Monday, April 29, 2013

Power: A Year Since Victory

Exactly one year ago today, Will Power would do something he had done on two previous occasions--win the Sao Paulo Indy 300. Victory was something that had come to Power no less than 18 times in the years between 2006-2012. Yet after last year's Sao Paulo race, Power, who had been ridiculously dominant on road and street courses, would begin his longest victory drought as an IndyCar driver.

One full year. It seems unbelievable, but a driver who has often looked to be in another league on the twisty courses has seen victory elude him time and again. Oh, there have been plenty of pole positions--Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore, last season--and some close chances, but time and time again, Power did not finish where we all expected to see him.

It's probably a testimony to Power's skill and dominance that it doesn't seem as if it has been that long for Toowoomba's Favorite Son, but it has. Team Penske's top street and road course driver, on a schedule filled them, shut out of victory circle.

There's certainly many theories as to why Power hasn't won in a year. Perhaps the most likely reason, however, is that the Haves and Have-Nots of IndyCar are closer together than ever before. The Foyts and the Coynes have shown they can win, and the Andrettis and Ganassis remain almost always formidable. While Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi still have teams that are expected to maintain excellence, it isn't as if there are only 5-6 cars that can win. Most weekends, it seems more like 20. And yes, neither of the "Big Two" have won this year, between Andretti Autosport's continued resurgence and the Foyt crew grabbing a big win at Long Beach. It's a different world. The giants remain, but they are as vulnerable as they have ever been.

Power will look to Brazil to ease the victory drought.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Perhaps the most jarring sight has been seeing Will Power fight in traffic, and dropping backwards as challengers push their way past. That's not to say Power hasn't had some bad breaks, such as JR Hildebrand's "distracted driving" bump in the season opener, a fuel-saving strategy gone awry at Barber, or Tristan Vautier being told to gun it right into his car's backside. But there seems to be the lack of that "wow" moment, where you realize Power is in his element, and has totally checked out on the rest of the field. For whatever reason, he's not dominating.

Perhaps more alarmingly, through three races, Power is bogged down, tied for P8 in the standings, behind such key title rivals as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, and teammate Helio Castroneves. That's not an insurmountable lead, especially when we know Power can reel off a strong of top finishes, but it is concerning. He's normally working on a solid points lead at this point in the season.

The unpredictability we've seen this year has contributed to some exciting racing, and it's nice not having one driver or team monopolize the standings. Yet Power represents something: he's a record-breaker, a clear favorite, and sort of a gauge of how your favorite racer is faring. IndyCar is better when all the drivers are in the mix for a win, though to be fair, there hasn't been a weekend yet where it's felt like Power was out of contention. And really, the season is still young, there's time for Will to make up ground. But the clock is ticking.

If he's going to get that next win soon, one would suspect it will be this upcoming weekend at Brazil. He's won every single race IndyCar has held at Sao Paulo, and it's certainly his sort of course. If Power wants to get that title he's just missed out on for the last few seasons, Brazil could represent a massive step in that direction. Despite the year-long drought, Power has to be the favorite this upcoming weekend. He's simply too good for the next win not to come soon. Team Penske and Will Power will have their moment once again, but you can bet with what we've seen in IndyCar this year, it won't come easy.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Engines and Tenderloins: Q&A With Tristan Vautier

Tristan Vautier isn't just making some waves as a rookie in the IZOD IndyCar Series; he's also a remarkably nice guy. I reached out to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver to do a Q&A about his season so far, Honda's engine performance, being a teammate with Simon Pagenaud, and couple of other areas of interest, to boot. Spend your Friday doing a bit of light reading about IndyCar's newest driver:

Tristan, thanks again. How would sum up your rookie experience through the first three races of the season?

TV: It's been a great experience so far. I've definitely been able to realize how much it takes to put a good result together at this level of the sport. The field is incredibly competitive and tight, and you really have to be on it and put things together to be in the high part of the lap time charts. Then if you achieve this, it takes even more to convert it into a result during the race, because so much happens and you can't do one mistake; pitstops, restarts, traffic, tire degradation, push-to pass management...

The job out of the car is a lot more than before as well. The debriefs are longer, it's technically more demanding, you have more PR work, so you have to adapt your routine to all of that.

As a Honda driver, do you think Honda's dominating performance at Long Beach should quiet any talk that Hondas were at some sort of deficit versus Chevy?

TV: I think that the talk should have been made quiet from the start, and Long Beach shows for it. Honda and HPD have shown over the last 20 years how good they are. Yes, there were two Chevys on pole for the first two races and Chevy got the St. Pete podium, but people always start to talk and make conclusions too quickly. I've never been worried and I couldn't be happier than with the Honda engine.

Before the season started, did you have any doubts you were ready for IndyCar?

TV: I never really wondered whether I was or not. I had won the lower level so it was logical to step up. I knew how much I would have to learn and I still have a lot to learn.

(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Simon Pagenaud is obviously a driver that's extremely well-respected in the paddock and stands alike. How would you describe the communication and feedback between you two? Does it help to share a common native language, even when you're discussing more technical terms?

TV: We get on really well. We've been knowing each other for a while as friends and working together has been very good since the start of the season. We can have different feedback sometimes and don't always want the same from the car so it makes it interesting. Simon is extremely fast and has a lot of experience so I'm very fortunate to have the chance to benefit from that, especially as a rookie.

Sharing the same language is fun but in terms of work it doesn't really change anything.

Obviously you don't want to overlook São Paulo, but have you started mentally preparing for your first Indy 500?

TV: No. I'm incredibly excited about the Indy 500 but we have been so busy working on the road courses ahead of us than I've not had time to think about it too much. I try to take it one step at a time.

Speaking of Indy, have you tried one of the Track Tenderloins yet, or do we need to get you acquainted with the delicacy that is an Indiana pork tenderloin?

TV: I haven't! I'd love to try it.

You received a nice ovation from the fans after climbing out of the car in St. Pete. Have you been surprised at all at the rather warm reception you've gained from the fans as a rookie?

TV: I've been very impressed by how nice and welcoming the fans have been to me. It's always good to meet them during the autograph sessions and exchange a few words. The ovation in St Pete was an amazing feeling.

As last season's Firestone Indy Lights champ, what do you think of this year's field--anyone you see as a favorite to win this year's Lights title?

TV: I think that the field is of great quality this year. Yes, there are not many cars, but if you look at how many fast drivers are entered you realize how high the level is. As a Schmidt-Peterson guy, my favorite would be any car of our team!

I think a lot of folks have seen the Bass Pro video with you and Pags. Any hunting or fishing trips scheduled in the near future, or what other ways do you spend any leisure time you might have?

