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A Good Race is Hard to Find.

Flannery O’Conn0r wrote the Southern Gothic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” about an old woman whose manipulative behavior and selfishness led to her family’s destruction.  Luckily, there was very little destruction at Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.  Sometimes though, fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series think that in 2016, a good race is hard to find.

Quite obviously, I sometimes reach for my comparisons.  This may be one of those times since Flannery O’Connor and her stories are not exactly household names.  Of course, neither is the Verizon IndyCar Series.  While many race fans love the verdant vistas of Barber Motorsports Park, they sometimes miss the fact that the racing is very good at this facility.  On site at any road or street course, a fan only sees what is in front of them.  Video boards help keep track of the action, but the view is most certainly limited.  On television, the viewer is often left wondering what happened with any driver beyond the top five.  That’s the nature of the beast.  A good race is hard to find.

If you sat on one of the grassy viewing areas at Barber Motorsports Park, you would have witnessed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon coming from last to 10th after an early lap dust-up with  KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais left him at the back of the pack.  Lap after lap you would have seen him weave though traffic, passing his way back to an acceptable placing.  Afterwards, Mike Hull, Dixon’s strategist, said that was how championships were won.  True that.  Those same in-person fans would have seen Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya shred the field going from last to 5th.  Both of these drivers put on a show that was seen by the patrons.  Truly, it was edge of the lawn chair racing.  Since these passes were not at the front, television didn’t show them.  A good race is hard to find.

That’s the essence of the title reference.  Sometimes the actual racing is hard to find during the broadcast.  The limitation of live television is so clear on road and street courses.  There is just too much to see.  If you want constant excitement, follow the race on the IMS Radio Network.  You may not hear every pass, but you are always hearing one somewhere.  Sometimes telling is better than showing.

What was shown was certainly worth seeing, though.  Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal carried the tattered Honda flag to a runner-up finish while driving most of the race with a damaged front wing and the end of the race without half of it.  Plain and simple, Rahal can wheel a race car.  His stalking and passing of Penke Racing’s Simon Pagenaud was epic, and I am not using the word loosely.  This is what the current iteration of IndyCar racing is all about.  A single car team challenges the big multi-car team for the top of the podium with skill and guts.  And Pagenaud got him right back .  It was worth waiting for.  Even after Rahal lost his wing after bumping Jack Hawksworth, his manhandling the car to second place was legendary.  And again, that word is not used loosely.

Every form of viewing a race has limitations.  At the track you can’t see everything, on radio you can’t see anything, and television, well, let’s just say that we don’t see everything, even though we could certainly see much more than we do.  The truth is in the Verizon IndyCar Series a good race is easy to find if you know where to look.  The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama proved that at Barber Motorsports Park.

 

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IndyCar’s Sunday drive in Long Beach

Officiating anything is a thankless job.  Someone is always on the wrong side of a call and many will hold a grudge forever.  I know this.  I was a high school football referee for many years.  At one stadium a fan screamed, “You &$%#@*% zebras!” at us as we entered the field 45 minutes before game time. At another, an athletic director at a perennial powerhouse let us know before the game that if the coach liked us, he would be happy to have us back again, offering the subtle suggestion that we were their officials.  We had police escorts off the field, and at one stadium, we had a police escort onto the field.  We were castigated for flags we threw and for flags we did not throw.  But at the end of the night, we left the field knowing we had done the best we could, mistakes and all.  And even though the triumvirate in INDYCAR race control does the best they can do, they find themselves in the news once again for their decisions.

At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, race control’s call for a warning on Simon Pagenaud’s violation of pit exit rules in the closing laps was controversial.  As with most official decisions, there was a winner and a loser.  Pagenaud benefited from race control waving a rolled up newspaper at him while saying, “Bad dog.”  Runner-up Scott Dixon was the one who had his slippers chewed up when Pagenaud’s clear violation of the pit exit blend lines allowed him to maintain his lead on Dixon.  Not sure the “no harm, no foul” concept applies here.

Unlike other sports where violations have one penalty, INDYCAR race control once again put itself in the situation of having to make a judgement on the severity of the violation and went with the rolled up newspaper warning.  In football, a flag means a penalty with clear consequences: offsides is 5 yards, offensive holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards.   The judgement is whether the foul occurred or not.  Once that judgement is made, the penalty is clear.  In baseball you are safe or out.  A call is made and the consequence is absolute.  Maybe INDYCAR can finally decide it is time to make consequences crystal clear.  Remember, the calling of the violation is not controversial.  Race control made the correct call.  The penalty is what is furrowing brows.

