Monday, October 28, 2013

Ten Thoughts About The 2013 IndyCar Season

Usually, after the last final checkered flag has waved and the IndyCar season is over, it takes me at least a week to sort of process everything that went on. I'd also say that losing Kevin Neely this week has put me in a bit of a reflective mood, too. I only met him in person a couple times, but both in person and online, he was a seriously nice guy, a positive influence, and a tremendous IndyCar fan who loved what he did and shared it with others.

With that in mind, I'd be remiss if I didn't share what I loved about the IndyCar Season That Was. It was an absolutely rollicking, upside-down, wild-to-the-end sort of campaign, and it was so much fun to follow. As the leaves continue to turn colors here in Indiana, here are ten thoughts on the 2013 IndyCar season:

1) Everyone can get down at times when things don't go well; I'm no exception to that. At the same time, every year gives me a few times where I just think about how lucky I am to get to be around IndyCar. The first was seeing my daughter get to meet Graham Rahal at Milwaukee, and how many questions she asked all race weekend. The second was sitting in the media center and listening (ok, eavesdropping) to Bobby Unser tell his stories in his unmistakable style. The third was getting to see new fans from my work "get" what IndyCar and the Indy 500 is all about. It's like getting to see something you love again for the first time, through the eyes of someone else.

2) I am immensely excited about the crop of talent that we currently have in  IndyCar. Two or three years ago, the question was, "Who will replace Dario, Helio, and TK when they retire?". That's not a question any longer, to my mind. Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, and possibly Carlos Munoz are just part of tremendous backbone for this series, especially when you add in slightly more veteran drivers and champions like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon. When you throw in the rest of the field, it's easy to see why this is hands-down the best racing going right now. This year showed that just about anyone in this field can win at any time. The series went from the Big 2 to the Big 3 to the Big Upset to a sort of semi-parity that is just amazing to see. May it long continue.

3) Along the same lines, I thought one of the best developments of the year was Dan Andersen taking over Indy Lights. The fields will be larger, and the doubleheaders at places like the IMS Road Course should make plenty of sense for the ladder. As for this year, I know people were down on the low car counts, but the drivers Lights had put on a show. Gabby Chaves is going to be a true talent at the next level. Sage Karam was the young, unlikely champion who performed when it counted most. Peter Dempsey won a legendary Freedom 100, and Carlos Munoz shined in part-time IndyCar work. Folks may have seen the low car count and written Lights off, but if so, that was a mistake. They raced their butts off out there, and we could have fully half of the regular 2013 Lights field in make an appearance in IndyCar someday soon.

4) Moving...wow. Moving absolutely destroyed my racing schedule this season. I didn't get to do a lot of what I wanted, and all the bills and expenses that come with a new (old) house certainly took it out of me. Still, while in the middle of our move, I didn't miss the Indy 500. There are some things you simply can't miss.

5) I like Chevy, and I like Honda, and have teams I really pull for that align under both engine manufacturers. However, you'll excuse me if a part of me hopes that Honda gets the best of Chevy in 2014 after the year we've had. We've had Chip Ganassi slagging on Honda in the first part of the year, and Ganassi switching to Chevy in the past month. There's also Andretti's move to Honda, which has caused some lively discussion. Hey, good. I want some animosity between engine manufacturers, and some good arguments between fans of both brands. After an all-Chevy early season, Honda came back with a vengeance, and now we get to see what the twin turbo will do next season. I was really worried one manufacturer would dominate the other this season, but that wasn't the case. Both engine manufacturers had their ups and downs.

6) The one-offs and part-timers we saw this year were a bit better than last year's "no extras" car counts that made seeing part-time rides a pretty rare thing. People will cry that it doesn't do much for ratings, but I don't really care--I LOVE seeing Mike Conway, Pippa Mann, Stefan Wilson, Conor Daly, and several others get some IndyCar seat time. I'd prefer some of them even had more, but to me, weekends with extra drivers have always felt like those "special guest stars" on 80s TV dramas. It can be a big deal to their fans, and is a nice change-up. Plus, as Mike Conway showed us, just because someone is only in the car for a few races doesn't mean they can't win. I don't mind the idea of "place specialists" in IndyCar, for example. If I know Long Beach means Mike Conway driving like a man possessed all weekend, that's a perk for me.

