Monday, March 31, 2014

Notes: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

-Really, if you think about it, it was sort of fitting a Verizon car won the first-ever race under the Verizon Indy Car Series banner. It was a really strong start for Will Power, who had company all day, but also never looked like he wasn't at least equal to the task.

-I suppose we should address the issues with the restart after Charlie Kimball's yellow. It seemed as if the pace car shouldn't have been as gapped as it was, but there's no doubt the whole speed up/slow down/speed up business really made a mess of things.

-Mike Conway was immensely impressive in his debut for Ed Carpenter Racing. It's only been one race, but you just get the feeling that Ed Carpenter the Owner made the right decision. Yeah, a miscommunication late in the race cost them a chance at a podium or better, but tell me something--if they don't make that unforced error, would you have bet against Conway to win it all? I wouldn't have.

-Regarding the TV and radio coverage: I thought the TV pace was better, though Scott Goodyear could still stand to bring a bit more energy. It was well-produced, and I thought a much better product than last year. In terms of the radio coverage, Paul Page was a bit rusty, but he can get away with that for a bit, being Paul Page. Pippa Mann was excellent as the driver analyst, and it was nice having Sage Karam providing insight for the Lights race. On that note, do you think there's any serious chance we don't see Karam in a car for the Indy 500? I don't--why have him in the booth and out and about if he's just going to pine away for a ride all year? My guess is Sage will have a spot for himself in the field of 33.

-Chevy grabbed the first victory, but Honda was no slouch, either. In fact the Top 10 was perfectly split 5/5 between the two manufacturers. For all the talk about either Honda or Chevy looking to have the upper hand with this engine redesign, it's still felt like anyone's race so far. Honda grabs the pole, Chevy wins the race, Honda grabs P2. I hope the see-saw continues.

-Rookies, Rookies Everywhere: I thought it was a promising weekend for most of IndyCar's rookie crop. Mikhail Aleshin crept up to finish P12. Carlos Munoz started P7, and ran into trouble only later in the race. Carlos Huertas didn't look significantly behind the power curve, given his lack of seat time. Then there's Jack Hawksworth (see below)....

-Jack Hawksworth was caught in an absolutely horrible restart that wasn't his fault, but that shouldn't take away from a very good rookie debut. He was competitive all weekend, mixing it up with the veterans, and showing more of the skill he's always shown at St. Pete. Bryan Herta Autosport has to be very excited about his potential this year.

-That was a scary moment on the Marco Andretti crash. We've seen plenty of drivers injure their wrists by not releasing the steering wheels quickly enough on a snappy impact like that. Hopefully, it's nothing he can work his way through, but it didn't look good.

-Justin Wilson starts P16, finishes P8. Why is this man not in a Penske or Ganassi or Andretti car again?

-Newgarden! Starts dead last, finishes P9, with a great charge in the closing laps of the race. I still think we see Josef get that first victory at some point this year. There are a lot of reasons to think Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing could struggle this year--a small team, engineering changes--but they don't seem to care.

-Your Top 5 yesterday: Power, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Dixon, Pagenaud. That pretty much seems like the core of the title contenders, doesn't it? Heck, throw Tony Kanaan in P6 in there, too, and I think that still holds true.

-Back to the race itself: it was nice and clean through Lap 76, and I really felt like it was just a lot of really excellent professionals, each with a reasonable shot to win, running mostly hard and clean . While it wasn't in doubt down to the wire, it just felt like an optimistic, hard-fought opener, as if we all mostly picked up right where we left off.

-I think we're in for a fun year in Indy Lights (remember, Cooper Tires now, not Firestone!). Zach Veach did a nice job yesterday of running consistently fast laps--something he couldn't always say in 2013--and it was an impressive first victory.

-Big congratulations to Spencer Pigot for winning both races of Pro Mazda's St. Pete doubleheader. You also have to impressed with Kyle Kaiser finishing P2 in both races. That's going to be a fun series to follow again this year. 16 entrants is a pretty solid field for right now, too, I think.

