and racers alike, with a special gratitude for the folks at 16th & Georgetown who have done so much for safety innovation in motorsport. It also reinforces just how wrong the "wreckin' is racin'" mindset is, and how ghoulish the hope is to witness "The Big One". Sane, responsible fans don't go to races for wrecks, and are appreciative on the relative risks out there for everyone. This past weekend's events could be a reminder of that for some, and a lesson for others.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Notebook: Getting Ready, Scheckter, Prospects

-I don't know about you, but the IndyCar testing at Sebring this week made me even more impatient for this season to start, if that's at all possible. I believe my kids are gearing up, too--conversation in the house is growing ever more IndyCar-related, if I'm any judge. Soon, our family's Pick-A-Driver contest will start again, and you can believe my 5 year-old daughter (and our family's defending champ) has a target on her back. I love this field, I love some of the pairing we're seeing this year, and think we're in for another Grade-A dose of Awesome.

The "plugged-in" IndyCar fan on social media has to listen to a lot of diatribes, as well as a lot of well-intentioned talk about this or that being wrong in the Series or not "moving the ratings". I respect that. But by this point in the season, that's all drowned out in my head by the rising, growing roar of engines coming to life. All that matters is bad-ass drivers driving the wheels off a DW12. After this long of a wait, to have photos and videos and news of cars actually on track? Yeah, I'm celebrating sorta like this. Don't judge me. Damn the torpor, full speed ahead.

-Seriously, even from testing there's a lot to get excited about. There's the A.J. Allmendinger test with Penske, which lit up the Twitterati and social media like none other, and the at least momentary satisfaction of seeing Takuma Sato and Foyt Racing at the top of the test leaderboard. Tristan Vautier's lap times continue to impress, as he prepares to make what could be a thrilling rookie campaign. Sebastian Saavedra is working on his comeback year. Simona de Silvestro got to test a car with a competitive engine. That doesn't even touch on Round 2 of the Honda/Chevy battle, another shot for Will Power at the elusive title, or the drivers trying to joining the ranks of best of the best at Indy. You can't throw a rock without hitting a driver or team with something to prove, a title to defend, or a legacy to cement. If I sleep between now and St. Pete, it'll be a bloody miracle.

-If you haven't checked out Tomas Scheckter's guest post over at Open Wheels, you'll definitely want to do so. It seems as if TScheck's chances at returning to the 500 or IndyCar are always the source of much speculation during silly season, and I have no clue whether or not anything he might be working on will materialize in time for May. Scheckter doesn't always endear himself to all the fans out there, but I also know that he remains one of the most exciting and entertainingly aggressive drivers in open wheel oval racing today. I'd be happy indeed to see him race at Indy this year, not to mention Pocono, or Milwaukee, or Iowa...

-There's been a nice amount of discussion about the Mazda Road to Indy this past week, which always makes me happy. However, there is a point I want to come back to: I do think sometimes we fans want our favorite drivers to rush through the Mazda Road to Indy as quickly as possible, but that's not always the smart or right thing to do. As I mentioned when discussing the Saavedra signing last week, there are some excellent drivers who simply would benefit from a bit of additional seasoning in one of the development series. I know the push for funding and scholarships doesn't always let that pan out, but a guy isn't a dud or some remedial student simply because he spends an extra year in Pro Mazda or Firestone Indy Lights. There is nothing that says you have to have it all in place by the time you're 21 or 22. With that, I'll let the dead horse go to its Maker quietly now...

-I won't be at the Winter Indy Tweetup this weekend, but best wishes to everyone headed out that way. I'm sure you have some wonderful surprises in store...

Have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Always This Time Of Year

Today we have a guest post, courtesy of my buddy Mark Rhodes. I think it's a great reminder that while we didn't all come to IndyCar and the Indy 500 the same way, the passion remains the same. Enjoy! -ZH

It's always this time of year, when we are waiting for the season to roll around again, that I think back to what got me all caught up in this thing we call IndyCar. I was never a motorsports fan growing up. Sure, I had heard about this thing called the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, but have to admit that outside of geography class and learning state capitals, I had no idea where this Indianapolis place was. For years, that was about it.