TV: To be honest, with all the traveling we do I think my favorite hobby is to chill out at home! I enjoy going to the beach when I have spare time, it relaxes me. But usually most of the time I have when I'm home is spent working out and doing stuff around racing!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Indy 500: The Race To 33 (34?) Entries

We’re at the time of year where there’s no shortage of speculation on just which drivers and teams are going to round out our Indianapolis 500 field. Every season, it seems, there’s a fair amount of worry that 33 entries will not be achieved for Indy. This is where the old adage “Keep Calm And Carry On” is valuable. There will be 33 entries for Indianapolis, and possibly 34. Will there be 34 for sure? No one is certain, though Honda and Chevy did anticipate 17 engines each. That doesn’t mean they’ll all be used, but at least we know they’re available for prospective entries. Honestly, we're at 30 right now with the Michel Jourdain announcement, and will be at 31 once Coyne announces his ride as expected. 33 is not a stretch, and 34 is at least feasible.

Below is a list of the drivers most commonly considered in the hunt for one of the last few seats for the Indianapolis 500. Please bear in mind that this is simply an aggregation of public statements and what we think we know. Anyone who’s followed the chaos before Indianapolis knows that everything can change on a deal at the drop of a hat. The best advice is until you get an official announcement, or actually see a driver’s butt in the driver’s seat, have a healthy amount of skepticism.

Townsend Bell: Bell has always been considered an oval specialist, and he’s been a regular program addition at Indy since the merger. The last three years have seen him in a Schmidt car, though this year there was some speculation he’d end up with Ed Carpenter’s crew. With Carpenter stating a second car for Indy looking unlikely, that shifts the suspicion back to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as far as a possible destination. Bell is apparently still scrapping to put together what is needed for a ride this year, and Sam Schmidt has said the needed sponsorship is still only 50/50 at this point. We’ll see if the two work this out, and if Bell is indeed their driver for a third SPM car. Sarah Fisher's team has also been brought up a couple of times, despite the hour being very late.

Bryan Clauson: Clauson’s Indy program came together last year with the help of the USAC/Road to Indy scholarship, which helped him land with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. This year, there’s been no public awarding of the scholarship (yet), but Clauson appears to be working hard on a late deal that would get him into a ride for a sophomore attempt at Indy. The 3-time USAC National Drivers Champion’s relationship with Tony Stewart might earmark him for a Chevy, though that remains to be seen. Don’t count him out yet.

Jay Howard: Howard was extremely vocal about having a program for Indy at this point last year, though his partnership with Michael Shank Racing famously did not work out due to the entire engine supply issue. This year, he’s been pretty quiet, only mentioning that he’s still working on it. Frankly, there’s just not a lot of info to go on here. Cavin stated he saw him possibly in a Schmidt ride, but there’s nothing concrete there, either. If we do see him this year, it'll be as a third Schmidt entry, it would seem.

Buddy Lazier: Let’s qualify this one: the only place the Buddy Lazier rumors seem to be coming out of are from some posters at TrackForum, albeit some that are pretty reputable in nature. Still, there’s been no other updates on any sort of Buddy Lazier effort, aside from it allegedly being tied to the chassis from last year’s Fan Force United effort. That’s pretty slim pickings, for now. As Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee said on Trackside last night, we'll have to see if the funding actually comes through.

Jaques Lazier: The other part of the “out of left field” brotherly duo in the 500 rumor mill, Jaques seems the more concrete of the two right now (relatively speaking). We know he was at Long Beach, he’s talked with Chevy, and he apparently has a new chassis he’s bringing to the discussion. If Carpenter doesn’t run another car and Jaques does manage a Chevy deal, that leaves teams like Panther/Panther-DRR as a possibility, or possibly a brand-new effort with support or in conjunction with an existing team. I would have laughed at you three weeks ago if you said Jaques Lazier would be added for an Indy run this year, but not now. That doesn't mean it will happen, but it's at least a possibility.

Pippa Mann: Mann has sent out several optimistic tweets in the last week or so, but nothing specific to her Indy 500 ride. She has been mentioned as a possibility at Dale Coyne, but there’s been no mention from Coyne as to a deal in the third car. Coyne is pretty famously close-mouthed, so aside from knowing there will likely be a third Coyne car, that’s as much as we can officially say at this point. With any luck, we'll hear something official soon on the ride.

Buddy Rice: Rice is always mentioned as a possibility to return for Indy, and of course there’s always talk of him lining up once more at Panther Racing. Yet with a second Panther car looking questionable and given the other individuals with possible funding sniffing around for a ride, it seems fairly unlikely we’ll see him this year. Still, you never know. So long as there are ovals and Buddy Rice is kicking, he will be a part of the rumor mill.

Of course, you'll hearing a couple of other names--John Andretti, Tomas Scheckter, Wade Cunningham  (Larry Foyt has said it's very unlikely there will be a third Foyt car)--and you can take those as you will. But given the number of names currently swirling around rides, 33 cars will not be an issue. I don't believe 34 will, either. But either way, sit back, cross your fingers for your favorite drivers, and see how it plays out over the next two weeks.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Long Beach Notes; Or, Satooooooooo!

Several items may or may not have transpired in my household immediately following the checkered flag falling on the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

-I may or may not have engaged in a number of wildly exaggerated fist pumps.

-I may or may not have yelled "IN YOUR FACE" in the general direction of my (hopefully) understanding and tolerant wife.

-I may or may not have performed an impromptu, remarkably uncoordinated victory dance.

To say I have been waiting for a Takuma Sato victory for a long time would be a massive understatement. Oh, he's been close before--such as the final of lap of last year's Indy 500, which needs no painful recollection here. We know Taku is fast, but it was always that elusive bit of actually finish a racing, and putting the entire package together.

Well, it's a different world this morning. We Taku fans, who hung in there through some frankly absurd and cringe-inducing moments, finally have our holiday. The nation of Japan, home to some truly wonderful IndyCar fans, finally gets a winner. AJ Foyt Enterprises gets back in Victory Circle after a decade away, and the IndyCar landscape seems as jumbled and gloriously chaotic as it ever has.

At last.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Here are some other notes from an absolutely wild IndyCar weekend:

-Graham Rahal finally got his good finish on the season, and hopefully that's a confidence builder. He seemed really aggressive, and you get the idea that the rough start to the year was messing with him a bit. With Sato grabbing his victory, is Rahal next?

-Justin Wilson kept the Honda dominance going on the weekend, and starting from the back didn't seem to bug him much. Really, a lot of the Hondas starting in the back--Tristan Vautier, Wilson, Simon Pagenaud--showed a really nice ability to move through the field. I think Long Beach bodes well for engine competition for the rest of the season--when your top four finishers are all Honda, that's a really good sign.

-What a weekend to forget for Andretti Autosport--incidents for James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and EJ Viso made this one a prime candidate to be swept under the rug for that team. Still, Marco Andretti managed a P7 finish, which is remarkable, considering I think every time we heard about him it was in regards to either damage or some sort of issue he was having. Marco might not be content with seventh place, but it 's much better than it could have been, especially considering he started P25. He just needs to keep up the good results from week to week, and he'll get that next win. He's also still very much in the title hunt right now--ahead of all his teammates, in fact.

-It wasn't just Andretti having woes--let's not kid ourselves, this was a messy race. Just about every title contender had to wince today, and from Tony Kanaan to Sebastian Saavedra, there was carbon fiber flying aplenty. You're going to have those weeks, and we were probably due after how clean Barber was. Some races are just about swapping out that front wing, getting back out there, and salvaging what you can. For a good chunk of the field, that's exactly what this weekend represented.

