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Pole Day at Indy – Saturday should have been Sunday

The Saturday qualifications for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 were fantastic, fabulous, superb, scintillating, tense, and whatever other words can be found in a thesaurus.  It’s just too bad they didn’t count.  Let’s just pretend they didn’t happen and do it all over for television.  What did Sunday bring? The wind made it edgy for spots 10-33, but the drama of making the race was missing, as were all of those great adjectives.  Sunday qualification was perfunctory with a little bit of mystery.  They had to take a risk for no other reason than TV.  James Hinchcliffe, coming back from life-threatening injuries here last year, edged Josef Newgarden for the pole in the feel good story of the month, but the day could have been even better.

ABC wanted a show that fit neatly into its Sunday afternoon time slot and got what it wanted: nice images of cars going fast without the drama of making the race.  Real risk without only one real reward.

For a while on Saturday, it seemed that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had its mojo back.  Cars were on the edge and drivers were hanging it out.  Teams had to make the risky choice to get in the “Fast Lane” to qualify and withdraw their times or sit tight with their times.  Real drama in real time was finally happening again at Indy in May.  But other than for the Fast Nine, it was meaningless.

IMS has spent the last decade tinkering with the qualification format, confusing fans, media, and teams in the process.  The current format would be so much more dramatic if there were more than 33 cars available to qualify.  Truthfully, IndyCar fans should be thankful that 33 cars even entered the race.  When the series struggles to have 21 or 22 cars at every other venue, it is unrealistic to expect teams, cars, and engines to magically appear in May.  How much better would the day one show have been with the bottom of the grid trying to make the show while the top of the grid was trying to make the Fast Nine?

If there were more cars than spots, it would be like the English Premier League soccer table.  The teams at the top try to qualify for the Champions League while the ones at the bottom try to avoid being relegated to a lower league.  The concept works because of the drama at both ends of the table.  With only 33 cars, the only drama is at the top.  Other than the top 15 or so cars, there is no incentive to have another go at it if you are at the bottom.  The pathos is the heartbreak of missing the race, not missing the top nine.  Somehow, it is difficult to feel too sorry for a Marco Andretti or an Alexander Rossi missing out on the Fast Nine Shootout.  Exciting, yes.  Entertaining, yes.  Heartbreaking, no.

All props should go to Honda, though.  With five of the first six spots, Honda teams can smile and not worry about strakes and domed skids.  The sandbagger sobriquet for Chevy can be forgotten.  Honda is back.

So on Sunday, cars moved up or down on the grid, motors expired, gearboxes proved recalcitrant, trash bags blew out of cars, and Alex Tagliani found the end of the pit wall.  And for what?  To move up a couple of spots after surviving the four toughest laps in motor sports the day before.  The Fast Nine went by quickly, with SPM’s James Hinchcliffe holding off ECR’s Josef Newgarden for pole position for the 2016 Indianapolis 500.  Getting the pole is a big deal.  It is emotional.  The Fast Nine was exciting, no doubt about that. The cars were on the edge, and the drivers were hanging it out…again.  But let us see everybody hang it out with the clock ticking down to 6:00 PM, not just counting down the cars left to go.  Let decisions be made and hearts be broken.  Saturday should have been Sunday.

 

 

 

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The 2015 IndyCar season in the rearview mirror

Horace Walpole wrote “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  That pretty much sums up the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, doesn’t it?

The tragedy of Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono will cast a pall on this season for years to come.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will always be known for the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964 and Scott Brayton in 1996.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway will always be remembered for Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011.  These types of accidents leave indelible scars on facilities, series, and fans.  Indelible.

Accidents like these leave other lasting marks, too.  Smaller fuel loads, fuel cells, and methanol were mandated after 1964.  Soon after the basal skull fracture death of Scott Brayton, HANS devices were mandatory.  Catch fence research is still ongoing after Dan Wheldon’s accident in Las Vegas.  Now, after Justin Wilson’s death, discussion about how to protect drivers in open cockpit cars is taking place.  Lasting.

But pathos has two faces.  While we are heartbroken for the family and friends of Justin Wilson, other far less tragic situations in the 16 races of the season leave us smiling, pulling our hair, or just shaking our heads.