Fast forward so many years and I met this Midwestern girl from Indiana. Wait, I’ve heard of that place, thanks to that geography class again. We are both transplants living in California at the time. As the beginning of the year rolls on, she keeps talking about this Indy 500 thing. I’m not just talking about watching it on the TV, but hopping a flight to Indianapolis and having me check out this thing out live. It was something about a family tradition for those from Indiana. A quick call to her family and she secures two tickets for us.

This being my first trip to Indiana, I was introduced to a couple things unique to Hoosierland. The first was that delectable fried goodness called a Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. By all that is holy, that was some seriously good eating. But this story isn’t about that. It’s about the second thing she introduced me to: IndyCar racing and the Indy 500.

Outside of a velodrome, I had never seen a race track. I was completely taken aback by the sheer size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She got us out there early so we would have time to take in the awaking of the track. She made it sound like a living thing and oh, how right she was. There were thousands upon thousands of people already there inside the track, in the stands and more just kept filing in. You could tell the veterans with their tents set-up in the infield, their coolers chilling the frosty beer and the grills cranking out tasty treats. Then, there was me, just wandering around with my chin on the ground. To say I was awestruck seems to not really tell the scale of it all.

We wandered up toward the front straight. The marching bands were playing. Then we rounded some buildings and there was the track. Turn 1. There were people standing ON THE TRACK! Feeling like I was getting away with something I shouldn’t, we wandered right out onto the track at Turn 1. I had no idea about the banking. Standing there, staring up at the Grandstands, the Scoring Pylon, the people, the whole thing. WOW! But wait, there’s more.

So we hoof it back off to our seats in Turn 3 in time for all the pageantry. The salute to our armed forces, the fly over, the crowd singing along to “Back Home Again in Indiana”, the parade laps of race cars, the sounds, the smells, this gut feeling and the electricity in the air. Then it happened: the green flag dropped and the race had begun. The cars all jockeying for position as they are through Turns 1 and 2, down the backstretch. Coming straight toward us. As they rounded Turn 3, it had to be one of the single most exciting moments in my life.

So all these years later, here we are living in Indy. Living at the track during the Month of May. Visiting other tracks. Feeding that primal need to feel the rumble, smell the exhaust and rubber, hear the roar of the engines and to let that electrical excitement wash over us. This is the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. This has captured our spirit, distilled it to power our love for this sport. I’m ready for that first green flag of the season. This is IndyCar.

Monday, February 18, 2013

An IndyCar Fan's List For 2013

Every year, I try to work on introducing new folks to IndyCar. I admit, my reasons are essentially selfish in nature--I love talking about IndyCar, and want more people to share in that conversation. Additionally, if I don't discuss it with other people, eventually my wife is going to be tired of my extended, unsolicited discourse on Why I'd Pick Stefan Wilson For My Firestone Indy Lights Team When I Win The Lottery, and banish me to sleeping on the couch. So, you see, it's good for my marriage as well. Sure, there's also the fact that it's awesome to see someone finally get what IndyCar is all about, but saving long-suffering wives is pretty important.

I started thinking about what I wanted to do in terms of this year's IndyCar season, and I think I have some pretty good goals in mind. With that in mind, so I made a list on the big things I want to accomplish this year:

1) Bring New Fans To The Indy 500
Every year, I try to get new fans into the Month of May, be it practice, qualifications, or the race itself. There's nothing like seeing that glow when someone finally understands what all the excitement and pageantry is about. Whether it's the cost of a practice ticket, or helping find someone their first seats for the 500, this is one of the best times of the year. 

2) Take My Daughter To Her First IndyCar Race
This will occur in June, when my oldest daughter heads to the historic Milwaukee Mile for her first full race weekend. She's been to IMS with me plenty of times, but never to the race itself. She's excited, I'm excited, and I can think of few better introductory races for a kid her age. This should be my favorite trip of the year.

