Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Enjoying the Turbulence

The teams of IndyCar take to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course today for an open test session, and it’s a far different field than we saw at the start of the year. James Davison in the Coyne #18. Oriol Servia in the Panther #4. Luca Filipi in the #98. And that’s not taking into account the big engineering and crew changes at teams from Dragon Racing to Rahal Letterman Lanigan.

To a point, that’s expected. This is not a sedate sport, which lack of performance can always wait for offseason tweaking. From the Coyne Carousel to Panther Racing’s talent competition, there’s been no shortage of drivers in and out of cars.

On one hand, I have a huge amount of respect for guys like Tag, whom I’ve mentioned before is tremendous with fans, and JR Hildebrand, who still has no shortage of potential in racing and beyond. But you’ll excuse me if I show a bit of excitement about the replacement drivers and some of the late silly season news kicking about.

There’s something great about seeing any driver “get their shot”. As a baseball fan, I sort of equate it to seeing a prospect called up later in the season. You don’t know whether the driver will be the open wheel equivalent of a Ryne Sandberg, getting a quick look that will turn into a long, happy career, or a Ron Wright, there for a single race and nothing more.

I understand the odds, of course. Generally, replacement and one-off drivers don’t blast out of nowhere and stun the world (Mike Conway’s Detroit excellence notwithstanding; he’s an old street course pro, in any case). If you’re jumping into a struggling or second-tier team’s car and finish the race, that’s usually a pretty good day. But hey, they might set the world on fire. You just don’t know. Maybe James Davison or Luca Filippi goes like a bat out of hell, and it’s the beginning of a great run. Maybe it’s the only time their name will be announced. An IndyCar career can go 15 years, or 15 minutes, and no one is quite sure just when the timer will go off.

That’s the allure of IndyCar’s version of the “September (August?) Call-up”. There’s the unpredictability, the unknown, the new/strange sponsors, the thought that a driver is finally getting the call they’ve been working so hard to ensure comes through. There’s heartbreak, too: seeing a driver run out of funding, wadding up a car or being wrecked early in what could be their only race of the year, that can be positively brutal to watch. Even if is in defeat, though, they’ve done something most of us bench jockeys can only dream of. Whether they’re a high note or a footnote, they’ll be in the history books.

That brings me to this: I’d also be lying if the stats nerd in me wasn’t just a bit excited over some of the one-off entries as well. There are plenty of fans who love trivia, and among that tribe it’s fun to be able to mention that Dillon Battistini ran at Kentucky with Conquest Racing in 2011, or Adam Carroll’s two-race stint with Andretti in 2010. Open wheel trivia and stats folks eat that sort of stuff with a spoon.

So while the revolving doors aren’t necessarily a positive development, and while one-off entries might seem insignificant compared to the main contenders, there’s still some enjoyment to be had therein. To get folksy for a minute, you can’t plant a crop if you don’t till the soil. So bring us your James Davisons, your Luca Filippis, your Lucas Luhrs, your Stefan Wilsons. Announce those names that no one expected to hear, or that no one is quite sure about. Let’s see how they do, and enjoy the good aspects of some late-season turbulence.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Who's Ready To Move Up To IndyCar?

Which current or recent Firestone Indy Lights drivers are ready to step up to IndyCar?

That's the question that will likely be on a lot of minds as we enter the last part of the IZOD IndyCar Series season. Looking at the crop of prospects from the last few years, there are definitely some drivers ready to make the jump--while for others, it's not such a sure thing. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most common names from Lights that could consider a move up to the big cars:

Carlos Munoz: Essentially a done deal. Whether or not he wins the Lights championship seems almost immaterial at this point, as he seems all but certain to be full-time at Andretti Autosport in IndyCar next year. Munoz's run at Indianapolis was nothing short of spectacular, and he has a bright future--although like anyone else, he'll have his rookie bruises and bumps along the way.

Gabby Chaves: The Colombian-American hopeful has come on strong in Lights, and is a sharp, young talent with a lot of productive years ahead of him. He's only a single year removed from Star Mazda though, so it would behoove him to hang around and make a Lights title run, while gaining some more experience. Still, there's no denying his aptitude behind the wheel.

Jack Hawksworth: If you had asked me a year ago, I thought J-Hawk was absolutely a shoo-in for the top level of open wheel racing in America. But a Firestone Indy Lights season with plenty of growing pains--and some dismal oval outings--has caused some reservations at the next level. Hawksworth clearly has talent, and it sounds as if he's all about trying to move up next season. He might need some adjustment time, and would definitely benefit from more oval experience.

Jorge Goncalvez: The Belardi driver showed flashes of excellent a couple of years ago, but seems tentative and a bit regressed these days. If he has what is needed to excel at the top level of INDYCAR, he certainly hasn't shown it lately.

Peter Dempsey: One of the most hard-luck drivers in recent Firestone Indy Lights memory, Dempsey's amazing Firestone Freedom 100 victory was hopefully the sort of breakthrough he needed. The 27 year-old Irish racer should definitely get his chance at the next level after learning and enduring in his own special Lights Purgatory. Time for someone to give him the chance he needs.

Dempsey: Ready for Primetime
(Courtesy IndyCar Media. Image by Jim Haines)
Sage Karam: Karam has exceeded expectations in his first year of Lights, and is in the middle of a fun fight with Munoz for the Lights title. Karam has IndyCar-level talent, but if he doesn't win the Lights title, returning in 2014 for another crack at it could be instructive and helpful. Either way, he'll be a lot of fun to follow in the years to come.