  • Scott Dixon’s come-from-behind pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-his-hat championship surprised everyone and no one.  A strong, consistent team with the steadiest of drivers is a pretty good recipe for success.
  • Graham Rahal and his one car team proved once again that relatively equal equipment in a series can be exciting.  Fans were pulling for him to finish in the top three in the championship.  Underdogs make for compelling drama, and the series had plenty of that.  Nice to see Rahal mature into the racer people always hoped he would be.  Plus, he is the absolute best shill among all the drivers. *sips Steak ‘n Shake milkshake while hooking my car to a Battery Tender*
  • The Indy 500 qualification debacle once again proved that perception is reality.  Series officials looked like knee-jerk reactionaries bent on placating Chevy while hanging Honda out to dry.  The truth is probably different, but who can tell?  This is how it looks so that must be how it is.  People believe what they want to believe.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series quite often makes it easy to believe anything.
  • The loss of Derrick Walker as IndyCar president of competition and operations is another example of perception being reality.  The perception is even the best qualified individual cannot stay in this position.  I’m not sure Mark Miles, who has appropriated the job, is best qualified to head the competition aspect of the position.  Did anyone else hear General Alexander Haig’s declaration, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House”¹ in Miles acceptance of the job?
  • The ascension of Josef Newgarden to star status has begun.  The series needs him as the face of the series.  Real recognize real.
  • The failure of Penske Racing in general and Juan Pablo Montoya in particular down the stretch is another reason to like equal equipment.  With spec racing, money will buy a pretty good driver, but it can no longer guarantee a championship.  Still comes pretty close, though.
  • With all the talk about “date equity” for races, the series really needs “race equity” instead.  Let’s have the same races each year.  The maybe-but-not-quite race in Brazil and the rain-soaked one year experiment in New Orleans aside, the loss of Fontana and the life support of Pocono and Milwaukee leaves fans wondering not just what the dates of next year’s races will be, but what next year’s races will be.  It’s understood that races and promoters come and go, but IndyCar seems to dispatch both with an easy regularity.
  • All is not doom and gloom, though.  The addition of Road America and the possible addition of Phoenix could be harbingers of better things to come.  Or not.  Paying customers are what the series needs.
  • The TV ratings are up.  What a wonderful thing to be able to say.  It could also be said that figures lie and liars figure.  The hope that springs eternal is that high ratings usher in commercial partners and open pocketbooks.  At least it’s something to watch during the interminable off-season.

There you have it.  The season as it fades over the horizon was one to both remember and forget.  2016 cannot get here soon enough.

 

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  1.  The history behind Alexander Haig’s quote for the youngsters out there. http://adst.org/2014/03/al-haig-and-the-reagan-assassination-attempt-im-in-charge-here/

 

Five Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Edition

At times, my WO’s (worthless opinions) can run to sarcasm.  Surprising, I know.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series  always seems to offer snark fodder in abundance.  At previous races this year, the fragile front wings, racing in the rain, and rules interpretations have made it easy for one so inclined.  The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park changed most of that.  While not snark free, most of these WO’s celebrate a great race.

1.  All-American Finish: Josef Newgarden winning is a big deal for many reasons.  A compelling storyline to recent Verizon IndyCar Series seasons is the lack of a marketable American drivers for a North American series.  F1, noted for drivers from around the world, is a truly international series with venues around the world.  The IndyCar series is not.  The international drivers in IndyCar are outstanding, but without sounding all jingoistic about it, having a young, well-spoken, and telegenic American cannot hurt the marketability of the series.  If the series chooses to market him, of course.  They had American Ryan Hunter-Reay as both series champ and Indy 500 winner, and it would be hard to say they capitalized on that.

2.  The Racing: Newgarden and his Chevy were racy from the start, passing Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power to grab the lead from a fifth place start.  It was the kind of start that had fans using body English to help the drivers maneuver through traffic.  Graham Rahal’s run in his Honda to second after a late fuel stop had fans watching two strategies at once: Newgarden’s slow-paced fuel saving in his Chevy versus Rahal’s hanging-it-out after stopping for fuel near the end.  Fans could actually see the interval decreasing by seconds per lap.  And while Newgarden’s early passes were scintillating, Rahal’s outside passes throughout the race were equally spectacular.  Great stuff.

3.  Lack of Idiocy/Penalties/Yellows:  It was almost life affirming to not see carbon fiber flotsam and jetsam strewn around the track on the first lap.  The racing was tight and, for the most part, clean.  For the second race in a row, yellow flag racing was at a minimum.  Of course, the last two races simply balanced out the first two in the green/yellow ratio.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  It goes without saying that no Verizon IndyCar Series race is complete without grousing and complaining from drivers and teams about the officiating.  Both Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Colleti took exception to yellow flags causing them personal hardship.  Juan Pablo Montoya took umbrage at Rodolfo Gonzalez slowing him down.  James Hinchcliffe was upset with Rahal’s line through the turns.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is still upset about NOLA and sees inconsistency everywhere. And of course, everyone complained about Francesco Dracone’s pace.  The reality was that Race Control penalized some, drivers, warned others, and called nothing in other situations.  It’s like calling holding in the NFL.  An official can do it every play.  You can’t call it all in racing, either, no matter how much the drivers whine and complain.

4.  Success of CFH Racing and RLL Racing: Back at the top of the podium, the success of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing over Penske and Ganassi bodes well for the sport and the team.  The same holds true for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, too.  The smaller teams in the series need success to bolster their bottom lines when it comes to sponsorship.  While Ed Carpenter has Fuzzy’s Vodka for he and Luca Filippi in their ride share, a win can go a long way to help Sarah Fisher land a season-long sponsorship for Josef Newgarden.  Graham Rahal’s second place finish sure put sponsor Steak and Shake in the spotlight.  And Rahal, ever the shill for his sponsors, tweeted after the race that he might stop in for a shake on his way home.

