Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday IndyCar Notebook 2/24: Winterfest, Plowey, JPG, and More

A few notes on a disappointing once-again-chilly Indianapolis-area morning:

-What a start to 2014 for the Mazda Road to Indy! The Cooper Tires Winterfest saw three different winners in USF2000 over the weekend. Huge congratulations to RC Enerson, Clark Toppe, and Victor Franzoni on starting the year off right. Not to be show up, Spencer Pigot and Garett Grist grabbed a win apiece in the first two races of the Pro Mazda portion of Winterfest. I can't wait to see how Pro Mazda Races #3 and #4 turn out Tuesday and Wednesday.

-I didn't get a chance last week to really comment on Martin Plowman's entry into the Foyt #41 car for Indianapolis. The bottom line? I'm delighted he's getting his chance in the biggest race in American open wheel. He has run in Lights, he's had some part-time opportunities in IndyCar, and he's even worked as a spotter during May. Finally, he's going to get his big crack at it, along with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

I saw a lot of folks ask if this was a step up from Conor Daly, a drop, or about the same. I like Conor a lot, and think he ever ends up in a regular, stable IndyCar ride, it will be good for the series. At the same time, I don't see Plowey as a step down. He's a well-regarded driver, a Le Mans winner in the LMP2 category, and one of the absolute nicest drivers I've met. Perhaps nice doesn't win races, but I think he's done more than enough to be a welcome addition to this year's field. I'm especially excited to see how he does at the start of May in the Grand Prix--that could very well be his kind of race, when you look at where he's had success. Go get 'em.

-While we're at it, can I just make it clear I am part of the "Someone Run Peter Dempsey In The 500 Foundation"? I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but while we're talking about drivers getting their chance, I can't see many other much more deserving than this guy. Peter, if I end up with a spare $500k before May, I'll give you a call.

-It might not have garnered a lot of notice, but Juan Pablo Garcia took a step up in Indy Lights this year by joining Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. We've seen Garcia off and on in Lights since 2009, and to this point, he's always been one of the also-rans. At the same time, in 2013, I thought he showed a bit more on track (in an admittedly small field), and I think he'll be solid, if unspectacular. That's ok--not every racer is going to be a world-beater. Having entrants that can help pad the difference if a front-runner drops out early is important for Lights. With the field looking to be a bit healthier this year (fingers crossed!), hopefully this differentiation between first and last will be far more pronounced than last season, and mistakes much harder to recover from. As for JPG, if he was ever going to take the next step, it goes without saying this would be the year.

-Finally, I know we'll cover this a bit more as it draws closer, but Amy (Open Wheel Mom) Woedl and Pippa Mann are organizing the Indy Fans Tweet Up on Sunday, March 16. This is a brand new event for IndyCar fans to get together and socialize before the season starts. I absolutely love seeing events like this, that really help draw the IndyCar community together. It sounds like a really cool day of karting at the always-awesome Fastimes Indoor Karting here in Indy, with some special guests and games to boot! If you haven't secured your spot, do so while there's still space available, and make sure to give them a follow on Twitter. Thanks to you ladies for organizing, too--sounds like a great time!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Always Tough To See Them Go

I've loved Simona de Silvestro as a racer since her time in Atlantics, when she showed herself to be a driver who simply had that something "extra". No matter her ride, Simona always gave that feeling that she was a real talent, one on the cusp of making it big. Even though she suffered through some truly second or even third-rate rides in IndyCar, that sense of possibility remained. She showed herself to be plenty tough, too, as those burned hands from her incredible fight at Indy in 2011 would prove.

Now, the "Iron Maiden" has departed for greener pastures, as an affiliated driver with the Sauber F1 team. It's a great move for her, and I can't do anything but wish her the best. Do I wish she were driving for KV, Coyne, or another team that was floated as a possibility? Yes, but I also want to see her career reach the highest point I can.

INDYCAR currently has no full-time female drivers announced for 2014, something I know many folks (including my daughters!) would love to see remedied. At the same time, that's not something to be forced--the right driver for the right seat is always optimal, regardless of gender. I wish Simona could have found a deal that kept her in IndyCar, but I also know it's not an easy road, and situations aren't always as simple as they seem from a fan's perspective. Between team relationships, managers, money people, sponsors, and timing, there are a thousand reasons for a deal not to work for every one it might.