Other Notes: As much as I enjoy IndyCar's Radio coverage, there were a few times this weekend where there were reports of some choppy audio from web browsers. However, it sounds as if the Verizon app audio worked well...Scary moment in the Lights race with an early hard crash from Fan Force United's Scott Anderson. Glad he's ok--the FFU machine, however, didn't look as if it could say the same...Congrats to RC Enerson and Florian Latorre for their USF2000 wins this weekend....Takuma Sato might have been caught up in some traffic exiting the pits and finished P7, but still, that's got to be a very nice opening weekend for the Foyt crew. They just have to hope they not only start strong like last year, but finish strong, too.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Storylines: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

After a ridiculously long winter, the newly-christened Verizon IndyCar Series powers up once again for a season opener. This offseason has seen plenty of changes on the drivers, engines, and crew fronts, but the old favorites are (mostly) still there, ready to fight it out once again for the title. Here are a few of the storylines to keep in mind for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:

Watch Those Engines: A new engine formula, and Honda switch to a twin-turbo, mean a lot of uncertainty as to just what to expect out of the engines--especially in the first few rounds. On paper, it looks like Honda has the most to prove, and with that comes the performance of would-be title contenders such as Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. Will they be able to contend with the Chevy teams of Penske and the newly-converted Ganassi crew, or will they be sentenced to a season of also-ran status?

And speaking of engines...

Rules Reminder: There is no more 10-grid driver penalty for swapping engines before their expiration date, with only a manufacturer's penalty as negative reinforcement for that action.

A Big Debut: Of course, Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason, and everyone is anxious to see if he's on the same wavelength as his teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. If he struggles early or dominates out of the gate, expect plenty of discussion of his career and his place in IndyCar--and racing--history, for good or ill.

Livery Watch: My goodness, what isn't different this year? Mikhail Aleshin will debut the red, white, and blue colorings of the SMP Bank livery in the #7 car, while Sebastien Bourdais will be in a green-and-black iteration of the #11 Hydroxycut scheme. Graham Rahal's #15 will sport the blue-and-red National Guard colors, and Sebastian Saavedra returns to his AFS Racing yellow/red livery in the #17. Marco Andretti is in blue/yellow Snapple colors, while James Hinchcliffe debuts the light blue and white UFD livery. Jack Hawksworth will have the Charter #98 black/blue colors, and Josef Newgarden will take the #67 in a black/orange/white Florida Lotto configuration. All in all, there are plenty of very distinct liveries to start off the year.

Engineering Changes: There have been plenty of engineering changes and crew swaps over the offseason, but there are a few that stand out as worthy of special notice. Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing lost Bill Pappas in the offseason, but have replaced him with engineer Michael Cannon. Cannon is excellent, but you'll also note he never stays for long with any one team. Meanwhile, Bill Pappas moved to what looks to be a budding powerhouse at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Graham Rahal complained plenty about setup woes last year; we'll see what the magic of Pappas can do for that team. Elsewhere, James Hinchcliffe lost his engineer Craig Hampson to a R&D role, but the team grabbed Nathan O'Rourke from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. All the teams listed have plenty to prove this year, and just how the engineering musical chairs pans out will be a big part of that.

The Ganassi Revamp: With Dario Franchitti retiring, it will seem odd to see Tony Kanaan in the #10 Target Chip Ganassi car, but last year's Indy 500 champ is sitting in one of the best rides in the series. If he can come close to the excellence Franchitti showed in that seat, he'll be doing great--he has some very big shoes to fill, after all. With him will be teammate Ryan Briscoe, rescued from Part-Timer's Purgatory and placed in the #8 NTT Data car. Paired with defending champion Scott Dixon and race winner Charlie Kimball, this is a team that should be formidable each and every week.

Rookie Watch: It's essentially a three-way race between full-time rookies for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in IndyCar. Mikhail Aleshin is experienced, but it remains to be seen how he'll fare on the ovals. Jack Hawksworth can point to some brilliant moments on the street courses throughout the Mazda Road to Indy, but being on a one-car team and sketchy on ovals raise some big question marks. Carlos Munoz had a great rookie outing at Indy in 2012, but we'll have to see if he can bring that over a full season. Consistency is the name of the game to become Rookie of the Year, and any one of the three racers mentioned could surprise or disappoint. Let's see who gets off to a fast start.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: It's a big weekend for the Mazda Road to Indy, as both USF2000 and Pro Mazda have multi-race weekends planned (more on those series to come soon). In Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires, it's a double-digit car count (12), with hopes that it stays north of the low numbers shown in 2012. There are several possible title contenders in the field, but Matthew Brabaham and Zach Veach of Andretti, Jack Harvey and Luiz Razia of Schmidt Peterson, and Gabby Chaves Chaves of Belardi Auto Racing are probably the ones to watch right out of the gate. We'll see which other young prospects can join the fight and make a name for themselves this weekend. It will also be worth watching Lloyd Read and the Bryan Herta Autosport entry, to see how solid they are.