5.  Big Mo Heading to Indy: There must be something to momentum in sports.  Every announcer, coach, and player in every sport talks about its value.  If that’s true, then the month of May in Indy could be interesting.  Chevy certainly has engine and aero kit momentum.  They are the class of the field.  Penske has some, too.  The team has every driver in the top nine in the standings with Montoya and Castroneves running first and second.  The Ganassi boys are coming on, particularly after Long Beach.  With Newgarden and Rahal riding their Barber success, this might be the year for an underdog winner at the 500.  And don’t forget about the invisible man, Ed Carpenter.  He knows Indy.  The greatest beneficiary of momentum has to be the Verizon IndyCar Series.  After the aero growing pains of St. Pete and the weather woes of NOLA, the series seems to be finding its groove.

All in all, it was a most excellent race.  Let’s hope it sets the tone for a most excellent month of May in Indy.

Ovalistas, where are you?

Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.” This convoluted philosophy is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series is fighting at all ovals on the schedule that are not the Indianapolis 500.  Ovals in the series are on life-support, and whether the fans or the series like it, the economic concept of supply and demand will have its way.

Other than Indianapolis and Iowa, the ovals suffer from woeful attendance issues.  The series, trying to appease what seems to be a very small but VERY vocal minority of fans, has worked diligently to add ovals to the menu.  For all I know, all of the oval fans may be going to the races.  It doesn’t seem that there are very many of us left.  In any case, it is not enough.

The ovals all have their own unique issues.  With Texas and Fontana, the heat is oppressive.  Unless you are absolutely hard-core, it’s easier to stay in the air-conditioning and watch on TV.  Milwaukee lost its prime schedule real estate when Roger Penske demanded and received the week after Indy slot and the accompanying momentum and ABC network broadcast.  Pocono, while being in driving distance of East Coast fans, soon discovered that there don’t seem to be many fans in those locations who want to venture into the mountains on an already crowded and expensive 4th of July weekend.  Iowa Speedway, even though the crowd has remained steady, is now owned by NASCAR, a series with a history of showing very little love to IndyCar.  Many of the venues suffer from lack of on-track activity before the race.  And with the economy often limiting fans to attending fewer events, even the Indianapolis 500 is in competition with Milwaukee and Pocono.

Another problem, reminiscent of being and F1 fan, is that watching ovals has become a somewhat esoteric activity.  You need to be an oval fan to understand and appreciate oval races.  Pocono, from my perspective, was a great oval race.  Strategies were in place to save fuel, leading to Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden being in front with the laps dwindling down.  Pit service had to be spot or you dropped back.  The low-banked and long corners created edge-of-your-seat racing that was incredibly fast and edgy in person but did not necessarily translate to television.  Fuel saving at Pocono, while a strategy, created a holding station situation for the drivers.  Saving fuel meant that there was very little racing for position until the end of the race.  The longer the race went without a yellow flag, the slower the cars went and the more they strung out.  Like it or not, these are the types of strategies that go with oval racing.  With just one yellow flag, the cars never had a chance to restart and race hard.  The one time they did led to an OMG moment as the pack hurtled toward the first turn with Will Power continuing his turn to a heel by blocking teammate Helio Castroneves.  It was a scintillating racing moment.  You just had to be a fan willing to wait over 400 miles for it.

Brandon Igdalsky rattled his saber the week before the race because of low ticket sales.  Unlike promoters such as Eddie Gossage at Texas, who enjoys taking public shots at the Verizon IndyCar Series and its drivers, Igdalsky called out the fans by pointing out that he added IndyCar because research showed that the fans wanted it.  Basically, he told the fans to put up or shut up.  And that’s where the oval fans in IndyCar are right now.  Hopefully, Iowa Speedway is packed for the Iowa Corn 300.  If not, then it may be time to shut up about how many ovals are on the schedule.  Of all the things that Yogi Berra misspoke, I certainly hope the following becomes true about IndyCar ovals: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

 

Will Power: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published a novella called the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  While quite obviously an allegory on the inherent good and evil in people, it can rightly be seen as a symbolic representation of whatever it is that Team Penske’s Will Power is now doing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Before and after races he is just like Dr. Henry Jekyll: mild-mannered and prone to bouts of wonderment.  In a TV interview at Toronto in 2011, Power responded to Dario Franchitti spinning him by saying, “I always race him clean, and he always races me dirty.”  That sounds like the mystified Jekyll trying to come to terms with his own inner demons.  Could Will Power actually be struggling to control, in his own Australian sobriquet, his inner “wanker?”

Wanker is a term that Power applies liberally to those with whom he disagrees.  In a recent interview, he hoped that the aero package at Texas allows some separation of good drivers like him from the “wankers…at the back.”  Good on ya, mate.  It seems Power is beginning to relish the Mr. Hyde black hat.

Need more?  How about at St. Pete when he slowed the field coming to the green flag and helped cause an accordion accident behind him.  His Dr. Jekyll self denied any culpability.  He blamed his teammate Helio Castroneves for trying to jump the start.  He blamed the early green flag.  If you watch him in post-race interviews, you often see a certain shifty-eyed schoolboy behavior.  And just like a schoolboy, Power often seems to follow the mantra of caught-in-the-act kids everywhere.  Deny, deny, deny.