Of course, the real problem at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that the penalty was the only thing that seemed worth remembering.  Yes, the end of the race battle for the lead between Pagenaud and Dixon was great, even without a pass.  But the rest of the race?  Put it this way.  What we saw was less racing and more driving down the street trying not to make a mistake, albeit at 170 MPH.  People tune in to and attend events to see racing.  It’s called racing instead of driving for a reason.  Passes are what people pay money to see.

The drivers complained post race about fuel saving making the race boring.  Their suggestion was making the race longer to require three stops and allow racing throughout.  That’s an easy fix.  Drivers also complained about aero issues making following and passing difficult.  No new news there, but the fix, while simple in concept, is not so simple in application.  There is no magic wand to make the racing better.  Aero kits changed all of that.

So for fans who enjoy the big Chevy teams lining up in their single file parade in the front while the Honda have-nots and smaller Chevy teams duke it out in back for best-of-the-rest honors, the Verizon IndyCar Series has you covered.  Welcome to the new F1.  For me, bring back the racing.  Bring back anything that keeps a line at pit exit from being the big story of a Sunday drive.  Excuse me, I mean a Sunday race.

 

 

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: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Edition

What more could the Verizon IndyCar Series ask of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach?  They had beautiful weather, tremendous crowds all weekend, and almost non-stop track action throughout the three days.  After the debris debacle in St. Pete and the weather worries in NOLA, the series had everything they needed…except an exciting race.  I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but woof.  This was an ugly race in a totally different way than the the first two.  Here are five totally worthless opinions about why that is true.

1.  The Start: The new sheriffs (plural) in race control decided that since all the cars were on the track at the same time, it was close enough to perfect for a green flag start.  That’s one way to keep poor driver decision making at bay.  Long Beach has always been a difficult start for the series with the hairpin at the beginning of the front stretch and antsy leaders like Helio Castroneves refusing to wait for the pack to form up.  Helio simply decided that since he was ready to go, everyone should be ready to go.  Race control appeared to take the public employees’ mantra of “Close enough for government work” to heart and turned a blind eye to prevent mayhem.  Maybe it was a good choice.  Maybe not.  Two words: standing start.  That shouldn’t be hard for the most versatile drivers in the world, should it?

2.  Debris Free: The drivers did behave themselves, though.  There was only one yellow for four laps.  Deep down in my heart, I want that to be because of their innate respect for each other and superior driving skills.  The more likely scenario is that they don’t have enough spare parts to replace the glass-like front wings and box kite-like rear bumpers.  The lack of yellows for wing debris is an absolute positive.  Drivers being unable or unwilling to force an issue or dive bomb a pass due to the fragility of the wings is not.

3.  No Passing:  A big part of the no-passing issue at Long Beach was the tenderness of the wings.  The drivers know that damage to a wing, winglet, flick, or kick can ruin an otherwise great day.  Another part of the problem was all the dirty air that the Honda and Chevy aero kits produced.  The end of the race had the four cars of Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, and Sebatien Bourdais nose-to-tail for positions three through six.  Not one attempt to pass was made.  Maybe I’m reading too much into this.  Maybe the drivers, hard chargers all, simply decided to points race since race winner Scott Dixon was long gone for the victory.  Maybe.  Last year there would would have been a tussle, a nudge, a bomb, and some harsh words after the race.  Some passing attempts would be nice, though.

4.  Strategy: This was a strategy race.  Drivers needed good in-laps, out-laps, and pit decisions.  Helio Castroneves lost the lead to Scott Dixon, and likely the race, when his left front tire changer wisely held him up as Tony Kanaan was pulling into his pit stall directly in front of Castroneves.  The human factor of pit road service and decisions is and should be part of a driver winning or losing a race.  I’m not sure I want it to be the only reason a race is won or lost.  That may have been the case at Long Beach.

5.  Dominance: Must be nice to have a Chevy engine so you can have a Chevy aero kit.  There’s a chance that the oval configuration may be different for Honda, but the road and street circuits are Chevy’s playground, the fuel strategy win of James Hinchcliffe in a Honda at NOLA notwithstanding.  Will the fans, and the Honda teams, be longing for the halcyon days of parity that the DW12 spec aero kit provided?  The first seven positions were Chevy and the first five were Ganassi and Penske.  As The Who sang many years ago, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

The negatives did not exactly outweigh the positives at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.  In fact, some might say that the esoteric nature of strategy and aero made a race like Long Beach sublime.  Tell those esoterics that IndyCar isn’t soccer.  I hope.