Stefan Wilson: Wilson hasn't been a full-time Lights competitor since 2011, and since then has been close to getting a shot in IndyCar a couple of times, it seems. We'll see him with Dale Coyne Racing likely at Baltimore this season. Wilson should be very ready to take care of business at the next tier of the sport.

Zach Veach: Ziggy is a young driver who knows what he wants, and has proven remarkably adept at securing sponsorship and the art of self-promotion. I would say he needs at least another full year in Lights to hone his craft, but I'm also betting we might see him in a one-off in IndyCar next year--possibly Indianapolis. As one of the youngest drivers on this list, he certainly has time to make things happen.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Your Guide To James Davison Fandom

I’m excited for next week’s Mid-Ohio race, and not just because IndyCar is returning after having been off for the past 8 months or so (ok, so it was a few weeks; that’s not how it feels). We’re getting to see the IndyCar race debut of James Davison, too.

That might seem like a strange thing to get excited about—after all, Davo doesn’t have a huge following compared to some other drivers, he isn’t on the top fan lists of “drivers I want to see in a ride”, and he’s making his debut in Dale Coyne’s 2nd car, which has been a bit feast-or-famine for the most part of the year. But there are some very good reasons to be excited about James Davison finally getting his first chance in the IZOD IndyCar Series:

-He’s a ladder guy! That probably doesn’t matter to some of you, but before the Mazda Road to Indy was officially a thing, Davo went through a year of Star Mazda, a year of Atlantics and two in Indy Lights, finishing runner-up in 2009. Then…he had to wait. And wait. And wait. He’s done sports cars the last few years, but he’s tested IndyCars, and always just sort of hung around the sidelines, waiting to get that chance.

-He’s been an absolute boss at Mid-Ohio, winning the last two races he had here in Lights (including one in some of the strangest circumstances you’ll ever see).

-He’s an Indianapolis winner. No, really—he won the US Grand Prix while he was in Formula BMW Junior Series, during the years that event was held at the Speedway road course.

-He comes from a pretty cool racing family. His grandpa, dad and uncle were racers (his grandpa won the Australian GP four times!), and his cousins race in the always-fun V8 Supercar series back in his native Australia.

-When he couldn’t make the jump to IndyCar (he was supposed to be moving up through Vision Racing in 2010 before they shut their doors), he did all sorts of things to stay involved in racing, including: working as a driving coach for Milka Duno (seriously), doing spotter work, driving in Grand-Am, and was even scheduled to drive in last year’s Indianapolis 3 Hours (the entry retired before he got his chance).

-“Davo” is a really easy nickname to remember. Try it, and sound like a casual, familiar insider!

-It will be really funny watching people accidently refer to him as “James Davidson”. Let’s see how many folks make the mistake either on a broadcast or in a written blurb.

So there you go. Now, when everyone gears up next week and starts talking about the Mid-Ohio race, you’ll be able to drop some casual knowledge about James Davison. “Oh yeah, Davo’s in the 18 car this week,” you’ll say in an offhand manner, as you go on to amaze your friends by telling them all about his background and racing history. Now, let’s go wish Davo the best as he gets to make an IndyCar debut that was a very long time in the making.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Changing Drivers

Generally I love reporting and commenting on news from INDYCAR, but every once in a while you get a bit of potential news that's tough to take. That's sort of how I feel with the news currently surrounding Alex Tagliani.

Let's be upfront: Curt Cavin, among others, is saying Tag will be out of the Team Barracuda Bryan Herta Autosport #98 for Mid-Ohio. Obviously, it's been a disastrous season for the team. They're out of the Top 20 in points, and it's been a depressing mix of poor luck and errors all season long. Quite often, they've looked nothing like the team we saw after they changed to Honda power next year. When a team struggles, either engineers or drivers are often nudged towards the exit, and for at least one race, that may well be the case for Tag.

Hey, if it happens, I understand. For all we love and sympathize as fans, it's a business. When the results aren't there, changes are going to be considered.

And yet...

I think of every time Tag has stopped to have a real conversation with my daughter. I remember his passion when I interviewed him, where a Q&A that was supposed to be 10 minutes long turned into the better part of an hour, as he spoke about how much he loved this sport, his opportunities, and every time he got to drive. I think of him taking the time to sign each and every autograph when he won the pole at Indy two years ago, and how he's one of the guys, along with Ed Carpenter, that seems to make it to almost every fan event in Indy and at other races. Even online, Tag is more than happy to chat it up with the fans. To put it another way, he wears IndyCar on his sleeve, 24/7/365.

Tag has never had a long run with a top-rank team, and his year-to-year results haven't always been consistently great. He was a journeyman for most of his career, and that's probably how it will end, too. But if I had the funds, yeah, I'd put him in a car for Indy. He's not afraid of doing every tiny little thing possible to coax as much speed as possible, and I'd know I'd have a guy who'd have no shortage of fire and passion--and be a great ambassador with the fans.

I understand some tough choices have to be faced by guys like Bryan Herta and Steve Newey this season and in the offseason, and it may well be that it means Alex Tagliani is on the sidelines. But I'll sure pull for him to get one more good opportunity before it's all said and done.

