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Archive for the tag “Justin Wilson”

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/

 

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Show me a hero

This is not a eulogy.  I did not know Justin Wilson, who lost his life after being hit by debris in the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway, but he was friendly when I met him in passing.  I completely trust the comments of his friends and competitors as they exoll his virtues as a man, husband, father, brother, friend, and racer.  Communities grow close through tragedy and grieve by sharing stories and sadness.  Like many others, I am uncomfortable at funerals and memorials and do not share my grief well.  It is mine and I keep it close.

My Twitter feed after the announcement of Justin Wilson’s death was filled with tributes and remembrances, as one would expect.  It as also filled with people trying to come to grips with the moment.  Some said they could no longer be fans of a sport where people died.  Auto racing has always been deadly, yet somehow we are surprised by the ugly fact when it claims another victim.  Mortal risk cannot be legislated out of a grand prix or boxing or horse racing or any other event where such risk is part of the allure.  Football still seems to maintain a huge fan base despite its long-term tragic effects.  It’s just that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) kills you slowly instead of all at once.  And since the football players who die from this disease brought on by violent contact are old and retired, it does not diminish the popularity of the sport.  Out of sight, out of mind.

But Justin Wilson’s death was not out of sight.  We saw it.  And it is certainly not out of mind.  People ask what can be done.  Canopies and windscreens may make the cars safer, but they cannot eliminate the specter of death.  The truth is simple: some things are dangerous.  Can the danger be mitigated?  Certainly.  Can it be eliminated?  Absolutely not.  Open-wheel racing will continue to research how to make racing safer.  They will never make it safe.

IndyCar drivers live on the knife’s edge always.  If someone else is a few tenths faster, then they have to be faster, too.  I contend that most drivers see racing through a zero-sum mentality – for every winner there is a loser.  The harsh reality is that auto racing, whether at Pocono, Indianapolis, Daytona, Le Mans, or a local short track, is zero-sum, also.  You win or you lose.  You live or you die.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”  He could have been writing about Justin Wilson.  He could also have been writing about the 126 police officers who died in the line of duty last year.  Or the 64 firefighters who perished.  Or the 6717 service men and women who have given the “last full measure of devotion”¹ in our country’s war on terror.  Heroes are all about us.

I love auto racing deeply.  From my first races at Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson, Indiana; Mt. Lawn Speedway in New Castle, Indiana; and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was compelled to be a fan.  The color, sound, speed, and danger pulled me into racing’s orbit, and here I am still.  Justin Wilson, like the soldiers, police officers, and firefighters who gave their lives in service to their country and communities, made a choice to get into a car to test his mettle against other racers, speed, and death.  And next week, racers everywhere will get in their cars to do the same.  I salute them all.

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¹Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”

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.

California cruising at the MAVTV 500

The culture of cars and music in America started in Southern California, so it was fitting in a way that the IndyCar Series ended its season at this nexus of automobiles, sand, girls and song.  Just like the movie American Graffiti, one can follow the adventures of the cast of IndyCar through vignettes and a blaring soundtrack to try to recapture the time when open-wheel racing in America was king.  For this edition, just assume you are cruising down the road in your drop-top ’65 Impala listening to the dulcet tones of your favorite IndyCar DJ as he spins your favorite platters about the recent MAVTV 500.  So it’s time to buckle up, tune in, and head out to your favorite drive-in for a night of California cruising with your host with the most, New Track Record.  Here’s the playlist and patter for tonight’s show.

“California Dreamin'”  The Mamas and the Poppas  This song goes out to Helio Castroneves from Team Penske.  After two days of uncharacteristic Penske problems at Houston, Helio was looking for some magic at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.  Unfortunately, the Magic Kingdom is in Anaheim, not Fontana.  With the Captain Roger Penske at the helm to guide him, Helio fell short after leading the early part of the race.  It didn’t help that Penske pitted Helio into a closed pit, but the car went away in the latter stages of the race and Castroneves finished one lap down.  It looks like Helio’s California dream is on hold for another year.

