Monday, January 27, 2014

Another Rolex 24, Another IndyCar Winner

I have to admit, it wasn't the best Rolex24 I've ever seen. There were some scary crashes, and some pretty long stretches run under caution. But at the end, a wild sprint to the finish provided plenty of fireworks, and Action Express gained a hard-fought victory. That team included Sebastien Bourdais, who had a seriously impressive weekend as part of the overall effort. Once again, IndyCar's fraternity of drivers produced another racer who will get to sport the champion's Rolex watch.

Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan looked as if they would be in a fine place to add to Chip Ganassi's trophy case, but a flat tire and vibration issues put a stop to that. Instead, it's Bourdais who has the honors, keeping alive a multi-year streak of having the winning Rolex team boast an IndyCar alum on their squad. Charlie Kimball, Graham Rahal, and Justin Wilson are all part of that streak.

When we take that into account, it seems reasonable that every January we're writing an article about just how much this IndyCar driver or that one is underrated, and what an excellent display of their skill the Rolex 24 has turned out to be. That's an easy article to write when the winner is Justin Wilson, and it's just as easy when it's Sebastien Bourdais--because it's absolutely, 100% true.

Bourdais obviously has had his ups and downs--domination in ChampCar, a rocky road in F1, and a slow creep back to full-time open wheel status in IndyCar over the last few years. Bourdais has also been with Dragon Racing, which has not precisely been a bastion of stability and top performance in recent years.

But real talent finds a way. As undoubtedly frustrating as some of the setbacks at Dragon have been, Bourdais has still found a way to add to his resume. He put a Lotus--a Lotus!--in the Top 10 at Alabama in 2012. He doubled up on podiums at Toronto last year, and won the Brickyard Grand Prix, to boot. He's won in V8 Supercars, and while he hasn't won his goal of Le Mans to date, he's been no slouch there, either.

In other words, it's good to remember that just because a driver suffers some career interruptions and isn't with a prime IndyCar team, doesn't mean he can't drive the wheels off a car. That's how it is with Sebastien Bourdais, that's for sure.

I'm not sure how Sebastien Bourdais will fare with KVSH in 2014, but I do know that whatever the outcome, he's one of the best all-around drivers out there. Every season, in and out of IndyCar, it seems he finds a new way of showing us precisely that.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The IndyCar Dream Team

Correct me if I’m wrong, fellow IndyCar fan: at some point you have dreamed about winning the lottery, giving a pointed farewell to your day job, and starting an IndyCar team with an awesome name and your favorite driver(s). For my part, I do this about three times a week, if not more. In my dreams, of course, my Little Team That Could wins the Indy 500 with some improbable driver, and putting the Humane Society or The Water Project on the side of my car fulfills any moral obligation in blowing $80 million on a race team.

Yes, even in my dreams, my IndyCar team runs out of money after about three years. My wife and I had this discussion after passing a Hoosier Lottery machine in the drugstore this past weekend:

Me: Boy, that’s tempting.

Her: What, the lotto?

Me: Yep. I could run an IndyCar team for about three years, I figure, given my level of ignorance, naiveté, and inability. Then we’d be on government cheese. But it’d be a glorious trip all the way to the bottom.

Her: And let me guess, all your drivers would be chosen on “heart”.

Me: YES.

Her: And “gutty grittiness”.

Me: I prefer “gritty guttiness”, but OH YES.

Her: And it would not end well.

Me: Not at all. And none of them would ever finish better than 30th in 500 qualifying, thanks to me. BUT WHAT A RIDE IT WOULD BE.

As I look around this offseason, there’s no shortage of interesting drivers to fill out my Powerball/Lotto-powered Dream Racing Team. Drivers not locked into a full-time team include Oriol Servia, JR Hildebrand, Simona de Silvestro, Conor Daly, Pippa Mann, and several others. That doesn’t even include dreams along the lines of “I bring back Bertrand Baguette from sports cars and Alex Lloyd from Yahoo! and they kick the crap out of the field”, or the soon-dismissed, throwback-style “Hey, what’s Racin Gardner doing these days?" query (Answer: Apparently nothing good, sadly).