Monday, July 22, 2013

American Open Wheel Prospects Clean Up!

Well, I told you about the Pro Mazda weekend at MoSport, and reports from the weekend did not disappoint.

Although it's been Matthew Brabham's year thus far, he had no winner's luck this weekend. In the first race, Spencer Pigot passed polesitter Shelby Blackstock to win his first-ever Pro Mazda race. And what an opportune time to do so! Team Pelfrey, the team running Pigot this year, had been in the midst of a rough patch, to say nothing of Pigot himself. Still, as they say, victory is the best medicine, and both team and driver had to feel very good about this one.

For his part, Blackstock would get his moment on Sunday, when he got past Pigot and never looked back enroute to his first Pro Mazda trip to victory circle. That's a huge moment for a driver who has had a bit of a late start as open wheel prospects going, but has worked extremely hard to get better each and every step of his journey up the racing ladder.

So, with two Pro Mazda races over the weekend, we had two winners--two young American prospects, showing that they can win at this level. That's pretty big in a series where one driver (Brabham) had looked absolutely unstoppable until this weekend.

Now, chances are, Brabham is still your overall champion--he's still sporting a 50+ point lead. But there's no underestimating what a victory can do for a driver and a program. We saw it last year in USF2000, where Scott Anderson caught fire and brought home some splendid consecutive finishes (incidentally, the American Anderson also grabbed his first-ever Pro Mazda podium this weekend).

Pigot and Blackstock come from very different racing backgrounds; Pigot is a Team USA scholarship winner, a Skip Barber champion, and has been in motorsport since at least the age of 10. Blackstock is the son of a country music superstar, a latecomer to racing, who has as much experience in sports cars than anything. Still, both drivers have now proven they can win at the next level on the Mazda Road to Indy, and their future seems rather bright just now. Not every promising prospect will make it to Indy, but these two American potential stars are doing their part to make it happen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Pro Mazda Sort of Weekend

Just a quick reminder, if you're online this weekend, make sure to keep an eye out for news from the Mazda Road to Indy. It's a big weekend for Pro Mazda, as it stays in Canada for the Grand Prix of Mosport, a weekend along with ALMS, IMSA, and a couple of other series. Rounds 9 & 10 of the Pro Mazda schedule will be decided, with Race #1 taking place on Saturday, and Race #2 following ALMS on Sunday.

More than anything, this could be a coronation event for Matthew Brabham. The scion of one of the most storied racing families in the world, Brabs has been on a tear this year, and he can break Conor Daly's record of most Star/Pro Mazda series wins in a season if he wins a race this weekend. As last year's USF2000 champion, and this year's favorite to be Pro Mazda champion, this is a legacy driver intent on climbing the ladder, and will likely be in Firestone Indy Lights next year, continuing that charge.

Only one other driver has won a Pro Mazda race this season, and that's Diego Ferriera, who won the season opener. Since then, Ferriera has played a repeated runner-up role to Brabham, but it's not been for lack of effort. The young Venezuelan driver will be right there to pounce if Brabham falters in the least, and his Juncos team has won the last two MoSport races, to boot.

Shelby Blackstock is Brabham's teammate at Andretti, and has shown a good pace and solid improvement overall on the season. The Tennessee native is attempting to hold off Spencer Pigot for third in the standings. For his part, Pigot had some rough results at Toronto after some good finishes on the ovals, and needs to bounce back this weekend for Team Pelfrey. He'll be joined for the weekend by new teammate Dalton Kellett, a Toronto area native with USF2000 experience, making his first Pro Mazda start.

There are plenty of more drivers to be featured through this field--Zack Meyer, the young Ontario native who will look to pull off the big upset in front of a home audience; Juan Piehetra, who has recovered from a brutal start to the season to a podium in Toronto; and Scott Anderson, the American USF2000 graduate looking for a defining result in his first Pro Mazda season.

Hey, Twitter Folk!

You may already be following @ProMazda on Twitter, as well as such great Mazda Road to Indy follows as Junior Open Wheel Talent and Open Wheel World. If you're not, make sure you do. Additionally, here are five Pro Mazda drivers and INDYCAR prospects you'll also want to follow:

-Matthew Brabham (@mattybrabs)
Aforementioned Andretti Autosport driver and Pro Mazda points leader.

-Shelby Blackstock (@shelbilly)
Son of country superstar Reba McEntire, Andretti driver, and promising prospect.

-Zack Meyer (@zackmeyer66)
Meyer is a 20 year-old Toronto native and Pro Mazda regular, looking to make a big splash at MoSport.

-Spencer Pigot (@SpencerPigot)
2010 Skip Barber champ, 2010-2011 Team USA Scholarship winner, and Pro Mazda prospect.

-Scott Anderson (@ScottDKAnderson)
USF2000 multi-race winner and 2011 Skip Barber National champ, running his first year in Pro Mazda.

Ultimately, these are all young Mazda Road to Indy prosepcts driving their hearts out, hoping for a shot at the next level and IndyCar, and that's worth a follow in and of itself. You can follow along via live timing and scoring on the Pro Mazda website. Enjoy, the weekend, go see Turbo, and send some encouragement to the potential future stars of INDYCAR.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Will Turbo Place?