“California Here I Come”  Al Jolsen  Do you know this is not the state song of California?  Something called “I Love You, California” is.  It’s awful.  In any case, you can listen to the scratchy original Al Jolsen version or the ultra cool Ray Charles one, but either way, the song is all about Scott Dixon from Target Chip Ganassi Racing.  After moving ahead of Helio Castoneves with a dominating performance at Houston, Dixon and the TCGR team were locked, loaded, and dialed in at Fontana.  On a night that saw Chevy dominate, Dixon wheeled his Honda to fifth place to seal his championship.  How dominant was the team?  On one pit stop, Dixon picked up SIX places.  How do you do that?  Dixon rolled.

Hotel California”  The Eagles  We’ll toss this one out to the NBC Sports Network crew for a stellar pre-race broadcast.  After the start of the race was moved back to keep the setting sun from blinding the drivers, the crew had some serious time to fill.  The segments have become much more professional with the boots-on-the-ground crew of Jon Beekhuis, Marty Snider, and Kevin Lee rotating to bring out the storylines for the race.  The length of the pre-race show did bring to mind the line “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave.”

“California Sun”  The Rivieras  This one is going out to the IndyCar Series for moving the start time back to keep the sun out of the drivers’ eyes.  To most people, this seems like a simple safety fix, but if the IndyCar Series has shown us anything over the years, it’s that nothing is simple.  Instead of consulting an almanac to see when the sun was going to set, the series waited until they could see it set with their own eyes before making a change.  The drivers certainly were not going to “…be out there a’havin’ fun / In that warm California sun.”  Many moving parts figure in a change like this.  The promoter and the broadcaster both need to agree to the change.  Being on NBC Sports Network really helped here.  The change would have been difficult on network TV where people were watching.  A rerun of Seinfeld after the race would have put the change in jeopardy.

Streets of Bakersfield”  Dwight Yoakum with Buck Owens  NBC Sports Network continues to let Robin Miller embarrass both the network and himself by doing the increasingly inept, unfunny, and uninformative grid run.  Unless they are looking for cringeworthy unintentional comedy.  In that case they have it nailed.  The viewers’ confusion results from not knowing which one it is.  Please tell us so we know how to react.  If you just change a few of the following lyrics, then you can imagine Robin Miller singing “The Pits of Fontana” to us.

I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’
Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield

Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me
You say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?

A little help from the producers would go along way to improve this segment.  At least put an intern on it.  The viewer gets a better grid run and the intern gets resume fodder.

“California Sucks”  Screeching Weasel  Yes, there really is a band called Screeching Weasel, and no, they do not like California.  I bet the crews and drivers have a few reasons to think California sucks.  Sitting at the bottom of the Cajon Pass as the winds blow down sand from the high desert may not be an issue with the locals, but the drivers sure can’t like it.  Race winner Will Power had to have his tear-offs replaced.  The cars and helmets were pockmarked with 210 MPH sandblasting.  And the radiators were blocked by all the wind-blown detritus, resulting in overheating and engine failure.  While the lyrics “I can’t wait ’til your state erodes and you fall into the drink” might be a little severe, I’m sure the teams were glad to see Fontana in their rear-view mirrors.

“Going to California”  Led Zeppelin  In this song, Robert Plant sings of the risks of going to California and the wrath of the gods.  Once again the sturdiness of the DW12 chassis and the Dallara safety cell mitigated the risk of auto racing just a little, and like with Dario Franchitti in Houston, possibly saved the life of Justin Wilson.  Wilson had pulmonary bruising, which is a wicked, life-threatening injury common in auto accidents and explosions.  When you bruise your lungs due to blunt force trauma, you are in a world of hurt.  This one is dedicated to Dallara for making such a sturdy and safe machine.  Complain about the ugliness all you want, the car is beautiful on the inside.

Thanks for cruising with me tonight.  Let me sign off with the immortal words of racing philosopher Tom Carnegie:  Let every day of your life be “a new track record.”

 

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