Pole Prediction: Will Power. Why mess with what works?

Dark Horse Prediction: Charlie Kimball. I don't think we can consider a Ganassi driver much of a dark horse, but I'm not seeing his name much in connection with being favored for this one. He finished P9 here a year ago, but that was after starting P22. I think he is line for an even better season than last year, and what better place to start?

Winner Prediction: Helio Castroneves. I think he'll start the season strong. Yes, that's just a hunch I will likely regret.

If you missed it: Don't forget to check out the 2014 Season Kick-off Round Table I did with Eric Hall, Mark Wilkinson, and Steve Wittich over at INDYCAR Nation. It's good fun for the whole family!

That's all for now. Enjoy the first 2014 weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and may it be a good weekend for one and all!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jim Nabors: More Than Tradition

Unlike many individuals, I don't have a specific remembrance of the first time I heard Jim Nabors sing "Indiana" at the 500. For many of us 30 or 40-something midwesterner types, I suspect that's because it has seemed as if Jim Nabors has always been a part of the Indianapolis 500. It was just a given; since 1972, he's performed just before the race 33 times (a fitting number, I suppose). The years where he wasn't there seemed an anomaly, just a blip in an otherwise solid Indy tradition.

Honestly, for many years, Jim Nabors performing was sort of an afterthought to me--something that I knew was part of the overall festivities, but didn't really do much for me, outside of the fact that I liked the idea of the tradition. As I became a snotty teenager, my interest in the 500 and open wheel racing waned for a few years.

Flash forward a few years, and I am in the middle of a deployment with the United States Air Force. I'm thousands of miles from home, missing my family, my state, and my country desperately. One Sunday, I tune in to a grainy, unreliable Armed Forces Network feed. There on that fuzzy screen, singing "Indiana", was Jim Nabors. I absolutely broke down. In that simple performance, he encapsulated everything I loved--and missed--about home, growing up, and the Indianapolis 500.

Every year, from my seat in J-Stand, I see men and women from every walk of society--biker and lawyer, dentist and couch-burner--tear up when Jim Nabors sings. I know that for many of them, like me, that song is hitting them right in the heart. There's a moment in "Indiana" where all the longing, all the great memories, and the joy of being somewhere special come together into a feeling that can't quite ever be precisely described. Sharing that feeling--even if we can't quite name it--with 250,000 of your newfound closest friends just heightens it.

We live in a cynical world, one where sometimes something simple and sweet can often only be loved if it is in the "ironic" sense. I think there is often a tendency to think of matters such as an attachment to Jim Nabors, or "11 rows of 3", or the Gordon Pipers, as somehow dismissively provincial, equating anything not understood by the wider public as somehow without merit or meaning. How wrong they are.

I've seen people laugh at the idea that there's somehow meaning in having Jim Nabors sing before the race. I've seen people refer to Jim Nabors as out-of-date or needing replaced by some newer act. I don't think that's the case. Whomever follows Jim Nabors (they can't replace him) should have the same sentimentality, the same straightforward spirit in singing, and that same intangible ability to evoke the best feelings of home, happiness, and memory. I like to believe there is still a place for earnestness in the world, for pure enthusiasm and joy, untempered by cynicism or the prevailing fashions of the world. For me, Jim Nabors singing "Indiana" embodies much of that.

We are lucky to have Jim Nabors one more year at the Indianapolis 500. I hope that he finds as much happiness and remembrance in his last performance as he brought to so many of us for so many years.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Notebook: Hildebrand, Car Count, Points

Oh my goodness, so much to discuss going into this weekend:

-I absolutely love the moves Ed Carpenter and his team have made this offseason. Although he worked hard at improving his craft on the road/street courses, he knew Mike Conway would be an upgrade, and pulled the trigger on that deal. Now, for the Indy 500, an event Ed has every possibility of winning one of these days, he’s chosen a teammate in J.R. Hildebrand that should have no problems matching and adding to the team’s success overall.