After bumping Simon Pagenaud into the tires at Long Beach, Power accepted blame with a caveat: he thought Pagenaud slowed because of a flat tire.  C’mon, Will, isn’t it time you embraced your darker side?  Stop offering excuses for your Mr. Hyde and embrace him.  In the novella, Dr. Jekyll secretly revels in the freedom from conscience that Hyde offers.  It is the same here.

To make matters worse, in the first race at Detroit, Power had a run-in at with Pagenaud again.  According to Pagenaud, Power ran into him.  According to Power, he didn’t see him.  Once again, embrace the wanker, Will.  Winning dirty is still winning.

In the second race at Detroit, Power ruined the races of Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal by trying to force a pass where the opportunity did not exist.  Was it optimistic?  Nope.  It was the black-hearted Mr. Hyde pushing lesser mortals out of the way.  No apology necessary, Will.  Drive on!

Sadly, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde does not end well.  By the end of the story, Dr. Jekyll can no longer control his transformation into Mr. Hyde and it leads to his untimely end.  My advice to Will Power is not to fight the transformation.  Do not go back to the wide-eyed and apologetic Will Power/Dr. Henry Jekyll.  That way lies madness.  The next time the change occurs, gleefully rub your hands together, cackle softly, and allow your inner Will Power/wanker/Mr Hyde to become your permanent personality.  You already wear a black firesuit.  You might as well wear a black hat, too.

 

IndyCar edgy at Long Beach

The Verizon IndyCar Series has taken on a country club feel in recent years.  The drivers are all buddies. Before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, James Hinchliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay even joked on camera about flipping a coin to see who was going to lead the first lap.  I wonder if those two still had their senses of humor after the race.

Humor is nothing new in IndyCar.  Eddie Sachs was known as “the clown prince of racing” in the 60’s.  Bobby Unser was not only shockingly honest as a racer and an announcer, he was also a born storyteller.  Still is.  A.J. Foyt’s humor was always sharp and biting.  Still is.  So it is nothing new that today’s racers are funny.  What’s different is the politically correct way they interact.  The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach certainly changed all that.

To spice up the broadcast, NBCSN brought in Paul Tracy, four-time Long Beach winner and notorious truth-teller.  Everyone just knew he would stir the pot a little bit.  Sadly, PT was just another talking head, saying nothing controversial.  Sigh.  I am sure he will get the message to go find the real Paul Tracy.

This all leads us to how a pretty good race became an entertaining one.  Bad moves led to bad feelings, sheepish honesty, and a few apologies that may or may not have been accepted.  Hopefully, it will lead to a little ill will.  Then maybe Paul Tracy can get on board and put the hammer down on some people.

One of the best products of the close racing in IndyCar is the fact that anyone can win.  The spec chassis and similar power plants mean the shoestring budgets can hold their own with the deep-pocketed teams.  You just know this small budget competition chafes the big dogs.  The best part of the close racing is that Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson can call out Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon; SFHR’s Josef Newgarden can place the blame on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay; and SPHM’s Simon Pagenaud can mock the apology of Penske Racing’s Will Power.  Now THAT’S parity.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to have this kind of close racing though the pack every week..  TV does not do it justice.

The irony in the series is delicious right now.  The top dogs were forced to act like contrite backmarkers. Scott Dixon apologized for pushing Justin Wilson into the wall and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Will Power apologized for punting Simon Pagenaud with his usual it’s-my-fault-that-it’s-your-fault line and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Ryan Hunter-Reay apologized by saying a real racer goes for it when he sees the chance at exactly the wrong spot and his apology was UNACCEPTED.  I just love to see the shifty-eyed apologies of schoolboys caught in the act without a plausible story to tell.  Not ironically, Graham Rahal was his usual self and refused to accept any blame for anything.  Never change, Graham.  Both Michael Andretti and James Hinchcliffe were less than pleased with Hunter-Reay’s antics.

Simmering feuds, unaccepted apologies, and possibly a little bit of hate await us at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.  Barber is narrow, twisty, and just not conducive to the type of racing that the IndyCars are capable of right now.  The boys in back are not going to move over for reputation alone any longer.  In fact, when push comes to shove – and it will – the little guys are going to flex their muscles and push and shove back.  And consider this: Juan Pablo Montoya has not had a problem with anyone in two races.  Wait until that happens!  It’s good to see some of the politically correct veneer come off the series.  This is the racing and these are the racers people want to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten worthless opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg edition

Sometimes having ten worthless opinions is the only way to discuss an IndyCar race.  The story of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is really the story of Will Power and Penske Racing.  That’s it.  He moved to the front, dominated, screwed up, and won.  Luckily, I combed the race and the broadcasts for the nuggets that often slip by the mainstream media and racing cognoscenti.  Don’t expect in-depth analysis or breaking news here.  In other words, lower your expectations.  All I have are ten worthless opinions.