This year has not been kind to the summer blockbuster. Rather than gain record audiences at the box office, multiple "big" movies have failed, often miserably. "The Lone Ranger", for example, is on track to lose as much as $150 million. Will Smith's "After Earth" flopped for Sony, as did "White House Down". "Jack the Giant Slayer" performed horribly domestically, and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" was essentially stillborn. Last week, the $190 million pic "Pacific Rim" underperformed in its opening weekend.

Onto this stage (and opening today) speeds "Turbo", the second outing of the summer from Dreamworks, and a point of interest for all of INDYCAR and its fans. It is hoped that the movie, toy tie-ins, and resultant publicity and spinoff series will be a nice bump of some sort for the series and the Indianapolis 500 in particular. But with a budget of $135 million, can it succeed where other large-budget films have failed this year?

On the surface, it might not look super-encouraging; "Despicable Me 2" is still going strong, and Turbo has been projected to do a lukewarm $35 million in the opening weekend. But if anything can outperform in the summer, it's a family film, which can often jump big-time based on word of mouth. And two of the summer's biggest hits--"Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2"--were animated family fare.

Granted, the aforementioned two hits are both franchises, bigger names that have a legacy now in the theater. Turbo is brand-new, with new characters. If you have cable and your kids watch channels such as Nickelodeon, you know there's been no shortage of commercials trying to introduce the potential audience to the basic premise and characters. There's certainly been a strong ad campaign, and it's come not only from children's TV ads, but from involved companies like Firestone and Sunoco.

The movie reviews at the time I am writing this fall into the positive category by a good majority at the time I write this, but even the negative reviews have little vitriol for the film. That's a good sign, unlike "The Lone Ranger", which inspired hatred and negative press like few films I've seen. Even those who are lukewarm on the story seem to enjoy how the film looks, and that's important for a racing movie, even an animated one.

I certainly hope "Turbo" is a hit. Yet even if it's only a modest success in terms of the box office, a Netflix spinoff and some awesome racing toys should give the film a larger footprint than many of its 2013 counterparts. I know my family will be seeing it this week--the only question is, how many folks will join us?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Toronto Notes; Or, Scott Dixon Is A Magical Kiwi

-Well, whatever you feelings about the red cars of Ganassi, you have to admit we have seen nothing short of a dominating performance by Scott Dixon in the last week. Three victories in seven days, with Mid-Ohio next on the schedule? Helio had better watch out--that points lead is shrinking quickly.

-The first race was a mess, from the called off standing start to the disputed/reversed penalty on Dario (which, I believe, should not have been a penalty in the first place, though it was questionable). Lost in that a bit was a truly inspiring performance by Sebastien Bourdais, and a pretty good duel. Add to that another great drive Sunday, and Bourdais suddenly looks a bit revitalized. Could the recent changes at Dragon have salvaged their season? It's tough to tell, especially since Sebastian Saavedra still hasn't been any great shakes this year.

-As for the second race, it was one of those races that is just taken over by a single driver (Dixon, in this case). It was a much cleaner race than we normally see at Toronto, but it wasn't an instant classic, either. It was nice to see the standing starts finally go off. I don't think I'd want them every week, but it's nice to see them as something to make one or two races unique.

-What a disappointing weekend for James Jakes. He was so very fast at the start of the week, but after a 10-grid engine swap penalty for Race 1 and a late crash in Race 2, what looked to be a very big doubleheader turned into zilch. I still think I like him to grab a podium in one of the remaining races, but perhaps I'm being overly optimistic.

-The last restart in the second race was such a downer. It looked as if Ryan Hunter-Reay got a little aggressive, and Will Power and Takuma Sato also paid the price for it. That could easily finish RHR's title hopes, especially with Helio and Dixie not looking to set a single wheel wrong just now.

-Such a rough break for Ryan Briscoe. He looks good to be in the Panther car for at least the majority of the remainder of the season, and then he breaks his wrist, keeping him out for a few weeks. If he can't make it in Mid-Ohio, it will be very interesting to see if John Barnes goes with Oriol Servia, Carlos Munoz, or another direction entirely.

-Speaking of the Panther ride, Carlos Munoz didn't have a superb finish, but I watched his lap times closely, and was really impressed with how he improved over the course of the race. Whether or not he's the Lights champion, I think he's going to be ready to make the full jump to IndyCar next season.

-Looking at Firestone Indy Lights, Sage Karam is still only 8 points behind Munoz, and is still probably the only driver with a chance to catch him in the remaining races. However, Gaby Chaves is coming on strong, and Jack Hawksworth has essentially salvaged his season in the last couple of races. So while I'm still betting on Munoz or Karam, there are other competitors to make the end of the Lights season pretty intense.

-It's about 99.9% sure Matthew Brabham is going to be your Pro Mazda champion, and get that scholarship for Firestone Indy Lights. USF2000 is a bit more murky after Neil Alberico and Danilo Estrela won the races this weekend, but Scott Hargrove still has a 37 point lead over Estrela.

Other Notes: How did Dario Franchitti get away with only doing a single race lap on red tires? The minimum is two, isn't it? Turns out that rules is tossed out if it happens on a doubleheader weekend due to tire supply. OK, then...You knew that with Brian Barnhart subbing for Beaux Barfield this weekend, folks would be on the lookout for anything controversial. A quiet weekend on that front, it was not...Congrats to Alex Tagliani and Barracuda Racing on a hard-fought Top 10. More of that, please!...Tristan Vautier has looked pretty rough out on track for a while now. What are the chances of him returning with Schmidt for 2014?...Congrats to Scott Dixon, now P7 on the IndyCar wins list with 32. And he does it all so quietly..