One comment I saw online discounted Hildebrand’s chances due to his P33 finish at Indy last year. Yeah it wasn’t pretty. But honestly, the entire situation with Hildebrand and Panther Racing deserves a do-over. We know he can the big speedways, including Indy: one poor results shouldn’t nullify that. Plus if any driver has motivation to do well this May, between 2011, last year’s brutal race, and what transpired with Panther, it is JR Hildebrand. I really like the move, and think the #21 is going to be fun to watch come May.

-So where does that leave us on Indy 500 car count? That gets us to 27 confirmed car-and-driver combos. For a math whiz like me, that comes to…let’s see….6 more entries for 33 cars, and 7 for 34. Right now the split is 12 Chevy and 15 Honda. You’re still looking at a Panther entry (Chevy), Dreyer & Reinbold’s one-off (Chevy), Ganassi’s fifth (Chevy), KV’s third (Chevy). Assuming all those come through, that’s 31 (16 Chevy/15 Honda). If Dale Coyne runs two more cars like he did last year, that gets the field to 33, with a 16 Chevy/17 Honda split. Is there another Chevy out there somewhere?

-There's also the big news on point changes for 500-mile races. With the points doubled for 500-milers, that seems like really good news for Ed Carpenter Racing, who should see their entrant points bump nicely between Ed’s oval prowess and Mike Conway on the twisties. Carpenter scored 333 points while finishing in P16 in the final standings last year; he could conceivably get close to a third of that in a single weekend at Indy, Pocono, or Fontana.

Additionally, we’ll see a much larger swing possible in the season finale. If Simon Pagenaud trails Scott Dixon by 70 points going into Fontana, that’s no longer out of reach. Basically, if a championship contender walls it and finishes P25 (let’s assume the field will be a bit larger for the finale), there could be a 90-point swing for the race alone. That’s going to be huge, and might mean a couple additional drivers in the title hunt come the finale.

-If you missed yesterday’s interview with Martin Plowman, why not take a minute and give it a read? Plowey is one of the truly nice guys in the paddock, and I hope he drives the wheels off that #41 at Indy.

-Finally, I wanted to give another plug for the site The IndyCar Blogs. It’s a nice gathering of all the IndyCar blogs out there, and I’ve picked up a few stories and sites I might now have otherwise seen. They’re also doing some nice work on Twitter, if you’re so inclined to follow them there.

Have a great weekend, and we’ll continue to gear up for the season next week!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Martin Plowman Interview: Looking Ahead To Indy

Martin Plowman is one of this year's rookie crop of drivers for the Indianapolis 500, and he'll also be "doubling" in May by competing in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. This year's driver of the #41 AJ Foyt Racing car has a pretty varied resume: he's an Indy Lights alum, he raced a few IndyCar weekends in 2011, and has a Le Mans class win under his belt. Now, with an all-new challenge in front of him, the English racer took a few minutes to answer a short Q&A on his Month of May plans and a few other items:

Plowey, thanks so much for taking some time out to do this. First, I guess we have to ask that all-consuming question, how did this deal come together? How long have you been chatting with Foyt?

MP: I first connected with Larry [Foyt] when I was a part of the Indy 500 Centennial tour, visiting military bases across the Middle-East, and I stayed in contact with him and his team ever since. AJ Foyt was one of the teams I interviewed with after moving up from Firestone Indy Lights, but the timing wasn't right as they needed a veteran to lead their one-car team. This off-season, the sportscar scene was looking bleak as it seemed that nearly all of the teams that were interested in hiring me were waiting on funding to come through from sponsors or "gentlemen drivers" so I had simply had to wait and keep phoning and emailing for an opportunity out there.

I had run out of people to email, when my dad asked me, "Have you emailed anyone in IndyCar?". At that point I had lost all hope of IndyCar because I wasn't getting anywhere finding a job in sportscar. My dad insisted I put my name out there one last time, so I reached out to Larry. He called me the next day and told me that he might have something for a second car at Indy. He told me that he had wanted to work with me for sometime, but that he would have to convince his dad to take a chance on an Indy "rookie."

I think winning at Le Mans last year certainly helped sway the decision slightly, as it's something AJ can relate to, plus I have a reputation of being someone who doesn't crash cars. Of course accidents can and will happen, but I'm someone who finds the limit in a smart way.

Have you talked much with AJ Foyt yet? Is it intimidating to think of driving for his team as a 500 rookie?