7) My new goal as an IndyCar fan is to live long enough to see Dale Coyne Racing win a championship, preferably with Justin Wilson behind the wheel. After this year, that no longer seems quite as far-fetched a proposition, does it?

8) I've struggled to explain the discrepancy between IndyCar trending during every race and the relatively disappointing TV ratings. I think first off, we have to admit that a lot of IndyCar fans have to hit up illegal channels to watch the sport on a lot of weekends. That's just how it is.

Second, yes, Nielsen Ratings are garbage. However, they're valuable garbage to advertisers, and probably will be for some time. That can't be simply dismissed. Yes, they ignore exposure on items like social media. Still, there is hope the Nielsens will be more all-encompassing at some point in the near future--there's already been steps taken to remedy that, although probably not yet in a direction that helps IndyCar. However, Nielsen's upcoming Twitter Ratings could impact IndyCar, though I'll be curious to see if we can get any sort of usable numbers from them. Ultimately, there's not a lot we can do about it, besides watch and participate in the discussion online. I've always found the folks who are almost happy about being sad about TV ratings a bit off-putting, and this season seemed particularly bad on that account. The Legions of the Miserable endure.

9) Running a fantasy racing league is a lot more work than one might think. I hope INDYCAR Nation takes it back over next year, but this year was lots of fun. I'm not sure how some of the competitors did as well as they did, but we had some expert prognosticators out there.

10) If I had to pick a favorite on-track racing moment, it would have to be James Hinchcliffe's last-lap move past Takuma Sato at the Sao Paulo Indy 300. Charlie Kimball's drive and pass at Mid-Ohio was pretty special, too. I could also say "the entire Indy 500", but that seems like cheating.

Monday, October 21, 2013

MAVTV 500 Notebook

-My goodness, let's just start with acknowledging that's one of the craziest races we'll ever see. We talk about "races of attrition", but that was the real deal Saturday night. It wasn't from driver error, it was just teams desperately doing everything they could to make these cars last 500 miles. It the race only goes 400 miles, it's a different discussion we're having today. But instead, there was this immense tension, as car after car failed and faltered. I thought Will Power's victory was one of the most well-earned, hard-fought wins I've seen from him. He had every right to be proud of that one. 

-As for the title, there's not a lot one can say about Scott Dixon that hasn't already been said. He's already at a Hall of Fame level, and he's still in the prime of his racing career. This year's title saw him overcome bad luck both early and late, and be his usual awesome self to finish the season. He is a rare talent, and it's always fantastic to watch someone on the top of their game. 

Your 2013 Champ.
Courtesy IndyCar Media. Image by Chris Jones. 
-For Helio Castroneves, it just wasn't meant to be this year. That team fought, and even came back from a couple of mistakes in the race to keep the issue in doubt far longer than we thought, but this just wasn't the sort of race he needed. Who knows--maybe he'll win #4 at the Indy 500 next year, which would probably take the sting out of this one.

-Did you see the debris and garbage coming out of those intakes? On TV, it sounded and looked like the race was taking place in a mix between the 1930s Dust Bowl and a rather large, unsettled landfill. It was so bad, this guy was seen threatening Robin Miller after the race (I got your back, fellow Star Wars nerds). 

Despite that, I love Fontana as any IndyCar track. It's produced fine racing and exciting finishes in the last two years, and in my mind, is a lot of what a 500-miler should represent--a fast and formidable technical challenge. 

-In the day's earlier contest, Sage Karam held on to become your 2013 Firestone Indy Lights champion. The big question now is what form we'll see Karam's 2014 IndyCar season take. Will he run Indy-only, a couple of IndyCar races while returning to Lights for a bit, or will he be half-time or greater in IndyCar? At only 18, he's young, and we'll be watching to see what his learning curve is out there. Massive congratulations to him--he's had a whirlwind year.

