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The IndyCar Revenant

It’s movie time for the Verizon IndyCar Series once again.  This time, the movie connection is The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Academy Award winning vehicle.  Of course the plot of the entire movie doesn’t reflect the current state of IndyCar, but one scene certainly does.  The scene in question is THE scene in the movie.  DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his compatriots.  Violent, bloody stuff it is.  Which leads us to the current state of IndyCar.

The DiCaprio character of Hugh Glass is Honda Performance Development and the grizzly, of course, is Chevy.  Currently, Chevy is having its way with Honda, both with engine power and aero kit performance.  And it’s bloody.  In the movie, the DiCaprio character vows revenge.  We can only hope that Honda Performance Development has the sand that the movie character displays.

And that’s the question, isn’t it?  After years as the only engine supplier, using dependable, de-tuned motors, Honda welcomed Chevy to help with the heavy lifting and to provide much needed competition in a stagnating series.  So far, so good.  The competition was scintillating, particularly at Indy.  Then the decision to implement aero kits for each manufacturer was made.  Hello, Mr. Grizzly Bear.

Each manufacturer teamed with a different engineering firm for aero kits: Chevy with Pratt & Miller Engineering and Honda with Wirth Research.  Chevy ended up with an aero kit that teams understood and developed while Honda ended up with a work of modern art that offered too many solutions to the problems of aerodynamics.  After the perceived favoritism afforded Chevy last last year in Indy with airborne cars and changed qualifying rules, Honda has found itself falling further and further behind.  And that leads us to this moment in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Other than by using pit strategy, Honda has not been able to move to the front of pack this year at either St. Pete or Phoenix.  As expected, the Honda teams are complaining, particularly about the coming use at Indy of domed skids, devices designed to increase downforce in a spin to prevent flying cars.  After testing, the Honda teams have vociferously protested the domed skids as both unsafe for high speed racing and a detriment to competition, particularly at Indy.  Chevy, on the other hand, is just fine with it.  How about that irony?

At Indy last year, INDYCAR used safety as the absolute reason for revamping the qualification rules after cars became airborne.  Even though Honda aero kits had not suffered the same fate, it was hard for Honda to argue with safety, right?  Now, Honda is using safety as the same argument this year to remove or modify the domed skids.  Will the series succumb to the same argument this year?  Sorry, Honda.  The grizzly bear is holding all the cards.

Did Honda Performance Development hitch their wagon to a falling star in Wirth Research for its aero kit?  In hindsight, the answer is probably yes.  Truthfully, that is simply the way it goes.  Racing, as in all competition, has winners and losers.  The problem with this in the Verizon IndyCar Series is that there are only two engine and aero kit providers, and it is imperative that both remain in the series.  The series is always walking a very thin line to keep everyone happy.  Would fans like to see racing where everyone is in competition?  Sure, they would.  Do aero kits really help differentiate the cars for the fans?  No, they don’t.

For Honda, this is all about Indy.  They need to be competitive in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”  For manufacturers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, this is an absolute truth.  The politics are vicious because the only thing worth winning is the Indy 500. These small stakes are huge for owners, drivers, and employees in the series, too.   Sponsorship depends on success.  Expect politicking from Honda and its affiliated teams to continue until the month of May to remove or modify the domed skids.  It would be the safest thing to do on many levels.

 

 

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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.

Ten Worthless Opinions: St. Petersburg “Adventures in Paradise” Edition

The first race of the IZOD IndyCar Series FINALLY arrived in paradise, or if not paradise, at least St. Petersburg, Florida.  All else being considered, it sure looked like paradise for those in the North who were locked in the embrace of winter’s last gasp effort to deny global warming.  The water and palm trees dancing on our TV screens brought back visions of Gardner McKay and the Tiki III as he cruised the South Pacific in “Adventures in Paradise.”   In this case, it looks like James Hinchcliffe took the title role in his own adventure in paradise.  A new season brings out another volume of WO’s (worthless opinions).   Mai Tais for everyone!

1.  It looks like this may be the last gasp for the Firestone Indy Lights Series.  There were nine, count ’em, NINE cars on the grid to start the St. Petersburg 100.  With only two lead changes and six cars running at the end, compelling drama it was not.  It’s easy to say that a new car and more entries are needed to save the series, but who is going to invest in a series with no traction (sorry) with fans or sponsors?  The success or failure of the IZOD IndyCar Series is the key to the future on Indy Lights.  And that result will not be evident in the short term.  I’m not sure the labor of love that is Indy Lights can wait that long.  The real downside to the possible demise of the series is that it has been successful as a stepping stone to the IZOD IndyCar Series.  IndyCar drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, and Dan Wheldon all graduated from its grid.  IndyCar needs this series.

Another Indy Lights graduate making a name for herself is Pippa Mann.  Even though Pippa would rather be behind a wheel at IMS for the 500, her smooth debut on NBCSports portends a possible career in broadcasting.  She obviously did her homework for the broadcast.  She knew the drivers and teams and offered spot-on racing commentary.  Just remember to look at the camera, Pippa.

2.  I observed on Twitter that some people were complaining about the qualifications for St. Pete being slightly time delayed.  So what?  It actually made the broadcast run more smoothly and kept it in a time window so NBCSports could show it.  They don’t have to broadcast it, you know.  Baby steps, people.