Friday, July 12, 2013

Storylines: Honda Indy Toronto

It’s time to double up once again, IndyCar fans, as the Honda Indy Toronto features a pair of races this weekend. Helio Castroneves continues to hold off Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti in the title standings, but with double the points available, we could see a big swing this weekend. There’s plenty to cover, so let’s jump right into the weekend’s Storylines:

Weekend Rulebook: That's right, Race 1 in Toronto will mark the debut of IndyCar's standing starts, something that we'll see again later this year in Houston. It's worth noting this is the case for Race 1 only; Race 2 this weekend will be IndyCar's normal rolling start. Additionally, if the field totally botches the standing start (hey, it could happen), then IndyCar will segue into a rolling start. Will the drivers who came through the European feeder series have the advantage? That's the prevailing wisdom, but we'll see what surprises we get.

Conway Contends: Mike Conway is back with Dale Coyne Racing this weekend, and that’s excellent news for DCR fans. Not only did Conway school the field at Detroit with Coyne earlier this season, but he grabbed a podium at Toronto with Foyt last season. There’s another gear Mike Conway seems to find on some of the street courses, and if he finds it again this weekend, it could be trouble for the other teams.

Briscoe’s Back: From the sound of things, we’ll be seeing plenty of Ryan Briscoe with Panther Racing for the remainder of the season. It’s great to see Briscoe around, but he also has his work cut out for him; Panther has made it a rocky road this season, and the team could certainly use some stability and good results.

Last Year’s Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the midst of his title charge when he won here last season, and he’s again in the thick of the fight this year. RHR is getting to the point where doesn’t only need a victory, but needs to see where Mr. Castroneves finishes. As Helio has been the most consistent driver out there this year, any mistake has to be absolutely capitalized on.

Crew Change: Big changes this week at Dragon Racing, as Sebastian Saavedra's entire pit crew has been replaced. Will it make a difference on the beleaguered Dragon team? Saavedra has definitely suffered some setbacks in the pits this year, so it's hard to figure how it could be any worse. That team needs a big-time turnaround, and there's no saying what the spark could be.

Watch the Iceman: Well, well, well. In a year where we’ve heard so much about Chevy spanking the competition, who is that I spy in fourth position in total points? Why, that would be Scott Dixon. I’m going to share a secret we all apparently forget every year, as it appears we need continual reminding:

SCOTT DIXON IS REALLY, REALLY GOOD AT THIS WHOLE INDYCAR THING.

Dixie is 65 points back in the standings, with Mid-Ohio—a race he absolutely dominates—on the schedule right after Toronto. If he has another good weekend, we could be talking about him a lot more heading into the remaining race weekends.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: Carlos Munoz and Sage Karam are separated by only 4 points heading into Toronto, a race where Munoz found himself out of contention early last year, spinning twice. For his part, Karam needs to show he can beat Munoz on the twisties as well as the ovals. Also, don’t forget about young-owner driver Matthew Di Leo, who will be racing in Lights in front of a hometown crowd this weekend.

As a bonus, both Pro Mazda and USF2000 also will be at Toronto. Pro Mazda points leader Matthew Brabham has looked largely invincible this year, a trend he’ll hope to continue in Toronto. In USF2000, Scott Hargrove has opened up an absolute butt-whipping on the rest of the field, as Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing again go from strength to strength. Still there are a lot of drivers hoping to cut into that lead—good prospects like Wyatt Gooden, Garrett Grist, and Stefan Rzadzinski. Let’s see if one of the Canadians—Hargrove, Grist, or Rzad can get a win on their native soil!

Livery Watch: A few interest notes this week—Helio is in the Hitachi car again, while TK reverts to the Hydroxycut livery once again. We also get to see the always-awesome Dr. Pepper scheme for Marco Andretti, and Tristan Vautier is in a very bright Visit Florida livery. For Dale Coyne’s #18 entry, Mike Conway will pilot a orange-blue-yellow Sonny’s BBQ car. Fun stuff!

Somewhat Relevant Trivia: A Canadian has not won this event since Paul Tracy back in 2003. He remains the only Canadian driver to win this event.

Somewhat Relevant Trivia If You’re Into Rookie Stats: Tristan Vautier has not had a Top 10 finish since the second race of the season. That is a bummer.

Pole Prediciton: I like Scott Dixon to continue the Honda comeback here.

Winner Prediction: I get two picks for the doubleheaders, so let’s go with Dario for one and RHR for the other.

Dark Horse: You know, even though he was P2 last week and P2 at Toronto last year, Charlie Kimball remains an afterthought to a lot of fans. Let’s give him the nod this weekend.

Don’t forget about your Fantasy Racing picks—it’s a big points weekend if you choose well! Enjoy the racing from Toronto, and don’t forget, Turbo hits most theaters next week!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Look At The Leader's Circle

The Leaders Circle program, as it exists for IndyCar, isn't for everyone. Also known as TEAM money, it's just over $1 million per entered car that finishes high enough in the standings. In 2012, it went to the Top 20 cars from the previous season. For this year, it was expanded to 22 (the 19 highest-finishing entries from the previous year, plus awards for 3 other full-time teams). No one can be quite sure just what the cutoff will be for 2014, but the thinking is, Top 20 will be safe, at the least.