-Andretti Autosport didn't win the race, but I thought it was a massive and very positive weekend for them all the same. United Fiber and Data is on board to sponsor James Hinchcliffe, Hinch himself is back for 2014, with an option for 2015, UFD is also sponsoring Matthew Brabham in Firestone Indy Lights, and Zach Veach will return, as well. Dr. Pepper-Snapple will be back on Marco Andretti's car and as an associate sponsor on the other cars. Of course, there's also the switch to Honda, which should make them go from struggling for notice behind Ganassi and Penske at Chevy to a top program for their new manufacturer. 

-Dumbest thing of the weekend: Seeing folks online complain because they didn't "know" UFD or didn't see why they were sponsoring an IndyCar. Besides from the fact that sort of complaint belies a basic ignorance at how the entire sponsorship thing works,hey, it's a sponsor, and they're backing one of IndyCar's most popular driving talents. This is not a reason to gripe in any sense. 

-Carlos Munoz. He's exciting to watch, isn't he? Carlos is super-aggressive, but that was a run to remember until he lost it. He's going to be a lot of fun to watch as an IndyCar rookie in 2014. Consider that another potential feather in the hat for Andretti Autosport.

-Of course, we don't want to go too long without wishing Justin Wilson a speedy recovery from Saturday's nasty wreck. Aside from being one of the nicest guys in the paddock, he's one of the best pure all-around racers in all of IndyCar (and beyond!). An impact like that is always scary. Let's take a minute to thank Dallara and the research that has come before. These cars haven't been 100% perfect, but they've been vastly safer than their predecessors. Not only that, but the racing has been incredible throughout. Some folks will never like these cars, but I'm all for them.

-Was that the last we'll see of Panther Racing? Team attrition is a regular part of motorsport, but I'm just not sure what that team is going to do without the National Guard sponsorship. That was an awful lot of money--twice or more what some teams operate on. Can that team trim the fat, or is that it?

-Congratulations to Jody Karam--not only was his son our Firestone Indy Lights champ, he won the IndyCar Advocate Fantasy Racing contest! Thanks to everyone for playing in our very no-frills league--it was a good fight to the very end. 

-Once again, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support of this site this year. I love IndyCar, and getting to write about it and converse with all of you on the same is a genuine privilege. We're living in a time of amazing racing, where records are continually threatened, and the sports is as thrilling on-track as it has ever been, even through all the challenges. I wouldn't trade the experience for the world, and everyone who has take the time to read, comment, or participate in this site is a huge part of that. So, again, thank you, and I'm looking forward to what's ahead. 

-I guess I would say in this offseason, if you're just a seasonal reader, and you will be scarce until spring, I hope you have a great fall and winter. We all have the ability to make this sport better, by taking a minute to thank sponsors, by highlighting the positives instead of searching out ways to complain, by offering positive feedback when and where it counts, and by simply remembering that we're privileged and blessed daily to even be in a position to enjoy a racing afternoon, be it in front of the TV or at the track. We can't control everything, but when we act in the positive, that does a lot more than coming up with a laundry list of complaints, listening to the same jaded, tired carping, or spending hours dourly anticipating the end. You can be someone on the sidelines, feeling entitled and lobbing grenades when things don't fit your ideal, or you can be part of the overall solution, doing what you can to share a real love of this sport. Guys, this sport kicks so much ass, and even when it isn't perfect, there are drivers to interact with, quality racing to watch, sponsors to thank, and projects for the IndyCar community to be done. Find your passion, work at it and enjoy it.

Other Notes: She didn't have the night she wanted on track, but thanks to Pippa Mann for her work in the Firestone Indy Lights booth this year. For those of us Lights fans not at the track, that was our lifeline every race weekend...Charlie Kimball's night didn't end how he wanted, but as a fan, I'm excited with his progress this year. I don't think he's many years off from contending for a title...It was the sort of night where Simona de Silvestro could be involved in a massive wreck, go several laps down, and still finish P8 for her best oval finish ever. Won't it be interesting to see where she ends up for 2014?...We pretty much knew Ed Carpenter would be around at the end, didn't we? Let's see if that team expands for 2014...Did Alex Tagliani hurt or help his chances of landing somewhere for 2014 this weekend? You know we'll see him somewhere for at least the Indy 500...Sebastien Bourdais was another guy who had a great run going before late disappointment. I'm hoping he's going into a good, solid situation at KVSH next year...If I had a two-car team and some funding, I could do far worse than hiring Oriol Servia and J.R. Hildebrand...Congrats to Chevy on securing the Manufacturer's Championship. Honda make a strong effort in the second half of the year, but they'll have to try again with a new roster next year...There is probably plenty more to discuss, but we have a whole offseason to do so. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Preview: MAVTV 500