3) Help Grow INDYCAR's Appeal For Kids.
With Turbo coming out this year, the time is well past for INDYCAR to feature more online resources for kids. Whether it's for INDYCAR Nation or another part of the site, there needs to be an online presence that is kid-friendly and accessible. Printable coloring pages, drivers answering questions from kids, age-specific tech interviews. We have a sport that kids should find fast, amazing, and ridiculously cool. Time to recognize that and grow that demographic. I will write emails all year, lobby the powers-that-be, and generally be a pain in the butt until something is done.

4) Trash Talk When Takuma Sato Or EJ Viso Wins A Race.
You might not know this about me, but for the last year in our family's Pick-A-Driver contest, I have chosen either EJ Viso or Takuma Sato as one of my three drivers for the race weekend. Oh, sure, the skeptics out there scoff, and I'm fairly certain our family's reigning champ (my 5 year-old daughter) sees me as a pitiable idiot, but I endure. For I have FAITH. Taku or EJ WILL take that checkered flag, and when it happens, I will do a horrifying, delicious Dance of Vindication in my living room. 

5) See A One-Off Underdog Kick Butt At The Indy 500.
There's really nothing I can do to make this one happen, but I am rarely happier than when someone the deck is stacked against either a) makes it in on Bump Day, or b) manages an awesome finish at the 500. I have a few drivers I wouldn't mind seeing this scenario happen to, but as long as someone unlikely makes good, my perpetual love for underdogs is rewarded. 

6) Somehow, Make It To Pocono.
I swore, when Pocono was announced on the schedule, that come hell or high water, I would make it to this race. My racing budget, outside of what I have announced? Zero. Will that deter me? Certainly not. I gotta see the return to the Tricky Triangle. 

7) Make It To More Mazda Road to Indy Events.
I usually see a fair amount of Firestone Indy Lights events over the course of a season, but I was seriously short on watching Pro (Star) Mazda and USF2000 races last year, despite the fact that ladder series such as Pro Mazda have some of the most exciting racing going. As much as I enjoy the Mazda Road to Indy, I need to ensure that my schedule for combined race weekends take them into account. 

More, please.
(Courtesy IMS Media)
8) Continue To Thank The Sponsors
I got some really neat responses from INDYCAR sponsors last year when I was part of the 33 Days, 33 Letters challenge. This year, I wanted to a measured approach throughout the season, identifying such companies on social media, and genuinely thanking them for their involvement. Whether it's GoDaddy, RC Cola, or Fuzzy's Vodka, I want them to know their time and investment has a direct effect on our family's purchasing habits.

9) Join In NewTrackRecord's Tenderloin Tour
My pal Mark Wilkinson is not only a man of letters and wisdom over at New Track Record, he also may boast of being the impetus behind the Indy Tenderloin Tour. If you need an example other than the 500 that God blessed the State of Indiana, I would direct you to the breaded pork tenderloin, which along with sugar cream pie, is essentially proof of His love.

10) Get My Son To Meet Scott Dixon
In my son's mind, Scott Dixon is the fastest human on the planet. Threatened only occasionally by his other favorite drivers, Dixon, by merit of driving a red car and because he is awesome, is the best, as my son will sagely inform you. I really think he'd be hugely impressed to meet one of his heroes, and there's a much better shot of him getting to meet Scott Dixon versus Batman or the Incredible Hulk (the other two parts of his 3 year-old Triumvirate of Awesome). 

Well, there it is. Perhaps not every item on that list will grow the sport, but they should all be a lot of fun. What does your IndyCar Fan List look like this year?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Legge Situation Is Nothing New

I didn’t want to go too deeply into the entire Dragon Racing/TrueCar/Katherine Legge crisis, but I suppose there a few points I’d like to make about the situation. Katherine Legge is obviously a sympathetic figure, having had an awful time of it last year in a Lotus before Dragon Racing grabbed a pair of Chevy engines at Indy. Now, allegedly, her sponsorship deal has been stolen, and her contract violated, by the very team and sponsor she had a part in bringing together last year. Legge finds herself on the sidelines, which is never a joy-inspiring event for a driver, and her fans online are understandably upset at what they see as underhanded behavior.