MP: The first time I got to talk to AJ formally was at Sebring for my first test. He was very easy to get along with. It's a huge honor to race for AJ, especially at Indianapolis as a rookie. He's not just a figure-head for the team; he's still very much involved with everything going on with the car, so his wealth of experience will be a huge help to me. It's not intimidating at all. In fact, I gave him my permission to slap me around if I did something wrong, as I want his help to become the best.

You've been a spotter at Indy before. Do you think that's going to help you at all in terms of preparation?

MP: Being a spotter gave me a different insight into the race, but I'm not sure how much it helped in preparing me for racing in the 500. If anything, I saw just how much of a roller-coaster ride the race is and how you have to stay very patient as the balance of a car shifts during the race.

Let's talk about your teammate for May, Takuma Sato. How would you say your driving styles are similar or different?

MP: Luckily our driving styles seem to be fairly similar after working with him at the test. We both look for the same things in a car and are sensitive to the same balance problems. It's a huge bonus for me, as it means the setup work that Taku is working on this season should transfer over to me. When I first raced in IndyCar, Tagliani, my team-mate at the time, had a very different style to me, so it meant that I had to create my own-setup with my engineer. By the second race, I was on pace with Tags, but we had opposite approaches in setup.

You've won your class at Le Mans and have been around Indy. How do the two most famous races on earth compare to one another in terms of the feeling surrounding them?

MP: They're very similar in the feel around the build-up to the race. Both cities live for their big-race and seem to completely shut-down for the two weeks the race is in town. Just like in Indy, the driver parade in Le Mans is watched by up to 100,000 people. They're both very special races that every driver aspires to win and everyone should attend before they die.
Plowman will be pulling double duty this May.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media. Image by Dana Garrett).

What about your Le Mans teammate, Bertrand Baguette? Did you guys ever have any discussion about him wanting to come back to Indy in a DW12?

MP: No, we never really talked about IndyCar together that much.

You've been involved with some pretty cool charities like Snowball Express. What's going on right now on that front?

MP: I'm still very active with Snowball, using my racing career as a platform to raise awareness for them and try to help them raise the funds needed to continue the good work they do for families of our fallen military. Nicole and I are actually planning a fundraiser in early May to benefit Snowball Express, and we'll announce further details on social media soon.

In your opinion, what has been the most exciting IndyCar or Indy 500 driver announcement this offseason (aside from your own, of course)?

MP: It was cool to see JPM make his return to open-wheel racing. He was an animal in ChampCar and took it to the Formula 1 elite when he raced for Williams, so I always welcome the chance to race against the world's best drivers.

Of course, no one ever knows how many chances they'll get at Indy. If this ended up being your only race at Indy, how would you like to be remembered? What sort of expectations are you bringing in as a rookie?

MP: I'd like to be remembered as a hard-charger who never quits and if it is my only 500....a winner!

How much have you kept up with your fellow Indy Lights classmates? There certainly should be a lot of them out there this year!

MP: We're actually all really good friends for the most part. Charlie, Stef, and Hinch are three of the current guys who I'm still very good friends with. I guess spending a year together as part of the Pace Car Team helped. Three of the quartet got engaged within the space of a month, so Hinch got a lot of harassment about him being the last one to commit. He has a good genuine girl too, so he had better not let her get away.

Everyone knows funding for a driver can be exceedingly hard to come by. What has driven and sustained you when the funding chase seemed dire?

MP: Never, never give up. Don't complain about your situation on social media; it's just wasted time. Work harder than you every have done before, work smarter, surround yourself with the right people, keep yourself prepared for any opportunity that might come your way and your luck will change.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Three Big Things To Watch At The Barber Test

For most of us, Spring has not precisely sprung just yet, but that’s not stopping the Verizon IndyCar Series from getting in some spring training this week. Monday and Tuesday’s open test sessions from Barber Motorsports Park will be the first IndyCar fix for many of us, and thankfully, it will be covered via’s Live Timing and Scoring. 23 cars (22 drivers, 1 TBA) will take to the track over the two-day test. The 10am-12pm, 2pm-5pm (CT) sessions each day will be bookended by some interviews and press conferences, so we should get some nice announcements this week, too, as some of the final bits of the upcoming season are fleshed out or nailed down.