-Dario Franchitti got the good finish and points he needed this week, but just as importantly, just about everyone else had a really lousy day. Yes, Helio Castroneves still leads in points (by just 6 over Sato!), but Dario moves from dead last to P20 in points, with the capability of jumping even further with a decent result at Sao Paolo. He's not out of this just yet--only within 17 points of the Top 10, for example.

-If you look at the Long Beach result (revised after Oriol Servia's penalty was rescinded Sunday evening), Dario isn't the only one who got a much-needed outcome. Scott Dixon managed to come back from probably one of his least favorite race weekends to improbably salvage a P11 and stay on course in the title battle. Rahal managed to grab a podium and make a nice points jump. JR Hildebrand also got on track, and is close on points with Simon Pagenaud and Orio Servia--two other guys making a good show of it Sunday. On the other hand, Will Power's title chances took a bit of a hit, with some ovals coming up after Brazil. James Hinchcliffe fell all the way back to P10 in points. 

-The Firestone Indy Lights was extremely messy, with half the field involved in contact of some sort. Carlos Munoz won, which was another bright spot for Andretti, and Gabby Chaves was a clear P2. Sage Karam jumped from the back of the field to finish on the podium. You had to feel for Peter Dempsey, who probably had a car that could have challenged up front, but was collected early. Props as well to Matthew Di Leo, who recovered from a spin and started laying down some nice lap times enroute to finishing P5--the last car running, but running nonetheless. Sunday, that was an accomplishment all by itself.

-We've had three races now, and each of them has featured fierce competition, great on-track action and passing, and suspense until the very end. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say IndyCar has been absolutely great for the fans so far this season. It's simply the best racing going right now.

-Other Notes: Until the incident with Will Power in the pits, I would have bet on at least a Top 5 for Tristan Vautier. Gotta blame his wheelman for that one...There were entirely too many commercial breaks over the last 30 minutes of the race broadcast. If they have to do them, side-by-side is better than nothing, but it felt like we'd have 15 seconds of race time before jumping back to Terry Bradshaw hawking diet programs...For the love of Pete, just sing the National Anthem normally. We don't need different words, we don't need a phantom "h" thrown in front of words ("the bombs bursting in HAIR"). Just belt it out...Simona de Silvestro had a quiet but quality drive to record another Top 10 on the year...Sad to see Mike Conway's day end with electrical issues. He's so much fun to watch at Long Beach...Here's hoping for the best in regards to Tony Kanaan's right hand, hurt in the late accident Sunday. Still waiting to hear extent of the injuries...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Storylines: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

Well, it’s tough to go wrong with a race at Long Beach, isn’t it? IndyCar has had two great races to start the season, and will be carrying a pretty good head of steam into one of the premiere street courses on the schedule. There are no less than six previous Long Beach winners in Sunday’s field (even more if you count Atlantics and Lights). Looking back over the years, this is a course that has often produced a hodgepodge of winners. If you’re going to have someone break out for an unexpected victory, this is one of the places to look for it.

Here are just some of the storylines to watch heading into the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

Andretti Tries To Make It 3/3: Obviously, you can’t talk about the season so far without discussing the big success Andretti Autosport has found. Will we see more of the same Sunday? It’s very possible. Ryan Hunter-Reay always is up for this race, and James Hinchcliffe has been great here. Marco Andretti may be a bit more of a question mark; this course has not been kind to him overall, and EJ Viso’s Long Beach results have also been up and down. If Andretti can fight through the admittedly strong competition this week and get the win, expect a) a very happy Michael Andretti, and b) increased ulcer medication for Chip Ganassi.

Dario’s 250th Drive: Dario Franchitti will be making his 250th IndyCar start this weekend, and I’m sure he’s hoping it goes better than 248 or 249 did. Granted, a header failure doesn’t fall at Dario’s feet, but there’s been the perception for a while now that he is simply not in a comfortable spot right now. If he wins here as he did a few years ago, that perception could go out the window very quickly.

Penske Pride: As mentioned last week, we’re coming up on a year without a Will Power victory. He’s a two-time winner at Long Beach, so obviously that could change in a hurry, but for as dominant as he’s been in that time frame, he has no wins to show for it. Meanwhile, teammate Helio Castroneves is leading in points, but will have plenty of competition from drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, and Ryan Hunter-Reay if he wants to stay up there. Let’s not forget, Penske will also have AJ Allmendinger in the #2 car this weekend—his last race before Indianapolis.

One-Off Wonder: Mike Conway won the 2010 Grand Prix, but of course more recently ended last season by stepping out of the Foyt car and writing off any idea he’d ever compete on an oval again. However, he’s back with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for a Long Beach one-off, and he very well could turn some heads. Conway is extremely fast when it comes to Long Beach, so his participation could spell a very good result for RLLR.

Pags and T-Vau Show: Simon Pagenaud drove a great race here last season, coming up just short against Power. His pairing this year with rookie Tristan Vautier has seemed to be chock full of potential, and it’s not hard to imagine either driver have a very good weekend. We’re going to begin to get a gauge of where the Schmidt team is this year in terms of consistency; let’s see if either of the French Connection lads can pull off the big win here.

Speaking of France: Let’s not forget, Sebastien Bourdais has also won on these streets. Dragon Racing is always a tough one to puzzle out in terms of how their weekend will go, but Seb should be in good shape so long as he has a halfway decent car underneath him for the weekend.

Can Kimball Keep It Going?: We’ve seen mid-pack drivers have good results before, only to fade into the background the following week. That said, Charlie Kimball is not a mid-pack driver, or at least, he shouldn’t be, not with the expectations that come along with a Ganassi ride. CK was brilliant last race, and it would seem that his progression of the past few years is finally bearing fruit. The question is, can he do that on a regular, consistent basis? Long Beach will be the first test of precisely that.

Lights Update: There will be a few new faces in Lights this weekend, with Canadian Mikael Grenier taking his turn in the car for Team Moore, and his countryman Matthew Di Leo making his Lights debut with his own team. We’ll see how his MDL Racing does in their first outing, but Di Leo had some very impressive moments last season in USF2000. Meanwhile, Jack Hawksworth enters Long Beach 12 points ahead of Carlos Munoz and two dozen or so ahead of Peter Dempsey and Sage Karam, so we’ll see if he can keep his lead with the oval Firestone Freedom 100 looming next month. Also, if you missed Wednesday’s interview here with Munoz, be sure to check it out—he’ll be making his rookie attempt at the 500 next month, so you’d better get acquainted with him.

Livery Watch: Tony Kanaan is back in the very busy Hydroxycut scheme this week, while Mike Conway will be sporting the “blu” e-cigarette colors. Oriol Servia is back in the now-familiar Charter Communications green-and-blue livery, while Tristan Vautier will have Lucas on his sidepods. Josef Newgarden will have Hartman Oil on the side of the #67 car for this one.