Strategy, fine wine, and the Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma

The 6.0 Napa Valley earthquake Sunday morning stole the headlines from the exciting Verizon IndyCar Series Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma.  Okay, that may have been sarcastic.  Other than in the San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star, the race, earthquake or not, likely garnered only sidebar status.  Even though the race had no earth-shaking outcome, it was an example of all that’s right with the current iteration of the series.

That’s right, it was a great race – another example of how the caliber of drivers, the equivalency of the equipment, and the diversity of venues makes the Verizon IndyCar Series the most compelling racing in the world right now.  The 2014 vintage of the race will be remembered as a very tasty one.

It’s agreed that the lack of team development of chassis and motors means that the rock star teams of Ganassi, Penske, and Andretti can’t just out-engineer everyone else.  Graham Rahal and Mike Conway, both driving for one-car teams, managed to find their way to the lead, not through aerodynamic artistry or detailed engineering skills, but through strategy and driving skill.  Isn’t that what the series and fans want?

Even strategy savant Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing noted that there were so many teams on so many strategies that it was difficult to keep track.  The days of racing a stock-block engine until it blows are over forever.  These motors last, and everyone has one.  While not to everyone’s taste, strategy in racing is so much more compelling than watching the big teams win every race just because they can.  And yes, there’s a certain irony that Will Power and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske are battling for the championship, seemingly negating the anyone-can-win concept.  Anyone-can-win-any-race may be the more appropriate interpretation.  The championship rewards consistently high performance over time.  You can buy that with personnel.

Passing for position on track happened all race.  The first lap kerfuffle involving Helio Castroneves completely changed strategy for many teams.  In auto racing today, the term “strategy” is shorthand for “saving fuel” which usually means the track becoming a no-passing zone.  With so many teams on so many strategies at Sonoma, some were holding station and some were on the move.  Mike Conway’s outside pass of Tony Kanaan up the hill in Turn 2 was scintillating, as was Scott Dixon’s pass of Mike Conway at the same place for the lead and the win.  Conway and Graham Rahal were victims of their own fuel strategies when a hoped for late caution never materialized.  As so often happens, Scott Dixon managed his fuel until it was time to race.

Fuel saving has become the antithesis to great racing for many.  Bulletin: ALL racing requires fuel saving to some degree or another.  Those that use this strategy the best win; those that don’t lose.  Rahal and Conway took a chance and lost.  Next time it may work out for them.  The cognoscenti of auto racing appreciate whatever strategy is employed, whether it is fuel, tires, passing, or the timing of a pit stop.  What is great about IndyCar racing is that ovals, street courses, and natural terrain road courses all have their own strategic quirks.  Discerning fans notice these nuances and appreciate them; many casual fans just yell for pack racing and wrecks.

Do casual fans need to be educated about strategy on television and at the track?  Sure, and that is on the series and the broadcasters.  Appreciating the fine wine bottled in the Sonoma Valley takes a little time, knowledge, and effort from the consumers.  It takes the same things for the fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series to appreciate what they have.  So pull out a cork, pour a glass, and start tasting the Verizon IndyCar Series.  You will notice hints of ethanol, rubber, and suntan lotion on your palate.  It is delicious.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part II – the bad

It always comes down to this.  For every yin, there’s a yang; for every oversteer, there’s an understeer; for every drunken race fan there’s a smug glare of self-righteousness.  Part I of this series was the “good” of the title; the events, people, and actions that make Indy what it is.  For the sake of fairness and snark, there must be a “bad.”  Presented here are the ones that made the cut.

Bad

1.  The bad on the track was easy.  The contretemps among Ed Carpenter, James Hinchcliffe, and Townsend Bell took out two cars that had a chance to win with Bell wrecking later with what may have been problems stemming from this incident.  It was nice to see the bad side of Ed Carpenter, though.  His dirt track days just jumped out of him.  Not only did he physically loom over Hinchcliffe while Hinch was sitting in his car, he was quoted on ABC saying that it’s lucky Hinch had a concussion two weeks ago.  The indication being, I think, that if Hinch wasn’t already concussed then Ed would have been more than happy to oblige.  Dirt track meets championship wrestling with Ed Carpenter flipping from face to heel.  Bad boys.  Hinchcliffe did accept the blame, though.  Stand up guy.  Of course when video shows clearly that you made it three wide, there’s not much else to say.