Hey, you know what time it is. It's IndyCar's Championship Weekend, and there's plenty to cover for the MAVTV 500 and beyond. Let's jump right in:

The Main Event: Scott Dixon. Helio Castroneves. Only one of these guys is going to be the 2013 IndyCar Champion, and until Houston, you would have been hard-pressed to persuade me it wouldn’t be Helio. Now, he’s staring down the barrel of a 25-point deficit, and he needs a good day and a rare Scott Dixon miscue or moment of bad luck to make this happen. Unfortunately for Helio, Dixie almost always finishes the season on a strong note.

The Other Main Event: 18 year-old Indy Lights rookie Sage Karam has a 16-point lead over Gabby Chaves, as Indy Lights will finish up on the verge of a new era in 2014, as they’ll have their first full season under Dan Andersen. Will Karam take home the scholarship prize, or will Chaves have enough to get past him? With nine cars entered this weekend, one of the contenders can still be wiped out by an early miscue—something both drivers have largely avoided in actual races this season. It’s my suspicious we’ll see one of these two young men at least at Indianapolis next year, so get ready to pencil one of these guys in somewhere on your silly season worksheets.

Happy Trails: There will be plenty of partings after the finale. Sebastien Bourdais is going to KV, who in turn is losing Tony Kanaan to Chip Ganassi’s outfit. It sounds as if we’ve seen the National Guard’s last sponsorship of a Panther Racing car, as they move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for 2014. The Ganassi organization is jumping to Chevy; the Andrettis may be jumping to Honda, and there are any number of other drivers who might find themselves in new employment (or without a ride) after the season. And of course, IZOD is also finishing up as title sponsor. One thing is for sure—the teams, affiliations, and driver locations will look very different from now at St. Pete next spring.

Additions: Of course, much has already been made of Penske Racing adding AJ Allmendinger as a third entry for this race, which if things work out right could be another position between Dixon and clinching the title. Alex Tagliani gets to show off his oval chops subbing for Dario in the #10, and Pippa Mann joins us once more for the finale in the #18 Dale Coyne Car. JR Hildebrand is also back with Team Barracuda. This is going to be a fun weekend with the additions, for sure.

Livery Watch: A.J. Allmendinger is back in the #2 IZOD car, while Graham Rahal is back in the primarily yellow-and-black Midas livery. Marco Andretti is back in one of my favorites, the Dr. Pepper car, while Helio will contend for the title in the blue-and-white Auto Club livery.

Let's Talk Scheduling: There's probably more time for this after the season ends, but what did everyone think of the schedule announcement yesterday? I like how the ovals are spaced out a bit more, and overall, compacting IndyCar's calendar year should mean there's no "barren month". The longer offseason won't be fun, but all in all, it's what we expected. Let's see how the re-positioning over the next two seasons plays out.

Completely Useless Fact: Last year's Fontana pole position marked Marco Andretti's first pole earned since 2008 (Milwaukee). He's had two since since last year's finale.

Pole Prediciton: Tag. You know he’s going to go hard with this opportunity.

Winner Prediction: Helio. I think he’ll do everything he can…but I think Scott Dixon will also be right behind him.

Dark Horse Prediction: I'm not giving up on Marco, but let's go with Justin Wilson. He’s going to make it happen.

Championship Prediction: The heart says Helio; the head can’t ignore Scott Dixon’s end-of-season performances.

I guess we’ll go over the weekend on Monday, and transition into IndyCar Winter/Offseason/Silly Season mode. Say it ain’t so…

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In Indy Lights, It Comes Down To This

(Note: This article originally appeared on INDYCAR Nation, but you know how I am with the Mazda Road to Indy. I'm reprinting it here as we get ready for a tremendous Lights showdown. Make sure to support INDYCAR Nation, too, and check out both this week's championship previews over there--the IndyCar preview will be up later this week).