Pole Prediction: You know, I’m feeling the Andretti power. Let’s go with Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Winner Prediction: I think Hinch gets it done this week, but Penske won’t be shut out forever.

Dark Horse: Just for fun, Josef Newgarden.

Don’t forget, fantasy picks are due by Friday 10am Eastern! Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Andretti’s Muñoz Ready For First 500, Lights Title Run

Carlos Muñoz hasn’t been around IndyCar very long, but he’s definitely moving up in terms of name recognition. The Colombian prospect won twice in Firestone Indy Lights last season, and is in the middle of a championship fight in this year’s Lights campaign. He’s also preparing to run in the #26 car for Andretti Autosport next month in a qualifying attempt for the Indianapolis 500. If you haven’t been following him yet, you’ll definitely want to keep tabs on him leading into May.

Carlos recently sat down for an IndyCar Advocate interview to discuss both his upcoming 500 rookie try, his Lights season, and just what impact conditioning has on a race car driver:

First, congrats for your big win at Barber two weeks ago. This was your second Lights race at Barber—did you approach the race any differently this time around? For that matter, are you approaching the season any differently?

CM: I approached it with a “first day” mentality—my goal has been to learn as much as I can. I knew last year, more or less, I had to be in Lights two years to help the learning process. The second year, I knew could be “my year”. I’ve felt a little more pressure to perform this year. I thought the team did a great job through all the preseason tests, and I’ve really worked on my overall athletics—I’m much more fit this year, both mentally and physically.

Let’s go into that for a minute. How much does fitness training play into your results?

CM: A lot, I think. I’ve been doing a very heavy regimen this year—biking twice of week, lots of swimming and running, plenty of karting and gym sessions—I feel much stronger. After the races at Barber and St. Pete, I felt so much better compared to those races last year. Really, that was my first year with longer-distance races. I came from Europe, so we don’t have one hour races—over there, you’re looking at a 30 minute race. Plus, most of the tracks don’t have long stretches where you can afford to rest—it is a constant effort. So, especially coming over here, it’s very important to have that fitness.

As far as learning in these Lights cars, what’s probably the biggest thing you’ve learned in these last two years?

CM: Really, you have to get comfortable, and gain confidence. If I look at the start of last season versus how I ended last season, I finished really strong. I know exactly what the car does, where the limit of the car is, you know? I am very happy I had the experiences I did in Europe, because it helped me adapt to a different sort of car quickly. That’s part of being a driver. Yes, the car is way different than what I had in Europe, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that it isn’t a one lap race. It’s a long race; learning that, I’m able to wait and overtake better than last year, and I’m also thinking out my race better. Of course, there’s also learning ovals, which I’ve really loved, and have done well on. Overall, I’m very comfortable and happy with the racing here in America.

Muñoz will be making his IndyCar debut at Indy.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Right now, you’re in a battle with Jack Hawksworth and some other quality drivers for that Lights title. People talk about the small size of the Lights field, but what about the overall quality?

CM: For sure, there aren’t big numbers in there, but it’s a case of if not quantity, at least quality. There’s Sage Karam, who’s a big American prospect, right? He was very strong in Star Mazda. There’s also Gabby Chaves—also from Colombia—and he was excellent last year. Jack Hawksworth is also a big talent, and he seems just so comfortable in the car and is with a very good team. Then there’s Peter Dempsey, who’s a fast driver with a lot of experience. He’s been really quick and I’ve been impressed when I see him race.

Aside from your Lights duties, you’re going to be attempting to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie next month. What’s your approach for Indy as a rookie with what should be a very strong Andretti team this year?

CM: I tested two weeks ago in Texas Motor Speedway. The DW12 felt really good, and I thought I was strong and pretty comfortable. Of course, the team helped me out a lot. I think we’re going to have a really good car. I know I’m a rookie, but I’m going to have one of the best teams behind me. That gives me some pressure, but I’m really comfortable coming into the month, too. I’m just going to go step-by-step and not set any big goals for myself just yet. We’ll see how the month goes, and then I’ll make my goals for the race.

You were around Indy last year for the Firestone Freedom 100, and got to see some of what Indy is all about. How does the experience at Indy compare with your experiences in Europe?

CM: Well, the Indy 500 is the biggest race in America, of course. Last year, I was really impressed with the number of spectators and it’s just a different race than anything I’ve seen. Between the length of the race and seeing them going 100% to the finish after that last pit stop, I just had so much fun watching the race—there was so much overtaking, pushing to the end, and great racing. Just as a spectator, it’s better to see the 500 than any other race.

Also, at Indy, the fans are so much more involved. In America, they are so inside the world of racing compared to Europe. They care a lot about the teams and drivers, and I think the drivers care about them too—since that’s the whole point of racing.

You've got your one race deal for the 500 with Andretti Autosport. Is it too early to start looking ahead to your plans for 2014? It seems like you have a full IndyCar season as your goal, right?

CM: I think it's too early to discuss next year. My main goal is the Indy Lights championship, and I think I've started quite good in that regard. I can't afford to distract my mind from Lights until it's time for IndyCar. People have asked if I'm distracted for the Indy 500, and say no, because this week I'm focused in on Barber or Long Beach. I will focus on the 500 when it's time for that. I think this year, we can do a great job in Lights and in the 500, and then move on from there as far as a full year.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In Wake of Boston Tragedy, 500 Festival Mini-Marathon Continues

In the aftermath of this week’s horrific Boston Marathon bombing, large-scale events all over the United States are facing questions in regards to their safety and contingency planning. In Indianapolis, the city is readying to host an influx of visitors for the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon on May 4. The event is the largest half-marathon in the U.S., and has been a major lead-in to and part of Indy’s all-important Month of May for over three decades.

In addition to the Mini, the 500 Festival puts on some 50 other events during the month, which reach hundreds of thousands of fans and guests. Activities range from concerts to kids’ festivals. Still, with the Boston Marathon so fresh in everyone’s mind, it is understandable there would be questions specifically regarding the Mini’s safety preparations.

Reached for comment, 500 Festival Communications Manager Megan Bulla confirmed the event is expected to be heavily attended.

“The Mini-Marathon is sold out for the 12th year in a row with 35,000 participants,” verified Bulla.

That’s 35,000 souls and their families likely wondering just what will be in store for them next month. It is a time of uncertainty, but the 500 Festival does have planning in place for these sorts of contingencies.

“Unfortunately we live in a world where these conversations and planning must take place,” Bulla explained. “Our plan covers a variety of scenarios- from weather-related issues to man-made disasters”.

With information coming out of Boston still of an uncertain nature, and specifics still hazy, Bulla said that any amendments to the Festival’s current safety plans are still to come.

“We review our security plan annually for each of our events. No changes have been made in the plan so far. However, as more information becomes available about what happened at the Boston Marathon, we will review to ensure our plan is as updated as possible. The safety of our participants, spectators and volunteers is our upmost concern”.