Still, we have to remember—as unpleasant as it is—this sort of crap (that's probably the most polite term one can muster for it) goes on all the time. Sponsor poaching and lawsuits aren’t the domain of one side of motorsports--I can name a dozen examples from recent years from F1 and NASCAR as well, and few series seem truly immune. It's important to remember: in the suite and paddock, just as on track, there are “black hats” out there. Of course, there are also a lot of gray ones, as well.

It’s a brutal business. We don’t like to hear it, but sometimes (many times!), being right, being smart, being good, being a fan favorite, or being lucky isn’t enough. Ownership is well past nine-tenths of the law. It seems as if every team, every driver in the paddock could tell you a story about having a seat or sponsor grabbed out from under them—and your favorite team or driver might even be one of the guilty parties. There are representation firms involved that have been known to take the low road any time they can. The reason is that IndyCar, just like every other racing series, is comprised of a cross-section of humanity, and some of them are just as grasping, reaching, and sneaky as they are in offices and workplaces across the nation. However, unlike sniping over maintenance charges in your office or which department will be held responsible for this year’s budget shortfall, it takes place in a higher-profile public forum.

Jay Penske hasn’t done much to endear himself to the fans of IndyCar, that much is certain. And it’s fine to cheer Ms. Legge’s efforts towards what she sees as her due with Dragon Racing and TrueCar. But let’s not pretend as if this hasn’t existed before. Whether it’s because of gender, or the fact the accusations have been levied against an unlikable individual, or simply because of the drama or because it fits a certain narrative, we can't use that as grounds to act as if this is some unprecedented outrage. It’s still all part of how the sausage is made, so to speak. In that sense, a driver/car/sponsor pairing is a bit like a fast-food burger or ballpark hot dog: the end result might be satisfying and enjoyable, but the creation process isn’t going to be too appetizing.

Some might see this as a cynical view, but I don't view it that way. I don't dislike baseball because of the issues with competitive balance and the salary cap, and I truly enjoy NCAA basketball despite its very real troubles with academic standards and conference gerrymandering. And I love IndyCar, even when I know that there is some nastiness involved at times before that car and driver are officially put on the grid.

It isn’t IndyCar’s fault, it isn’t Sebastian Saavedra’s fault, or the fault of Sebastien Bourdais, so don’t wish them ill. The only thing to do is wait for everyone's day in court, recognize there are some prime jerks out there on all sides, and accept some facts of life. Of course, having a good attorney on retainer might not hurt, either.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Saavedra Saga Continues…

I’ll admit, I was a fairly harsh critic of Sebastian Saavedra after the 2011 season. He did very little of note in a ride with Conquest Racing, and there was still a bit of a bad taste in my mouth from his acrimonious departure from Bryan Herta Autosport’s Lights program in 2010. I did not think at that point and time he had what it took to be a successful IndyCar driver.

But do you know what happened? It seemed as if Saavedra agreed with that assessment, at least in part. IndyCar’s spiky-haired “Sonic” swallowed his pride, took a full-time Firestone Indy Lights ride in 2012 with a couple of IZOD IndyCar races thrown in, and worked at his craft. No, he didn’t win a Lights title with Andretti Autosport last year, but it was a more patient, humble Saavedra that took to the track. It terms of driver development, it seemed to be a big win. And now, it seems Sebastian Saavedra is back in the IICS full-time with Dragon Racing.

What will Saavedra's next chance in IndyCar hold?
(Courtesy IMS Media)
Now, there will be those that dismiss this signing for the simple fact Saavedra has yet to have a Top 10 result in his 19 career IndyCar races so far, but that would also ignore the fact that a majority of those races occurred before his 21st birthday. This is a young driver, just 22 years old, who still has plenty of room to develop. This year, he’ll get to do so as a full-season teammate of one of best open wheel drivers in the Series, S├Ębastien (not Sebastian) Bourdais.