If you don’t have time during the early part of your work week to get into deep stuff, or you’re just looking for a brief overview of what to expect from Barber, here are three things to keep an eye on from the Verizon Indycar Series Open Test:

1) The Honda Differential
Honda is back this year with the newly-mandated twin turbo engine, and if there’s a big question mark right now, it has to be just how they’re going to do against Chevy and their revamped line-up. With Andretti Autosport moving to Honda and Chip Ganassi Racing moving to Chevrolet, there’s a lot of intrigue as to where the teams will sort out this year. With Honda jumping to a new engine design and the Ganassis and Penskes arrayed as the top Chevy teams, it would seem as if it is incumbent upon Honda and their teams to show they have what it takes to lead the pack. While a few open sessions might not be enough to tell the tale of a season, it could be an early indicator of where the Chevy and Honda camps (and by extension, their teams) are early on. The early results from Andretti, Rahal, Penske, and Ganassi could very well be bellwethers.

2) That Coyne 2nd Seat
God bless Dale Coyne, who keeps bloggers like me on the edge of our seats perpetually. Dale Coyne has been instrumental in bringing many drivers to this series, and has given a lot of drivers their chance in IndyCar. This year, the only unfilled spot on the entry sheet for the Barber Test is—you guessed it—the Coyne #18 car. We’ll probably find out sooner rather than later who it’s going to be, and of course there’s no guarantee the driver that’s in there for the test is going to be the main driver for the second Coyne ride. But it does add a bit of intrigue to a field that already appears to be fairly firmed cemented in terms of full-time rides (seeing as how Panther Racing doesn’t seem likely to answer the bell—you’ll notice their name isn’t to be found on the entry list). Coyne has his favorites, but he’s also been known to throw out some curveballs. I can’t wait to see who is in that seat, and what it means for the upcoming season.

3) Watch Those Rookies
There are three rookies in the field this week, and each of them brings their own story and situation to the table. Carlos Munoz already raced quite memorably part-time last year, and appears to be a strong candidate for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year. It will be interesting to see where he lands in terms of times versus the rest of a strong Andretti Autosport stable. Meanwhile, Russian Mikhail Aleshin has a teammate in Simon Pagenaud who seems a threat to contend for the title if his Honda is up to the task. Will Aleshin be an asset to the team’s campaign, and will he be able to complement his teammate well? Finally, there’s Jack Hawksworth, who was announced as a bit of a surprise with Bryan Herta Autosport. Hawk is young, and will likely have some challenges ahead of him on ovals, but Barber should be a course where he is quite comfortable. We’ll have to see just how the rookies compare against one another, and who needs a bit more work.

So there you have it—just a few of the items to watch from the Barber Open Test. Get ready, and gear up—the season is just around the corner!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Five Reasons To Like The SFHR Tagliani Signing

Five thoughts on why the Sarah Fisher Hartman signing of Alex Tagliani is a good thing:

1) Tag can be quick at Indy.
Through five Indy 500s, Alex Tagliani has an average starting position of 12.2—which skyrockets to 7.0 if you knock out his freshman qualifying mess. Granted, he hasn’t finished as well in the race itself (average finish of P17, with one Top 10), but with his ability to get around Indy, he’ll give you at least a puncher’s chance out there. We know SFHR knows how to set up a car on the big ovals, and that, coupled with Tag’s ability to bring it in qualifying, could mean a big payoff with the #68 car come the end of May.

2) He’ll be an experienced teammate for Josef Newgarden.
Newgarden was quick in qualifications his rookie year, but with then-teammate Bryan Clauson, he was paired with a fellow rookie, which probably limited some of the shared knowledge he might have otherwise have been able to attain. Last year, he was the sole SFHR entrant at Indy, and that fact very apparently didn’t do him any favors. That will be far from the case this year, as Tagliani provides plenty of experience for the team overall. A second car with a veteran driver can be a huge boost for a team if they happen to get lost or struggle—or to help them get that edge needed to move up a few rows.

3) He’s one of the best available.
I covered some of the free agents with DW12 experience available for Indy, but honestly, in terms of overall experience, Tag has to rate near the top of that list. SFHR won’t be dealing with a raw rookie, or someone who’s been out of a car for a few years. They’ll have a well-experienced driver with ample DW12 success and seat time. In terms of who was available, SFHR put together a very good deal for their team here. There are a lot of drivers that would have a pretty decent interest/intrigue factor, but precious few with the experience or resumé of Tagliani.