Indeed, it would appear the 500 Festival and organizers of the Mini are acutely aware of the desire for public reassurance and information. As of Tuesday, their website featured a front page link to a statement which states their “safety and security plan is the result of years of planning and it mirrors that of the 2012 Super Bowl which was put into place prior to last year’s race”.

Ultimately, while the mourning in Boston continues, sports event planners and fans alike are taking stock of their plans and preparations. The 500 Festival and the Mini-Marathon are no exception. It’s natural to be worried or apprehensive in the wake of Boston’s tragedy, but the 500 Festival appears to be taking the calm, measured approach to the situation. The Month of May in Indianapolis and all it entails will proceed, but with caution throughout.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Long Beach Looms Large For Dario

As we move into another IndyCar race week, the individual listed as dead last in IndyCar points is one extremely unfamiliar with those surroundings. Yes, Dario Franchitti, your 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011 IndyCar champion, has had a start to his season to forget.

There was the mental flub exiting the pits in the St. Pete opener. Then there was a decent start to the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama before header issues ensured another early exit. Certainly the latter result can't be laid at the feet of Dario, but the end result is the same: Dario at the bottom of the standings, a whopping 69 points behind points leader Helio Castroneves.

Of course, one would expect no matter how the next two races go down, Dario will be a threat to win at Indianapolis, where he's among the best ever. And even champions can have off weeks and still win the IZOD IndyCar Series championship; Ryan Hunter-Reay shook off a disappointing P27 at Indy and a disastrous P24 at Mid-Ohio last season and still grabbed the title.

Yet here's the thing; Dario has never had a first two weeks of a championship year where he's finished worse than P7 in either of the first two races. Last year, where he seemed a bit off (finishing P7 in the standings overall), his first three results were a P13, P10, and a P15 at Long Beach. It would seem a hot start is a recipe for a Dario title, and that just hasn't happened this year.

So what can we expect from Dario at this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach? It's difficult to say. Dario won here in 2009, finished P12 in 2010, was on the podium in 2011, and finished the aforementioned P15 last year. It seems to be an even/odd sort of performance pattern for Franchitti when it comes to Long Beach.

Is Franchitti pushing too hard? Are the engine woes Chip Ganassi complained of affecting him? Does it have to do with not being completely comfortable in the braking setup with the DW12, or possibly even less tangible reasons? Ultimately, perhaps the best explanation is simply this: it only takes a couple of issues out of the hundreds or thousands of things that have to go right each week for an IndyCar driver to net a bad result. There's no overarching reason; it's death by paper cuts.

No, technically, it isn't too late for Dario Franchitti to join a title discussion that currently seems focused around Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and a few others. Yet as we head into Long Beach, no one can doubt the clock is indeed clicking. A win or podium would do much to potentially salvage his season; another poor result, early as it is, would likely be an indicator that a fifth title run is simply not in the cards.

Friday, April 12, 2013

For Mann, It’s Indy 500 or Bust

The confirmed car count has slowly crept up for this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500, but the world’s biggest race still has room for several drivers trying to make the field. It’s always a scramble to see who ends up getting to make an attempt to qualify for the 500, and this year is no exception. With 34, possibly 35 cars expected for Indianapolis, there remain key seats to be filled ahead of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Fans always have their favorite drivers they anxiously watch to see if they’ll strike a deal, and one of the most prominent these days is Pippa Mann. The British Indy 500 and open wheel veteran is hoping to get another crack at the big race, after originally qualifying for it in her rookie attempt back in 2011.

And what a year 2011 was. The Indianapolis 500 had a very deep field, with several veteran drivers in no less than seven entries failing to make the field on a wild Bump Day. Meanwhile, Mann, working with an underfunded Conquest Racing team that was a clear underdog to make the race, hung in that day to qualify. That gritty effort not only put her on the grid for the biggest stage the sport has, but also made her the first British woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. She managed to run the entire race despite a broken hydration system, moving up 12 spots over the course of the day. For Mann, the memories and lessons of that month remain crystal-clear.

"I don't think anyone genuinely expected us to make the field in 2011 except ourselves," Mann admitted. "The biggest thing was the overwhelming sense of relief. If I didn't make it in in despite the odds stacked against me, I didn't think I would probably ever get another shot."

Mann’s attempt at Indy came after two years in Firestone Indy Lights, where she honed her craft, going on a tear in the last half of 2011, racking up 3 poles and a victory on the oval at Kentucky. She won against competition that included current IndyCar drivers James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Sebastian Saavedra, and others. She was able to make the jump to the “big cars” after that season, ultimately leading to her being a part of the Centennial Year of the 500-Mile Race.

Mann spent last season working on sponsorship—a common refrain for many drivers—but came close to a deal for Indy, after pounding the pavement at Indianapolis Motor Speedway all May long. Her racing gear was in the back of her car, and it seemed as if a dramatic Bump Day attempt was a possibility. Yet, the deal couldn’t come together, and it was a rough experience for one who fought until the last minute to make it work.

"Last year, having to stand and watch, was agony," Mann confides. "I would probably describe it as a similar feeling to having your heart broken. You invest so much time, so much belief, so much work - and then everything is ripped from underneath you. It's not fun."

For racers and fans alike, it’s hard to express just what the Indy 500 means by even the most expansive vocabularies. Yet Mann, who knows the view from both the starting grid and sidelines, isn’t afraid to try.

"There was never a chance that I was going to stop working after missing out in 2012," emphasizes Mann. "Never a chance. I knew that a year not racing would make it even harder to try and put together the budget in 2013, and that has proved to be the case so far, but giving up was not an option. What does Indy mean to me? I think about it last thing at night before I fall asleep, and first thing every morning before I wake up."

Of course, the racer’s job is never done. Remaining in top athletic condition, working hard on potential sponsorship deals, and staying abreast of changes in racing technology and regulations are always priorities. Still, Mann has gone further, staying extremely involved with the loyal IndyCar fan base on Twitter, giving garage tours to fans on race weekends, and even trying her hand at broadcasting on NBC Sports Network and radio. She also works with Glass Hammer Racing, an organization dedicated to getting young women involved in motorsports. If there’s a way to stay involved and reach out to fans, Mann is on it. Whatever the event in the IndyCar community, Mann is among the most present and visible of the Indy alums, whether it’s near her home in Indianapolis, or further afield on a race weekend. That’s paid off with plenty of well-wishers, and a lot of IndyCar Pippa fans hoping the right sponsor comes along.

So now, a new wrinkle has been added to the age-old tradition of the hopeful driver stalking Gasoline Alley, hoping to be able to prove themselves at the most legendary race course on Earth. It’s the addition of the media-savvy driver, one who is connected with the fans on Twitter and Facebook, who frequents “Tweetups” and works to keep those same fans involved and invested in the driver’s journey.

Will that, plus her tireless groundwork for funding, be enough for sponsors to jump on board? Mann certainly hopes so.

"Trying to put together the budget has been incredibly tough, almost as tough as it was in 2011 when I was coming out of Indy Lights, and no one knew my name," Mann admits. "How close am I to a ride? I'm closer than I was this time last year, and either about the same or closer again than I was in 2011. But things are not done yet, nothing is final. I have been closer to putting things together for other races than I am now, and suddenly had them fall apart at the last minute. Everyone thinks that this scenario is the racing driver's urban myth, but it's not. It's something that has happened multiple times to nearly every one of us."