While some series might consider themselves lucky to have one close championship fight in the last race of the season, INDYCAR goes into Auto Club Speedway this weekend with two such contests. First on Saturday, we’ll see if Sage Karam can hold off Gabby Chaves for the Firestone Indy Lights crown in the Lefty’s Kids Club 100. Right after that, it’s Helio Castroneves attempting to pull out a comeback victory over Scott Dixon in the MAVTV500.

The Lights battle is actually a bit closer than the IndyCar title fight; Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Sage Karam holds only a 16-point lead over teammate Gabby Chaves. What’s defined these drivers this year is minimizing big mistakes. Karam capitalized on the schedule’s string of oval races, winning at Milwaukee and Iowa, to propel himself to the top, while Chaves put in podium after podium before his victory at Mid-Ohio. The pair finished 1-2 at Houston, and avoided the bad luck and mistakes of the other Lights competitors. Now, they’ll face off for the chance at a scholarship and a shot at moving up to IndyCar.

Karam and Chaves are 18 and 20, respectively, and both are in their first season of Lights. What sort of an IndyCar opportunity they’d see next year with a Lights championship under their belt (Indy 500-only, partial season, etc.) remains to be seen, but both clearly still have even more talent they’ll grow into with time.

While the points favor Karam, and he should be at home on an oval, Chaves has at times appeared to be the more polished driver this year. That’s not a slight on Karam, who has exceeded all expectations in his first Lights year as that youngest driver in that series. However, this race, and by extension, this championship, could very easily come down to who makes the first mistake—and who stays out of trouble. Anyone who has seen Indy Lights at Indianapolis will attest that it can very quickly become a melee.

Meanwhile, the rest of the field will present their own challenges, with Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Munoz likely quite eager to end the season on a high note before pursuing their own IndyCar dreams next year. The field will also expand with the return of Kyle O’Gara, running his second Lights race of the year. If one of the two championship contenders falters early, they’ll have some fighting to do to get back up front—and in a 50 lap race, even the smallest setback could mean disaster.

Will it be Sage Karam or Gabby Chaves as your Firestone Indy Lights champ? Either way, you’ll know your 2013 Lights title winner earned it over an extremely competitive hard-fought season— and their finale at Fontana promises more of the same.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Big National Guard Move

We know the National Guard is probably well-versed in lobbing grenades, but nothing prepared IndyCar fans for the Friday news bombshell this past weekend. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will be the new partner of the National Guard in IndyCar, leaving Panther Racing's plans for 2014 a big question mark for fans.

I've not always been the biggest John Barnes fan; in a lot of ways, I've seen him as too quick to blame drivers for the team's failures, and I haven't always agreed with his racing politics, but that doesn't mean I want to see that team go away--especially not when you think of the folks who rely on that team for their livelihood. I hope they have something in the hopper for next year.

But this is one of the premiere IndyCar sponsorships, and when you're getting $10+ million dollars a year, you have to have some results. Obviously, Panther Racing's last two seasons have been up and down. The question is, can Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing do any better?

I suppose there's two sides to that equation. On the one hand, Graham Rahal has proven himself a very hard worker when it comes to sponsorship, and I have no doubt he will acquit himself well as the driver of the National Guard car. I've never subscribed to the idea we need an American in that seat; after all, Dan Wheldon did a great job as an ambassador during his time in that ride. No, what's important is doing the seat justice, being a great part of the interactive programs on and off the track for our servicemen and servicewomen, and doing the seat proud overall. Though to that point, I always really respected the job guys from John Barnes to Wheldon to J.R. Hildebrand did on that effort. Having seen firsthand how much care Graham Rahal has for charities and the like, I'll think he'll do a fantastic job in the role.

On the side side of that question, how will the performance of Rahal and Co. measure up? This has been an immensely disappointing season for Graham; we've been told that they've had to spend a lot of time changing over the setups from Takuma Sato's style to Graham's style, which are markedly different. Whatever the reason, the mix of poor luck and rough weekends where the team seemed a bit lost have been taxing.