So, with that in mind, assuming I win the lottery in the next few days, I think it’s important that I make a list of prospective drivers for this team, along with their pros and cons. Time is short, after all, especially if I’m going to win the lotto, take my lump cash sum, and jump in on the 2014 season. Which driver wins the comparison battle?

Zack's Dream Team Powerball Shortlist
January 2014 Edition

Oriol Servia
Pros: Veteran driver; knows what he’s doing, even if I don’t
Cons: Doomed to only race for my team for one year

JR Hildebrand
Pros: Super-cool, talented American driver; would talk car stuff with us when he isn’t driving, maybe
Cons: San Francisco Giants fan; might like Barry Bonds?

Simona de Silvestro
Pros: I heard one time she raced her car straight through Hell to rescue 46 trapped miners and a dog
Cons: “Iron Maiden” nickname—copyright infringement? (ask a lawyer)

Conor Daly
Pros: Claims Noblesville, Indiana as his home (huzzah!); young prospect
Cons: Fellow Noblesvillians Bryan Clauson and Judge Harry Sauce might get jealous

EJ Viso
Pros: Way shorter than me
Cons: Not sure if “Team Viso” is a package deal, or if it’s cheaper to go a la carte

Pippa Mann
Pros: Fan favorite; should be a breeze with the social media promotion stuff
Cons: Could probably definitely beat me up if I made her angry with my poor team ownership skills

Alex Lloyd
Pros: Gutty (!) driver; drove some marginal cars really, really fast
Cons: Writes for Yahoo!; would probably pen a snarky remembrance of my ownership tenure after the team dissolved

Michel Jourdain, Jr.
Pros: Has a sponsor deal ready to go with Mexican Office Depot
Cons: Conflict of interest (I already have a verbal commitment to Paraguayan Staples)

Stefan Wilson
Pros: Super-tall; would totally STOMP Roger Penske’s crew in basketball
Cons: Not sure he can dunk

Sage Karam
Pros: Also a varsity wrestler; could I pay him extra to piledrive my enemies?
Cons: Have heard rumors wrestling is fake??

Jack Hawksworth
Pros: Really good street/road racer
Cons: Name not awesomely British enough; change to "Sir Hugh Jacksworth Spitfire Wellington Hawkswell Cumberbatch IV"?

Herb Ardinger
Pros: Seems to have a stout 500 resume; three Top 10 finishes in six starts
Cons: Apparently last raced there in 1947 (Note: stop getting recommendations from Dave in Marion)

Peter Dempsey
Pros: Deserves a shot after years of Indy Lights Purgatory
Cons: He would get sick of me asking him to do this every single race, regardless of the track

Bertrand Baguette
Pros: It’s Bertrand Baguette.
Cons: ????

As you can see, there’s some tough decisions to be made to get this team up and running in time for St. Pete. It’s a good thing we're going to have plenty of gritty, gutty, heart.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

14 Big IndyCar Questions For 2014

I've been working on a column to kick off the New Year, and I had a few ideas for how to do it. However, I didn't count on a) a ridiculously cold string of weather disrupting life the past few days here in Indiana, and b) the losses and worry we've felt over the holidays. As I'm sure everyone reading this knows, we have both the passing of Andy Granatelli and the ongoing medical drama of Michael Schumacher.

A couple of years ago, I only knew of Andy Granatelli from grainy old STP commercials online, and of course his famous photo with Mario Andretti. Two years ago, though, I was able to (briefly) meet Andy Granatelli. To be honest, he wasn't in the best condition, though that's hardly unexpected from someone who lived the better part of a century. But holy cow, I got to meet him, and at the Speedway, no less!

I was never a big Michael Schumacher fan (I was never a Ferrari partisan, despite their successes), but his ski accident was still jarring. We still don't know what the eventual outcome of his dire injury will be, but it was another sudden accident, made all the more stunning because it didn't happen on track. It led to that phenomenon when you can't help but hit the "refresh" button on your browser, yet dread doing so in case terrible news is waiting.