2.  The luck of Chip Gaanassi racing was most definitely bad at Indy this year.  Not only did the boys have trouble qualifying, but Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Ryan Briscoe placed 29th, 26th, 31st, and 24th respectively.  Ouch.  Now that’s a “Bad Moon Rising.”  It’s time for someone there to say “Got my Mojo Working.”  Just a couple of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Muddy Waters references for you.  Again, it’s all about racing and popular culture here.

3.  As someone who paid $75 to IMS for parking passes to the North 40 (Lot 7), I was more than a little miffed when the parking attendants told me at 7:30 AM that there were no spots available for me to park.  My explanation that having a reserved spot to park is precisely the reason that IMS sold the parking passes and why I decided to buy them left the dead-eyed, yellow shirted parking attendant unmoved, and I was forced to park at the back of the North 40.  Imagine my surprise when I checked the front of the lot where I was supposed to park and found almost no cars with parking credentials.  It was just a smaller version of last year’s line fiasco being played out on a grassy stage.  Normally, commerce is conducted in such as way as to give a guest or client what they paid to get.  When you pay a year in advance for something you don’t get, it’s called chiseling. To put it another way, imagine how you would feel if you stood in an enormous line behind the NE Vista to purchase a $9 tenderloin and were told AFTER you paid for it, that it was given to an earlier patron for free.  “Thank you, and please come again.”  Bad business, that.

4.  Let’s talk about those bad concession lines.  In the NE Vista, which was packed, the new food service professionals at Levy Restaurants decided it was better to have fewer open concession stands to serve more people.  The lines were endless and slow.  I’m just glad IMS contracted the food service out to those that do it for a living.  I’m sure there’s an explanation for how this is better for the guests on site.  Spin it!

5.  With the last “bad” in mind, let’s consider that the marks customers are now paying more for every item on the concession list.  Again, I’m just a plebeian, untutored in the art of separating acquiring money from rubes guests.  I am sure a computer wonk in accounting can show how much better all this is for IMS.  And that is what counts.  I am sorry for being so selfish here and thinking only of my experience.  Mea culpa.

6.  I am sure I am no the only one who has noticed the decline in the interest, enthusiasm, and competence of the fabled Yellow Shirts at IMS.  Even though I have called some “petty tyrants and martinets,” it was obvious that they took their jobs seriously.  Many of the workers now seem unhappy and disinterested in improving the guest experience. For all the world, it seems like most have little or no training.  Many out in the hinterlands of the facility seem to have the dead, vacant stares of those who have the seen the world at its worst: fast food workers.  It’s not pretty.

7.  Finally, what saddens me the most is the passing of an era, the loss of innocence.  IMS has finally gone over to the dark side of corporate America.  No longer do I have the sense that the series, the race, and the facility are some Mom and Pop organization run on whims and greyhound rescues.  No, it has become the antithesis of that. It is now a business run on the American virtues of greed and profit.  And I’m really okay with that.  Money is good for the drivers, the owners, the promoters, the tracks and the networks.  It’s just not good for the soul.  I miss my old friend, the one who let you get falling down drunk on reasonably priced beer, the one who sold you a greasy frozen fritter of pork without acting like it wouldn’t give you heartburn, the one who allowed you to torch couches and old cars in the infield for the sheer joy of socially accepted arson.  Today, Simon and Garfunkel would sing, “Where have you gone, Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Our nation turns its bloodshot eyes to you.”  Woo, woo, woo, indeed.

Don’t get me wrong, the good far outweighs the bad in regards to my race day experience.  The Verizon IndyCar Series still offers the best racing on the planet.  I’ll be coming back with more cash in my wallet and lower expectations of what that cash will buy me but higher expectations for the action on the track.  And that is really the bottom line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part I – the good

The new month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is behind us, and as the sunburn, hangovers, tenderloins, and poor choices recede into our memories, it is best that we all reflect on the events before they fade away completely.  So as not to break any new ground with creative thought, I would like to look at recent events through the conceit of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This three part series will look at one aspect each day.  Today, we look at the good.

The Good

1.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is absolutely going to be a good Indy 500 champion.  I have always been rather lukewarm towards RHR.  He seems to say the right things and avoids controversy.  Fair enough.  His two passes of Helio Castroneves for the lead in the closing laps of the 500 were gutsy and aggressive and belied his rather vanilla persona.  When Castroneves throws his samba blocking moves on, he’s more than tough to get around.  Hunter-Reay’s quotes in Victory Lane showed an emotion previously kept hidden and that, along with his refreshing honesty, resonated with me.  He truly gets the 500.