Ultimately, there are folks who love Panther Racing who will be devastated at this, and some fans of Graham Rahal and RLLR that will be ecstatic. For my part, I hope Panther makes it work for 2014, and that the National Guard keeps considering this sponsorship a worthy investment. Whatever it takes to make that second point happen, I'll support 100%.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Houston Notebook: Chaos And Change

-I have to start with the admission that Sunday's injury to Dario Franchitti shook me up. That hit had the specter of some other nasty street course injuries we've seen, and as rough as Dario's injuries are, they could have been much worse. It's a risk; you're never going to remove all the risk from racing. It's that "running on the ragged edge" that keeps us glued to the set, but none of us want to see that part of it.

Even worse, of course, are the fans that were injured. They didn't sign up for a high-risk job, but unfortunately, accidents happen. There's nothing really to say except I know like Dario, they're all in our prayers and thoughts.

-What a rough weekend overall. The issues with the track "bump" messed the schedule up considerably on Saturday, and of course there was the washout of qualifying on Sunday. Hey, some things you can control and some things you can't. But if I'm IndyCar after this weekend, there's three areas I'm going to examine (outside of the obvious safety review):

1) Vetting and quality control on tracks before IndyCar arrive;

2) Communication on social media and the website when there are schedule changes;

3) Filling the void with not only information for fans, but fun interaction.

That's not to knock the IndyCar social media folks; Lord knows they have no shortage of things to do. But it's an area of communication and engagement that cannot be ignored.

-What a crushing weekend for Helio Castroneves. That really could not have gone much worse. The Penske wizards did all they could, but bottom line, he's chasing Scott Dixon going into Fontana. I have nothing against Scott Dixon, but I sure didn't want to see Helio likely lose the championship in that manner.

Since I'm on a numbering kick today, here are 10 more thoughts from Saturday and Sunday:

1) Bryan Herta Autosport should lock down Luca Filippi for 2014, if at all possible.

2) I continue to be amazed by how fantastically talented Justin Wilson is. My dream season just might be him winning an IndyCar title with Dale Coyne.

3) It was fantastic to see and hear all the media attention about Simona de Silvestro, but I thought some of the chatter was a bit over the top. It's enough to just say she's a positive role model for young girls and a great driver--no need to compare to other female drivers or point out it wasn't "a fuel mileage race" (hmmm).

4) Also re: Simona: there doesn't seem to be a big push from KV Racing to get her re-signed for 2014. Jimmy Vasser said this weekend they're good for sponsorship for next year, but do those plans include Simona, or is she possibly already locked in at another Chevy team?

5) Standing Starts: I still like them, and once they got Sato fixed up Sunday, it looked pretty good, but Saturday showed it's still a work in progress for most drivers.

6) Helio Castroneves gave an interview in a really rough situation for a driver that lost the championship lead. In a year where we've had plenty of tempers and surliness and everything else, he was all class. He needs all sorts of luck to win this title, but I sure hope the racing gods are kind.

7) It seems like Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Josef Newgarden are finally getting things clicking. I'd certainly like to see that team finish strong.

8) What a miserable weekend for Tristan Vautier. There have to be some questions about where he'll be in 2014, right? I'm not saying he can't succeed in IndyCar--he's got talent--but there are an awful lot of drivers out there, and some that are on Honda's good side, too.

9) Irritating aspect of being an IndyCar fan: having folks immediately compare every severe accident to Las Vegas 2011, regardless of whether it bears any semblance to it, whether they actually have seen the wreck, or they are aware that the cars are different.

10) I think ultimately, we can chalk up Houston as a mixed bag with a lot of work still to do. There's a lot more we can discuss, when you come down to it, that's about all you can say.

-On the Mazda Road to Indy, congrats to Scott Hargrove and Matthew Brabham for winning the USF2000 and Pro Mazda titles, respectively. Those guys are going to make some noise at the next level.

-For Firestone Indy Lights, it's going to come down to Sage Karam and Gaby Chaves. I'm sure we'll talk more about that soon, but it's going to be interesting to see if we get a champion who does Indy-only and comes back for another full season of Lights. And how awful for Carlos Munoz--I think he'll be a fine driver at the next level, but it's a heartbreaker he's not going to be in the title discussion at the finale.