1.  I listened to qualifying and part of the race on the IMS Radio Network to see how the iconic voice of Paul Page has aged.  Radio is unforgiving.  An announcer can be wrong about what is going on if no one is watching the broadcast, but he must be smooth whether he is right or wrong.  The timbre of Page’s voice is no longer what it once was, nor is his delivery as smooth as it was when he was the voice of the 500 on both radio and ABC.  But it’s early.  Page gets a pass simply because he’s Paul Page.  And let’s face it.  Other than the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, only the most dedicated of fans listen to the radio.

2.  In deference to Paul Page, I attempted to listen to both the radio broadcast and ABC telecast.  When I added all those voices to the ones already in my head, it just got too crowded.  But before I gave up the attempt, I was incredibly impressed by the insights and delivery of IndyCar driver Pippa Mann.  Already a fan favorite for her humor, social media prowess, and unflagging determination to put together a ride for the Indy 500, she can now add broadcasting maven to her resume.  Even though she has done both radio and television for Indy Lights, it was her first foray into broadcasting the Verizon IndyCar Series.  She’s smart, observant, and smooth in the booth.  Auto racing is still one of those sports that does not have a female voice in the booth calling races.  This is the voice that needs to be there.

3.  ABC’s putting Allen Bestwick in the booth with Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear was a great choice.  He was prepared and professional.  ABC just got better.  Cheever and Goodyear are acceptable but bland.  Even when Cheever gets irritated, like when he compared Will Power’s slow restart to something you see in go-carts, he comes off as churlish and haughty.  At least I think that was Cheever.  I can’t tell him and Goodyear apart sometimes.  The booth needs some fireworks.  Get on that, ABC.

4.  Is Rick DeBruhl letting his inner Jack Arute come out to play?  His prerace chemistry bit that culminated in the assessment that Ed Carpenter was “bonding” with Mike Conway was only missing an Arute style prop to be perfect.  And let’s face it, the “bonding” thing just might have gone over the head of some viewers.

5.  A.J. Foyt just kills me.  He is the most honest voice in a traditionally guarded industry.  ABC tried to highlight the Odd Couple relationship between him and Takuma Sato.  A.J. summed it up by saying, “He’s not a smart-ass.  If I like him, I like him.”  There you go.

6.  Verizon has already engaged!  Almost every driver interviewed referenced the arrival of Verizon as the title sponsor of the series.  They know what they have: a motivated, committed, engaged sponsor with boatloads of money and a desire to partner with the series.  Their first commercial said, “A title sponsor has a certain responsibility to push the sport.”  Yeah, not quite sure IZOD saw it that way.  The Verizon ad referenced the cars, fans, and the technology.  Consider the game changed.

7.  TV often misses back of the pack moves on a street course.  It’s the nature of the medium.  Graham Rahal made a mad dash at the start to pick up multiple spots at the start.  From that beginning, he moved to mid-pack and stayed there.  The more impressive feat was Josef Newgarden moving from the last spot on the grid to finish ninth.  It wasn’t a series of youthful banzai moves but instead a series of passes that were of the stalk and pass variety.  The boy is growing up. If TV didn’t show it, then how do I know about it?  The IMS Radio Network.  They make everything exciting.  Take a cue, ABC.  Enthusiasm is a good thing.

8.  One storyline of the race was Tony Kanaan’s move to Chip Ganassi Racing.  The sparks didn’t fly, though.  He moved to the top ten and just stayed there.  At the end of the race, he said his fuel-saver knob fell off at the beginning of the race.  The knob FELL OFF!  Some Gorilla Glue will take care of that, guys.  And make sure to put some on all the trophies this year, too.

9.  I guess Tim Cindric doesn’t have to eat his rivalry comment about Chip Ganassi Racing just yet.  Will Power dominated the second half of the race as Chevrolet put three motors in the top five and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second with Honda power.  Jack Hawksworth for Bryan Herta Racing is pretty salty for a rookie, and you can expect Simon Pagenaud for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Justin Wilson for  Dale Coyne Racing to find victory circle this year.  One of the strengths of the series is that so many teams can win any race.

10.  Will Power’s game of here-I-go-no-I-don’t on a restart ruined the days of Jack Hawksworth and Marco Andretti and certainly seemed to be aimed at teammate Helio Castroneves’ proclivity to jump restarts.  In other words, it was just another bit of auto racing gamesmanship.  Power tried to rationalize that he did not apply the brakes but did lift only because he was confused by the green flag being displayed before the restart zone.  Really, Will?  You slowed down because you saw the green flag?  You looked liked a shifty-eyed school boy caught cribbing for a test in the post-race interview.  The highlight was Power’s teammate Castroneves jokingly calling Power a “wanker.”  Don’t you love it when meaning gets lost in translation?  Helio may want to have that translated into Portuguese before he uses it again.  Or just call him a “tosser” next time.