This should be a banner year for the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indy 500. The Dreamworks movie Turbo focuses on the 500, and looks certain to be a summer blockbuster. TV ratings have crept up so far this year, and the DW12 car and IndyCar’s field of top all-around racers have meant excellent racing on the young season. This year’s Indianapolis 500 should accordingly be nothing short of explosive in terms of excitement. Mann is hoping she’ll get to add her own fireworks to the display. May is fast approaching, but Pippa Mann won’t stop pushing until she’s back in the car. For her, to take a note from this year’s oft-quoted Indy slogan, it’s “Indy 500 or Bust.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

IndyCar: The Era of Good Feelings?

In American History, there is a period of time known as the “Era of Good Feelings”. From about 1815 to 1825, essentially Americans were in a good mood, and fairly united in their goals and dreams. They’d fought to a draw in the War of 1812, had a morale-boosting victory at the Battle of New Orleans, and the country seemed to generally be headed in the right direction. Certainly things weren’t perfect—sectional disputes were never far from the surface, and there were economic transitional pains—but by and large, it was a happy time to be an American.

Some 200 years later, the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season could very well turn out to be remembered very much the same way. Sure, a nasty rebellion over aero kits or some spec on the DW12 could break out in the paddock tomorrow, but by and large, it’s been a far more placid group of drivers and owners than we could have expected. There seems to be a sense—finally—that it’s time to knock off at least some of the hue and cry, buckle down, and at least publicly, focus on what the fans want to hear about—actual racing.

Of course, none of that would matter if the on-track product were lacking in some way. Happily, that hasn’t been the case. We’ve had two races where the winner was very much in doubt through the closing laps. We’ve seen incredibly tight fields, with the traditional “Big Two” having to mix it up with everyone else. We have had tire strategy, (competitive) engine drama, a popular first-time winner, and an American champion continuing to perform at an extremely high level. From Marco Andretti to Simona de Silvestro to Tristan Vautier, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a driver that can absolutely light up the track at any given moment. The racing is full of wild cards, with nothing set in stone. Further, the coverage from NBC Sports Network has met with extremely favorable reviews thus far, with Leigh Diffey and Company proving to be a very good match for the broadcast.

We can cautiously also say interest in terms of on-site attendance and TV ratings are nudging up, and the Series (along with the Indianapolis 500) has its best promotional opportunity in two decades with this summer’s release of the potential blockbuster movie Turbo. If there were a time to bring the excellence, drama, and excitement at the highest level possible, it would be this season.

Granted, two races does not an era make. This bit of writing could go up in smoke next week if a bomb drops. And let’s not kid ourselves—we’ve got plenty of challenges ahead for INDYCAR. Much like America in 1815, there is much left to be decided in terms of direction and the ultimate fate of this enterprise. From the Firestone Indy Lights car count to Ryan Briscoe’s part-time status, pessimists can find their targets. Yet if you hang around the regular social media hangouts, even some of the usual cranky suspects just seem in a better mood right now. It’s something other fans I’ve chatted with have keyed in on, as well. There's been a change in the air and vibe around IndyCar, and frankly, I'm loving it.

Can that be kept up for the length of the schedule? Well, not every race will be a barnburner—there will be a few average races in the mix. But by and large, so long as IndyCar keeps focusing on the on-track fireworks—the only sort of fireworks fans not engaged in misery tourism want—there’s no reason to think that the overall excellence we’ve seen so far this season won’t prevail. We're cheering the racing, not waiting for the other shoe to drop. That's the way it should always be.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Barber Storylines: The Great Duels Continue

If you were going to script the first two races of the IZOD IndyCar Series, they couldn't have gone much better than the first two races have. We've had two great battles for the win now, and Ryan Hunter-Reay's duel with Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves will not soon be forgotten. I'm still in shock the race ran green for nearly the entire length, with only the early yellow to mar it.

Fans have been treated to some of the best in street course and road course racing, and it's always good to have an example where you can tell your friends "that's why I love this sort of racing". Not every race will be a blockbuster, but we've seen some great races so far this year, with the sort of dueling fans would love to see each and every week. After both races--and this is just as a fan!--I have felt drained, emotionally wiped out. That's a sign that a) I'm a giant weenie, but also b) fan excitement and investment. I certainly hope I'm not alone on that.

Here are a few other mentions on the race weekend at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama:

-Obviously, Andretti Autosport is in a great place right now. For a number of years, Penske and Ganassi were teams 1 and 1A, with Andretti seemingly just behind those two in terms of performance. Well, if last week didn't convince you, this week should have: Andretti isn't just back, but through two races, they've staked their claim as the team to beat. Seem like a bold statement? That's how it is until it's proven otherwise. Given how that team is clicking right now, I could see them giving everyone all they could handle at Long Beach, too. When Ryan Hunter-Reay is on his game, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

-A massive thank you to NBC Sports Network for their coverage this weekend. The cars just "looked" fast out there, and the camerawork was excellent. They also hit on items relevant to how the race was playing out and strategy throughout the afternoon, and used replay as needed. It was a slick-looking broadcast, and just what IndyCar needs on there.

-Two notes on commercials: I have absolutely no problem with NBCSN promoting both F1 and IndyCar races heavily during their broadcasts (great, keep it going!), and the "sign a waiver" Mario Andretti commercial is tremendous.

-That's four times now Scott Dixon has been runner-up at Barber Motorsports Park. I made mention yesterday about how he's the "Bridesmaid of Barber", and that seemed to be the running joke yesterday evening, with Dixon himself using the same sort of reference. What isn't a joke is Dixie's driving, which is absolute top form. If any Honda has a chance at the championship this year, you can bet it's Dixie.

-Speaking of Honda, they didn't win Sunday, but between Dixon, Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson, Tristan Vautier, and Josef Newgarden, they certainly didn't have any trouble competing. It seemed as if some of the contention around their slow start at St. Pete disappeared this week, and that's a good thing. I don't believe anyone would contend that Honda (particularly Ganassi) didn't have a shot at this week's race, which is what we want to see.

-Dario Franchitti started off the weekend slow, but looked to be at least in good form for the actual race before a broken header ended his day early. That's clearly something that's going to need to be looked into before Long Beach, along with a host of other mechanical gremlins we've begun to see pop up this season. Meanwhile, Dario sinks to dead last in points, behind both Ana Beatriz and AJ Allmendinger. There's still plenty of time for him to find his form, but this was no way to start a campaign.

-We might as well round out the Ganassi drivers, and that means discussing Charlie Kimball. CK led Sunday, and though he ultimately fell short of a podium, he drove his car like a bat out of hell for most of the race. His late-lap pass of Will Power was a thing of beauty. Kimball is under a lot of scrutiny to perform well, given the team he's on, and he came through with flying colors this past weekend. The trick is going to be seeing Charlie get those Top 5s and Top 10s every week, not just a couple of races per year. If drives the rest of the year as he did Sunday, he shouldn't have any issues with that.