-I will be very, very happy for Fontana, but it's hard to believe another season is almost over. Still, there are plenty of storylines that still need to play out...

Friday, October 4, 2013

Preview: Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston

After surviving the desert IndyCar fans call September (OK, at least we had some cool Tony Kanaan drama and GP of Indianapolis stories to keep us entertained), it’s time for the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. Reliant Park will host this doubleheader, which will also mark the last twisty event of the year. Both IndyCar and Indy Lights could see big championship swings after this weekend, so let’s dive right in:

IndyCar’s Title Fight Update: This weekend is a doubleheader, which means it’s really the last chance for some of the folks dancing on the fringe of the title race to make a big statement and close the gap to a reasonable amount heading into Fontana. So while it looks like it’s either Helio or Scott Dixon heading into Fontana, Simon Pagenaud could easily be within striking distance if he has a tremendous weekend and one of the guys in front of him falters. For that matter, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay could have a career weekend and still be in the discussion. Even Justin Wilson, 108 points out but a fashionable pick to do well in Houston, could be back in this thing if he’s as strong as some are predicting.

Bottom line, though, this is still Helio’s championship to lose. We know how dangerous Scott Dixon can be, and you can bet he’ll be coming in looking to rebound from Baltimore’s uproar. But Helio has been so consistent this season. He needs to keep it up for three more races, and he finally has that title. Out to stop him? Oh, just everyone else with even within a prayer of the title.

Bright Lights: No, we’re not waiting until the 2/3rds mark of this article to mention Firestone Indy Lights! Coming into Saturday’s Streets of Houston event, the Top 5 drivers are separated by only 11 points. 11! If that’s not enough, Peter Dempsey has landed with Team Moore this weekend, and while he’s P5 in the standings, he could very easily ruin someone’s day with a good outing.

Sage Karam, Carlos Munoz, Gaby Chaves, and Jack Hawksworth have all won this year, and you can’t count out any of them for the Lights title. This has been an absolutely thrilling back-and-forth to watch this year. Munoz couldn’t pull away from Karam; Karam took the points lead; Chaves has come on strong in the second half of the year, and Jack Hawksworth has simply powered his way back into the fight. None of these guys will have any margin for error—NONE.

As if that weren’t enough, Team Moore is also running Conor Daly this weekend, Belardi Auto Racing is also fielding Juan Pablo Garcia, JMM/BHA is running the #28 with Axcil Jeffries, and Matthew Di Leo is running once again as an owner driver. There’s a big points difference between crashing out early and finishing P8 or P9 versus finishing P12 . Do not miss this weekend’s Lights action, because it’s setting up for an epic finish at Fontana in two weeks.

Grid Penalties: Both Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal will be serving 10-spot grid penalties for unapproved engine changes on Saturday, so keep that in mind during qualifications.

Coyne In Command: This seems to be Mike Conway’s sort of road course, and Dale Coyne again has him in the Coyne #18 machine. Combined with Justin Wilson, this weekend should be a prime opportunity for the DCR boys to get another quality showing, and possibly even a win. And yes, I absolutely love having Dale Coyne among the favorites going into a race weekend.

Can Chevy Strike Back?: If you've been keeping score on engine competition, you may have noticed that since Pocono, a Chevy machine has won only a single race in that timespan. Honda has just had that slight edge, though it's been quite competitive across the board. Chevy could certainly use a victory or two this weekend, because the chips have not fallen their way as of late. We knew Honda would get on track eventually, and have they ever!

Hitting The Brakes: One of the key tech items to watch in Houston is the increased brake cooling allowed for Houston. Expected showers might keep the temperatures down somewhat, but it will be interesting to see just how far teams go with adjustments, and just how much it helps them handle the braking points in Reliant Park.

Standing Start Returns!: Yep, Race 1 will be a standing start. If Scott Dixon's standard start this weekend is anything like his one at Toronto, he'll be quite happy indeed. Let's see who uses it to their advantage and who is left eating dust.

Looks Like Rain: The weekend Houston forecast shows a 30% chance of thundershowers on both race days, and  a pair of already intriguing races could see some isolated storms wreak havoc with planned strategies. We know the gambles always go up with wet conditions, and the team who guesses right could get a big jump in the championship.