4) Fans get a friend.
If you’ve been to any IndyCar fan event over the past few years, you know Alex Tagliani is one of the best at fan engagement. He and his wife have been regulars at multiple charitable events and IndyCar fan meet-ups, and whether he’s on the pole or struggling on track, it doesn’t seem to affect his participation. I’m guessing he’ll be a lively participant once again for the fans this May, and as accessible as always.

5) It works out perfectly for a Paul Tracy return.
Seriously, it’s like peanut butter and chocolate—or is it oil and water? Rumors are we might see PT back at Indy, and if it pans out, it makes this signing even better. Sure, they might say they’re all cool now, but everyone remembers their “run-ins” on and off the track. In a year where we’re already seeing Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kurt Busch in the 500 field, having PT, Tag, and Sebastien Bourdais just seems a perfect fit. We are going to have some Strong Feelings on Racing Topics, I think.

Of course, there’s also the always-welcome Bronte Tagliani. On that account, we know Robin Miller, at least, will be very happy this May. If Tag shows the speed he’s capable of, Sarah Fisher’s whole team might be, too.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Examining Indy’s Free Agent List

Last night, I was doodling around, trying to figure out some car count numbers for Indianapolis and the overall Month of May this year. There’s still way too many moving pieces for me to get a decent count (BREAKING: We will have at least 33), but it did get me really looking at the number of free agent drivers for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Even if we’re just looking at folks with experience in the DW12, it’s quite a list. Excluding Simona de Silvestro, EJ Viso, Jean Alesi, and AJ Allmendinger, who are either done or seem as if they’ll be elsewhere come May, here’s the list:

Rubens Barrichello
Townsend Bell
Ana Beatriz
Bryan Clauson
Wade Cunningham
Conor Daly
JR Hildebrand
James Jakes
Michel Jourdain
Katherine Legge
Pippa Mann
Alex Tagliani
Tristan Vautier

Of course, some of these drivers might be pretty long shots to return back to the Indy 500, but I suppose you never know—I didn’t expect to see Jacques Villeneuve again, after all. Still, even discounting the unlikely returnees, what’s left is a pretty intriguing list. There’s at least a few of these drivers that appear to be sniffing around with some funding for May, and we might see a few (such as James Jakes) full-time when all is said and done.

Who will join the Indy field for 2014?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media. Image by Forrest Mellott).
But if you’re an owner, and you have some of these drivers with right around the same amount of money, who do you go with to fill your ride? Drivers like Alex Tagliani and Townsend Bell have shown what they can do for you at Indianapolis, of course, and they’d have to be towards to the top of the list. J.R. Hildebrand, Indy disappointments notwithstanding, has shown he can be as quick as anyone at IMS. Can a deal get put together for him. What about drivers like Michel Jourdain, who fell victim to a bizarre car issue last year, but ran a respectable race in 2012?

Conor Daly would be an intriguing one—he clearly has talent, but had some bad moments last May in his rookie outing (he's also mentioned elsewhere he thinks he'll have something for Indy). There are fan favorites like Pippa Mann, who’d be going for her third overall Indy try, and ciphers such as Tristan Vautier, who had a rough rookie season, but was +12 on positions moved up at the 500.

Of course, you don’t need a driver with ample DW12 experience to finish strong at Indy; AJ Allmendinger showed that in his rookie foray last season. But assume budgets can be put together, there’s a pretty wide variety of drivers out there with at least one DW12 Indy 500 under their belt that will be looking for a place to land this May. It’s hard for a any driver to pull an Al Unser, Sr. or Dan Wheldon and win as a one-off or part-timer, but part of the magic of the 500 is that it has and can happen.

(Update: Even though his last 500 was 2011, I'd be remiss in not mentioning this bit of speculation on Paul Tracy. Interesting to consider!).

Monday, March 10, 2014

An Unsettled May

Like many Indy fans, I am a creature of habit. I have my spot in J-Stand, I like to arrive on race morning and be in the bleachers by a certain time, and scientists could probably discern a migratory pattern on race morning as I go through my usual routine. Really, the entire Month of May is pretty close to that, too—I have a rotation for when I bring the kids to the track, my spot I like to go when it rains, and there’s also my regular Pole Day breakfast (yes, it includes a Track Tenderloin—as if there were any doubt).

But, as my dad has said, “nothing is the same forever, no matter the tradition behind it”. That’s certainly the case this year. There’s the Grand Prix to start off the Month of May, the traditional Pole Day structure has been changed, and there’s even glamping in the IMS infield during race weekend.