There you go.  “Ten worthless opinions” is the only place you’ll find Aussie slang, Gorilla Glue, Jack Arute, and the Verizon IndyCar Series all in one convenient location.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Toronto Poutine Edition

IndyCar had quite the time in Toronto.  Border security, rules interpretation, feuds, and Scott Dixon’s domination mixed together in a doubleheader race format to provide a highly entertaining  weekend.  In other words, the IZOD IndyCar Series is sometimes just a blogger’s dream.  So grab your poutine (fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds) and settle in for that other messy treat that is “Ten Worthless Opinions.”

1.  There are so many interesting/entertaining/puzzling storylines to the weekend, I truly don’t know where to start.  Let’s go ahead with what was the big interest going into the weekend: standing starts.  The IndyCar series has a knack for taking the big story and fumbling it like Sebastien Bourdais did his runner-up trophy after Saturday’s race.  Standing starts are a big deal only because IndyCar has for years been unable to have competent two-wide starts due to driver gamesmanship and officials unwillingness/inability to enforce a standard for rolling starts.  The only reason to use a standing start to spice up the beginning of the race is because the normal rolling starts are so brutally ugly.

2.  The standing start concept did, however, generate interest, which makes the fumbling on Saturday even more egregious.   I have no problems with IndyCar using standing starts.  My problem is the seemingly amateurish handling of the concept.  The drivers and team principals are allowed to publicly question/ridicule the choice of starts.  That’s the way to build a brand, if your brand is churlishness.  The fumbling occurred when the officials decided to abort the standing start when Josef Newgarden had an issue.  And I’m OK with that choice.  What leaves me rolling my eyes is how IndyCar did not make clear to its on-site and TV audience what the rules for using or not using the standing start were.  I’m pretty sure if IndyCar handed a list of the standing start rules to NBC Sports and said,”You might want to make a graphic of this for your booth and your audience,” they would have done it.  And NBC Sports is not off the hook.  How could they not request/demand the rules in a production meeting?  Picture the fans at the venue and the hundreds watching on television with their palms up saying, “What the hell’s going on?”  Be prepared to tell the story.

3.  Loved the NBC Sports booth of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Steve Matchett.  Matchett in particular brought enthusiasm and insight to his first foray into IndyCar.  He watched it like a well-informed fan.  Bell continues to be smooth, and his low-key delivery is a nice contrast to Diffey’s exuberance.  Jon Beekhuis excels at giving technical information, this week explaining how the clutch works in a standing start.  NBC Sports broadcast shames ABC, which seems to simply go through the motions.

4.  I did question how NBC Sports handled the Dario Franchitti/Will Power contretemps, though.  After Franchitti blocked/held his line against Power’s aggressive/optimistic/stupid move in turn three, there was a great opportunity to build a feud between members of the two dominant teams in the series.  How did NBC Sports handle it?  They had the two talk it out on the Sunday broadcast with Robin Miller, the same Robin Miller who says, “Hate is good.”  What a let-down.  Where’s the shit-stirring Marty Snyder when you need him?

5.  The racing was great.  And that’s not just shilling.  Other than Scott Dixon absolutely checking out on Sunday, cars were passing and being passed on both days.  Scott Dixon may be rather vanilla when it comes to personality, but what a racer.  He did not put a wheel wrong all weekend.  Speaking of Ganassi Racing, the in-race and post-race comments of Mike Hull are always informative, even when he is being sly about strategy.  Chip Ganassi was at his well-behaved best in the post-race interviews, even welcoming Dragon Racing’s Jay Penske to the rich guys’ club.  His feigned magnanimity chafes me since his normal demeanor is peevish and irascible.  Leopards and spots, you know.

6.  I wonder if we will ever hear the full story of IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield and his border bang-up?  Was he smuggling Cuban cigars into Canada?  I mean, who doesn’t like a good Cuban to smoke after dinner?  Was his passport not up-to-date?  That happens to the best of us.  The truth is probably mundane, but I would love to know.  Until then, I will just make it worse by offering conjecture and innuendo, as a reputable blogger should.  Of more concern is Derrick Walker’s seemingly less-than-enthusiastic support of Barfield in Jenna Fryer’s recent AP story.  Beaux had relatively free rein under former boss Randy Bernard.  My guess is life is different under the dominion of Walker.  Keep your eye on this relationship.

7.  Let’s talk about rules!  In race one, the rule was that two wheels had to be in contact with the racing surface at all times to keep the drivers from curb jumping.  IndyCar gave warnings for violations and then rescinded the rule during the race Saturday when the drivers continued to jump the curbs.  I imagine the conversation going something like this:

  • Race Control: “Stop jumping the curbs!”
  • Drivers: “No!”
  • Race Control: “Stop it!”
  • Drivers: “No!”
  • Race Control: “Never mind.”

8.  More rules interpretation.

  • Race Control: “Dario Franchitti, you blocked Will Power!”
  • Franchitti: “No, I didn’t!”
  • Race control: “Yes, you did!”
  • Franchitti:  “I’m getting my dad!”
  • Race control: “Never mind.”

9.  Even more rules interpretation.

  • Race Control:  “You will do standing starts/double-file restarts/two laps on red tires.”
  • Drivers: “No.”
  • Race Control: “OK.”