$1 million isn't going to fund an entry, but at a time where sponsorship throughout all motorsports is especially challenging, you can believe it can mean a big difference. So, where would the current crop of IndyCar full-timers stand if the season ended today?

The first thing to remember is that Leader's Circle is based on the car entry, not the driver. So, if I field the #00 IndyCar Advocate Racing Special and employ a dozen different drivers, all that matters is the total number of points scored in the #00 car. 

With that in mind, the Top 19 car/driver combos appear to be on pretty firm ground, and full-time for the remainder of the season, barring some crisis. Those would be: Castroneves (#3), Hunter-Reay (#1), Andretti (#25), Dixon (#9), Hinchcliffe (#27), Kanaan (#11), Pagenaud (#77), Wilson (#19), Power (#12), Sato (#14), Franchitti (#10), Kimball (#83), Carpenter (#20), Viso (#5), Newgarden (#67, points from his #21 at Indy will count towards the entry, too), Rahal (#15), Jakes (#16), De Silvestro (#78), and Vautier (#55). If your favorite driver or entry is in there, congrats, they're probably safe--but we'll need to revisit Simona and Vautier in a minute.

Where things get interesting is with the #4 entry of Panther Racing, and the #18 car of Dale Coyne Racing. 

To date, Panther Racing has had three drivers in the #4 car: JR Hildebrand, Ryan Briscoe, and Oriol Servia. Dale Coyne Racing has had Mike Conway, Ana Beatriz, and Pippa Mann rotating into the #18 ride. Counting only points scored in the aforementioned rides, the points shake out as followed:

Panther Racing #4
Hildebrand 79
Briscoe 57
Servia 39
Total 175

Dale Coyne Racing #18
Beatriz 72
Conway 85
Mann 21
Total 178

If we insert those combined entrant points in the standings, suddenly things look like this:

17) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing #16 190 points (Jakes)
18) Dale Coyne Racing #18 178 points (Beatriz/Conway/Mann)
19) Panther Racing #4 175 points (Hildebrand, Briscoe, Servia)
20) KV Racing #78 171 points (de Silvestro)
21) Schmidt Peterson Racing #55 158 points (Vautier)

So, perhaps the bottom of the order isn't as settled, after all! Granted, with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing currently on the sidelines, and with the usual shakeup due in the offseason, chances are these teams will all end up with some Leader's Circle funding. Still, you wouldn't want to chance it, would you?

How the rest of the season plays out for the two rotating-seat cars is going to be particularly interesting. Briscoe and Servia are likely to be joined by more tryouts, and Dale Coyne Racing still has events at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore to fill. Coyne also has Mike Conway to run Toronto and Houston, and if he unloads like he did at Detroit, that's a big plus for the #18 crew. For Panther, it's hard to believe the team is in this position, but they have not had much to celebrate since parting ways with Hildebrand (Servia's performance at Iowa as perhaps the lone exception).

Really, the entire field is still primed for some big shakeups from week to week, but the battle to finish as high as possible among the latter half of the Top 20 should be really interesting, especially as questions remain as to just who will be rounding out the rosters for both the 4 and 18 cars.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Poconotes; Or, Reign Honda

-What a difference a couple of weeks makes. After a dominant performance by Honda on fuel mileage and a sweep on the podium by the Ganassi crew, you certainly didn't hear any complaints about Honda Performance Development this weekend! It was exactly the sort of weekend HPD and Chip Ganassi Racing needed to have to restore confidence and keep this from being a "lost season". And don't look now, but Scott Dixon has crept to only 65 points behind Helio Castroneves for the title...

-After dominating the early part of the weekend, winning pole position, and leading the most laps, Marco Andretti had to feel absolutely destroyed that the best he could do was hold serve in the championship standings. Fuel strategy shortfalls, and the lack of even a single yellow after the first part of the race meant Marco was lucky to hold on to a Top 10 result. What looked to be a breakthrough sort of week is going to go down as another missed opportunity.

-Charlie Kimball was at his Charlie Kimballest, if that makes sense. He just very quietly, without fanfare, goes about his business, whether it's a Top 15, Top 10, or a podium. I really thought he might have something for Dixon at the end, but he just didn't quite have enough time.

-What a horrible mistake in the pits by Takuma Sato. It was bad enough he ended what was shaping up to be at least a Top 5 finish for Foyt, but he also knocked Ryan Hunter-Reay to 23 points behind Helio Castroneves in the standings. It was a disappointing mental lapse by Taku, and I say that as one of his well-wishers. It was hoped he was beyond such obvious errors, but apparently not. Still, at least he fully owned it when interviewed--not that it's any consolation to RHR.

-It was Honda's day, but you have to wonder how Tony Kanaan would have fared over the last pit windows had he not clipped his nose (note, ABC: not "front nose"; there's just one) when passing Scott Dixon. At least he can still win 2/3 of the Triple Crown if he wins the season finale, and that means a $250,000 bonus. I have a feeling that if the INDYCAR Triple Crown continues, it's going to be a Herculean task for any driver to accomplish in this era.

-I mentioned earlier about manufacturers and teams having the weekend they needed. Well, you can say the same of Carlos Munoz, who finally somewhat slowed Sage Karam's momentum on the ovals by winning the Firestone Indy Lights contest on Saturday going away. Karam still finished P2 after a good fight with Gaby Chaves, but he's now trailing Munoz by a mere four points heading into the Streets of Toronto next weekend. Stay tuned.