3.  The new broadcast team takes some getting used to.  Jon Beekhuis is much better in the booth and as Professor B. than he is in live interviews.  His in-race questioning was a little obsequious.  You are the media, Jon.  Flex your muscles!  Show them who’s the boss!  Stir the shit!  I hope NBCSports will continue to use his strength in technical matters.  Kevin Lee is solid, even if he did manage to suck up to David Letterman with a gratuitous Ball State reference.  Can a Garfield/Jim Davis comment be far behind?  Brian Till was acceptable and had the quote of the weekend during an interview with Will Power when he said Power was at the top of the “championship shart” last year.  I didn’t even know they had a contest, Brian.

The booth team of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. was competent as they hashed out their dynamic and their roles.  Diffey did a good job calling the action, but struggled at times to rein in the back-and-forth between Bell and Dallenbach.  Remember guys, most people tune in for the race, not the commentary.  Focus.  The TV commentators are at the mercy of their directors regarding what they see and what they know.  When they appear clueless, it’s most often the fault of the people talking in their ears.

4.  I really don’t want to beat a dead horse, a horse as dead as Robin Miller will be if someone does not take charge of that damned grid run.  At least he found people to talk to this time, highlighted by Alex Tagliani mentioning how close he was to the Port-O-Potty.  Good TV.  Here’s an idea:  add a second person so we don’t have to listen to Miller puff his way along the grid.  It is brutal!  That way you can switch back and forth between interviews, which give the viewer entertainment value.  How about adding Pippa Mann?  You need a female voice in the pits, and she probably can jog to the next interview without pausing to catch her breath like Miller.  This can be a great segment instead of a joke.

5.  It seems NBCSports and IndyCar are getting on the same page in regards to promotion.  The Mav TV 500 was advertised.  Robin Miller interviewed retiring Firestone honcho Joe Barbieri, which was really a hat-tip to Firestone for all the series and advertising support.  It certainly was not impromptu since NBCSports had pictures ready to roll.  The #Indy500orBust Twitter and Instagram promotion for the Indy 500 was prominently mentioned, as well as a Helio Castroneves commercial for distracted driving awareness with the snail from Turbo.  I guess J.R. Hildebrand didn’t preview that  before the race.  Maybe later.  In any case, promotion of the series and its partners was evident.  More of that, please.

6.  And then they had a race that happened to be engaging.  To begin with, the drivers made it through Turn 1 without incident.  I think the guys in the booth were a little disappointed.  They had all the statistics handy to deal with the accident.  The cars were racy and entertaining throughout the field.  Of course, TV can rarely show that on a street course since you can only see a small portion of the track.  That’s one reason the radio broadcast of a street course is so exciting.  There’s action everywhere, and the broadcasters around the track can see it.  The TV guys are tethered to a monitor controlled by a director.  Simona de Silvestro showed she is a racer.  A podium is absolutely in her future.  She ran out of rubber on her Firestone Reds at the end of the race, or she would have been there at St. Pete.  Takuma Sato started falling back but still managed a P8.  Good start for AJ Foyt and the boys from Texas.

7.  Poor Will Power.  He cannot catch a break.  J.R. Hildebrand popped a wheelie on his bumper (thought that was not supposed to happen).  This Hee Haw video is all that comes to mind regarding his luck: “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”

8.  James Hinchcliffe is an absolutely deserving winner.  He was in position to take advantage of a Helio Castroneves mistake and ducked under last year’s champion in Turn 1.  His Firestone Blacks held off Helio’s Firestone Reds as the different compound gimmick created the drama is was supposed to create.  His emotional comments on Dan Wheldon and his family were sincere and spot-on.  The Canadian flag was a perfect point of pride.  Did anyone else notice a PR person hand him a notebook with the words “Thank Bob Parsons” on it.  Parsons is the CEO of Go Daddy, his sponsor.  Just a little TCB, baby.  On his interviews with Speed Center, Wind Tunnel, and local TV affiliates, he was friendly, engaging, and authentic – exactly what IndyCar needs in a champion.  And prerace, he said he “might need to pee in Will Power’s gas tank” to slow him down.  THAT’S entertaining.  More than James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport, and Go Daddy, IndyCar needed this victory.  IndyCar needs a marketable champion like James Hinchcliffe.  It was big win all around.

9.  It was good to see that dysfunction exists in other motorsports and not just IndyCar.  The F1 race in Malaysia had a contratemps between teammates Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber about who was supposed to win the race.  They also had Lewis Hamilton pulling into the wrong pit box and wheels nearly falling off cars.  Maybe those 2.5 second pit stops leave a little to be desired.  And in NASCAR land, the series continues to allow and endorse a driving style that will ultimately lead to tragedy as Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin wrecked on the final lap with Hamlin crashing HARD into a non-safer barrier wall, requiring a hospital stay.  The “Woo hoo!  Yee haw!” crowd needs to come to their senses.  They are living in a fool’s paradise.

10. If IndyCar and NBCSports do not promote and market this race champion and this racing series with its remarkable cast of characters and its scintillating on-track product, then it is on them.  I hate to be all political and pissy here, but it is time for IndyCar and NBCSports to step up and do their jobs.  The continuing problems plaguing IndyCar racing are not the fault of the fans.  Maybe they can channel Cassius as he speaks to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

That’s it from paradise.  I guess Jimmy Buffett’s song is as about as close as I’m going to get.  Just substitute “breaded tenderloin” for “cheeseburger.”  And I prefer mayo, not Heinz 57.

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