-The streak is over! Josef Newgarden recorded his first Top 10 finish in IndyCar at Barber, and was it ever overdue! Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing didn't qualify particularly well, but Newgy ran a controlled, patient race--something the fans have been waiting to see. It's a good result, and the sort to build upon.

-Helio Castroneves' quest for that elusive series championship is going well through the first two races. Two podiums in a row will not hurt his cause any! I also enjoyed the promoting of the Turbo movie he was doing throughout the weekend. That movie represents the most mainstream exposure outside the Indy 500 we've had in decades. It needs to be pushed, and tied in, and referenced, and embraced. It helps that it sounds as if it's going to be a great, talent-laden film.

-Marco Andretti seemed a bit peeved at his P7 finish (the way he was moving at the start of the race, I had him figured for a podium), but after his woes to open the season in recent years, I should think that would seem pretty great. Much has been made of Marco's work on his craft in the offseason, but I'm curious to see where he is in the troughs as well as the valleys. He's still right in the title hunt, so we'll see which Marco we get for Long Beach. It's never a bad thing to have an Andretti fighting up front, though.

-How great was James Hinchcliffe on Sunday? That sounds like a funny thing to say about a guy who finished dead last with mechanical issues, but his exaggerated yawn-and-stretch routine after being stuck in his car for 80+ laps was a total riot. Hinch took his situation with good humor and grace after the race, and showed he might be the only guy that can make the highlight reel of a race even when he hardly runs any of it.

After about 10 minutes, they realized Hinch was still stuck.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
-Until the late stall in the pits, AJ Allmendinger looked set for a Top 10 finish. He was definitely disappointed after his P19, but the good news is he'll get another shot at it at Long Beach. AJ will catch on quick, but I'm sure there's still the question of a comfort level there. I'm still very happy to see him in the Series, and think he'll give some folks a run for their money before the season's done. It's a process.

-Carlos Munoz won a pretty quiet Firestone Indy Lights race, which puts him only 12 points behind Sam Schmidt's Jack Hawksworth (who finished P2) in the Lights title chase. We're used to Schmidt's drivers having their way in this series, but Munoz ran just about as dominant a race as possible at Barber. This race should be very tight going into Indianapolis next month. Sage Karam also warrants a mention, for essentially finishing his race on nubs of tires and managing to hold onto P4 against several very strong challenges.

-May we take just a moment and appreciate what sort of athletes we're dealing with in the IZOD IndyCar Series? For two hours Sunday, there was no yellow flag respite, no break for these drivers, as they used every bit of their physical training to wrestle theirs cars around a demanding road course. Towards the end, you got the sense the drivers were simply exhausted, as if it were the last round of a heavyweight boxing match. You begin to understand why working with folks such as PitFit Training is so important. Conditioning and endurance certainly plays its part.

Other Notes: Great work by Mark Jaynes, Pippa Mann, and Nick Yeoman on the Firestone Indy Lights radio broadcast. Superb work in keeping things flowing and the fans informed...the Rahal team can't catch a break, with Graham Rahal and James Jakes both having woes Sunday. Rahal running out of gas on the last lap was especially brutal. Sometimes, a team just seems snakebit...It was a shame to see Simona's car so loose after a good weekend leading up to the race. Just not a good weekend for KV Racing after a strong effort at St. Pete...We are coming up on an entire year since Will Power won a race. Crazy, isn't it?...EJ Viso's P12 probably won't register on most radars this weekend, but he's in the Top 10 in points after two races, and has looked very comfortable this year...Justin Wilson drove very aggressively on Sunday, and was absolutely awesome to behold. We forget just how good he is at times, just because he isn't in a high-visibility ride...congratulations to Tristan Vautier on his first IndyCar Top 10. Judging from his performance so far, it will be the first of many...IndyCar Fantasy players, I'll try to get results tallied by mid-week! Thanks for your patience!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Storylines: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

When the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama made its debut in 2010, there were a good many complaints about the suitability of the track for IndyCar, with arguments made that it was doomed to be a parade with very little passing. “Beautiful place,” folks would say, “but not a good match for IndyCar”.

Thankfully, with last year’s race, much of that talk has dried up. Last year’s Barber race was the first big inclination many of us got that the DW12 was going to give us tremendous racing. Dogfights between Dario Franchitti, Marco Andretti, and Sebastien Bourdais (in a Lotus, no less!) were just part of the fun, as the field sliced and diced their way all afternoon. Will this year’s race be as good? We can only hope so. Here are some of the main storylines heading into Barber Motorsports Park this weekend:

Dinger Debut: Of course, in what is bound to be a hot topic, this weekend marks AJ Allmendinger’s debut for Penske Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He’s definitely got the right team for his first effort, but expect him to be under a microscope in terms of performance this weekend. Realistically, Dinger will probably be just slightly off the pace, but as tight as this field is going to be, any difference could be magnified far beyond its actual significance.

Penske Perfection: Speaking of Penske drivers, Penske Racing has won every single IndyCar Barber event. Will Power has an excellent chance to rebound from his disappointing St. Pete result, but he’ll have to contend with Helio Castroneves, who is also a former winner in Alabama and looking for a title run.

Fast Andretti Start: Despite Ryan Hunter-Reay battling a sick car, the St. Petersburg opener went amazingly well for Andretti, with James Hinchcliffe grabbing a hard-fought victory, Marco Andretti grabbing a podium, and EJ Viso rebounding for a resilient Top 10 result. There’s not much sense in doubting Andretti is a top-tier, “Big 3” team at this point, but if they have another great weekend, that could be a sign that they’re ready for another title fight. They’ll also be looking for Ryan Hunter-Reay to record a good result, but he’s never recorded a Top 10 at Barber. Will this be the weekend that changes?

Marco’s Mojo: Marco Andretti was aggressive but cool last week, and seemed to be in a good place mentally after his offseason work in that direction. He’s had two Top 5s at Barber, so if his campaign of improvement is going to take another step forward, this is a good chance for exactly that.

Honda Power(?): Depending on who you spoke to at St. Pete, Honda engines either had enough to win (Foyt) or were well off the mark (Ganassi). There’s no doubt Chevy looks to have the stronger teams right now, but Hondas aren’t exactly bringing up the rear of the field, either. Either Honda will turn up some better results at Barber, or we’ll get more hilarious bellyaching from Chip Ganassi. It’s a win/win, really.

Tire Trickiness: Firestone brought what was needed to St. Pete, as we saw reds and black handle very differently, with massively different dropoff rates towards the end of a run. Tires are one of those strategy items that can really liven up a race; ask Simona de Silvestro. If we get this sort of tire differentiation and characteristics throughout the season, we’ll be in a good place.

Bia In For Coyne: Ana Beatriz was announced as in the second Dale Coyne Racing Car (#18) through Indianapolis. That gives the seat some stability, though from the looks of things at St. Pete, the car itself could use a bit of that. Best of luck to Bia; hopefully she’s able to get a nice string of races together. Still, may we please see Stefan Wilson at some point?