2.  Hunter-Reay said in his post race interview that he was “a happy American boy.”  Although it may seem jingoistic, an American winning the 500 is important to a series that currently runs all but one race on American soil.  The lifeblood of the Verizon IndyCar Series is the red, white, and blue flag waving fans that were in abundance on Memorial Day in Indianapolis.  We can only hope that the series is able to capitalize on this American winner of the 500 more than they did the same winner of the series in 2012.  Wait, did I snarkily offer a “bad” in here?  Sorry.  I will try to stick with the script.

3.  As expected, the racing was great.  What more do the fans want?  There were multiple passes for the lead, including those by RHR and Castroneves in the closing laps that required more than a little sand.  The cars once again protected drivers like Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell in HARD hits.  Give me safety over aesthetics any time.  Fie on the fans who decry this ugly beauty.¹  The DW12 is a great race car, no matter how it looks.  And it is ugly.

3.  The red flag at the end of the race, while unexpected and without precedent, was good for the fans in attendance and the TV audience.  As a traditionalist in general, I initially thought that one more IMS accepted protocol was going down the drain.   But after seeing the debris from Townsend Bell’s crash and watching the SAFER barrier being repaired, I realized it made the race better.  Change is sometimes good, even if it causes apoplexy in the hard-core constituency.  Who knew?

4.  The crowd was not just good at the race, it was great.  The Coke Lot was full at 7:30 AM as we arrived at the Speedway.  I have not seen that in 25 years.  Of course the downside of that is the Coke Lot was full of Coke Lot type denizens at 7:30 AM.  Estimates  of the crowd were up to 230,000.  Don’t let those empty seats fool you.  The place was full.  The lines to get into the facility that made life miserable last year were not issues.  The purchased parking credentials in the North 40/Lot 7 were another story, though.  Dang.  There I go again with the snark about one of the “bad” issues.  An official for the Speedway told me that ticket sales were up 25% this year.  Indy is back, baby.

5.  Although the commercials on ABC seemed interminable after I got a chance to watch, the pre-race portion is still the best around.  The network wove in Memorial Day, human interest, and race goodies in just the right proportion.  Watching the race in HD, particularly the in-car shots, is absolutely thrilling.  Although not “bad” by definition, I do find the constant video and interviews of the WAGS a little cloying.  Nobody ever yells “Show us the wives and girlfriends for god’s sake!” as a race winds down.  Nobody.  Ever.

6.  The pre-race ceremonies at IMS for the 500 are nonpareil.  If you have never witnessed it in person, put it on your list.  The fact of the meaning of Memorial Day is always there, as it should be.  I hope that IMS, in its quest for more profit, never turns the pre-race into a sponsored circus to make a quick buck.  It is already the gold standard.  Keep it that way.  With that said, I really will miss Jim Nabors, a B-List singer and actor who found a home in Speedway, Indiana on Memorial Day weekend.  He sang “Back Home Again” the right way.  Please IMS, don’t bring in an oddball assortment of record label sponsored train wrecks to audition.  Find another baritone who gets Indy and can make it each May for the next 30 years or so.  The name is not as important as the song.  Do NOT mess this up.

7.  The month of May is back as an event in Indy.  After years of condensing the month due to lack of fan interest, the gang in the blue glass edifice on 16th and Georgetown finally packed in enough activities to interest new fans.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the new Time Trials weekend, Carb Day, the Jason Aldean concert, glamping, and the electronic dance music in the Snake Pit on race day all added fans through the turnstiles.  The numbers for the month could be pushing 350,000 fans.  Do the math.  More fans = $$$.  $$$ = more racing.  More racing = happy fans.  Repeat.

That’s the good, great, and just okay as well as some sub-textual bad that just keeps popping up.  Sorry about that.  Tomorrow brings the defined “bad” of the race.  And possibly a little more snark.

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¹  In my continuing effort to bring culture to racing, I used the oxymoron “ugly beauty” to describe the Dallara DW12.  An oxymoron is when two opposite terms are used together for effect.  Old Billy Shakespeare used them often when describing bear-baiting and cock fights, so there is some tradition of sporting usage.