While the murkiness at Dragon Racing this offseason hasn’t exactly brought about loads of happy feelings or puppies and sunshine, seeing Saavedra get another shot is a good story, albeit perhaps one that won’t get the attention of some of the other sagas currently in play. Whatever your feelings on Saavedra, he is a product of the Mazda Road to Indy, specifically Indy Lights. In baseball, we think nothing of a young player being sent down to the minor leagues for more seasoning, but somewhere along the way in IndyCar, it’s become a taboo of sorts. There’s this propensity to push drivers along, as if 1-2 years in Lights will always be enough for a driver to be ready for the move to IndyCar. That’s an expectation that ignores the example of drivers such as James Hinchcliffe (5 seasons in Atlantics/Indy Lights), and J.R. Hildebrand (3+ full seasons between Atlantics/Lights). Saavedra jumped up to IndyCar from Lights, didn’t quite have what it took yet, dropped back down, and then got another chance to see what he had. I suppose that’s part of the reason why I’m pulling for him to make good this time.

So before you overlook the Saavedra news, think for a moment on what a rollercoaster the last three years or so have been for him. When I interviewed him back in September, he confessed talked about his “ego’s touchy state” and how scary the move back to Lights had been. Yet he did it, and when the season opens at St. Pete, Sebastian Saavedra will be a full-time part of the field. It doesn’t happen for everyone, but it’s a sign that having the guts to make the right choice for one’s self can pay off.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Notebook: Dinger, Viso, Jakes, MRTI, Etc.

-I suppose we need to start with AJ Allmendinger testing a car for Roger Penske as the biggest curveball we were thrown yesterday. Whether it's just for a warm-up race or two plus Indy or turns into something more, it will be fun to see Allmendinger get a chance to run Indy in a top ride. His ChampCar season in 2006 was nothing short of magical, and what he's done in sports cars needs no introduction. Fans can discuss his NASCAR career foolishness with the banned substances, but what I see is a very good multi-discipline driver who's going to get to test himself against an entire series' worth of multi-discipline drivers. That's going to be a blast, assuming the initial test goes well.

-If we’re being honest, EJ Viso’s first few years in IndyCar did not help his reputation at all. He was a fast driver, but extremely prone to mistakes and having the “DNF” by his name after a race. However, we’ve seen a big change in the driver, even if a lot of fans still cling to the concept of the 2007-2010 Viso. Yet last year, he only had 3 DNFs, and only one from a crash. I firmly believe Viso is fast enough to win in IndyCar, and could have a much better season this year. He just needs to keep showing Hopefully, he has someone in his ear during the races keeping him grounded, which I think was successful early last year when Jimmy Vasser was in that role.

To the fans who don’t care for him, Viso might always be seen as just some reckless ride buyer. But I think he’s more than that, and I think that’s what we’ll see this year. Call me on it if I’m wrong.

-I wrote an article for INDYCAR Nation this week on James Jakes, and how this will be his best opportunity yet to prove what he can do. I was a bit surprised to see him land that Rahal seat, especially since it looked like it was going part-time, but it will definitely present us with an interesting comparison this year: Graham Rahal, one of the most well-known drivers in the Series, and Jakes, who has had a fairly quiet two years so far in IndyCar.

-The situation doesn’t look too hot for Ryan Briscoe just now. Only the Coyne seats, and potentially one at Dragon, remain. Most folks still expect Justin Wilson to be in the first Coyne car, so that narrows the field even more. Might Briscoe be an Indy-only sort of driver this season? It certainly seems that way more than it did a week ago. We’ll have to hope we have some positive late-breaking news for him.

-This week has been a reminder of just how quickly our perceptions of what’s going on with silly season change. All we can do is hold on and try and ride the wave.

-I knew it--you're ready for some for some Mazda Road to Indy (MRTI) updates, aren't you? Well, if you weren't paying attention this week, USF2000's pre-season Winterfest event kicked off this week. Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing is looking strong again, with Californian Neil Alberico finishing first in the first three races of the week. Teammate Scott Hargrove finished P2 in each of the first three Sebring rounds. Rounds 4-5-6 will take place at Palm Beach this weekend, and can be followed via live timing at the USF2000 website.