-There's just no disputing it: Pocono was made for INDYCAR, in all senses of the expression. It sounded as if everyone was happy with the crowd, and early returns seem favorable indeed. I thought the race was really enjoyable, with some good action and a healthy dollop of strategy and engine competition, and I can't wait to see IndyCar back there once again. Sincere thanks to everyone who had a part in making it happen.

-How awesome was that black bear on the post-race broadcast? If I was the Firestone Firehawk, I'd be careful of wandering too far from the Tricky Triangle.

-Other Notes: Congrats to Pippa Mann on getting the second Coyne car home cleanly, and getting Cyclops Gear some air time in the process...Thanks to ABC Sports for some good post-race coverage. That's the last ABC race of the season; we'll see if there are any changes to the broadcast team on the offseason...I'm sure it wasn't what he had in mind, but it was great to have James Hinchcliffe in the booth after his early crash...Josef Newgarden's Top 5 was relatively quiet, but a fine result for Sarah Fisher's team, and I thought he gave a great interview after the race.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Storylines: Pocono INDYCAR 400 Presented By Sunoco

IndyCar is back at Pocono.

Feels good to say, or even read, doesn't it? And while the budgetary disruption that moving presented will keep me on the couch this weekend, it will be great to see IndyCar back at the Tricky Triangle once more. After all, this track was made for open wheel racing!

Many of us are still celebrating the Independence Day weekend with friends and family, but here are just a few of the bigger storylines to follow heading into this weekend's Pocono INDYCAR 400 Presented By Sunoco:

Three Wide: Yep, just as they used to at Pocono, the field will take the green in three-wide formation. It's going to add some spectacle to what should already be one of the most memorable IndyCar events of the year.

A Clean Slate: One of the coolest things about Pocono is that there's no other track to which it may be easily compared. That means that while we can hazard some pretty good educated guesses, have no idea who will be a top Pocono performer. For all we know, this could be the perfect track for Justin Wilson, James Jakes, or Alex Tagliani. Everyone is starting out with a clean slate  at Pocono, and that just adds to the anything-can-happen feeling.

Triple Crown: Of course, we've all heard how Tony Kanaan has a shot at this year's Triple Crown after winning Indianapolis, and Pocono is the next step on that journey. Is it feasible? Early returns say yes, but also that he's going to have some mighty stiff competition from other Chevy teams at the least.

Last Row Panther: Panther Racing went with Ryan Briscoe for this weekend's race, and as already discussed previously, he'll miss qualifying due to ALMS obligations. As a result, the #4 will start from the back at Pocono. Panther, a team that not so long ago was deeply respected on ovals, has their work cut off for them on Sunday, to put it bluntly.

Pippa2Pocono: It was another relatively late call by Dale Coyne, but Pippa Mann is once again in the #18 car. Her last race was at Texas, where engine issues ended her day almost immediately. A good, completed race would be a nice accomplishment for the 2nd Coyne machine, which has struggled in that department this year.

Livery Watch: Dario Franchiti will sport the black Energizer livery at Pocono, and we already mentioned Pippa Mann is in the #18, meaning the red-and-white "Cyclops Cyclone" is back, too. Helio Castroneves is in his Hitachi colors once again, and don't forget TK is in the Sunoco/Turbo machine again.

Lights Update: Pennsylvania native Sage Karam returns to his home soil with a 9-point lead in the Firestone Indy Lights standings. Meanwhile, Carlos Munoz lurks just behind him, and seems destined to be a huge part of this Lights fight through the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Gaby Chaves is looking quite sharp in P3, while Peter Dempsey will look to grab another win to stay in the title fight. Jack Hawksworth needs to duplicate or surpass his Iowa excellence in order to have a championship say. This should be a challenging track for the Lights boys. 

Fact of the Week: You might have known that Danny Sullivan was the last INDYCAR driver to win at Pocono in 1989, but did you know AJ Foyt won there 4 times? Best wishes to Super Tex as he recovers from that hip replacement, by the way. They'd better make it of pure adamantium if they want it to be anywhere as tough as the original.

Pole Prediction: I think Marco, if Helio doesn't edge him out.

Winner Prediction: TK is going to be a blast to watch, but I am really looking forward to seeing what Helio Castroneves can do on this track.

Dark Horse Prediction: I would normally say Justin Wilson, but I think Honda has their work cut out for them. He's an Andretti driver, but no one is talking up EJ Viso. I think he might have something here.

Don't forget to get your fantasy picks in. Have a great weekend, and enjoy the Tricky Triangle!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is Panther Racing Making The Right Call?

Monday's discussion on this site centered around JR Hildebrand's options for 2014, so perhaps it's only fair that we turn our attention today towards his erstwhile employer, Panther Racing. Since Hildebrand has left Panther, they have employed two drivers in the car: Oriol Servia and Ryan Briscoe. Both are veteran drivers, and both for various reasons find themselves in a part-time situation in IndyCar at this point in the season.

This weekend, Briscoe has also been doing ALMS this season, and an event at Lime Rock for that series will preclude his participation in the qualifying session leading up to the Pocono INDYCAR 400 Fueled by Sunoco.