Livery Watch: Dario Franchitti’s car morphs into a Charlie Kimball car-lookalike this week, as Banana Boat features prominently on the sides. Helio Castroneves will have some Turbo advertising on his AAA machine, and Tony Kanaan will again have Mouser Electronics featured on his ride. Oriol Servia will be in the blue-and-green Charter livery for Panther DRR, and Justin Wilson switches to the Boy Scouts of America livery for Dale Coyne for the remainder of the season.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: It’s a Firestone Indy Lights weekend, which means the small but prospect-laden Lights field will again be contesting before the big cars take to the track. Jack Hawksworth won his first Lights race, but Carlos Munoz, Peter Dempsey, and Sage Karam will be among those working to ensure he doesn’t win his second. Former Schmidt Lights driver Victor Carbone looks to be in with Team Moore, as American Ethan Ringel’s contentious, brief, and unpleasant time with the team looks to be at an end.

Fun Fact: Graham Rahal’s P4 here last year was his top result for the year on a road or street course (he also finished P4 at the Edmonton airport course).

Pole Prediction: Will Power. He’s so very good here.

Winner Prediction: We’ll split the Penskes this week, and take Helio for the win.

Dark Horse Pick: Oh, I don’t know. It’s awfully tough to go against Chevy this week, but I’m thinking Tristan Vautier could have a very good day here—he seemed to have a knack for it when in Lights. If that’s too far-fetched for you, Simona de Silvestro finished P9 here in 2011, and has looked pretty impressive with that Chevy engine.

Don’t forget, your IndyCar Fantasy picks are due by 10am ET for Barber! Have a great weekend, and enjoy the race!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

IndyCar Fantasy Barber Picks Reminder!

Just a quick reminder to make sure you get your picks in for IndyCar Advocate Fantasy Racing by Friday at 10am ET for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama! If you missed out on Week 1, don't worry; there's plenty of time to catch up.

You can submit your picks or learn more about IndyCar Fantasy Racing here. Good luck this week!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Indy 500 Rookie Field Shaping Up Nicely

There have been years where the Indy 500 has barely had any rookies (1979), and other years where there's been a bumper crop (1919, for example, saw 19 rookies start, the most if you exclude the inaugural race). Some have won the race, while others are a one-and-done sort of deal.

Rookies are special at the Indy 500; it's the only race on the schedule that demands a regimented, strict approach to passing Rookie Orientation (ROP), and there have indeed been a fair share of drivers over the years that did not make it past that step. More importantly, though, rookies are a wild card. Be they experienced ex-F1 drivers or a Mazda Road to Indy graduate, no one quite knows how they'll respond when they need four laps to put a car in the field, or how they'll react on a rocket into Turn 1 at IMS. An Indianapolis 500 rookie can change the course of a race, can surprise and disappoint, and can confound even the best of open wheel experts.

While this year's rookie field is not 100% official, Conor Daly's signing with Foyt yesterday seemed to be the last of the expected rookie signings for this year's Indianapolis 500 (though I wouldn't complain if Stefan Wilson was somehow able to show up). It's an intriguing group that will take to IMS on April 11 for ROP. You have:

Daly, the son of a famous former Indy 500 and F1 driver, who seems to have been mentioned in American open wheel circles for years now. He's still got his heart set on F1, but it's great that we finally get to see one of the most high profile prospects out there show his stuff at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing--and with a legendary name as the car's owner, to boot. He grew up at this race, and now it's time for a homecoming.

Carlos Munoz, the Colombian Firestone Indy Lights driver, fast but unpolished, making his debut on the biggest stage IndyCar has while also running the full Lights season. Like Sebastian Saavedra last year, he'll be running the Firestone Freedom 100 as well as hopefully the big race itself. As the fifth Andretti car, he could have some serious speed on his hands.

Daly should be a fan fave at his home race.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Tristan Vautier, the seemingly default Sunoco Rookie of the Year and as poised and clear-headed a rookie as you'll find. The young Frenchman already won over fans with a spirited performance in the first week of the IndyCar campaign; will that still be the case when he charges into Indianapolis for the Schmidt Peterson crew?

AJ Allmendinger, former ChampCar driver who missed out on the Indy 500 due to the open wheel split. Now, nearly a year after his troubles in NASCAR, he returns, to a rookie 500 debut that would have been in 2004 in a kinder world. Known for being able to drive open wheel, tintops, and sports cars with equal skill, he'll have the power of Penske behind him for his Indy effort.

Nothing precludes another last-minute rookie addition to the 500 field; one could conceivably still do their ROP at a later date (see Legge, Katherine last year). Still, if this indeed is the rookie class we have, I'm pretty excited to see what they can do. It's worth remembering that every legend of Indianapolis was once a rookie. This May, we could see a flash in the pan, or the beginning of a new legacy. Rookies, be ready to show your stuff.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Month Until May

I hope everyone had a pleasant Easter over the weekend. Part of mine was spent attending the Easter Egg Hunt, hosted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was very crowded, but the IMS crew did an excellent job keeping things moving, and there were more than enough eggs for all the kids. My son unfortunately missed out getting to meet Scott Dixon, but cheers to not only Dixie, but Alex Tagliani and Ed Carpenter for showing up, too.

Bad days at IMS are few and far between, and this was no exception. Despite a morning chill in the air, there were signs of life. A couple of maintenance guys were working on some metal piece near one of the scoreboards on the backstretch, and here and there you could tell some spring cleaning was still underway. Fans often ascribe human attributes to IMS; following with that, you could this weekend felt like the gal was drowsily beginning to wake up from a long winter's sleep.

Perhaps it's because I received my tickets on Friday, but I was very aware of just how quickly the Indy 500 is creeping up on us. Yes, there's three races between now and then, but there's also a Rookie Orientation Session in just ten days. I wait all year for the 500, just as I know many of you do, but I feel as if it is sneaking up a bit this year.

As of today, there's a lot of we don't know. We know we'll probably have three rookies, and Conor Daly will likely become official at Foyt sometimes this week, but we don't have a firm car count yet (34-35?), and there are plenty of other questions. Is Michel Jourdain coming back to Rahal for another shot at Indy? Does Tomas Scheckter have anything that isn't vaporware? Will Pippa Mann get a deal done in time done for her second shot at the 500? Will John Andretti find a spot for one more go at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?

I know, I know: there's plenty of season to go before Indy. But we can't pretend as if those dates in May aren't circled in red on the calendar. And if the season continues in the same fashion as the opener, we're in for no shortage of wild storylines heading into May. As ready as I am for Barber, Long Beach, and Brazil, it isn't too terrible of a sin to take just a teeny peek towards 16th and Georgetown.

One month from May, we have few answers so far, but we know they're coming. The deals should be announced in the next few weeks, and the remaining blanks will be slowly filled in. As I left IMS Saturday, with my kids chomping down on candy in the back seat. I took a look towards J Stand, my home on an upcoming day in May. Even as it was receding from view, it was still edging closer.