So, can anyone catch Cape Motorsports this year? No doubt they look formidable, but let's not forget guys like Andretti's Garret Grist, JDC Motorsports' Stefan Rzadzinski, and Belardi's Peter Portante, among many others. Cape has the upper hand now, but the other teams will do their best to get their licks in. It won't be easy, and it's going to require both speed, patience, and a bit of luck. But it can be done.

-Finally, I had my annual 5 minutes of celebrity on Trackside's Blogger Night last night. If you missed it, you can take a listen here. I was third in the batting order. Thanks to Kevin and Curt for having me on.

Have a great weekend, and we'll catch up on Monday.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Watch That IndyCar Count

Given the somewhat surprising announcement of James Jakes to the 2nd Rahal Lanigan Letterman seat for this IndyCar season, it's probably time for an evaluation of just how many cars we're going to have full-time for the 2013 season.

With Jakes' #30 Rahal car now confirmed, that leaves us with 22 confirmed entries:

Honda: 10
Ganassi: 3 (Dixon, Franchitti, Kimball)
AJ Foyt Enterprises: 1 (Sato)
Barracuda (BHA): 1 (Tagliani)
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: 2 (Rahal, Jakes)
Schmidt Peterson: 2 (Pagenaud, Vautier)
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: 1 (Newgarden)

Chevy: 12
Andretti: 4 (Andretti, Hunter-Reay, and Hinchcliffe, with Viso coming this week)
Dragon Racing: 1 (Bourdais)
Ed Carpenter Racing: 1 (Carpenter)
KV Racing Technology: 2 (Kanaan, de Silvestro)
Panther/Panther/DRR: 2 (Hildebrand, Servia)
Penske: 2 (Power, Castroneves)

We're left with the following rides to be confirmed:

Both Coynes (Honda), the 2nd Dragon (Chevy), HVM (unknown, but probably dependent on the Katherine Legge saga at Dragon Racing), and the possibility of an add-on at one other team (Davey Hamilton is still out there, after all). Depending on what happens with HVM, we could be at anywhere from 25-27 entries this year. If we get 26, we'll be on par with 2012. That's impressive, given the fact many folks thought we'd lose around 1-2 net entries this year. That could still happen, but I like odds much more than I did a week ago to get to 26. Right now, it seems as if the main item we'll be waiting on is how the entire murky business with Legge and Dragon plays out.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Long Offseason: Hope

All autumn and winter long, I am surround by football fans.

Now, I don't mean to disparage (American) football. It's a fine sport, and I still love watching college ball, even if my excitement for the pro game has deeply faded in the last few years. But it dominates thought and conversation around the water cooler, so to speak. Meanwhile, as an IndyCar fan, I can't get a word in edgewise, with only the odd bit of Silly Season drama to liven things up. There are days for the IndyCar fan in November and December where it seems as if you last had a good discussion about racing or watched a race sometime back in 1975. We all know the offseason is too long and too quiet for fans wanting speed and action, and driver announcements only do so much, as fun as it can be to speculate. It's a slow, painful wait for the IndyCar manic.

But now?  Now, even with snow still on the ground and in the forecast, things are starting to turn. The Rolex 24 has come and gone. The Super Bowl, with all its overhyped commercials and excruciating micro-analysis, is done. If you see it as just a waystation on the way to IndyCar, then that fact just might bring you some hope.

Slowly but surely, IndyCar is coming back. This week, the Mazda Road to Indy sees USF2000 lead off with its preseason Winterfest Championship, six early races that will gauge much for the season to come.

I love the Kansas City Royals (don't ask) and Butler basketball, but I don't wait for those things like IndyCar. The waiting for those things is bearable. But for IndyCar, all other sporting events--the NFL, Bowl Championship Series, even the interminable NBA schedule--are just reference points counting down for the one sport that matters to me.

Spring is a long time in coming in IndyCar, but never doubt it will arrive. Just know you aren't alone in your waiting and mania.