10.  OK, that last was a cheap shot.  The drivers and teams knew about the rules for aborting the standing start, the change from double-file to single-file restarts, and the codicil permitting a change of tires without using them for two laps.  The people who did not always know were the broadcasters and the fans.  And since IndyCar is trying to engage the fans, it might consider keeping them informed.  Just a suggestion.  One more: when announcing rules interpretations to the audience, IndyCar might want to include the phrase, “Pursuant to Rule #…”  That would certainly have helped the NBC Sports crew give the audience the facts instead leaving both the booth and the fans twisting in the wind.

There you go, my WO’s (worthless opinions) for Toronto.  Now if you will excuse me, I have to get these poutine stains out of my shorts.  The stuff really is messy.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Sao Paulo Indy 300 Samba Edition

Dancing is life in Brazil.  The main straight for the Sao Paulo Indy 300 is the Sambadrome, the 30,000 seat home to the carnival parade put on by the samba schools in Sao Paulo.  The samba schools are year-round organizations that are the social hub of the city.  Think the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans or the 500 Festival for the Indianapolis 500.  You can always count on New Track Record to sprinkle a little culture in with the racing.  With that in mind, here are this week’s WO’s (worthless opinions) on the IndyCar dance soiree in the streets of Sao Paulo.

1.  Of course, you have to get to the dance first.  Penske Racing may have outsmarted itself by waiting to put down a hot lap in the first round of knock-out qualifying.  Both Helio Castroneves and Will Power were unable to get a time since Tristan Vautier and James Jakes both had problems on track and the clock kept on ticking.  The line to the dance starts in the back, boys.  The Andretti Autosport strategy of banking a lap early paid off for pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Will this become the strategy in future rounds of road and street course qualifying?

2.  Like a dance, a race needs a great first step.  The long straight of the Sambadrome allowed a stellar start and great restarts all day.  It is a matter of fairness.  Backmarker or not, no driver should be at a disadvantage at the beginning of a race other than that of his qualifying position.  The hairpins at St. Pete and Long Beach are unfair on starts and restarts to any driver from the middle of the pack back.  If you cannot get all the cars lined up in a fair way, then standing starts are in order.

3.  The Penske boys just didn’t seem to have the rhythm at Sao Paulo.  It’s low-hanging fruit, but Dancing with the Stars champion Helio Castroneves and his dance partner Will Power stepped on each other’s toes going into the newly designed first turn.  Come on guys, figure out who’s leading.

4.  After moving quickly through the field, Power’s day ended with what seems to be the new IndyCar problem du jour: a header fire.  Will there be more flames at Indy?  Castroneves, always the entertainer, even did a nifty pirouette in the first turn to show the crowd that he still has some sick dance moves, but the judges weren’t impressed with his cha-cha as he headed to the back of the pack.

5.  There didn’t seem to be any wallflowers at this ball, though.  Everyone wanted to dance.  Passing was happening throughout the field.  The problem with a television broadcast is the inability to follow action throughout the field.  A street course, live or on television, only allows you to see what happens in front of you.  Ovals allow you to see action building.  At the risk of sounding like a shill, that’s why you should attend an IndyCar oval race.

6.  The boys in the booth back in Indianapolis did what they could with the Brazilian television feed.  Jon Beekhuis added intelligent technical commentary without speaking down to the ordinary fan, and Robin Miller apparently had nothing better to do, so he showed up in the studio.  Miller is the most underutilized asset of the NBC Sports broadcasts.  He has value.  Find him something to do, or don’t invite him to the dance.

7.  Spec racing or not, the IZOD IndyCar Series is fun to watch.  Whoever choreographed this big dance number deserves an award.  Edginess permeated the day.  Multiple, and interminable, cautions ruled.  Takuma Sato took the lead late and fought off Josef Newgarden before finally succumbing to James Hinchcliffe on the last turn of the last lap.  The newly patient Marco Andretti quietly finished third.  NASCAR had the “Big One” at Talledega and made the news.  IndyCar just continues to have the best racing on the planet and is ignored.  I guess the dance marathon at Talledega was more exciting than the IndyCars doing the lambada at Sao Paulo.  America still like its dancing and racing the old-fashioned way: boring.

8.  The judging of this particular dance contest was called into question on both the broadcast and social media.  As the laps wound  down, Takuma Sato made some highly questionable moves to keep James Hinchcliffe behind him.  Beaux Barfield gets the benefit of the doubt if only for being so transparent on the fact that something is being investigated.  The secrecy and favoritism that typified race control in the past has disappeared.  Of course, that does not mean that every call is correct.  If those moves had happened between cars fighting for 4th and 5th, would the call have been the same?  One would hope so, but no one likes to see the winner decided on a call on the last laps.  Blocking?  Yes.  Right call?  Yes.  As Townsend Bell said on the broadcast, “It’s good, hard, knife fighting racing.”