(Glamping, I am reasonably informed, is shorthand for “glamorous camping”. I think this is a brilliant idea from IMS, but I’m pretty sure anything named “glam camping” makes Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne cry. If the good Lord didn’t mean for race camping to be in a leaky tent or camper, listening to a large drunk man bellow out the lyrics to “Elvira” at 3 in the morning while knocking over your hibachi, he wouldn’t have invented Lots 2 and 4).

Here’s the thing about Indianapolis—you can’t kick a rock without hitting tradition—whether it’s a party of dudes who have drawn names cut out of the newspaper on race morning for their family pool for three decades, or the Gordon Pipers still making every day at the track a little more awesome, or some guy who swears he HAS to stand in THIS SPOT to get his picture taken, because otherwise his favorite driver won’t win.

(The last example is a real-life example I was made aware of last year. We IMS fans are doggedly loyal, but perhaps a bit OCD, when you think about it).

So yes, there’s tradition everywhere, both big and little, both personal and largely shared by the masses. I’ve shrugged off some changes at the Speedway, simply because they weren’t a huge deal to what I considered important. Other things jostled me a bit, but I figured I could live with it—after all, my routine wasn’t impacted or anything. This year, though, the change is unavoidable. My schedule will be far different, for one, and my usual Bump Day won’t be the same. The migratory pattern has been interrupted, and for the first time in a while, I’ve found my Month of May seeming very unsettled as the race season draws near. It feels like I’ve had a late start on my planning, and I’m still trying to figure out my commuting schedule (moving 30 minutes further north will do that). Legends Day will be far more busy with a massive concert going on.

But you know, while it’s change, it’s not necessarily bad change. I’m happy the road course has been revamped, and I love that I’ll be spending more time watching racing I actually care about at IMS. I’m still uncertain on how I’m going to like the changes to qualifications, but I’m pretty interested to see how it works out. Heck, I’m even listen to how the glamping experience was.

So yeah, I’m unsettled, and perhaps a bit off balance for this year’s Indy 500. But I’m also ready to see how it all plays out. I might be out of my comfort zone, but I think that’s ok, especially if it means more racing and more TV coverage for the 500. I think I’ll survive, and perhaps even thrive—just don’t turn those Track Tenderloins into tofuburgers. Even for us hardcores, there are some dealbreakers.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Polarizing 2014

It’s been a heck of an offseason in terms of some wild driver announcements for IndyCar. Earlier today, Kurt Busch added to that by announcing he’ll try the “double” between the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Busch has long been rumored for such a try, but it’s still cool to see it materialize, especially with an Andretti Autosport outfit who knows a thing or two about publicity.

In another sense, though, this is the latest in a series of off-season announcements that seem guaranteed to ensure IndyCar fans will have no shortage of polarizing drivers and figures to follow. Sure, there are guys like Martin Plowman, who is about as unobjectionable a human being as has ever jumped in a race car, and would be difficult to cheer against, but there are also guys like Juan Pablo Montoya, known for dominating the 2000 Indy 500, but a checkered NASCAR career. Drivers like Jacques Villeneuve, who is an Indy 500 and F1 champion, but is also known for his ping-pong ball impersonation when he’s a NASCAR road course ringer. You throw those two in with Kurt Busch, who has had as many notorious moments as he has on-track successes, and it’s a triad of tempestuousness.

There are a lot of drivers that very easy to cheer for in IndyCar. Whether it’s James Hinchcliffe being hilarious, Justin Wilson being an incredibly nice human being, or Pippa Mann continuing to scrap and fight for every chance in an IndyCar, we all have our favorites. But that’s not the only thing to make a racing series. I’m no fan of soap operas, but one has to admit, there’s a certain amount of baggage with drivers like Busch, Montoya, and Villeneuve. That’s a good thing! That means strong feelings. Strong feelings mean an interest in the proceedings, and an interest in the proceedings should mean better ratings and/or fan attention.

I wish all the new arrivals in IndyCar and for the 500 the best of luck. I think we’re seeing not only some good talent come in, we’re also seeing some very interesting talent, which is even better. If you have a racing series full of personalities, but no poor racing, that doesn’t interest me. But if you can combine personality with great racing, that’s something folks should want to see.

Whether it’s in regards to the 2014 season or the Month of May, IndyCar is going to have some potentially volatile mixes on the track and off. How nicely everyone plays together is anyone’s guess.
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