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: IndyCar Preseason Edition

In lieu of having a solid premise, argument, or idea to present, I once again fall back upon the widely popular, and much easier to write, “Ten Worthless Opinions” model.  It allows me to write a few hundred words without the messy necessity of coherent thought or the thesis/evidence/conclusion paradigm so popular with critics.  My audience does not need all that; they just need the broad strokes that allow them to reach totally unsubstantiated conclusions.  So in typical fashion, here are a few totally unrelated thoughts about the upcoming Verizon IndyCar season starting this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

1.  What forms will Verizon engagement take?  Will we just see commercials on TV and a presence in the Fan Zone?  What we need to see is Verizon using their technological wizardry to update timing & scoring and improve the entity know as race control.  Verizon says they want to be known as a technology company.  Here is their chance to have an immediate and noticeable effect on the series.  Or maybe we’ll just see ads where drivers use mobile devices in a really cool setting like we have before.

2.  With ABC’s network reach, and hopefully ESPN’s support, the TV ratings for the series should climb as the season progresses.  The vortex of negativity that often surrounds the series will become a small eddy if it does.  Of course, the vortex will become a raging maelstrom if the ratings do not peak right away because THE SERIES WILL DIE IF THIS IS NOT CORRECTED IMMEDIATELY. Or so they say.  Give the ratings a year and evaluate.  Patience.

3.  It will be interesting to see how the Andretti Autosport and Honda Performance Development shotgun wedding works out.  The divorce between Chip Ganasssi Racing and HPD was rife with public comments from Chip.  Somehow, I doubt if Michael Andretti will air dirty laundry about a partner like that.  Hope it works out for the kids.

4.  Can Chip Ganassi ever find happiness with an engine partner?  Will he take pot shots at Chevrolet if another Chevy team beats him?  Will the Verizon IndyCar Series somehow not live up to his lofty standards.  Will backmarkers who are running ahead of him refuse to yield the right of way to the rightful champion?  Will Chip start using the royal “we” in interviews and conversations?  A better than average chance exists for all of these to happen.

5.  The question is not IF Juan Pablo Montoya does an incredibly brave/stupid/dangerous/irritating thing, it’s when he does it.  The under is St. Pete and the over is Barber.  I’ve got the under.  And you just know a Chip Ganassi car is going to be involved.  A just universe would not let it happen any other way.

6.  The (Your Name Here) Grand Prix of Indianapolis is on the clock.  Is it the start of a new tradition (because new traditions DO start), or is it taking tradition out behind the barn and shooting it?  Will the hidebound traditionalists stay home or will the sound of the turbos lure them to the Speedway?  It may be an average road course, but it is still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  See you there.

7.  In a series founded on ovals, will we see NASCAR, the owner of Iowa Speedway, try to push the Verizon IndyCar Series out of a popular and profitable partnership?  Let’s see now, should the owner of a series sponsored by a mobile technology company promote a series sponsored by a competitor of its own sponsor at a track that it-the series- owns?  Did anyone even understand that?  In other words, so long Iowa Speedway.  We’ll always have Des Moines.

8.  How important are the ovals going to be now with the relatively complicated scoring system that basically doubles the value of Indy, Pocono, and Fontana, the three 500 mile events on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar?  The answer of course is very.  What happens if Chip Ganassi loses the championship precisely because these events are worth more points?  It makes you smile to think about it, doesn’t it?  Gentlemen, start your hype!

9.  What delicious rumors will start this year?  Brazil is already in the picture for a race.  What about Providence and Fort Lauderdale?  How about F1 at Long Beach?  Is a new Canadian venue in the offing?  Will the international races be in Australia, Italy, or the Middle East?  Who will be buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the Hulman-George family?  Gossip and rumormongering are IndyCar traditions that will never die.

10.  Will the dysfunction caused by antiquated equipment in race control be resolved?  Derrick Walker has promised improvement.  Will Verizon be a part of the solution?  Hopefully.  Will Chip Ganassi and/or Scott Dixon call for the head of Beaux Barfield on a pike to be displayed from the battlements of their pit box?  Likely.  Will the suave and ultra-cool Beaux Barfield survive his third season?  He has to.  If the Verizon IndyCar Series is going to market itself as THE place to be, then Beaux belongs…just for the cool factor.  Smoke ’em if you got ’em, Beaux.

There you have some of the more compelling and/or nonsensical issues facing the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.  The series has iconic tracks, competitive races, robust car and engine combinations, and engaging personalities.  The series is moving from an analog past into a digital future.  This will be a great year to tune in.

 

 

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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