Nearly everyone makes New Year's resolutions, whether we formally put them out there, or just tell ourselves we should knock off some bad habits, such as overeating or writing angry letters to Robin Miller. This year, though, I simply want to get the most out of enjoying what I have. That includes time with family, my jobs, and yes, racing. There's an urgency we're reminded of, with the events of this offseason. We never know what's coming next, so it's best to enjoy what we have while it's here.

To that end, here are my 10 big IndyCar questions for the year ahead:

1) How will the Ganassi changeover go? Adding Ryan Briscoe, and seeing Tony Kanaan jump into the #10 car has given us a team chock full of winners (not that it wasn't like that before).

2) Can Andretti and Ganassi succeed with their new engines? Andretti has jumped to Honda, while Ganassi is with Chevy. Did both teams make the right call, given their circumstances?

3) How will Indy 500 qualifying fare? What are the fine details of the new qualifying format, and just how high will speeds creep this year?

4) Will the Grand Prix of Indianapolis be a success? Adding another race at IMS during May is an absolute hot-button topic, and I expect it to be the most scrutinized race of the year.

5) What type of success will Honda have with their new engine? Honda will now have a a twin turbo, and they seem confident they'll be competitive right out of the gate. If they aren't, or if they blow everyone away, it goes without saying that

6) What's the over/under on the combined number of races Ed Carpenter and Mike Conway win? I firmly believe this is one of the best personnel moves in recent history. Ed Carpenter Racing should be fun to watch each and every race weekend this season.

7) How will Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Andretti Autosport, and other team engineering adjustments pay off? I'm curious to see how Josef Newgarden works with new chief engineer Jeremy Milless, who replaces Nathan O'Rourke. O'Rourke's move to James Hinchcliffe's car for Andretti will likely also be one of the most high-profile moves of the new season, for good or for ill. Also, what type of success will Bill Pappas have at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and what will Michael Cannon do with Dale Coyne?

8) Will the Milwaukee Mile's date move to August pay off? The Mile is one of the most historic venues on the IndyCar schedule. Andretti Sports Marketing has a title and presenting sponsor; will the fans follow to a date in mid-August?

9) What will be the car count for Indy Lights? It's looking like there may be around a dozen full-timers, which sounds poor but is light years ahead of last year's count. For that matter, what's the fate of last year's Lights champ Sage Karam, beyond his Daytona 24 run?

10) Just how good will Juan Pablo Montoya be? Is his early testing with Penske any indicator of his success this year? How will the fans respond to the ready-made black hat?

11) Will IndyCar's nicest guys triumph in 2014? Simon Pagenaud is something special, and could easily be in a fight for the title, if Honda comes out with a roar. Justin Wilson continues to show he is one of the absolute best in the sport, and hopefully he has the support to compete with the top teams more often than not.

12) Who will be in the second Dale Coyne car? Will Pippa Mann return for more races? Will someone like Jack Hawksworth get his chance, and will the lineup for the car be somewhat streamlined this season? The Dale Coyne seat is always one of the most intriguing, and this year should be no different.

13) IndyCar's sponsors and coverage--what lies ahead? We know IZOD is gone, but how will Verizon and Firestone adjust their sponsorship? Are new sponsors waiting in the wings? Will the consecutive ESPN broadcasts do anything, and will IndyCar succeed in convincing their broadcast partners to allow their streaming and online coverage to join the 21st century?

14) Whither Simona, Hildebrand, and Jakes? I'm beginning to worry there's not a seat left that will work with Simona's current circumstances, and that would be a shame. Will JR Hildebrand, James Jakes, or perhaps another shoe appear in the Team Barracuda/BHA ride? For that matter, will we see drivers like Oriol Servia or Alex Tagliani anywhere outside of Indianapolis? There's plenty of time left for silly season, and no one knows just how it will turn out.

Honorable Mention: Who the heck ends up running the National Guard livery in 2014: Rahal or Panther?

The are plenty of other questions awaiting us for the 2014 IndyCar season. What are your other big questions in the year to come? Whatever they are, I hope each of you dive right in and experience the year to come to the fullest.