Livery Watch: It’s a colorful weekend in Houston, with Dario Franchitti repping the T-Mobile pink, and Hinch similarly attired in a GoPink/GoDaddy livery. Josef Newgarden will be in the very flashy, patriotic Strike #67, while Graham Rahal will have the blu e-cigs scheme. Of course, Helio Castroneves will be in Shell colors, which only makes sense for this event.

Pole Pick: I think Ganassi will come out swinging. Let’s give it to Dario (who would then start P11) or Scott Dixon.

Winner Pick: I get two, right? Going with Justin Wilson for one, and Scott Dixon for the other.

Dark Horse Pick: Since I can’t pick Wilson here, let’s throw Josef Newgarden out there. He’s got some success he can build on from Baltimore.

By the way, IndyCar Fan Favorite Driver polling closes October 7, so if you haven't voted yet, make sure to do so. Right now, Tony Kanaan is still leading Helio Castroneves by a slim margin, Charlie Kimball and Simona de Silvestro is in striking distance, and Pippa Mann's percentage continues to creep up.

Don’t forget to get those fantasy picks in—drivers will be scored across BOTH races this week. Enjoy the racing, and let’s see how IndyCar’s last street fights of the year play out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Grand Prix of Indianapolis: First Reaction

Let's break down some of yesterday's announcement and news conference on the Grand Prix of Indianapolis:

-I think Doug Boles and Mark Miles are concerned with doing this event the "right way", and making sure it lives up to what we know a race Indy should be--something special. Some would argue we've lost some of that, between NASCAR tooling around at 180mph and the F1 tire madness and such, but when it comes to IndyCar, this place still means more. From that presser, Boles and Co. will be doing everything they can to make this an event that doesn't detract from the Month of May, but enhances it, and works as a lead-in to the 500 and the rest of the schedule.

-We all know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was originally intended to have a road course as well as the oval. If the event is pulled off right and made into a "big deal", than it can be a fine complement to the 500--two races, two disciplines, one legendary race course. I certainly hope that's how it works out, but the event has to be embraced and set apart not just by the series, but by the fans.

-Free Thursday to open the Month of May while keeping a traditional "Opening Day" for the 500? Huge thumbs up on that one. Get the folks out there to actually see what road racing is like. It sounds crazy, but a lot of oval fans have never seen a twisty in person.  The Family Pack of 4 tickets for $50 is nice, too.

-I'm excited to see how Turn 1 plays out, but it sounds like the revamped Turn 7 might be where the action's at. I really need to get out there and look at the construction and development this month. 

-The Bronze Badge cost for May will likely be $125, but will include the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It's an increase, but still a good deal. I wish they'd kept it lower, but it's still an awful lot of bang for the buck(s).

-Additionally with the Bronze Badge, I like Doug Boles' mention of Bronze Badge holders getting into the pits for at least an hour on Grand Prix Race Day. 
Oh, it's happening.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media. Image by Chris Owens)

-The ticket pricing doesn't seem outlandish, and $25 general admission isn't bad. I'm curious though, how they line up the ladder series events, and how they will be staggered. If they do it right, Thursday-Saturday could be absolute non-stop on-track open wheel action.

-I like the idea of a "Hulman Cup" if a driver wins both the Grand Prix and the 500. Hopefully, they come up with something that can become iconic with time. 

-With Roger Penske obviously a key booster of this decision, I'd like to think we'll see a Penske-oriented sponsor like Shell behind the race. The announcement of a title or presenting sponsor, when it happens, will be big.

-Doug Boles said he's hoping for 40k-50k for the Grand Prix. I certainly hope he gets it. I don't know if that's too ambitious a goal or not. I don't think it is, especially for the first year of something new at the Speedway. I am also going to be extremely interested in how this is marketed. I hope it's done in a way that really pushes it to a lot of the race fans in the region, and helps feed into not just the Indy 500, but the entire rest of the series. IndyCar's twisty racing is top shelf; I hope they're able to relate that to the fan, and that people give it an honest chance. 

-No matter what else happens, we know it will be more entertaining than the Brickyard 400. Maybe NASCAR will take a hint and start running on the road course, too.