Now, I'm not the principal for a racing team, and I've never worn a headset in the pits. I'm just an IndyCar fan, whose closest experience with getting in a race car will be bench racing over Saturday morning coffee. But it seems to me that if you're going to a brand-new track, an extremely distinct "roval" with speeds approaching those found at Indianapolis, you might want to have a driver who can reasonably commit to all the available seat time for the weekend. 

This isn't a knock on Briscoe, not at all; he's driving as much as he can, and I'm sure he's keeping his options open for 2014. I hope his auditions this year lead to something more solid next season. And it's true he did get seat time in a test with Panther at the track, so he won't be flying blind. But you're talking about voluntarily starting from the back--not because of an engine change, or because of playing it safe in qualifying, but because the driver in question can't be there. Meanwhile, you have a guy like Oriol Servia--an open wheel veteran, an extremely strong oval competitor--who could probably qualify you at least someone in the front half of the field. Instead, on an unfamiliar high-speed track, a team has elected to have to move through the maximum amount of traffic possible if they are to have a decent result. You've upped the probability of an incident, if nothing else.

And it isn't as if Servia isn't a known quantity to these engineers and this team. He was part of the Panther-DRR alliance in the first half of the year, snagged a P7 at Iowa, and is widely acknowledged as a super-sub, as a quick glance at his career stats will bear out. So why put yourself behind the 8-ball in this manner?

Maybe I'm wrong, and Briscoe cheerfully tears through the field on his way to a top result on Sunday. That would certainly be an entertaining outcome. But it's a head-scratcher, and more ammo for those who are already critical of Panther's decision-making processes on the year. "It feels like they're giving up," one online commenter said of Panther last night, when learning of their race decision. I don't think that's the case, but neither am I sure they're making the right call.

The Panther Racing guys will be sporting a special red, white, and blue livery in honor of the 4th of July holiday when they arrive at Pocono. Let's hope this decision doesn't consign Old Glory to a rough weekend.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Where's The Best Fit For Hildebrand?

JR Hildebrand is what most of us would consider a pretty cool guy. He's into some sweet vintage cars, digs his local baseball team, was smart enough to be accepted in MIT, and yes, he just happens to be a young American open wheel racer with a Firestone Light championship under his belt.

However, when Panther Racing this year didn't see things going so well, Hildebrand found himself out of a ride. That's disappointing, as Hildebrand should by all rights be one of the most marketable young stars in IndyCar. He's a sharp interview, he has plenty of talent, and is clearly tied into the car culture.

So, what we are left with is a free agent who has been working to put together a deal for 2014. That sets up some intriguing possibilities for next year. While money and openings will of course be a driving factor for where Hildebrand ends up, here's some fun speculation as to just where JR could land:

Andretti Autosport: Hildebrand's Lights championship season was with Andretti Green-AGR, so it isn't as if he doesn't have some experience working with Michael Andretti. Hildebrand-to-Andretti has been mentioned before as an entertaining potential partnership, and JR would likely be a welcome addition to that team. However, it comes down to open spots. Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, and Marco Andretti would all seem to be rock-solid for next year. EJ Viso has been very good for the team this year, and has to be considered as at least a possibility to continue on with the team. There's also Lights/500 driver Carlos Munoz, who will very likely move up with AA or someone else next season. JR to AA sounds fun, but some pieces would need to move around before that happens.

Bryan Herta Autosport: Team Barracuda/BHA has had a very rough road of it lately, and it's left all sorts of questions as to where their 2013 plans might lead. Alex Tagliani is a community-oriented veteran driver, but no one is quite sure whether or not he'll return for another season with Bryan Herta's team. If the position is open after the season's end, it would seem as if Hildebrand would be high on a list of potential options for BHA to consider.

Hildebrand needs to find a new home for '14.
Courtesy IndyCar Media. Credit: Bret Kelley
Dragon Racing: Jay Penske's outfit has been struggling greatly this year, and there's no guarantee either Sebastien Bourdais or Sebastian Saavedra will make it onto next year's driving roster. Hildebrand's reputation as an all-around racer could be an incentive to Penske, and with the funding available for both seats, it might make sense if Hildebrand doesn't quite line up a full budget on his own. Then again, there's no indicator that Dragon would be any better a situation for Hildebrand than Panther was. Right now, this is not a winning team, at Indy or elsewhere.

Dale Coyne Racing: This might not seem like an ideal location for Hildebrand, as the primary car seems to be happily occupied with a successful Justin Wilson, but there is the question of the second car. Generally, the engineering and support for the 2nd Coyne machine hasn't been been up to snuff and is usually occupied by a less-experienced racer, but a 1-2 punch of Wilson and Hildebrand sounds like an absolute blast. Additionally, Hildebrand has been rumored to be in the Coyne car at some point later this season, and tested with Coyne back in 2010. This landing spot might not seem as far-fetched as it seems at first blush.

Ed Carpenter Racing: Since the inception of the team, fans have wondered if Ed Carpenter will be expanding to two cars. If the stars do align for Carpenter in 2014, Hildebrand would be a free agent, an American coming to an All-American sort of team, and someone who could assist the team with road/street course performance. Of course, there's no guarantee ECR has expansion planned, but if they do, the two would seem at first glance to be a nice complementary duo.

Those are just some of the examples of where JR Hildebrand might end up in 2014. Feel free to share your thoughts on where he might end up below!