9.  Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing are fast becoming the stories of the year.  These single car entries are tap dancing at the front of the pack and challenging for wins.  The spec formula for the Dallara DW12 was designed to do just this – give smaller teams a chance to win.  It’s working.  Of course, since it benefits the smaller teams, Chip Ganassi will have a problem with it.  Don’t those teams know they are the chorus, not the headliners?

10.  The belle of the ball was James Hinchcliffe, though.  He pressured Sato after Newgarden fell back and took advantage of Sato’s last corner slide to duck under him for the victory.  The bigger story is Andretti Motorsport.  After years of being the best dancer in the chorus, the Andretti team is auditioning to be the prima ballerina in the IndyCar company.  The aging grande dames of Penske and Ganassi are just not quite as robust and hungry as Michael Andretti’s team.  It is interesting to note that Andretti Autosport does not split its resources and time with a NASCAR team but has instead invested in the IndyCar ladder series.  It takes focus to be a champion.

All in all, the IndyCar samba in Sao Paulo was a great performance.  While the ratings may not be as high as Dancing with the Stars, I’ll take Dancing with the Dallara anytime.  It’s time to quick step to Indy.

The Mods and Rockers: what IndyCar can learn from British pop culture

The IZOD IndyCar Series needs fewer Mods on scooters and a few more Rockers on motorcycles

In the recent NASCAR Nationwide race at Richmond, a typically long and relatively boring race was spiced up by a post race contretemps between Brian Scott and Nelson Piquet, Jr.  It was the kick felt around the racing world as Piquet, Jr. took rather low aim as he connected with Scott below the belt.  The juxtaposition of Scott, your typical American stock car racer, and Piquet, Jr., a Brazilian scion of F1 champion Nelson Piquet seemed oddly familiar.  Suddenly, an image from popular culture came flashing back.  The fight between Piquet, Jr. and Scott was a modern version of the British conflict between the Mods and the Rockers in the early 1960’s.  It certainly ramped up the media interest in the Richmond Nationwide race, just as the events in the ’60’s exploded in the British media.  And truth be told, it is exactly what IndyCar needs in 2013.

To make my point, a little history lesson is in order.  If you are not familiar with the Mods and Rockers, I did some time-consuming and exhaustive research on the subject (I went to Wikipedia and watched the TV show Cafe Racer on Velocity).   The Rockers were rock and rollers who wore leather and rode British motorcycles like BSA’s, Triumphs, Nortons, and Vincents.  In other words, tough guys.  The Mods were clean-cut, suit-wearing, jazz and R & B aficionados who drove scooters.  We would probably call them preppies today. The two groups had some near riots that sent the British press into paroxysms of angst and conjured images of youth run amok.  All of this brings us to what the IZOD IndyCar Series needs right now.

IndyCar is all Mods and no Rockers.  Proof?  Check the scooters in the garages and pits at any IndyCar race.  What message does this send?  It screams effete hipster snob! Even the Penske stable uses matching scooters that are always lined up perfectly in front of their motor homes.  These latter-day Mods need to have a counter-point.  Where are the Rockers, IndyCar?  Where is the leather?  IndyCar may not need the post-race fisticuffs of NASCAR, but it certainly needs a little antipathy among the racers.  Robin Miller of Speed and NBC Sports always says that hate is good.  I’ll settle for a little hostility.

Fans like to know that competitors really want to beat the other guy, not just win the race.  Even though IndyCar has marketable young Mods like James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti, and Graham Rahal, these young guys don’t have a Rocker nemesis cast as an antithesis to their Mod coolness.  The closest IndyCar comes to a Rocker is IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield, who drives a two-wheeler that is decidedly not a scooter.  At least we can still have bad blood between the Mod racers and the Rocker race director.  It’s something.

Beaux Barfield's Rocker ride. (photo: Mark Wilkinson)

Beaux Barfield’s Rocker ride. (photo: Mark Wilkinson)

It’s time for IndyCar to develop some real rivalries.  The frat house that is the IndyCar paddock needs a little dive bar biker atmosphere to spice it up.  Could it be oval specialist Ed Carpenter in a leather jacket?  Maybe J.R. Hildebrand and A.J. Allmendinger could bring a little of their California Rocker ethos to the paddock.  I’m afraid it may be a lost cause.  The boys and girls in the paddock are just too nice.  And that’s just too bad.

Bad blood is good copy and good televison.  Will Power (who may be the Rocker the series needs) made news with his double finger salute to Brian Barnhart at New Hampshire as well as the same gesture to E.J. Viso at Iowa last year.  Sadly, Power has not taken his Rocker role to heart.  He is back in the frat house with the rest of the Mods.  A.J. Foyt, the true IndyCar tough guy who may have never listened to rock and roll in his life, had his Rocker moment at Texas when he threw Arie Luyendyk to the ground in Victory Circle.  Those were the days before politically correct sponsor concerns trumped human emotion.  You were still allowed to publicly dislike someone.

Even though the IndyCar drivers have the occasional fit of pique over on-track indiscretions, don’t expect them to start kicking and swinging anytime soon.  Unfortunately, you just don’t see much Mod on Mod violence anymore.  And IndyCar is a little less fun because of it.  The Vespas are winning.

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