That's a lesson any racing fan learns eventually, I think. We all have our favorite driver, and I'm sure we've all had a favorite see their IndyCar career peter out. There are additions and subtractions in every racing series--be it F1, INDYCAR, sports cars, or another series. Drivers come and go, and we move on. Don't get me wrong, I'd prefer Simona be in an IndyCar this year. At the same time, I'm thankful for the drivers we have, and have plenty more I want to see get their chance--Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves, Jack Brabham, Shelby Blackstock, and plenty more throughout the Mazda Road to Indy. There's an add-and-subtract cycle there, especially for a series hovering around 23-26 entries. When someone goes, someone else gets their chance. It'll be hard to replace Simona in the series, but at the same time, IndyCar and its ladder is hardly starved for talent looking for their big break.

In a sense, it's a bit like being a baseball fan. As a long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan, I cheer for players like Alex Gordon, James Shields, and Billy Butler, even though I know they won't be with my favorite team forever. When they can't come to a deal, get traded, or simply decide to move on, I wish them the best, and focus on the players my team has. In baseball, as in IndyCar, I'll cheer for who we have, while we have them.

So happy trails, Simona, and I hope Sauber F1 is an amazing experience for you. We know drivers come and go, but that doesn't mean it isn't tough sometimes.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Does Panther Racing Do Now?

You'll forgive the tardiness of this commentary, I hope. As you probably know, Indiana has been living out its own mini-Ice Age for the last two months, and I had taken the family south to Cincinnati for a few days' relaxation at Great Wolf Lodge. Unfortunately, we were stuck down there thanks to some nasty ice and assorted winter weather, and so I had plenty to catch up on once we made it back. Sitting high in Turn 1 at IMS, watching the line drivers take seems a long way off just now.

Of course, IndyCar has pushed on, and one of the big stories has of course been the final, final placing of the National Guard sponsor with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Graham Rahal. That's obviously fantastic news for the Rahal crew, who is looking as formidable as they've been in a long while heading into this season. The sponsorship brings over $10 million to the team (though some sources have cited the National Guard funds much higher). If they do have a solid veteran in that 2nd car (as it seems they likely will) who works well with Rahal and the team, the sky's the limit.

At the same time, however, somewhat lost in all this is the impact on Panther Racing. Panther has already lost some staffing in the offseason, and there's no denial that this is going to hurt them. At the same time, though, they've been moving ahead with their own plans, and they've tested Carlos Huertas now throughout the winter.

Huertas, if confirmed in the seat, marks a sea change for Panther's fortunes in a number of ways. He'd be their first full-time driver in a long time without at least some American open-wheel experience. He's also the first driver since 2008 not to have the National Guard as the primary sponsor. Additionally, he's an unknown quantity, driving by himself, in a series that sees more and more multi-car teams dominating the discussion.

That doesn't mean that's what will happen if it turns out to be Huertas taking the wheel of the #4 car this year. But one would also have to admit, it also isn't an optimum recipe for success.

I haven't always approved of the way team John Barnes has conducted his business, and I have rather vocally disapproved of how despite a great deal of funding and some excellent drivers, Panther just can't seem to compete in the series at-large. I'm also not a fan of how some of their drivers have been released, from Vitor Meira to J.R. Hildebrand. But that also doesn't mean I want Panther Racing to go away, or not be competitive in 2014.

Huertas, whose main experience comes in Formula Renault 3.5, has won a race, but his results have been mixed, besides. There's no way of telling just what that means for his IndyCar experience, but Carlin Motorsport has been the seat of some very good drivers over the years. Formula Renault also is not a very constant predictor of IndyCar success. The drivers who have completed and won in that series range from Sebastian Vettel and Bertrand Baguette to drivers who simply vanished from public view.

In reading a history of the Ford Motor Company the other day, I was struck by a line which essentially stated the Ford did its best work in crisis--that only when the losses had mounted, and the product looked shaky, did they produce new cars and new innovations to press forward. With the National Guard gone, sponsor questions remaining, and an unproven driver potentially behind the wheel, I wonder if Panther has it in them to do the same now?

There's still a lot unsettled in IndyCar for 2014, and there's still over a month before the flag drops at St. Pete. Yet I can't help but feel of all the questions still waiting to be answered, just how Panther Racing fares in the new season might be among the the most insistent.